Now that a new version of Apple's iPhone has once again sucked the oxygen out of the phone market, what can phones running Google's Android operating system do to regain people's attention?
For the past few weeks, I've been trying two such models, the Samsung Galaxy S II (as sold by AT&T for $199.99 with a two-year contract; Sprint and T-Mobile offer larger-screen versions) and the Motorola Droid Bionic ($299.99 with Verizon Wireless with a two-year sign-up). To simplify things, the Galaxy S II tries to sell itself on style, while the Bionic emphasizes speed.
At 4.13 ozs. and .35 in. thick, the Galaxy S II is lighter and thinner than the iPhone 4S; I first thought it would be heftier once I popped in its battery, then realized that was already installed.
The Bionic is not so svelte (5.57 ozs. and .43 in.), and its angular contours make it feel chunkier still compared to the sleek Samsung. Both models feature 4.3-in. screens, substantially roomier than Apple's 3.5-in. display.
But while the Galaxy S II connects to the fast "HSPA+" service AT&T labels as "4G," the Bionic taps into Verizon's much speedier LTE wireless. Averaging five tests, the Verizon phone downloaded data at 13.5 million bits per second (not much slower than my Fios connection at home) and uploaded at 4.2 Mbps; the AT&T contender managed 2.9 Mbps down and 1.4 Mbps up.
Faster is always better, so the race goes to the Bionic, right? Not so fast. The Bionic doesn't have the wretched battery life of Verizon's first LTE phone, the HTC ThunderBolt I tried in March — after 24 hours of standby, it had 70 percent of a charge left, barely less than the Galaxy S II's 73 percent and vastly better than the ThunderBolt's 57 percent — but it still chews through its battery faster in daily use.
In my worst-case test, playing the Pandora Web-radio app with the screen illuminated over mobile broadband, the Bionic hit its low-battery warning after about 4 hours and 45 minutes; the Galaxy S II took another two hours and 20 minutes to reach that alert.
Both phones tout 8-megapixel cameras, plus lower-resolution cameras above their screens for video calls. When I took time to steady a shot, both produced sharp photos; for moving subjects, the Bionic exhibited less shutter lag, even if it still couldn't keep up with my 14-month-old toddling around a room.
The weakest part of each phone is the software each manufacturer and carrier spackled onto Android. A few of these additions provide useful options (you can zoom in or out of pages on the Samsung by planting two fingers on the screen and tilting the phone), but others (the Samsung's occasionally self-unlocking lock screen) deliver zero or negative value.
And by continuing to pre-load their own, mediocre applications that users can't easily uninstall, AT&T and Verizon betray a certain artless arrogance.
Meanwhile, both phones risk becoming yesterday's gadget too quickly.
Never mind the iPhone 4S; on Tuesday, Samsung unveiled the Galaxy Nexus and Motorola introduced the Droid Razr, each of which could make the Galaxy S II and Droid Bionic look obsolete. On the same day, Google introduced the 4.0 "Ice Cream Sandwich" version of Android, which should do the same for the 2.3 "Gingerbread" release on these two phones. But neither AT&T nor Verizon have committed to delivering that software for them.
I'd pick the Galaxy S II over the Bionic. But first I want to see both carriers make keeping up with Google's software a higher priority than force-feeding their own apps to their subscribers.
Credit: Rob Pegoraro/Discovery