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/ Smartphones

Microsoft hopes it will finally muscle in on the smartphone boom. We size up the flagship Windows 7 handset against the best of its rivals.


Thursday is D-Day for smartphones, and the company leading the invasion is Microsoft, with its new Windows Phone 7 operating system. It’s Microsoft’s attempt to recover ground it has lost to the likes of Apple and BlackBerry over the past few years in the smartphone market. Previous versions of Windows software for portable devices were slow, clunky and, in sales terms, disastrous.

So can Microsoft do it? InGear has had in-depth previews of the handsets that will be running Windows Phone 7 — from Samsung, LG, Dell and HTC — and the early signs are good. The most impressive is the HTC HD7, exclusive to the O2 network. It’s a shiny slab of glass with a rubberised back; a big 4.3in screen, particularly good at displaying video; and a fold-out stand to prop it up on a desk or coffee table.

It’s fast and smooth in operation, and the touchscreen is as responsive as the iPhone’s. The screen also dispenses with a grid of shortcut icons in favour of a less busy mosaic of larger “tiles”.

These are described as “dynamic”, meaning that the displayed information changes. For example, create a tile to show a friend’s name and it will add their photo and display Facebook status updates automatically. One press of the tile phones the friend; another creates a text or sends them a message on Facebook.

Other neat features include wireless sync-ing. Download over 3G a track from Zune, Microsoft’s online music store, when you’re out and about, and when you get home the handset will copy the new music to your PC via wi-fi. Touch the address in a calendar appointment and it shows you the location on a map. The new phones will also tie in with Microsoft’s Xbox Live online gaming service, which has 20m members worldwide.These features indicate that Microsoft is aiming to broaden its appeal beyond business to regular users. But the handsets are still compatible with Office software, including Excel and Word apps.

How does it compare with the class-leading iPhone? It can’t quite match its rival for ease of use or range of apps (an app shop opens this week, although what will be available is not known), but the new software is a huge leap forward. Microsoft had a lot of catching-up to do to get back into smartphones. Windows Phone 7 and this classy handset puts the company back in the game.

iPhone 4

Although the iPhone 4’s screen is smaller than the HD7’s and its processor is slower, overall it beats even the best of the Windows phones, thanks to its supremely user-friendly operating system, the huge number of apps available and some recent software upgrades added since its initial launch. The latter included the option of taking camera shots using HDR (high dynamic range) — three snaps of the same subject are taken in quick succession at varying exposures and combined to create a high-contrast image. Game Center, meanwhile, brings social gaming functions to the handset, allowing you to post best scores and play against opponents online, while the front-facing camera and terrific FaceTime software are a winning combination for video calling over wi-fi. This is still the phone to beat.

Nokia N8

Of all the phones here, only the N8 will allow you two days of decent use between battery recharges. Its Symbian 3 operating system is easy to use, is attractive and, perhaps best of all, will be familiar to the millions of Nokia users waiting to upgrade to their first smartphone. The N8 comes with Ovi Maps, an excellent sat-nav substitute because the maps are free and they work from the GPS chip alone, without also demanding a 3G signal (if you’re abroad, this means big savings). It has the best camera on test by far, with a 12Mp sensor and a mechanical shutter delivering better results than the electronic shutter used by most phone cameras. But the lens juts out of the back of the phone, spoiling the look, and overall it’s the second slowest phone in operation (after the Torch).

BlackBerry Torch

One of the reasons business users have adopted BlackBerrys is that the Qwerty keyboard is far more usable than a touchscreen for long emails, rather than tweets or texts. This latest model, however, has the best of both worlds, adding a 3.2in touchscreen. It is also one of the first BlackBerrys to run the latest version of the company’s operating system. It’s been greatly improved, especially the web browser, though it still takes a little getting used to. Now, on the home screen, you see a tally of new emails, messages, Facebook updates and tweets, making this the most social-networking-aware BlackBerry to date. That said, a certain chunkiness means that you won’t feel so comfortable clamping it to your head for calls, and it is never going to win over any of the in-crowd who value design above all else.

Samsung Galaxy S

The best thing about this Android phone is its bright and large 4in screen. Despite the size, the handset is light and manageable, although at a cost: it’s plasticky compared with the iPhone 4 and HD7. The Android operating system has frequent updates but manufacturers can take time to get these to customers: the Galaxy S is already one Android version behind, with another version imminent. Samsung has added its own software to the Google-backed Android, which includes a handy app that displays news, weather and share prices. The camera, like those of all on test bar the Nokia, is 5Mp but lacks a flash. The number of Android apps, at 70,000, is second only to the iPhone’s, but while Apple and Microsoft operate a strict approval system for apps, the Android app shop is more of a free-for-all, and quality varies wildly.

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