Which 'smartphone' is the smart choice?

Like many technology writers this week, I’ve had to take some deep consideration of how I’d deal with the subject of the iPhone.

After last Friday’s long lines and cult-like enthusiasm, it’s already clear that Apple has a hit with their latest device. Most of the press reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, with some minor issues raised, while the user experience has been similarly strong but spotty. And in more than a few cases I heard both journalists and would-be iPhone users state things that were simply inaccurate about what the device can do.

So, rather than blindly heap more praise on the Apple altar or seeking to pull the iPhone down from its exalted heights, I thought our readers might benefit from a realistic look at what the iPhone and other so-called “smartphones” can do. With that information, it should be a little easier to decide whether the iPhone or an alternative is the right choice for you.

‘Dumb’ phones not so dumb

We’ve come a long way from the day when the mobile phone was the size and weight of a brick and had an antenna nearly as long. From slimline phones like the Motorola Razr to Haier’s Elegance (which is smaller than an iPod Nano in all but thickness), squeezing more into less is now the name of the game.

We’ve also come a long way from the day when all a mobile phone did was make phone calls.

Even the most basic phone these days will store dozens of phone numbers, let you enter calendar items and make notes, prompt you with an alarm clock, facilitate traveling with world times, offer a calculator for shopping and a tip calculator for dining out, offer customization of color schemes and ringtones, and let you send and receive text messages, including news, weather and sports scores.

The next step up is a phone with added features, such as a built-in digital camera, basic e-mail and Web browsing, picture messaging to go along with the camera, and niceties such as music and games available for download for a small fee.

This is the phone most people have now, give or take a few features. These phones are workhorses and will suit the vast majority of phone users who want a phone that just does a little more than be a phone.

So, what does the iPhone do for $500 or $600 that these standard workhorse phones don’t for $100 or less? Well, like many of the current generation of so-called “smartphones,” the iPhone does have a few extra tricks up its slick sleeve.

Video, music features widely available

First off, there’s the obvious — it has a 4 or 8 GB iPod built in. Steve Jobs has called the iPhone “the best iPod we’ve ever made.” Compared to an 8 GB Nano, I have no doubt this is true.

Apple has taken the iPod’s interface and placed it below a big, slick, glass touchscreen that uses the iTunes Coverflow layout to allow users to browse through their music like a digital album rack, all with the flick of a finger. Very nice — particularly if you’ve downloaded album art with all of your music purchases. It also allows them to see their movies even larger than on a video iPod. Score one for the iPhone over the Nano.

Now, if it just had 60 or 80 GB of storage, like the video iPods… If it could play a wider variety of music formats – something the iPods have never done well and by design… If it just had the ability to output that video to a television so you could take your purchased movies and TV shows on vacation with you, like you can with its older cousins… But there’s no video output on the iPhone.

For comparison, my year-old HTC-manufactured Verizon XV6700 — and nearly all of its Windows Mobile smartphone cousins — can also play back video and music. With 4, 6 and 8 GB micro-SD storage chips here or on the near horizon, it meets the iPhone’s capacity for media, plus it can also act as an external storage drive — another iPod feature that the iPhone doesn’t share.

And it will play any format that Windows Media Player or the wide variety of other mobile players for Windows Mobile can handle.

Apple has also touted compatibility with the popular YouTube video sharing Web site as the weeks have ticked down to iDay. Of course, the iPhone is only compatible with the limited number of YouTube videos that have been converted to a mobile format and are available on a mobile subsection of the YouTube site.

Within hours of the announcement of that mobile site, enterprising research showed that many of HTC’s phones were already compatible with the new format and most of the others, plus some non-HTC models using Windows Mobile, could be made that way. Yes, I can watch the same YouTube mobile videos on my year-old phone as you can watch on the iPhone, even if my screen’s not quite as big.

Astonishingly, there is also no built-in iTunes or other music download feature on the iPhone. That’s something even standard mobile phones have had for a while. Certainly, Windows Mobile devices have a variety of options for downloading music already. Apple says they have more in store for iPhone users, but this function should have been a no-brainer out of the box.

PDA functions expanded for iPhone

I already keep a backup contact list synchronized to my iPod. And until I purchased my PDA replacement/phone last year, I also kept my calendar in my iPod, though with my outdated version of Outlook, that required both a file conversion to Apple’s iCal format and placing the calendar file on the iPod manually.

The iPhone improves on that by allowing synchronization with many common calendar and contact programs, including Microsoft Outlook.

The one cutting-edge thing for the iPhone’s communications is the new “visual” voice mail, which lets you read who’s called you and listen to only that one message. This is, no question, an iPhone innovation that begs to be replicated and already is being copied for Windows Mobile.

On the other hand, there seem to be some out there who think the iPhone will turn your voice-mail into text and deliver it to the phone. Unfortunately, it’s simply not so — though that feature is already available as an add-on to Windows Mobile phones through several services and your provider’s text messaging system.

Beyond calendar and contacts, the iPhone also allows you to read and send e-mail from a wide variety of hosts, including Hotmail, AOL, Google and most any e-mail server that can use POP3 or IMAP settings.

It can’t use the features of Microsoft Exchange servers — yet — which would allow most business users to have the same “push” e-mail feature of instant transmission of incoming e-mail as RIM’s Blackberries currently have. It has been indicated that Exchange compatibility is coming soon, though. The iPhone can do push e-mail with Yahoo e-mail too, and more compatibility is likely coming.

On the other hand, my Windows Mobile device can already handle e-mail from Exchange servers, as well as my own copy of Outlook and a variety of POP3 and IMAP accounts, including Yahoo. Exchange is the default for push e-mail with Windows Mobile, but there are a variety of services that will also do push e-mail with other accounts for a small price.

I also have AOL software that was designed for my seven-year-old Windows Mobile PDA but which still works perfectly for current models of PDAs and phones using newer versions of the OS. It features e-mail and instant messaging together. There are also a variety of standalone instant messaging applications out there for Windows Mobile devices.

The iPhone has at least two options out there for instant messaging, though neither has proven to be without problems.

Add-ons still coming for iPhone

Unfortunately, the shortage of applications available for the iPhone just begins with IM clients. While initial concerns were over the idea that Apple would lock out third-party developers — which it has done with much of its hardware over the years — what was meant to be the solution to that concern hasn’t really alleviated it.

The iPhone will use its mobile version of the Safari browser to use “Web 2.0” applications. That means applications are easier to develop but perhaps harder to make useful and reliable.

Already there are dozens of these applications. Mostly, they’re front-ends or adaptations for existing Web sites, such as the social networking sites Twitter and Digg. There are also some games, such as sudoku, and some productivity applications, such as ways to track your mileage.

It has sparked some enthusiasm, but not the same level I’ve seen in developers targeting the Palm and Windows Mobile platforms.

And while the availability of games on the iPod should have cleared the way for arcade-style fun on the iPhone, so far there are no games available for it via iTunes, and there are apparently no plans to make a developer kit widely available to encourage such development from the programming community at large.

What a waste, to put it bluntly.

When I got my first Windows Mobile PDA nearly eight years ago, I was a little sad that there wasn’t a ton of software available for it, compared to what was out there for the older Palm OS. However, that quickly changed, and the range of what is available now is truly staggering.

Along with the alternative music and video players, IM and e-mail clients, there are thousands of games of every conceivable style and quality. Big-name licensed games are available and were available to Windows Mobile users long before the iPod got them. There is also a wealth of really creative people adapting popular desktop games and creating brand new games just for Windows Mobile.

From Bejeweled to PacMan to mahjongg and action games, it’s pretty much limitless. Even the new wave of brain-training games has jumped to the Windows Mobile platform.

Productivity software ranges from list managers (to-do or shopping, collections and onward) and password keepers to money managers (even a mobile version of Microsoft Money), spreadsheets and word processing.

There’s also photo editing software, art programs for kids and pro artists, music recording and editing software, language tutors, flashcard makers, pocket Bibles and Korans, readers for PDFs and eBooks…

The list goes on and on. If you can imagine it, someone likely has already created it for Windows Mobile, and much of it is available for free or a modest price (think $5 to $20). Moreover, most of these programs can be downloaded via the Internet and installed directly from the phone. You naturally end up with some memory and stability issues, with all these variations and choices, but things almost always work just fine.

I can only hope the iPhone platform will expand similarly over the years, but the limitations of Web 2.0 development could mean that software will continue to be simplistic and feature-light.

Apple has promised “amazing things to come” with software updates for the iPhone. I only hope that’s true too, but right now it’s looking like “amazing things to come” could be Exchange compatibility. I also find it interesting that none of these “amazing things” were ready in time for the iPhone’s release. After years of development, months of hype and a last-minute retooling of battery capacity, odd that they didn’t have time for one killer application.

Non-replaceable battery an iffy choice

Speaking of batteries… The non-removable battery in iPods and now the iPhone is a sore point with me. I admit that I haven’t had one die yet, but I’m generally a light user of my iPod unless I’m on the road and I’ve tried to keep to Apple’s recommendations for monthly discharging and recharging. I know of plenty of heavy users who didn’t make it much out of warranty, if that long, before they needed a battery replacement.

You’re looking at being without your phone for at least three days while Apple replaces a battery, plus it will cost you the better part of $100. And your iPhone will come back just like it came out of the box — empty. Apple has warned buyers to keep their phones synched before they send them off for repairs or they’ll lose their contacts, e-mail, messages, music and photos.

(Oh, and built-in that 2 megapixel camera, which is about standard these days — it won’t record video, like nearly every Windows Mobile phone on the market today can.)

Meanwhile, like most cell phones, my Windows Mobile device has a battery door on the back, with an easy-to-change battery that not only lets you replace one that has died but also lets you freely replace a discharged one with a charged spare to extend use time. My docking cradle even has a spot for a second battery to charge. And static memory keeps it from losing its contents, which was a flaw in my old PDA.

With only about eight hours of battery life on average, the iPhone is going to last an average user a full day, to be recharged each night, just like a Windows Mobile smartphone. But, ironically, those making heavier use of its multimedia features may find themselves needing to plug in mid-day or forgo any use of the phone later in the day. Ouch.

Browser slick but slow

The biggest issue so far for iPhone users as relates to Apple’s choice of AT&T/Cingular for a five-year lock on a network has been the problems a minority (if a large one) of purchasers have had in getting the iPhone activated. The complaints about poor customer service aren’t likely to abate, however, unless Apple strong-arms its partner into treating iPhone users better.

But the more practical issue regarding the choice of network is how it impacts one of the iPhone’s biggest features: its “full” Web browser. AT&T’s Edge network, though it was retooled this week to get some additional speed now that legacy networks have been dropped, is still considerably slower than the competing EVDO network of Verizon Wireless.

Steve Jobs has said this was a choice on Apple’s part, to encourage users to avoid browsing while connected via the phone network and thus keep battery life as long as possible. Um… OK. They chose a slow network on purpose, because the battery life was too short otherwise. I’m not sure whether that’s PR or just very odd thinking.

Reported load speed for Web pages pulled in over the AT&T phone network has ranged from 30 seconds up to 2 minutes for even something as simple as the Google home page. Yikes!

Apple is encouraging iPhone users to browse when they’re able to connect to a WiFi signal. For a lot of people, that’s going to mean only when they’re already at home, with their computers in the next room. But I won’t knock the idea. Without my WiFi on my phone, an RSS feed reader and the Windows Mobile browser, I wouldn’t be able to keep in touch like I do. I also wouldn’t be able to get that much without paying for a costly data plan on Verizon. That’s one area AT&T has them beat, even if the speeds are slower.

The iPhone browser, by all reports, is spectacular. Using your fingers as a pointer, you click on the zoomed-out version of the Web page, which is initially displayed in its usual full glory as it would be on a desktop browser. That click zooms in on the area you’re pointing to, taking you in closer to your content. Pinching and dragging will manipulate photos for viewing (though no editing is available).

It’s a great idea, and most people seem to love it. But having dealt with a similar design in Microsoft’s new “Deepfish” mobile browser, I have to say I wasn’t very impressed. I found the method less intuitive and most cumbersome than Pocket Internet Explorer.

I’ve had very little problem with PIE, other than a few stubborn browser pages that won’t display right no matter which of the three views (desktop, one-column or a “default” mobile view) I use.

The iPhone also suffers from lack of compatibility with Flash and other Web standards. PIE also has issues where these standards are concerned, but most Flash issues are resolved with a mobile version of that plug-in and a mobile version of Java is also available and even once came standard in Windows Mobile devices.

I’m not sure how Apple though the iPhone version of their Safari browser — despite the nifty touchscreen control — would pass as a desktop-type experience without two of the most popular functions out there, in Flash and Java. Maybe that’s coming too…

Style over substance

Apple keeps up the advertising theme of the stylish slacker with the iPhone. Windows Mobile does indeed offer mobile versions of Microsoft’s Office suite, with Word, Excel and Powerpoint applications that can read — and in all but a few devices — write the various document formats.

Not so much the iPhone, which can only read the formats. That at least makes the lack of a physical keyboard a little less troubling.

But I routinely dump my in-progress stories, letters, notes and more right onto the storage card in my phone. From there, I can put them on my work computer, edit the story, reference what kind of battery it was I needed for my portable phone at home while I’m out shopping, or access a document I downloaded off the Internet while on the go.

That also means I find the copy-and-paste function that we all know about from Windows’ desktop OS and, well… the Mac, too, pretty darn useful. On Windows Mobile, copy and paste is as easy as tapping on highlighted text, holding the stylus or your finger down until a dialogue box pops up and clicking copy or cut. Then, find where it goes, click and hold and select paste. Even the traditional Windows shortcut keys, Ctrl-C, Ctrl-X and Ctrl-V, work just fine.

I’m not sure how iPhone browser users will copy URLs from a Web page to their browser’s address window. There is no copy or cut and paste in the iPhone’s functions. Puzzle that one out if you can.

Maps are darn practical, too. And iPhone has those, with a specially designed Google Maps application. You can get directions from Point A to Point B, as long as you know where Point A — your present location — is. The iPhone has no GPS unit inside, like most of the current crop of smartphones.

I’m sure this was a tradeoff for that sleek design, but my phone already has Google Maps, and my next smartphone will have full GPS support so I can figure out where I am if I get lost and maybe do a little exploring. I’ve even toyed with the idea of an add-on GPS unit for my existing phone, which I could easily do thanks to Bluetooth support for GPS and lots of navigation software options for Windows Mobile.

Considerably less practical is the iPhone’s design. You can’t argue with the artistic factor of clean design like we first saw in the iPod. It also seems more user-friendly, especially if you’re intimidated by buttons.

Even Windows Mobile fans fell in love with the virtual sliding unlock feature that enables the buttons after the phone has been turned off. And the 16 little icons for iPhone’s various built-in applications look clean, neat and easy to use.

But there’s a tradeoff there, too. Windows Mobile, by default, displays information on its Today screen. On mine, there’s the date, weather forecast, sun and moon phases, my next few appointments, indicators for unread e-mail and uncompleted tasks and my unread news headlines.

If I want to run an application, I can click on the familiar Windows icon, where the familiar Windows menu brings me to applications I regularly use and windows offering everything else.

Or, I can take advantage of the many Today screen plug-ins and exactly emulate the clean look of the iPhone’s home screen, or customize it any way I like. That goes for color schemes, applications, information widgets, background images and on and on. There’s no such customization available for the iPhone — not even a choice of applications to display. And I’m running a sliding unlock application now that emulates iPhone’s perfectly.

What holds true here may hold true for smartphones overall: It may be more stylish to only offer plain black and more user-friendly to be simple. But I think a nod to creativity and usefulness actually shows up better in Windows Mobile’s ability to be customized for the user, take advantage of ingenuity in the development community and make the device do whatever you need it to do.

The bottom line is that neither the iPhone nor its Windows Mobile competitors are perfect — unless they do exactly what you need.

If your focus is on sleek style, new interfaces and media only, the iPhone may be a perfect choice for you. If you’re willing to deal with a little more bulk and interface technology that’s right on the iPhone’s bumper, you can ask for a whole lot more in so many areas. But only if you want it.