The iPhone 5 plays catch-up with Android smartphones

4G LTE and big screens are old hat in Android, but new to the iPhone 5. NFC is still MIA in the iPhone. Where does Android's hardware edge matter most?

So, the actual details of the iPhone 5 are live. To me, it was a letdown, adding welcome but hardly groundbreaking new capabilities to a smartphone that for a while had far outpaced its competitors.

As expected, th significant hardware enhancements fell two items: 4G LTE radio and a slightly larger screen, plus the usual faster processor. Despite some rumors, there was no inclusion of an NFC chip for short-range communications, such as for mobile payments and trading electronics business cards. LTE, large screens, and NFC are old news in the Android universe, which puts Apple in the position of its "iPhone 5" being a catch-up device, not a leader, at least when it comes to the hardware.

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Make no mistake: iOS has much greater ease-of-use than Android, though Android continues to improve in this regard. Also, iCloud has revolutionized the management of and access to documents, notes, and contacts for many of us; knowing that your data is wherever you are is amazingly powerful. In addition, iOS apps as a class are more capable, and iOS has better security and management capabilities. I've yet to see an Android smartphone that works with my company's Cisco IPsec VPN, for example.

The hardware competition scorecard
But software is just half the game, and I have to say the iPhone's hardware is feeling more and more dated, as I experiment with new Android devices such as the Samsung Galaxy S III. It's been strange to watch Android devices take the lead in several hardware areas. Is the iPhone behind on hardware, and the iPhone 5's enhancements appear to do no more than play catch-up? Or are Android device makers jumping the gun and adopting new technologies before their time, while Apple waits until they're ripe? Let's review.

4G LTE: Verizon, AT&T, and now Sprint are doing their best to convince us we need new devices to use their LTE networks, which they claim are "blazingly fast." (T-Mobile also says it offers 4G, but it doesn't.) Some Android smartphones have supported LTE for about a year now, and the iPhone looks really behind.

Even though the iPhone 5 adds LTE, most users won't enjoy any advantage, at least not immediately. For example, Sprint has extremely little LTE coverage, so any Sprint customer buying a smartphone for its LTE radio will have to wait years in most locations to get that promised speed boost.

AT&T offers LTE in a smattering of cities, but not yet in many biggish ones, such as Seattle and Pittsburgh. Its LTE coverage in my hometown of San Francisco is usually little faster than its 3G network. People I know in other AT&T areas report a real difference, so LTE may matter where you live.

The same is true with Verizon Wireless, which has the most LTE deployments, but whose LTE speed can vary from 5X that of 3G to essentially the same. My experience in San Francisco is that Verizon's LTE is only marginally faster than its 3G. Colleagues in other cities such as Boston see a real difference between Verizon's LTE and 3G service, and they say they'd never go back to 3G.

And LTE is even less deployed outside the U.S.

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