Which smartphone?

If you haven’t got one yet, you may well soon. As many as a quarter of the billion or so mobile phones sold this year around the world will be so-called ‘smartphones’.

What exactly makes a phone a smartphone? The watchword for these handheld computers is ‘convergence’, the combination of PDA functions like a diary and address book with internet connectivity for email and web browsing, as well as a digital camera and music and video playback, all in a mobile phone.

What’s not to like about not having to carry three devices – phone, PDA and MP3 player – when you can just carry one? And frequent travellers may find that there’s enough power packed into these smartphones that they can occasionally leave their heavy laptop computers at home.

In a crowded marketplace, it can be very difficult to make sense of what is on offer, so here are four popular but very different options you may like to consider and compare.

Blackberry – the original email-on-the-go solution

RIM’s Blackberry is where the smartphone craze got started, and the company still holds a lead in the corporate world where its unique ‘push email’ technology has proved popular, even though the same functionality can now be had from other solutions that are less expensive than Blackberry enterprise software.

Most Blackberry models have a mechanical QWERTY keyboard that is relatively easy to use with two thumbs, making them a good choice for users needing to write lengthy emails on the road.

To move beyond an established corporate base, newer Blackberry models sport high-resolution colour screens and multimedia features, but despite these efforts, Blackberry is expected to have a hard time winning the hearts of consumers and small business users.

Windows Mobile – Windows desktop in your pocket

For Windows users at least, getting a handset – from a manufacturer like HTC, Samsung or Motorola – running Windows Mobile is a compelling concept, offering mobile versions of familiar Microsoft Outlook and Office applications.

Certainly, compatibility with your desktop applications and files shouldn’t ever be a problem, and Windows Mobile users with Microsoft Exchange groupware on their work networks won’t need additional software like Blackberry users do to get their emails or diaries on the road.

Nevertheless, this ideal scenario is somewhat let down by what is generally acknowledged to be a clunky interface, rather buggy software and difficult to configure settings. Then again, what Windows user isn’t used to that?

Nokia – technical specs to die for

Globally Nokia sells more smartphones than any other manufacturer. Its smartphone offerings like the N95 and upcoming N96, based on the tried and trusted Symbian OS, are not only reliable handsets but offer technical specifications well ahead of the competition.

The N95, for instance, not only has all the PDA, internet and multimedia features you’d expect in a smartphone, but also has 8GB flash memory, a 5 megapixel digital camera, and a built-in GPS receiver.

Great for geeks, but do most people really take advantage of these advanced features and technical specs? Which brings us to…

iPhone – a touch of future technology that just works

Under a banner entitled ‘It’s the user experience, stupid’, a panel of industry experts at the recent world mobile phone congress in Barcelona struggled to explain why it was that Apple’s one-button touchscreen iPhone had been able in to turn the mobile industry on its head and rack up impressive sales and unheard of 95%+ customer satisfaction levels.

A clue to the answer – if it wasn’t already clear from the aforementioned banner – was offered by Google, which reported that its website gets 50 times more searches from iPhones than from any other mobile phone. And in the UK, O2 has reported that the iPhone is pushing ‘unheard of’ data use on its network.

So, while in theoretical technical specifications, the iPhone lags behind phones like the Nokia N95 – it doesn’t (yet) have 3G, it has no GPS and only a 2 megapixel camera – what it does have gets used, and used heavily. And anyone who has used an iPhone will be able to tell you why: the touchscreen interface is not only a real joy to use, it works really well, and for the first time ever, surfing the web is as easy to do as on a desktop or laptop computer.

The downside? While many smartphones are heavily discounted or even free on expensive monthly contracts, the iPhone is criticised as pricey at £269, though that ignores the fact that this is also a fully-featured iPod and you don’t also need to buy an iPod Touch (starting at £199).

In any case, even if you never own an iPhone, you can be thankful that the revolution it has sparked is driving all the mobile phone manufacturers back to their R&D drawing boards, and that can only be good for the usability of all future smartphones.