Ultimate Mobile OS Showdown: iPhone vs Android vs webOs vs Blackberry vs Windows Mobile vs Symbian

norman

In the movie Braveheart, there's a pivotal scene involving Mel Gibson and a Scottish battalion where, as William Wallace, he tries to muster some courage from his ragtag company. Face painted blue and half-hysterical, he rallies them with a memorable speech about freedom and love of country. Then, the army proceeds to completely destroy the foreign oppressor in a fight to the bitter end.

In some ways, the current war on smartphone devices could be just as pivotal...and bloody. Companies such as Palm and Nokia have everything to lose if their platforms do not thoroughly crush the competition. Meanwhile, Apple has taken a strong lead with the iPhone, and BlackBerry devices do not appear to be losing any momentum, at least in the business sector. Google has entered the fight with their Android OS, attracting legions of developers to the platform in record time.

All of these operating systems support touch control, rudimentary multi-tasking, rich media, desktop-like Web browsing, and advanced messaging. Yet, only one OS is superior and will ultimately emerge as the victor. It might seem like Apple has already had their Braveheart moment, and maybe there is room for several companies at the top of the pile, but if Windows has taught us anything, it's that a single operating system can become so dominant that every other desktop OS becomes inconsequential. Developers lock into a platform, users get accustomed to it, and that OS wins the war.

We set out to put the major contenders to the test and find out which could become the most dominant. Really, it's too early to call Apple the victor, even though it would be easy to do so with 50,000 apps available and over a million iPhone users. As any technology analyst can tell you, there are actually significantly more Nokia and BlackBerry phones in use today than the iPhone, especially in Europe. The surprise is that the OS that seems to be winning the battle (the iPhone) may not eventually win the OS war in the long run.

We evaluated each OS on the popular handsets using the same set of criteria. We tested apps for speed using any of the built-in tools available, such as messaging, browsing, scheduler, application store, contacts, clock, weather, maps, 3D games, and social networking tools. We would have tested using the same app across all platforms, but there are none. (Worldmate and Facebook come close, but there are no clients yet for the Palm Pre.) To compare apples to apples, we tested the standard/bundled apps for each OS. We tested multi-tasking (such as playing music and checking e-mail, or running two apps at once), media file format (for photos, music and video), and organization tools such as calendar and contacts.

We also tested PC syncing back to the desktop – although each OS provides slightly different sync features and some forgo the concept altogether. We tested database support -- where possible – for apps that use a remote server, such as Daylite Touch on the iPhone. For messaging, we set up Gmail, Yahoo, ISP, and Exchange accounts where possible to test for reliable messaging delivery, search, and other features for the e-mail gurus out there. We then tested Flash support using several Flash-heavy sites, and tested network speed for both Wi-Fi and carrier access.

BlackBerry OS

Research in Motion is completely dominant in the smartphone industry, with some 28.5 million devices in use worldwide. For testing BlackBerry OS, we used the Curve 8900. There's a new model coming out called the BlackBerry Tour that was not quite available, and the Blackberry Bold is an older model with a lower-res camera, even though it does have a faster processor.

The Curve has a 512MHz processor, a 3.2 megapixel camera and built-in Wi-Fi, a GPS chip, and a full and useful 35-key QWERTY keyboard. The Blackberry OS version on the phone we tested is version 4.6 – in the near future, RIM will release an incremental 5.0 release.

BlackBerry OS includes many apps for staying organized and grabbing e-mail.

App Speed Test

Even though the BlackBerry Curve has a much slower processor than the iPhone 3GS, the Curve has a more textual interface. Almost every app we tested – from the Mail client, to the browser, to the alarm clock – opened in about one second. Similar to the iPhone, the Camera app loaded in four seconds from first click until the camera image appeared. The only delays we noticed were with some third party apps. For example, MobiPocket, an e-reader for books, loaded in four seconds, and there was a longer delay running WorldMate Live -- at five seconds. Most apps were fast loading and ran smoothly.

Even the mapping app loaded faster on BlackBerry OS than on the other smartphone OSes we tested.

App Availability

Compared to the Palm Pre, T-Mobile G1 running Android, and the iPhone, the BlackBerry Curve 8900 seems like a letdown in terms of bundled apps. The interface, which looks like a Tron-knockoff with its white outlined icons, is barebones and the apps are mostly textual, a hold-over from the days of the first BglackBerry devices. Still, the advantage is that apps load and operate quickly.

BlackBerry OS is more limited in terms of amazing apps, but does provide some a Pandora client.

On the main screen, there's the usual mix of contact manager, calendar, mail apps (for SMS and e-mail), a media player, IM client, a handful of basic games (Sudoku, Klondike), and the BlackBerry App World. RIM also offers a maps program, memopad, a task manager, calculator, DataViz apps for docs, spreadsheets, and slideshows, a video camera app, a notes recorder, and voice dialer. Both Apple and Palm have BlackBerry beat in terms of bundled apps, offering YouTube clients, weather apps, and unique tools that you might be compelled to buy for the BlackBerry OS, if they were even available.

This Facebook client loaded quickly, but it lacks the pizazz of the matching app on iPhone.

When you want to add apps, the selection is minimal – there are 2,000 apps, but many are not that exciting – we found only a few unique apps. There's a program called Poynt that helps you find movie theaters using the built-in GPS, WorldMate Live for travel details, a Facebook and Pandora client, the MobiPocket e-reader for books, Viigo (a news aggregator), an Audible.com player for listening to audiobooks, and only a few games. There's just nowhere near as many innovative apps for BlackBerry OS, such as tools for bird-watching or leveling a picture with the iPhone's built-in tilt sensor.

Worldmate is one of the better BlackBerry OS third-part apps for tracking travel plans.

There is a YouTube client for BlackBerry OS, running in a postage-stamp sized window.

Multi-tasking Support

BlackBerry OS is actually not a bad multi-tasking smartphone. (For a fun diversion, ask a BlackBerry user you know to see their phone and count how many apps they have running at the same time without knowing it). To switch apps, you need to select a menu option or just press Alt and the Escape key (the one that looks like a backwards arrow). What this means in practice is that you can not only run the music player in the background (as you can on the iPhone) but keep the Facebook client, task manager and contact list, and the Web running simultaneously. Each apps stays in its current state, so you can jump back to a Facebook chat or your current task list. The Palm Pre is the overall winner in multi-tasking, because open apps will prompt you with messages – such as new e-mails or missed appointments – but the BlackBerry OS is a close second because of how many apps you can fit into memory, whereas the Palm Pre gets easily bogged down with more than two or three.

You can switch between apps using a menu option of pressing Alt and then the Back arrow.

Media support

For a smartphone intended more for business than entertainment, the BlackBerry OS is actually a fairly capable media device. The OS supports unique video formats such as DivX 4, partial support for XviD (the format popular with BitTorrent users), MPEG-4 H.263, and WMV3. Audio support includes all of th emost common formats, minus uncompressed WAV. The OS supports BMP, GIF, JPEG, PNG, and TIFF photo formats – which is three more formats more than the iPhone OS supports. RIM offers the BlackBerry Media Sync tool, which helps you sync iTunes or Windows Media Player libraries.

Organizational Tools

The BlackBerry is an excellent messaging and organizational tool, and the contacts and scheduling apps are the best we tested. The contacts manager has several advanced features for dialing, texting, and e-mailing anyone in your list. The calendar has unique features for seeing multiple calendars at once (say, Yahoo and Gmail) or just seeing one at a time. It's also worth noting that, with the multi-tasking support, the OS allows you to pull up a contact, copy information, switch to your mail client, paste it in, and have a browser, schedule, and task list open at the same time. In this sense, BlackBerry OS is a highly capable, multi-tasking OS that promotes better organization. The catch is that these functions are not as easy to perform as they are on the Palm Pre or the iPhone.

One perk of BlackBerry OS is you can color code meetings for each synced account.

PC and Database Sync

The BlackBerry OS is a bit outdated in how it syncs data. You have to install a BlackBerry Desktop Manager client to sync contacts, calendar items, tasks, and memos back to the desktop. There is a program called SugarSync that does a similar function but uses the Web instead. We did not find any apps in the App World that sync to a database. The iPhone has Daylite Touch and Qlikview, among others, that connect to a server for data sync. There's also PocketMac ( www.pocketmac.net ), a tool for Mac users to sync data between your Mac and a BlackBerry. RIM offers BlackBerry Enterprise Server for data syncing between BlackBerry devices and company servers.

Sugarsync allows you to offload files for back-up and storage form your BlackBerry device.

Messaging

The BlackBerry is dominant in business because of two words: push e-mail. RIM made the concept widely known even back when the devices used outdated pager networks. E-mail just appears automatically on the phone, so you don't have to click a send/receive option. Oddly, when adding multiple e-mail accounts such as Yahoo! Mail and Gmail, the BlackBerry OS adds a separate mail icon for each one, and then shows you – in a test string below the main screen – how many new messages you have for each mail icon. It's a different approach, but we prefer to have just one mail app that shows messages in one interface – and the Palm Pre is the best implementation of this idea.

When you add a new Webmail account, BlackBerry OS shows a different mail icon for each.

Message appear on a small window but the load times and app speed were excellent.

Flash Support

BlackBerry OS does not support Flash or Flash Lite 3.0. However, the BlackBerry browser formatted a Cinemanow.com page using static image formats correctly instead of just displaying a Flash error message. Our test site for GideonMobile.com, for Flash Lite, just appeared blank.

No surprises here -- BlackBerry OS does not support Flash sites like Cinemanow.com

Network Support

The BlackBerry OS on the Curve 8900 only ran at about 200 Kbps over the EDGE network, and connected over standard 802.11g for Wi-Fi – not the 802.11n protocol found on some corporate campuses. The BlackBerry OS does support Bluetooth Stereo A2DP.

Conclusion

When we added up all the qualities we prefer in a smartphone OS, such as multi-tasking support, a good selection of bundled and PIM apps, fast operation, and messaging prowess, we realized that BlackBerry OS is a hair more powerful than iPhone 3.0 OS. Overall, apps loaded faster than they did on the iPhone 3GS. For those who want a rich selection of apps and better media and sync support, the iPhone is a better choice, but we really need multi-tasking in our OS.

Apple iPhone 3.0

The Apple iPhone gets all of the attention, and rightly so. The platform is not as widely used as BlackBerry and Nokia devices, but when people buy an iPhone, they tend to actually buy apps for it instead of just relying on the bundled software. And, there are 10,000 apps to choose from, about double to number compared to the closest competitor, the Google Android OS.

The 4.8-ounce device is powered by an 833Mhz ARM 11 processor -- at least according to iPhoneHacks.com. (Apple does not reveal specifics on the CPU.) It supports HSDPA wireless throughput, has a 3 megapixel camera, and runs a mobile version of OpenGL. The phone costs $199 for the 16GB model and $299 for the 32GB model. The 3GS model we tested also has 256MB of RAM (the original models have 128MB of RAM) and can support 720p high-def video.

App Speed Test

Apple claims the 3GS model is 50% faster than the previous iPhone 3G model. More RAM and a faster processor help make the phone run faster, but the iPhone 3.0 OS software is also a kick-starter because the previous 3G also runs faster with 3.0. The Mail app loaded instantaneously and much faster than the Palm Pre client, which takes a full three seconds to load. Facebook loaded in about one second, but there is a short one or two second delay as your feed loads onto the screen, which is dependent on your Wi-Fi or carrier connection speed. The iPod app loaded in one second, as did the Safari browser. In fact, the only bundled apps that really had any slow start-up times are the Weather app (which again pulls data from the Web) and the sluggish camera app, which takes about two seconds to load. Actually, the camera is one of the marks against the iPhone OS – it just runs sluggish.

The Contacts app loaded fast on the 3GS, but not as fast as the similar app on BlackBerry OS.

There is a short delay when the Facebook app starts, and another rone when your feed loads.

App Availability

Apple includes a boatload of apps on every iPhone, including the typical messaging and scheduling tools, but goes a step further with a bundled YouTube client, a stocks tracker, weather and clock apps, a scientific calculator, notes and contacts, and a Facebook client. IPhone 3.0 also includes a directional compass and a new Voice Memos app that you can use to start apps and record memos. (A cool feature here: when you record memos, they are synced back to iTunes on your desktop.)

There are over 50,000 aps in the App Store, and this is the distinguishing feature on the iPhone. The wide variety of apps is just astounding: there's a synthesizer (8bittone), a four-track recording program (FourTrack), an electronic book reader (Stanza), a game where you play music in time with leaves cascading across the screen (Leaf Trombone), a bird tracker (iBird), a fishing game where you flick the iPhone to cast (Flick Fishing), and just a ton of games and unique apps. With the iPhone OS, it's more – what are you not able to find? There's a Skype client, a Yahoo IM tool, apps that tap into the GPS, weight-control apps, and one unmentionable, but highly popular, flatulence app.

Qlikview is just one of several apps that can access a remote database – here for business intelligence.

Leaf Trombone is similar to Guitar Hero in that you have to play in time with the music.

Someone – probably Moby – will eventually record an entire CD using this iPhone recording app.

Multi-tasking Support

Contrary to early reports, the iPhone 3.0 release is not a true multi-tasking OS in the vein of Windows Vista or Mac OS X. It's particularly annoying with apps such as Yahoo Messenger, Facebook, and any game because once you press the Home button to quit the app, when you resume again you have to start over and login. There is no way to keep Yahoo IM or e-mail running in the background and get pop-up messages (like you can on the Palm Pre) with new chat or text messages. There are a few exceptions to this rule, however. You can run the iPod app and play music in the background, and when you return to the app you will see the current artist and song. This is helpful for listening to media files such as podcasts or audiobooks because you can keep using the device will the media players. Also, when you browse to a site using the Safari app, the last site you visited will be on the screen.

Media Support

The iPhone is a powerful media player. Audio support includes unique formats such as Audible audiobooks and WAV in addition to the typical formats. WAV support is particularly helpful for those who record music on their Mac or PC. Of course, the chief complaint about purchased tracks is that you cannot use them on other devices or computers unless you use iTunes, but that trend has changed in recent months with unprotected purchased music. Video support is also stellar: the iPhone 3.0 OS supports H.264 and MPEG-4 in full 30 fps. With MPEG, the video can be encoded up to 2.5 Mbps at 640 x 480 pixels, 30 frames per second. Most importantly, you can drag-and drop music and video files into iTunes on your desktop and the program will convert to a format that will work on the iPhone, such as Windows Media video to MPEG-4, so you sync the files. The iPhone only supports the PNG and JPEG image formats, which is not a crucial problem but still mildly limiting.

Turned in landscape view, high-def MPEG-4 videos play at 30fps and look crisp and colorful.

The iPhone 3.0 OS is just as capable a media player for music and videos as the iPod itself.

Organizational Tools

With all of the other fanfare over unusual apps and media playback, it's easy to forget that iPhone 3.0 is a capable personal organizer. There's a Contacts app that's also available from the phone dialer, a calendar that syncs with iCal on the Mac, and a notes app. The new Voice Memos app in iPhone 3.0 is helpful for keeping you organized because you can record memos to yourself and sync them back to your desktop. New copy/paste features in iPhone 3.0 also help you move data around – copying a meeting location from an e-mail or Web site into the calendar app, for example.

That said, the PIM features on the iPhone are rudimentary at best. The Palm Pre does a much better job of popping-up reminders on your schedule and tasks, and BlackBerry OS has significantly more advanced features for syncing to your Microsoft Outlook calendar.

You can sync your Calendar on the iPhone with your Mac and the MobileMe service.

PC and Database Sync

It's easy to overlook the impact of iTunes on the success of the iPhone. The software makes it easy to sync movies, music, photos, ringtones, audio clips, and podcasts. Apple offers the MobileMe Web service for syncing your schedule, contacts, and mail from MobileMe.com and your iPhone. Several iPhone apps sync with a remote servers as well. Daytlite Touch is one good example – the app can fetch data from the Daylite Server running on a Mac. Qlikview also uses business intelligence data running on a server. Web-based tools such as Salesforce.com, Quickbooks Online, and Filemaker Bento all provide iPhone apps that work with a remote database. This is one of the major strengths of the iPhone 3.0 OS: it is so popular and trendy that companies such as Quicken and Salesforce feel compelled to make an iPhone app version of their Web software. Interestingly, while there are hundreds of millions of Nokia phones in use, those same companies do not bother with a Symbian S60 version.

Messaging

Messaging in iPhone 2.0 OS was always a weak point. After all, could a phone OS that does not tap into Microsoft Exchange and use push e-mail ever really make inroads in business? With the 3.0 upgrade, push e-mail is now available, and you can set it to send messages automatically every 15 minutes, 30 minutes, hourly or only manually. You can even configure accounts you use different – one that fetches an done that does not. The 3.0 release supports Microsoft Exchange, and it just worked – you tap in a username and address, domain, and the Mail app will connect up and get new mail.

The major new messaging feature in iPhone 3.0 is the ability to push e-mail to the handset.

You can also configure Microsoft Exchange in just a few steps for corporate mail.

Flash Support

The iPhone does not yet support Flash animations, or even the Flash Lite 3.0 specification. Some Flash dependent sites will load with non-Flash images that look and function about the same, but most sites that only support Flash, such as Cinemanow.com, will just show an error message.

No Flash support yet for iPhone, the OS just displayed an error message for Cinemanow.com

Network support

The iPhone 3.0 release and the 3GS model support both EDGE (tested at 150 Kbps) and HSDPA 3G (tested at 2 Mbps) networks. Bluetooth support for stereo audio was a major upgrade in the 3.0 OS release because it now means headsets such as the older Plantronics 590E we used for testing will play stereo music instead of the normal mono audio. The iPhone 3GS supports 802.11g but not 802.11n, which is a poor match for the MacBook line, Apple TV, and Apple routers that all run with the n standard.

Conclusion

More apps than any other OS, powerful media support, and an easy-to-use interface make iPhone 3.0 is the major contender in the smartphone war. Yet, the OS falls behind by not supporting true multi-tasking and offering so-so PIM tools, both of which are offered on Palm Pre and BlackBerry OS.

Google Android

The main story with the Android OS, which we tested on the T-Mobile G1 smartphone, is that it has attracted a legion of developers already – with about 5,000 apps available – but currently only runs on one phone in the US. Many other phone makers have promised Android-based handsets, but few have delivered the goods. HTC’s touch-only Magic phone has yet to ship in the US, and their highly-anticipated Hero phone (with customized “Rosie” Android interface) won’t be available until later this year. This means that as far as US customers are concerned, Android is a one-phone-OS at present, making it much less appealing if you want to create your own app (and appeal to a wide market) or buy the phone and expect others to create commercial-quality tools for such as limited platform. In every other way, Android is a solid step forward for a smartphone OS and makes us look forward to what Google can do on the desktop.

The G1 is essentially an HTC Dream branded with the T-Mobile carrier logo. The 5.6-ounce device runs on a Qualcomm MSM7201A processor at 528 MHz, has 256MB of internal memory, 128MB of RAM, and supports an external SD card – with a default size of just 1GB expandable to 16GB. The phone has a slide-out QWERTY keyboard, GPS capability, Wi-Fi, a 3.2 megapixel camera, and sports a 3.2-inch 320x480 capacitive touch screen (sorry, no multi-touch).

App Speed Test

The G1 running Android is not nearly as fast as the iPhone 3GS, and apps tended to start and run with a slight hesitation. For example, the Gmail client included on the phone takes about two seconds to load. The browser loads in 8 seconds (from finger press to Google.com), or an eternity when you just want to check the weather. (An AccuWeather app took four seconds to load.) At times, the G1 would become overloaded with too many open apps and would stall out or crash. We also saw a few force-close screens during our test period. Overall, the Android matched the slow operation of the Symbian S60 OS and the Palm Pre running webOS when we had too many apps running.

That said, once apps are loaded into memory, they appear instantly when you access them. And, Android uses keyboard shortcuts such as Search icon + B to open the browser, which promotes quick OS use. The OS manages memory more effectively than other OSes, closing down apps that are consuming too much memory automatically. For example, in one test, we opened Gmail, then another five or six apps, and noticed that Gmail had shut down to save memory.

None of the apps on Android – such as the scheduler – load particularly fast, usually in a few seconds.

The standard apps use a flat color treatment, but are not as textual as BlackBerry or Symbian apps.

App Availability

Being that the Android OS is a Google product, the default apps are, not surprisingly, mostly from Google. There's a Gmail client, although you can also use a more general e-mail client for your ISP. The Contacts and Calendar apps integrate -- as you would expect -- with their Google Web app counterparts, and it is great to see your Gmail contacts appear automatically on the phone and sync with your schedule with no effort on your part. Google includes only the basic extras, though -- a simple calculator, browser, camera app, map with GPS and turn-by-turn directions, and a new voice search in the latest OS release that lets you perform searches with your voice. There's an Amazon client for buying music, a YouTube app, and a video recorder. Conspicuously absent: there is no H.264 or MPEG-4 movie player included with Android, even though the hardware supports video.

Even though Android is a major hit with developers, most of the 5,000 apps are "single use" in nature in that they provide a specific function, such as the ShopSavvy tool that lets you scan a bar code to check online prices, and commercial developers such as Gameloft and EA have avoided the platform. Some of the more unique apps, such as Translate, work well but look terrible. Android devotees will disagree, but there just isn't the same breadth and depth of apps as there is on the iPhone. What Android does offer are very specific options -- you can use Twittoo, Twitli, Twidroid, aTweeter or one of several other variations to update your Twitter status, for example. Or, you can use Loopt or Google Maps with Latitude for sharing your GPS locale with buddies. The major gripe is that, even though you have several options, there is often some obvious omission -- no Tweetdeck app, for example.

Even the browser app in Android is a bit slow loading, but shows up quickly in multi-tasking.

Twittoo, shown here in landscape view, is one of several Twitter clients for Android.

One of the more interesting apps on Android, ShopSavvy lets you search for product pricing by scanning a barcode with the built-in camera.

Multi-tasking Support

Android outclasses other OSes with multi-tasking support, allowing you to quickly switch between apps by holding down the Home button for two seconds and choosing the one you want. When too many apps are running, the OS will shutdown the memory hogs. You can access open apps very fast by pressing a keyboard shortcut, such as Search icon + E for e-mail. That said, we think Palm's webOS is easier to use for task switching, and BlackBerry OS is easier to access with Alt + Arrow.

Media Support

The G1 is an acceptable media device, but not a great one. It does not support nearly as many audio formats as Symbian S60. You can load it with most common formats such as MP3 but not, say, uncompressed WAV. Android is not designed for movie playback, so the device does not let you play MPEG-4 movies, and there is no syncing function with the desktop for adding movies either -- like there is on the iPhone, Palm Pre, BlackBerry, and Nokia operating systems.

Organizational Tools

Android does not offer quiet the extensive collection of task managers, note apps, and advanced contact management features as the BlackBerry OS, which has the best tools for keeping your life from spinning out of control. The Contacts and Calendar apps do have one benefit: they are familiar. If you already use Google Web apps, you will feel right at home making a contact a favorite, or customizing the settings for a meeting because they loosely mirror what you see online.

Reminders on Android look and function almost exactly like the Web app equivalent in Google Cal.

Favorites for contacts use a star system, exactly like the one used in Gmail.

PC and Database Sync

Android seems blissfully unaware of the desktop -- the OS syncs quite well with Google apps, and there's an expectation that you will hold most of your data on the Web anyway. There are syncing tools available, such as mShare that lets you sync media files and docs with an online portal.

MShare lets you sync your data with a Web domain to make back-ups or share files with others.

Messaging

With messaging, the Android OS is built around Gmail -- if you're a fan, the OS will provide all of the messaging functions you expect such as labels, archiving, large storage allocations, and an easy-to-use interface. Out of the box, the OS is not exactly friendly to Microsoft Exchange servers, but -- as we said about the apps -- there is almost always some specific single-use tool (in this case, an app called ContactsCalendarSync that syncs with Exchange) that can provide the function you need.

Gmail uses a familiar interface that automatically threads messages and highlights new ones.

Flash Support

Android does not support any versions of Flash, including Flash Lite 3.0 which was designed for mobiles, and the OS did not load our Flash Lite test site at all.

Network Support

Android on the T-Mobile G1 does support 3G, and the HTC Dream is a world phone that supports 3G in other countries. T-Mobile supports HSDPA and EDGE in major cities.

Conclusion

While Android shows promise, the commercially available apps are slim, and the OS ran slow on the T-Mobile G1 – at times, unbearably slow. We prefer the PIM apps and keyboard shortcut for BlackBerry OS as well. Android is not the best platform for movies, and desktop sync is AWOL.

Palm Pre's webOS

After using a Palm Pre and its webOS since the launch last month, we can tell you this platform is one to keep an eye on. At the same time, it feels a bit like a proof-of-concept because there are only about 30 apps available from third-party developers, and the touch interface might be a bit too “out there” for the average user. (A few Pre newbies we know have not even figured out how to close apps with a quick swipe up on the screen.) For power users, webOS is a leader in the field with, even outshining iPhone 3.0 in terms of the easy-to-use interface and more obvious multi-tasking mechanics.

The Pre hardware uses a TI OMAP3430 processor running at 600 MHz, making it the second fastest next to the new iPhone 3GS. The 4.7-ounce device has a 3.1-inch 320x480 screen, a full – but rather small – QWERTY slide-down keyboard, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth Stereo, and a 3 megapixel cam.

App Speed Test

Dog slow – that's how many Pre users first view app loading on the Pre. In fact, while most apps take a full three or four seconds to load, the screen switches to the wallpaper so you might think something has gone wrong while the app loads. However, once load, apps generally run quickly unless you start too many of them (more than five or so), which causes the phone to chug along. We measured the browser and contacts app as loading in a full six seconds, about the worst in our OS tests.

Even this Contacts app loads slow compared to BlackBerry OS and the iPhone 3.0 OS.

App Availability

Palm was intent on hitting a homerun with webOS. The included apps are feature-rich (for example, the Contacts manager automatically fills in both your Facebook and Gmail contacts automatically) and easy to use. There's the typical e-mail, browser, contacts, and scheduling apps, but Palm also added a memo app, tools for MMS, SMS and instant messaging, a document viewer that supports Microsoft Office apps and Adobe PDF, and a task manager. In this sense, Palm was ready to take on BlackBerry OS in terms of business-class productivity, ignoring the somewhat paltry offering on other smartphones in terms of personal information organization (PIM) features. We prefer some of the BlackBerry OS advanced features, such as grouping contacts and color-coding your schedule, but the Pre beats BlackBerry OS and even Apple iPhone 3.0 for ease-of-use on bundled PIM apps.

Of course, the Pre is a major letdown right now if you expect to find extra apps. There's only a small portion – such as Pandora, Accuweather, and Tweed (a Twitter client). We expect this to change once Palm releases the SDK later this year – right now, the company seems to be testing the waters with webOS and will probably make more devices and encourage wider developer adoption. It's unclear whether they have burned their bridges, though, since developers – who had warmed up to the Palm Treo years ago – have stalled out on making apps for aging Palm OS 5.

webOS includes a GPS-enabled app for finding your way through traffic and getting directions.

The apps available are thin for now, although Palm will fix that problem this year with an SDK.

Multi-tasking Support

There is no better multi-tasking OS than that what you'll find on the Palm Pre. Android is slick – you press the Home button for two seconds and can click on an app. On Symbian S60 and BlackBerry OS, you can run multiple apps and return to them in the exact state they were in when you switched. Yet, the lacking user interface element is being able to see which apps are open. WebOS shows you all open apps in a card interface. You just flick from side to side to see apps, and press on the “card” you want to see. You can also use an “advanced gesture” setting found in the Screen & Lock app to multi-task without even using the card interface – you just flick left or right to change apps.

Multi-tasking also allows the most powerful feature in the OS: alerts and prompts that appear on the screen, no matter what you are doing. Android adds alerts to a taskbar but does not show them on the main screen, and there are no similar alerts with other smartphone operating systems.

Media Support

Palm Pre's webOS supports MP3, AAC, AAC+, WAV or AMR audio formats, and MPEG-4, H.263, and H.264 for video. The OS supports GIF, Animated GIF, JPEG, PNG, BMP image formats. This is a good, well-rounded group of file formats and typical for what you might want to load on the device. A high-def MPEG-4 video played smoothly on the Pre without any stalls, audio test files were clear and undistorted, and photos loaded quickly once the photo app was up and running.

Videos like the high-def MPEG-4 test file on top played smoothly in webOS.

Organizational Tools

We think webOS is the killer OS for keeping you organized because it's so easy to use, supports multi-tasking between PIM apps, and supports copy and paste so you can grab an e-mail, copy the contact info, and paste it into a task list in just a few steps. Only BlackBerry OS offers more PIM tools and more advanced features, but they are not nearly as easy to use as they are on the Palm Pre.

Not every smartphone OS includes a task manager, but Palm – who created the PIM handheld – does.

With post-it memos, you can add reminders or notices to a bulletin board.

PC and Database Sync

When you connect a Palm Pore to your computer, you will see three options: you can just charge the device, use a media sync mode, or access the USB drive. At the time of this writing, with iTunes 8.2, the Pre still connected for media sync as though it is an iPod, but Apple has hinted that this spoofing might not last for long. As it is, adding music to the Pre is easy with iTunes, and you can drop movies and photos onto the device easily enough using USB mode. The OS uses Microsoft Direct Push Technology to sync your Exchange messages automatically, and Web e-mail syncs as well.

Syncing works exactly like it does on Android – by making sure Web apps and smartphone are in line.

Messaging

Messaging on webOS is a major plus. The OS feeds contacts in from Gmail and Facebook and makes them all available from one messaging app. The only gripe here is that, if you have a lot of “fake friends” on Facebook, their contact info will clutter up the client and make it hard to find the one you want. Fortunately, webOS battles this nightmarish scenario with a slick search function. You can start typing a name at any time on the home screen, and webOS will search for that name. So there is little need to ever scroll through several hundred names. The OS also unifies messaging into one screen with all SMS, MMS, and IM messages in one place for easy viewing and reply.

WebOS automatically shows all SMS, MMS, and IM message son the same screen.

Adding Gmail and Facebook contacts means you can compose new messages faster.

Flash Support

The Palm Pre webOS does not support Flash. Like every other phone except the Nokia N97 running Symbian S60 Fifth Edition, does not support Flash Lite either.

WebOS does not support Flash, but did format sites that use Flash correctly by using static images.

Network Support

Since the only phone that runs webOS is the Pre, and it uses Sprint, the 3G network access is EV-DO Rev A, which ran at about 1Mbps for Web browsing and e-mail. WebOS also supports Bluetooth Stereo and – for surfing over a hotspot – 802.11g Wi-Fi, but not the more recent 802.11n.

Symbian OS Fifth Edition

Nokia phones, like the BlackBerry, are amazingly popular all over the world – the company sold about 113 million handsets in 2008, or about one third of all cell phone sales worldwide. This makes the Symbian S60 OS the most widely used smartphone platform in the world. The one caveat here is that the latest touch-enabled version, called Fifth Edition, runs on only two models: the N97 and the 5800.

The N97 is the more powerful of the two, at least in terms of extra features. The phone uses an ARM 11 processor running at 434 MHz, has a 5 megapixel camera, and has a large 3.5-inch, 16:9 widescreen display running at 360 x 640, the largest of the phones we tested. The Symbian S60 OS is the latest iteration of a smartphone operating system that has been around for ages – some still swear by it, and there is a long history of unusual apps for, say, controlling home automation devices. The OS is hampered on the N97 somewhat by one of the slower processors for a modern smartphone.

App Speed Test

App speed is near instant for the most common apps, such as Contacts and Messaging. Predictably, the camera app took about six seconds to load, which was slower than any other smartphone OSes we tested. We also found the Ovi app store was slow and touchy when we wanted to search for games and utilities. Nokia puts all of the apps, media files, and customization options in the Ovi store and it can be unwieldy to use and switch from one category to another too easily. Overall, S60 is a fast OS even on a slow processor – apps tend to look more like BlackBerry OS with thin lines and text without the graphical touches of the Palm Pre and iPhone, which makes the OS run fast but not look as good.

The Facebook app shows a truncated view on the main screen and the full app loaded quickly.

Ovi – the new app store for Symbian – loaded slower than any other app store in our tests.

App Availability

Nokia does not release the total number of apps available in the Ovi app store, because the number varies by device. The N97 comes bundled with a wide selection of apps. There is the typical contact manager, calendar, maps utility, and browser. And, there’s a tool for notes, a clock, and a voice recorder. The surprise is that there are quite a few extra apps included. There’s a PDF reader, a currency converter, and the QuickOffice suite for reading docs, spreadsheets, and slideshows. In a testament to the prowess of the older, more mature OS, there’s even a compression utility for opening Zip files, a podcast search app, an FM radio client, and a handful of included games. (Our N97 came with Spore and Brain Challenge pre-loaded.) Suffice it to say, S60 lacks the vast number of innovative third-party apps that are available on the iPhone and Android OS. Try as we might, we couldn’t find even basic apps such as a Pandora client, a Last.fm player, or a YouTube client. There was even a limited selection of Twitter apps, including a couple (such as KiTwitts) that crashed way too often. Overall, S60 Fifth Edition is not the OS for people who want to load up their Nokia phone with extra apps.

The old stand-by, Accuweather is available for Symbian S60 Fifth Edition.

Symbian can't touch the iPhone for games, but there are a few good ones – such as BrainChellenge.

Multi-tasking Support

Multi-tasking support is phenomenal on the S60. In our tests, we found we could open about six or eight apps at once without any problems, even though the phone only has 128MB of memory. We also found that, when we opened a game such as Brain Challenge, and switched away from the app, when we returned to it, the game was in the exact same point when we switched.

You can select from a menu of open apps to multi-task between them.

Media Support

Symbian S60 Fifth Edition supports a vast number of audio formats – exactly 22 in fact, including WAV, RealAudio, MP3, and just about anything you can imagine and then a few more. The OS also supports RealVideo, WMV, H.263 and H.264, MPEG-4, and Flash Video. And, for photo formats, the OS reads BMP, EXIF, GIF87a, GIF89a, JPEG, JPEG 2000, MBM, OTA, PNG, TIFF, WBMP, WMF. In other words, S60 crushes the competition for multi-media support and crosses geographic boundaries in terms of what is popular in the US, UK, and other countries.

Organizational Tools

We prefer the Palm Pre's webOS contact management system to the Symbian’s, which are relatively basic. Palm, Apple, and Android also all do a better job of syncing your calendar and contacts with Web apps such as Gmail and MobileMe. There is a notes app, and a Microsoft Office file reader called QuickOffice. Symbian S60 also includes a PDF Reader.

There is not much space for contacts list, and Symbian lacks the advanced features of BlackBerry OS.

The textual interface for the calendar looks more like the one in BlackBerry OS than an iPhone.

PC and Database Sync

Symbian OS seems to be in a bit of a quandary when it comes to sync and desktop support. Nokia includes several apps to help you sync up media files, but they do not work with iTunes, which is a plus for the Palm Pre and the iPhone OS column. The iPhone OS also has a leg-up with a few full-featured apps that sync to a remote database, such as Daylite Sync and Qlikview.

Messaging

Symbian S60 Fifth edition shows your current messages right on the home screen, using a widget-like interface that's highly accessible but also a little crowded, even on the Nokia N97's widescreen display. It's easy to add Webmail accounts to the Messaging app, but Symbian can't keep pace with how Palm's webOS adds multiple accounts to the same inbox, or how Apple iPhone syncs messages so easily and intuitively with their MobileMe service. Nokia needs their own messaging portal similar to what they accomplished with the Ovi appstore, although the OS does support Microsoft Exchange.

Symbian OS supports Microsoft Exchange, your own ISP, and Webmail accounts like Gmail.

Flash Support

The S60 operating system was the only smartphone OS that even made an attempt to support Flash. Even though it is Flash Lite 3.0, and it is getting quite old, at least the phone does support animated images. We tested the GideonMobile.com site for Flash and it worked smoothly. For regular Flash support, S60 is just as limited as the other operating systems we tested.

Symbian S60 supports Flash Lite, the older mobile standard, but not standard Flash.

Network Support

Our Nokia N97 supported 802.11g wireless, and we used a T-Mobile SIM card to access an HSDPA network at 1 Mbps. The OS also supports Bluetooth Stereo.

Conclusion

We were hesitant to put Symbian OS near the bottom of the list. After all, it is a powerful OS with a long history, and millions use it. The main problem we had, other than not finding too many apps in the Ovi store, is that the OS just doesn't do anything better than the top pick, in just about any category. Apple's iPhone OS has more apps, BlackBerry OS runs faster, and Palm's webOS is easier to use.

Windows Mobile 6

The main story with Windows Mobile 6.1 is that the OS is fast, powerful, syncs well with Windows – but is seriously showing its age. Anyone who has used a Power PC or Windows Mobile device knows that it is hard to load apps, you never know which one will work, and that there is no app store yet. (Microsoft said they plan on adding a Windows Mobile Marketplace by the end of the year.) When there is touch control with a Win Mobile device, it seems like an afterthought compared to Palm Pre's webOS or the iPhone, occasionally forcing you to use a stylus (remember those?) and not always registering finger presses accurately. Still, the platform is rock solid in terms of reliability, and is much more compatible with enterprise-class systems – e.g., you can find specialized business apps for Windows Mobile that are not available for any other platform – than any other OS we tested.

The Palm Treo Pro we tested was obscured last month by the Palm Pre, but is still a capable phone. It uses a Qualcomm 400MHz processor and has 256MB of storage and 128MB of RAM. The phone has built-GPS, Bluetooth with enhanced data rate, a 320x320 display, Wi-Fi, and a 2 megapixel cam.

App Speed Test

Windows Mobile 6.1 speed varies wildly depending on the device. On the Palm Treo Pro we used, the OS was not nearly as responsive as the BlackBerry OS, especially for the core messaging and contacts apps. Both loaded in about 3-4 seconds. Some third party apps – such as Google Maps – took even longer, about 8 seconds from click to final map. The camera app was actually one of the faster-loading tools and loaded in about 3 seconds. Overall, the OS does not manage memory as well as the Android OS, which shuts down apps that are using too much memory. You can open 12-15 apps at once on the Palm Treo Pro, almost crippling the device, but the OS will happily load additional utilities. We'd prefer a warning when you have loaded too many apps or a way to manage them easier.

The Contacts app did not load as fast as similar clients on other platforms.

App Availability

While there are 20,000 apps available through outlets such as Handango, and you can likely find a plethora of Twitter clients and tools for switching between apps, they often lack the pizazz of an iPhone or Pre app. There is a good selection of games, many that have a desktop-like gameplay style such as real-time strategy variants for the small screen, but not any that are truly ground-breaking, such as HeavyMach on the iPhone, which uses the phone's accelerometer for moving your tank. We also did not find apps such as 8bittone or Leaf Trombone on the iPhone that offer new innovations. That said, being that Windows Mobile is a Microsoft platform, there are hundreds of powerful business apps such as Mobilis SyncStack (for access to a central database), and industry specific tools, such as MD Coder (for doctor's to record patient notes) and Mortgage Pad (for calculating loan amounts). There's also a wide selection of e-mail apps such as a Gmail client, and syncing tools such as Microsoft MyPhone.

Included games are dull and boring, but there are plenty of third-party games.

The new MyPhone app syncs data from your phone to a Web service.

First-party support for Word and Excel means Win Mobile is a great business OS.

Multi-tasking Support

Windows Mobile 6.1 supports multi-tasking, and on the Palm Treo Pro you can use a menu on the right side of the screen to access open apps and close those you do not need anymore. The OS does not manage these apps as well as the Android OS, and it is easy to load way too many of them at the same time not realizing that they have stayed open and are clogging memory. In one test, with ten apps open, the load time for commonly used tools such as the messaging app slowed to a ten-second load time.

the home screen does not show open apps, but you can access them using a menu in the upper right.

Media Support

Windows Mobile 6.1 is not as media-friendly as other platforms. For the most part, you can expect to use Windows Media files for audio and movies, JPG for photos, and MPEG-4 for movies – but the supported files varies by device. We tested JPEG and MPEG-4 on the Palm Treo Pro, but could not an uncompressed WAV file that worked fine on other platforms. One of the problems with Windows Mobile is that it is not aging well – there are at least 140 models that use the OS, and 57 mobile operators throughout the world, and each one seems to have a slightly different spin. This means, a video on a Sprint phone may or may not work on a Verizon phone. We prefer Android OS and the iPhone for media support because at least you know what will work and there is a standard route to take for buying new media content (such as Amazon MP3 and iTunes).

Our Palm Treo Pro played MP3 and windows Media files, but not WAV.

Organizational Tools

Once again, being a Microsoft platform, the PIM functions for contacts, schedule, and task management are top of the line – better than any other OS. Every Win Mobile device has a powerful contacts manager, scheduler, and task list that syncs easily with Outlook, and many Win Mobile devices include the Office Mobile suite for spreadsheets, docs, and presentations. These apps are predictable, reliable, and familiar although the Palm Pre has an edge in terms of combining schedules and contacts into one list. Windows Mobile seems unaware of trends in computing related to social networking, Web apps, and online data storage – most of the org tools are self-contained and do not work with online calendars such as those form Yahoo! and Google.

There's a search client in Windows Mobile 6.1 that searches across files and messages.

PC and Database Sync

Windows Mobile is a syncing powerhouse. There is a new client called Microsoft MyPhone that syncs to an online storage site, and both Windows Vista and the upcoming Windows 7 release support easy syncing between the mobile and your computer using Outlook. Win Mobile also offers a built-in remote access app to connect to your home server or work server.

Connect your Win Mobile device to a Windows desktop and you can easily sync files.

You can use a remote access client that works exactly like the desktop equivalent for network access.

Messaging

Windows Mobile places a strong emphasis on Outlook messaging – the built-in client operates like the desktop version with tried and true personal folders, spell check, plenty of messaging options of encryption and priority e-mail, and quick links to your existing Outlook or Hotmail contacts. There is a Gmail client, and the OS supports Microsoft Exchange (of course).

Text messages appear in the same messaging client as your ISP, Hotmail, or Webmail accounts.

Flash Support

Windows Mobile does support Flash Lite 3.0, but not the standard Flash used on most sites. Interestingly, while our test site for Flash Lite (www.gideonmobile.com) loaded part-way, it did not complete, which may just be a bug on the Palm Treo Pro for sites that support the older standard.

This site did not load with Flash but offered this served up this truncated mobile version.

Network support

The Palm Treo Pro supports HSDPA access and tested at 1Mbps, and the phone also works with the EDGE service. The Treo Pro supports 802.11g but not Bluetooth Stereo for audio.

Conclusion

Why is Windows Mobile last on our list behind Symbian OS and Android OS? It is a solid and reliable platform, one that has proven its merit in business time and again. The problem is that the OS has not kept pace with the times. Touch support is just not that adequate compared to an OS such as Palm Pre's webOS, Android, and iPhone OS that were built for touch control. The OS was primarily designed for a stylus, and the mobile market has moved on to touch apps. The OS is also not particularly fast, and while there is an incredible selection of apps, none of them are really jaw-dropping or innovative – they seem to be all stamped with “vintage 2002”. The OS has an outdated look and feel, is not Web-centric enough, and works differently depending on the phone you use.

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