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    Android smartphones are hot on Apple’s iPhone trail

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2010 First published in Business in Vancouver July 20-26, 2010 issue #1082

    High Tech Office column

    Lately the tech press has been awash with articles about Apple’s latest iPhone version: lineups for its June U.S. release, then accounts of problems if users held it in a way that interfered with its antennas.

    The phone is due in Canada at the end of July. I haven’t seen it yet. Instead, I’ve been testing an HTC Legend, courtesy of Virgin Mobile. It’s the first to have the Android-powered smartphone in North America.

    Google-made Android is a smartphone operating system competing with Apple’s iPhone iOS. Apple controls the hardware that can use iOS and maintains strict controls over apps available in its App Store. Android, in contrast, powers phones from a variety of manufacturers. We’ve looked at several Motorola models in recent columns, and the Android Market, its App Store equivalent, is relatively wide open. The HTC Legend ($79 with contract) has a sleek unibody aluminum body – a bit smaller than an iPhone. (Not a bad thing, in my opinion. Easier to hold or to carry in purse or pocket, while still providing a reasonable-sized – and very bright – touch-screen.)

    It’s got a five-megapixel camera with flash, replaceable battery and user-upgradable micro-SD memory. Virgin includes a two-gigabyte memory card; you’ll probably want more storage.

    Unlike some other available Android models (Motorola Motoblur models – I mean you!), the Legend runs Google’s Android 2.1 version. Unlike iPhones and many other smartphones, the Legend’s excellent web browser includes support for Adobe Flash video content. (It works, but not always very well.)

    Nice design feature: turning the phone face-down instantly mutes the ringer. Also nice: the mini-USB charger/connector, which supports an emerging, multi-manufacturer standard. Imagine one day being able to use a single cable and charger for multiple devices!

    Perhaps less nice – the battery cover is part of the antenna. Removing it while the phone is on knocks you off the network. There’s a tiny optical trackpad. It replaces the mini-trackball of earlier HTC models, but I never used it. It’s easy enough to navigate the touchscreen without it.

    The phone features HTC’s Sense UI overlay to Android, an attractive set of seven user-customizable panels for displaying apps, widgets and more. Flick to move between panels or double-press the home button to display thumbnails of them all.
    A FriendStream feature combines Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and other social networks into a single “stream” that’s similar to Motorola’s Motoblur, though less in your face – and more to my liking.

    Also built-in: GPS with geo-tagging for photos, turn-by-turn navigation in the very good Maps app and a nice weather widget that knows where you are, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth and an FM radio. The camera for photo and video (standard definition) is adequate – especially in strong sunlight – but not great. Battery life seemed pretty good in my tests. I could leave it on standby for a couple of days between charges.

    Call quality seemed good, and with Virgin piggybacking on top of Bell’s network, coverage should meet most people’s needs. Unlike many Android phones, which come with a slide-down physical keyboard (at the expense of size and weight), the Legend is pure touch-screen, but the virtual keyboard works well. Extra-smart prediction makes sure that you type the right words even if you fumble with the virtual keys.

    Quick Office is installed for basic Microsoft Office file viewing, and office-style Exchange servers are supported.
    Google’s Android Market remains smaller than Apple’s App Store, but it’s growing and includes a wide range of interesting apps – both free and for sale. For instance, I enjoyed trying out the free Talk to Me, which translates English into spoken and written equivalents in a wide range of languages.

    iOS versus Android is reminiscent of Apple versus Microsoft in the ’80s and ’90s: Apple’s tight control over hardware and software going up against an Google’s Android emerging with multiple versions on multiple vendors’ hardware. While Apple’s iPhone has the most mind-share, Android models like Virgin’s HTC Legend are coming on strong and are worthy of your attention.Favicon

Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. Follow azisman on Twitter to receive regular notifications of these columns.  E-mail Alan
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