Choosing the Right Mobile Tool For the Job

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If you were going on a vacation and you could only take one gadget, what would it be? How about if it's a business trip? Which is a better mobile computing device--a notebook? A netbook? A tablet? The thing is, not only is the choice for "best" a matter of subjective opinion, but the reality is that each mobile gadget fills a role and you have to select the tool that best fills the role you need it to in that scenario.

Think of the tools in an average toolbox. There aren't any zealots online having quasi-religious debates and flame wars about how needle nose pliers are obviously a superior tool to a socket wrench. Each serves a purpose, and you have to choose the right tool for the job at hand. You don't use a screwdriver to put a nail in the wall, and you don't use a hammer to cut a board in half.

There has been a fair amount of debate lately--particularly between my PCWorld peers and I--over which mobile computing device is the "best". We have argued the pros and cons of tablets vs. notebooks, and deliberated over whether the tablet is really a mobile computing device, or just a fad.

But, when the flames die out and the dust settles, there really isn't a "right" answer. Here is a brief overview of common mobile gadgets and the tasks they are best suited for.

If you just need to make voice calls on the go--stick with the feature phone.
Feature Phone

The feature phone is the "old-fashioned" mobile phone. You know--the kind that makes phone calls. A plain old feature phone still packs a fair amount of versatility, though. Obviously, you can use it for voice calls. You can also communicate via text messaging, and many are able to connect with a variety of email platforms as well. Most have a camera of some sort, and perhaps a rudimentary game or two. You can't truly surf the Web and you don't have the benefit of apps, but through SMS text messaging and feature phone tools you can still post updates and keep up with social networks like Facebook and Twitter.

Role: The feature phone will do just fine if you mainly just need to be accessible and keep in touch, but you don't actually plan to be productive.

Smartphones like the iPhone 4 are like mini computers that fit in your pocket.

The smartphone started as a hybrid love child of a feature phone and a PDA. It has since evolved into a mobile device that is virtually like carrying a small PC in your pocket. The smartphone makes voice calls--hence the "phone" part. The "smart" part comes from being able to sync and carry vast amounts of data including your contacts and calendar, and the fact that the device can surf the Web. With the addition of apps, smartphones have access to tens or hundreds of thousands of programs ranging from frivolously silly like Angry Birds, to crucial productivity tools like VIPOrbit. The smartphone can also double as a portable MP3 player, and a GPS, so it packs a lot of functionality into a pocket-sized gadget.

Role: The smartphone works when you still don't need to be cranking out reports or spreadsheets--but you want to be able to if it becomes absolutely necessary, or if you want to be able make and receive phone calls, but you also want a mobile gadget that can fill multiple roles (like music player and GPS) so you can carry fewer devices.

eReaders like the Kindle are very versatile, but don't offer much mobile productivity.

The eReader barely made it onto this list, but it fills a niche role worth noting. If you have a device like a Kindle or a Nook, you can carry with you a veritable library. I can't imagine going on any trip--business or pleasure--where having hundreds of books on a light, thin gadget wouldn't be plenty of reading material. From a business perspective, the ereader can also be used to carry and read PDF files and other formats--depending on the device--so you could carry white papers, case studies, quarterly reports, or other business documents. The ereader can typically store and play music as well, so you may not need the MP3 player, and some ereaders--like the Kindle and Nook--are also capable of at least some Web browsing. The Nook Color, in fact, can run Android apps so it blurs the line some with tablets.

Role: The ereader is definitely more pleasure than business, but whether you want to read the latest Dan Brown novel, or you need to review a lengthy project status report, the ereader is a much better platform for reading than the smartphone. However, the ereader is even less functional than the smartphone when it comes to productive potential.

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