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We’ll help you decide: Windows Phone, BlackBerry or Android?

So you’re due for a contract renewal. You need a new handset. But you’re confused. Android. BlackBerry. Windows Phone. They’re all good. Right? Or not? Aargh! Decisions, decisions.

After several months knocking back and forth between the major platforms as they’ve matured, we dig deep into the real world of being a smartphone owner to help the non-technut make up their mind. Gearburn brings you the what’s-it-like-in-daily-use-but-be-practical-man-just-the-stuff-that-matters guide (WILIDUBBPMJTSTM Guide 9) for choosing between the many smartphone flavours.

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Option 0.5: Apple iPhone

OK, we’ll go there. Apple.

If you want nice hardware, classy styling and tightly integrated software and cloud services, and aren’t too fussed about owning technology that’s been neither terribly interesting nor innovative in many years, go for iPhone. If you like Apple stuff, and want more, get an iPhone. If you want objectively derivative tech, and prefer the choice of the indecisive, get an iPhone 5S. Or try the 5C, an iPhone 5 in a cheesy plastic case, but with no FM radio. So much for Apple’s developing market aspirations.

Right. Now that Apple’s out of the way, we can move on to options that don’t force you to be borged by Apple. Resistance to this is a legitimate state of mind, no less real than those who believe one shouldn’t engage in drunk driving or forced labour.

Option 1: BlackBerry 10

Why to consider it:

Despite the many flaws in the apps and interface, the OS 10 operating system is excellent. Unbreakably reliable (more than can be said for some of the dubiously engineered apps), and providing an elegant way to send and receive messages from a variety of services, from email to instant messages and social media services. There’s an excellent keyboard with predictive text, which includes the ability to select, copy and paste easily accurately. Everything else you want in a smartphone works as expected. Hardware is good, not great. Camera is at best “meh”. But the material selection is eminently sensible – a woven synthetic back that’s slightly rubbery for good grip and accidental drop bounciness. And you get the famous Blackberry Red Notification Light of Sauron.

Why not to consider it:

The interface niggles show an annoying lack of attention to detail by BlackBerry – although OS 10 has got steadily better since launch when the native Maps was pants, integration between the “Hub” (unified inbox) was spotty, and WiFi connection management was buggy as hell. Adding Google and other accounts is now effortless (previously we had to use CalDAV and CarDAV). Mail app is now up to snuff. You can now paste a number in to the phone app. BB Maps is now faster – although still doesn’t cache locally (hello!) and often doesn’t show the names of main roads, just the street code.

So if everything has been fixed… why the reservations? Because there’s still niggles that should be fixed already. That should have never made it to production. The smart woven case for the Z10 that is insanely tight. That many of the top apps (Twitter, WhatsApp) are present and accounted for, but are clearly last on the priority list, and are missing important features. App interfaces on the Q10 don’t play well with the full keyboard sometimes. And because even though we talked to a few shops who said they’d not seen problems with hardware related returns, four separate handsets we used had hardware problems. Oh, and the Z10’s screen is a fingerprint magnet.

Bottom Line: If you want the hands-down best messaging, emailing and scheduling phone, get the BlackBerry. For the corporate animal in the office environment, it’s a great option. It’s small enough to be handy, eschewing the 5” screen madness. And the BB 10 operating system is just so rock solid. It’s not snazzy, it just works. And you can pick a full-keyboard Q10 if you need to type fast, a lot.

Option 2: Windows Phone

Why to consider it:

The Windows Phone environment is very good, albeit with a couple of Microsoft interface design head-scratchers. But you do get it on Nokia hardware, which makes up for almost any criticisms. The Lumia 920 was a bit of a miscalculation, with the inductive charging (toss it on a pad to charge, don’t plug it in) making it bulky and heavy. But oh, the screen! Bright, vivid, readable even in bright sunlight. The camera is sharp, with faithful colour balance and a minimum of ugly glassy digital artifacts.

The polycarbonate body’s a stand-out, and very tough. And even the Windows Phone environment has a lot going for it. Excellent browser; fast-rendering and smooth. Fast switching between applications. The Lumia 925 fixes all the drawbacks of the 920, and makes the camera even better. And comes in metal for a more polished look. It’s just fantastic hardware.

Why not to consider it:

If you’re an app junkie, the Windows app ecosystem is poor. You get the main ones, but it’s the red haired stepchild of the phone world. The Windows Phone interface itself is very, very good but has some of those “WTF, Microsoft?” over-thinks. Why have a dedicated search button relentlessly throwing Bing at you? Really, Microsoft, how often are you really searching on your device for info? Those Live Tiles are a great idea, poorly executed. Mostly they’re not live – they don’t communicate any information about the app they link to. Mostly they’re just big blocky labels.

Like so much of Windows, you often don’t know what their phone is doing, because it hides info from you (“making things simple”). I was downloading something… where did it go? What’s happening? Notifications for new messages are not displayed conveniently, no notification light. Email client is very half-baked – along with integration with Exchange. Hello, Microsoft! That’s a key reason people might go for Windows Phone. The UI design is clean and elegant, with bold text labels instead of pictograms. Except you often can’t tell whether something is just a piece of text, or a control you can interact with. Text selection and editing is hit and miss where it’s not haphazard. Microsoft. Fix it!

Bottom Line: Get it for the hardware, if nothing else. Windows Phone is good, but not great, but good enough to not get in the way. It does the smartphone job. But just for the screen, camera, industrial design and slickness of execution, I’d buy a Lumia. And if you’re a keen photographer or photoblogger, the Lumia 1020 camera is just jaw-droppingly good.

Option 3: Android

Why to consider it:

One word… choice. Also a bit of a Hobson’s Choice. Well, more of a Hobson’s Dilemma. There are so many choices of Android hardware it can become a monster of a decision. A bewilderbeast. Some of the hardware is spectacular. The HTC One. A sleek, aluminium beauty with a heart of lightning and jewels. Kick-ass speakers. The Galaxy S4 Active. Chintzy but awesome. And the Sony Xperia Z1. Waterproof, breakproof, and with a truly phenomenal camera and superb screen. Or, you can get something cheap. Cheap, cheap, cheap. For a few hundred bucks. And still powerful, packing all the Jelly Beany goodness of Android. Or Kit Katty sweetness in a couple of months.

Why not to consider it:

The integration of hardware, software and apps is very often cracked and flaking. Firmware updates come sporadically, and rapidly fall off the cliff once the device is launched, selling and interest moves on to the new new thing. So while you get a great deal of choice and functionality, you also get frustrating bugs and tech fails as most Android phone makers are so busy chasing trivially useful “features”, they have little focus on quality of user experience.

Bottom line: Android is the biggest thing in phones. You can’t really go wrong. It’s where you get the fastest innovation, and greatest variety of hardware, features and functionality to choose from. And if things break, there’s oodles of Android-tastic technuts around to help you.

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