I want to reach out and touch some screen.
September 17, 2008 6:36 AM   Subscribe

My secret geek shame is that I've never owned an good mobile device. I'm in the market for a smartphone of some sort. What should I look for, what are the common pitfalls, what should I know that isn't obvious?

I am currently with Verizon and my contract is up in February but I'm not married to them. What I really want a smartphone for is to be able to browse on the go, email and gps are nice bonus features. I've been reading up on the iPhone and I like the fact that there are so many custom apps to choose from, are they really that useful or is it all fluff? Is the new Blackberry going to be the end all be all of smartphones, or just playing catchup to the iPhone?

School me.
posted by wavering to Technology (29 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
My only experience with smartphones is my iPhone. I can say that I LOVE Safari on the iPhone. I like not having to worry that 99.9% of the time a webpage renders exactly like it would in a browser unlike many other phones my friends have where they have to view "mobile versions". The screen size of the iPhone is also a benefit in this context because you see more of the page.

I have heard great things about Opera Mini as well so you might want to explore phones capable of running that and see where you end up.
posted by genial at 7:03 AM on September 17, 2008

I was in the same boat as you less than a year ago, for me the lack of a keyboard on the iphone was an absolute deal breaker. I went with the blackberry curve and have never once regretted it.

To me, the issue really comes down to whether you're more interested in quality web browsing or quality email use.

I also understand that people get used to the iPhone's on-screen keyboard and can get very good with it, but there's just not even a reasonable argument to be made that, for typing things, the iPhone is as good as a physical keyboard. So it depends, in large part, on what you're most focused on.

I wish Apple had done the smart thing and put small "braille-like" dots in the center of each of the on-screen keyboard's keys, that would've been all it took to make the keyboard good enough for my purposes... but if I have to stare at the screen to type or guess which area of the flat, glass screen is the "S" key, it's a non-starter for me.
posted by toomuchpete at 7:06 AM on September 17, 2008

(Because I should've previewed...)

Opera Mini on the Curve is ... decent, if a little buggy. The somewhat small screen on the Curve (relative to the iPhone) makes it a much more cumbersome process, though.
posted by toomuchpete at 7:07 AM on September 17, 2008

I would advise against the Nokia N95 at this point, and go for either an iPhone or the new BlackBerry if you're into push email.

I have an N95, and for anyone remotely power-usery, it's sort of okay. The battery life blows for anything more than basic text messaging or calling (i.e. listening to an mp3 on the way to work will use a third or half of a charge). The built-in video player sucks and there isn't a good freeware alternative. The Podcasting app is pretty sweet, and there is a deal of pretty okay Symbian software out there. My N95 (my second, after the first one got put through the washing machine) has a severe problem with multi-tasking. It coughs and dies if you have more than two applications open at once, randomly quits applications as you open others and occasionally just reboots for no apparent reason.

Put it this way, I'm getting an iPhone next time my contract comes up for renewal. Although I do like the sound of the haptic interface on the BlackBerry Storm.
posted by Happy Dave at 7:12 AM on September 17, 2008

I was in the middle of writing a long answer, but fuck it. I have a blackberry 8830 and an iPhone, and the iPhone wins, hands down. They (Arthur C Clark?) said that new technology should be indistinguishable from magic, and the iPhone is fucking magical. The battery life is meh, its not the most stable device ever (although the 2.1 update is pretty damn good), but damn it all if it isn't the coolest device I've ever owned.
posted by Mach5 at 7:19 AM on September 17, 2008

Oh, and by coolest, I mean it does everything I wanted it to do and more.
posted by Mach5 at 7:20 AM on September 17, 2008

Blackberry: dumb simple device for corporate execs
Windows Mobile: hackable, lots of apps, buggy
iPhone: non-hackable, limited approved apps
Palm: old OS, lots of older apps.

As nice is the iphone is, I'm too geeky to be locked into the 'Apple way or the highway.' The AT&T 3G plans seem expensive to me too. WM6 is actually pretty nice. I'd at least check out the newer windows mobile offerings.
posted by damn dirty ape at 7:32 AM on September 17, 2008

I am looking for a smartphone as well. I've looked at the IPhone and it seems really nice, but there are few geeky reasons why I won't let myself just get it. It has no support for Flash (it has a special app for Youtube/Pandora, but they are in the business of selling video so I wouldn't expect full Flash anytime soon. Yes, they've said it's on the way, but c'mon - what's the holdup?). As well, it does not use Bluetooth for anything other than a one-ear headset (keyboard or headphones would be awesome). No tethering, either.

I am really cautious about Apple as well. They are well known for removing/crippling features from established products through "forced" updates.

My boss is hooked on his WM device and raves about it, FWIW. He's had it for years and won't give it up for nothin. He runs all kinds of apps on it, and most run from regular old executables.
posted by dozo at 7:38 AM on September 17, 2008

I've been reading up on the iPhone

I strongly suggest you go to a store and spend at least 15 minutes with the iPhone's keyboard (Trying an iTouch at Best Buy can also work). Some people hate it, some love it, some can get used to it. For me, it clicked within 30 seconds, despite my huge hands and fingers, but some friends with smaller fingers loath it.

Also note that Safari doesn't do Flash, which is fine 'cept for that one time you really need it.

One thing I love about the iPhone/iTouch is being able to read on it. I got a copy of the US Constitution and Art of War for free, and it's great to breeze through them when I don't feel like playing games. There are other books for sale, but haven't got into those, yet.

Other apps I've found useful or fun: NYtimes (read NYTimes more easily on your iDevice), Flashlight (oddly useful for turning the screen pure white when you've lost soemthing), Showtimes (browsing movie times in your area), MobileFinder (transferring various files between the device and your computer), Koi Pond (visual simulation of Ko Pond, just neat), Remote (control itunes on your home computer or apple tv), AOL Radio (aweseome! internet radio on your iPhone!), Dual Level (is that picture really straight), Checklist (simple to-do-list), Art Envi (an art gallery on your iPhone)
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:39 AM on September 17, 2008

Upgrading a Nokia N95 from the original firmware to the latest version transformed it from a buggy brick into a brilliant piece of kit - a Swiss army knife of connectivity and productivity.
posted by jonathanbell at 7:45 AM on September 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

I love my Treo 750 with WM6. WM5 was a little buggy but since I upgraded to WM6 it's been surprisingly bug/crash free. I use the push email for my gmail and yahoo accounts, and with the Exchange server (?) at work. My favorite part is whenever I make a change to my calendar or phonebook on my Treo, my Outlook calendar at work automatically gets updated - and vice versa. I also use a program called PhatPad, which lets me scribble notes directly on the Treo screen like a post-it - awesome for jotting down phone numbers or other information when I'm in a hurry. The camera's a little weak, but I don't need my phone to take beautiful pictures.

The only thing missing is no hassle GPS. There are ways to make the unit GPS capable, but it involves software and a GPS add-on.

I do have iPhone envy (primarily for the GPS) but with T-Mobile I'm paying less than half of what AT&T would charge.
posted by yeoja at 7:57 AM on September 17, 2008

Two more things:

- I'm able to fully browse the web from the Treo. I haven't downloaded Opera, but IE has been great for me so far.

- Text messages are saved in a chat-like format, where you can see your txt history with any person.
posted by yeoja at 8:00 AM on September 17, 2008

I was never happy with any mobile I owned until the iPhone (and I've never been an Apple enthusiast). My previous device was a Treo 700w.

The iPhone has a great browser. It doesn't support Flash, I'm not aware of any phone that does. I suspect that getting Flash working reliably within the limited hardware of a mobile device is a challenge (users will blame the iPhone when most Flash applications require way too much CPU or memory for a mobile device).

What I Like:

Maps: This is a well done utility that I use probably 10+ times a week. It makes navigating in a car or on foot much easier.

iPod: It's a full functioning iPod, which means one fewer device to carry around. Great for tunes in the car or movies on a plane.

Remote: I don't use this often, but it's great to be able to control my music during a party with my phone.

Shazam: This is a utility I've wanted for a couple years now-- I'm out at a bar or club and a song comes on and I want to know what it is. Shazam listens to a 20 second snippet of sound and, remarkably, can usually tell you the song and artist.

Plus there are new apps coming out every day and as people figure out what makes a useful mobile app, they get better.

What I don't like:

iTunes: I'm a PC user and iTunes for the PC is a pretty poorly written piece of software.

Contact/calendar syncing: On the PC you can only sync with outlook, and for some reason it has a really hard time figuring out that I don't want two different entries for everyone.
posted by justkevin at 8:04 AM on September 17, 2008

I love my WM6 Sprint Touch. Sprint just released the Diamond, and by the time your Verizon contract is up the Touch Pro will be out. Both are insanely nice phones, and much more fun to hack and change up than the iPhone.
posted by nokry56 at 8:05 AM on September 17, 2008

HTC is coming out with some really hot looking smart phones for Sprint and T-Mobile. I am personally waiting for the dream because it has all the touchiness of the iphone with a full slide out keyboard and the presumed awesomeness of Google Android on it. The Touch Diamond and Touch Pro also look very very nice and run windows mobile.
posted by BobbyDigital at 8:06 AM on September 17, 2008

It doesn't support Flash, I'm not aware of any phone that does.

There is a flashplayer 7 for pocketPC/WM devices. There are also a lot of hacks out there. There's a hack for flv files (youtube, etc) too.
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:09 AM on September 17, 2008

Smart phones are like a relationship. You get out of it what you put into it.

I, for one, have been a lousy partner to my Treo and I am sure I haven't figured out 85% of its features.

I have pals who devote the time, energy, buy flowers, and chocolates, and get all sorts of great things from their treos.
posted by Ponderance at 8:10 AM on September 17, 2008

A feature you might like is Wi-Fi. It's for more than just browsing at Starbuck's. It can also be used, according to T-Mobile's publicity, for linking to your VOIP phone account via your own wireless router at home, i.e. using your cell as a portable phone at home (or outside the home via someone else's wireless router).

I don't have that yet, but when my current contract expires I'm going to look into it. You may want to look for that feature now.
posted by JimN2TAW at 8:13 AM on September 17, 2008

I have an HTC 8525 running WM6. It does what I want it to do - gets my email from work, sends text messages (I prefer the slide-out keyboard), runs the WM Flickr uploader, runs google maps, runs spb shell for weather and picture dialing from the main screen.

As an actual phone, it's fairly craptacular.
posted by plinth at 8:13 AM on September 17, 2008

Nthing the new HTC phones. The HTC Touch Pro looks very nice and includes a tactile keyboard.

HTC Touch Pro
posted by demon666 at 8:16 AM on September 17, 2008

I have a Moto Q9c Smartphone from Sprint. Sprint recently released the WM6.1 upgrade for it, which made a HUGE difference in its functionality. Lots of apps are available and its highly customizable. iPhones are cool but too locked down for my closet hackerish desires. The fancier devices running the full blown WM6.1 Professional are a little too big for me, but the Q9 is just the right size and battery life is still pretty good, and the keyboard is awesome.

Google maps and Windows Live (both of which use the integrated GPS flawlessly) cemented the Q9 as a necessary gadget rather for me rather than just a toy. The new Google maps will even provide walking/public transportation directions (complete with bus and train schedules), which was a godsend when I was visiting Chicago a couple weeks ago. There is a java emulator available that can run the Gmail app and Opera Mini, as well as a freeware program that syncs the Q9 with my Google calendar. These are just icing.

A couple caveats:
1. Since it is a Windows-based device, getting all this stuff to work correctly (especially the java emulator) can be tricky. I like doing that kind of stuff, so it never bothered me--and much of the install has been automated by guys on the xda-developers forums and similar places. But it certainly doesn't have the slick "it just works" interface of an iPhone, say. Whether or not this is a dealbreaker depends on you.

2. DON'T get a first gen Q or any other model that can't be upgraded to WM6.1. Carriers have been notorious about lying about this, claiming that upgrades for existing phones are in the works and will be released later. If the upgrade isn't already available, DON'T LISTEN. They might be telling the truth, but they might not be--and if they are lying you'll be stuck with a marginal device with greatly reduced functionality. WM5 (and, to a lesser extent, WM6) are abysmal and buggy. 6.1 has been stable and much more pleasant.

3. Finally, before you buy, if internal GPS is important to you then hit some forums and make sure that the unit you are considering not only has one but that it is accessible to programs that you install. I've read that some other smartphones have GPS chips but access to them is locked down so google maps and the like can't use them.

Nth the coolness of the new Touch devices, although I haven't played with any of them yet. If you have more questions, my email is in the profile.
posted by jtfowl0 at 8:17 AM on September 17, 2008

My boyfriend has a Verizon LG Voyager Titanium. He is in love with it but it is definitely an iPhone rip-off. It has a touch-screen outside, then you flip it open to reveal a full keyboard and an inner screen.

It is definitely buggy. Crashes when you try to load GMail. You have to pay extra for their email service, like $20 a month! Also, I find that scrolling with the touch screen isn't as slick/easy as the iPhone.
posted by radioamy at 8:29 AM on September 17, 2008

Another vote for an HTC. I have a Kaiser and I love it. Good luck! I'm very jealous; my contract doesn't run out for another 8 months. :/
posted by Jacqulyn at 10:49 AM on September 17, 2008

HTC Diamond here. Absolutely love it. iphone is good for cool factor, but if you want to bring out your inner geek, its a no go. Can't hack it, can't mod it, hell you can't even swap out the battery!

The TD can do everything the iphone can, plus a lot more.
posted by wile e at 11:05 AM on September 17, 2008

I have an HTC diamond in my hands right now. WM 6.1. Slick as hell. You cant take the battery out either.

Its really small too. Perhaps too small for some geeks. I'm more interested in the treo 800w to be honest. I hate these virtual keyboards.
posted by damn dirty ape at 12:30 PM on September 17, 2008

I've had a bunch of smartphones over the years. They are business tools for me and my emphasis is on reliablity, great email, great web browsing and international support.

Treo - I loathed the Treo, both the 600 and the 755 - the entire interface was counterintuitive to me. Keyboard was cramped and unusable. (I have relatively small hands and nimble fingers.) Dropped my 600 frequently until I broke it and my boss bought me a new phone. Tried again with the 755, but we could not make a Love Connection. We have a lot of them in our office because they are one corporate standard product. It may be confirmation bias or corporate configuration, but our staff doesn't like them.

Iphone - Nifty. Not for me. The virtual keyboard thing annoyed me, but other people seem to dig it.

HTC Mogul 6700 and then 6800 - great phones. Super easy interface. Occasional crashes but generally reliable. Great for text/email because of the nice keyboard. Good-great for web browsing. Liked the touchscreen, but it did have some alignment issues if a piece of grit got caught in the lip around the screen. The Diamond design eliminates that issue. I really liked this phone and only gave it up because some corporate standards changed.

Blackberry - I had a Pearl for less than a week, because it wasn't up to the job I needed my Smartphone to do. Now I have the 8830 World Edition which I love with my whole heart. The trackball is more efficient than the touch screen which was sometimes clunky. Very good all around, but lacks a camera.

My next phone will be the top o' the line Blackberry, but I wouldn't hesitate to get another HTC. It really depends on how important the touchscreen is to you.
posted by 26.2 at 5:10 PM on September 17, 2008

I have a blackberry curve and love it and I'm not an exec - sorry, dda. But before I had this, my first smartphone was the Tmobile Dash. I loved it, but that may be in part because I am a Windows Gal. I only upgraded to the Curve because my Dash died an ugly, ugly death involving a two story mall and an escalator.
posted by damnjezebel at 5:26 PM on September 17, 2008

Even though I can't afford anything right this second, I'm super excited to get a smartphone and have done a bunch of research.

I expected to loooove the iphone (I'm mainly a mac person) but after playing with a couple of my friends and actually texting on it etc, I wasn't as covetous as I expected to be. Granted this is w/o comparison to a blackberry or whatever. I found the typing not great and the interface a bit slow and the battery life bad. It's still would no doubt be my second choice, but my first choice is the Nokia e71. It seems to have great reviews, tons of apps, and is much better for dealing with text and typing (weaker on the media stuff though, so it depends on your priorities). Unless I learn a good reason not to (and damn I'm sorry I'm getting to this thread so late), that's what I'm getting the instant I can reasonably afford it (providing nothing cooler comes out before then!).

Check it out.
posted by Salamandrous at 6:37 PM on September 17, 2008

I was reading through wondering if someone had mentioned the E71. I had an E61 for ages and loved it except it was too big and sometimes a little slow. The E71 is miles smaller, faster and has added the few things the E61 was missing like a camera and GPS (which was a lifesaver on a recent month long trip around Europe).

The built in browser is very good (although obviously it doesn't have the screen size of the iphone) but I generally use Opera Mini since Australia is still a long way from offering unlimited data plans. The built in mail client is usable but not great, but you can try Profimail, the Gmail client or Nokia's beta email client. The keyboard is very good, and I've got big thumbs. Um, not sure what else to say, it's easily the best phone I've used. Nothing against the iphone, I'll be buying one for my wife in the next few weeks probably, but the E71 is definitely worth a look.
posted by markr at 11:09 PM on September 17, 2008

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