Which smartphones will challenge iPhone 5? (Ask Maggie)

This week's Ask Maggie takes a look at the phones that will likely compete with the next iPhone due for release this fall.

The next iPhone may only be weeks away from hitting the market, but what else is out there?

Believe it or not, the iPhone 5 or whatever Apple calls its next iteration of the hugely popular smartphone, will not be the only hot device on the market this fall. In this week's Ask Maggie, I spell out some of the top competitors to the new iPhone.

I also offer some advice to another reader who asks about switching to AT&T's family plan from Verizon Wireless to save some cash. And provide some recommendations for which LTE network to choose.

Ask Maggie is a weekly advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. If you've got a question, please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header.

Competition for the new iPhone


Hi Maggie,
I know the new iPhone is expected sometime this fall. And I am considering getting it. But I was wondering if you could give a list of other phones that you see competing with it. I only know of three other phones (all of which run Android) that might be contenders: the Samsung Galaxy S 2, HTC Evo 3D, and the Motorola DROID Bionic. Am I missing any other devices? And do you think there will better spec'ed devices out in the next few months?

Thanks,
Jose

Dear Jose,
The three phones you listed are strong competition for the next iPhone. The Samsung GalaxyS II , HTC Evo 3D , and the Motorola Droid Bionic are each loaded with great specifications. Each of these phones runs the latest version of the Android operating system, which is Gingerbread. And they each have dual-core processors.

The Samsung Galaxy S II and the Droid Bionic are not yet available. But the Samsung Galaxy S II will likely go on sale later this month at AT&T and possibly other carriers, including Sprint Nextel. And the Droid Bionic is expected to hit Verizon Wireless stores in September. The HTC Evo 3D, which allows you to capture 3D video, is available today on Sprint Nextel's network.

CNET's senior reviews editor Bonnie Cha also says that the Motorola Photon 4G , which is currently available on Sprint's network, is another worthy competitor to the upcoming iPhone. Like the other phones mentioned, it's an Android phone that runs the latest version of the Android Gingerbread software. It also has a dual-core processor. And it supports Sprint's 4G WiMax network.

Motorola also has a newer Droid that the blogosphere is already buzzing about: the Droid HD. Engadget recently posted a picture and reported some preliminary specs on the yet-to-be announced phone, including a 4.5-inch display, 8-megapixel camera (1080p HD video), and Micro-USB and Micro-HDMI output. The device is expected to be thin. The Droid HD could come in as thin as 8.5mm to 9mm, rivaling the Samsung Galaxy S II and its 8.49mm design, said CNET blogger Scott Webster.

When the DroidHD might be available is still unclear. The phone hasn't been announced yet. Also, keep in mind that the Droid Bionic was announced in January, and it still has not been released.

CNET Reviews senior editor Kent German points out that the new update to the Android operating system will also be coming this fall, called Ice Cream Sandwich . This version of the operating system will be Google's first attempt to create a single unified mobile OS that can run on both smartphones and tablets with different features and sizes. The new software will be available first for upgrade to the Nexus S. Other Android phones will eventually be able to upgrade to the software. And it's expected that the Nexus Prime, due out toward the end of the year , will be the first Android phone sporting Ice Cream Sandwich from the start.

Of course, all of these are Google Android phones. There are also other smartphones sporting alternative operating systems also hitting the market this fall. And Kent adds that several smartphones with the Mango update for Windows Phone will be coming out on a series of new devices. These new smartphones could hit the market in the next couple of months. Nokia is also expected to launch its first Windows Phone devices before the end of the year as well.

The Windows Phone platform is seen as a viable competitor to Google's Android and Apple's iOS operating systems. It's gaining traction among developers and many of the most popular apps are already available for the platform.

And let's not forget Research In Motion. The BlackBerry maker has been slow to introduce new products to its line-up over the past year, but the company is releasing a slew of new products this month . Some people would argue these are not true competitors to the iPhone, given that the browsing and app capabilities are still lacking. Also as my colleague Roger Cheng pointed out recently, the phones are too expensive .

Still, it's difficult to say exactly how each of these phones will stack up against the new iPhone, since Apple hasn't released details of the new iPhone, yet.

More data plan angst


Dear Maggie,
I am currently with Verizon Wireless. I have an outdated BlackBerry Tour, but I do have an unlimited data plan. My wife is now on AT&T and she was also able to keep her unlimited data plan. I am thinking about leaving Verizon Wireless to join her on her AT&T plan. I will be giving up my 20% discount with Verizon and an unlimited data plan with Verizon, but with both of us on the AT&T plan, our family will save money.

Still, I have a number of concerns relating to this switch. Will my service be better or worse with AT&T? Will I regret getting rid of my unlimited data plan when fancier and more capable phones are introduced? And do you think that Verizon is getting ready to offer some better deal to existing customers that I'll miss out on if I leave now? PLEASE HELP!!!

Thanks,
Nhicks1

Dear Nhicks1,
I've got to admit this is a tough one. But here's my advice: Unless you watch stream a lot of rich media on your phone while outside of Wi-Fi, I think you'll be fine without the unlimited data plan, even with a cooler, more capable phone in the future. I've written about this quite a bit for CNET and all the analysis so far indicates that the average person uses far less than the 2GB cap, which costs roughly the same as the unlimited plan.

Of course, there are indications that data usage is growing . And more advanced phones and LTE may encourage people to use their data services more. But I think you'd probably still have a lot of headroom under the current 2GB plan unless your behavior changes dramatically.

I don't know of any other special deals that Verizon is offering so I can't help you there. But generally, the company has been raising prices and charging a premium for its services rather than the other way around. And I think that's because they know they have the strongest network out there.

My only concern for you is the quality of your network connection, because no matter how cheap the plan is from AT&T or how cool your new phone is, if you can't make calls or connect to the Net, your phone becomes just a big dumb accessory. A lot of consumers have complained that AT&T's network doesn't perform well in certain parts of the country, like New York City and San Francisco.

I live in NYC and I can tell you that I have been one of those subscribers frustrated by dropped calls. That said, AT&T works perfectly fine in other parts of the country. For example, I have few problems with the service when I visit my father in Delaware. If your wife is already using AT&T and she is satisfied with the service, that's a good indication that it will probably work fine for you too.

So if she is getting decent service, and AT&T's plan is still cheaper for your family even with a 20 percent discount with Verizon, it's hard not to make the switch. I'd say go for it and save some cash. I hope this advice is helpful. Good luck!

The LTE conundrum


Dear Maggie,
I am an AT&T customer and I really want an LTE smartphone. I know that AT&T is rolling out its LTE network soon. So I am wondering if I should wait for the AT&T launch or if I should jump ship to Verizon Wireless. Which one is expected to have the better network? Also, if I get an LTE phone with Verizon now, could I use it later on AT&T?

Thanks,
Stephan

Dear Stephan,
In terms of network coverage, Verizon Wireless is your best bet now and likely will be for some time. This week, Verizon announced that its network is now available to more than 160 million Americans , more than half the nation's total population.

Since first launching the network in December, Verizon has managed to roll out 4G LTE service in 117 cities. And the carrier is on target to reach even more cities by the end of the year. Executives have told CNET that they expect the network to be deployed in 175 markets by the end of 2011 .

Verizon claims that on a real-world, fully loaded network, its 4G LTE network should deliver average download speeds of between 5 and 12 megabits per second and upload speeds of 2Mbps to 5Mbps.

While Verizon has spent eight months covering half the U.S. population with 4G LTE, AT&T is just now getting started. AT&T plans to launch its network in five --Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio--over the next few months. And it plans to reach 15 markets by the end of the year.

AT&T claims that it's T-Mobile USA acquisition will help it cover 95 percent of the U.S. with 4G LTE , it seems that Verizon will get there much sooner without acquiring any other company.

What's more AT&T doesn't have any 4G LTE smartphones on the market yet, while Verizon already has several that are available today. And more are coming.

Unfortunately, even though AT&T and Verizon are using the same LTE technology to build their new 4G networks, devices from either network likely won't operate on the other's network . The reason why is because the companies are using different radio frequencies to transmit their signals.

So my recommendation to you is that if you really want 4G, you should sign up for Verizon's LTE service.

Update 7:08 a.m. PT: Oops! I forgot to mention Kent German's suggestion that Google's Android Ice Cream Sandwich update is likely to be another factor to consider for those looking for alternatives to the next iPhone. The story has been updated with information regarding Ice Cream Sandwich.

 

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