The smartphone war is hotting up as the big names put forward new champions in a superphone battle royale.
Apple's wunderphone continues to go from strength to strength but Android is up to the challenge and has perhaps even pulled ahead, depending on which sales figures you believe. Meanwhile, Microsoft is back in the game with Windows Phone 8, even though Windows Phone 7 failed to gain much ground on its rivals. Windows Phone 8 is perhaps more likely to win over new smartphone users rather than convert people from Apple or Android.
So we have three flagship handsets – Apple's iPhone 5, Google's Nexus 4 and Nokia's Lumia 920 – battling it out for your love and affection like attention-seeking children. Each has its strengths and an Achilles' heel. It's easy to simply rattle off a list of specs, but a good smartphone is more than the sum of its parts. To be honest, most people's choice of smartphone is dictated by their preferred operating system more than the hardware. Nothing you read here is likely to encourage a fanboy to defect to a rival ecosystem, but swinging voters may still be swayed by a side-by-side comparison to see how they measure up.
Apple iPhone 5 – iOS 6
The smartphone champion, at least in the eyes of some, Apple's new iPhone 5 responds to the Android threat with extra screen real estate. It's thinner, lighter and narrower than the others. On paper it falls a fraction short of the Lumia's pixel density, determining the screen sharpness, but side-by-side images look a little crisper on the iPhone. This iPhone is also the brightest of the bunch, helping it cope best with outdoor glare. Unfortunately the new four-inch display is underwhelming because it's no wider than the old iPhone 4/S. This means text doesn't appear any larger, you can just see a little more at the bottom. The screen is more impressive in landscape mode, where widescreen movies now fill the entire screen. As for capturing photos and video, it takes the sharpest snaps of the bunch and copes the best with bright backlights, although the Lumia outshines it in low light conditions. As for apps the iPhone is still king, with many new apps and services still coming to iOS before Android, but the gap is closing. Ditching the 30-pin connector in favour of Lightning will frustrate those who have invested in a range of 30-pin iGadget accessories. Losing Google Maps in favour of Apple Maps is also a major step backwards, conceding points to the Nexus and Lumia. Apple puts Bendigo and Mildura in national parks, for example, but when it comes to issuing instructions it's very good – reading out street names, offering plenty of detail at close turns, displaying intersections clearly and coping well if you make a mistake. Apart from iOS' inflexibility compared to Android, the iPhone 5's biggest shortcoming is the lack of NFC for short-range wireless interactions – although Passbook is a step in the right direction.
Google Nexus 4 – Android 4.2
$399 (16 GB)
The serious contender, Google's new Nexus 4 is one for Android lovers chasing plenty of screen real estate without breaking the bank. The Nexus 4 delivers a 4.7-inch display to rival the Samsung Galaxy S III 4G and HTC One XL, although the Nexus isn't quite as slender. Its crisp 1280 x 768 resolution puts it slightly ahead of its Android rivals, plus it still packs a quad-core powerplant. The screen does a reasonable job of dealing with outdoor glare but unfortunately the whites aren't as white as the iPhone or the Lumia, nor are the skin tones as vivid. You'd struggle to pick that it's an IPS screen just like the others. Google has opted for a vanilla Android 4.2 implementation which has fewer annoying bells and whistles than Samsung's TouchWiz. You miss out on the Quickflix and Navigon apps, but still enjoy access to Google's turn-by-turn navigation along with the Google Play store for apps, books, magazines, movies and music. Unfortunately the Nexus is seriously outclassed when it comes to photo and video capture, outdoor shots aren't bad but it really struggles with difficult lighting conditions. When it comes to maps Google's offerings seem more accurate than Apple at the city level, but once you're on the road Google Maps Navigation is not as helpful as Apple Maps. It displays your ETA but struggles with street name pronunciation and its diagrams of roundabouts are misleading if not plain dangerous. If you take a wrong turn sometimes it just stops reading instructions aloud and just beeps at you. Unlike the others, it's also crippled if you're offline unless you cache slabs of the map in advance. The Nexus 4's biggest shortcoming is that it lacks LTE, which is disappointing but shouldn't be a deal-breaker when it supports HSDPA up to 42 Mbps.
Nokia Lumia 920 — Windows Phone 8
$829 (32 GB)
The dark horse, Nokia's Lumia 920 is a promising sign of things to come. The handset feels rather bulky compared to the others but the 4.5-inch screen can hold its own. The exquisite IPS display rivals the picture quality of the iPhone 5, although the Lumia is not as bright so it doesn't handle outdoor glare quite as well. It actually sneaks in with the sharpest screen of the bunch on paper, but when you lay them side-by-side the iPhone still looks slightly better. As for Windows Phone 8, the new mobile OS is slick, responsive and mostly intuitive. You're still at a disadvantage when it comes to third-party apps and many services are likely to treat WP8 as an afterthought for some time. As for content you've got Nokia Music and Xbox Music Pass but you're still missing movies and books (although you'll find the Kindle app in the store). The Lumia shines through with Nokia's strong camera and mapping heritage. The camera does the best job of the bunch in low light conditions, although the iPhone copes slightly better with bright backlights. Nokia's maps seem as accurate as Google's and Nokia Drive features many of the bells and whistles that you'd expect from a paid app such as TomTom. The City Lens augmented reality features also show promise. When you're driving Nokia Drive offers an ETA and the speed limit. The trade-off is that the screen becomes cluttered with landmarks and other unnecessary information. Unfortunately it doesn't read out street names and it's the slowest of the three when it comes to issuing instructions and recalculating if you take a wrong turn. The Windows Phone 8 Wallet looks like an interesting sleeper technology, as it ties in with NFC and you can add details of your own cards. Apart from its bulk, the Lumia 920's biggest shortcoming is the head start Microsoft has given the other ecosystems in terms of apps and content.
Like I said at the beginning, nothing here is likely to sway the opinion of a fanboy. Each handset is impressive, but if you're looking for one phone to rule them all it would have to be a toss up between Apple and Android. I'd be reluctant to go with Windows Phone 8 for now because you'll always be last in line for new apps and services. If the Microsoft ecosystem already meets your needs it's worth a look, because the Lumia 920 is a slick combination of hardware and software.
Pitting the iPhone 5 against the Nexus 4, the iPhone 5 just falls over the line thanks to the better screen image, better camera and iOS' ease of use. If you're deterred by Apple's benevolent dictatorship over the iGadget ecosystem then you should certainly look at the Nexus 4, but weigh it up against the Samsung Galaxy S III 4G and HTC One XL.
The iPhone 5 by a nose.