Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Smartphone of the Year - 2009 Edition

Over 6 major smartphone operating systems in the market, an app store from all the major players, and at least 2 networks crippled by data usage, this was the year of the smartphone.  With over 41 million smartphone devices shipped in the 3rd quarter of 2009, an increase of almost 2 million compared to the year before, smartphones are becoming the defacto high-end phone for most consumers.  They pack numerous features that were once standalone devices like 5MP cameras and satellite-based GPS, smartphones have become the ultimate all-in-one device.

Best Smartphones by Operating System
All the major operating systems (OS) received a healthy number of devices for 2009. Choosing a winner for each operating system was generally easy since each operating system had only one or two primary manufacturers.  Each manufacturer broke down each phone to a target market.  I looked at the highend because those are the phones with everything feature people want and least niche targeted.

Apple OSX - Apple iPhone 3GS
Google Android - Motorola Droid
Palm WebOS - Palm Pre
RIM Blackberry - BlackBerry 9700
S60 3rd edition - Nokia N86 8GB
S60 5th edition - Nokia N97 mini
Windows Mobile - HTC HD2

Best Smartphones by Form Factor
With very few smartphones being delivered in the bar, rotate, or flip format, it was easy to pick a winner for those categories.  A majority of manufacturers focussed on the QWERTY bar, slider (QWERTY), and touchscreen form factors so it was very difficult to pick a clear winner in each.

Bar - Nokia N82
Flip - Motorola MING A1800
QWERTY bar - RIM Blackberry 9700
Rotate - Nokia Twist 7705
Slider (number pad) - Nokia N86 8GB
Slider (QWERTY) - Nokia N900
Touchscreen - Apple iPhone 3GS

The Nokia N82 still stands ontop of the bar phones with its venerable TI OMAP 2420 platform packing hardware graphics acceleration, a rarity during its release. I don't recall anyone releasing a flip smartphone this year but the Motorola MING A1800 with its, UNIX based mixed with Java, JUIX OS remains an interesting phone that is sadly not available outside Asia. There was only 1 rotate smartphone released this year. The Blackbery 9700 won the QWERTY bar factor with its ease to use UI, trend setting optical navigation, and comfortable keyboard.  The Motorola Droid doesn't even come close with its often criticized keyboard.  The iPhone wins the touchscreen category, as most should expect, because of its intuitive responsive touchscreen and user interface (UI).

Best Smartphone by Function
As most reviewers say, there's no clear smartphone that will fit everyone's needs.  Otherwise we'd all be uing the same phone.  And some consumers make their smartphone buying decision based on their primary need so here are my top choices for the different smartphone categories:

Camera - Nokia N86 8MP
E-mail - BlackBerry Bold 9700
Tweaking/Modding - Nokia N900
Games - Apple iPhone 3GS
Making Calls - Nokia E52
Movies - Nokia N900
Navigation - Nokia N95 8GB with Garmin XT
Productivity - Nokia E72
Social Networking - Apple iPhone 3GS
Web Browsing - Nokia N900

Nokia's high end camera phones have traditionally captured some of the best photos and the N86 8MP is no exception.  It doesn't hurt to also win the Technical Image Press Association (TIPA) award for mobile imagery in 2009.
If you want no hassle e-mail, you go with Blackberry and their top of the line device is the 9700. The ergonomic keyboards have become a trademark of a Blackberry device.  Unfortunately a string of e-mail outages may strip them of this award.
The Nokia N900 runs a Linux based OS called Maemo allowing its users root access to the device.  Nokia even hosted a hacking contest called PUSH.
Even Nintendo feels threatened by the iPhone.  With the addition of hardware graphics acceleration and a very popular AppStore, the iPhone 3GS is positioned to take handheld gaming far beyond anything before.
As silly as it may sound, the E52 wins here.  Let's be honest, the number pad beats the touchscreen, it's not fun dialling on the chicklet-sized QWERTY keys, and reception isn't a strong point of HTC or Apple.
With a 3.5 inch touchscreen at 800x480 pixel, giving it a higher pixel density than both the 3GS and HD2, the N900 supports various codecs & players and TV out for an enjoyable movie experience.
The integrated GPS on the N95 is far more sensitive than most current phones.  With Garmin XT, th N95 becomes a very competent navigational tool.
Every social networking tool has an iPhone app and there are many apps that combine social networking features.  If you find it on another phone operating system, you'll find it on the iPhone.
Flash support, a large touch screen, and a Mozillla powered browser, the N900 delivers the best Interne experience on a phone.

Find out the best overall smartphone after the jump.

Overall Best Smartphone for 2009
The best smartphone is one that sets the standards for the rest to follow or beat and potentially changes how the smartphone game is played.  2009 had far more smartphones released and more operating systems in the marke than any previous year making it one of the most difficult to pick the best smartphone.  But after a few hours talking it over with some fellow phone enthusiasts, I came up with my pick for 2009.

Runner up

Nokia N900

Running the Maemo 5 operating system, based on Linux (Debian distribution), Nokia has created the ultimate device for the technophile.  And it doesn't hurt that Nokia included so many hardware features for its users to tinker with.  Think of it as Nokia's version of Lego Mindstorm.  They've even hosted a hacking contest with the N900 called PUSH.  But even if you aren't the kind to tinker with your phone, Maemo provides a cohesive mature UI, a good number of applications like Open Office and a Mozilla-powered browser, quality camera, wealth of connectivity choices, and powerful multitasking capabilities.  The N900 is literally desktop Linux in your hands.


Apple iPhone 3GS

The iPhone set the standard for what is expected from a touchscreen UI and continues to set the bar which every touchscreen phone will be compared to.  It prompted Windows Mobile to increase the size of their buttons and forced Nokia S60 5th edition to add kinetic scrolling.  It was the first phone released to the general public with the new ARM Cortex A8 CPU giving users immense computing power on the go.  Games released for the 3GS were hardware accelerated 3D - it's what Nokia Ngage should've been.  The iPhone 3GS sets new standards for performance and ease of use while everyone is still trying to catch up with its predecessor.

If you don't agree with any of my choices, feel free to leave a comment on what smartphone you would choose and your reasoning.  Perhaps I'll change my decision.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Comparing dual LED to Xenon Flash - N82, N86 8MP, and N79 Low Light Showdown!

The Nokia N86 8MP (right) is positioned as Nokia's premiere imaging range of camera phones for 2009 and set to replace the venerable N82 (left). It is Nokia's first device to feature a wide-angle 8MP Carl Zeiss len camera with variable aperature and second generation dual-LED. Unfortunately, many N82 users bemoaned the absence of Xenon flash. Nokia responded with a slide show comparing the N86 8MP to N82 in low light which mainly focussed on when flash would be triggered when taking the photo of close stationary objects. Interestingly, they didn't address flash distance or moving objects in low light. Which I think are more important in real life situations such as taking photos of your friends at a bar or your children going trick or treating during Halloween.

Full review after the jump.

Photo dimensions (pixels)2592x19442592x19443264x2448
F number/Aperture2.8/5.62.8/5.42.4-2.8/4.6
Flash typeXenonDual-LEDDual-LED

Flash Distance

All camera phones were set to auto mode with automatic flash in a room with no light. I placed 3 objects on the ground a meter apart from each other in front of the camera. The big boxes were 4 meters away and the wall was about 5 meters away.






Canon SD850i


The N79 had to increase its ISO setting very high to brighten up the image which led to a lot of noise and a generally useless photo. The E71 was totally useless. Obviously the dedicated camera produced the brightest flash and clearest photo.

The N86 is a significant improvement over the N79 even though both use a dual-LED flash. I'm sure the larger sensor and improved LEDs helped the N86.

The N82 produced a much noiser photo compared to the N86 and the N82 needed a higher ISO setting to get a similar brightness to the N86. So just to see what would happen if I set the N82 to medium ISO to force it to use ISO-400.




With similar ISO settings, the N82 produces a definitely darker image, similar noise, and very similar details.


Photo capture of a moving object with flash

I used a metronome since it has a generally consistent speed, easily recognized by readers all around the world, and has various speed settings. I threw out all photos of the metromone arm at the very far right and very far left since the arm moves much slower at that point. I took 3 photos with each phone at each speed setting.

I found that each phone produced consistent image quality between the 3 photos taken. All camera phones captured photos between 100-200 ISO regardless of metronome speed. Now let's look at the detailed results.

Low speed (40 GRAVE)

Mid speed (72 ANDANTE)


High speed (120 ANIMATO)

The N79 and N86 produced similarly blurry photos of the metronome arm. Although the N86 sensor can take clearer photos of stationary objects, the sensor still can't get enough light in a short time to capture a still photo of the moving object.

It's no question that Xenon pays dividends with a clear photo of the metronome arm. As reported in many studies, Xenon produces more light at a specific object in a shorter amount of time than LED can. Which is why photos tend to be blurry in dimly lit environments when taken with current camera phones. Let's hope that either LED technology makes some significant improvements soon or Nokia switches back to Xenon for their next premiere imaging device.



Overall, the N86 surprised me by it's impressive flash distance that produced images of very little noise, even when compared to the N82's Xenon flash. But as predicted the N82 captured motion photos significantly better than the dual-LED equipped N86. Comparing the N86 to the N79, we saw an impressive improvement to the dual-LED and sensor technology that allowed the N86 to produce far superior distance photos. So it's a give and take with the N82 better at freezing motion while the N86 is better for distant stationary objects. I personally would prefer freezing motion for clearer photos while the flash distance is comparable. Until Nokia releases another Nseries with Xenon, the N86 is definitely a worthy device that gives the N82 quite a run.