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There Can Be Only One: Choosing a Smartphone in Q3 2012

I’m pretty familiar with what my wife is going through right now with her smartphone. She bought her iPhone 3GS in April of 2010, just one month before the launch of the iPhone 4. Worst possible time to buy an iPhone, you might say. You’d be right, but for my wife who (at the time) didn’t really care that much about smartphones and just wanted a cheap upgrade path from her prepaid TracFone, the April 2010 price cut on the 3GS was exactly what she was waiting for.

Now, two and a half years and two iOS upgrades later, her 3GS is as slow as molasses and she’s ready for whatever Apple will unveil this week at the iPhone 5 launch keynote at Yerba Buena Center. And she’s definitely getting it whatever it is, because in the intervening years she’s become a total Apple fangirl. This is all very familiar to me, because I went through it myself last year when I replaced my own launch-day iPhone 3GS with the iPhone 4S. Despite the “same-same” design being a disappointment to iPhone 4 owners, I was more than happy to upgrade to the 4S, since I was on hardware two generations old.

Right now I’m one year into my AT&T contract with my 4S, and normally I would sit back and see what Apple has to say about their latest and greatest phone while understanding that I would be sitting this one out. This year, however, somebody dropped me a hint that Amazon was offering up to $455 with of store credit in trade for a mint-condition 32 GB iPhone 4S. Unable to blot out the dollar signs flashing before my eyes, I cleaned and packaged my 4S and shipped it off to Amazon last week.

I’m probably insane.

Suddenly free of a current-generation smartphone, I find myself sitting in front of a vast swath of possibilities. Since I jumped onto the iPhone bandwagon in February 2008 with the launch of the 16 GB iPhone Classic, I’ve never owned anything but an iPhone. It’s not unlike how every car I’ve ever owned has been a Pontiac. Just as the death of Pontiac has forced my eyes open to a whole world of options, today I suddenly find myself surrounded by not just iPhones (including mystical unreleased ones bearing the digit “5”), but also Windows Phones and Android phone that actually don’t suck. Can I blindly just buy another iPhone despite all of this competition vying for my attention?

The problem is, I’m not rich enough to own more than one smartphone, not given the extreme cost of these things when you take carrier subsidies out of the picture. And given the fact that those same carriers will charge you an arm and a leg just to use a device like this from month to month, the initial hardware cost isn’t even the only factor to consider. In my case, there really can be only one — only one smartphone in my pocket, because anything else is an exorbitant waste of cash.

But which smartphone should it be?

There’s the iPhone 5, the as-yet unreleased device that Apple will be officially unveiling at noon Central this coming Wednesday, September 12th. This year, the leaks from parts suppliers have seen to it that we basically know almost all of the physical specifications of the next iPhone, including the fact that it will be sporting a longer (but not wider) screen, a weird kind of two-tone metal and glass backing, and a revised dock connector which means essentially nothing except that I’d have to spend a bunch more money for new cables and adapters, thank you very much. We also know what’s coming in iOS 6, since it was officially unveiled already at WWDC this past spring. Given that we know almost everything there is to know about the iPhone 5 and none of it seems like a game-changer, I find myself wondering if it’s really the right way to go — especially coming from an iPhone 4S.

Then there’s the Samsung Galaxy S3, what I consider to be the flagship Android phone (at least in Samsung’s lineup). The Galaxy S2 was the phone that got me to actually look at an Android device last year, and its successor seems to be an improvement in nearly every way. Although it’s quite large indeed — almost to the point of insanity, if you ask me — the S3 is packed with pretty much every hardware feature I’ve lusted after, including 4G LTE, a notification LED, NFC, and a Micro-SD slot that supports up to 64 GB storage cards. Take that, fixed iPhone storage model! But while the virtual keyboard is a vast improvement over the Galaxy S2 which I found unusably laggy, Android’s app ecosystem is still not what I’ve come to expect. The iOS app store is filled with crap, but there are absolute gems there too, and I’ve gotten used to the polished experience that those gems have given me over the years. I’m having trouble just finding an equivalent to GoodReader on Android, and this is an app which I rely upon daily. It gives me serious pause about buying any Android device.

And then there’s the Windows Phone series. The dark horse contender in the smartphone game, Microsoft’s reimagined mobile OS comes sporting the nifty new Metro UI with live tiles, which if you ask me are pretty darn cool. However, even my bosses — who are huge Microsoft wonks — admit fear over the potential dead-end nature of Windows Phone and the fact that its growth has been stagnant despite millions of marketing dollars being pumped into it. If I thought the app ecosystem of Android was dodgy, I’ve got real reason to fear Windows Phone. It suffers from a classic chicken-and-egg syndrome: Consumers are wary of the platform because of a lack of apps, and developers are wary of writing apps because of a lack of uptake. Cause begets effect, effect begets cause and so on. Although the live tile idea is cool, the overall UI of Metro makes me feel vaguely claustrophobic, and I’ve pretty much decided that this isn’t the OS for me. But I can’t deny that the upcoming Windows Phone 8 devices with built-in wireless charging and non-pentile (ugh, pentile) screens have some pretty sweet specs.

In the past week, since sending off my iPhone 4S for appraisal, I’ve hatched a fair number of harebrained schemes in its wake. On three separate days, I decided that I was absolutely going down to the AT&T store and buying a white Galaxy S3 at no-commitment price (i.e., without renewing my contract) so I could play with it in the interim. The plan was that I would get familiar with Android, learn the ins and outs, and then probably return it after the launch of the iPhone 5 because undoubtedly I would wind up with one of those new iPhones instead. …Or would I?

In the end, the ridiculous money-juggling, my classic paranoia and my trepidation over the Android app ecosystem conspired to put the kibosh on that plan. So here I sit, with my homemade micro SIM adapter in my 2008 iPhone Classic, suffering all over again with EDGE speeds and GSM speaker feedback (speak of the devil, there it goes again) and iOS version 3.1, wondering what’s going to end up in my pocket when all this is said and done. For all I know, Amazon might decide that my iPhone 4S doesn’t command “like new” dollars and will simply send it back to me, and if that happens, I’ve decided that I’m going to just keep it and wait out the remainder of my contract. As I’ve done every time before this, like a good little soldier.

One thing’s for sure, though: this madness has made me wonder how people who do this every year can put up with it. The selling your iPhone in advance of Apple’s announcement, the suffering through some stopgap phone until preorder night, the staying up late to try and ram your order through Apple’s overloaded servers at three in the morning. I’m not sure I’ll try such a cockamamie scheme again.

Meanwhile, I find myself envious of the simplicity of my wife’s choice. She knows she wants an iPhone 5, she knows she’s getting it (because I’m going to sit up late and preorder one for her), and all she has to do is wait for it to show up at the door. Then she’ll be Facetiming and iMessaging and shooting HD video with the rest of us.

Me? In typical fashion, I’ll drive myself crazy with indecision and over-analysis for three weeks, and then probably wind up making the obvious choice (an iPhone) anyway.

At least I can’t say it’ll be boring.