HTC One X / iPhone 4S / Lumia 800 shootout: Ecosystem / Performance

Continuing our look at some of the biggest phones of 2012, today we look at the difference between the three big platforms right now. 

Marketplace

Windows Phone comes under fire frequently for its lack of applications, and a simple look at the marketplace on the Lumia 800 reveals an immediate problem. The very top application is the original Angry Birds from 2010 on other platforms, and the others in the top group are predominantly games that have existed since the platforms launch. A quick mosey along to the "free" applications section, and the Nokia applications are most downloaded. This includes "Adobe Reader" and "Network Setup." Seriously, "Network Setup" is one of the most downloaded applications on the platform.

There's no Instagram, Angry Birds Space (or even 'Seasons'), Temple Run or Camera+ here. Those that are -- such as Skype -- are severely stunted and can't perform even the most basic tasks that can be performed on other platforms, such as background calling.

Searching for applications is difficult, and application discovery isn't that great, especially considering games show up in the applications section as well. It's not to say developers aren't working hard, because I know for a fact they are, but it appears their work isn't getting the exposure it needs. The platform is alive, but it feels very stagnant. Although, at almost 80,000 applications at time of writing, you'd think differently. I was a very big backer of Windows Phone from the beginning, and was optimistic about Microsoft's promises of big things for the platform. Despite their promises all the big applications would be here, they still aren't.

What I did notice, however, that rather than encouraging the big applications to join the platform, Microsoft is pushing hard to create unique experiences that aren't available on other platforms, such as "chickens can't fly" and many other localized applications (such as one that shows hiking tracks around me). It's great to see this encouragement from Microsoft really paying off, but I don't know if it's enough.

On the opposite side of the fence, you have Android and iOS. Both platforms have been around for a long time now. They're the big guys in town, and they've got the application base to match. Android is 430,000 applications strong, whereas Apple has well over 500,000 right now. Despite Android being so prominent, many new "up and coming" applications actually launch on the iPhone first.

The likes of Instagram, Pair, Path, Hilight and more have started out with iPhone only applications, eventually adding Android ones down the road. This is common. If you don't mind not having the latest and greatest "hip" application for a few months, Android won't bother you so much. If you do, you'll want to get an iPhone. As a writer, I love trying out new conceptual applications, so it was a bit strange making the transition because I wasn't able to use a lot of applications I had considered normal. 

A quick look at the two marketplaces reveals a very different offering for each set of users. Android's marketplace focuses much more heavily on customization and utilities, then on entertainment. The top applications are things such as "beautiful widgets" and "battery bar" on Android, with only two games making it into the top fifteen. Whereas, on the iPhone "Paper Monsters" and "Sack dude" are in the first five, with the rest of the top ten being filled with games too. It's not a bad thing, but more a sign of Android's open nature and deep customization capability.

Performance

We aren't going to discuss numbers or benchmarks in this section, but more how the devices fare in real world use. If there's one thing Microsoft nailed with Windows Phone, it's performance. Windows Phone is always up to the challenge. It doesn't stutter or hesitate when you switch applications (that support Mango, at least), and it always responds as you expect when you tap on something. The specifications of the hardware do not matter right now to the platform, it consistently performs as you'd expect and it doesn't let you down.

It's impressive that Microsoft's been able to achieve this kind of performance on single-core devices that are considered out of date by todays standards whereas Android sometimes shows issues on even some of the most powerful devices.

However, the One X is one of the fastest, slickest Android devices I've ever used. It finally feels like Android is at home with this much power. It's the first time Android's felt that way to me, I've always felt some sort of lag existed on the platform, be it when opening an app or it slightly hesitating to perform an action. The One X completely does away with this behaviour. The device never feels like it's struggling to load, even if you're applying real-time effects to the camera, browsing resource intensive websites or launching a game. 

Additionally, that Tegra 3 chip under the hood means some incredible games are available for the HTC One X. I tried out the new Unreal 3-based game "Dark Meadow" and was blown away by how incredible the graphics are, and how smooth the device could play the game. The game is also available for iOS devices, however, Windows Phone is left out of the high-end graphics party. There really isn't anything to report there; Windows Phone just isn't known for graphics performance, and as a result, you don't see these kinds of games emerge. You can view benchmark tests for the HTC One X here.

iOS generally performs quickly on the 4S, the only times I was ever able to slow it right down tended to be when multitasking high-performance games. The OS manages applications that run in the background and closes them automatically as it pleases to keep it responsive. There isn't much to say here, it's been this way since iOS had multitasking.

Verdict

It's hard to compare three different platforms that treat specifications differently. To Windows Phone, the specification really doesn't matter right now. The OS performs spectacularly with what it's given, and it's in a consistent manner. Sure, because Microsoft doesn't encourage/support high-end devices, you don't see graphics intensive games like Dark Meadow or Infinity Blade here, but how many users really care about that? Many just want Angry Birds and they're happy. The only thing to remember is that these games take a long time to make it to Windows Phone. Angry Birds on Windows Phone is still the original release we saw years ago for Android/iOS, and there's no sight of other popular titles like Temple Run or the new Flight Control game on the horizon.

I found this very frustrating, as an avid user of applications such as Instagram. Sure, there are alternatives, but they just don't have the quality or scale of the original. This alone would be enough to put me off purchasing a device like this. That, and the fact that we still don't know if these devices are going to receive Apollo, the next big update to Windows Phone. Microsoft's silence isn't good, and we've heard all current devices aren't going to get the update. If you don't really care about updates, then this shouldn't change your mind, but you could be missing out on one of the biggest releases of the year. 

If you're looking for cutting edge applications or games, you want to avoid Windows Phone. I think iOS is where you need to be. The specifications (and sheer user numbers) on the iPhone 4S are impressive enough to encourage developers to develop for the platform, then look at Android later. Android may have sheer performance, but it's marketplace doesn't offer as wide range right now. Sure, all the big titles are here, but they often lag behind their iOS cohorts.

The One X is the most impressive Android device to date, and it performs like you'd expect. Android is fast and snappy, and it's the first time I've ever seen a glimpse of that silky-smooth iOS feel anywhere else. Perhaps Android really does need a quad-core to run well. I don't think a quad core is unreasonable anymore. It might seem like a huge amount of power, but it feels future proof. It seems unlikely the One X will miss out on Android 5.0.

As an iPhone user, I think Google and HTC might finally have built the hardware and software that can finally tempt users away from Apple's device.

 

 

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