Smart Tips for Choosing a Smart Phone
Article courtesy of ConsumerReports.org
Long used by corporate travelers to keep up with e-mail and appointments, smart phones are now catching on with consumers. Some want to tap out text messages on a QWERTY-style keyboard rather than the tiny keypad of a cell phone. Others see no reason to tote a PDA and a cell phone when a smart phone can do the job of both.
Decide on the kind of phone you want. The world of smart phones divides into two categories. Some offer business-focused capabilities in a palm-fitting package. They allow you to create and edit spreadsheets and documents, and they usually come with Microsoft Outlook, Palm Desktop, or other personal information management software for your PC. Many of those models have touch screens for accessing the phone's many features. Other smart phones are geared toward personal use. They're fine for playing music and other multimedia, reading e-mail messages, and opening Office-type attachments, but they don't allow you to create or edit documents and spreadsheets.
Choose a carrier. Most phones work only with a specific carrier, so you might have to decide whether to stay with your current provider or select a new one when shopping for a phone. Major carriers use one of two digital networks: CDMA (Alltel, Sprint, and Verizon) or GSM (AT&T and T-Mobile). The network plays a big part in the capabilities your phone will have and, to some extent, its performance.
Consider the data network. Smart phones that support the fastest wireless broadband data networks, also known as "3G," are best for Web surfing, streaming videos or music, or downloading data-heavy attachments. If you're a Verizon, Sprint Nextel, or Alltel customer, look for models that support EV-DO data protocols. For AT&T customers, the 3G protocol is called HSDPA. T-Mobile is rolling out its 3G data connections. 3G phones typically "downshift" to slower data protocols (1xRTT, EDGE) when 3G service is not available. Check with your carrier to see which broadband data networks are supported in your area.
Consider the operating system. Smart phones run on various operating systems, each with its own character. The operating system affects a phone's capabilities, ease of use, and other conveniences.
- BlackBerry. One of the simplest operating systems for e-mail. E-mail setup and account management is among the easiest-especially on T-Mobile. Push capability automatically sends e-mails to the phone so that you don't have to check it manually. Most models have easy trackball navigation, but lack touch-screen support. And, on many models, you can't create and edit Office documents such as Word and Excel.
- Danger. Used on the Sidekick, this relatively simple interface makes text and instant messaging a snap. But some other tasks, including dialing, are not always intuitive. Lacks automatic notification of new e-mail messages, including push e-mail. Also, you can't create and edit Office documents, such as Word and Excel.
- OS X. A mobile version of the OS X found on Macintosh computers designed to work with finger-driven touch screens. It's what makes many of the iPhone's innovative features possible, including a full-featured version of the Safari Web browser, with rich HTML, e-mail, searching, and map functions. Alas, this multimedia powerhouse doesn't yet allow users to edit or create Office documents.
- Palm. This user-friendly touch-screen interface features programmable shortcuts and hard buttons for messaging, phone, and other applications. Supports full-featured e-mail and office programs. Among the best operating systems for basic PDA functions—contacts, calendar, and task lists-but can only run one Office—type application at a time.
- Symbian or Series 60. Found primarily on Nokia phones, the basic version is difficult to use, especially when setting up and using e-mail. The more powerful version is a little better at those tasks, though its folder-based interface makes navigation a challenge. Also, you can't create and edit Office documents, such as Word and Excel.
- Windows Mobile. Its interface is similar to Windows, which makes navigation intuitive to PC users. It synchronizes easily with Microsoft Outlook on a PC, and you can buy software for syncing with Macs. Easy to switch between applications and run multiple programs. But running several applications might slow performance. Closing applications is also complicated. The more powerful version supports a touch screen for easier navigation and full-featured e-mail and Office programs. The basic version only allows you to view documents such as Word and Excel, and lacks touch-screen support.
Look for sensible features. Cameras and music players are fun, but other features such as a touch-sensitive display, Bluetooth data, and Wi-Fi access might be more critical for easier use (see Important features: Smart phones for additional information).
Size up the keyboard and display. A smart phone's shape and size are largely determined by its keyboard and display. Some models have a QWERTY keyboard that slides out from behind the phone and tucks away when not in use. Others open like an eyeglass case to reveal a keyboard, or leave the keyboard in plain sight. Still other models have a virtual keyboard on their touch-sensitive displays. Overall, we found pecking out messages on their mirror-smooth, buttonless surfaces to be a challenge.
If you plan to do a lot of typing, look instead for a keyboard whose keys are raised, clearly labeled, and well spaced and sized. Make sure the keys provide solid tactile feedback. The display and keyboard should be easy to read under different lighting conditions. Overall, we've found that a full QWERTY keyboard, similar to a computer keyboard, is best for composing and editing text and e-mail messages. Some keyboards cram multiple letters, numbers, and symbols on a single key to save space. But those "condensed" keyboards, though still more convenient than keypads, are not as easy to handle as full keyboards.
Consider the plan. Using the extra, network-dependent capabilities of a smart phone requires a regular (voice/text) phone plan and a data plan for Web surfing and sending and receiving e-mail. Depending on the carrier, prices for the two combined start at $45 to $80 a month with a two-year contract. But you can easily spend more than $200 a month as you add minutes, text messages, and other services.
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