Monday, March 3, 2008

Hack that iPhone and iTouch Faceoff: iPhone Vs. Blackberry

In my continuing quest to find, paraphrasing a bit from Lord of the Rings, "one device to rule them all," I've gone through so many different phones, "smart" phones and other devices like them that I've pretty much lost track of how many, which ones and when I used them all. They're all a bit of a blur from the Palm Treo 650 to the Sony Ericsson P910i to products from T-Mobile and Nokia. In short, name a device and I've probably tried it and, for one reason or another, found it wanting.

After trying so many different devices, I finally settled on the Blackberry 8700g as the one that most completely satisfied my needs for an all-in-one phone, contact, calendar and email tool I could take with me instead of having to lug a computer everywhere or a separate PDA and phone. The Blackberry had many things going for it: decent interface, speedy response, best-of-class email handling and it was even a pretty good phone too -- something that several of my other previous choices (which shall remain nameless) failed to be.

But as good as the Blackberry was, it was soon eclipsed by a shiny new device: the iPhone. From the moment the iPhone was announced, I felt certain it would finally be the one device that would be able to handle everything I wanted it to handle plus have the multi-media capabilities, ease of use and brilliant design Apple was famous for. Then, in June of last year, the iPhone was finally in my hands and I was off and running.

During the months that followed, I grew to love the iPhone and most of its features. It quickly became an indispensable tool capable of so much. However, I still felt like it was lacking a bit in some areas and I also started to miss some of the things about the Blackberry and they way it handled certain functions.

So, aware that I might be suffering a bit from the "grass is greener" effect, I decided to put both devices to the test to determine, once and for all, which one would be best able to do what I wanted it to do in the way I wanted it done.

Before I go further, keep in mind that the following is subjective and based on my own observations. It's not scientific nor did I do anything particularly rigorous to test the devices -- I just used both of them and then reacted to how well, or how poorly, each device did what I wanted it to do. OK, now that's that's out of the way, let's move on.

My choice of an iPhone "competitor" was the AT&T Blackberry Curve (aka the 8310). To make my testing as fair as possible I wanted the test a device against the iPhone that most closely mirrored its features. That also meant both devices had to be on the same wireless carrier. With AT&T on both units I was able to compare Apples to, well, Blackberries and see what happened.

Setup and Data Sync

Setting up both devices was a relatively painless process, the major difference being that in the case of the Blackberry, I activated it at the AT&T store and then was able to use it almost immediately. For the iPhone, I had to wait until I got it home, connect it to iTunes and then go through the activation process. Activating the iPhone was mostly painless but it did have its issues -- as I outlined in a prior post last year.

Regardless of the method of activation or any problems, once both devices were activated I was able to use each of them with no trouble. I then began to put them through their paces. First up after activation was data sync between my test Mac and the devices.

First, I worked with the Blackberry. RIM has decided to license a piece of software from another company in order to provide connectivity, syncing and other functionality to Mac users. This software is known as PocketMac for Blackberry.

For whatever reason, the brain-trust at RIM didn't feel it was necessary or worthwhile to do much with this software other than offering it as a download at their site. It doesn't seem like its gone through much in the way of development since it first was released as it is not much improved since I first started working with it.

After a somewhat tedious process at the RIM website where you are required to give a great deal of personal information just to download a piece of software for a device you just paid money for, you can then download PocketMac. I find it a bit strange that not only do you have to give this information to get the software, there's no way to save it for next time just in case you have to download it again for some reason.

Even though my experience at RIM's website was less-than-ideal, PocketMac does have one big thing going for it: it is free. Unfortunately, that's about the only thing.

I'm rather tech savvy and I don't usually have trouble installing or using most software or solving problems. So, downloading PocketMac, installing it on my test Mac and using it to sync data between my Mac and the Blackberry should have been a fairly straightforward proposition. I could not have been more wrong.

I was able to install the software successfully, so kudos to me for being able to get that far. But after it was installed, that's when things took a downturn. After many unsuccessful attempts to sync data between the Blackberry and my Mac which resulted in unexpected quits, partial syncs or corruption of one or more contacts or calendars and some attempts at contacting customer service to attempt to resolve this issues, I abandoned PocketMac from RIM completely. Instead, I opted for the only other solution available at the moment: the not-free Missing Sync.

My experience with Missing Sync was almost a polar opposite to that of PocketMac. In short, it worked correctly the first time and I was able to sync contacts, calendars, tasks and even photos between my Mac and the Blackberry Curve. An altogether pleasant experience. Missing Sync costs $39.99, but for the money, it functions just as advertised and worked, at least for me, flawlessly. So, money well spent.

Next, the iPhone. Apple designed the iPhone to integrate effortlessly with your Mac through iTunes, especially if you happen to be using iCal and Address Book. Connecting the iPhone to my Mac and getting my contacts and calendar items to sync using iTunes worked the first time and continued to work for the entire time during my two weeks of testing. In fact, I haven't had a problem with this part of the iPhone experience since day one.

If you happen to be using some other application for your contacts and appointments, such as Now Contact or similar, your results may vary as at the moment, there isn't anything to help you sync your data to the iPhone. Entourage users, on the other hand, are not left out in the cold due to Entourage's use of sync services which allows synchronization between Entourage's Address Book and Calendar and the iPhone.

As I'm an iCal and Apple Address Book user, my testing of Entourage's sync to the Blackberry was mostly limited to seeing if it would work at all. I didn't continue to test it significantly to see if it had any issues. Perhaps someone else can elaborate on this issue?


To be honest, I prefer the Blackberry 8700g and its use of the side scroll wheel to the more advanced Curve and its trackball. I'm not a big fan of the trackball and in some cases found it rather awkward to use. Although, after trying a for a bit, I got more used to it. Probably, given sufficient time, I might have adjusted to it completely.

Obviously, the Blackberry operates differently than the iPhone, particularly in the way you access its various features. For the Blackberry, you scroll and click your way through menus until you get to what you want. You also enter text, phone numbers and other data by using an actual keyboard. As we all know, that's not the way you do it with the iPhone.

When I first got the iPhone, I found the interface awkward and I was sure that I would never get used to touching the screen to enter text. However, after using it for this length of time, I'm pretty much used to it now. So much so that when I first started using the Curve for this test, I found myself trying to touch the screen sometimes without realizing it. I guess it doesn't take that long to learn completely new behavior.

However, even though I've grown used to the iPhone's method of text entry, I still found entering text on the Blackberry easier for me due to its keyboard. It makes typing easier if I can actually feel the keys under my fingers. What usually happened during my two weeks of testing is that I could type longer, more accurate emails and texts on the Blackberry than I could on the iPhone. With the iPhone, I found myself having to go back and correct things more often than on the Blackberry.

Of course, it could also be that I have larger fingers. Perhaps if my fingers were smaller I would have better luck using the iPhone's touch keyboard? I don't know if that would help or not but the net result is that I sent fewer, shorter emails and texts when using the iPhone than I did when using the Blackberry.

Regarding the other features of the devices, both have included multi-media capabilities such as a music and video player and a camera to take pictures. The iPhone is far ahead of any other device when it comes to playing video or music. However, its included camera is not as good as the one in the Curve. I'm not sure why Apple chose to include such a mediocre 1.2 megapixel camera in the iPhone, but they did and that's one place where the Blackberry beats the iPhone in the multimedia area.

Finally, I wanted to see how well both devices performed as a phone when making calls. Call me crazy, but in addition to all of the impressive array of features offered by both devices, I also want them to function well so I can make phone calls. From my use of the Blackberry 8700g I remembered that it was a very good phone and got signal in many areas where my previous phones and devices didn't.

The Curve also proved to be an exceptional phone, allowing me to make calls in many areas of Los Angeles the iPhone could not. I was even able to get signal and place calls while sitting in my office at home using the Blackberry Curve -- something I was never able to do using the iPhone. Calls were also much clearer when I called people using the Blackberry. In fact, when I called using the Curve, some people were confused when hearing how good the call sounded and asked me if I was at home on a land line. Nobody has ever asked me that question when I called using the iPhone.

The same level of quality was apparent when using the devices for the second most important thing I use them for during the day: email. The Blackberry has a long tradition in this area and that experience really comes through in its handling of email. I'm sure part of its seemingly perfect email handling has to do with the way email is "pushed" to the device instead of "pulled" by the iPhone.

To explain, in case you're not familiar, the Blackberry is supported, at least at the consumer level, by what is known as the Blackberry Internet Service or BIS. When you sign up for a Blackberry account you go to a particular BIS website, in this case the one maintained by AT&T, enter the information on all the email addresses you want the Blackberry to access and then wait a bit for your email to start flowing to the device.

After you initially enter that information, any email that is sent to you using one of those configured accounts is automatically "pushed" out to your Blackberry so it can be read. You don't have to do anything on your end or on the device to get it. It simply comes to you.

The iPhone works the opposite way. You configure email account information on the device itself or on your Mac and then when you want to get email delivered to your iPhone, it send out a request to your various email accounts and "pulls" the email to your iPhone so you can read it.

The difference may be subtle or you might be thinking "who cares?" However, it's this difference that sets the Blackberry above the iPhone in terms of email handling. You don't need to remember to check email and neither does your device when you use a Blackberry. It just works.

When someone sends you an email, it's delivered almost immediately so you can read it. You don't have to think about it and that, in a nutshell, is the beauty of the system and something that makes the Blackberry a better device for people for whom timely email is of paramount importance.

Another way the Blackberry handles email better than the iPhone is in its ability to select more than one message at a time and mark it as read. I don't always want to sit there and select one email after another so I can mark them as read. Its a tedious process.

I would also like the option to have text-only email, like on the Blackberry, but the iPhone doesn't offer that. Apple may think everyone wants HTML email all the time but for many people, like me, it's not necessary. Plus, if email on the iPhone could be text-only it would probably load faster as well, especially at EDGE data speeds. Perhaps that option will appear in a future software update?


What it really comes down to is these devices are targeted at two different markets and two different kinds of users. While each has its strengths and weaknesses, they both handle their core functions very well -- the Blackberry with email and phone and the iPhone as a multimedia device. The bottom line, at least for me, is that if I were the kind of user for whom a good camera, push email and a phone that works pretty much anywhere I go were the deciding factor on which device to use, the Blackberry would win.

Since I'm not that type of user, the iPhone is more the device for me. I'm willing to sacrifice a bit for some of iPhone's other cutting-edge features. It's not that its a bad phone or handles email terribly, it just has a bit of work to do in those areas to be as good as the Blackberry.

The Blackberry has been around a lot longer and has had a lot more time to hone its core functionality. The iPhone, on the other hand, for all its advancements, is still a version 1.x product that can only get better and better with each subsequent revision. I'm willing to give it a chance to do that.

Hopefully, Apple won't take too long to make needed iPhone improvements because even if the Blackberry is lacking in some ways when compared to the iPhone, it is also being improved as well. If Apple isn't careful and doesn't constantly evolve the iPhone, it may find itself continuously in the Blackberry's shadow as the number two player in the world of smartphones.

Although, if I know Apple, they are already hard at work planning the next generations of i-devices that will not only overtake RIM and its Blackberry but blow it out of the water. Given Apple's track record, engineering and design prowess and its vision for the future, I feel certain the company can do it.

No comments: