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The next round of smartphone wars has started: iPhone 4S and Galaxy Nexus fight for the throne

Apple presented the iPhone 4S a few weeks ago, and Google followed by announcing the Galaxy Nexus device made by Samsung. There were many rumours about an iPhone 5 and therefore some people were initially disappointed by the lack of a completely new iPhone. Nonetheless the iPhone 4S is a very solid device with greatly enhanced specs like a faster (dual core) CPU, more RAM, new camera and better antenna. I really love the hardware design of the iPhone 4, so it’s not a deal breaker to me that the 4S looks exactly like last years iPhone. But one thing that bothers me is the small screen size. 3.5 inch is just to small to be comfortably used when doing all the stuff that’s possible with smartphones nowadays. From reading ebooks to browsing the internet, i would’ve loved to see a bigger screen from 3.7 to 4 inches. Looks like Apple saved that one up for the iPhone 5.

The camera received a big update and is now providing 8 megapixel resolution as well as full HD recording with a picture stabilizer feature that will help you make some nice videos. I wasn’t paying much attention to camera quality for a long time, but since I have kids I can see that there are many occasions where you’d like to take a quick snapshot or a little video of your family and you won’t have a real video camera handy all the time. It’s clear that smartphones are perfect for the above mentioned use case, so the camera update might be an important decision factor for many people.

So what’s new on the iPhone 4S besides the beefed up technical specs? Of course iOS 5, which introduces many new features but the two major updates include the notification center and Siri the personal assistant.

Apple was clearly inspired by Android when developing the new notification center which can be pulled down from the top of the screen to check all current notifications. It’s basically the same as the Android notification shade.

Sadly iOS 5 notifications don’t show app icons or other kind of indicators on the top bar to let the user know that there is actually a notification waiting. Instead you don’t see any persistent hint on the homescreen, and therefore have to check every now and then if there is anything new to be found. The notification center is a good start, and way better than the old intrusive notifications, but it’s not completely fleshed out yet.

Another feature which got the most attention from tech blogs is Siri the personal assistant. Apples big goal was to let you talk to Siri in natural language instead of remembering specific voice commands in order to create a much better user experience than all the current speech related features of other mobile OS.

Judging by the first reviews they succeeded, and while Siri performs best in the US (since it can’t answer a lot of questions in european locations yet) other languages will become better over time too.

Other iOS updates include iMessage which will is a free messaging service between iPhones, and iCloud services for cloud backups. Interestingly you don’t need a computer connection anymore to setup your device, and wireless iTunes sync is also possible now as well as OTA updates.

Overall this is a very solid update for Apple hardware and software wise. Many people were initially disappointed due to extremely high expectations and the absence of an iPhone 5, but after the dust settles this phone will again brake many records (it already did by now).

Google is Apples biggest competitor as Android keeps growing fast and already has a higher worldwide market share than iOS. Last week they presented the Galaxy Nexus phone and Android 4.0 in conjunction with Samsung. Prior to the presentation there were already some leaks flying around showing off some early builds of Android 4.0 as well as possible hardware designs based on the teaser page that was released by Samsung last week. In the end most of the rumours were pretty accurate as we got to see the Galaxy Nexus sporting a Super AMOLED HD screen with a dual core CPU, better GPU and 1 GB of RAM. While it wasn’t the hardware revolution that many thought it might be, the Galaxy Nexus still has very impressive specs. Sadly it was pointed out recently that the AMOLED screen will again sport the Pentile Matrix layout which could potentially lead to fuzzy text and some color reproduction issues. I hope that the high resolution of the screen will minimize this effect, but overall it seems that it won’t match the retina display of an iPhone 4S when it comes to sharpness.

Android 4.0 is quite impressive, as it finally combines the tablet and phone versions of Android and comes with the badly needed UI unification. Matias Duarte of Palm and webOS fame is responsible for the new design, and it’s clear that he knows his art. Android 4.0 sports the same stylish tron-like user interface we know since Android honeycomb for tablets.

Some people complain that it looks to geeky/techie but I love the tron aesthetics. I find it to be much more modern and fresh compared to iOS which starts to look a little bit dated by now. Only Windows Phone 7 can rival the style Android 4.0 brings to the table. And some enhancements like the new contact app UI clearly have been inspired by Windows Phone. Major UI changed have been made for nearly every Android corner, from the lockscreen to the homescreen layout as well as most standard Android apps.

You can now access notifications directly on the lockscreen and if there is an incoming call its now possible to send a predefined message to the caller by swiping the lock icon to the top. Jumping directly to specific apps like the camera can also be done from the lockscreen.

Notifications can finally be dismissed separately by swiping them away, while on prior Android versions you could only dismiss all notifications or jump into the corresponding app to get rid of a single one.

The new homescreen allows to put 4 freely configurable shortcuts at the bottom. One thing that struck me immediately was the fact that the homescreen scrolling finally looks perfectly fluid. This wasn’t the case up to Android 2.3 Gingerbread, and I had to resort to 3rd party apps like Launcher Pro. Landscape support is still missing though, hopefully we will see this soon as there is no reason not to support landscape views on the homescreen too. Actually Android does have landscape view on homescreens, but only for slider keyboard phones like the Motorola Milestone. It just makes sense to provide this feature to all Android devices.

One of the most boring vanilla Android apps was the contacts list. But not anymore, Google updated the contacts UI completely and its now resembling the Windows Phone 7 style somewhat by emphasizing on social media sources like Twitter and Facebook to pull recent updates and pictures. It’s not quite as impressive as the WP7 app, but much better than the old Android version.

Other highlights include a new multitasking view which shows running apps, very similar to honeycomb tablets, as vertically scrollable screenshot list. Resizeable widgets will help you setting up the homescreen space as effective as possible.

Google also introduced some new utilities to let you control data usage on you phone and define data caps. It’s a nice idea but probably a little to late because nowadays nearly everybody is already using flatrates.

The list of new features also includes face unlock, WiFi direct, performance updates, email enhancements, calendar redesign, new browser features like offline support and much more. Android beam i.e. is reminiscent of webOS sharing feature, where you can tap to devices to send data like webpages or contact information. The gallery app will provide media editing features like cropping or color enhancements. It’s really a major Android update and I can’t wait to get my hands on it. Having a consistent, modern looking and sexy UI approach is a major step for Androids mass market appeal.

One thing is for sure though, the Galaxy Nexus is not an iPhone killer per se because it will never sell as much as the Apple product. Don’t get me wrong, it can keep up with the iPhone 4S easily and Android exceeds iOS on many areas. But the main issue here is that Samsung will most probably try to push their Galaxy S series phones with highest priority while Nexus devices get only very little marketing budget. So the Galaxy Nexus was never meant to rival the iPhone sales wise, as Androids strength comes with the vast array of different devices, price tags and form factors available. Nexus devices are showcases for the newest Android iteration and are meant to set the new hardware and software standards for Android. At the same time many people love them because a Nexus phone means direct updates from Google and no branding or 3rd party tinkering. So i hope that the whole ‘iPhone killer’ discussion will stop, because it just doesn’t make sense. Having said that i don’t really care how the sales figures of a specific device are, because the Galaxy Nexus and the iPhone 4S will be equally terrific smartphones in the end. And this is what counts.