Android vs iPhone vs Palm Pre vs Maemo: which is best?
In-depth comparison: We've looked at three Linux-based phones that give the iPhone a run for its money. There's the Palm Pre, running WebOS; Nokia's Maemo 5-based N900, and the HTC Legend, running Android. Each is a strong challenger to Apple's device, and they beat it today in significant areas. So, which is best for you?
There's no doubt that Apple has done a fantastic job with the iPhone, both in the hardware and in the software. It has single-handedly transformed the once-turgid smartphone market into money spinner. Every manufacturer has had to rethink its strategy to compete, giving Linux the perfect opportunity to test its mettle.
The striking thing is how comprehensively Linux has succeeded on mobile phones. Linux has become the OS equivalent of the ARM processor, sneaking to market dominance through its fantastic versatility, performance and cost.
This success is a significant vindication of what Linux stands for and how its works. It shows that in the ultra-competitive world of the mobile phone, at a hardware level, marketing, branding and style don't matter. What manufacturers want is an operating system that delivers, and that's why they're choosing Linux.
After building a business on niche 'Personal Digital Assistants', Palm tried for years to re-align itself with smartphone-wielding business executives by embedding its old feature set within a Blackberry-like mobile phone. With the Palm Pre, the company has finally hit its target. The smooth contours and gloss black design of the device made a considerable impact on the market, and it's a decent size and design.
The addition of a vertically scrolling keyboard, which appears from the lower side of the unit with a soft click, is a step up from the embedded versions of older Palm devices. But it's still too small if you have large hands and fingers, especially as it's designed primarily for two-thumb use. Getting your right thumb to hit the H key after your left thumb has just hit T can be problematic, but as with all such devices, you do get used to it.
The lower section of the display is used to hold commonly used icons, as well as the all-important Call button. Just click on this to either dial someone from your address book or enter the number manually, and the entire package feels more portable and manageable than older HTC devices, as well as the Nokia N900.
The original Palm Pre also features a single button beneath its capacitive multitouch 3.1 inch 320x480 display. Pressing this will minimise any running application and enable you to run another at the same time, a feature no doubt designed for maximum impact in a world dominated by the currently mono-process iPhone. But the button has been dropped in the new Palm Pre Plus, which also doubles the internal memory to 512MB, and doubles storage space to 16GB of Flash memory. More importantly, it also increases the space slightly between the keys, potentially aiding fat finger input, but we weren't able to get our hands on a device to be able to say whether it worked or not.
The Palm Pre appears on your computer as a standard storage device, so it's easy to transfer music and photos.
You can change the battery!
Inside the case, there's an Omap 3430 ARM CPU and enough battery life to last you around five hours of talking and a reported thirteen days if you're waiting for a call. You can also change the battery if you need to, in contrast to the sealed, locked-down iPhone. The silicon also includes the C64x co-processor, which should be able to boost playback of Ogg Theora files, as well as Google's new VP8 video format.
The graphics themselves are driven by an integrated PowerVR SGX 530 core, which is slightly less powerful than the PowerVR chip reported to be in the iPhone 3GS (it's impossible to make authoritative comparisons, as Apple doesn't publish exactly what its devices use). Finally, a modern phone wouldn't be complete without all kinds of sensors. The Palm Pre features an accelerometer, a proximity sensor to help when making calls, and a GPS for navigation. There's also a pretty good camera, featuring 3.2MP capture along with an LED flash and geotagging, but there's no autofocus. Version 1.4 of the OS, released in February, added the ability to capture and edit video.
The most impressive thing about the N900 is its screen. It easily trumps both the Palm Pre and the iPhone for resolution, and in our opinion, clarity. 800x480 is a big step up in size, and only likely to be bettered in next-generation versions of both the Pre and iPhone. But there's one big drawback: it's resistive, and that means no multitouch. Nokia puts a brave face on it, but there's no doubt this feels like a serious drawback.
As if to make the point more clearly, the N900 even comes with an embedded stylus, just like the bad old days of Windows Mobile, but you could argue that the ability to use a fingernail is an advantage.
Full speed ahead
Its CPU is the same as that found in the Palm, an Omap 3430 with C64x coprocessor. But this one is running at its full clock speed - 600MHz rather than the 500MHz used in the Palm. Memory capacity is a little mix-and-match. There's 256MB of physical memory on board, but up to 768MB can be used from flash memory as a kind of swap file for processes running in the background. In a more useful step back to Windows mobile devices, flash memory is installable using a Micro SDHC card slot, and the device can access up to 32GB of extra storage.
The N900's battery is of a slightly higher capacity than the Palm, pulling in 1320mAh as opposed to 1150mAh on the Palm, but the higher clock speed takes its toll. We were only able to get around eight hours of normal use with the N900, compared with at least double on the Palm.
Under the surface, there are the obligatory axis sensors that can switch the screen between landscape and portrait mode, as well as a GPS and proximity monitor, just like the Palm Pre and most Android devices. Another worthwhile feature is the ability to connect your N900 to a TV, using the audio and video cables provided.
But the most important physical characteristic of the N900 is the slide-out Qwerty keyboard. It's backlit and provides more space than the equivalent keyboard on the Palm Pre. But it's still cramped, and even worse, each key is arranged in a strict matrix. The letter Q is directly above A, for example, while P is in a column on its own on the far-right. The Palm Pre keyboard has a slight offset, and as a result is much easier to use.
The added camera bevel on the back of the device also means that you can't rest the N900 flat on a surface, which makes typing even harder, although the bevel does hide an angled stand for watching media on your phone. Add this to the lack of input correction, and you're left wondering about whether the added weight, size and complexity of a real physical keyboard is the best possible solution for the N900.
The Nokia N900's build-in camera features 5MP capture and a Carl Zeiss lens. It's nice to see a hardware keyboard, but this one is really hard to use.
There are dozens of different Android devices, all with different specifications, from the size of their memory to the resolution of the screens. Which one you choose generally comes down to price and performance, but the dominant manufacturer is currently HTC. It builds Google's Nexus One, currently the flag bearer of the enterprise, as well as its own Android devices, the two most recent of which are the HTC Desire and Legend.
The HTC Legend shows how far HTC has come with its designs since the release of the iPhone. It's smaller, thinner, lighter and has a better, brighter, capacitive OLED screen, even if it is at the same resolution. The most striking part of the design seems to have taken a leaf out of Apple's book, as the entire case is made out of a single piece of aluminium.
The front of the device has five keys: one for accessing the home screen, another for opening the menu, one for Back and another for Search. Just below these is an optical track button, which seems to operate a little like the underside of an optical mouse. It depresses, as you'd expect, but you can also move your finger across its surface to move a hidden cursor around the screen.
You'll also find a 5MP camera, complete with autofocus and flash, a micro-USB slot for connection to your computer, and on the inside, the standard array of GPS, proximity, G-force and ambient light sensors. A hidden MicroSD card slot is present for storage, and you'll need to add this to the price as you'll need storage to hold apps, photographs and data.
Unlike earlier HTC models, there's no slide-out keyboard. Android's on-screen replacement is just as viable as the iPhone's virtual keyboard, although the smaller screen forces the keys to be a little closer together. The haptic feedback, an effect that quickly vibrates the device when you press a virtual key, is a useful addition that can help when you type quickly.
The Linux-fuelled HTC Legend is a massive improvement over its previous Windows Mobile devices.
The N900 runs Maemo 5. This is the operating system that's going to be replaced with MeeGo, the Nokia/Intel joint effort to pool their resources and take on the might of Apple and Google. Only MeeGo isn't officially going to be available for the N900, and this leaves us with Maemo indefinitely. And when MeeGo does arrive, early impressions are that it's going to look and behave a lot more like Moblin than Maemo. This may mean that the N900 is the last in a long line of Nokia tablets to use the GTK-based Linux system.
The basic concept behind Maemo 5 is borrowed from virtual desktops. Only, instead of being called desktops, they're called 'views'. Swiping your finger to the left or right across the screen will take you to a different view, complete with a parallax effect that scrolls the icons and the background image at a different rate. Each desktop can be populated with your choice of widgets, online links and applications. By default there are only a few, including links to the integrated navigation tool, OVI maps, various Nokia-centric online links along with several social networking sites and services. Besides this, there's a windows button, a clock and a battery/connectivity meter in the top-left of the display.
Maemo attempts to bring the world of social networking directly to your phone, which is why this is the first screen you see.
Hold your finger down on a blank space on one of these desktops and a small configuration gear appears in the top-right. You can use this to either enter a further configuration menu, or remove links on the current screen. The menu will let you change the theme, the background, add a bookmark, and get access to the view widgets. With a default installation, these include email access, a media player, a current location map view and the Twitter and Facebook links preconfigured to the first screen.
To get at everything else, you need to hit the windows button on the top-left. On the first touch, this will show a minimised view of every application you have running, enabling you to switch between them with another touch. On the second touch, you'll see the applications view. This is a scrollable list of icons for everything currently installed on the device. You'll find a file manager, for instance, a PDF reader, calendar, sketch tool, a few games and an instant messaging tool that talks to Skype, Google Talk, Facebook, Jabber and SIP contacts. Most impressively, there's even an X terminal.
Confusingly, the OVI Maps Navigator icon looks almost identical to the icon used to launch the Safari web browser, and the operating system's user experience can be a little inconsistent. Earlier versions of Maemo used a More button to page through to another screen of applications, while other screens, such as the settings panel, used vertical scrolling. It's also sometimes impossible to work out how to get back to a previous screen. But this is improving, with the 'More' button removed by the latest update and the UI getting faster to operate with each new release.
Maemo's web browser is called MicroB, and it's based on Firefox. It works well enough and you get maximum website compatibility, but it's not as fast as a WebKit-based browser and you have to suffer several Firefox annoyances, including its tedious 'Ignore Certificate' routine. But our biggest quibble was fixed with the 1.2 firmware update release late May. You can now view web pages in portrait mode, a crazy omission from the previous releases.
But the best thing about the N900 is the App Manager, the portal into a world of third-party applications. The N900 has a very enthusiastic following, and there are some reasonable applications to download. There's the fantastic Angry Birds game, for example, and even Brain Party. You can also find both an SSH client and server, along with dozens of other tools, utilities and emulators. There's even a version of PyQt, along with an editor, which makes building your own applications a breeze now that Qt is part of Maemo. It's the polar opposite of what you can install with the iPhone, and is the best reason for using an N900.
How many other mobile phones can you think of that come with Xterm pre-installed and ready to run?
What about MeeGo?
MeeGo 1.0 has been out for a few months now, so you might well be wondering why it doesn't appear in this feature. Well, the simple truth is that MeeGo 1.0 was targeted at netbooks, not mobile phones; a phone-focused build of MeeGo has already surfaced as a developer preview under the moniker "MeeGo 1.1", but the truth is that right now it's not very good. Don't believe us? Watch the video for yourself - although keep in mind that it's an early developer preview and we really hope things will mature a lot before we finally see a release!
Despite early scepticism, Google's Android seems to be doing very well. A recent report by the NPD Group suggests that it may even be out-selling the iPhone in the US. This isn't so much of a surprise when you realise that there are so many different phones running the operating system, rather than Apple's handful. But Android has the potential to be more than a mobile phone. It's now making a break for a variety of mobile devices, including iPad competitors recently announced by Dell and HP as well as more media-centric devices like the two new 'Home' tablets from Arkos. It's also an operating system that has seen many changes over its relatively short history. Most devices are now shipping with version 2.1, while version 2.2 has already been released to developers and for the Nexus One, with versions for HTC Legend and Desire promised for late summer. It's an easy OS to use, borrowing ideas from the iPhone and Maemo, as well as a few from older versions of Windows Mobile.
Android in a shell
Our Legend devices used Android 2.1. As with many other HTC phones, including those designed for Windows Mobile, there's a custom graphical shell that sits over the vanilla OS that HTC has dubbed, 'HTC Sense', and the Legend and the HTC Desire are the first phones to get a new version.
The first thing you notice when you unlock the device by pressing the power button and sliding your finger down the screen is that the display is very bright and colourful. This is HTC Sense, a flip-card time display above a weather applet and several shortcuts to the most common features of the device. As with the N900, you can now slide to the left and right to access seven virtual desktop, each of which have been configured to include another weather applet, SMS, email, quick access to your favourite contacts and a list of bookmarks. It's easy to add your own widgets to this display, and there's a huge selection to choose from, including those who access your social networks, music, YouTube and photos.
While these applets only offer immediate visual functionality, there are plenty of more comprehensive applications too, and these are accessed by touching the arrow in the bottom-left corner. This takes you to the raw Android operating system, and by default, there's the same standard selection of tools installed that you find on the Maemo setups on both the Palm Pre and the N900. The exceptions are mainly thanks to your Android device being tied to your Google account. Click on 'Talk', for example, and you'll see a Google Talk messenger client. Click on 'Mail', and you can instantly access your Gmail inbox.
Android 2.2 is a massive upgrade. It's available now for the Nexus One, and as an SDK for developers. And probably as you read this, for the Desire and Legend. Other than embarrassingly big speed improvements, top of its list of enhancements it the ability to transform your mobile into a wireless access point, bridging your mobile network connection with a laptop or portable games console.
The second biggest change is in how your photo collection is presented. The new version seems to have taken its inspiration from BumpTop, a touch-interface company Google bought earlier in the year. You can visually pile your photos into stacks, and unfold them using gestures. You'll also find a glut of new camera controls when you take a photograph.
But what was touted as the main feature is probably the most disappointing, and that's the addition of Flash to Android's Market. Its current performance is abysmal, and while it does let you access most Flash content, it also slows down most pages and the otherwise excellent performance of the Android browser. Far better to use sites optimised for mobile access than rely on something that all too often brings a full-blown Linux desktop to its knees.
It may not look all that different on the surface, but the 2.2 upgrade to Android could be a game-changer.
It's all about Google
This Google-centricity doesn't stretch to pre-configuring the email applet though, which requires a more standard POP3/IMAP or Exchange server, but it does mean that you'll get instant access to Gmail messages as they arrive, as well as your contacts and calendar populated for free without any further configuration from Google's servers. One nice feature of the calender is that as you view your agenda for the days ahead, you'll also see a guess what the weather is likely to be. The search is also very powerful, as you might expect, spanning both local and remote data. Hit the magnifying glass button and type 'TuxRadar', for example, and you'll see its entry from Google online, as well as within any calendars, emails, notes or applications you've stored on your phone.
In general functionality, there isn't that much within Android to distinguish it from other mobile operating systems. On our Legend Phone it was stable and fast. Although not quite as smooth in transitions as the iPhone 3GS, it was much quicker than the N900. But the heart of the OS is the Market application. This is the portal to the world of third-party applications. Android's Market is the closest competitor to Apple's App Store, and includes tens of thousands of games, utilities and applications to download. The interface is also very slick, downloading and installing applications in the background, rather than by switching back to the launcher view, as on the iPhone. But its best feature is that you don't have to just install applications that are officially supported by Google - you can grab third-party applications as APK files, stick them on your memory stick, and use Market to install them manually.
But you might not need to. At the end of April 2010, Android's Market was reported to contain over 50,000 applications, whereas Apple' App Store had over 200,000. While this might seem like a large gap, Android's Market is at the same point the App Store was in June 2009, and there's likely to be a serious increase in applications as Apple's publishing policy becomes increasingly unpredictable.
Android’s application installer, called Market, is the best of all three platforms, and the only real rival to Apple’s iStore.
Palm has a long and well earned tradition for designing operating systems that are both resource- and user-efficient, making the best use of your hardware's capabilities and your intuition. As a result, the best thing about the Palm Pre's WebOS is its speed. It's a quick, responsive and intuitive system that feels slightly slicker than both Android and Maemo. It's also going to be the operating system most likely to win-over non-technical users, as it doesn't drown basic functionality in a sea of potential applications and other options. It also makes great use of the multi-touch display, letting users pinch, zoom and rotate the interface in similar ways to Apple's iPhone.
The main view looks like a slightly squished iPhone GUI, with five quick-launch buttons on the bottom border of the screen and a main view that lets you scroll left and right through whatever applications and tools you happen to have installed. Press the single button on the front of the screen, and the full-screen display of your applications scrolls into the background slightly, showing your background as well as any other applications to the left and right of your current application. On the Palm Pre Plus, now that this button has been removed, you just need to swipe your finger up the screen. You can then switch between applications with a left or right swipe of your finger, or get back to the launch menu to start something else. Quitting an application is as simple as swiping upwards.
On a default device, you get a version of Google Maps, a YouTube app that feels very similar to its iPhone equivalent and a media player and photo browser. There's also a general document and PDF viewer. As with Nokia's N900, there's no requirement to sync data with your desktop, and no way of doing so. Fortunately, most things can be stored and grabbed from the cloud or accessed through the browser.
Each view within WebOS can be populated with its own selection of widgets and links.
Browse the web
The web browser is excellent. Based on WebKit, it loads pages quickly and the multi-touch interface lets you navigate between pages with ease. The browser doesn't have the ability to create new tabs, but the multi-tasking nature of WebOS means you can launch another browser just as quickly, and run this alongside the current session. There's no prospect of Flash, but this is a larger general issue.
Possibly the weakest part of WebOS is that there is a serious lack of third-party applications. There is an app store, just as with the Nokia and Android offerings, but the platform has failed to inspire developers to port their projects and make them available. It comes in third place in comparison. This is the biggest drawback to the device, because it means that you can't augment your installation with the applications and utilities you might be expecting. The rapid growth of mobile applications is the most important difference between the current generation of smartphones and what came before, which is why the Palm Pre currently fails. Hopefully, with renewed investment from Palm's new owner, HP, new portable devices using WebOS and the new version of the phone, development could pick up. If not, this might be the final nail in Palm's coffin.
The best apps
Each device has its own application store, from which you can choose and install new software from your phone with just a touch or two. There are endless lists of the best applications available for each device, so we thought we'd focus on those that are going to be the most use to Linux users, and top of our personal preference has to be SSH. Android is the only platform to support SSH through the app store, offering both the client and the server, but there are third-party packages available for the N900, which doesn't cause too much of a problem. Only the Palm Pre makes life difficult.
Our next requirement is for a file manager. Nokia's N900 includes one out of the box, which is impressive, but Android offers more choice, with seven possibilities being listed, all of which are free. Our favourite was the Apollo file manager. If you use all three phones, it quickly becomes clear that Android's Market offers much more choice. Searching for Linux on the N900 doesn't return a single result, for instance, but you get 64 hits on Android. This includes many of O'Reilly's Linux books, for example, and even an application that promises to install Ubuntu on to your Android device. There are VNC clients (and a server), a Banshee media player remote control, and widgets, tools and games borrowed from every kind of free software project.
It's the same story if you're looking for more commercial applications. There are some great games on the N900, most notably the fantastic Angry Birds and Airport Touch, as well as applications like Firefox and Nokia's mapping application. But that's about it. Android has so many more, such as the official Twitter application, along with great support for other social networking services like Facebook and Four Square. There's Google Goggles, which lets you search for things by taking a photo of them, along with the best Linux-based version of its mapping software, and hundreds of other things to play with and install, most of them costing nothing. This is the closest application experience to the one you get on the iPhone, and the reason why, if you're interested in downloading apps, Android is the best option.
Turn your phone into a tiny piano keyboard with a cheap third-party application.
Under the hood
Each of these three platforms is built on Linux, and unlike some of their competitors, you can use Linux to experiment with each device, as well as build and deploy your own applications.
Each competes favourably with Apple's development environment, and in many ways the phones we're looking at here are better. You're not forced to use Objective C, or pay for a developer's licence, for example. And nor are you forced to stick to the official API or vague application guidelines.
Developing for Android is straightforward, especially when you compare it with Apple's closed and insular development environment: anyone can download and install the SDK. You start with a small helper package, and when this is run, everything else you need, including the main body of the development environment, is downloaded and installed into your home directory.
Even without messing around with any source code, you can run a virtual Android phone using the SDK. Just launch the Android SDK and AVD Manager, click on New and run. You'll be able to play around with a complete virtual Android. The only thing missing is the Market application. If you run the development environment, you can send your applications directly to the running Android and debug their execution in exactly the same way you would on a real device.
You can create a virtual device, and send your applications to this device through plugins installed for your IDE. As with Palm devices, most developers seem to prefer the Eclipse environment, and you'll find plugins designed to make things easier as part of the download package. If Android development interests you, you should take a look at our development tutorials from a few months ago.
If you want to get stuck into an Android phone in the same way you might with a Linux desktop, then you're going to run into problems. Like each one of these devices, the core components are locked behind an encrypted ROM so that users can't make fundamental changes to the configuration and hardware. As with all such protection schemes, there are ways around it, and many people use rooted Android systems to give themselves full access to the hardware.
Android has the best SDK of the bunch because it includes a fully usable phone emulator.
Like Android, Palm provides a virtual version of its phone's operating system with which to experiment, develop and play with. But this version really is virtual, as the install procedure requires you to grab the latest version of VirtualBox along with the various elements of the SDK. Getting the whole thing to work is slightly trickier than with Android's single master application, but it isn't too difficult, and once it's up and running, you can play with WebOS on your desktop without having to find a real phone. The only difference in the operating system is that, as with Android, there's no application store running within the virtualised environment.Also like Android, you can find plugins for the Eclipse development environment that will handle communication to your device and to its virtualised version.
Despite selling on millions of devices, WebOS is in desperate need of new software, which may give developers an advantage over the Android market, as your application is more likely to be noticed. Also, an update to both the OS and the SDK at the beginning of the year is likely to make development much easier. This is the inclusion of SDL, the groups of open source libraries often used for games development and emulators. This means that other SDL tools, such as the thousands you find within a typical Linux package manager, could be ported to WebOS with relative ease, especially compared with starting from scratch or learning Objective C.
But at a lower level, the Palm Pre shares another similarity to Android, and that's that it is locked down at the kernel level. As a result, you can't get complete control of the device without going through a rather arcane and unofficial procedure.
Maemo & MeeGo
Both Maemo and MeeGo are in a big state of transition. What's worse is that the N900 is not going to be updated to run MeeGo, which means that you could argue developing applications for the current model's Maemo 5 is a waste of time. But if you want to plan for the future, Linux is a great platform for MeeGo development. This is because the official development environment for MeeGo is Qt Creator, which is a lot easier to use for beginners than Eclipse. And because Nokia owns and develops Qt Creator, you will find there are plenty of examples, good documentation and a platform that's fully supported by the company that makes the hardware. This makes MeeGo development for future Nokia and Intel devices much more like the Apple experience, especially when done in combination with Nokia's Qt SDK. This is a separate package from Qt that bundles Qt Creator alongside all the development libraries you'll need and a high-performance simulator which can emulate the look and feel of your phone.
It might not be a full emulator, but Nokia’s SDK includes the development environment.
Linux vs iPhone: the winner
Mobile Linux is an unprecedented success. In a market that has been dominated for years by the likes of Nokia and Microsoft, it's a credit to our favourite operating system that it has been able to quickly adapt and slot into the mobile ecosystem over a such a short period of time. It's also amazing that our open source operating system is rivalling Apple without the massive research and development budgets, without the singular vision and without curtailing users' freedom, albeit with help from the likes of Google.
What's most impressive is that Linux-based mobile phones can beat the iPhone without resorting to free software idealism. In many cases, they're just better. Simple functions like modifying your home screen, or replacing your music and photo browsers, are almost impossible on the iPhone, and ridiculously easy on all three of the platforms we've looked at. Their APIs aren't controlled by a single developer, they don't force draconian limitations on their use, and you're free to create and install any kind of application you choose, regardless of the moral judgements of the developers behind the platform.
But the best reason is that they all run Linux, and while you might not be able to get into the operating system as much as you can on your desktop, you can't completely escape from it either. Many Linux tools and applications have been ported to these devices, and much of the third-party software you find in their app stores has been derived from open source projects. This means you're probably already familiar with them, and it also means that there's a great sense of longevity in these phones. The hardware may change, and so too may the operating system and APIs, but the free software bedrock upon which they're built won't change, and can only go from strength to strength.
First published in Linux Format magazine