Verizon's iPhone 4S vs. Android? (Ask Maggie)

This edition of Ask Maggie helps a reader choose a new smartphone from Verizon Wireless. And also offers some perspective on the importance of big smartphone software upgrades.

It was only a few years ago when Verizon Wireless customers complained they didn't have enough choices when it came to cool new phones. Now it looks Verizon is the place to be for the latest and greatest in smartphones.

But what's an average smartphone consumer to do? It seems like every week, Verizon is adding a new "flagship" device to its offering. While Verizon representatives say they are simply trying to offer customers more choice, they're also creating some confusion. In this Friday's Ask Maggie, I help one reader get a handle on what Verizon has to offer.

I also offer some advice on whether I think it's wise for Google Android customers to wait for the new Ice Cream Sandwich update to Android or not.

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 dosage 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 can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.

Decisions, decisions

Dear Maggie,
I'm a Verizon Wireless customer and I'm looking to upgrade my phone. I've been a long time BlackBerry user for years, but I'm so done with BlackBerry. And I'm ready for a much cooler smartphone. I don't have an allegiance to Apple or Google, so I need some advice on what to get. I'm leaning toward an iPhone, but I'm wondering if there are some cool Android phones I should consider. Can you help me decide?

Thanks,
Undecided

Dear Undecided,
It was only a few years ago that Verizon Wireless customers were singing the blues because the carrier didn't have any cool new phones. As a CDMA carrier, it wasn't always first on the list to get the latest and greatest devices. But since the original Motorola Droid and Verizon's big push into 4G LTE, the carrier is on top when it comes to getting the hottest phones on the market.

As a BlackBerry user looking for a richer smartphone experience, I'd say that whether you go Android or iOS, you'll likely be happy either way. Since you seem open to either Android Apple, I've put together a quick cheat sheet including some of the new phones that Verizon already offers and will soon offer. By no means is this comprehensive list or assessment of every phone that Verizon has to offer. But it will give you an idea of what's out there and what will likely be coming soon.

Apple iPhone 4S

While some people were disappointed that the new iPhone 4S didn't have a new design and lacked some expected features, like near field communications (NFC) and LTE, my guess is it's still going to be the hottest phone on the market. Apple already said that it sold four million devices in the first weekend.

There are still plenty of features that makes this version of the iPhone 4S an improvement over the iPhone 4. In addition to a faster process and better camera, the iPhone 4S also has the latest iOS 5 software running on it. Some of the cool features included in this release are iMessage, which lets you chat with other iOS device users just like you could with BlackBerry's BBM. There's also an improved alert and easier editing of photos, just to name a few.

But the most important new feature on the iPhone 4S is Siri, the personal assistant app. This intelligent speech recognition app allows you to tell your phone what you need and Siri can find it for you or do it for you. For example, Siri can help find a nearby sushi restaurant or it knows to remind you to call your mother when you home from work. Unfortunately, it can't pick up your dry-cleaning. That task still requires a real-life personal assistant. Darn!

Pros: Dual core processor, 8 megapixel camera, Siri

Cons: No 4G LTE (3G only)

Release date: October 14

Price: 16GB $199; 32GB $299; 64GB $399

Motorola Droid Bionic

Until this week, the Motorola Droid Bionic was the flagship Google Android phone for Verizon. It is the first 4G LTE device that also has a dual-core processor on Verizon's network. But the Droid Bionic's time as top dog on Verizon's network will be short-lived. This week Motorola announced yet another 4G LTE Android device, the Droid Razr. And Samsung announced the Galaxy Nexus, the first phone to sport the Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich OS.

It seems strange that Motorola would release two high-end devices exclusively on the same carrier within just a couple of months. But Alain Mutricy, senior vice president of product and portfolio management at Motorola, said the company is innovating so quickly that it needs to push out new devices as soon as it can.

Indeed, part of the Droid Bionic's problem is that it is months late. The phone was announced at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. But after delays, it didn't hit store shelves until last month. This gives the Droid Bionic, which is a fine phone, a short window of availability before newer devices, such as the Motorola Droid Razr and the Samsung Nexus Galaxy hit the market.

Pros: 4G LTE, dual core processor

Cons: Doesn't run the latest Android OS

Release date: September 2011

Price: $299.99

Samsung Stratosphere

The Samsung Stratosphere is part of Samsung's flagship Galaxy S II line of Android smartphones. The original Galaxy devices have been a tremendous hit for Samsung. And this next generation of devices is also expected to sell well. The big benefit of this phone is that it's the only 4G LTE phone from Verizon with an actual QWERTY keyboard. So if you are nervous about giving up the physical keypad of the BlackBerry, this might be the phone for you. But just keep in mind that some of its features are not as advanced as some of the other Android devices on Verizon's network. For example, it doesn't have a dual core processor. The camera is not quite as good as the others. And it's not running the very latest Google Android software. But it's a fine phone. And at $149.99, it's also half the price of some of the other 4G LTE phones offered by Verizon.

Pros: 4G LTE, QWERTY keyboard, relatively inexpensive

Cons: Doesn't support the latest Android OS, single core processor, 5 megapixel camera

Release date: October 16, 2011

Price: $149.99 (after a $50 mail-in rebate)

Motorola Droid Razr

Thin is in. And that in a nutshell is what makes the Motorola Droid Razr cool. It's the thinnest smartphone on the market. And the fact that Motorola managed to also put 4G LTE capability into such a slim package is impressive. If you're looking for a phone that won't weigh you down and fits easily into your pocket, this is a good choice. Like the iPhone 4S and other top Android phones at Verizon it has an 8-megapixel rear camera with 1080p HD video capture and image stabilization, as well as a front-facing HD camera for video chat.

The biggest downside of this phone is that it uses the slightly older version of Android, 2.3.5 Gingerbread. This may not necessarily be a deal breaker, considering that Alain Mutricy, senior vice president of product and portfolio management at Motorola told me at the Droid Razr's coming out party in New York City this week, that it will likely get the new Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich OS in the first part of 2012.

Pros: Super thin 7.1mm (0.28 inch); dual-core processor

Cons: Doesn't support the latest version of Android OS

Release date: November

Price: $299.99

Samsung Galaxy Nexus

The Samsung Galaxy Nexus hasn't been officially announced for Verizon Wireless. But it's expected that Verizon will be the first U.S. carrier to sell the phone . And it could end up on other U.S. carrier networks later. The biggest selling point of the Samsung Galaxy Nexus is it will be the first phone to support the new Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich OS. While it's not as thin and lightweight as the Droid Razr, the Galaxy Nexus is still pretty thin at 8.9 mm (0.35-inch) thick. And like the previous version of the Nexus device, the Galaxy Nexus has an NFC or near field communications chip embedded, which means you can use Google Wallet to tap and pay for things.

Pros: 4G LTE, NFC chip, dual-core processor, latest Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich OS.

Cons: 5 megapixel camera

Release date:Not announced yet

Price:Not announced yet

So which smartphone is right for you? That's a tough question to answer. You said you were leaning toward the iPhone 4S. And that's a fine choice. Apple's iOS software makes using the iPhone very easy. And if you're already an Apple iTunes user, it's simple to integrate the iPhone 4S into your life. But keep in mind, that it will only operate on Verizon's slower 3G network. All the other Android devices I've listed for you will support the faster 4G LTE network. Some people have complained about battery life issues on some 4G LTE devices, so this might also be a concern for you. But barring that issue, the network speeds are much faster on these devices than other 3G smartphones, including the iPhone 4S.

To help you make your decision, I asked my CNET colleagues for their opinions as well. CNET Reviews editors, Bonnie Cha, Jessica Dolcourt and Nicole Lee chimed in, as did CNET News senior writer Roger Cheng. While most agreed the iPhone 4S is a good choice for a smartphone, they all also agreed that if you're going to go for an Android phone, you should wait for the Samsung Galaxy Nexus.

As Jessica Dolcourt put it, "I like the Droid Razr, and I personally wouldn't be surprised if in many ways the hardware is more exciting. However, Ice Cream Sandwich is the Galaxy Nexus ace in the hole and there's just no question that it will be the most powerful Android phone on the market when it comes out."

Roger Cheng, who has been a long time BlackBerry user and has also dabbled with a few Android phones, just recently bought the new iPhone 4S. He said that if simplicity is what you're looking for, then go with the Apple iPhone 4S. But if Android and all the fancy hardware specs strikes your fancy, go with the Nexus Galaxy.

"If I bought the Droid Bionic now, what would I be missing with Ice Cream Sandwich just few weeks later?" he said.

Of course, all of the new Android phones sporting Gingerbread today will likely get upgraded to Ice Cream Sandwich in the first half of 2012. But given how long it has taken some manufacturers to update some phones, it's hard to predict exactly when the update will be pushed to these devices.

I hope this helps. And good luck!

Should I care about Ice Cream Sandwich?

Dear Maggie,
I keep hearing so much about the new Google Android Ice Cream Sandwich update. I'm thinking of getting one of the new Android smartphones. But what I'd like to know is if it's really worth it to wait to buy one with the new Ice Cream Sandwich software. I know there are a lot of new features, but should I really care about these features? And which ones do you think are the most important?

Thanks,
Greybeard1156

Dear Greybeard1156,
The new Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich version is a major upgrade to Android. It's supposed to unite the software that Google has developed for tablets with the software for smartphones. And because of this change, it has completely changed the look and feel of the user interface.

There are tons of new features that have been added to the Android OS as part of this update. And CNET has already written several stories outlining some of these new features . But I think you aren't just asking for a list of new features, you want to know why you should care about this update.

Indeed, that's a good question to ask. The pace of innovation in the smartphone market is increasing. Manufacturers are churning out new devices and software developers, such as Google, are coming out with new versions of their platforms. All of this can make average users feel like they're on a constant upgrade treadmill.

It's not essential that you buy a phone with the latest and greatest software, but the truth is that with each new level of innovation, Google seems to be making the Android platform easier to use. It's not just the cool new features that are added, such as the facial recognition feature that allows you to lock and unlock your phone using a snapshot of your face. But it's also the small things, such as the ability to disable pre-installed apps that you don't want to use, that makes the device simply easier to use.

While software is important, I don't think that's the only reason to buy a certain Android phone. I'd recommend buying the phone that fits your needs the best. Currently, only one device, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, has been announced with Ice Cream Sandwich pre-installed. But other phones will be getting it as well. And I expect that the high-end Android devices that are coming on the market right now with the Gingerbread version of Android will be upgradeable to Ice Cream Sandwich sometime in the first half of 2012.

So which features of Ice Cream Sandwich do I think are the most worthwhile? First let me start by saying, there are tons of new enhancements to Android with this updated version of the OS. But here's a list of the top 5 features that I think are the most important:

Facial recognition: This feature allows you to secure your phone by taking a picture of your face. And then your phone uses that picture to identify you when you try to log into your phone. When you try to unlock your phone, it compares your face to your picture to identify you.

Improved Web browser: The new Ice Cream Sandwich OS has simplified Web browsing by allowing users to open tabs and add bookmarks. Users can swipe across the tab to close it, much like users could do with Palm's WebOS.

Improved camera software: The new software has a"zero shutter lag" feature, which means you can take one picture after another very quickly. And there are also a lot of new photo-editing tools build into the camera app. The software also allows you to capture snapshots while you're recording video. And the panoramic feature allows you to pan your camera across a wide area, and then the software puts the photo together in one long panoramic view.

Data usage monitoring: This feature lets you track and monitor your data usage by app. And it warns you or can even cut you off from using data when you hit a predefined level.

Disable pre-installed apps: Now Android users can easily get rid of apps that they don't use and don't want on their phones.

 

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