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Do You (Or Your Kids) Need A Smartphone?
Maybe, maybe not. But first things first: what are they and what do they do?
By Bill Camarda
are, when you've been shopping for your next cell phone, you've heard
the word "smartphone." What exactly makes a smartphone smart? How smart
is your phone – or how dumb? How smart does your phone really need to
No universal agreement on what "smart" means
of all, as with human beings, to a surprising extent "smart" is in the
eye of the beholder. There's no precise definition of a smartphone that
everyone agrees on. And even the most basic of cell phones keeps
getting smarter: today's dumbest phones would have qualified as
flat-out brilliant a decade ago!
Most attempts at defining
smartphones center on their open operating systems, which, much like a
computer, allow them to receive, process and send information and data.
They also normally have a larger screen and a host of advanced features
that aren't available on ordinary phones. They will also typically
allow you to add even more features by purchasing add-on software and
applications, sometimes from your service provider, and sometimes from
What's in it for you (if anything)?
do smartphones do with all their computing power? To begin with, they
typically offer sophisticated email capabilities. For instance, it's
increasingly common to be able to view email attachments in their
native formats – as Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, PDFs, and so
forth. That's awfully nice, because there's nothing more frustrating
than receiving an important attachment you can't read.
upon a time, smartphones offered simple address books. Now, most offer
complete personal organizers that give you everything you could
possibly need. (For example, Palm's Treo 680 lets you view your day,
week, month, or annual calendar at a glance and see today's
appointments color-coded and merged with your to-do list. Add a
birthday to a contact file, and it shows up automatically on your
Speaking of personal organizers, if you're
using Microsoft Outlook at home, you can expect your smartphone to
"sync" with it, so you have the same information available on both
devices. Those Outlook contact lists can be pretty big: fortunately,
today's smartphones can store much more data than they did just a few
Today, almost all smartphones include a web browser
that allows you to surf the Web. (But if you're planning to do so, make
sure your service plan doesn't make this insanely expensive). Most also
provide at least some media playing features, so it's possible that you
won't have to carry a separate MP3 player anymore. Apple's iPhone 3G,
for example, is also a full-featured audio/video iPod. Some other
smartphones offer more stripped-down media features, but even the
business-oriented BlackBerry Curve 8320 will play MP3s, AACs, WMAs,
WMVs, and MP4s. (Though you'd better add a microSD card to make room
Loads of choices, but check your carrier
are available in the U.S. at prices ranging from $100 for very-low-end
models like the Palm Centro, all the way up to $600 or thereabouts.
They're available from more than a dozen manufacturers; one great
source for reviews, Mobile Tech Review,
has checked out over 60 models in the past two years, most of which are
still available. As often happens with technology, features that were
only available on expensive models are gradually moving down into
cheaper models; these days you have a lot of good choices at around
Of course, you only get that price if you're buying a
service contract, too. And, as with regular cell phones, your
satisfaction won't just depend on the phone you buy but on the service
provider you choose. Network quality can vary significantly based on
where you are and what you plan to do with your phone. For example,
some otherwise delighted Apple iPhone users have found themselves
frustrated with the AT&T wireless service that iPhone relies upon.
iPhones, Blackberrys, and beyond
won't even try to review all of today's smartphone options. But here's
the lay of the land. We have to begin with Apple's hugely hyped iPhone.
The current model, iPhone 3G, uses a "third-generation" wireless
network capable of providing faster data transmission and more advanced
services than the model it replaced. As we've already mentioned, the
iPhone 3G doubles as a high-end widescreen iPod, as well as a slick
portable Internet browser. And, like more and more high-end
smartphones, it has built-in GPS. (Unfortunately, though, the iPhone's
GPS doesn't come with built-in driving directions.)
everything through a superbly elegant and simple touch-screen user
interface: the kind Apple is legendary for. The downside? Early iPhone
users encountered serious software and performance problems (Apple
claims these are now ironed out). And, while the phone itself is $199,
the AT&T service plans start at $69.99 per month (with data), and
you're locked in for two years.
Businesspeople know all about
the well-deserved popularity of RIM's BlackBerrys, which started out as
mobile email devices and have evolved into fully-fledged smartphones.
Unlike the iPhone (but like many other smartphones), all current
Blackberrys have complete miniature keyboards. This makes them
especially well-suited for email and other messaging, as well as other
personal productivity applications. And, while BlackBerrys don't have
Apple's media and entertainment heritage, recent offerings like the
BlackBerry 8300 Curve offer quite respectable media playing
Only Apple makes iPhones. Only RIM makes
BlackBerrys (though they're available through several phone carriers).
But for the other leading types of smartphones, you have plenty of
options. For example, several manufacturers make smartphones based on
Microsoft's Windows Mobile Professional operating system; here are
three to start your shopping with:
- Samsung's Omnia i900 (complete with a surprisingly high-quality autofocus camera built-in)
iPAQ 910c, which comes with both an excellent keyboard and a
touch-screen (and can be bought separately for $499 without a service
contract if you prefer to shop around for your wireless carrier)
Treo 800w, available for the Sprint network, which comes with all sorts
of bonus connectivity, including a very handy Wi-Fi connection.
are also smartphones that run on the Symbian Series 60 operating
system. In the U.S., the leading supplier of Symbian phones is Nokia,
whose offerings range from the inexpensive Nokia E51 business
smartphone to the gorgeous, high-end Nokia E71 (which will even stream
YouTube videos). But you can get Symbian-based phones from suppliers
like LG and Samsung, too.
Techheads are waiting with bated
breath for one more competitor: smartphones based on Google's new
Android operating system. According to news reports,
the first of these well-hyped and well-funded phones will be available
later in the fall, at a price comparable to the iPhone. Will they
outperform the iPhone? That remains to be seen.
So: do you need one?
you need a smartphone at all? If all you do is make phone calls and
send text messages, you don't: one of the many stylish but cheaper cell
phones with rudimentary contact lists and Internet capabilities will be
more than enough. If you're always on the road and need to keep track
of emails, appointments, and contacts – or if you want to carry a
single device for everything from MP3s to GPS – you very well might.
Camarda has been writing about technology for families, kids, and
others for 25 years, starting as an editor for Scholastic's Family
Computing Magazine. His 18 computer books include Upgrading &
Fixing Networks For Dummies and The Cheapskate's Guide to Bargain
Computing. He lives in Ramsey, NJ with his wife and 14-year old son.
Comment by Greg, posted 12/1/2008, 9:44 PM:
While many people use the smartphone to their fullest potential, is it possible to get a non blackberry, smartphone WITHOUT a data plan to accomplish the usual goals of a phone with the style of a smartphone?
Comment by Gill, posted 11/12/2008, 5:32 PM:
I've heard that schools may be introducing E-textbooks to classrooms and also smartphones may mean that children are able to work from home or deliver their homework electronically more easily in future... Does spell the end of "snow days" though!
I work out of the office a lot but this has only been made possible in the past few years with the improvement of smartphone technology.
I use a HTC Touch Diamond - http://www.mypocketpcmobile.com/FullReviewHTCTouchDiamond/tabid/247/Default.aspx