The Epic Smartphone Decision of 2014: Apple and Google Setting Up for Climactic Year-End Battle

Wow, Apple. You had me with the “the mother of all releases,” Extensibility and 4,000 new APIs. I loaded up the iOS 8 beta on my iPhone 4s and began counting the days until the likely September release of the iPhone.
But then I stopped counting after watching the keynote from Google I/O. I’m wildly excited about the new features of Android L, the gorgeous Material design, increased cross-functionality with Android and Chromebooks, and 5,000 APIs.
So Apple’s iOS will be stretching for Google’s level of openness and functionality while Android has its sights set on improving the user experience to make it more consistent and enjoyable. Should I prefer a more Google-like Apple or a more Apple-like Google?
What’s a tech journalist with phone envy and an expiring two-year contract to do? Persevere with the Epic Smartphone Decision of 2014, of course. And to prove just how epic this decision really is, here’s the rundown of what Apple and Google revealed with their new operating systems.

WWDC: The most exciting keynote since the introduction of the iPhone
Before Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference kicked off, I wrote that I felt iOS was becoming stale, lacking the powerful features I I felt a smartphone should have.
Scuttlebutt leading up to the keynote sounded insane: The biggest developer release since iOS 2 (iPhone OS 2). The biggest feature dump since iOS 4. But no details had leaked. I’ll admit I was a bit skeptical. I expected an incremental iOS 8 update that would debut on a bigger iPhone and then Tim Cook & Co. would go into glowing details about their plans to take over my smart home. Which I don’t have. But when Cook took the stage and didn’t launch into a spiel on the newest Apple store or guided us through Cupertino’s numbers, it became apparent that Apple really was going to finally make the iPhone a powerhouse to take on Android flagships.

Better keyboard
Apple addressed this weakness head-on, introducing not only a better default keyboard with QuickType, but also for the first time the ability to install third-party keyboards with full system access. Fleksy, Swype, Minuum and others will make their way to the iPhone this fall. I still want to see a dedicated number row. Maybe that will make its debut with a bigger screen. QuickType will offer predictive word suggestions (something Android has had for a while), but Apple also claims its predictions will be based on the context of your conversation and the app you’re using.

Better home screen
We didn’t see new functionality on the home screen per se at WWDC, but what we did see was the debut of widgets on the iPhone, both in Notification Center and on the lock screen, as well as actionable notifications everywhere: from the lock screen, home screen and within other apps. Widgets were long overdue on the iPhone, but Apple’s starting slowly and has a long way to go to catch up.

Customizable Control Center
I didn’t see or hear anything in the keynote about Control Center and was feeling bummed that Apple hadn’t given it more, well, controls. But after digging through the iOS 8 beta, the signs are that users will be able to customize features and toggles. No need to jailbreak to get the features you want and hide the ones you don’t; iOS 8 will do that. Maybe.

Inter-app communication
An Android strength and a glaring iPhone weakness? Not anymore. Apple is finally letting developers loose and giving users some pretty powerful tools to get things done. Apple announced that third-party developers will be able to share their apps’ functions with other apps. Extensibilty will keep apps sandboxed but also allow them to work together in a way not seen on an iPhone. Developers will also be able to use Touch ID in their apps for authentication and payment functions. We’re still months away from seeing how this all works and how powerful it will be, but it’s got me interested.

Super Siri
Apple will finally open up Siri for use by third-party apps, meaning that the iPhone’s virtual assistant will finally be the all-powerful feature Apple had long promised us. Siri will also gain hands-free functionality as long as the iPhone is plugged in, giving you similar functionality to the Moto X’s always-listening Google Now implementation. Just say, “Hey, Siri,” and your iPhone will begin taking your voice commands whether it was asleep or not. Siri will also receive Shazam functionality, giving it the ability to identify a song playing either on the iPhone or around you by other devices.

Actionable notifications
Notifications will now give you the ability to reply and take action from the lockscreen, from notifications themselves, and inside the Notification Center. Notification Center will also add widgets from third-party apps. Messages will get several feature bumps. Swiping in a conversation will generate specific actions such as sending a photo or video as well as a voice message. You’ll be able to mute individual message threads and exit a group message thread. And photos sent and received in Messages are viewable on a special page.

Family Share
Family Share lets up to six users share apps as well as media, calendars and reminders. No more plunking down $6.99 a device for everybody to have Minecraft: Pocket Edition or shelling out $17.99 apiece for everybody to watch The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Find My iPhone can also be used with anyone in this group, a useful tool to help family members find their devices.

App Store improvements
Apple will be upgrading its App Store. For the first time, the App Store will feature discounted app bundles from the same developer. Trending searches will show users which apps are most popular, taking some of the guesswork out of browsing for a new app. Apple will also be giving developers a beta testing service called TestFlight to allow devs to invite beta users to test and give feedback on their apps before their official launches.

New camera and photo features
In iOS 8, Apple will allow third-party apps access to the camera hardware, promising powerful photography features and more granular controls. Apple has also included a new Photos app that includes editing controls that can be enabled by gestures.

Continuity, Handoff and AirDrop
Continuity and Handoff are some of the most potentially powerful upgrades coming with iOS 8 and OS X 10.10. Simplified, it will make nearly any app, function or feature available between all of your Apple devices. Start an email on your iPhone, then move to your MacBook Air and pick up where you left off without resorting to rooting around in your Drafts folder. Edit a photo on your MBA and finish it on your iPad. There are plenty of use cases out there if you’re invested in the Apple ecosystem.
AirDrop, the easy file-sharing feature now works between Macs and iOS devices. You can drag and drop a file from your Mac to your iPhone or iPad via a Wi-Fi network.
Text message integration: View, send and reply to text messages on your Mac. This is a feature many Android users have enjoyed for years, and I’m happy to see that Apple has caught up.

Plenty of other stuff
HomeKit: This will be Apple’s hub for all your smart-home appliances and connected devices.
HealthKit: Apps can be linked to a central database of your personal health data, offering more functionality for fitness as well as health monitoring.
Favorites: You can access your closest friends and family members by double tapping on the home button. The faces of your most-contacted people will appear above the apps in the app-switching view. Clicking on a face takes you straight to your communication options: Voice calls, Message, FaceTime or FaceTime Voice.
Mail: Gesture-based email sorting arrives on the iPhone, implemented much as it is on Mailbox. You can swipe to the left to delete, flag or reply to a message. Swipe harder and you can quickly delete a message.
Metal: The new graphics engine will give developers “near bare-to-the-metal” access to Apple’s A7 processor. Apple is claiming that Metal offers 10 times the performance of their previous 3D-rendering engine. This should make gaming that much more exciting on an iPhone.

I threw down the gantlet of challenge at Apple’s feet, and Cupertino picked it up and beat me silly with it. If Apple can deliver on everything it showed off at WWDC, I’ll have a hard time not choosing another iPhone. Fortunately for Google, Microsoft and Amazon, I still don’t upgrade for six months. There’s still plenty of time to wow me (and every other smartphone consumer out there). But Apple set the bar really, really high.

So I’m choosing an iPhone, right?
Not so fast. Between the news from WWDC and what has trickled out as developers and others sift through the iOS 8 betas, Apple’s new mobile operating system is going to make a big splash. But that’s assuming that every feature shown off at the keynote and hidden in the betas makes it into the final version of iOS 8 and is included with the iPhone 6. I’ll have to wait and see what Apple rolls out in September, the likely launch month of the iPhone 6.

In the meantime, Google caught my fancy in a big way at I/O.

I/O rolls out the one OS to rule them all
Google’s developer conference upped the ante on WWDC. Apple rolled out 4,000 new APIs; Google trumped that with 5,000. Android will now operate on your phone and tablet as well as on your wrist, in your car, and on your TV. And then Google ran down its checklist of Android weaknesses, addressing them one by one.

Material is Google’s answer to Apple’s superior user interface
Android L will introduce Material Design, a UI overhaul that flattens and simplifies the look and feel of Android. It’s a stunning remake that looks beautiful and adds subtle and pleasant action animations. Along with Material Design come redesigns of every built-in Google app, from settings to Google Maps to Gmail to the Play Store itself. And developers will be able to adopt this consistent look and feel to help Android provide a more polished user interface.

New notifications
Android L will prioritize notifications based on the things that are most important to you. An important notification will appear at the top of the screen while you’re in an application, letting you choose whether to respond or dismiss it. Important notifications won’t overwhelm your lock screen, either, as only the important ones will appear there as well. Notifications can be assigned priority in settings.

Battery-saving features
Google’s “Project Volta” helps developers build apps that are more aware of their battery usage. Users will get a ‘battery saver’ mode that will extend battery life by 90 minutes by throttling the CPU and screen refresh rate. Ars Technica has Android L running on a Nexus 5 and reports 36 percent more battery life on L than on KitKat 4.4.4.

Upgrading from Dalvik to ART
Android devices have used Dalvik to interpret application code since the first Android phone hit the market. Android L now switches that interpreter to ART, a faster compiler that ought to have a good impact on performance and battery life. Google claims ART will boost Android performance by a factor of two. That’s an exciting claim, and one I’ll be eager to test if I go Android.

In the I/O keynote, Google also announced bringing Android apps to Chrome OS. As a Chromebook owner, this certainly caught my attention. But from the looks of it, this could be a long-term experiment rather than an immediate feature rollout when we see Android L, likely in October. A few Android apps have been ported to Chrome OS, but they’re not the same apps you’d find in the Play Store. Call this a work in progress. Google also showed off a feature much like Apple’s Continuity, demonstrating a Chromebook mirroring an Android phone’s call and text notifications. There aren’t a lot of details available just yet as to how this works or its limitations. Will your Chromebook be able to make calls or respond to texts or other notifications? Stay tuned.

The first poll
In the Epic Smartphone Decision of 2014’s first official poll of the campaign, the race is tight with some candidates not even declared yet. The results are certainly more democratic than the “elections” held recently in Egypt and Ukraine, but there’s a lot I don’t know yet about models and operating system features. The race so far is separated into three categories: candidates, also-rans and undeclared. Prices are for AT&T versions of the phones.

The Candidates
1. LG G3
Price: $199 on contract, $579 full price, Amazon is offering it for $99 on contract; Best Buy is offering it for $99, and they’ll throw in a $100 gift card if you buy the phone with the AT&T Next installment plan.
Specs: 5.5-inch QHD 2560×1440 LCD display (534 ppi), 2.5GHz Snapdragon 801 processor, 32GB of storage, 3GB of RAM, microSD card slot for extra storage up to 128 GB, 3,000 mAh removable battery, 13MP rear camera, 5 MP front camera.
Thoughts: The G3 looks absolutely gorgeous, and after four years on a now-tiny 3.5-inch iPhone screen, I’m ready for more real estate. As close to bezel-free as a smartphone gets, the G3 also boasts a 13MP camera with laser-assisted auto focus, a simple, beautiful camera interface, KnockOn, Knock Code, split-screen multitasking and a height-adjustable predictive keyboard. You can reorganize the on-screen navigation buttons, add more to access the G3’s custom features, and even hide the on-screen buttons completely in certain apps. Right now, this phone has it all and is the device to beat in my first poll.

2. HTC One M8
Price: $99 on contract, $669 full price, Amazon is offering it for free on contract.
Specs: 5-inch 1920x1080p LCD display (441 ppi), 2.3GHz Snapdragon 801 processor, 32GB internal storage, 2GB of RAM, microSD card slot for extra storage up to 128GB, 2600mAh nonremovable battery, 4MP UltraPixel front camera, 4MP rear camera.
Thoughts: A unibody aluminum shell gives it a firm, premium feel, and the BoomSound speakers are hands-down the best smartphone speakers on any device. The HTC One M8 is fast and smooth, and the Sense 6 skin is smart, capable and free of gimmicks and lag. The camera is holding this phone back from the top spot, but an on-contract price tag of free come upgrade time could vault it to No. 1.

3. Moto X
Price: Free on contract, $299 full price.
Specs: 4.7-inch 1280x720p AMOLED display, 1.7GHz Snapdragon 600 processor, 16GB of internal storage, 2GB of RAM, 2200mAh nonremovable battery, 10MP rear camera, 2MP front camera.
Thoughts: Motorola’s surprise hit includes a natural language processor and a contextual computing processor along with some knockout special features. Touchless Control brings you always-on access to Google Now. Active Display brings you notifications and allows you to check on them in a battery-friendly pulse that doesn’t fully wake up your phone. Motorola Connect provides an easy way to sync your text messages with your computer. And Motorola Assist brings you smart functionality for when you’re driving, in a meeting or sleeping. And you can’t beat the price.

4. LG G2
Price: Free on contract, $399 full price.
Specs: 5.2-inch 1920x1080p LCD display (424 ppi), 2.26GHz Snapdragon 800 processor, 32GB of internal storage, 2GB RAM, 3000mAh nonremovable battery, 13MP rear camera, 2.1MP front camera.
Thoughts: The G2, despite being last year’s model, is still a beast of a device. It features Knock On, multitasking, thin bezels due to the hardware buttons on the back, optical image stabilization, autofocus, sapphire glass and excellent battery life. It’s also running a gimmick-heavy skin of Android and is missing the G3’s removable battery and microSD card support. But that price…

5. iPhone 5s
Price: $99 on contract, $649 full price.
Specs: 4-inch 1136x640p LCD display (326ppi), 1.3GHz A7 processor, M7 motion co-processor, 16GB of internal storage, 1GB of RAM, 1500mAh nonremovable battery, 8MP rear camera, 1.2MP front camera.
Thoughts: Boasting excellent build quality and a surprisingly capable camera thanks to Apple’s imaging software, the iPhone 5s is fast and capable, sports Touch ID, and gets fair battery life. But it’s no spec-heavy beast, and is it really worth an upgrade with possibly two new iPhones rolling out in the fall?

6. Samsung Galaxy S5
Price: As low as free on contract, $749 full price.
Specs: 5.1-inch 1920x1080p Super AMOLED display (432ppi), 2.5GHz Snapdragon 801 processor, 16GB of internal storage, microSD card support up to 128GB, 2GB of RAM, 2800mAh removable battery, 16MP rear camera, 2MP front camera.
Thoughts: The Galaxy S5 sports a screen that is bright and colorful, and it shines through in even the most intense sunlight. The S5 boasts a fingerprint scanner (though it’s a bit hit-and-miss, according to many), air gesture support, a heart rate sensor and it’s water- and dust-resistant. It also features an Ultra Power Saving mode, which operates in black and white and can last you several days. But the myriad options and features on the S5 aren’t for everybody. Thankfully the S5 has an Easy Mode. I might need it if I choose the S5. Another stumbling block is that in the 16GB model of the S5, only about 8GB of storage is left to the user. Bummer.

7. Samsung Galaxy Note 3
Price: As low as $149, $764 full price.
Specs: 5.7-inch 1920x1080p Super AMOLED display (386ppi), 2.3GHz Snapdragon 800 processor, 32GB of internal storage, 3GB of RAM, microSD card support up to 64GB, 3200mAh removable battery, 13MP rear camera, 2MP front camera.
Thoughts: A big, beautiful display, blazing speed and an S Pen stylus. What’s not to like? Well, the lackluster design and hefty price tag come to mind, especially when you consider this line is due for a refresh in the coming months. Still, the Note 3 gets fantastic battery life and sports split-screen multitasking.

8. Motorola Moto G
Price: $149 8GB, $179 16GB full price.
Specs: 4.5-inch 1280x720p LCD display (329ppi), 1.2GHz Snapdragon 400 processor, 8GB or 16GB of internal storage, 1GB of RAM, 2070mAh nonremovable battery, 5MP rear camera, 1.3MP front camera.
Thoughts: Running stock Android and boasting excellent battery life, the Moto G is an excellent budget smartphone option, and it won’t cost you an upgrade since its low price is also off contract. It’s an option if you can’t make up your mind, or you think the next big thing is just over the horizon.

9. LG Optimus G Pro
Price: Free on contract, $369 full price.
Specs: 5.5-inch 1920x1080p LCD display (400ppi), 1.7GHz Snapdragon 600 processor, 32GB of internal storage, microSD card support up to 64GB, 2GB of RAM, 3140mAh removable battery, 13MP rear camera, 2.1MP front camera.
Thoughts: This monster is fast with a great display and a nice design. The G Pro also gets excellent battery life. But it’s only staying on this list as long as it takes the G Pro 2 to come to these shores.

10. Nokia Lumia 1520
Price: $199 on contract, $584 full price.
Specs: 6-inch 1920x1080p LCD display (368ppi), 2.2GHz Snapdragon 800 processor, 16GB storage, 2GB of RAM, microSD card slot up to 64GB, 3400mAh nonremovable battery, 20MP rear camera, 1.2MP front camera.
Thoughts: Because Windows Phone is such a limited ecosystem in apps and functionality, the price is going to have drop to free for this device to be my December upgrade. The Lumia 1520 is only staying here as long as it takes for the next new device to be introduced.

The Also-Rans
These phones are out of the running absent a compelling reason for me to consider them.

OnePlus One: Excellent specs, but with no contract pricing and a quirky method of even getting one, this is too much of a hassle for me to bother with.
Sony Xperia Z1, 2 and 3: Only available unlocked and off-contract in the U.S. if you can find them at all, which is a shame because having a 20.1MP camera would be fantastic.
LG G Flex: Normally $299, it’s now $99 on contract with AT&T and they’ll throw in a 50% discount on a G Watch, normally $229, which lowers the wearable’s price to $115. With a 6-inch 1280×720 flexible display, 2.26GHz Snapdragon 800, 32GB storage, 2GB RAM, 13MP rear camera and 3,500mAh battery, the G Flex has some impressive specs. But there’s no microSD card slot and I don’ t see the need for a curved screen, so I’ll pass.
Amazon Fire Phone: Too expensive at $199 on contract for a a fledgling OS, though the base model comes with 32GB of storage. I’m curious about what the online retail giant can offer and because of my pleasant surprise at the quality and user experience of the Kindle Fire line of tablets. But I’m not curious enough to sign up for a two-year contract.
Nexus 5: It’s available only off contract, which is a shame because the stock Android experience and quick updates are killer features in and of themselves. I’m jealous of all you Nexus 5 owners running the Android L developer preview as well.

There are a few devices waiting to steal the spotlight. These phones have yet to be announced, but are heavily rumored to be arriving in late summer or early fall. Without actual verified details, I can’t include them in the poll, but I’m anxiously awaiting their entry into the fray.

iPhone 6 Air and iPhone 6 Mini: This is what I’ll call the rumored 5.5- and 4.7-inch versions of Apple’s newest flagship until the devices get proper names. The iPhone 6 needs to deliver on all the wow factor I saw at WWDC. That might be enough to keep me in the Apple fold through another upgrade cycle.
Moto X+1: From the looks of the alleged leaked specs it seems like the Moto X+1 is a substantial update on last year’s excellent Moto X. According to the reports, the Moto X+1’s specs include a 5.2-inch 1080p display, 2.26GHz Snapdragon 800 processor, a 12MP rear camera, 5MP front camera, 2GB of RAM, 32GB of storage, microSD support, a 2900mAh battery and MotoMaker customization. If Motorola includes the special features the Moto X sports and maybe a few extra goodies, this could be a fantastic device. It’s also rumored that the price will be irresistible: $400.
LG G Pro 2: The 5.9-inch successor to the G Pro is powerful enough to go toe to toe with the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 — if it ever comes to the U.S.

About Chris Cox

I love technology, but I could do without the tinkering. I'm a firm believer in technology that just works. If it's intuitive, that leads to greater adoption, which leads to more advances, and that benefits us all. That said, a little tinkering on the front end that helps you every day is worth the effort. I'm all for simple solutions that keep me -- and you -- from reinventing the wheel every day.