Following Nokia, HTC reveal latest challengers to the Apple iPhone’s crown

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The Independent Tech

The contrast couldn’t be starker: the largest mobile phone company in the world and a relatively new, relatively small smartphone maker. But this week both Nokia and HTC launched mobiles which aim to take on Apple’s mighty iPhone.

Today, Peter Chou, HTC’s deferential and charming CEO unveiled the Desire HD, with a sleek unibody metal sleeve and huge 4.3-inch screen, and the Desire Z (pictured), which takes its name from the way the Qwerty keypad hinges out from behind the display. Both look and feel sumptuously usable and feature the latest version of HTC Sense.

Sense is HTC’s own interface, which it overlays on top of the standard Android system, delivering a streamlined, recognisable setup with cool extra features. Today’s phones both use the latest version of Android, version 2.2.

The releases come on the back of a lavish and popular conference held yesterday by Nokia, the beleaguered giant of the phone world struggling to keep up with Apple, where leading executives had one message: “Nokia is back”.

In a punchily aggressive, barnstorming presentation, the outgoing head of mobile business Anssi Vanjoki announced four smartphones which feature the company’s revamped Symbian operating system. He defended Nokia against complaints that Symbian^3 was too similar to the last version, claiming its familiarity was its strength. It certainly felt fast, intuitive and effective when I tried the phones out.

The flagship N8 is particularly strong, with a cool anodised aluminium case, 12-megapixel camera, HD video recording and more. The many millions of devotees who have been waiting for a smartphone with the comfort of Nokia’s operating system may buy the N8 in huge numbers.

The company’s marketing chief Niklas Savander gave some impressive numbers – the 260,000 smartphones Nokia sells every day outstrips the competition, beating Apple and Android sales combined. He even managed to target Apple’s recent antenna problems by saying Nokia’s handsets “perform day in, day out – no matter how you hold them.”

And now Taiwanese phone maker HTC has launched two phones to add to the chorus of devices who are eyeing the throne of Apple's iPhone. HTC has a gift for improving phone operating systems: it has made the best Microsoft Windows Mobile devices. More recently it’s become best known as the outstanding maker of phones using Google’s Android interface. Last year’s HTC Hero grabbed headlines and this year’s mightily successful HTC Desire catapulted the company into the big league.

Some critics have argued that Sense gets in the way of Google’s Android updates – customers with the Desire had to wait some time to get all the benefits of the last software upgrade. I put this to Mr Chou who agreed, while pointing out that some of the improvements in Google’s new version were already included in Sense and that anyway HTC rolled out the update to its users in under two months.

So how good are the phones? Both companies had some neat gimmicks. Each phone was launched with 8-megapixel cameras and HD video recording, for instance.

Nokia already provides free mapping for most of its phones with GPS built in. This is important if you’re overseas because many phone satnav programs require extensive, and dramatically expensive, data traffic to work. With Ovi Maps, Nokia lets you turn off data roaming and still receive a fast, effective alternative to a dedicated satnav. Today, HTC seeks to match that with a new service which lets you download free maps.

Nokia also announced a great screen technology called CBD, ClearBlack Display, which removes unwanted reflections to deliver something that Mr Vanjoki described, in a Spinal Tap-like moment, as “blacker than black”. Whatever, the results were remarkable, providing high-contrast images that are easily visible even in bright sunlight. It will be in two of the new handsets, the C6, a squat candy-bar phone and the E7 a huge Qwerty handset with 4-inch screen.

The HTC Desire HD and Desire Z come with a feature called HTC Fastboot. Smartphones are slow when you first power them on, taking up to a minute to be ready to go. Peter Chou told me Fastboot would make the phone ready in just 15 seconds and demonstrated it. Well, he was wrong about the 15 seconds: it was much faster.

These handsets go on sale soon – the Nokia N8 is out in two weeks’ time – and have a lot going for them, from their stylish designs to their fast, capable processors and responsive touchscreen displays. For perhaps the first time, these are phones which could credibly challenge the iPhone.