Smartphones Now: First-Time Buyer's Guide

So you’ve decided to buy your first smartphone. That’s fantastic, but before you go crazy and drop your car payment in favor of PDA-meets-cellphone goodness, you need to stop and figure out which smartphone is right for you, but that, dear reader, is why CrunchGear is here.

Because there are so many different devices on the market, we should start by establishing exactly what a smartphone is, which is harder than it sounds, as there’s no official definition. Generally speaking, a smartphone is a combination of a cellphone and a PDA, but many traditional cellphones are encroaching on smartphone territory by adding features like email syncing, Web browsing and instant messaging.

A true smartphone, however, will also usually include Office document reading (and often writing), alternative text entry (QWERTY, touchscreen, both, or something different), and the ability to load and launch third party apps.

In this guide, we’re not considering devices like BlackBerries and SideKicks to be true smartphones, though they’re often lumped in with them. These are communicators, a weird half-brother to the smartphone that only shows up when he needs bail money.

Smartphones are analogous to the personal computer around 1997 or so. At the time, computers were still considered the domain of businessmen or geeks, not something every soccer mom in America would own. Less than ten years later it’s hard to imagine life without having at least one in your home. The same threshold is currently being crossed by smartphones as vendors target non-business customers for the first time, a market segment we’re calling “casual smartphone users.”

That doesn’t mean they’re right for everyone, not yet, but they’ve come far enough that if you have any inclination to make the jump, now is a great time to do so. But first we should look at why you’re getting one. Let’s face it, it’s not to look cool. The only way to look like more of a tool than sticking a cellphone on your belt is sticking a smartphone on your belt, or worse, your waistband. You want a smartphone because you’re the type that doesn’t just want to be organized, you want to be connected as well. If keeping your schedule straight is all you need, a PDA does the job nicely. However, if your appointments change faster than allegiances on “24,” then you’re the ideal smartphone candidate.

OK, so we’ve established what it is and why you want it, that’s the easy part. Now which smartphone is your smartphone? This might be the hardest question Man has ever been asked since the beginning of time, which for our purposes we figure to be around 2002.

Hardware-wise, there are two roads to go down: touchscreen and non-touchscreen. While the touchscreen seems like a no-brainer, it’s worth considering that these devices are considerably more expensive than their touchless cousins. They also tend to be larger, as the added gear to calibrate and record the touch movements takes its own room. For example, the T-Mobile MDA or Sprint Treo 700p are larger than their standard screen brethren.

That’s not to say non-touchscreen smartphones aren’t any good. Indeed, the T-Mobile Dash and Verizon’s Motorola Q both offer full QWERTY text entry and one-handed navigation, very intuitive and easy to use. The Cingular 3125 eschews the text-entry keyboard for a standard telephone T9 keypad, but at the benefit of a slim form factor.

You should ask yourself what you’re going to be doing with your smartphone. If you’re looking at extending your existing phone to the next level, a non-touchscreen device might be right, as it combines basic smartphone features with a familiar form factor and interface. If you’re more of an email reader than a writer, then a QWERTY keypad might even be too much. However if you’re a poweruser coming from the other direction, a PDA user wanting to combine your devices, then you’d be happier with a touchscreen and QWERTY enabled device, as it would mimic the device you use now far more closely.

After considering form factor, you should think about your operating system. Symbian, the most popular smartphone OS globally, is just now making headway in the States, but has an impressive showing in the Nokia E62 from Cingular. The Palm OS is an always popular place to start, as its ease of use and bundled apps, as well as running on the award-winning Treo hardware, make it want for nothing. If communication with your existing enterprise is a deal killer, the Windows Mobile 5 devices offer built-in integration with Exchange and Active Directory. In addition, this OS has the most “flavors,” one of which you’ll most likely find appealing.

Another real concern is data transfer. These devices don’t function on magic pixie dust (with the exception of the Nod 3354i Nvrlnd). It’s no use having two way email sync, centralized contact managers, and mobile porn if your device can’t get to the Internet. This is where the various secondary radios that smartphones carry come into play. In America, we have two types of service. EV-DO/RTT, favored by CDMA cellphone networks like Sprint and Verizon, and GPRS/EDGE/UMTS/HSDPA, the standard GSM providers like T-Mobile and Cingular use. When examining the available smartphones, look at their “packet data” format to make sure it matches your provider.

Some versions are faster than others. So-called 3G technologies, like EV-DO and UMTS/HSDPA are far faster than 2 or 2.5G technologies like GPRS/EDGE and RTT. Either way, though, you’ll have to sign-up with a secondary data plan along side your voice plan, something many people don’t realize, and something that can be a deal killer. These plans go for between $20 and $40 a month, depending on the provider and speeds, but get an unlimited plan over a metered one, you’ll thank us later.

We’ve covered a lot here, but don’t be intimidated. If you take this guide step-by-step, and examine exactly what you want a smartphone to do for you, you’ll be able to use this information to find your phone. Don’t be dissuaded by any other user’s opinion off hand; what’s right for them might be wrong for you, or vice versa. For example, we couldn’t live without our touchscreen Treo, though one of our very accomplished colleagues swears by his Cingular 3125 flip-phone. But he’s also a heroin addict tranny with six teeth.

All things considered what’s important is your needs, and with number of smartphones on the market today, there must be one that meets them well.

Manu- facturer





QWERTY Keyboard

Touch- screen





Cingular 3125

HTC (as Cingular)







Windows Mobile 5: Smart- phone Edition

3.6 ounces

3.88" x 2.02" x 0.62" inches
1.3 megapixel camera, 240×320 non- touch- screen, Bluetooth, MicroSD, T9, Flip phone. GPRS/ EDGE, MP3 player
A slender flip phone for those who read messages more than they write.
Cingular 8125/ T-Mobile MDA

HTC (as Cingular and T-Mobile)

Cingular or T-Mobile
About $200, depending on carrier subsidies




Windows Mobile 5: Phone Edition

5.6 ounces

4.25" x 2.28" x 0.93" inches
1.3 megapixel camera with flash, 320×240 touch- screen, WiFi, Bluetooth, MiniSD, backlit QWERTY keyboard, GPRS/ EDGE
The full-featured everything phone, with integrated WiFi
Treo 650 Palm Sprint, Verizon Wireless, Cingular, Earthlink About $200 N N Y Y Palm Os 5.4 5.4 ounces 2.3x 4.4x
VGA camera, 320×320 touch- screen, Bluetooth, SDIO, backlit QWERTY keyboard, GPRS/ EDGE Palm’s uber-popular smart- phone that everyone loves.
Nokia e62 Nokia Cingular About $200 N N Y N Symbian Series 60 5.08 ounces 4.61" x 2.74" x 0.55" inches 320×240 non-touch- screen, QWERTY keyboard, Bluetooth A BlackBerry- like smartphone running Nokia S60, but no camera.
Sprint Device IP-830W by Samsung Samsung (for Sprint) Sprint $599 N N Y Y Windows Mobile 5: Phone Edition 6.44 ounces 4.49" x 2.28" x 0.97" inches 240×320 touch- screen, sliding QWERTY keyboard, EVDO One of the only phones in North America with both EVDO and GSM
Motorla Q Motorola Verizon Wireless $199 N N Y N Windows Mobile 5: Smart-phone Edition 4.06 ounces 4.49" x 2.28" x 0.97" inches 320×240 non-touch- screen, QWERTY keyboard, Bluetooth Motorola’s aim at the BlackBerry. Slender, slick, popular.
T-Mobile Dash

HTC (as T-Mobile)






Windows Mobile 5: Smart- phone Edition

4.02 ounces

2.3x 4.4x
320×240 non-touch- screen, QWERTY keyboard, Bluetooth, WiFi
Cheap and very lightweight, the Lohan of smartphones.