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

Odds 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 be?

No universal agreement on what "smart" means
First 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 other folks.

What's in it for you (if anything)?
What 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.

Once 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 Calendar: nice.)

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 years ago.

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 for them.)

Loads of choices, but check your carrier
Smartphones 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 $199.

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
We 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.)

You run 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 capabilities.

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)
  • HP's 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)
  • Palm's Treo 800w, available for the Sprint network, which comes with all sorts of bonus connectivity, including a very handy Wi-Fi connection.
  • There 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?
Do 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.

Bill 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 -
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