Smart phone smackdown

When Apple launched its otherworldly $600 iPhone in 2007, it defined a new product category: the touch-screen smartphone.

Apple had a long lead before Google's Android system matured enough to be a real competitor, and that lead seemed to reassert itself every year when Apple released a new version of the iPhone. But lately, the iPhone has begun to feel more familiar and less innovative.

Competitors are introducing phones with newer features so quickly that even faithful iPhone users could be forgiven for wondering if there might be something better out there.

To that end, I took a look at four of the most promising alternatives. All do tricks the iPhone can't, and each has features that will appeal to specific smartphone buyers.

BlackBerry Z10

BlackBerry's new hopes are pinned on the Z10 and a newer phone I didn't get to try, the Q10, which has a physical BlackBerry keyboard and a much smaller touch screen. The Z10 is a speedy little phone with a surprising number of useful apps compared with Apple's App Store and Google Play. But many of those apps are priced differently or available only in knockoff form ("Netflix," for instance).

The Z10 itself has a much smaller screen, 4.2 inches, than any of the other phones in this roundup, and its ho-hum main screen of arranged icons feels dated. This is a phone that might have made waves two or three years ago, but today it just feels late. A "Hub" app that collects messages, social media alerts and email is a great idea that in execution seems over-caffeinated. If you're very active online, you'll spend more time clearing out Hub alerts than actually reading messages.

The Z10's killer app is BlackBerry Messaging, which now includes video screen sharing. It's great and secure, but the pool of people still using BBM appears to be decreasing.

It's hard to recommend the Z10 to anybody but a diehard BlackBerry user. ($99-$199 with 2-year contract, available on AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon.)

Nokia Lumia 920

The operating system is a breath of fresh air, a beautiful, sleek interface that plays well with other Windows 8 devices. If your life revolves around Microsoft Office, SharePoint and SkyDrive, the Lumia 920 will seem like a solid investment. It's beautiful and curvy, has a bright 4.5-inch screen, a responsive camera and "Live tiles" which display information in easy-to-scan boxes. There are still some major apps missing in the Microsoft Store, but the company is dumping truckloads of money into getting more developed.

Still, Windows phones only account for about 5.6 percent of U.S. smartphone sales. That might give you pause, since market share can determine what platforms app developers support and the lifespan of support for a phone. (Lumia 920, currently $99.99 on AT&T.)

The HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4

Now come the big guns, two Android phones with huge, bright screens and a slew of features.

The HTC One has an eye-catching aluminum case with a curvy finish that is smooth to the touch. Its 4.7-inch screen is lovely, and the addition of stereo speakers and Beats audio makes it one of the few phones that sounds good playing music without external speakers.

The Galaxy S4, on the other hand, has an even bigger screen (5 inches) and many unique features. Unfortunately, the phone is encased in what feels like cheap, bendable plastic. It's light, but doesn't feel as substantial and solid in your hands. Unlike the HTC One, however, the rear cover of the S4 slips off, allowing you to expand the phone's memory or swap out the battery.

Samsung has positioned itself as Apple's main phone competitor. Samsung hopes its approach — throwing so many features at you that you'll be impressed — will pay off. Unfortunately, a lot of them, like Air Gesture, Air View and Smart Scroll, feel gimmicky and impractical. Air Gesture allows you to swipe items without touching the screen, while Smart Scroll can scroll up and down based on your eye movement. Neither feature works when you want it to; it's limited to just a few apps, and I couldn't get the features to work consistently.

Both phones have access to the huge library of Android apps, they both are fast and can each be modified to give you the home screen of your dreams (within limits). Each is a good buy for power smartphone users, but if I had to pick one, I'd go with the HTC One. (HTC One available for $99-$199 on AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint; Samsung Galaxy S4 prices vary, available on AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, Cricket and U.S. Cellular.)

Or you could wait and see what Apple announces.

Smart phone smackdown 06/09/13 [Last modified: Friday, June 7, 2013 7:26pm]

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