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Aug 1

Written by: J. Gerry Purdy

I have been testing four new Android smartphones. Three of them include LTE radios: the Sony Xperia ion, the Samsung Galaxy S III (GS3) and the HTC One X. The HTC One S model is designed for T-Mobile that doesn’t yet have LTE.  I didn’t get a chance to review either the Motorola DROID or ATRIX Android LTE units.

There are plenty of sites available online for these exciting new smartphones that will compare feature by feature (e.g. GSM Arena).  It’s clear to me after spending time with these new Android smartphones that software and services are the key to differentiation between these phones.  Here’s the story. Let’s start with a summary of the more important features in each phone:

First, the phones all have similar features: screens are between 4.3” and 4.7”, they all have at least a dual core processor, they all have at least 16GB of memory, and they all run (or intend to run) the Ice Cream Sandwich version of Android. Thus, you can turn on any of these smartphones and navigate through the default menus to do standard tasks such as browse the web, check on weather, load a built-in app or access Google Play to find and download any one of the 400,000+ applications that are available.

Yes, the industrial design is different in all three. The Samsung GS3 clearly has the largest and best display, but it’s surprising that the smallest of the batch – the HTC One model S – had the sharpest and brightest display due to the using Super AMOLED.

The Sony Xperia ion is the tallest of the units and has more sharp edges that made it a little uncomfortable to hold. Sony is focusing their efforts on integrating other Sony assets, including Sony Entertainment’s Music Unlimited & Video Unlimited, to make buying a Sony Xperia smartphone a total media experience.  These are all downloaded from Google Play.  Sony told me they plan to upgrade Xperia ion to Ice Cream Sandwich (no date set).

Sony also provides TV Launcher –  a customizable home screen UI that is activated when you connect Xperia ion to the TV. TV Launcher works via an HDMI cable with any HDMI-enabled TV  in which the user has access to the Sony Xperia smartphone application shortcuts, and it’s all shown on the user’s HD TV.  There are enhancements with Bravia Sync. They are working on cloud sync services but feel they will get the sale compared to other smartphones if the user wants access to an integrated rich media and services from Sony. Xperia ion is Play Station certified. The user will (eventually) be able access games via the Google Play.

Samsung has just launched their Media Hub service that comes from their recent acquisition of mSpot. The service provides access to millions of song titles, the ability to steam them to the GS3 or the ability to buy the song. They are working on the integration of the user’s own music library and other cloud sync services. It’s another work in progress but clearly demonstrates that Samsung, like Sony and HTC, feels that integrated rich media cloud-based services are a way to differentiate them from their competitors.  They have a rich set of software and services that are only available on GS3 phones, e.g. AllShare play service, Netflix, Hulu, Media Hub (music & videos), Motion Gestures, S Personal Assistant, S-Beam, Share Shot, TecTiles NFC tags, Pop Up Play. These services are not all integrated and working cohesively yet, but you can tell Samsung is moving in that direction.

Both Samsung and Sony have included Near Field Communications (NFC) and smart tags that allow the phone’s primary settings to be adjusted just by touching the tag.  You could have one at home and one at the office to automatically change system settings. Sony SmartTags can trigger up to 16 simultaneous actions per tag.

HTC sent me two models of the HTC One line: the X and the S. The S unit, although smaller at 4.3”, has the best and brightest display of the units I tested. The X unit is larger, but the screen isn’t as bright because it uses older technology. HTC is also making a concerted effort to make rich media more readily available on their devices via expanding their Sense user experience (now at Version 4) that integrates Beats Audio and enhances the performance of the camera. The HTC Music application allows access to multiple music services. The HTC One X has a very cool industrial design with a slight protrusion on the back side for the camera.

It’s clear that Samsung, HTC and Sony (and likely Motorola as well) realize that they had to add software and services on top of Android in order to demonstrate differentiation from their competitors and to leverage the underlying Android OS.

This seems to be a ‘work in progress’ with all of the handset makers. It’s a tough problem to solve. It also makes you appreciate all the work that Apple has already done to get iTunes and iCloud working together.  These vendors will eventually provide a rich set of services that will make the user experience better for all buyers. They need to develop video demonstrations and user guides to help users take advantage of them.

If I were buying an Android smartphone, I’d select the Samsung GS3 as it is the best overall handset.  But, if I were interested in accessing the best set of rich media (music, movies) then Sony would get the nod. HTC has great potential.  In looking at these three handset manufacturers, I felt like I was a judge in a beauty pageant – and a national one since all of them work well. It’s just that the look and feel of the Samsung GS3 is ‘better’ than the devices from HTC and Sony. It may be a different story next year, but users have a number of good options beside the iPhone which still is ‘king of the hill’ and  likely will remain that way for a while (presuming they introduce the iPhone 5 that incorporates LTE this fall as anticipated).

It’s good to know that anyone who’s moving up from feature phone to a smartphone has some really nice, full featured smartphones from which to choose – from the iOS, Android, Microsoft, and with BlackBerry a possible good choice once they migrate to BB 10 early next year.

Written by:

J. Gerry Purdy, Ph.D.
Principal Analyst
Mobile & Wireless
MobileTrax LLC
[email protected]

Disclosure Statement: From time to time, I may have a direct or indirect equity position in a company that is mentioned in this column.  If that situation happens, then I’ll disclose it at that time.


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