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Editor's Pick: The HTC S730 GSM Smartphone
The HTC S730 GSM Smartphone

How to Buy a Smartphone

By Mia KimSHOP.COM Gadget Review Guru

It used to be that a cell phone made calls, period. Now most phones can take high resolution photos, double as an MP3 player, stream audio and video, record video, and provide GPS location services. What about a smartphone? While there's no strict definition, generally a smartphone has all the features of a multimedia cell phone, and adds all the functionality of a PDA (personal digital assistant) and the web access of a laptop. With a smartphone, you can surf the web, retrieve and write email, and IM your friends, all in a package scarcely bigger than a regular cell phone.

The Basics

Step 1Operating System: True smartphones don't rely on the skimpy interface that most phone manufacturers provide. Smartphones run on software similar to a computer's with the ability to install a myriad of additional games and applications, and with robust integration of features, like being able to dial phone numbers directly from a web page with a click. The most widely used OS for smartphones currently is Windows Mobile, which is, just as it sounds, much like a miniature version of Windows. The Palm OS, familiar to users of the popular early Treos and Palm Pilots, is often favored by people who want a simpler interface. The Blackberry uses a proprietary system, and the iPhone runs on a version of the Mac OS.
Step 2Hardware: Smartphones vary from candy-bar slim to full-featured but bulky, almost like shrunken laptops. The most important factors to consider with hardware are the screen and the keyboard. Screen size and resolution will be very important if you plan on doing a lot of web surfing, or will be viewing or editing lengthy documents so you'll want as big a screen as possible. All smartphones will have backlit screens, for easy viewing in the dark, but reading in bright daylight may be more difficult. Keyboards with tiny QWERTY buttons are pretty much the standard in smartphones, but the iPhone uses an on-screen keyboard and some Blackberry models use a modified version without dedicated keys for each letter.
Step 3Network: If you want to make use of the Internet on your phone, then the network is of the utmost importance. 3G is the term for the high-speed mobile networks available from AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon. Many smartphones still only support the slower networks such as EDGE (AT&T), so this is something to watch out for. High-speed coverage with each service provider also varies, so checking out coverage maps before you settle on a carrier is important. Some phones, such as the iPhone, also have built-in Wifi when you have a hotspot available.
Step 4Email: The Blackberry gained its reputation as the choice for email addicts for its fast messaging. Email gets pushed out to you as it arrives, no need for you to check it. Windows Mobile and Palm have optional programs which let you sync to your Microsoft Exchange work email. The iPhone and the latest version of Windows Mobile (version 6) also support full HTML email so your email comes through with formatting and images, just like on your desktop client.

The Lingo

Push Email: Push email is email that is always on, always monitoring for new messages so there is no need to log on to check for your mail. Currently Blackberry phones and some Windows Mobile 6 phones have push technology.
GSM/CDMA: These are the two main cell phone network transmission technologies. GSM is supported by T-Mobile and AT&T while Sprint and Verizon use CDMA.
Bluetooth: Bluetooth is a wireless technology which allows you to connect headphones and other accessories to devices without cables.
GPS or A-GPS: Global positioning satellites power the devices that provide turn-by-turn directions. These are becoming more popular in cell phones, which mostly use A-GPS, or assisted GPS, which also utilizes cell tower signals to help navigate around areas where satellite reception is poor.
Touchscreen: Touchscreens let you navigate by pressing buttons and links directly on the screen, rather than needing the keyboard or tracking device. With a touchscreen, you can jot handwritten notes and make simple drawings, just as you would a mouse or a touchpad on a computer.
MicroSD: As more and more phones incorporate advanced media player features, the more storage you need for music, video, and photos. Most phones use removable MicroSD, a tiny fingernail sized card which can add up to 4 GB of additional space.
3G: The high speed data networks of the cell phone providers which provide near broadband-level speed to mobile internet devices. This is called EVDO on the CDMA networks and HSDPA on the GSM networks.

The Experts

BlackBerry 8320 "The RIM BlackBerry Curve for T-Mobile is the best BlackBerry we've seen to date as it offers Wi-Fi, best-of-breed design, and excellent performance." Source-- CNET
Samsung Blackjack "The Samsung Blackjack has streaming media capability, a second battery, and a very light and compact design...if you're in the market for a PDA/phone, The BlackJack is a winning hand." Source-- PC World

The Brands

Apple: The maker of the innovative, touchscreen-only, iPhone which features both a full function iPod and a smartphone in one sleek device.
RIM: The ubiquitous Blackberry, in more models than can be counted.
Samsung: Samsung makes some of the sleekest and slimmest smartphones on the market, like the ultra-thin Blackjack.
HTC: HTC makes the most innovative and advanced Windows Mobile devices in the world.
Motorola The Motorola Q set the standard for slim phone design.

The Price

$: For under 200, you'll need to sign a new contract for a new phone, or try something a bit more basic, like the ultra-slim I-mate SPL GSM Smartphone which has a 2 megapixel camera and Windows Mobile 5.0.
$$: In the 200-400 range, you can expect to get the most current operating system, a 2 megapixel or better camera, full media player, high-speed data services, and options for push email. The Blackberry Pearl weighs just over 3 oz. but has Bluetooth, speakerphone, and a SureType Qwerty-style keyboard.
$$$: For over 400, you're looking at a state-of-the-art device with a big screen, video player, GPS, full Qwerty keyboard, and tons of built-in applications. The Nokia E90 has a 3.2 megapixel camera with flash, and a mobile office suite for editing documents on the go.