Supersmart phones for extreme mobility

We pick seven serious business phones with all the bells and whistles, plus the power and flexibility that real mobile professionals need

The iPhone is wonderful for well-heeled consumers and status-conscious gadget freaks (see my review, "iPhone: The $1,975 iPod"), but business users need more … much more.

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The iPhone also misses the mark with enterprises, which typically run their own wireless operations, wiring back-end services with custom handset software to create tailored solutions. Most enterprises standardize on a given handset that's compatible with their wireless solutions, then deploy a fleet of devices appropriately pre-configured for the company's applications and general IT services like e-mail and intranet.

So what makes a great enterprise handset? It must be highly configurable to match infrastructure and potentially to adapt to changes in geography or work assignment. It must accept custom client/server applications that may place unusually high storage, performance, and UI burdens on the device. It must be manageable from a central point within the business so that the enterprise is empowered to provision, revoke, reconfigure, blank, and alter usage and security policies without bringing the unit in from the field.

It's a tall order, but such devices exist, outside Cupertino. The seven mobile handsets reviewed here all meet the mark, albeit with varying degrees of compromise. At the top end, the BlackBerry 8800 and Nokia E61i satisfy enterprise criteria for functionality, usability, and extensibility more fully than any handsets before them, with each device showing markedly different strengths, some of which will surprise you.

One step down, the Nokia E65 and the T-Mobile Wing (HTC Herald) sacrifice some usability for a sleeker package, but don't cut corners on functionality. Sporting all of the features of an enterprise phone, these mobile executive handsets never leave you having to say "I'll have to get back to you on that" or "I'll get my people on that as soon as I get back to the office."

The remaining three devices in this roundup -- the BlackBerry 8300 (Curve), HTC Advantage X7501, and AT&T 8525 (HTC Hermes) -- make the most compromises, usually for the sake of a smaller form factor or more stylish consumer look. But while they may shortchange you on performance or battery life or build quality and durability, they are still professional-grade handsets for serious business users.

Smart and driven executives, as well as top-echelon sales and marketing staff, need mobile devices that give them unfettered access to people, projects, services, and information. No phone is a notebook replacement, but these seven devices give you the option of traveling without a full PC or Mac and the bulging bag of necessities that accompany it. Together, they represent the cream of the crop for executives, mobile professionals, and the enterprises they are a part of.

Enterpriseclass: BlackBerry 8800 and Nokia E61i
When Research In Motion (RIM) started out, there was one thing that its BlackBerry did well: Push messaging. Now that the BlackBerry 8800 is here, we have one handset that does push messaging, mobile phone, media playback, Java GUI, PDA, and GPS navigation equally well.

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If you've never encountered one, BlackBerry is the prototypical big-screen-over-QWERTY-keyboard mobile device. Every BlackBerry comes with the capability to receive and send push messages, which contain e-mail, application data, and management commands.

BlackBerry's uniqueness lies in distributed infrastructure that is located at wireless operators' facilities, at RIM's datacenters in Canada, and on BlackBerry Enterprise Server systems hosted by IT organizations that support BlackBerry users. BlackBerry devices are also uniquely easy to use, self-configuring, and centrally managed. A BlackBerry never fetches e-mail. E-mail finds your BlackBerry: accurate, intact delivery of all messages sent to and from BlackBerry handsets is guaranteed by the infrastructure and the handset's messaging software.

Previously, all data moving to or from a BlackBerry, including Web content, had to pass through RIM's servers in Canada or a private BlackBerry Enterprise Server. A significant change brought the option of direct connection from the handset to the Internet for some applications, including BlackBerry's built-in browser. That shift boosted Web performance considerably and brought about a new browser, along with a new human interface to go with it.

The BlackBerry 8800 ushered in a completely overhauled, and now standard, BlackBerry-to-human interface. The lighted trackball centered under the display has taken the place of the familiar thumbwheel across the BlackBerry line, and the contour and layout of the keys has evolved. The keyboard is now indescribably comfortable, with each key cupped on one side so that your thumbs don't slide off.

The BlackBerry 8800's trackball is innovative in ways that won't be apparent until more BlackBerry applications make the trackball de rigueur. There is no more natural one-handed way to move around on a map or within a Web page than with a trackball. Remote administration tools can use a GUI interface without weird key-thumbwheel combos to scroll and move the mouse pointer. Forms are easier to fill in when you can move randomly around the form, and within a text field, the way you would when you're driving a mouse. Selection of large blocks of text is quicker, too.

The BlackBerry browser is vastly improved, taking on the desktop view that's enabled by the trackball. Perhaps this browser is the best that can be done in Java, but it's well behind other mobile browsers discussed here. The BlackBerry 8800 can spend several minutes chewing on scripts and styles for a Web 2.0-ey page such as the InfoWorld.com landing page. Dealing with the pain of desktop-style browsing requires turning off scripting and style sheets, and although any intelligently designed site should adapt to this, more and more sites just bail out if scripting is turned off. The new browser is welcome, but it can't meet the expectations created by the new desktop view.

The BlackBerry 8800 integrates a feature that many mobile users don't realize they need: GPS. I was among those who saw GPS as a gadget, and with respect to stand-alone GPS boxes that stick to the windshield, gadget is the right word. BlackBerry 8800's GPS receiver works in concert with its EDGE mobile network radio to provide real-time, turn-by-turn navigation on the same handset that you use for phone calls and e-mail.

BlackBerry Maps is bundled with the 8800. It presents simple, fast, and accurate real-time tracking of your position on an easy-to-read 2D moving map. The trackball lets you explore around the map, snapping back to your GPS position ten seconds after you stop moving it. If you don't do a lot of driving for business, BlackBerry Maps is as much mapping and trip routing as you need.

BlackBerry 8800's killer application is TeleNav GPS Navigator. After a 14-day trial, this application will cost you as much as $9.95 per month, but if you drive, it's worth it. TeleNav puts every stick-to-the-window stand-alone navigator to shame with crystal-clear spoken directions that include street names and exit numbers, with automatic re-routing to navigate around traffic jams. Integration with BlackBerry's address book lets you select a contact, click "Drive To," and be on your way. I'm reviewing the TeleNav service separately, but having it on the BlackBerry 8800 has changed the way I travel.

The flagship BlackBerry handset is the best yet in all regards. No, it won't replace your notebook's browser, but the GPS, battery life, and the greatly improved interface go a long way toward making up the difference.

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Given its shape and core features, Nokia's E61i is bound to be compared to BlackBerry, but the E61i is very much its own, quite exceptional handset. The E61i's 802.11b/g Wi-Fi, wireless network universality, market-leading "Web 2.0" browser for Web apps, large display, two-week standby battery life, VPN, VoIP support, local and remote configurability, strong security, and incomparably flexible programmability make the E61i my recommendation for workforce, team, workgroup, and fleet deployments that leverage existing IT infrastructure and services.

You can add wireless to an existing solution using the technical resources you already have. You can dole out a batch of E61i handsets, make no alterations to your back-end services, create some Java, Perl, Python, AJAX, or C++ code to run on the handsets, and you've gone wireless in record time. If you want to do the whole UI in HTML and JavaScript and yet maintain off-line operability, you can run your Web app on an HTTP server that runs locally on the E61i. (Executives who want to be fully plugged into a wireless solution built around the E61i but who don't want to lug around a big handset, will find the phone-sized E65 identical to E61i in functionality and price. The E65 will be reviewed here tomorrow.)

An especially noteworthy recent addition to the Series 60 3rd Edition platform is Open C, a set of libraries and headers that offer an unexpectedly rich subset of POSIX (Portable Operating System Interface) functionality. With Open C, it's possible to port some existing UNIX and Linux software to run on the E61i and other S60 3rd Edition handsets, as well as write new code using the easy and widely accepted BSD Sockets networking API. Oracle developed a cut of its database using Open C, and other projects including an Apache-based, handset-hosted HTTP server have emerged.

The E61i's OSS Web browser is grand, outdoing all other browsers in this review. It's made from the best stuff -- Apple's open source Webkit -- but if you're hoping to sneer at Nokia for plagiarizing the Safari or iPhone browser, you're in for a letdown. Nokia managed to nicely emulate a mouse-driven desktop browsing experience using only a five-button directional pad. A picture-in-picture full page overview pops up during rapid scrolling to make points of interest easy to find with zero rendering delay. The scale of text and images can be altered independently, an approach that's superior to zooming the entire view. The user can turn off graphics loading entirely for instant page viewing, loading images for a single page on command. Clicking on an image brings up a full-screen view of it, which can be zoomed, rotated, and saved to disk.

The Nokia OSS browser doesn't support tabs or multiple windows. Instead, pressing the Back button brings up a set of thumbnails for the pages you've visited so that you can randomly jump among them. The OSS browser is extremely fast at redrawing pages from cache, and it has excellent JavaScript performance.

Embedded Java works perfectly in Nokia's browser, but embedded media launches an external Real Player. Sites that insist on wrapping media playback in JavaScript or Flash won't work this way, but audio and video on your intranet will work just fine, as will Flash content downloaded to the E61i for stand-alone playback. The E61i ships with an older release of Flash Lite. Adobe's Web site offers a free upgrade to the latest release.

Symbian Series 60's principle of "write once, run on any phone" hits a snag with the 3rd Edition. Code signing requirements and binary interface changes in the 3rd Edition platform can cause some existing native and Java S60 applications to quit working or refuse to install on 3rd Edition devices. Series 60 is so overwhelmingly popular worldwide that the majority of S60 projects in active development have already adjusted to 3rd Edition foibles.

The E61i needs IT's hand in deployment. It has more configurable options than any wireless device I've used, although it's certainly no harder to configure than a desktop PC. Fortunately, IT, or an S60 power user or developer, can tune a single device to perfection, capture that configuration, and apply it to multiple devices. That configuration can be reapplied in case a curious user gets in trouble, and handset features can be hidden and disabled using Nokia management software.

Lastly, the E61i is not an "oh, and it also makes phone calls" device. It is an enterprise handset that is a Nokia phone through and through. That means it's a best-in-class voice device with integrated PDA functionality, rich standards support, and an easy-to-use Windows sync and management UI. It has Bluetooth file browse/transfer support on Mac systems, and E61i will gateway Windows and Mac notebooks to the handset's wireless Internet connection. Nokia's E61i is, by all measures and across all mobile platforms, the best enterprise wireless handset for the money.

Mobile executive: Nokia E65 and T-Mobile Wing
A mobile executive's phone needs to possess all of the qualities of an enterprise phone, including VPN, rich document viewing and editing, push messaging, and no-compromises compatibility with an enterprise's custom mobile software. It also must look good enough that you don't need to duck into a hallway or turn your back to the group to use it.

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