Blackberry vs. iPhone: No Longer a Contest

I like my Blackberry 9700. It’s a great communication device with outstanding voice quality and messaging. Unfortunately, I’ve managed to submerge it in water once and drop it on sidewalks a few times. Remarkably, it has few issues so far. But given the water damage, I’m thinking this Blackberry may soon quit working altogether. Time to upgrade.

I briefly considered the impressive Galaxy S II, but I prefer smaller (single hand) devices and more polished operating systems. An inexpensive grandfathered plan gives me an incentive to stick with Blackberry on T-mobile, but the iPhone’s 336 PPI Retina display beckons. Blackberry Bold 9900 or iPhone 4s. Which one?

iPhone 4s. No contest. Here’s why.

Update: Here’s the followup post I wrote after using my iPhone 4s for 2 months:

Blackberry vs. iPhone 4s (After 2 Two Months of Use)

Blackberry vs. iPhone Used to Be a Tradeoff

Historically, Blackberry strengths include:

  • great voice call quality
  • flexible notifications
  • inexpensive monthly plan possibilities (T-mobile USA, in my case)
  • free messaging between Blackberries

These have not been areas of strength for the iPhone. Many people love iPhones anyway because they’re such easy-to-use pocket computers.

Here’s how I’ve summed it up in the past:

If you want a great pocket computer, get an iPhone. If you want a great phone and communication device, get a Blackberry. You can’t have both, because iPhones are lousy phones and Blackberries are lousy, overly complicated pocket computers.

Until now.

The latest Blackberries are still great communication devices but also still lousy and overly complicated pocket computers. On the other hand, the iPhone 4s has it all. I’m one of 24% of U.S. Blackberry owners who plan to get one.

iPhone Has Caught up to Blackberries

I’ve always had an interest in the iPhone as a pocket computer, thanks to the superbly designed interface and impressive app quality, quantity, and diversity. I love the 326 PPI Retina display included in recent models. I use my iPod touch 4g to read anything for hours at a time. And my iPod touch just got better thanks to iOS 5. But until recently, I didn’t want an iPhone.

Here are the reasons I previously avoided iPhones and how they have been addressed:

Expensive Plans: Affordability matters to me. I get affordability with a Blackberry on T-mobile. I pay $53/month + taxes and fees for 1000 minutes and unlimited Blackberry BIS data with T-mobile USA, thanks to a grandfathered postpaid plan and a 12% AAA discount. I upgraded to the Blackberry 9700 23 months ago and am now eligible for another upgrade at the fully discounted price.

For years, getting an iPhone in the U.S. was expensive—the least expensive individual AT&T plan was $70/month for unlimited data but with only 450 minutes, which is a little below my average monthly minutes used.

In June 2010, AT&T changed to tiered data. The monthly minimum became $55/month ($40 for 450 minutes plus $15 for 200MB data). That minimum can be lower if you pool together 3 to 5 people on AT&T’s family plan. My wife’s parents already have a family plan with 2 lines with thousands of banked rollover minutes. It costs $10/month to add another line plus $15/month for the minimum data requirement. That’s a total of $25/month additional (plus taxes, fees and a one-time $35 activation fee). Wow. 200MB of data may not be enough for some people. However, I primarily access data via WiFi at home and at my office. WiFi doesn’t count towards the 200MB limit. So switching to AT&T and agreeing to a 2-year contract gets me an iPhone at the subsidized rate and reduced monthly charges. Again: Wow.

Mediocre Voice Quality: I actually use phones to, you know, talk. Old school, I know. But I do spend about 400-800 minutes each month talking on the phone. iPhones have always had problems with dropped calls and reception quality. The iPhone 4 was even worse. Some iPhones have also had short battery life. In contrast, Blackberries have terrific voice quality, WiFi UMA calling (T-mobile only), few dropped calls, and the battery life to handle long calls. So why would I want to downgrade? Thanks to upgraded software, a better Qualcomm radio, and a dual antenna setup, the iPhone 4s is the first iPhone with decent voice performance. Voice quality and battery life may not be as good as Blackberries, but many customers are reporting significant improvement after several days of use.

Unacceptable Notification System: I care a lot about notifications—enough to write about strategies for controlling interruptions and distractions on smartphones. Blackberries are terrific at giving users many options around notifications, making each kind of notification as subtle or as eye-popping as desired (customizable lights, sounds, vibrations, pop-ups, etc.).

In prior versions of the iPhone operating system (iOS), all iPhone activity was paused in order to display a new notification. To stop these overbearing distractions on my iPod touch, I simply turned off all notifications. That’s fine for a pocket reader, but a phone needs to notify me of missed calls and calendar appointments at a minimum. I’d also like to be notified of certain other events according to my preferences.

With iOS 5, incoming messages and app notifications appear briefly at the top of the display without interrupting other activity, and all messages are kept organized within the Notification Center. iOS 5 notification behavior can be customized for each app. I’ve played around with this some on my iPod touch. It’s not as customizable as Blackberry notifications, and some apps haven’t been updated to play nice with the Notification Center yet. But iOS 5 notifications are easy-to-use and they let me confine and control my interruptions adequately.

But that’s not all. You don’t need to unlock your screen to check your most recent notifications. You can quickly glance to see if you have a missed message, an important email, a weather alert, a score in the latest game of the World Series, or whatever else you happen to care about. It’s customizable. It’s getting to the point where checking these things is only slightly more disruptive than checking a wrist watch.

No Free Messaging: Free and easy-to-use messaging is a very popular Blackberry feature. Apple did not include an iphone-to-iphone messaging service prior to iOS 5. All devices that run iOS 5 now have it. It’s called iMessage. People like it. Enough said.

Other Issues: I could go into detail about other minor things Blackberries have historically done better than iPhones. Some of these things were addressed years ago, such as multitasking, cut and paste, battery life, and remote wiping. iOS 5 addresses most remaining shortcomings I haven’t already discussed. The biggest is awkward iTunes issues being solved by iCloud (sync, cloud integration, backups, iTunes wiping out your mp3’s, etc.). But I’ll just sum it all up by saying that with iOS 5, Apple catches up in most of the areas where Blackberry formerly had a big lead.

From a consumer perspective, the only major features an iPhone 4s lacks are a physical keyboard and WiFi UMA voice calls (available on T-mobile Blackberries only, and not yet for the Blackberry 9900). These are not important issues for me because AT&T reception is good at my home and office, and I’m indifferent about keyboard options. Obviously, those who prefer physical keyboards will feel differently.

Should I Upgrade to a Blackberry 9900 or an iPhone 4s? Not a Tough Decision

The latest iPhone has pretty much caught up to Blackberries in the few areas where it used to have a big lead. But the latest Blackberries are not much closer in areas where iPhones have a big lead. The most glaring example is how the latest Blackberry models still require frequent several-minute reboots to update apps and the operating system. Also slow to improve is camera hardware and software, app choice and quality, and ease-of-use, to mention just a few.

The Blackberry upgrade choices I’m currently faced with make my next phone decision easy. The Blackberry 9900 is a very nice device in many ways, but it is also worse than my Blackberry 9700 in a few ways:

  • It does not support WiFi UMA calling. T-mobile reception in my home is poor so this feature is important. To be fair, UMA is supposedly coming with a November O/S update, but should I buy a phone with a critical missing feature in hopes it will be available soon? (UPDATE: UMA became available 3/14/12 for T-mobile Blackberry 9900 users)
  • It’s expensive. The Blackberry 9900 on T-mobile costs $349 minus a $50 rebate for a net of $299 before taxes. Most of the competition charges $199 with a 2-year contract for their top-of-the-line smartphones. This is true of Apple’s iPhone 4s 16GB as well. Why pay more for a device that offers less?
  • Most disappointing of all is that the camera does not include autofocus, which means blurry close up shots. Meanwhile, thanks to more features, better software, and better optics, the latest and greatest handsets from Apple, Samsung, and HTC are reasonable substitutes for $200 point-and-shoot cameras. One more thing—the iPhone’s camera takes pictures fast, and right from the lock screen.

So the choice I am faced with is this:

Do I sign another 2-year contract with T-mobile at $53/month in order to get a $299 Blackberry 9900 that’s missing a few features I care about? Or do I pay $199 and join my in-laws’ AT&T family plan for $25/month in order to get an iPhone 4s 16gb that’s arguably the best pocket computer on the planet—and now with good voice, notification, and messaging abilities as well?

Not a tough decision.

Soon I’ll have a great pocket computer and a great communication device—as soon as my iPhone 4s arrives.

Author: Joe Golton

I’m a dad with a son who loves baseball. Professionally, I’ve been a software developer, investor, controller, and logistics manager. I now make my living from this blog, supplemented with occasional consulting gigs.

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