smartphones

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How To: Buy a Windows Mobile Phone

PCWorld has just posted a general overview of the basic issues that face somebody interested in buying a Smartphone. For those of us in the mobile world, there's no new information here, but it's a nice one-stop article for new people who don't know the difference between UMTS and IMAP (mixed categories.. shudder):

There is no single greatest handset for all users, but with a little bit of forethought, you can easily choose the best phone and service plan for your own business needs.

Read: PC World - How to: Buy a Mobile Phone

I link it for two reasons: 1) the above mentioned "save this link for the next time somebody asks you about mobile phones" and, more importantly, 2) I think the article is exactly backwards when it comes to buying a mobile phone. Let's assume you're interested in buying a smartphone and, naturally, you think that you're going to want a very powerful device -- so you've settled on Windows Mobile as your platform of choice. What next?.

If you're not careful, you'll let the gadgetlust tail wag the smartphone dog. So read on for the "default advice" I give to friends, family, and even enemies (turn the other cheek, right?) about how to buy a Smartphone.

Step One: Pick Your Carrier

Seriously, this is step one and failing to make this step one is, I think, most often the biggest pitfall for a new smartphone buyer. It's very easy to be taken in by the gadget lust, but let me speak from long, personal experience:

Paying cancellation fees sucks. Getting stuck with a carrier whose coverage and plans don't fit your needs sucks a lot. I've paid 4 cancellation fees in the past two years. If I'd followed my own advice, I would have paid just one and been happier in the long run.

Really, there are stupendous Windows Mobile devices available now on every single carrier in the US. Even with the new stuff coming out soon, you'll be much happier in the long run sticking with the one carrier that best fits your needs instead of switching around to get the latest and greatest. So, how do you pick your carrier? There's no one way, but this is what I recommend:

  1. First, coverage. If you don't have good signal at home and in your office, find the carrier that has the best signal. Invite friends over who are on other carriers and check their bars. Check with your coworkers. Heck, waltz into a store and ask to borrow a test device for an hour. You might think you can "get by," but I promise you: if you have horrible signal in the places you live and work at, you'll end up switching again.
  2. Second, plans. If you're lucky enough to have several carrier options when it comes to coverage in your area, the next step is to delve into the mysterious and hateful world of cell phone plans. Here's a fair warning: this step will depress you. Nearly every carrier has overpriced data plans, overpriced text messaging, and confusing-as-all-get-out choices. Generally: assume that you'll need slightly more minutes than you think; Get unlimited data, period; get more text messages than you think you'll need, too -- as every single carrier is milking text message costs these day as a part of their master plan to be as evil as possible.
  3. Third, the little things. Maybe your family uses a certain carrier. Maybe your friends do. Maybe, like me, it's important to be able to switch up devices by swapping your SIM card out. Maybe you need a phone that will work in Europe. Maybe you think the customer service at certain carrier is better. I should say, though, that in the mobile space, the grass always seems greener on the other side. Take it from me, with the possible exception of T-Mobile, every carrier's customer service is slightly worse than you'll get from the most offensive fast food employee you can imagine. Maybe you prefer a certain 3G technology, or believe that a certain carrier will have better 4G tech.
    ...Maybe, just maybe, you're loyal to a certain carrier. ...Ok, scratch that last.

Step Two: Pick Your Moment

This step is tricky. If you're caught in a contract, it might be worth it to wait it out and avoid the cancellation fee. If you're not, it might be worth it to wait for the latest and greatest smartphone that's coming out soon. Or heck, your life is a little hectic right now, you can afford to stop hitting refresh on your favorite gadget blogs for a few hours and go outside. Go Fishing or something: HobbesIsReal swears by it. :)

The point is don't act hastily. Let the decision sit in the back of your mind for a bit. Let it stew (or fester, if that's your style). Eventually you'll feel that, yes, now is the time.

Step Three: Pick your Smartphone

FINALLY, you get to the good part. Reading reviews. Fondling the device at the store. Going through a spec breakdown device by device. Oohing and Aahing. Still, I advise caution here. I oohed and aahed at the Vox, only to find it wasn't for me.

We're assuming, of course, that you want the power, work-friendliness, and customization you can only get on Windows Mobile. That basically means your decision tree is very simple.

Decision One: Pro or Standard?

With Windows Mobile 6, the Touchscreen devices are "Pro" and the non-touchscreen devices are "Standard." On windows Mobile 5, the nomenclature is "PocketPC Edition" and "Smartphone Edition." At this stage in the game, anything you're considering will either be WM6 or will be upgraded to it very soon. So relax.

The real question is whether or not you need the extra power and ease of use of the touchscreen. Nobody can answer that for you but you - so you'll really need to get the gadgets in your hands and play around. Generally speaking, the Pro editions are slightly faster and slightly easier to use because you can interact directly with the screen instead of navigating around with the 5-way pad. Also, generally speaking, the Standard editions are slimmer, sexier, and have slightly better battery life.

So it's power or pocketability, basically.

Decision Two: Which one?

Well, we've finally come to it, you've already done your due diligence, having:

  • Picked a Carrier and a Plan
  • Waited to be sure you made the right decision
  • Picked your platform

...here's the good news / bad news - once you've made those decisions, it's highly likely that you'll only have 2, or at the most three, devices to choose from. The only exception is if you're considering importing some unlocked GSM phone, but let's leave that out of the picture for now.

When you're choosing between the devices that are available for your carrier and your platform, you basically just go with your gut. Maybe one-handed use is important so you go with a Treo 750. Or maybe you want a super-powered device, so you wait for the HTC Tilt. Or maybe you think the MotoQ9 is ugly as sin so you get the Blackjack. The best thing to do is get ahold of an actual phone and play around with it, plus read as many reviews as you can.

Here's a teaser: WMExperts is currently working on a comprehensive buyer's guide that you can use to compare specs, comment on phones, and generally figure it all out. Coming in September, Web Gods Willing.

Wrapping Up

Sad but true, nearly every point I've made here comes from personal experience. More specifically, personal experience doing the wrong thing. I've switched carriers out of a desire for a different phone, only to find that my signal was unacceptable. I've left carriers in a huff over customer service only to find it was worse with the new guys. Most often, though, I've snapped up too many new phones to count only to find they didn't fit my needs.

So slow down, chill out, and follow my easy three step plan to smartphone bliss. I know I will from now... OHH, SHINY! Where's my credit card!?

Did I get something wrong? Let us know in the comments!

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6

Review: T-Mobile Wing

Read on for our full review of the T-Mobile Wing. If you’re on T-Mobile, this is your best bet for a PocketPC device, but is it good enough to draw people over to the carrier?

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3

Review: Treo 750

Dieter Bohn gives a full review of Palm's Treo 750

(Originally published at TreoCentral on January 7, 2007)

I've been using the new Treo 750 for just a few days now, but it's nearly identical to the Treo 750v (Read TreoCentral's full review here), which has been my "main brain" for quite awhile now. So I'm in a fairly good position, I hope, to give you the full rundown on this device. Is the 750 the Treo for you? It just might be - I'll come out and say right away that it's the Treo for me.

Back in September I anointed the 700wx the best smartphone on the market. Despite the 750's continuance of Palm's "grand" tradition of leaving out WiFi, the 750 has supplanted the 700wx as the best powerhouse smartphone on the market - especially if you live in market where Cingular has provided high-speed UMTS data (See a list here).

If you're new to Windows Mobile, I recommend you read Michael Ducker's review of the Treo 700w, which goes into great depth with how Windows Mobile differs from the Palm OS.


Update: The internet here at our hotel at CES doesn't allow me to upload video properly, but here's a quick first-look hosted by YouTube:

Hardware

Form Factor

The Treo 750 is identical in almost every way, form-factor-wise, to the Treo 750v. The only difference I can see, besides the obvious fact that there's a "Cingular" icon on this phone instead of a "Vodafone" one, is that the silver area around the screen is just slightly darker. Everything that is good about the 750v is still here: the great soft-touch paint, the excellent form-factor, and the easy-to-use QWERTY keyboard. The phone is 4.4" tall by 2.3" wide by 0.8" deep, and weighs in in at 5.4 ounces (14% lighter than the 650, Palm is eager to tell you). These dimensions don't really give the 750 justice, though, as Palm has clearly worked very hard to sculpt the corners of the device: it sits very nicely in the hand.


There is a barely noticeable difference between the Treo 680 and the 750 in terms of the bulk at the top-rear of the phone, due primarily to the gigantic multi-band radio in the 750. This large radio also necessitates that the 750 use mini-SD instead of standard SD for memory expansion. I find this a little disappointing, but compared to the micro-SD found on many Windows Mobile devices, it's a step up.


Like the Treo 680 (review here), also recently released on Cingular, the 750 has done away with an external antenna. Unlike the 680, however, the radio inside the 750 is quad-band GSM and a tri-band UMTS. The 750 will support data in 115 countries as well as voice in 190 countries. The improved radio gives the 750 3G data speeds in 160 markets in the US (see below), and an update to provide the phone with even-faster HSDPA data speeds is expected later this year (for more on that GSM, UMTS, and HSDPA mean, check out Mike Overbo's article on the subject). UMTS, by the way, is the first wireless data standard in the US to support simultaneous voice and data.



Specs

Internally, the 750 also doesn't have any surprises. Program memory (the bane of the Verizon-only Treo 700w) is a capacious 50 megs, plenty for robust multitasking. There is 128mb of non-volatile flash RAM (60mb of which is available for user storage). I'm really happy that pretty much every mobile device these days uses non-volatile flash memory - it's hard to believe that we once allowed ourselves to buy gadgets that lost their data when the battery died.

Speaking of the battery, it is a relatively (compared to the Treo 650) small one at 1200 mAh. The battery is, of course, lithium ion. Palm says that this should give you about 4 hours of talk time and 250 hours of standby - though it's likely that if you're in a market with 3G UMTS service that standby time may be a bit worse. I'm in Minneapolis, where standard Edge is all we have, and in my usage these numbers are remarkably accurate.


The processor is a 300MHz Samsung, and in my usage its been just fine. I have experienced just a little bit of audio stutter when I use Coreplayer with several other apps open. In general usage, the processor is fine, however. To be perfectly honest, I'm paying less and less attention to the processor specs in smartphones these days - performance always seems to be throttled by RAM well before the processor becomes a hassle.

The camera is 1.3 megapixels and it performs about how you'd expect: average. There is no little LED-flash, which seems to be the standard these days, but I've always found those flashes next to useless.

The touchscreen is the now-familiar 240x240 pixels; it is bright and readable indoors and fairly decent in direct sunlight. A touchscreen means there's also a stylus, which I find relatively disappointing. Palm decided to shave some weight here, so it's mostly plastic. Strangely, there's an ever-so-subtle creak when you bend the stylus - I'm at a loss to explain either why the creak is there or why it bothers me so much.

Of course, the 750 uses the same universal connector we've all grown to love, so if you already have a Treo (or at least a Treo made since the 600), your chargers and cables will be compatible.

Rounding up the specs, we find Bluetooth 1.2, though it has full support for A2DP stereo over bluetooth. In point of fact, the only functional difference between the 750's bluetooth and bluetooth 2.0 is that bluetooth 2.0 has a higher data throughput. In my testing the 750 performs better than the Treo 650 and the 700w/wx in terms of bluetooth performance. Range, compatibility, and audio quality are all good.


Wherefore no WiFi?

Up until about a month ago, I've defended Palm's decision to not include WiFi support in their Treos. No more. Yes, I understand that WiFi is a significant drain on battery life. I also understand that WM5's WiFi implementation leaves much to be desired. But let's face it, folks, it's become the standard for high-end devices. Every other Windows Mobile phone, be it Pocket PC Edition or Smartphone Edition, comes with a "Wireless Manager" similar to the one found on the Treo. It's dead-simple to just turn WiFi off to preserve battery life.

I also do not believe it's really an issue of form-factor, either. If the T-Mobile Dash and the Cingular Blackjack are able to include WiFi, I don't see a good reason that it can't be added to the Treo. Admittedly, these devices have absolutely horrendous battery life, but they still seem to be selling just fine.


My hunch is that the biggest hurdle right now is that the PalmOS, in its current Garnet incarnation, still isn't able to easily handle both a cellular radio and a WiFi radio. I know it's not that the PalmOS can't handle WiFi itself - I have a T|X and its WiFi implementation is wonderful - much better than the experience on Windows Mobile.

In any case, unless Palm is intending to share the 750's hardware with a PalmOS device in the near future, I see no compelling reason not to add WiFi to the Windows Mobile Treo 750. For Shame.

Software

There's still a rift between Windows Mobile 5 users and Palm users, perhaps. I've definitely gone over to Windows Mobile myself - I'm addicted to its power and its multitasking abilities. Still, WM5's ease-of-use still leaves much to be desired. The 750, however, boasts several small improvements over even previous WM5 Treos that improve its usability enormously. Palm likes to call it their "special sauce" and, heck, so do I.

The 'Special Sauce'

One-handed Use

First up is that Palm has added all sorts of 5-way navigation improvements to your standard version of Windows Mobile 5. This is a bit of an ironic thing to be mentioning, as one of the main selling points of the 750 over, say, the Motorola Q is that it has a touch screen. Nevertheless, it's awfully convenient to be able to eschew the stylus most of the time.

The 750 actually has better 5-way support than its US cousins, the 700w and 700wx. Outlook Mobile now has the "go to" option in its menu, which offers a shortcut to your email folders. That, believe it or not, was perhaps one of my biggest gripes with the 5-way support on the 700w|wx.


Today Screen Enhancements


Like WM5 Treos before, the 750 features several today screen enhancements that I find to be absolutely essential. The first is instant-contact-search. Just start typing a name (or number) to instantly bring up a list of contacts from which you can call, text (by holding down the center of the 5-way), or email.

There's also the photo speed-dial, though I myself usually don't use this as today screen real estate is precious--especially on a 240x240 screen. Finishing up the today-screen enhancement is a built-in Google search field. Unlike the 700wx, there is not option to change the field to default to another search engine.

The Buttons Make Sense

I'm just about finished readying a sister-site to TreoCentral, WMExperts -- which I bring up not just as a shameless plug but because I have been testing all sorts of Windows Mobile devices. In doing this, I've discovered something surprising - Palm has put quite a bit of thought into how their buttons work with regard to Windows Mobile.

Other devices, (I'm looking at you, T-Mobile MDA) are fairly bristling with buttons, but despite being able to customize said buttons I'm at a loss to get them to operate in anything resembling a logical manner. With the 750, all 4 main buttons actually turn on the screen. whereas other PPC devices often require you to hit an awkwardly-placed power button first. Additionally, the 750's keyguard is a pleasure to use compared to other devices. It pops up, gives you the time, and you hit the center button to turn it off - not an asterisk down in the lower-lefthand corner of the phone.

Included Apps

The only app pre-loaded on the device beyond your standard WM5 apps is, ...wait for it... threaded text messaging. The implementation is the same as on the 750v-- a single app that not only threads text messages but also gives you easy access to MMS functionality. I'll just say that my hopes and prayers are with 700w|wx users - may Palm update your Treos soon to include this wonderful app.

The 750 also comes with two "applications" that are really just shortcuts to download email programs - Good messaging (for those of you who use that service) and Cingular's Xpress mail. As of this writing Cingular hadn't yet updated their Xpress mail page with a download meant for the 750, but as soon as they do I'll post up a quick review of it.

I should mention, however, that the 'standard WM5 apps are nothing to scoff at. Built-in are full editors for MS Office apps, a nice little PDF-viewer, and an unzip utility (is that new? hm?). There are getting to be more and more 3rd-party apps for WM5 as well (I'd recommend you browse through some suggestions in the forums) - though not all of them are great on the 750's square screen. Of course, when looking for 3rd-party apps, be sure that you get the "Pocket PC Edition" version rather than the "Smartphone Edition" version.


Data, Odds and Ends

Data Speeds

If you're not one of the lucky ones to live in an area where Cingular offers 3G UMTS coverage, you'll be pleased to hear that Edge is nice and snappy on the 750. There's no significant waiting for the processor to render pages (at least, relative to other Smartphones) and data speeds tend to clock in about where you'd expect them for Edge: 100kb/s.

Fortunately, I headed out to Las Vegas today for the Consumer Electronics Show (which TreoCentral will be covering extensively, if you're wondering), where Cingular offers 3G data. I immediately loaded up Pocket Internet Explorer at the airport and tested my speeds here. I averaged around 300kb/s: very, very nice.

Odds and Ends

Push Email

There's always been a "good news/bad news" with the Treo when it comes to email. Rather than adopt a single platform for push email, Palm offers a smorgasbord of solutions: Exchange ActiveSync, Good Mobile Messaging, Blackberry connect (on some Treos), custom carrier solutions (such as Cingular's xpress mail), and good-old-fashioned "check it every X minutes" email.

This is a double-edged sword, in my opinion. Blackberries (Blackberrys? Blackberri?) and Sidekicks both have a single, integrated solution for push email, which while limiting does give them an advantage in simplicity and ease-of-use. "Simplicity and ease-of-use" is supposedly where Palm shines, so I'll admit I do wish Palm offered a similar service.

That said, once you do get a push-email solution, the 750 really shines. Not having to make Pocket Outlook check email on a regular basis is a boon to battery life (one question, Microsoft, why on earth do you set the maximum time between email checks at 60 minutes? How about once-a-day for non-vital email accounts?). I use 1and1.com for Exchange synchronization, they're one of several companies that offer full Exchange servers which you can set up to get your standard email. The upshot of which is my IMAP account is now a push-email Exchange account. The other benefit is that when I switch between WM5 phones (which has been happening quite a bit lately), I just need to enter my Exchange information into ActiveSync and within a matter of minutes my new phone has all of my email, contacts, and calendar information.

The Ideal Business Phone?

Palm is marketing the 750 as the ideal business phone. There's several good reasons for them to do that: the 750 works in darn-near every city on the face of the earth, gets data in quite of few of them, it's incredibly professional looking, and is, to be blunt, pricey. The phone sells for $399 with a 2-year contract and a mail-in rebate. Meaning the initial chunk-of-change you have to plunk down is considerably more. Cost for no-contract or 1-year contract is not yet available, but it will likely be the kind of stratospheric price to make any consumer blanch.

The lack of WiFi may hurt Palm with IT departments, but I hope not too much. For companies that already utilize the latest Exchange server for email and PIM, a Windows Mobile device is awfully compelling. And the feature-set of the 750 is definitely much better than Smartphone Edition devices (Palm is particular fond of pointing out that you can cut and paste on the 750, something you can't do on a Blackjack or a Q or whatnot).

Form-factor will be another big selling point for business users, I suspect. Compared to other full-PPC phones the 750 is positively tiny - set it next to an MDA or a Sprint 6700 and you'll see what I mean. Having been a Treo user for so long, it's easy for me to take this for granted. Moving from one-handed typing on a Treo to the wide expanse of the keyboards on the MDA or the 6700 is an exercise in frustration. Let's not even embarrass phones that make you use T9 or some monstrous combination of "push 2 and 3 at the same time" by naming them.

Another benefit is that Palm is now offering direct phone support with 90 days of purchase - no more dealing with tech support from clueless carrier reps. The 750 has so many capabilities, it's great that Palm is trying to make it as painless as possible for your average user to learn how to use them. If I know one thing about business executives, it's that they really can't stand hassles.

For consumers, the picture is much more mixed. There's no doubt that the 750 is pricey and that Windows Mobile is more powerful than the average consumer needs. The Treo 680 is a much better option, in my opinion. It's a pity that the 680 lacks high-speed data, but the Palm OS's ease of use helps salve that wound. Unless there is a compelling reason to get a Windows Mobile smartphone, I still recommend a Palm OS Treo to most folks (Note: "It's Windows so it will be more familiar" is not a compelling reason.)

Conclusion

I mentioned earlier that it's easy to take certain things for granted when you're a long-time Treo user: Palm's "special sauce" of usability, one-handed operation, decent battery life, and a great form factor. Yes, the 750 isn't the thinnest device out there, but when you factor in all the added power that you get from the full Pocket PC edition of Windows Mobile, touchscreen and all, it's best-of-breed.

So it's pretty clear I'm sweet on the 750. It's a great smartphone in a great form-factor. For simplicity's sake, TreoCentral's rating system is just 1-5 with no half-steps. That system has never really bothered me before today - I'd dearly love to give the 750 a 4.5, knocking it down that half-point for the critical lack of WiFi.

But I'm going to give it a 5, because Palm really does have a point when they say that 3G data speeds can offset the lack of WiFi. For those of you who don't have 3G on Cingular in your area yet, I would rate the phone a 4.


Ratings (out of 5)

  • Usability: 4
  • Features: 5
  • Design: 5
  • Cost/Benefit: 4

Overall: 5

Pros

  • Incredible Form-Factor
  • Full Pocket PC Edition OS
  • Great Data Speeds
  • OS enhancements over standard WM and previous WM Treos

Cons

  • No WiFi
  • Did I mention no WiFi?
  • Cost

(Originally published at TreoCentral on January 7, 2007)

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Over at silicon.com, Jo Best writes a very nice article asking the question "what exactly is a smartphone anyway." I'd really like a short and sweet answer to that question myself, actually. Lately when people ask me what my job is, I try the short answer first "I am a tech journalist. I write about smartphones." The next question is inevitably a request for a better definition of 'smartphone.'

Best has it right, though when she says,

In the end, though, what does and doesn't constitute a smart phone is surely to be a relatively short-lived argument. Phones are getting ever smarter and it's only a matter of time before all phones have the advanced levels of functionality associated with today's smart phones.

The day is fast approaching when the QWERTY keyboard in my pocket won't be anything special, which both pleases and disappoints me.

Read: Analysis: What is a smart phone? - Mobile & Wireless

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