The local Android smartphone marketplace is about to become even more exciting with a number of new Android phones from HTC and Motorola entering local channels. I was invited to both the HTC/Leaf and Motorola launch events and was pretty excited by what I saw and was told (well, with a couple exceptions).

HTC devices

Leaf is HTC distributor for this region. They regard themselves as being synonymous with HTC so I may be a little loose with the references to HTC in this post. HTC has launched 3 new Android devices which are arriving in SA stores in the next few weeks. They are the Desire (the HTC equivalent of the Nexus One), the Legend (the Hero’s successor) and the Smart (an entry level device). Of the 3, I am most excited about the Desire. It is the high end phone of the 3 and about as close to a Nexus One phone we will see here in South Africa. In fact, Leaf regards the Desire as an upgrade on the Nexus One in many respects.

The Legend has already attracted a fair amount of excitement with its Mac-style unibody construction. It apparently makes the device pretty sturdy although I still wouldn’t toss it around all that much just to test it.

HTC Legend 6.jpg

The Smart is, in some ways, perhaps even more exciting than its more featured siblings. It is going to be pitched at the prepaid market and should be pretty affordable. The reason why I say this is a pretty exciting device is that it is one of the first Android smartphones aimed at an emerging market. Rather than pushing simple feature phones towards the lower income market, HTC is pushing a pretty advanced smartphone into those hands. A likely consequence of this will be an emerging subset of the market that demands richer mobile experiences from a lower income base. It could disrupt the perception of smartphone users as being more affluent and select and all the planning that goes with that perception.

HTC Smart 8.jpg

The Desire excites me quite a bit. I have been looking forward to a truly powerful Android device for some time now. I had hopes that the Nexus One would be heading to South Africa. It is Google’s second phone which it has hand a hand in developing and promoting. Unfortunately it will not be available here. Fortunately the Desire is going to be available in South Africa on both networks in a matter of weeks and it packs the Nexus One’s punch with a range of improvements including HTC Sense.

I discovered that Sense is both a UI enhancement as well as additional functionality you don’t find on Android devices out of the box. Some of these enhancements are custom HTC enhancements (for example, a memory management application that monitors memory usage and regulates it). The end result is a beautiful device that packs quite a punch. One of the components that stand out in the Desire’s specifications is its Snapdragon 1GHz processor. This processor is currently one of the most powerful available in smartphones and you can experience that power when you use the device. It is slick and very responsive.

HTC Desire 1.jpg

I am hoping for a review unit relatively soon so I can put the device to use in my day to day life and get a better sense (excuse the pun) of just how powerful and versatile the device is (or isn’t).

The one thing about HTC devices that bothers me is the limited software upgrade cycle. Because new versions of the firmware need to go through network approval, it isn’t always commercially feasible for Leaf to go through this process for older devices. This is one of the reasons why the HTC Hero won’t see an officially supported upgrade beyond its current firmware for some time. The solution for owners of older devices is to hack their phones and flash them with firmware obtained from elsewhere. The process does seem to work pretty well but it isn’t a satisfactory solution for most users. My big concern here is that the Desire and its siblings will eventually be made redundant by newer models and Leaf may not support further firmware upgrades for these devices down the line.

Update: TechRadar has one of the most comprehensive reviews of the HTC Desire that I have seen so far. It is pretty long but worth reading if you are interested in this phone.

Motorola Milestone

The Milestone is a bit of a dark horse in the local Android geek consciousness. It was originally launched as the Droid in the United States and was the first Android 2.0 device. Google even promoted it on its front page for a while and that was virtually unprecedented.

Motorola Milestone horizontal from left.JPG

If you look at the Milestone’s specs it is pretty comparable to the Desire for the most part. Its screen is pretty similar (it is a TFT screen instead of an AMOLED screen which the Desire boasts) and it supports slighter faster mobile broadband than the Desire. Many geeks will notice that the Milestone’s processor is a 550MHz OMAP3430 Arm Coretex A8 processor which is just a little slower than the processor the Nokia N900 uses. I don’t know how the Milestone’s processor compares to the Desire’s Snapdragon in real terms but my experience of the Milestone playing with it and watching it being demo’d to me was of a device that is very responsive, snappy and smooth. The Milestone downloads video over 3G really quickly. We saw a demo of the old Droid ad on YouTube where the phone didn’t stop to buffer the video and played it very smoothly.

I heard complaints about the Droid’s slideout keyboard when it launched in the USA and that put me off the device a little. The Milestone’s keyboard seems to be a modified version of the Droid keyboard and has raised buttons like the N900 (it struck me after the event how much the Milestone reminds me of the N900) and I found it very comfortable to type with the keyboard. Saul Kropman, generally a little insistent about having a physical keyboard on his devices, was very happy with the Milestone’s onscreen keyboard. I didn’t get a chance to use the onscreen keyboard but I have heard positive reports about it.

The physical keyboard is very appealing to me. I am used to having one on my Nokia N97 and I find it to be more convenient at times. That being said, I really haven’t spent much time actually using an Android device so I may not feel the same when I am using one of those devices. Just the same, a physical keyboard is a plus for me, even if I seem like a bit of an old fart in the process for wanting one.

The Milestone is going to be available through MTN outlets initially and will eventually extend to Vodacom retailers. It will be pretty competitively priced and the baseline contract for the Milestone will be the Anytime 200. The device will ship with Android 2.1 and I was told that users should be able to upgrade their firmware pretty readily, as soon as it is released by the networks. That sounds like upgrades should be more assured for the Milestone than HTC devices but we’ll have to see how that works in practice.

Speaking of the phone’s firmware, it runs a straight Android firmware version rather than the HTC Sense modified version you find on the HTC devices. The interface isn’t quite as slick as the Desire but I soon got used to it on the Milestone. Brendon Ambrose asked about the MOTOBLUR UI which seems to be analogous to HTC Sense, but for Motorola devices. This is likely to become available only in 2011 or so but it is worth taking a look at for now.

The device itself feels pretty solid and angular. It would go very nicely with my old black MacBook and I would feel just fine having it in my pocket. On the other hand I think I would be a little nervous about the Desire in my pocket and accidentally crunching it when I sit down or something like that. That is largely a perception based on reports of something similar happening to Nexus One users who carry their devices in their jeans pockets. The Milestone has an almost industrial feel to it which appeals to me.

Desire or Milestone

Ok, this isn’t a fair question at all. I haven’t had more than a few minutes with either device and can’t speak to their suitability in real-world contexts. There are a couple things I like and dislike about both devices based on what I have seen. I’ve mentioned them above.

My big reservation about the Desire is its software upgrade lifecycle. Android is supposed to be an open platform and devices should be capable of being upgraded for as long as their hardware supports the new updates. Updates for HTC devices are not assured, even if the hardware supports them. I was told that the Hero doesn’t support Android 2.1 and yet I saw Heros which have been hacked and Android 2.1 installed and working beautifully. This seems to be more a commercial feasibility issue than a hardware support issue and I would be concerned about being stuck with an old firmware version because a newer device has become available. By the way, similar considerations may apply to the Milestone, I just don’t know enough about how updates are passed along to Motorola devices.

When it comes to the Milestone, I still worry that it has an underpowered processor despite having no reason to believe this is the case. Although I know you can’t compare the Milestone and Desire processors directly, a part of me still sees the Milestone processor as underpowered, relatively speaking. Will I find myself in a situation one day when I can’t load newer apps because the processor is way too slow? Benchmark tests between the Milestone’s processor and the Snapdragon processor would be helpful, I just haven’t seen anything yet.

Overall, I like both devices. I am probably still leaning slightly more towards the Desire right now but a couple things could change my mind. I don’t know what the Desire’s pricing will be on contract (I was given an indication that the Milestone on an Anytime 750 contract won’t cost anything further – no idea about a pay in though). If the Milestone’s processor turns out to be as capable as the Desire in its own way, that could remove that thought obstacle and persuade me to switch to Motorola. Hopefully I’ll have a review model soon enough too.

I think I really need to test these devices in my daily life to form an opinion which one is the better one to go with. For now, it is worth paying close attention to both devices even if the Milestone seems like an unlikely candidate.