An ordinary cell phone just doesn't deliver the communication security blanket I need anymore when venturing out into the cold, cruel world. I'm not the type who blathers away just to fill life's idle moments, but I pretty much need to carry a cell phone at all times for those Timmy's-fallen-in-the-well crises in my business and personal life. That said, most of my vital communication today is conducted via e-mail, and if I try gallivanting around town for a full day without access to my inbox, my nerves start to jangle. That's when paying for an Internet café seat next to an overripe student backpacker starts to sound appealing.
Which leads me to the smartphone, a hybrid combining standard cell phone capabilities with a miniature laptop's worth of personal organization, communication and, often, entertainment features.
When this double play was first attempted several years ago, the result was an electronic brick, full of potential but far too large and heavy to carry comfortably. I've checked out each generation of improved Franken-phones as they hit the market, but have never been entirely satisfied.
Hence, for the past two years, I've relied on an idiosyncratic solution that's effective but tough to recommend: a small dedicated cell phone for voice communication, a BlackBerry 7230 for wireless e-mail and a Dell Axim PDA for personal organization. The slender, 4.8-ounce BlackBerry does a wonderful job receiving and sending e-mail, with a decent color screen and a battery that lasts about a week without a charge. It also incorporates a built-in phone, but I don't like the voice quality or the feel of holding a flat pad up to my head to make a call-my plain-Jane $50 Samsung phone handles voice communication much better. And while both the phone and the BlackBerry have built-in address books, the PDA offers far superior personal organizer features, lets me display and edit documents on the road, and provides a surprisingly useful Web browser paired with built-in Wi-Fi wireless networking. Equally important, it lets me play audiobooks downloaded from Audible.com. I've found that the perfect antidote to flying in coach for six hours at a stretch is the primal pleasure of having someone read you a story.
So…I have three devices and no quality compromises in their various functions. On the other hand, I have a clumsy bag full of gadgets, each of which requires its own charger when traveling, and two separate wireless service bills for voice and data. As the new year dawned, full of promise and portent, I embarked on a quest to evaluate the latest and greatest smartphones in hopes of finding the One Gadget to Rule Them All. Herein lies my tale.
The BlackBerry Family
As this issue goes to press, the future of Research In Motion (RIM), the creators of the BlackBerry handheld devices, remains in limbo due to a lawsuit over purported patent infringement. Whatever the merits of the case, I'm rooting strongly for RIM to come through unscathed, since the company has brought extraordinary innovation to the software, hardware and service sides of the portable communication equation.
The BlackBerry system pioneered the "push" model of roaming e-mail receipt, and is still its most successful proponent. Ordinarily, when you want to see what torments await in your inbox, you have to send a request for your e-mail to the server where it's stored. With the BlackBerry system, on the other hand, mail is forwarded to your device automatically. You don't have to stop and fetch your e-mail-just glance at the screen and you see what's arrived. What's more, the system works whether there's a big honking corporate IT department serving your every digital whim (the systems folks can run secure BlackBerry e-mail software on their in-house servers) or if you're an individual trying to maintain an e-mail lifeline on the road (a Web-based mail client makes managing your BlackBerry activities simple).
The familiar wide-screen, slender BlackBerry device format is now available, with minor differences, from most cellular service providers, in the BlackBerry 7200 and 7700 series. All now support voice as well as data service, with adequate color screens, backlit keyboards, personal organizer software, limited Web browsing and "trackwheel" control for one-handed operation. They run about $250 to $300 with a new service contract and still represent a solid choice if e-mail is the be-all and end-all of your handheld needs.
Recently, though, RIM has taken a bold new direction in its device design, delivering much brighter, higher-resolution screens, Bluetooth connectivity for wireless headsets and built-in speakerphones. The BlackBerry 7100 series launched this new approach along with another innovation: a more phone-like size and shape. BlackBerrys have traditionally been squat palm-width devices, shaped more like a memo pad than a regular cell phone. The 7100 series changes that, with a tall narrow shape that feels better in your hand when making a call. The diet plan also means a narrower screen, but thanks to the move to a brightly backlit high-res display, the ease of reading e-mail on-screen isn't compromised. The rub comes in the radical keyboard design strategy. To squeeze everything into a new, svelte body, RIM decided to place two letters on each key. I know teenagers who can rapidly double- and triple-tap standard phone keys to send instant messages on standard cell phones, but for impatient grown-ups that sort of typing spells a quick trip to phone-throwing frustration. RIM softened the blow somewhat with its SureType word recognition software. which guesses what you're trying to type with surprising accuracy-just keep pressing the keys, without worrying about what actually shows up on-screen, and when your pattern resembles a word, the phone inserts it. As an e-mail addict, I want the security of the one-letter-per-key thumb-typing experience that BlackBerry taught me to love in the first place. However, if you're more phone-centric, with only a minor in e-mail, the 7100 models are easy to carry and inexpensive compared with other smartphones.
My own affections lie with one of the latest additions to the BlackBerry family, the 8700c. Basically, RIM took the innovative features of the 7100 and combined them with the full-width layout of a classic BlackBerry. But the appeal goes beyond the eye candy of a beautiful screen. The 8700c also includes a more powerful processor and support for Cingular's high-speed EDGE network, making e-mail and Web surfing a notably speedier proposition. The keyboard layout has also improved, with standard call and end call keys. The 8700c still has room for improvement: audio quality is just so-so, those who rely on popular instant messaging services are out of luck, and the entertainment value is low (no music or video and limited games, though photos look good on-screen). For accessing e-mail and the Web on the road, though, nobody does it better.
For more information about all the BlackBerry devices, including links to the carriers offering them, visit www.blackberry.net.
The Microsoft Approach
When it entered the PDA market in 2000, Microsoft took on category leader Palm by adopting a different design philosophy. For Palm, the zen of simplicity was the key to success, its handheld device a digital descendant of the rudimentary paper organizer. For Microsoft, the handheld is a shrunken PC, a pocket-size laptop, right down to miniaturized versions of major Office applications (Outlook, Word, Internet Explorer, Excel and Windows Media Player). Palm is no slouch when it comes to tackling diverse tasks, but, with a broader selection of devices from which to choose, extensive software and hardware add-ons available, and top-notch multimedia capabilities, Microsoft's Pocket PC software outmuscled Palm in the marketplace.
As the industry moved to PDA/phone combos, so did Microsoft, again following Palm (with its groundbreaking Treo products) and offering the ever-popular "more." Windows Mobile software for phone-enabled devices comes in two flavors. Pocket PC Phone Edition is basically Microsoft's PDA software with added phone capabilities, designed for devices with full-sized screens and often full QWERTY keyboards. Then there's the separate Smartphone software, designed for smaller, phone-sized screens, that maintains the easy personal organizer info sharing between PC and handheld, but loses the ability to work on documents on the road and relies on a standard phone keypad for data entry. To ward off any danger of clarity in the world of tech nomenclature, both versions of the software are found in smartphones.
While I like the Smartphone edition, it may be headed for that great operating system graveyard in the sky-with little support from manufacturers or carriers the Motorola Q phone (see below) is its last best hope. On the other hand, the more full-featured Pocket PC Phone Edition (usually simply referred to as Windows Mobile) is taking off, appearing in more compact and powerful devices from a range of manufacturers. When Palm announced a version of its Treo handheld running Windows Mobile instead of the home team's own software (see "The Treo Duo" below), industry pundits could feel the seismic jolt.
Samsung's SCH-i730, available from Verizon ($500 to $550), is a prime example of the do-everything device done well. The large 2.8-inch color touch screen slides up to reveal one of the most comfortable thumb-typing keypads I've used-the keys are well-spaced, rounded upward so they're easy to differentiate and press down with a reassuring click. The Samsung offers built-in Wi-Fi networking and Bluetooth plus high-speed EVDO cellular data connectivity plus a decent 1.3-megapixel camera (I still sneer at cell phone cameras, but they are popular, and this one's about as good as they get). While it delivers all the business-oriented functions I require, what particularly endears this phone to me is the ability to entertain. With a slot that accepts SD memory cards (which have become quite inexpensive in the past year), I can carry hundreds of songs (including those I download through subscription music services), audiobooks and even recorded TV shows or home movies. That might not seem like enough to make an airport delay a pleasure, but an episode of "The Daily Show" sure does take the edge off being socked in by fog at JFK.
The one significant downside of the i730 is its size. While it stacks up very well against most competing PDA/phone combos, it still won't reside happily in a jeans pocket. Far closer to the portability goal line is Sprint's new PPC-6700 ($599). Just a skosh taller and thicker than a deck of cards and about a quarter inch narrower, the PPC-6700 fits neatly in a jacket pocket and even passes the jeans test, assuming you like them middle-aged baggy. The device works well as a keyboard-less phone (you dial using the touch screen), and a small joystick-style pointing device near the bottom makes one-handed navigation through on-screen menus very simple indeed (you can also poke at the screen with your finger or a stylus if you prefer). When it's time to send e-mail messages or edit a document, the top of the phone slides right to reveal a full QWERTY keyboard, nicely designed and backlit for easy use in dim environments. You can even use the PPC-6700 as a wireless modem for your laptop while traveling, an extremely useful feature that's surprisingly hard to find. All the media playback options you'll find on Pocket PC PDAs are included, and unlike earlier Windows Mobile devices, you won't lose your precious information if you let the battery run down completely.
Pricey but powerful, the PPC-6700 just might do it for me, but I've also had the chance to fondle a prototype of a sleek new model from Motorola, a company whose popular Razr phones prove it knows something about squeezing out more pounce to the ounce. The Motorola Q phone, due in the first quarter of 2006, is less than half an inch thick, and the difference when you hold it in your hand-or slip it into your pocket-is striking. You still get a full-size screen and keyboard, along with Bluetooth support, a 1.3-megapixel camera, voice dialing, a speakerphone and a memory expansion card slot. With its combination of powerful productivity and entertainment capabilities in a four-ounce package, this could well be the must-have smartphone for 2006. A few caveats are in order. First, there's no Wi-Fi. Second, the unit I longingly caressed was a prototype, so I can't vouch for voice quality or processing speed. And as of this writing, no cellular carrier has been announced, hence no pricing information. Still, for someone who thrives on having strangers stop me at Starbucks and ask, "What kind of phone is that?" the allure of the Motorola Q is undeniable.
The Treo Duo
Palm's Treo is widely seen as the benchmark against which all other smartphones are judged-the company was the first to pack all the key features into a small, practical device with the Treo 600 in 2003, and with the subtle but substantial upgrade to the Treo 650 in 2004, set the bar high. Now Palm has really ticked off company loyalists with the new Treo 700w, maintaining the proven physical design of the Treo 650, but switching to Microsoft's Windows Mobile 5.0 software. (Data stored with the old software is still accessible with the platform.) Why did the Hatfields adopt a McCoy? Corporate IT departments wanted to standardize on Microsoft software to ease their user support burden.
How does the Treo 650 ($350) hold up, in the face of increasing competition? It's not the smallest kid on the block-the 650 weighs 6.3 ounces and stands 4.4 inches high-but the pleasingly rounded corners make it seem both manageable and comfortable in your hands. The 2.5-inch display boasts higher resolution than some competitors (320 x 320 versus 320 x 240 for Sprint's PPC-6700, for example), text is sharp and clear, and photos look appealing. The keyboard is fine, but certainly not my favorite. The keys are crowded uncomfortably close, and their flat tops make it hard to find your spot when dialing or thumb-typing a message. Fortunately, all the shortcut keys are intelligently arrayed, making it simple to start a call, jump to your calendar and e-mail, or pull down a menu. The dedicated switch on top that instantly turns off the !@#$% ringer is a godsend-it's surprising that other manufacturers haven't followed suit.
The Treo 650 doesn't lose information when the battery dies, an important feature that Windows Mobile—powered devices have only recently adopted, though there's not much memory installed (an SD card slot lets you add it, basically a requirement). What's missing? Wi-Fi, for one (though a $100 optional SD card Wi-Fi add-on is available on the 700w). While Bluetooth is built in on the 650, it won't allow you to use your phone as a PC modem. The multimedia functions aren't on par with the Windows Mobile lineup-the built-in RealPlayer software for MP3 playback runs a sorry second to Windows Media Player. The built-in camera offers meager 640 x 480 resolution (that translates to less than a third of a megapixel), whereas most camera-equipped smartphones now run 1.3 megapixels. Overall, if you're a Palm operating system loyalist, you're likely to be happy with the Treo 650, but I find the device a bit oversized and underpowered.
That said, what about the $400 Windows Mobile-based Treo 700w? One of the most important improvements has nothing to do with the underlying software: the 700w runs on Verizon's high-speed EVDO network, speeding up e-mail and Web browsing dramatically. As for the phone, it's nearly identical to the size and shape of the Treo 650. The keyboard is improved slightly, though the screen resolution drops to a disappointing 240 x 240.
Palm tweaked Microsoft-standard calling procedures in several important ways. To dial the phone, just start pressing the keys-after punching in a few letters of a name from your contact database, the listing appears. There's also a Google search bar right on the start screen and an ingenious VCR-style control for accessing voice mail that lets you easily pause, rewind or fast-forward your way through messages. Another feature that will appeal to those of us whose phones wait until we're in a meeting to ring is the ability to not just ignore an incoming call, but silently reply to the caller with a text message. The 1.3-megapixel camera is a big improvement over the Treo 650, but unfortunately, the new model shares its brand mate's lack of computer modem capability.
Complaints? There's too much poking at menus to reach basic functions, like e-mail, your contact list and the speakerphone. And since the square screen is nonstandard for Windows Mobile-powered devices, which usually have rectangular displays, some software won't work correctly until Treo-specific versions are created (including my essential Audible audiobook player). In general, though, this experiment in cross-company interbreeding produced a healthy offspring.
Two More Contenders
While the Nokia 9300 has several flaws, some users will overlook them for its unique design. It's a rugged device that eschews plastic in favor of a sleek metallic body that feels just right as a phone, albeit a hefty one. Open the case and you find what's essentially a tiny laptop, with a full keyboard and a display that's wide enough to read documents or Web pages comfortably, though deep enough to see only a few lines at a time. The 9300 ($300) offers built-in Bluetooth (but no Wi-Fi capability), a speakerphone and a strong suite of personal-information-management software. And while it will work fine online over a standard cellular connection, the option to use Cingular's high-speed EDGE network is worth exploring for serious work on the road.
On the other hand, the Symbian operating system doesn't offer the same diverse panoply of add-on software and hardware available for Palm and Windows Mobile devices. The keyboard is cramped and, without a backlight, pretty much unusable in dark environments. You can install an add-on memory card, but since the slot is buried under the back cover, swapping cards (to view photos from your digital camera, for example) is not an option to be taken lightly. And for some unknown reason Nokia didn't provide a vibrate mode for the phone ringer, leaving you the choice between sounding off at inappropriate moments or missing calls entirely.
Another Symbian-based smartphone, the Sony-Ericsson 910a, is a comfortable device with plenty of work and play appeal. The 910a is large but slim, so it feels fine in your hand and stows neatly in a jacket pocket. The screen is a thing of beauty, equally readable indoors and out, with icons large enough to be pressed with your fingers instead of reaching for the stylus. There's Bluetooth for use with headphones and an on-the-go modem for your laptop, and battery life is exceptionally long. Unfortunately, since none of the major cellular carriers currently offers the phone you'll have to buy it without the typical carrier rebate, which boosts the price above $400.
The wildcard element in the design is the alphabetical keyboard, which appears when you flip down the phone keypad. The keys are very small and, unlike the phone keys, not backlit. Since it's hinged at the top, you have to be concerned about cradling the keyboard from behind to keep it from swinging back every time you press a key-this contrasts sharply with the solid typing feel of the other smartphones reviewed, and not for the better.
The Bottom Line
While I can't say my exploration led me to the perfect smartphone, there are several strong contenders here. Of course, your first consideration must be network coverage where you live, work and travel. Several of these phones are available from only a single carrier at this time, and falling in love with a phone that can't get a strong, reliable signal is a sad romance indeed.
Phone prices are inextricably tied to calling plans, which are in turn tied into little Gordian knots. Clearly, smartphones are more expensive than less capable devices-figure you're in for $200 to $500-but the price of the device is tied to the length of your contract commitment, sales and promotions-which change frequently-and whether you want to get both voice and data service on the device. That's an important wrinkle to consider-while you'll save money on a combination plan, you're not obligated to activate the voice feature on most smartphone plans, leaving open the option to carry separate data devices and cell phones.
Of the phones I tested for this report, I'm most drawn to the BlackBerry 8700c, the PPC-6700 and the Motorola Q. For now, the 8700c has replaced my older BlackBerry 7230 for on-the-road e-mail, but since it's more belt-clip-holster than pocket-friendly and lacks an Audible player, I'd have to keep my regular cell phone and even my PDA at the ready. The PPC-6700 is closer to my one-stop-shopping ideal: it's a bit chunky but that's not an absolute deal-breaker if it lets me travel with one device and jettison the tangle of chargers in my suitcase. Until I can test a final version of the exceedingly sleek and sexy Motorola Q phone, though, I'll keep flirting with new smartphones without making a serious commitment.
Steve Morgenstern writes often on technology issues for Cigar Aficionado.