|Introduction & Overview: Tale Of The Tape|
|Is this the showdown of the year? In the smartphone world, we would argue that it is. If you're looking for arguably the world's best 3G smartphones right now, you're likely considering two specific choices: Apple's iPhone 4 on AT&T, or HTC's DROID Incredible on Verizon Wireless. Both phones provide an excellent user experience, and both are as cutting edge as they come. Both they also offer very different and distinct experiences, with one coming by way of iOS 4 and the other Android 2.1 with HTC's Sense overlay.
In other words, both of these devices are competing for the same crown, but each one is its own beast, with its own list of pros and cons. If you're in the market to upgrade your own handset and can't seem to choose between these two super-phones, we've got a guide to help you break down the pluses and minuses of each one in order to help you make the best decision for your needs.
To start, we'll give you a "tale of the tape" look at these phones from a pure specifications standpoint, and present to you a couple of videos of them in action...
So, what are left with? For one, the display on the iPhone 4 is superior in its resolution. It's just marginally smaller (3.5" versus 3.7"), but there are far more pixels on Apple's device than on HTC's. The iPhone 4 has a native 960x640 resolution, while the DROID Incredible has a native 800x480 display. That's a pretty large leap percentage wise, and it's safe to say that Apple's device has the highest resolution and greatest pixel density of any sub-5" smartphone on the market. The only way you'll get a higher resolution on a phone is to purchase a voice-enabled MID or UMPC.
And then there's the network. The iPhone 4 uses GSM worldphone on AT&T, while the DROID Incredible is a CDMA phone on Verizon Wireless. If you're planning on traveling to Europe or Asia with any frequency, the iPhone 4 is the obvious winner, but users can alleviate the sting of owning a CDMA phone a little bit by just renting a phone in the nation they arrive in. It may not be ideal, but those are the facts. The 8MP camera in the Incredible is a step above the 5MP camera in the iPhone 4, and Apple's device is the only one of the two that can play back DRM iTunes files that were sold for years.
Hardware designs, like beauty, are all in the eye of the beholder. We think both the HTC and Apple devices have their own strong points, with the overall style edge going to Apple. As for build quality, though, both units are solidly constructed and feel very sturdy in the hand. Finally, both phones can be purchased for $199 on a 2-year contract; the iPhone 4 on AT&T, the DROID Incredible on Verizon. Both phones require a monthly data plan, and while the DROID Incredible can be used with a $30/month "unlimited" (5GB) plan, the iPhone 4 can only be purchased (by new customers, anyway) on one of two plans: a $15/month plan with 200MB of data, or a $25/month plan with 2GB of data, with each extra GB costing $10. If you're a heavy, heavy data user, the Verizon plan obviously suits you best. AT&T users who already had the $30/month 5GB plan can maintain that plan if they upgrade to the iPhone 4.
|Apple iPhone 4 Strengths & Weaknesses|
|You can't discuss the pros and cons of iPhone 4 ownership without discussing the pros and cons of iOS 4, and as we've learned over the past couple of years, it's the software (and not necessarily the hardware) that makes and breaks phones. With that said, we'll be diving first into the code behind Apple's newest phone and what it possesses (and lacks).
iOS 4: Where It Excels
iOS 4 is a finely tuned mobile operating system. It's a major step forward for the OS previously known as iPhone OS since it was introduced back in 2007. Some may argue that the addition of apps was the most monumental, but when you're thinking about the whole picture, iOS 4 is really significant. There's the addition of native multi-tasking, a unified inbox view, support for FaceTime video calling, the addition of app folders, and did we mention multi-tasking? There's dozens of improvements and tweaks beyond those big ones, too.
Here's the bottom line: Apple has lagged behind in adding a lot of these features, but they've done a good job with implementation. Multi-tasking works well without draining the battery profusely, Folders helps keep a clean slate in your app pages, and the unified inbox view actually does what it says. For existing iPhone OS loyalists, iOS 4 is a major leap. It's lots more stuff you want, with minimal downside. If you're trapped (by choice or otherwise) in the App Store universe, upgrading to the iPhone 4 makes a lot of sense. While iOS 4 will run on the iPhone 3G and iPhone 3GS, the iPhone 4 is the phone the OS wants to run on.
The A4 CPU is fast, and iOS 4 feels light and zippy during usage. Apps open in a snap, multi-tasking doesn't drag, and everything just feels refreshingly fast. If you've used an iPad, you know the power of the A4. Apple has also throw in 720p movie recording, which is a huge feature to have on a smartphone. This really makes it possible for you to ditch your Flip Video camera and carry one less device. And while we're on the topic of hardware, let's talk about the display. Apple has managed to create an extremely thin smartphone with a screen that isn't crazy big (just 3.5"), but the 960x640 resolution on the Retina Display means that the pixel density is out of this world. What that translates to is the most beautiful display in the history of smartphones. So if you're a fan of watching HD content on the go, the iPhone 4's screen is the one you'll want your eyes on.
The battery is also outstanding; it can easily last 1.5 days without a charge, even with extensive use. That's a claim that most Android phones cannot even come close to making. So if you're a power user who tends to run batteries down in a heartbeat, the iPhone 4 deserves your attention.
Limits...There Are Always Limits
But what if you're new to the smartphone universe, or have just never used an iPhone before? In that case, iOS 4 becomes somewhat of a harder sell. For casual smartphone users, Apple's devices are still tops. They're incredible simple to get into, and they require no nerdy knowledge about computers to actually use. If you have no interest in tinkering with settings or customizing an OS to your specific needs, iOS 4 will suit you just fine. But what if you want control over your smartphone experience?
If so, there are some limitations involved with the iPhone 4 that you should know about. For one, the multi-tasking in iOS 4 isn't true multi-tasking in every sense of the word. It's more like "backgrounding," and you can read more on exactly what that means here in our in-depth iPhone 4 review. But basically, Apple limits what your phone can truly do in the background, and apps have to be specifically written to enable Fast App Switching and background processes. In other words, not every app will definitely utilize multi-tasking, which could be a real pain if your favorite app doesn't make the cut for whatever reason.
Then there's the issue of managing the multi-tasking. The multi-tasking drawer holds just four icons, and deciding which should be in and out isn't really your call. Apple just shoves any opened app down there, and you have to flick through--four at a time--to get to the app you want to pull up. In some cases, it'd be even faster to just re-visit the home page and enter the app that way. Bummer. Then there's the Folders limit. Each Folder can hold just 12 apps; Apple failed to implement a scrolling or swipe mechanism here, so you may end up with Games I, Games II and Games III and then guessing which folder has the game you're trying to access at the moment. That's not the most elegant solution.
AT&T: Is The Carrier A Deal-Breaker?
And then there's Tethering. If you're interested in using your phone as a modem, the iPhone 4 isn't for you. Apple forces you to sign up for one of their new non-unlimited data plans just to add tethering, so you'll be stuck paying a minimum of $45/month for the access, and that only includes 2GB of data for your phone. If you exceed that, it's an extra $10/month per GB. With a phone like the iPhone 4, which uses data so heavily and effortlessly, you don't want to be dealing with those kinds of limitations.
And since we're on the topic of AT&T, this is probably the single biggest downside to iPhone 4 ownership. You have absolutely no options whatsoever when it comes to carriers here in the U.S., and so if you don't get decent AT&T service where you live (or you frequently travel to places with lousy AT&T service), you'll never truly get to appreciate the benefits of iOS 4. Because you'll be pulling your hair out from dropped calls and lackluster connection speeds. Think long and hard about this one. Don't just jump into a 2-year contract with a carrier that doesn't serve your area well just to get an iPhone; if you plan on using it as a phone, you need decent phone service. Plus, if you aren't already an AT&T customer with a $30/month "unlimited" (5GB) smartphone data plan, you'll be forced to sign up for one of two plans that are less ideal for heavy data users (read more on that here).
|HTC DROID Incredible Strengths & Weaknesses|
|HTC's DROID Incredible is easily the most powerful smartphone currently available on Verizon Wireless. It's the flagship device, and it's available for the same $199 on a 2-year contract as the iPhone 4. So the rivalry basically sells itself. But if you're trying to decide between these two powerhouse devices, you probably need some insight on the pros and cons of this Sense-equipped phone. Let's dive right into the software, shall we?
Android: A Tinkerer's OS
The Incredible ships with Android 2.1, and a v2.2 update should be rolled out within a few months at most, which will add native Tethering / Mobile Hotspot, a refined user interface and improved performance. HTC's own Sense user interface is skinning the stock Android build, and by and large, we think it's more beneficial than annoying. The addition of a central "Phone" icon at the bottom is particularly helpful (that's not there in the plain Android 2.1), and the HTC widgets are some of the nicest, most animated and most useful in the app universe.
Android 2.1 is great for those who enjoy customizations and the ability to tinker. If you're expecting to just take the phone out and fully take advantage of all it can offer, Android isn't made for you. But that's not to say you can't be swayed. HTC's Sense overlay makes it easy to start customizing Android to your liking, and before you know it, you'll have widgets established on pages (there aren't any widgets in iOS 4), apps loaded from websites rather than the Market and notifications popping into your taskbar. HTC and Android are both about bending for your needs, and it's simple to setup notifications that patiently await your attention in the upper taskbar rather than popping up in your face when you least expect (or need) it.
Android also allows true multi-tasking; processing hum along in the background, and all apps support it already. There is no wondering if a given app "supports" multi-tasking, since multi-tasking is in the very DNA of Android. There's even a handy 7-pane panel that shows the most recent apps you've used, which makes hopping in and out of recently used programs a cinch. Android also provides you with a way into Google Voice, which you can easily setup as your new voicemail provider if you choose. Google Voice e-mails you and/or texts you when you get a new voice message, and it can even attempt to translate it into text in those messages.
Incredible Hardware, Too?
As for the hardware? The DROID Incredible is marginally thicker and taller than the iPhone 4, and the 3.7" display is larger than the 3.5" iPhone 4 panel. But the resolution is lower at 800x480 pixels, so you actually have less screen real estate. The AMOLED panel is extremely bright and crisp, and multi-touch support on it is fantastic. But it's not quite as beautiful as the Retina Display on the iPhone 4; that's not to say it looks bad, though--it's probably the second best looking smartphone display on the market today behind Apple's handset. There's also an 8MP camera with dual-LED Flash, which is about as good as it gets for a phone these days. There are also four touch-sensitive buttons beneath the display that enable you to jump in and out of apps, go back or just get to a search command with ease; we wish these were customizable, but it's still better to have them than to not have them.
Limits...There Are Always Limits
If you're new to Android, there's a big, fat limitation you should know about up front. The Incredible only ships with room for 512MB of apps internally (not every single app has been updated yet to support storage on the 8GB of NAND, which is a unique storage configuration), and native App On SD support isn't coming until v2.2 (in a few months). This means that few huge apps can be installed on any Android phone, as the 8GB of integrated storage on the Incredible is only useful now for multimedia storage -- though future versions of Android will hopefully address this (and future app updates will fully support the mentioned configuration). So your pool of potential apps is somewhat smaller, and it's clear that handling apps internally on Android is still undergoing some growing pains. We will admit, though, that having Google Maps Navigation onboard helps that somewhat. This app still requires a live data connection to fully function, but it's hands-down the best turn-by-turn navigation app on any smartphone, and it's included free on every Android phone. With the power of the 1GHz Snapdragon CPU, this app flies on the Incredible.
There's also the fact that not all iPhone apps will end up in the Android App Market. Android serves a smaller user base, so obviously some companies will not bother serving anything but the largest potential pool of buyers/consumers. Take a long hard look at Android's App Market before you commit, because if your favorite apps aren't available there (and you can't get a solid answer on whether or not it will be ported), you will obviously not enjoy the OS fully.
Also, the HTC Incredible utilizes a fair amount of plastic throughout, and while the front/screen itself feels incredibly solid and well constructed, the rear of the device feels somewhat less "high-end" than the glass-backed iPhone 4. The front capacitive buttons are nice and responsive, and the 8MP camera around back is a definite step up from the iPhone. This aspect really depends on how frequently you plan on using your phone as your camera, but if you'd prefer to leave the point and shoot at home entirely, the Incredible offers a more compelling reason to do so.
Can You Hear Me Now?
Unlike the iPhone 4, the HTC Incredible is available on Verizon Wireless. There are obviously pro and cons to this as well. The good news is that Verizon's 3G footprint is far, far larger than AT&T's 3G footprint, and in large part Verizon covers more of America than AT&T. CDMA service also is known to provide better service in mountainous regions. The bad news is that CDMA phones do not have SIM cards, so you can't simply pop out the SIM card of your phone and pop it into another if you decide to just pick up an unlocked phone on the side. That may or may not be a big deal to you, but if you go through phones a lot, having a SIM card makes life a lot easier. Granted, the iPhone 4 uses a rare MicroSIM, but MicroSIM-to-SIM trays are available now for around $10.
Currently, Verizon still offers their $30/month "unlimited" (5GB) data plan, so for heavy users, this is by far a better value that what AT&T offers new customers. The only "gotcha" is that Verizon's CDMA phones are useless in Europe or other nations without CDMA service. If you spend all of your time inside of North America and a handful of other countries, you'll be okay, but if you travel to Asia or Europe with any frequency, you'll find yourself needing to rent a phone upon arrival. The iPhone 4, of course, can work just fine in those countries.
|So, it's come to this: iPhone 4, or HTC Incredible? What'll it be? Truthfully, a lot of the decision will come down to carrier. Before you can really decide on a smartphone to own, you need to decide which carrier fits your life the best. For some, AT&T simply doesn't offer good enough service to commit to it for two solid years. If that's the case, the decision is almost made for you. Of course, you could always get an iPhone 4 for data purposes alone, but with the iPod touch on the market, and so many other advanced smartphones out there (like the Incredible!), there's really no reason to go that route. If AT&T has solid coverage in your area, and Verizon does as well, the decision definitely becomes more difficult. It's a good problem to have (great coverage from both carriers), but if you find yourself in that boat, you'll need to look harder at your software and hardware desires.
We suspect that one phone or the other will grab you based on the exterior and hardware specifications alone, but if not, now we're down to software. This is where the two roads we've been following really begin to fork. iOS 4 is significantly different than Android 2.1, and both systems have their respective pros and cons. Ease of use and an expansive app store? Apple is the easy choice. Have a need to tweak and enjoy limitless multi-tasking? Android's your friend. Will you be taking advantage of FaceTime and Folders? iOS 4 should be looking good. Will you take advantage of native Internet Tethering/Mobile HotSpot? The Incredible should be seeing the Android 2.2 update within a couple of months, which will deliver those amenities.
In the end, it comes down to which OS will suit you best (if both carriers work equally well, that is). The Notification system on Android is far superior, but the app selection on Apple's device is still better. If you're still stuck, we'd encourage you to page back and really think about how you will be using your smartphone. Chances are you'll find a few "must-have" software features on one phone or the other, and one killer addition in particular will win you over. In sum, we'd suggest the iPhone 4 for the casual smartphone user or for someone who is already entrenched in the App Store by owning prior iPhones, but the HTC Incredible would be the one to get if you are new to the smartphone world and/or enjoy tweaking your phone to get the most out of it. Feel free to debate amongst yourselves in the comments section below!