First there was the inevitable excitement about Apple’s iPhone 4S, albeit largely undeserved, followed by the death of Steve Jobs and then the actual releases, first of the newest version of the iPhone operating system (iOS 5) and then of the 4S phone itself, followed this week by the news that Apple sold a staggering 4 million iPhones in the first weekend of the new model’s availability.
It has been wall-to-wall coverage of Apple and its iPhone for the last several weeks, making it hard for any other phone models to get any attention or screen space.
But at the same time that Apple’s oh-so-last-year iPhone 4S was announced, industry insiders have been eagerly awaiting the release of a truly transformational phone – a phone with capabilities we had all hoped to see in the new iPhone, but which were largely missing. This truly transformational phone was announced in Hong Kong late last night, and it is another Google branded phone – the Galaxy Nexus – and is being manufactured by Samsung.
So what is so special about the Galaxy Nexus compared to the iPhone 4S?
Galaxy Nexus Specifications Compared to the iPhone 4S
Let’s start with the thing that increasingly is the most impactful for most people when using a smart phone. The screen. Apple’s iPhone 4S has what these days can fairly be described as a tiny screen, with a 3.5″ diagonal. The Galaxy Nexus has a monster 4.65″ diagonal screen.
And the revolutionary high-pixel density ‘retina’ display that Apple launched 18 months ago, with 640 x 960 pixels on its screen, and which for a year or more was the highest resolution of any phone display? The Galaxy Nexus offers 720 x 1280 pixels – 50% more than on the iPhone 4S.
Samsung says its screen also has more colors and contrast than any other phone; being as how Apple declines to publish its screen color details, we’ll have to accept this at face value, but in terms of contrast, Apple claims an 800:1 contrast ratio, compared to the new Galaxy Nexus with 100,000:1. That means brighter colors and blacker blacks on the Galaxy Nexus.
The huge screen dimensions don’t translate to a too bulky or too heavy phone, due to the screen taking up more of the front of the phone than on an iPhone. The phone measures 5.3″ x 2.7″ x 0.35″, and weighs 4.8 ounces. This compares with the iPhone 4S, which measures 4.5″ x 2.3″ x 0.4″, and weighs 4.9 ounces. So the Galaxy Nexus is a bit wider and taller, but very slightly slimmer, and effectively the same weight.
Powering the Galaxy Nexus is a dual core processor running at 1.2 GHz; Apple’s dual core processor is thought to run at 800 MHz. But both are very fast in terms of real world user experiences, so the 50% extra speed of the Galaxy Nexus, while looking great on paper, won’t mean much in real life.
Talking about speed, the Galaxy Nexus is available in both HSPA+ and LTE versions. To translate into English, that means that it can be used with true real 4G data networks (ie LTE) as well as the speed boosted 3G networks (HSPA+).
The iPhone is not LTE capable, and can only handle HSPA+ up to about 14Mb/sec; the Galaxy Nexus can handle up to 21Mb/sec. But the real-world data transfer speeds of both phones will be very much less than these theoretical maximums; however the Galaxy Nexus might end up a little faster then the iPhone 4S.
In terms of battery life, the phone has a 1750 mAh battery. The iPhone 4S is thought to have about a 1400 mAh battery, and initial testing suggests that Apple’s estimates for battery life on the 4S are a bit over-optimistic. It is not yet known what the battery life will be on the Galaxy Nexus, but at worst, it seems likely that it will be about the same as the iPhone 4S, and potentially it might be slightly more.
The camera admittedly is a 5 MP camera, compared to an 8 MP camera on the iPhone, but we continue to believe that cell phone cameras are not suitable for higher quality photography, and the limiting factor for quality on either phone is not its megapixel rating, but rather things such as lens quality and picture noise introduced through the sensor. Both phones claim to have fast shutter times and offer some image processing capabilities. It is unclear which has the better camera for real world photography until someone tests both cameras side by side.
The Galaxy Nexus has a built in RFID chip for electronic wallet payment processing and other applications using what is nowadays termed NFC – ‘near field communications’. You can for example directly transfer data between two Android devices with NFC capabilities. The iPhone does not have any such capabilities.
A new sensor in the phone (in addition to the usual panoply of sensors, which these days includes gyroscopes, accelerometers, digital compass, GPS, light and proximity sensors) is a barometer. That’s an interesting new gadget to add; conceivably providing another data point for altitude, location and weather calculations.
The phone comes with either 16GB or 32GB of built-in storage, and may possibly also have a removable micro-SD card slot, which could potentially add as much as another 64GB of swappable storage. The iPhone has either 16GB, 32GB, or 64GB of internal storage and no ability for external/swappable storage.
One of the big features of the iPhone is its intuitive touch-screen interface and the huge library of software applications written for it. The new Galaxy Nexus is being released with the latest version of the Google Android operating system (version 4.0, known as ‘Ice Cream Sandwich’ prior to this point).
It is very hard to say whether the new Android interface is as good as, similar to, or better than the iOS 5 interface on the iPhone. Probably, for most people, it is fair to say that both interfaces are equally good, with a slightly different feature set and design approach. But this in itself is news – the first couple of versions of Android were clearly inferior to the first couple of versions of iOS.
As for the range of apps available, it is unclear how many apps are available for the iPhone these days (Apple is claiming over 500,000). The total is definitely measured in the hundreds of thousands, but Apple ‘cheats’ a bit with how it counts apps – for example, if a publisher simply releases two eBooks, this is counted as two apps.
Android now claims over 300,000 apps available for devices running Android, with probably a similarly imprecise counting methodology. Does it really matter, with hundreds of thousands of apps to choose from in both cases, if Apple’s iOS has slightly more than Android? Both operating systems can be considered to have more apps for more things than any person would ever want.
Lastly, price and availability. The iPhone 4S has now been released, but is generally sold out for some weeks in most places. It is available with service from AT&T, Verizon, or Sprint, and at a price of $199, $299 or $399 on a two year new contract (for the 16GB, 32GB and 64GB models).
The Galaxy Nexus will go on sale some time in early November. It is thought it will first be available through Verizon, although strangely the press release announcing the new phone doesn’t say where it will be sold in the US, and the disclosed phone specifications, while talking about the non-Verizon compatible data and voice bands supported, makes no mention of Verizon’s CDMA type service being supported. This is probably merely an oversight.
The phone will be compatible with AT&T frequency bands and may also be compatible with T-Mobile too, so it seems reasonable to expect releases with these carriers in the future also.
Internationally, it is being released in Japan by NTT Docomo, and in Europe by Three UK, O2 and Vodaphone. Other supporting carriers will doubtless be announced shortly.
No details yet on its price, but we’ll guess that one of the versions (it will have 16GB or 32GB of internal storage, and will be available with either HSPA+ or LTE 4G support) will be priced at $299 on a new two year contract. Whether the other price is $199 or $399 is anyone’s guess.
Other iPhone Competitors Too
Lastly, the new Galaxy Nexus is not the only potential iPhone killer to have been announced this week. Motorola (now owned by Google) has announced a new phone too – the Droid RAZR, recalling the name (but nothing else) of Motorola’s wildly successful feature phone of the mid 2000s. It is not quite as impressive a phone as the Galaxy Nexus (slightly smaller screen with fewer pixels, no RFID/NFC, and initially with an earlier version of Android, although it will be updated to the new Android 4.0 early next year) but it still compares very favorably with the iPhone 4S.
In past years we’ve seen on the Apple side, a steadily advancing product that keeps redefining state of the art, while on the Android side of the equation, there’s been a scramble to catch up on Apple’s lead and a bewildering array of different phones being released, all the time, by many different manufacturers. Although Android phones in total now massively outsell iPhones, there is no clear Android product leader, just an amorphous jumble of many different makes and models.
But with Apple’s stumble this year – a new phone announced after a longer than usual 18 month gap, with almost nothing new added to it – competitors are taking the opportunity to catch up and overtake Apple’s former hardware based supremacy. At the same time, the rapid pace of evolution in the Android operating system has now resulted in an interface and capabilities that are for all intents and purposes identical to Apple’s iOS interface. Normal users will see nothing substantial to choose from between the two operating systems any more.
With Google now apparently adopting a hardware strategy that allows it to both have its cake and eat it too – that is, it is having Google branded phones made by third parties such as Samsung, while simultaneously now taking ownership of Motorola to make non-Google branded phones – it seems it might be taking a more confident approach into hardware as well as software, and may help define some clear hardware leaders in addition to the prominence it has already created for the underlying Android OS. It has learned a lot since its disastrous initial attempt at selling phone hardware in the form of the Nexus One, a mere eighteen months ago.
Although Apple sold more iPhones over its first weekend of the 4S being on sale than it has sold of any previous model iPhone, that is not necessarily cause for rejoicing or complacency by Apple. The smartphone market is vastly bigger than it was when the iPhone 4 was released almost 18 months ago, and it seems that Apple also had a broader simultaneous release of the 4S into more countries and with more phone company partners than was the case last year with the iPhone 4. So it was essential that the iPhone 4S must greatly outsell the iPhone 4, even if it were just to maintain market share.
The key thing is not so much the numbers of phones sold, and how quickly, but rather ongoing market shares.
Looking to the Future
Android now has a mature operating system comparable to Apple’s iOS, a similar or equal number of apps, and similar or superior phone hardware. As such, there is every reason to expect it will continue to take market share – although to date it seems the market share has come more from other companies and other operating systems than from Apple.
What of the other phone operating systems? Blackberry continues to underachieve, with its latest announcements revealing phones with appallingly dated specifications and appearance, Hewlett Packard’s webOS is little more than a fading memory, Nokia has thrown its lot in with Microsoft, and – oh yes – Microsoft’s ‘new’ Windows Phone 7 operating system (now a year old) shows the most surprising result of all.
On the face of it, one would have expected Microsoft’s huge size and promotional push would have caused its WP7 operating system to gain measurable market share. It hasn’t. It languishes in the low single digits of market share, and shows no clear sign of gaining wider acceptance.
Increasingly the future seems to belong to Apple and Android alone. And the good news is that both options are excellent. You could choose either and not regret your choice.
But if you had to choose (and of course, most of us do; it is rare for a person to have two phones simultaneously, and even when they do, it makes more sense to have two the same rather than two very different phones) as of today, the Galaxy Nexus sets the new high water mark for best phone out there.
Who would have thought, ten or twenty years ago, that the best cell phone in the world would come from Korea, with an operating system developed by an internet search engine company.