Smartphones Buying Guide

A smartphone is a hybrid device that has all the features of a mobile phone and most of the features of a PDA such as calendar, e-mail, Web browsing and office applications. Here's what to look for when buying one.

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Display Screen size and resolution have an impact on the experience of using the smartphone, particularly for Web browsing and graphical documents. While all models have colour screens, resolution and lighting vary. Some smartphones have 16-million colour TFT screens. These are active pixel screens that are better suited for handheld devices where the screen turns on and off quickly. Most smartphones have a backlit display to illuminate the screen and can be easily switched on and off, but may not be suited to bright outdoor use. Some smartphones also have transflective screens, which use backlights for indoor use and absorb the sun's rays to ensure a readable screen when outdoors. Touch-screen smartphones use a stylus for navigating and data entry, though some newer models, such as Apple's iPhone, are finger operated and don't require a stylus.

Screen resolution varies in part because it is constrained by the operating system onboard the smartphone. Models with dual screens have superior resolution on the larger, internal screen, which is intended to be used for most functions, while the smaller external screen is used primarily for phone functions. A number of models have a large screen that can be used in either portrait or landscape mode.

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HTC Touch

Keyboard As a hybrid device, smartphones offer a range of data input options including keyboard, stylus and handwriting recognition. Keyboards range from full QWERTY to 12-key numeric with the shape and placement of keyboards ranging from front or side to slide-out. Those models with a phone-like form factor tend to have a 12-key numeric and dialling keypad which favours phone use and one-handed operation. Smartphones in the shape of a PDA often have a slide out or front keyboard with separate alpha and numeric keys. Most models have additional hot keys for quick operation of common tasks such as messaging or calling. A small number of smartphones have a unique user-programmable shortcut key for repeated operations.

Touch-screen keyboards reduce the size of the smartphone by doing away with a keyboard, but favour two-handed operation. Some of these require a stylus, while others are finger operated. The inclusion of handwriting recognition software gives another way of customising the smartphone but can be time consuming. Almost all models with a standard numeric keypad use T9, a predictive text input technology that completes commonly-used words.

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Battery How long the smartphone lasts between charges will be affected by the type of battery, its operating system and how many programs are used. Most smartphones use Lithium-Ion batteries because of the small form factor, with the power varying between 780mAh and 1200mAh of charge. Each smartphone will come with its own out-of-the-box charger for AC power and USB charging. Travel and car adaptors generally need to be purchased as an additional item, though these can sometimes be included as standard accessories. At the lower end of the spectrum, you can expect around three hours talk time and up to 13 hours at the high end of the spectrum of battery life. The average is around five hours. Standby time listed by manufacturers also varies between 140 hours and 400 hours, with the average around 300 hours.

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Extras The list of extras is growing and is another point of comparison between different smartphones. Most models, but not all, have at least a 2-megapixel camera for capturing still images and video. Smartphones in the 3G/HSDPA realm will take the megapixel count of these cameras up to five and beyond for an enhanced multimedia experience — as an example, Sony Ericsson recently announced an 8.1-megapixel camera smartphone scheduled for release in 2008.

Some smartphones offer unique features such as flight mode, which allows the device to be used in the air without disrupting a plane's sensitive electronics. Music and multimedia have not been neglected, with many models able to play music and video. Built-in GPS receivers with navigational software and Bluetooth modems for additional Web access are also common.

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As smartphones grow in popularity, so does the range of third-party software and add-ons available. For Bluetooth, there is also a growing group of wireless accessories. These include standalone keyboards, hands-free speakerphones, headphones, headsets, GPS receivers and specialised clothing like motorcycle helmets and jackets. Software titles continue to grow, offering everything from interactive Bluetooth dating programs and customised travel itinerary, to games and ebooks. Mobile phone carriers are also entering into agreements with content providers to offer network-specific services and downloads such as handset travel guides.

This guide was last updated in July 2008.

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