With advanced multimedia functions, sleek designs, and intuitive operating systems, smart phones have shed their dull, corporate image and caught the attention of consumers, who like the idea of having the Internet at their fingertips. Apple’s iPhone grabbed headlines earlier this year as customers lined up to own one, proving that smart phones are the next big thing in wireless communications. A smart phone is like a small PC that you carry around with you. As with buying a PC, it’s worth spending some time figuring out how you’ll use the smart phone to pick the one that’s your personal best. Pronto’s Smart Phone Buying Guide can help (see also Cell Phone Buying Guide, PDA Buying Guide).
Smart phones combine the features of a cell phone, a personal organizer, and an e-mail message center all in one device.
Make sure the smart phone you want works with your wireless carrier. “Unlocked” phones that work with any carrier may be available, but not all of the smart phone’s functions may be supported.
For e-mail, you can choose between smart phones with a built-in alphanumeric keyboard or touch-sensitive screens. Touchscreens are smaller, and take practice to use them efficiently.
If you carry a lot of data, look for a smart phone with a generous amount of built-in memory and the ability to expand it (80MB to 1GB). Some smart phones are rated for a maximum amount of memory.
Include the cost of chargers, memory cards, and peripherals such as Bluetooth headsets or dongles when comparing various models. Choose a service plan that offers more airtime minutes than you think you’ll need and unlimited data transfer.
An Internet communications network for smart phones that offers improved handling of large multimedia files.
The number of anytime minutes a wireless plan allows before per-minute charges kick in.
A wireless standard that allows two enabled devices in close proximity to exchange data.
The Enhanced Data GSM Environment, which provides enabled smart phones with faster data transfer over GSM networks.
A memory card holder that allows you to expand a smart phone’s available memory for software and files.
The General Packet Radio Service, which allows smart phones to communicate wirelessly with the Internet.
The Global System for Mobile Communication enables voice communication on smart phones. It can also be used for data transfer with the Internet.
Internet Message Access Protocol is a new standard for accessing e-mail that is becoming the dominant way to communicate with e-mail servers.
MultiMedia Card, a type of flash memory used to expand the memory capacity of a smart phone.
Post Office Protocol is a method for sending and receiving e-mails from a server.
Secure Digital, a type of flash memory card used in smart phones. SD is faster than MMC and comes in several sizes, including MiniSD and MicroSD cards used in smart phones.
Thin Film Transistor is a pixel-based liquid crystal display technology that provides the highest resolution available in LCD screens.
Smart phones are a hybrid of cell phones and personal data assistants (PDAs) that also include e-mail, Internet access, and the ability to sync with your home PC. Smart phones have larger screens than cell phones and most offer either an alphanumeric keyboard or a touch-sensitive screen. Smart phones also offer cameras (some up to 3 megapixels for higher digital picture quality), MP3 players, and multimedia support are now common as smart phone makers try to deliver the most functionality for the price.
First and foremost, you need to make phone calls, so choose a model that’s comfortable to use and offers good sound quality. You’ll need a service plan with a wireless provider to make the smart phone work, and some phones only work for certain providers. “Unlocked” models are available from third-party retailers, but not all functions may work properly on an unlocked smart phone.
The biggest benefit of a smart phone is the ability to send and receive e-mail, either through the Web, a dedicated server, or the IMAP or POP mail client you currently use. Not all smart phones support IMAP or POP access, so you’ll need to know which protocol your e-mail servers are using and choose a smart phone than can communicate with them.
E-mail means writing, and there’s two ways to go. One is an alphanumeric keyboard. The buttons on these are small and best suited for one-handed use. The other choice is a touch-sensitive screen and a stylus. These smart phones have handwriting recognition software that takes some practice to use. Both types of phones may include predictive text software that automatically completes words for you, and some smart phones will learn your vocabulary to reduce inaccurate predictions.
There are different methods for connecting a smart phone to your PC. Some include a cradle with a USB cable that recharges and connects while others simply use a USB connection. Wireless connectivity via infrared or Bluetooth is increasingly common for smart phones, but you’ll need a PC that supports this feature or a separate electronic key, called a dongle, to enable it.
Smart phones have their own operating systems (OS), and they come with software that allows them to work with your PC. The most commonly used OS is Windows Mobile, which supports common Windows applications, including reduced-feature versions of Outlook, Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. All BlackBerry smart phones run on a proprietary OS, which supports some Windows software with additional downloads. Sony and Ericsson smart phones use the Symbian OS, which is built for greater ease in calling. Innovation giants Apple has designed its own OS, while Google is planning a new wireless OS of their own. Some Smart Phone models still support the Palm OS designed for touch-screen PDAs.
Choosing an OS is largely a matter of personal preference. Current smart phone operating systems work well with PC and Mac, so find an interface that you like and check to make sure that it supports software you consider essential.
Built-in memory keeps getting bigger. You can expect to find 20MB to 80MB out of the box on smart phones, along with the option to expand memory through an SD or MMC slot, allowing up to 2GB of storage. Some smart phones are rated for a maximum amount of storage, something you’ll want to check if you carry a lot of data or need a lot of applications.
Smart phone screens are larger than those on cell phones, and many work in both portrait and landscape modes, giving you a larger view of Web sites, multimedia files, and e-mails. TFT or film transistor screens are the most common, but they can be hard to use outdoors or in bright light. Newer transflective screens absorb bright light to keep the screen readable in all types of lighting.
Some makers hail the quad-band functionality of their smart phones. Useful if you’re a globetrotter, unnecessary if you stay close to home. Smart phones send voice messages through the GSM network and use either the 3G or GPRS networks for Internet communications. The newer 3G network offers improvements in multimedia functions, making it ideal for music and video lovers.
Battery life in smart phones averages six hours across all models, with 3 hours at the low end and 13 hours at the high end. Talking consumes the most power, followed by writing and using media files.
When comparing smart phone models, be sure to include the price of extra memory cards, Bluetooth connectors or headsets, and car chargers, if they are not included. You’ll also need to consider the cost of a monthly service plan from a wireless provider. Always choose a plan that includes more minutes than you think you’ll use, as going over can lead to airtime charges of 10 cents a minute or more. An unlimited data transfer plan is also recommended for your smart phone.