Like the old grey mare, cellphones and PDAs aren’t what they used to be. They’ve merged into interesting hybrids known as smart phones.
A smart phone offers telephony, but it also has all sorts of additional goodies designed to displace other devices from its owner’s pocket. It may provide Web
surfing, or e-mail, or games, or an MP3 player, and of course, it really needs a Personal Information Manager, or PIM. It may be shaped like a telephone, or like a PDA, or it may be somewhere in between.
Whatever they look like, they run on a cellular network.
Phones, however, are not just phones in the cellular world. There are two competing communication technologies in use, and some device manufacturers only support one of the two.
In one corner sits the predominant technology in North America, CDMA/1X. It is offered by Bell Mobility and Telus Mobility. In the other corner, GSM/GPRS, the defacto standard everywhere else in the world, is offered by Rogers Wireless and Fido (now owned by Rogers).
We collected some current smart phones to see how they perform. Unless otherwise noted, prices are carrier list, without a service contract.
RIM Blackberry 7100r
The 7100r is RESEARCH IN MOTION’S foray into the true telephony market. Unlike its other phone-enabled BlackBerrys, the device is shaped more like a phone than a PDA, and has what is at first glance only a standard telephone keypad. Look again and you’ll see an extra column of keys down each side. Look closer yet and you’ll see that, unlike a phone keypad, the letters on the keys are laid out like those on a regular QWERTY keyboard, but two per key (with a couple of exceptions). When you thumb type, the software guesses what you meant and gives you choices of letter combinations. For example, if you want the word “”here”” you’d hit 5111. The device shows “”here,”” “”gree,”” “”herr,”” “”gerr,”” with “”here”” selected as the most likely choice. Roll the thumbwheel to change selections, hit the space bar, and the word you chose remains.
I can see your sneers now. I felt the same way when I first saw it, but it actually works pretty well. The trick is to type the whole word before looking at the display.
It weighs in at 120 grams, making it the lightest of our collection.
Palmone Treo 600
PalmOne’s acquisition of Handspring, and the return of its founders, has brought telephony expertise back in-house and made PalmOne a real contender. The Treo 600 is a compact device with a tiny QWERTY keyboard that has an embedded telephone keypad. The speakerphone performs adequately, and is activated by simply tapping the appropriate spot on the screen during a call. There’s a mute button on the top of the Treo that instantly stifles all sounds from it: alarms, rings and system sounds.
Stylus-centric Palm users may be slightly confused by the touchscreen, which allows some, but not all of the familiar functions. For example, to get back to the main Palm screen, you have to press the “”Home”” key on the keyboard; the icon one would usually tap onscreen is missing.
Battery life is rated at 240 minutes talk or 240 hours standby.
The i700 is a full-fledged PocketPC with telephony capabilities. At 196 grams, and measuring 13.2 x 7.1 x 2 cm, it is the biggest and heftiest of our units. It also boasts the biggest screen.
These amenities mean, unfortunately, it also has the worst battery life. It is rated at four hours talk or 96 hours standby, but it came up short — every two or three days it grumbled at me about needing a recharge.
This unit is more PDA than phone when you first look at it. But press a button on the front and a full phone keypad appears on the screen. All entry is via touchscreen and soft keys.
There’s a speakerphone (I found it rather faint), a camera (the lens rotates to a safe position when not in use), and an MP3 player as well as the usual PocketPC applications. Additional storage is by means of a secure digital card.
Sony ericsson p910a
Sony Ericsson abandoned the Palm OS for Symbian in this compact, elegant little device that comes with a custom case and special screen-cleaning cloth. The second BlueTooth-enabled phone in our roundup (it also supports infrared), it has all sorts of ways to acquire data. There’s a full telephone keypad for when it’s playing telephone. Flip that keypad down, and on the reverse there’s a tiny QWERTY keyboard. There’s a soft keyboard available in some applications, and it also boasts handwriting recognition.
Opening the flip engages the very good speakerphone when you’re doing telephony, or displays a huge list of applications, including controls for the camera, MP3 player and PIM, otherwise.
A jog wheel on the left lets you scroll through lists; pressing it launches the selected application.
The 7135 may be a bit long in the tooth (we first looked at it in 2003), but it still acquits itself quite well. Its form factor is that of a hefty flip phone, tipping the scales at about six and a half ounces.
Under the hood, it’s a Palm handheld whose screen doubles as the phone’s display. On the bottom half of the flip, the Graffiti area sits above standard Palm controls and a full telephone keypad. An SD slot allows for additional storage, and an MP3 player gives you an excuse to use it.
The speakerphone function works well. A tiny LCD screen on top of the unit shows critical information like the state of the battery, the time, signal strength and ringer status.
Battery life is not bad. It’s rated at 3.5 hours talk or 160 hours standby. Using the PDA and only activating the phone when required prolongs life significantly.
Nokia’s new offering is a relatively light (124 grams), Symbian-powered camera phone with good-sized, bright screen and a little joystick to move you among functions. If you only look at the main display, you would think it just had a calendar and camera, but pressing a button on the front reveals a wealth of applications, including Real Player, Contacts, messaging, and a herd of extras like Quicksheet, Quickword and Quickpoint, a voice recorder, MP3 player, and a converter that can handle weights and measures or currency.
It is also a capable speakerphone, and supports BlueTooth and infrared connectivity to other devices. Hidden inside, under the battery, snuggles an SD card to provide storage for pictures or music or whatever. Battery life is rated at four hours talk or 192 hours standby. Camera use takes a bite out of that time, but nonetheless it did a bit better than rated in testing.
Get smart with cellular
One delightful consequence of the pervasiveness of this technology is the drop in prices. For example, two years ago, the Kyocera sold for $699 with a two-year contract. Now it costs $499 with no contract.
That’s not to say smartphones are cheap, but when you add up the cost of a phone and a PDA, they’re at least competitive.
However, the choice of the ideal smartphone isn’t entirely one of price or technology. Because each cellular carrier only offers a limited selection of devices, you may have to compromise. If, for example, you’re tied to Rogers or Bell or Telus in a multi-year cellular contract, you either have to pay a substantial cancellation fee or pick a smartphone that said carrier supports.
Despite the scores, the devices aren’t as different as they appear. Samsung aside (it’s really a PDA with incidental phone capabilities), each is a functional cellphone and PDA.
The more compact size of the new units alleviates the complaint of many users of early models that they felt as though they were holding a calculator to their ear when they were on the phone.
My only quibble with the Kyocera is its size and weight. At 7.1 cm wide and 186 grams, it would strain most pockets.
The Nokia is outrageously reasonably priced (although the price assumes a three-year carrier contract) and has plenty of good functions. Because of its minimalist design, however, it was not something you could use without cracking the manual.
The Treo is a lovely little beast, but I found its teeny, dome-shaped keys difficult to type on quickly. I especially like the mute button, which makes silencing it in public venues quick and easy, and battery life was Palm-standard wonderful.
Sony Ericsson has a winner with the P910a, although the jog wheel was a bit awkward. The double-sided keyboard is an intriguing idea. Time will tell how durable the flip will be.
But the BlackBerry 7100r is the device that kept sneaking back into my purse. Its lightweight, seamless e-mail and capable telephony to me overshadowed the lack of some of the toys like MP3 players and cameras. Its battery consistently outperformed the rated values, and it recharged quickly.