Once only within reach for executives and the well-heeled, smart phones are now at the center of many road warriors' lives. But their popularity has led to a problem: With so many smart phones available now, it's hard to know which one is right for you.
The answer depends on what you most need your smart phone for. Do you need a device that excels at e-mail or one that's optimized for browsing the Web? And will the best smart phone for e-mailing or browsing also keep you entertained on a long flight?
A smart phone's power comes as much from its operating system as it does from the capabilities the vendor builds in. To help you at least narrow down your choices, we tested four smart phones, each based on a different operating system, to find out which platform is better for particular tasks.
To represent their different platforms, we tested Apple's iPhone 3G, based on a mobile version of OSX; the HTC Touch Dual, based on Microsoft's Windows Mobile 6.1; Nokia 's E71, based on the S60 variant of the Symbian platform; and Research In Motion's BlackBerry Curve 8310, based on, of course, BlackBerry's proprietary operating system. (For more specific information about the phones themselves, see "About the phones.")
We compared how well these phones performed four common road-warrior tasks: browsing the Web, sending and receiving e-mail, taking a photo and e-mailing it, and playing music and streaming video. We felt these tasks were typical of what most smart phone users need to do, and would also test the power and usability of both the devices and their operating systems.
Here's what we found.
Browsing the Web
Browsing the Web is much more of a challenge on a small-screen device than on a laptop or desktop. This task tests, among other things, the usability of a smart phone's built-in browser, how simple it is to navigate a Web page without a mouse and the clarity of the device's display. We looked for how readable Web pages were, particularly Web pages that haven't been optimized for small-screen devices. We also looked for browsing aids like full-screen mode and zoom capabilities to make the page easier to read. And we examined how the device handled links to e-mail addresses and to PDF files.
The Browsing Experience
Browsing, using the iPhone's version of Apple's Safari, is very similar to browsing on a desktop, a claim none of the other smart phones in this group can make. Pages rendered accurately and quickly (the exception being pages with embedded Flash content or Java applets, which aren't supported by the iPhone's Safari browser).
Thanks to the iPhone's touch screen, opening links and scrolling were as simple as tapping or dragging with a single finger. Zooming in and out was equally easy using the two-fingered pinch motion. Since Safari uses the entire screen and automatically rotates to landscape mode when the phone is turned 90 degrees, many Web pages were readable without the need to zoom at all.
The Nokia E71's Symbian-based browser also did an excellent job of displaying nonoptimized pages so they looked like the originals. Unlike the iPhone, with its ability to zoom in and out with pinching motions, the E71 required a trip to the menus for zooming and it didn't have a landscape mode. But like the iPhone, thumbnails of open pages were readily available via a simple menu option, making it easy to switch to an already-open page. Its full-screen mode was also helpful, particularly given the E71's modest 2.36-in. display.
The BlackBerry Curve 8310 was slightly less adept at browsing. With nonoptimized Web pages, its browser wrapped text to help with readability, but page elements such as frames were stacked one on top of the other instead of placing them in their original positions. A zoom mode was available via the menus, but zooming in on a page that's already improperly rendered page won't do anyone much good.
Like the Curve, the HTC Touch Dual's browser stacked Web page elements on top of each other, which made them confusing to read. Also, the HTC's keypad was particularly trying for typing URLs.