Connoisseur’s Guide to Selecting a Smartphone

If there were any doubts about the IQ of today’s smartphones, they were expunged by a recent experience: Having spent countless hours over two weeks trying to get a new Windows Vista PC and Outlook 2007 to work with our corporate e-mail, we expected similar difficulties repeating the task with a then-new BlackBerry 8830. To our astonishment, it required little more than entering our e-mail address on the BlackBerry. Within 30 minutes, Research in Motion’s smartphone was relaying every message sent to us.

Not all smartphones facilitate e-mail as easily and effectively as a BlackBerry, but on the whole, today’s smartphones are incredibly capable devices. Best described as the marriage of a PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) and a cell phone, smartphones are capable of managing tasks, accessing the Internet, working on spreadsheets, maintaining contact lists and appointment calendars, and even providing satellite-guided map directions.

Choosing the right smartphone, however, can be more difficult than setting one up to deliver your e-mail, because all smartphones are not created equal. Some, like the BlackBerry for example, are proficient e-mail purveyors, while others are multimedia mavens. And even if your smartphone priorities are well defined, your preferred wireless service provider may not offer the model that best suits your needs. In addition, smartphone models change as often as the weather, and capabilities often change with each new model.

By taking a holistic approach to smartphone shopping, you can choose one that will satisfy most of your needs. Here are some points to consider that will help you make an intelligent smartphone decision:

  • Wireless carrier. Different wireless service providers carry different makes and models of smartphones. You might select a particular smartphone because it is one of the models offered by your favorite carrier, or you may be so attracted to a specific model that you decide to sign up with a new service provider because it is the only one who offers that phone. Either way, the service provider is arguably the biggest factor in choosing a new smartphone.
  • Form factor. Consider shape and size when making a purchase. For example, Apple’s iPhone resembles a personal media player, and BlackBerry’s Pearl looks like an elegant conventional cell phone. The size, shape, and feel of a smartphone should be as important to you as what it can or cannot do. After all, if your smartphone is too big, bulky, or cumbersome to carry or handle comfortably, how much are you likely to use it?
  • Ease of use. The numerous features packed into smartphones can make the devices challenging to use. Unfortunately, that may not become obvious until after you have chosen and purchased one. But, the major carriers and most cell phone retailers offer trial periods during which the phone can be returned and the contract canceled with no penalty. Take advantage of this opportunity and test a phone’s numerous features to determine how convenient and effective the device really is.
  • Software capabilities and compatibility. Most smartphones rely on one of four generally incompatible operating systems (OS): BlackBerry, Palm, Symbian, and Windows Mobile. Apple’s iPhone uses a proprietary and also incompatible OS. The OS determines what software a phone can run and, to some extent, how easy that software is to use. Each OS has its own strengths and weaknesses. For example, the BlackBerry OS is known for its outstanding e-mail handling, Palm and Symbian for their productivity tools, and Windows Mobile for its multimedia capabilities. Different phones also come with different software applications. Determining what your main smartphone needs are can help you choose a device with the best OS and software to meet those needs.
  • Internet access. Smartphones can deliver e-mail and provide World Wide Web access through conventional WiFi or through a cellular service provider’s proprietary wireless network or both. The advantage of WiFi is that it can be both fast and free. The disadvantage is that coverage areas are relatively small and spotty. To ensure wider coverage, all of the major cellular providers are creating wireless data networks in the areas they service. Their 3G (third-generation) networks can provide DSL or faster speeds, but older networks serve as painful reminders of the dial-up era. That may not be too painful if your primary need is sending and receiving e-mail with few attachments. But if you plan to transfer larger files or spend much time surfing the net, be sure your smartphone is WiFi and/or 3G network-capable.

Keep in mind nearly all of the smartphones offered by the major carriers are capable devices that should do a good job delivering cell phone operation and PDA functionality. But a bit of forethought can help you choose a device you will wonder how you ever lived without.

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