iPhone, Android, Windows Phone 8, BB 10: Where should I turn?

I don’t believe a week goes by without someone making a remark about the phone I carry. I currently pack a BlackBerry 9900 (Bold 2), but, after listening to the comments, you would think I carry a tin can with a string. I have always been of the belief that function trumps form and that tools took priority over toys. As one that has made a career in the mobile business, I’ve had the pleasure to pressure test my beliefs. I have had great exposure to many iPhone, Android, BlackBerry, and Windows Phone 7 devices. Considering I have been rocking a BlackBerry since 2002, the desire to switch to something new has grow. No mater what device I test drive I, without fail, keep coming back to my BlackBerry. In fact, when I return to my 9900, it feels better than ever. I would find myself getting used to the soft keyboards and slow loading apps on the other devices, but when I switched back, it was as if I discovered gold all over again.

This all leads me to today. I am still a faithful BlackBerry owner and I am one of the 1% still utilizing the devices in the U.S. I am very nervous about their upcoming BlackBerry 10 OS, however. If the QNX based OS is as clunky as the PlayBook OS, I believe I will be turning my back on RIM for good. The PlayBook OS consistently crashes, is slow, and isn’t as full featured as my 9900 OS 7.1. While I will reserve my official judgement until it is released in Q1 2013, I have started my yearly quest to find a replacement device in the meantime. There have been some great devices announced recently, including the Nokia Lumia 820 and 920 (both Windows Phone 8), and the existing Samsung Galaxy S III (Android). And, for the fanyboys out there, Apple released the iPhone 5 (iOS 6) this past week. HTC has an announcement scheduled for September 19th and it’s expected that they’ll release their Windows Phone 8 devices, the 8X (Zenith), 8S (Accord), and 8V (Rio).  All appear to be top notch hardware solutions and some (e.g., Lumia 920) just look spectacular.  It is now time to see if any meet my need.

I am a big believer that before you select a solution, you must define the problem statement and your requirements. As one that works within the technology industry, I’ve witnessed too many times where a technology solution is in search of a problem; this only leads to confusion or failure. In order to practice what I preach, and to keep myself from blindly selecting a device, I started two lists to use as input into my buying decision. In the first list I capture the current issues, as I see them, with my current device, the BlackBerry Bold 2. The second list illustrates my “must have” features. We all have our own ways of working, and this list is what suits my style. Without further ado, let’s dig in:

BlackBerry 9900 Bold 2 Issues

I believe it is necessary to provide some context as to why I am thinking about a device switch.  While I spend more time on my “must have” list, I couldn’t ignore the issues I currently face:

Beyond Weak Apps: It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that BlackBerry App World severely lacks the volume and quality of apps one seeks.  The best known apps are either missing or lack the quality to make them worth downloading.  While I typical use websites instead of apps (e.g., m.tripit.com for my travel planning needs), there are times where an app is more convenient.  I believe I could get good use of a mature Evernote application, for example. While Evernote exists for BlackBerry, it is pretty lame.  They do a much better job supporting other operating systems.  Other apps that I would love to get my hands on include Spotify and the Ceton Windows Media Center Companion app.  Clearly BlackBerry, and even Windows Phone, lack in this area.

Group Messaging: I’ll have more on this later, but the best feature of my BlackBerry is also one of the features that I now rarely use.  I love BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), but its use is limited considering that it is very rare to find a fellow BlackBerry owner.  The supplemental applications (e.g., GroupMe & Kik) aren’t all that well implemented on the BlackBerry.

Camera Auto-Focus: This phone came out in 2011 and it arrived without a good camera.  How can this device not how auto focus. Really?  This is a very big disappointment and is also the main reason my neighbor opted for the Samsung Galaxy S III over the BlackBerry Bold 2 (yes, that means I’m down another BBM contact).

Garbage Collection: I’m tired of the spinning clock on my device that appears when I am ready to interact.  This little “feature” is due to memory utilization and a process called “garbage collection,” by us technologists.  It always happens at the worst time, which is, of course, when I want to use the phone for something important and timely.

My Feature Must Haves

Needless to say, I expect to have the obvious features, such as email, calendar, and address book functionality.  I also expect  key device features like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. The follow list is more about the features that aren’t automatic for all operating systems.

Enhanced Screen Locking Features:  I move so fast with my phone that I find myself quickly unlocking, typing out a message or note, and relocking, only to repeat about 2 minutes later.  The ability to do this without reentering the password each time is important.  There needs to be a delay between the relocking of the device and the forcing of a password when you unlock.  The BlackBerry 9900 really excels in this area, providing the ability to delay the password lock for 15 minutes.  The Bold 2 also allows you to force a hard lock on demand for those instances where you do not want the delay.  This feature really saves time and frustration.

Lock Screen Messaging: This one is a bit more straight forward. When my phone is locked, I want the ability to display a message in the event I lose my phone.  I currently print out my name, work address, and Google Voice phone number on my current device.  I have seen all too many iPads left behind with little owner information.

Auto Text: The ability to replace text, based on a dictionary I define, helps me be efficient.  For example, when I type “mynum,” my phone automatically converts it to my cellphone number.  When I type “bb,” it auto corrects to BlackBerry.  I have a lot of these auto corrections configured and I use them in advanced ways.  Keep in mind I’m talking about custom auto corrections, not the ones built into the operating systems.  The big operating systems are finally catching up in this area, but it took some time.

Podcast Capabilities: There are three key features I seek in a podcast application.  First, I desire the ability to have the app automatically download the most recent podcast for offline listening.  This should be handled as a background task, not requiring me to trigger the application and refresh.  The BlackBerry Podcast application does this quite well.  However, it falls short of my other two requirements, playback speed and Google Listen syncing.  I enjoy listening to a podcast at a custom playback speed.  1.2x to 2x playback provides me the ability to get more done in less time.  It is amazing how some of these podcast hosts can drag on a conversation.  Speeding them up a bit helps me power through the entire podcast.  The last feature I am seeing is more of a “Nice to Have” than a requirement.  The ability to sync the podcast app with my Google Listen account would be a great bonus.  I currently keep the podcast RSS feed in sync manually, which isn’t a big deal, as it rarely changes.

Hardware Convenience Keys: This is a feature that I believe is grossly underestimated.  As noted earlier, I use my BlackBerry to listen to many podcast episodes.  I also use it to listen to music and even P90X audio at the gym.  When at the gym breaking a sweat, the last thing I want to do is reach for the phone and tap the screen to pause the audio.  Considering the location of the pockets in my gym shorts, and that many of them have zippers, this becomes very inconvenient.  I truly love the ability to pause or skip a song by just the feel of my phone.  I can access the proper hardware key with ease.  This also helps when I’m on a conference call, as I can (un)mute easily to save those on the call from background noise.

Physical Keyboard: Not worth a lengthy conversation here, other than to say you really don’t appreciate the physical keyboard until you try a soft keyboard and then come back.  I would “get used” to using the iPhone soft keyboard and find myself making it work. However, when I would go back to the physical keyboard, it was as if I rediscovers the use of my hands.   I despise those text messages I get from my friends that make absolutely no sense.  One or two is OK, but when it is the norm it really should be embarrassing. I can type on my 9900 without looking and I still don’t run into that issue. I laugh at those that say they love their soft keyboards.

Integrated Inbox:  Having the ability to read email, texts, MMS, and Facebook, Twitter, & LinkedIn messages in one inbox just makes sense.  I just don’t get the idea of opening up a different app to access each of these messages.  The single inbox concept helps keep me organized and I find it to be very efficient.

True Multi-Tasking:  I fly around on my current device and I can often be found loading a webpage in the background, while cranking out a few emails.  While in the background, webpages and refreshes should happen seamlessly and should be ready for me upon my return to the app.  Again, it is about efficiency. I’m glad to see that many of the OS manufacturers are taking a harder look at this feature.

Customized Alerts & Ringtones: While this sounds trivial, it amazes me how limited some operating systems are in this arena.  I seek the ability to customize sounds based on event types (e.g., phone ring, email, text, calendar event, etc..).  A big bonus is to customize an alert for a specific type of message. For example, I have my phone alert me with a unique sound when I receive an email from my wife or my boss (yes, they are two different people).

Simultaneous Social Updates:  Another pretty straight forward feature, but one where iPhone, Android, and Windows Phone did not fare well for some time.  I desire, via the device, not a hashtag, the ability to post to numerous social networks at once.  I also want to read updates from all of the networks in one combined timeline.  I currently use Scope, formally Socialscope, and it is pure awesomeness.  They recently launched an Android application, but I haven’t had the time to test drive.  iOS and Windows Phone have begun integrating social components directly in the OS.  While neither has nailed it yet, they are making great progress.

Background Social Updates:  One thing I love about Scope is that I can quickly launch and see the latest updates right away, as they were loaded automatically in the background.  I haven’t found an app that rivals this Scope feature; I find myself waiting for the update, or refreshing manually, because the app was dormant in the background.  Have I mentioned efficiencies?

Google Voice: I leverage Google Voice for both my office and personal inbox.  The Google Voice application for BlackBerry is horrible and is no longer maintained. Clearly the Android OS provides the best Google Voice experience.  I want that experience.

Turn-by-Turn Directions:  I struggled even including this one in my list.  I actually enjoy looking at my normal phone maps and finding my way around without some automated voice prompts.  It’s like a puzzle and it feels great to put it all together and arrive at your destination.  However, it would be nice to get some voice prompts so I can focus on the road more.  BlackBerry Traffic is a great app, but it is very limited when it comes to visual mapping.  I am really intrigued by Nokia Drive, with its offline map functionality.  I guess owning NAVTEQ has its privileges.  It is going to be interesting to see how Apple does with their proprietary (surprise) mapping service.  It is a risky, but understandable, move.

Group Messaging:  I love, love, love BlackBerry Messenger (BBM).  However, it is like loving the 911 Porsche in your garage that you are not allowed to touch or drive.  I just had another 4 friends, within a month, dump their BlackBerry devices.   My BBM friend list continues to shrink.  GroupMe is a solid alternative to keep in touch with friends and is something I have started to utilize more often.

Fitness App: While I’m not a frequent runner, I do get out often enough to track my progress.  And, when I do run, I am typically in a foreign location which increases my desire to track my footsteps as a keepsake of the trip.  I currently use the Adidas miCoach app, but there are plenty of options on the market.  I would rather not leave miCoach, as it houses my historical data.  (Side bar: I ran 5 miles in Columbia, MO last week and I think I found a bug in the application.  It tracked my path across the Atlantic.  I’m not that impressive.)

Sport Scores Push Notification: I’ll keep this short and sweet.  Give me the ability to set alerts for score and lead changes for my favorite teams or games.  Yes, it should be that simple.

Automatic Spell Check: Another simple feature that some operating systems just don’t do well.  Before I send an email, check my spelling and prompt me if there are any questionable words.

Conference Bridge Dialing: This is another one of those features that goes grossly underestimated. I find myself joining conference bridges often and I don’t need the burden of memorizing numbers or fumbling around with copy and paste actions.  I can’t help but wonder why these so-called “smartphones” don’t do a better job of recognizing a conference bridge number and access code, while adding the necessary pauses when dialing.  It is truly the little things that can make or break my experience.  Fortunately, the BlackBerry OS has an add-on feature that meets my needs.  I haven’t explored the other operating systems as much, but the last time I owned an Android, iPhone, or Windows Phone 7, they did not handled this well, at all.

Camera Functionality: Simple: auto-focus, geo-coding, flash, video, and sharing.  A front camera for self portraits is a big bonus, and, of course, great image quality and resolution.  OK, maybe it isn’t that simple.

Mobile Hotspot: While this isn’t at the top of my list, the ability to create a mobile hotspot out of my phone would be a great feature.  I have run into this need many times.

LTE: Who doesn’t want fast upload and download speeds?  The new iPhone 5 is packed with LTE, as are the Lumia 820, 920, and Android Galaxy S III devices.  I think the bigger question is if AT&T can handle the load generated from these new devices.  Only time will tell, but history says it is going to be tough.  My BlackBerry Bold 2 sports HSPA+, and I’m ready for a speed upgrade.

Battery Life: My BackBerry 9700 was the king of battery life and I never had an issue.  My BlackBerry 9900 holds its own, but can’t match the 9700.  My requirement is simple: I do not want to be like those that tote an Android and have their phone tethered to a charging station for much of the day.  We have really regressed with battery life in the last few years.  The Android devices have trained customers to believe battery life has always been bad for smartphones.

Browsing:  A few simple ones: easy word searching within a webpage, tabbed browsing, and, most importantly, the ability to share webpages with my social networks and address book, via email and text.

Screen Resolution & Quality: I’m not a screen resolution, or size, junky.  Just give me something north of 250 ppi.

Phone Dimensions: I’m not sure if you have seen the Galaxy S III, but it is a monster!  I was a bit taken back by the size of my BlackBerry 9900 (4.53 x 2.60 x 0.41) and it is dwarfed by the almost tablet sized Samsung Galaxy (5.38 x 2.78 x 0.34).   I really like the Lumia 920, but the size rivals that of the Galaxy.  I would rather go with the 820 (4.87 x 2.70 x 0.39), but the other specs for that device are just rough (e.g., ppi at 217).  The iPhone 5 looks like a great size (4.87 x 2.31 x 0.30) compromise.

Nice-to-Have: Without going into detail, here are a few features that I would really like, where it makes sense, but are not deal breakers: quick switch to vibrate or silent when entering a movie theatre or church, video and wi-fi calling, panoramic photo shooting, expandable storage and microSD slot, address book synching with social networks, and Google Reader synchronization (although I can live with the website version of Reader).

You may want to call me high maintenance, but at least I know what I want in my device.  Considering the list, I clearly need to spend time ranking and weighing each item, as no device can meet all of my needs.

This posted started as a short list to myself as I began to internally debate my next move.  As I progressed through my thinking, I found myself becoming more conflicted.  I’m clearly biased and I mostly love my tin can with a string.  However, there are key features missing and the BB 10 OS looms.  The clock is ticking!

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