A Guide to Smart Phones

What's the difference between smart phones and cell phones? A cell phone is built primarily to be a phone. Even if the phone has Web access, your ability to access Web content is limited.

Smart phones are full-featured communication tools that give you full Web access, a keyboard for typing messages and the ability to download and send attachments. If you need to stay in touch when you're not at your desk, a smart phone is the way to do it.

Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?
Smart phones are a hybrid of cell phones and personal data assistants (PDAs) that also include e-mail, Internet access and the ability to sync with your home PC. Smart phones have larger screens than cell phones and most offer either an alphanumeric keyboard or a touch-sensitive screen. Smart phones also offer cameras (some up to 3 megapixels for higher digital picture quality), MP3 players, and multimedia support are now common as smart phone makers try to deliver the most functionality for the price.

Choosing a Smart Phone
Set aside the Internet functions and remember that you need a phone. The size of some smart phones can make them very uncomfortable to use for extended periods. Make sure it fits in your hand, or consider a Bluetooth headset that lets you leave the phone in your pocket.

The biggest benefit of a smart phone is the ability to send and receive e-mail, either through the Web, a dedicated server, or the IMAP or POP mail client you currently use. Not all smart phones support IMAP or POP access, so you'll need to know which protocol your e-mail servers are using and choose a smart phone than can communicate with them.

E-mail means writing, and there's two ways to go. One is an alphanumeric keyboard. The buttons on these are small and best suited for one-handed use. The other choice is a touch-sensitive screen and a stylus. These smart phones have handwriting recognition software that takes some practice to use. Both types of phones may include predictive text software that automatically completes words for you, and some smart phones will learn your vocabulary to reduce inaccurate predictions.

There are two important things to keep in mind. First, some smart phones will only work with specific service providers. You can find "unlocked" cell phones that will work with any provider online, but there's no guarantee that all the functions will work.

Second, not all phones are created equal. The Apple iPhone has a lot of features in common with smart phones, but it can't send and download e-mail attachments, which is considered a key piece of smart phone functionality by users. As the line between cell phones and smart phones blurs, you'll need to know what features are essential to you and make sure they're part of the package.

A Portable PC
There are different methods for connecting a smart phone to your PC. Some include a USB cradle while others simply use a USB cable. Wireless connectivity via infrared or Bluetooth is increasingly common for smart phones, but you'll need a PC that supports this feature or a separate electronic key, called a dongle, to enable it. USB is a simpler choice, and it offers the benefit of charging your smart phone's battery while it's connected to your computer.

Smart phones have their own operating systems (OS), and they come with software that allows them to work with your PC. The most commonly used OS is Windows Mobile, which supports common Windows applications, including reduced-feature versions of Outlook, Word, Excel and PowerPoint. All BlackBerry smart phones run on a proprietary OS that can support some Windows software with additional downloads. Sony and Ericsson smart phones use the Symbian OS, which is built for greater ease in calling. Innovation giants Apple has designed its own OS, while Google is planning a new wireless OS of their own. Some models still support the Palm OS designed for touch-screen PDAs.

Choosing an OS is largely a matter of personal preference. Current smart phone operating systems work well with both PC and Mac, so find an interface that you like and check to make sure that it supports the software that you use.

Smart Phone Memory and Screens
Built-in memory keeps getting bigger. You can expect to find 20MB to 80MB out of the box on smart phones, along with the option to expand memory through an SD or MMC slot, allowing up to 12GB of storage. Check your owner's manual before you buy, as most smart phones are limited in the amount of extra memory they can use.

Smart phone screens are larger than those on cell phones, and many work in both portrait and landscape modes, giving you a larger view of Web sites, multimedia files and e-mails. TFT or film transistor screens are the most common, but they can be hard to use outdoors or in bright light. Newer transflective screens absorb bright light to keep the screen readable in all types of lighting.

Bands and Batteries
Some makers hail the quad-band functionality of their smart phones. Useful if you're a globetrotter, unnecessary if you stay close to home. Smart phones send voice messages through the GSM network and use either the 3G or GPRS networks for Internet communications. The newer 3G network offers improvements in multimedia functions, making it ideal for music and video lovers.

Battery life in smart phones averages 6 hours across all models, with 3 hours at the low end and 13 hours at the high end. Talking consumes the most power, followed by writing and using media files.

Additional Costs
When comparing smart phone models, be sure to include the price of extra memory cards, a Bluetooth headset and a car charger, if they are not included. You'll also need to consider the cost of a monthly service plan from a wireless provider. Always choose a plan that includes more minutes than you think you'll use, as going over can lead to airtime charges of 10 cents a minute or more. An unlimited data transfer plan is also recommended for your smart phone.

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