Smartphones Now: First-time buyer's guide, 2007

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If you’re thinking we’ve been on smartphone overload this week, you’re right. We’ve been rounding up all of the best and worst in the smartphone world and giving you the goods and bads in general terms. Your next phone will likely be a smartphone. There are more options than ever before, and they literally now fit into any budget.

They’re not for everybody, sure, but if you do more than call Mom once a week so she knows you’re alive, then it’s time for you to get your QWERTY on and do more with your handset, and this guide is here to help.

We should start buy clarifying exactly what a smartphone is and what a smartphone isn’t. That’s more difficult that it sounds, however, as many regular phones today are featuring smartphone features like email and QWERTY keyboards. In essence, a smartphone is a cross between a cellphone and a PDA, allowing you to access information in multiple formats as instantly as possible.

In my opinion, any phone that doesn’t offer system-wide copy-and-paste, automatic email sync, third party application support, and Office integration isn’t a smartphone. And while you think you won’t use all of that, at some point, you’ll be glad it’s all there.

The real problem, though, is that there are dozens of smartphones to choose from, how do you know which smartphone is for you?

The easiest way to tell is to determine what type of user you are. Are you using it for work or personal use? Or both?

If you’re buying your smartphone for business reasons, it’s wise to see if your company has a smartphone policy, as many do now. Your IT guys should be able to help you narrow down which ones they recommend and which work with their network.

But likely you’re on your own, so what are you going to use the smartphone for? If you’re mostly looking at easier, QWERTY text messaging, you might be able to get by with a regular phone with QWERTY, or a “communicator” as they’re called.

But if you’re looking for advanced IM and email, then it’s a smartphone for sure.

There are really two choices you have to make when considering a smartphone: which operating system you like, and what form factor you’re interested in.

For the OS, in the US, you’re basically limited to Windows Mobile, which is modern, though ugly and clunky; Palm OS, which is easy and elegant, but definitely in need of an upgrade; or the OS of Blackberries, which is simple, and functional, but doesn’t do much more than basic functions.

These all have their strengths and weaknesses, so you should check the guides we’ve written earlier in the week to see which one might work well for you.

Most all smartphones have some sort of QWERTY keyboard, either on the face or some sort of slide-out design. The thing to consider is this: how do you like touchscreens?

We all want a phone with a touchscreen, and they do make the phones more useful, but you’ll pay a premium for it. The cheapest way to get a good smartphone with a touchscreen on the market today is the Centro from Sprint at $100. While some carriers might have offers that bring them down to about $50, they’re usually older models, while the Centro is a pretty fresh product. And with the Palm OS, it’s easy to use, making it a very attractive first-time phone.

If you’re looking at Windows Mobile and you want a touchscreen, you’re in luck: all the major carriers in the US feature at least one such phone. But, as mentioned before, they’re not cheap, expect to pay at least $200 for one, even with discounts and subsidies.

AT&T is pushing the Tilt, a decent choice as there’s nothing this phone is lacking besides a speedy processor and, well, a headphone jack. Really. T-Mobile has the popular Wing, which is quite similar. Verizon’s version is the XV6800, and Sprint has the Mogul. All of these are high-end, touchscreen, sliding-QWERTY, Windows Mobile phones, and are all made by HTC.

AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon also offer Treos running Windows Mobile that combine the same touchscreen-over-QWERTY design as the Centro, as well as a handful of others worth a look.

But if you’re willing to forgo the touchscreen, you can still get a wholly usable smartphone, often for free with a new plan. The Q by Motorola, available from Sprint, Verizon and AT&T is one such device. They’re slim and light, and very phone like. T-Mobile has a competitor called the Dash, which, while due for an upgrade, is an inexpensive but passable phone. AT&T also features the quite popular Blackjack by Samsung, one of the highest rated non-touchscreen smartphones we’ve ever seen.

And then there’s the Blackberry. While the devices status of “smartphone” is often in question, we’ll include them here because they’re iconic enough that it’s what many people think of when they think of a smartphone.

They share the non-touchscreen-over-QWERTY design of the Dash and the Q, but don’t have the gawdawful Windows Mobile operating system, which is a blessing. The curse is they don’t have much of an operating system at all, just enough to do what they do. That is likely the phones’ greatest strength and its greatest weakness; most smartphones excel with the help of popular third-party applications, whereas there are very few for the Blackberry line of smartphones.

But most of this doesn’t matter, because a smartphone is just a fancy phone with a keyboard if you don’t have the service to go along with it. All the major carriers support push email, which some consider the smartphone’s killer app. But you’re going to need a data plan. You’re going to want an unlimited one, too, because when you’ve got emails flying, IMs coming in, and a Web browser in your pocket, you’re going to want to use it often.

And that’s what a lot of people get scared off by. But smartphones are now where cellphones were in about 1998: Early adopters have them, and they’re not sorry they signed up for the extra monthly fee, while others are hesitant, thinking they don’t “need” it yet.

Well, you do. Not long ago, many people said they’d never get a cellphone, and now you’re the odd duck if you don’t have one. The same will be said not long from now about those who don’t get their first smartphone, so it’s time you head down to your carrier’s store and see what they have to offer. Talk about data transfer and the costs associated with it, which models they’ll make you a deal on, and incentives they have to get you on their faster networks. You’ll be glad you did.

Selected Smartphones

Phone
Manu- facturer

Carrier

MSRP

Wi-Fi


Touch- screen

OS

Features


Verdict
Motorola Q series
Motorola
AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint $149 – $199
N

N
Windows Mobile 5 or 6 microSD, decent camers, lightweight, very slim for factors, 3G Great, simple phone for staying in touch on the go.
Tilt
HTC (as AT&T)
AT&T About $300, depending on carrier subsidies and business discounts
Y

Y
Windows Mobile 6 3-Megapixel camera with flash, 320×240 touch- screen, WiFi, Bluetooth, microSD, backlit QWERTY keyboard, 3G The full-featured everything phone, with integrated WiFi and a unique tilting design
Treo 680 / Centro Palm AT&T / Sprint About $100 N Y Palm Os 5.4 VGA camera, 320×320 touch- screen, Bluetooth, backlit QWERTY keyboard, GPRS/ EDGE Palm’s uber-popular smartphones, powerful yet easy to use
Blackjack II Samsung AT&T $149 (after discounts) N N Windows Mobile 320×240 non-touch- screen, QWERTY keyboard, Bluetooth, GPS-ready A Blackberry- like smartphone running Windows Mobile
Blackberry Pearl RIM Sprint, Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile $99 – $199 N N Blackberry OS 240×320 screen, QWERTY keyboard, unique trackball Smallest smartphone in the US, very phone-like
T-Mobile Dash

HTC (as T-Mobile)

T-Mobile

$149
Y

N

Windows Mobile 5: Smart- phone Edition

320×240 non-touch- screen, QWERTY keyboard, Bluetooth, WiFi Cheap and very lightweight, the Lohan of smartphones, with Wi-Fi!.
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