Smartphone Buying Guide
Smartphones have been around for about a decade now, but unlike other high-tech items such as laptops, smartphones come in a huge variety of shapes, sizes and styles. There are smartphones for the security-conscious business executive, smartphones for the style-conscious teenager, and smartphones for just about everyone in between.
What all smartphones have in common is a full-featured cellular phone, a full-featured PDA, and the ability to access the internet and email. From this starting point smartphones take-off to include models with music and video players, operating systems that include many computer-like programs or support them being added, and some that even function as a GPS navigator.
Size shape and features are where you should start. Decide if you want something powerful enough to replace a laptop, MP3 and video player, PDA and cell phone with a single device, or something smaller, but with fewer features. Once you've decided on the type of device you want, there are only three things to worry about; the operating system the phone uses, the carrier and the hardware itself.
Major Operating Systems
Windows mobile uses the Start Button and user interface that came out with Windows 95 and which continues in today's Windows Vista rather than the large icons for each application like the original PalmPilot did in the early 90s and most other smartphones do now. If you want your smartphone to work the same way as your PC, and that PC uses a version of Microsoft Windows, then Windows Mobile is your OS of choice.
Windows Mobile also integrates well with Windows-based computers and with Windows Server and Microsoft Exchange-based networks. Through the same ActiveSync software that allows Windows Mobile smartphones to synchronize with Windows PCs, Windows Mobile can also synchronize email and calendar data with a Microsoft Exchange server.
That Windows Mobile looks and feels like Windows XP is its biggest advantage and its biggest drawback compared to its competition. Navigating through a Start menu can be awkward on keyboard-based devices, though works fairly well with a stylus. Switching between applications is also a bit clunky, unless the device has a dedicated task-switcher button. The other usability issue with Windows Mobil is that the Windows user interface was designed for a large screen, and some elements, like the system tray and the all-important Start menu tend to be quite small on phone-style devices, though adequate on PDA-style devices.
Another downside to Windows Mobile (unless you buy a 3rd party sync utility) is that it does not include any support for Macintosh computers.
BlackBerry is currently the market leader for smartphones. Until the Pearl model was released in 2006 the only BlackBerry devices were the large PDA-style units, but with the Pearl RIM introduced stylish phone-style units.
BlackBerry started out in the 90s as a glorified pager with then-unique push-email capability. Back then you needed an expensive BlackBerry server, which is still required for instant corporate email (like Exchange) and calendar sync on the go, but today's BlackBerry can also synchronize to standard POP and IMAP email and get its Exchange data through your PC and Microsoft Outlook.
Until recently, BlackBerry was Windows-only like a number of other platforms, but last year RIM licensed PocketMac and now distributes this formerly 3rd party application for free, allowing almost any BlackBerry device to sync with a Macintosh computer. Its not as well integrated as the Windows BlackBerry software, but a new version will fix that sometime around summer 2008.
BlackBerry's signature feature, push email, is no longer unique as other major platforms all support have the same capability. The BlackBerry user interface also looks more-or-less identical to those of most Linux and Symbian systems.
Also like Linux and Symbian, BlackBerry OS is mature, stable and fast, requiring very little in terms of hardware resources and rarely, if ever, crashing. BlackBerry remains extremely popular in corporate and government settings as the OS is designed to allow network administrators to lock down the platform and permit secure email.
This is the new player on the block, and while instantly popular with consumers, a recent announcement of upcoming (June 2008) support for Microsoft's ActiveSync and Exchange makes iPhone very attractive to business as well.
The iPhone OS is actually a slimmed-down version of Mac OS X, which is very highly regarded in the computer industry as a stable, Unix-based operating system that remains very easy to use. The iPhone shares its Unix architecture with its big brother Mac OS and also shares its Safari web browser and Mail applications, though it is not a full-featured Macintosh computer. Applications can be developed with the new iPhone SDK, but being new, there aren't many applications yet.
What really sets the iPhone OS apart is its user interface. Like most smartphones, iPhone uses icons to launch programs. It also uses an on-screen keyboard that users touch to type. Where it differs from other on-screen keyboards is that users use their fingers instead of a stylus, and the keys grow as your finger touches them, making typing far quicker and easier than on typical stylus-driven or non-expanding keyboards. For many users this is also faster than the thumb-style keyboards that are the most popular smartphone keyboard style.
While there aren't many 3rd party applications for iPhone yet, they are coming. Thats not to say that iPhone lacks capabilities, as it has excellent email, web and multimedia capabilities, with perhaps the best smartphone audio and video capabilities on the market today.
Strictly speaking, since 2007 Palm OS is also Linux, but those clever software engineers included an emulator for the old Palm OS allowing Palm OS smartphones to run older palm software. This is great news if you are fan of some of the great old PalmPilot games and utilities from before the smartphone era as they will run, often faster than ever, on your modern smartphone.
Other than compatibility with classic Palm applications and the backing of a major vendor, today's Palm OS has all of the traits of Linux, including its speed and famous stability. Another good point for Palm OS is that Palm continues to develop its Macintosh sync client, so if you use a Mac, a Palm will work.
Symbian is a smartphone OS that most consumers know nothing about, but most likely have already used on an older smartphone or PDA. This OS has been around at least since the 90s when Symbian-powered Psion PDAs competed with PalmPilots. Like Palm OS and all other non-Windows systems, Symbian presents you with large icons for your applications that you click or select to run that program or feature. Symbian is mature, stable and fast, making it a terrific match for smartphones, though like Windows Mobile, you will need 3rd party software to synchronize with anything other than a Windows PC and there are not currently any options to sync to an Exchange server.
Nokia, Motorola and many others license and use Symbian, and it is well supported with aftermarket software.
Linux comes in many flavors for regular computers, and it does on smartphones as well. What current smartphone Linux versions all have in common is that they look nothing like Linux, and this is a good thing.
If your smartphone doesn't say "BlackBerry" or "Windows Mobile" and isn't made by Nokia, Samsung, LG or Sony Ericsson, all of which use the popular though largely unknown Symbian system, it probably uses some form of Linux. Well what about Palm OS, you might ask? Newer Palm smartphones come in two system versions, Windows Mobile, and a version of Linux that is sold as Palm OS. While this looks and feels like the Palm OS of the late 90s, looks are deceiving as this is a version of Linux with a Palm shell on top and actual Palm OS emulation running as, yup, a Linux program.
Most smartphone Linux systems look a lot like the original Palm OS, and honestly, so do all other smartphone systems except for Windows Mobile. Whichever Linux-based phone you buy will have a few things in common, like terrific speed and stability when running applications, a large software library so long as Linux standards are followed, and nice, large icons for each of your installed applications, just like an old PalmPilot had.
Since Linux is essentially free software, it comes on probably the widest variety of hardware. Everything from small phones that barely qualify for the smartphone category to devices that can almost replace a laptop while still being suited to the basic task of making phone calls can be built on a Linux platform.
The disadvantage, unless supported by a major manufacturer like Palm, is that there may not be a very large selection of software available, and that your phone's particular version of Linux may not be around next year.
Network and Carrier
In the United States there are two choices, CDMA and GSM. For the typical users there is little difference between the two and no reason to select one over the other. GSM is more popular in Europe, while CDMA is more popular in Asia, but like the United States, you can get both systems in most of the world. There are also tri and quad-band phones that will work on whatever network happens to be available, while expensive Satellite phones will work even when no network is available at all.
One aspect of network that you should care about is the data, rather than phone portion of your service. This is your pipe to the internet, and can either be dreadfully slow (GPRS), blazing fast (3G) or somewhere in between (Edge).
There is no easy way to lay out which data network is available on which carrier and on which device, as most carriers have multiple options. AT&T, for example, has a fast 3G network that will work on many of the latest devices, but Apple's iPhone is, for now, only able to access the slower Edge network. The 3-year-old BlackBerry 7290 remains a popular model, but can only access the internet at dial-up speed over GPRS. All three are on AT&T, all three are billed at the same rate for data, the difference is speed.
Carrier will be an easier choice for most people than network type. You may already have an existing contract, and unless you are willing to pay an early termination fee you will be limited to the same carrier for your smartphone. Many users find that one carrier works better in a needed location than others, making their decision easy. Still others will select a carrier based on the special included features in the plan. There is no wrong answer, just choose a carrier that has a decent signal where you live and work and that offers a plan that suits your needs and budget on hardware that does what you want it to.
The only limitation is really hardware. Many carriers have exclusive phones that are not shared by other carriers. Apple's iPhone is AT&T only in the United States at this time, while the popular Sidekick series are only on T-Mobile.
The table below indicates which networks are available on which carriers.
Major US Carriers
|Carrier||Network Type||Data Network|
|AT&T (formerly Cingular)||GSM||Edge and 3G|
|Sprint||GSM||Edge and 3G|
Okay, so you've selected the operating system for your smartphone, now its time to go shopping. Most operating systems are available on hardware in both phone and PDA-style devices that are either sold directly by all cellular carriers, or are available in unlocked versions that can work on any compatible network.
Look first at special requirements. A government employee or attorney may require a smartphone without a built-in camera due to corporate or agency rules, which will immediately eliminate many popular smartphones from consideration. Currently the legal and government markets are almost completely owned by RIM's BlackBerry, and it is no surprise that RIM offers a variety of models both with and without cameras. Other specialty features are music and video capabilities, GPS navigation, Bluetooth and tethered modem capability.
Many smartphones today are so capable that they can actually replace a laptop computer for some users. A good example is the BlackBerry Curve, a PDA-style smartphone that includes a camera, GPS, video and music player and through third-party software can even be used to edit word processing documents, slide shows and spreadsheets. With its full QWERTY keyboard, composing and replying to email is fast and convenient. It is even possible to add turn-by-turn driving support to the GPS with an add-on service (and a monthly fee).
While the Curve is a high-end smartphone with a high-end price, most smartphones include everything except for the GPS. You can use the built-in camera to take someone's picture, attach that picture to an email and instantly send it to someone across town or across the ocean, without ever turning on a regular computer.
Web browsing on a smartphone is more limited than on a computer, but it has come a long way. Your smartphone will come with the standard browser for its operating system, but if you want more or different features you can add a third-party browser like Opera, which has a mini version that will run on almost any smartphone, or an extremely feature-rich browser that only works on Windows Mobile. Some, like Apple's iPhone, fall in between, offering a browsing experience that rivals that of a computer (iPhone uses the same Safari browser as Mac OSX), but strangely has no ability to handle Flash media content, which is common on many websites.
One very common feature is a camera. Smartphone cameras range in quality from poor (VGA 640X480 resolution) to adequate (2 megapixel). All are fine for taking pictures that will only be viewed on a smartphone, but if you are looking to make 5X7 or 8X10 inch prints, you will probably still want a conventional digital camera. Some smartphones also offer the ability to record video, which again is subject to the same quality restrictions, but will usually look fine when played on the smartphone itself or in a window on your computer.
Media players vary as greatly in ability as browsers and cameras do. Apple's iPhone is clearly the stand-out here, essentially including Apple's best ever iPod within and integrated with the phone. With the disappearing on-screen keyboard you can use the iPhone to watch feature films downloaded from iTunes and actually enjoy them in all their widescreen goodness. Portable video does not get any better. Other smartphones simply do not compare, though Windows Mobile is better than Palm, BlackBerry and Symbian.
Another thing to watch for with media players in smartphones is the audio output. Some smartphones use full 1/8th inch miniplugs for headphones, the same as MP3 and CD players, but others use proprietary sizes specific to that brand, USB, Bluetooth or industry-standard though uncommon micro connectors. Make sure a 1/8th inch adapter is available for whatever smartphone you choose so that you can enjoy quality headphones or find a cheap replacement if you lose or break the included headphones.
Major Hardware Vendors
If your company uses the BlackBerry Enterprise Server for email and calendar sync then you will be limited to only RIM BlackBerry devices. BlackBerries come in many shapes and sizes, with some aimed clearly at those who prefer a stylish phone-style unit (BlackBerry Pearl) and PDA-style aimed at busy professionals who receive a constant flood of email.
The PDA-style is what RIM has been doing longest, and is where the company has the most variety. The 8700 series are the current model of the generic BlackBerry you've seen for years. It has all of the email features that BlackBerry users demand, but none of the consumer-oriented features like music or video playback.
The BlackBerry Curve is the high-end PDA-style unit that includes almost everything available on a modern smartphone, while the thinner and sleeker 8800 series takes away the camera. The BlackBerry Pearl is the style-conscious unit that has the slender profile of a conventional (non-smart) cellular phone while still providing full BlackBerry capability.
BlackBerry smartphones are available from every major carrier and to support every data network. BlackBerry units, even the sleek Pearl, remain more business-oriented than their competition, supporting multiple email accounts and the ability to be locked down by network administrators. Where they suffer is in the consumer features. Even video-enabled units like the Pearl and the 8800 support fewer video and audio formats than iPhone and Windows Mobile and getting them to work with feature length films can be tricky, though with their small screens you aren't missing much.
PDA-style BlackBerry smartphones have full QWERTY thumb keyboards that are among the best in the industry, while the Pearl has an abbreviated keyboard that combines two letters on each key, still in a QWERTY layout, as a compromise between a regular phone keyboard and a full keyboard. Those who live on their email will want the full keyboard, though the abbreviated keyboard is considerably better than a standard 9-key phone pad.
RIM is the number one vendor of smartphones by a very wide margin.
Palm sells smartphone for both its own Palm OS (Linux-based) and Windows Mobile, though the hardware is essentially the same for both. This is fine for businesses that want to give users a choice in operating system while still standardizing on accessories like charges and batteries, though in most cases it is the operating system that a company will wish to standardize.
Palm Treo was among the first of the modern smartphones and they remain popular devices, though many users do not like the use of a stylus on a small device and prefer the wheels, trackballs, touchscreens and joysticks common on other models. Yes, a Palm screen can be tapped with fingers like any other touchscreen, but with Windows Mobile some of the items on the screen are too small and really do require the stylus.
Modern Treo smartphones all have built-in thumb keyboards that are full-QWERTY and have nice feel. Some older ones used the old Palm OS Graffiti system to interpret a simplified alphabet entered with the stylus.
Palm remains the second-largest vendor of smartphones, behind RIM.
Apple's iPhone is perhaps the best portable video and music player on the market today, but you cannot use it as a modem to connect your laptop to the internet and it has no GPS option. Of course, it is the only option if you have a lot of iTunes music and want to access it on your smartphone.
If you use a Macintosh computer, the iPhone will have the best synchronization experience of any smartphone available, and it is just as well integrated with Windows PCs as the competition. iPhone syncs to a Mac or PC using the iTunes jukebox program, though ActiveSync is coming soon and will add Exchange capability on Windows (no word about Exchange for Mac). iTunes is just as proficient at syncing calendar and contact information with your computer as it is at syncing music and video to your iPod, and of course, the iPhone is a full-featured iPod.
What really sets the iPhone apart is the user interface. Held vertically it looks like many other smartphones, with an on-screen keyboard, large icons and a sleek shape that is easy to hold for making calls. Rotate the unit to horizontal and you have perhaps the largest screen in the industry for watching video, and unlike most smartphones, the iPhone works well with even full-length feature films downloaded off iTunes.
While the iPhone has many advantages over its competition, it has disadvantages as well. First, as previously mentioned it is only available for AT&T. If AT&T reception is poor in your area, or if you are locked into a contract with another carrier, you may be out of luck. Another big disadvantage is the hardware design that has the battery built-in without a means of replacement by the user. If your typical workday has you on the phone and running around all-day, you cannot swap in a fresh battery when you run out of power. Finally, there is no way to add storage capacity to the iPhone, its built-in like the battery. iPhones can be purchased with up to 16GB of memory, which is generous, but many competitors offer removable cards where you can have more permanent storage of applications or data.
Despite being only a year old, the iPhone is already number three in the smartphone market, and unlike all competitors, Apple's market share is growing, while everybody else's shrinks or stagnates.
There is no easy answer or formula to help you select the best smartphone for your needs, but with a bit of research and thought, you will find a device that works for you. Take your time, decide which operating system suits your needs, select a carrier with good coverage and rates, then go find the device with the features you want.