Is it time to ditch the iPhone for the Samsung Galaxy S4?

In this edition of Ask Maggie, CNET's Marguerite Reardon advises a longtime iPhone user who is tempted to jump ship for the new Samsung Galaxy S4. She also explains why Apple may need a low-cost iPhone.

There is no question that Samsung's Galaxy line of smartphones are giving Apple's iPhone a run for its money. In fact, some loyal iPhone fans, disappointed with the incremental updates in the iPhone 5, already are looking for something new.

Smartphone aficionados agree that when it comes to innovation, Samsung has surpassed Apple. The Samsung Galaxy S4 in particular is a real standout in the smartphone market. Its bigger screen, higher resolution camera, and lots of bells and whistles are likely to attract a lot of consumers who are fed up waiting for Apple to reset the standard in smartphones. In fact, some would say that the iPhone 5's 4-inch display is almost retro.

Truth be told, Apple has rarely been on the cutting edge of hardware. For example, the company was at least a year behind in adding 3G to the iPhone, and it took it's sweet time offering 4G LTE. It still doesn't offer NFC in its products, something that is becoming standard fair in many Android device. Instead, what has made the iPhone so appealing is the aesthetic design of the device and the easy-to-use user interface. It's all about how Apple puts the pieces together.

By contrast, Samsung and other device makers have pushed the envelope in terms of hardware, including the newest processors, expanding screen size, adding NFC, supporting the latest network speeds and more. But now, Samsung has upped the ante in software, thanks to advancements in Google's Android operating system and Samsung's device software.

There's no question that Samsung's devices are growing in popularity. And the Galaxy devices have established their iPhone-like cache among some users. In fact, a recent report from market researchers at Strategy Analytics suggests that Samsung's sales grew nine times faster than Apple's during the first quarter of 2013 . Some of this growth was due to low-end devices, but Samsung is also mustering a following for its Galaxy brand of devices.

So is it finally time to ditch the iPhone?

That's precisely the question I answer in this edition of Ask Maggie. Also in this Ask Maggie, I explain to another reader why Apple may be developing the rumored low-cost iPhone made out of plastic.

Has the iPhone lost its edge?

Dear Maggie,
I'm feeling very confused. I have been an iPhone user for several years. My contract with AT&T is over and I'm ready for an upgrade. I was hoping that Apple would come out with a new iPhone in June. But it looks like a new one won't be announced until at least September or October. What's more, I'm not convinced that a new iPhone will be much of an improvement over what's already available.

Meanwhile, I am awed by the reports of the Samsung Galaxy S4, including the camera and the inclusion of NFC (Near Field Communications). I also like the bigger screen on the Galaxy S4. I find Apple's secrecy about the iPhone 5S very annoying and, from what I have heard, there will be an improvement in the camera, but still no NFC. If the only major improvements are a camera that's on par with the Galaxy S4 and a faster processor, I'm not sure the next iPhone is really worth the wait.

Do you think the time has come to seriously consider changing from Apple to Samsung? I really do not know what to do. Can you give me some advice?

Thanks,
Bruce

Dear Bruce,
Let me start by saying that your assumptions regarding when a new iPhone will be released are probably correct. There had been some rumors that a new iPhone would be introduced this summer . But according to comments that Apple's CEO Tim Cook made during the company's recent first quarter conference call, that now seems unlikely.

Cook indicated that new products would not launch until the fall . That makes sense, given what analysts are hearing from Apple's iPhone supply chain providers. Several analysts have said that Apple's component suppliers are indicating a September or October device launch.

As usual, Apple has been extremely tight-lipped about what the next iPhone could look like or what features may be or may not be included. So it's difficult to say for certain that the device will have an improved camera or not come with NFC with any certainty.

During the call with analysts, Cook said that Apple would not release a larger-screen iPhone until it had resolved some of the "significant tradeoffs" that rivals had made in making their large-display smartphones. Some analysts have suggested that Apple might release at least three devices with different screen sizes . But we shall see. Apple doesn't typically release more than one iPhone design at a time. There is also a chance that the larger-screen iPhone might not be released until next year.

So what does that mean in terms of what a new iPhone might look like in the fall?

Well, my guess is that the hardware won't be much improved over the existing version of the iPhone 5. Like I said above, it's likely to be roughly the same size. The camera may be improved, which might be significant if you're looking for a better camera on a smartphone.

My colleague Jessica Dolcourt recently published a post on CNET comparing the cameras on the Samsung Galaxy S4, HTC One, and iPhone 5 . In her assessment, she concluded that the HTC One was the worst of the three. And she said it was basically a toss up between the Galaxy S4 and the iPhone 5. The Galaxy S4 performed better in well-lit conditions, while the iPhone 5 outdid the Galaxy S4 and HTC One in low-light scenarios.

You can take a look at the images from all three cameras published in the article and decide for yourself. Personally, I didn't think the HTC One performed that poorly, and I might even select it over the Samsung Galaxy S4, given how much better the HTC One does with close-up pictures and in low-light situations. The Galaxy S4 did a horrible job with close-ups and you couldn't even make out the object in its low-light pictures.

At any rate, the big take-away from that comparison is that there are pros and cons to each phone's camera. And the differences aren't so drastic that I would buy one device over the other simply for the camera. The other important thing to note is that the iPhone 5 camera stacks up very well to these other device cameras, which might mean that an even newer iPhone introduced later this year could be even better than what's available now.

Now, to answer your main question: Is it time to ditch the iPhone for a Samsung Android smartphone?

There is no question that the Samsung Galaxy S line of devices is gaining popularity. And while Apple introduces one new device and one new set of software upgrades per year, Samsung has pumped out two flagship devices in a year. And Google has managed to push out software upgrades that have reached many of the Samsung devices.

I don't expect to see drastic changes in the iPhone introduced later this year. The device is not expected to have the fastest processors nor will it have all the cutting-edge technology that newer Android devices will likely have. But is it enough to leave the Apple iOS ecosystem?

It all depends on how much you've invested in iOS, which includes mobile apps as well as digital media, such as movies, podcasts, and music.

Easier than ever to make the ecosystem switch

The good news is that it's actually getting a little easier to move between the iOS and Google Android ecosystems and to maintain a foothold in both worlds. For example, when it comes to music, you can download the Google Play Music Manager onto your desktop to upload your music, even your iTunes music, into the Google Play cloud. Once all your music is in the cloud, you can listen to your music anywhere you have access to the Internet. And you can even download music onto your Google Android smartphone to listen to it when you're offline.

Google Play offers a great deal of flexibility in how and where you listen to your music. And because it can work with iTunes, you can still buy music through iTunes and have that music automatically synced to Google Play. This allows you to enjoy it on your Android devices, as well as on other Apple products, like iPods, iPhones, or iPads. In other words, you don't have to completely abandon the Apple ecosystem because you are switching to Android for a smartphone. It also offers you the flexibility to return to Apple if the company introduces a new iPhone that you simply can't live without.

I wouldn't say that the set-up is perfect, but syncing music between ecosystems and among different devices has gotten much easier than it has been in the past. For me, this makes the transition from iOS to Android much easier and much more attractive.

So what's my advice to you? Stop waiting for the new iPhone. If you aren't wowed by the iPhone 5 and you're tired of waiting to see what Apple will introduce next, then go ahead and buy the Samsung Galaxy S4. It's here today, and it's a fantastic device. And who knows? By the time your new contract with AT&T is up in two years, Apple may finally have a new device that really excites you.

Good luck!

Why does Apple need to build a low-cost iPhone?

Dear Maggie,
I keep hearing about Apple building a cheaper iPhone. Don't they already have cheaper iPhones for sale in the iPhone 4S and the iPhone 4? What am I missing here?

Thanks,
Dave

Dear Dave,
Apple has done a tremendous job appealing to the mass market with older models of its iPhone. Indeed, the previous year's model of the iPhone, such as the iPhone 4S, usually sells for a $100 less or for half the price with a two-year contract over the current version, the iPhone 5. And the model that is 2 years old, the iPhone 4, is basically given away for free.

iPhone 5
iPhone 5 Mar Ganley

It's a great strategy for getting rid of excess inventory. And it's a brilliant way to introduce price-sensitive consumers to the Apple ecosystem without taking on the cost of developing a device specifically for these customers.

Of course, what this means for the average consumer is that they are getting devices that are a year and two old, which is ancient in smartphone years. Still, these phones are selling like hotcakes, proving that there is a market for lower-cost smartphones.

In fact, demand for these cheaper iPhones is pushing down the average selling price of Apple smartphones. Apple reported the average selling price of its iPhones dropped $28 sequentially in the first quarter. The reason was largely due to people buying the less expensive iPhone 4S and iPhone 4 instead of the new and more expensive iPhone 5.

You are correct that there have been tons of rumors flying around about Apple developing a cheaper iPhone. My CNET colleague Shara Tibken wrote a thoughtful piece on why capturing more of this market is so important for Apple and for its rival Samsung.

But you bring up an interesting question: If the older iPhones seem to address this market, why does Apple need to build a lower-end device? The answer is pretty simple. The rumored low-cost iPhone is likely not for mature markets, such as the U.S.

You have to remember that it's a big world out there. And there are well more than 2 billion people living in India and China alone. Africa is also an exciting emerging market with millions of potential customers. These are huge untapped markets for Apple and other device makers, like Samsung.

But it's difficult to sell high-end devices in these markets where many people can barely afford to buy food. What's more, these are not markets where carriers offer huge device subsidies. This means a brand-new iPhone 4S in India could really cost someone more than $500, whereas in the U.S. a consumer could get this device for $100 with a two-year carrier contract.

There is still a lot of demand for iPhones in these markets, which is why resale values of used iPhones are so high. Many of those devices that are traded in on sites like Gazelle and Nextworth are sold internationally in places where iPhones are very expensive.

This is also where a plastic iPhone, using low-cost components, might be able to meet an unmet demand. Apple could sell such a device for $99 or less without a carrier subsidy. While this may still be out of reach for many people living in these areas, especially those living on less than $1 a day, it could easily appeal to a growing middle class. And I suspect that is just the market that Apple would target.

My guess is that if Apple introduced such a device, the company probably wouldn't even make it available in countries like the U.S. This has been the case with other manufacturers' devices. For instance, Nokia has an entire line of products called Asha that is specifically made for the developing markets. While these devices aren't as advanced as Nokia's Lumia line, they would likely appeal to cost-conscious U.S. customers looking for more functional and useful smartphones. But Nokia doesn't sell the devices here.

The bottom line is that even if Apple introduces a "low-cost" iPhone, I don't think it will change the company's strategy in terms of selling older iPhones in the U.S. market for a reduced price. In other words, don't hold your breath for a $99 plastic iPhone coming to AT&T or Verizon Wireless. You'll likely have to move to India, China, or Africa to get your hands on one.

I hope I answered your question. Thanks for writing!

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. The column now appears twice a week on CNET, offering readers a double dose of Ask Maggie's advice. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You also can follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.

 

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