Clash of the handsets: Seven smartphones for business

Apple iPhone, Android G1, AT&T Fuze, HTC Touch Diamond, and three flavors of BlackBerry compete for one pocket. Which should you choose?

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Category: Fixed QWERTY
In: BlackBerry Curve and BlackBerry Bold

If it appears that I give these BlackBerry handsets more attention than other devices, note that I use this first section to describe usage patterns, requirements, preferences, and infrastructure that apply to all of the phones here.

I originally marked the BlackBerry Curve out of rotation in favor of the Bold, but I found that each hits a substantially different target. The Bold is unquestionably the enterprise device of the two and a best-in-class choice for the top-echelon technical professional.

The Curve is the BlackBerry you'd buy for yourself and bring to work. I carried it in my pocket, the only QWERTY device here that allows it, so every morning I found the Curve on my dresser with my wallet and keys. The bulkier Bold ends up wherever I used it last. I carry the Bold around the house like a cordless phone, although ironically, it's the Curve that truly functions in that capacity (see the review).

It's in rotating straight from the Bold to the Curve that made the Curve seem like a device to knock off the list. Compared to the Bold, the Curve seem cheaply made and cramped; the Curve is harder to type on and harder to see. But on its own, and after a switch to the Curve from anything but the Bold or the iPhone 3G, the Curve seems decently made, what I'd call a two-year phone. The Bold is a five-year device, quick for a BlackBerry, and while by no means luxurious, pleasant to drive. The Curve is a lateral step, neither up or down, from an 8800-series BlackBerry.

On seeing a friend's Escalade, I was immediately struck by its appropriateness as a visual and functional metaphor for the BlackBerry Bold. The device is rugged, as if you could drive a nail with it, yet it is by far the handsomest, fastest, and most productive BlackBerry (in terms of bundled software and ease and pleasure of use) that RIM has produced. It feels natural to keep several applications running at once, something I avoid on other phones. I treat the Bold like an ultra-ultra-mobile PC.

Much of what seems to me technologically marvelous about the Bold as a reviewer becomes transparent to me as a user. Without looking back at the press release or my review (both of which I intentionally don't reread after my review is filed), I can't recite the things that are new about the Bold or BlackBerry's retooled platform. It just takes less time to compose and read e-mail on the Bold. My eyesight improves dramatically when I switch into the Bold. Documents I ordinarily have to scroll around in (I live in DataViz Documents to Go) fit better and are more readable on the Bold's smaller display. The Bold doesn't have to live on its charger as the other phones do.

I have Exchange Server running here, with BlackBerry Enterprise Server in a virtual machine. My workaday mail server is a quieter, simpler Xserve. It pairs reasonably well with every device here. My e-mail experience changes when I carry a BlackBerry handset. Xserve does BlackBerry push e-mail; when a new message comes in, my BlackBerry buzzes in a couple of seconds. The only configuration change required on the server side is forwarding inbound messages to the BlackBerry account I created.

Forwarding to a Google Gmail (free) or Apple MobileMe ($99 per year) cloud service hurries messages to a T-Mobile G1 and iPhone 3G, respectively. Xserve hands outbound mobile mail to RIM's, Google's, or Apple's infrastructure. The last two are pitched to consumers and disclaimed for professional use. I take that guidance to heart. But in all cases, I forward mail to my mobile device while keeping a copy on Xserve. Anything that slips through the cracks will hit me when my MacBook Pro or PC checks in.

I rarely use any handset's Wi-Fi. It is a phone battery's mortal enemy, and if I forget to turn it off, my device's battery drains rapidly on standby. People forget, too, that a wireless is no desktop. Wi-Fi is not fast. Except for latency, you can scarcely notice the difference between Wi-Fi and 3G.

Using the Bold causes me to peg DataViz Documents to Go and TeleNav turn-by-turn navigation as device essentials. It also clues me to Google Sync. Sync now has all seven smartphones, plus my MacBook Pro, aligned for contacts and appointments. The fact that Google's free cloud knows who I know and where I'll be doesn't worry me, but it's an individual choice. An enterprise should be paranoid in general about letting company data cross into people's private contacts, inboxes, and calendars. I'm hardly the only professional that appreciates the convenience and platform-agnostic nature of Google's free cloud. I did not expect Google to play a starring role on a BlackBerry.

Assessing the handsets: The smart, the dumb, and the ugly





Bottom Line

Apple iPhone 3G (AT&T)

For $99/year, MobileMe is a really sweet mail, sync and storage cloud, but it hasn't proven to be as reliable as Google's free one (which cannot push to iPhone). The best bet for an individual iPhone user may be a hosted Exchange Server account.

iPhone's browser hits all the right notes for standards, and the direction that WebKit is taking on the desktop only point to an amazing future on phones. The one thing I wish Safari would do is remember my preferred zoom level for sites I visit often.

Developers love to play with location services, and App Store is piled high with GPS goodies. Google Maps is really neat for planning a trip and seeing where you are, but there is no substitute for turn by turn. Apple finally agrees. We have to wait for iPhone 3.0.

Rich e-mail attachments, sync with multiple server and desktop sources, a new Apple-hosted push messaging infrastructure, and Exchange Server connectivity stand out among features that carry iPhone 3G and iPhone 2.0 into the enterprise.
See review.

AT&T Fuze

AT&T means to add some value to Windows Mobile's messaging, but the icon for BlackBerry Connect dead-ends at a "coming soon" page. AT&T's Xpress Mail service, which provides a push mail gateway for POP servers, didn't manage to push Gmail to my Fuze.

Opera 9.5, Fuze's standard browser, is faster and prettier than IE, but it's frustrating in its own ways. It frequently misreads gestures, and at times it won't accept keyboard input. However, if you're hooked on RTSP video streams, Java applets, and Flash content, the Windows Mobile devices are the only ones here that will satisfy all of your desires.

AT&T licenses TeleNav for spoken turn-by-turn navigation. HTC supplies a nifty utility that reduces the time it takes to get an initial GPS lock by downloading and caching satellite data. Windows Mobile developers have a lot of free and cheap location-aware apps.

A modern user interface, VGA screen resolution, a fast processor, the very good default Opera Web browser, and excellent build quality go in the plus column. Negatives include too much marginal software and inconsistent ways of performing some tasks.
See review.

RIM BlackBerry Bold (AT&T)

If you write, Bold's the ticket. The screen's not big, but the pixels are packed so densely, and text is rendered so beautifully, that a rich document attachment is viewable without a lot of zooming and scrolling. I'm still using Bold, and the keyboard has just about doubled my typing speed.

Bold's browser is faster than Storm's, especially when it comes to reloading pages from cache and scrolling around in already-rendered pages. The speed really shows in embedded Java and media content.

RIM's BlackBerry Maps is underrated. It's free, it auto-tracks your location as you drive, it's much faster than Google Maps, and now the text on street names zooms with the graphics. Why do I mention this? Because while AT&T wisely bundled the excellent TeleNav, it wiped out clean, free, simple BlackBerry Maps and forbids users from downloading it.

RIM's new flagship QWERTY handset has everything: AT&T 3G, Wi-Fi, GPS, wide-aspect display, microSDHC memory expansion, Office document editing, video camera, media player, and Bluetooth stereo. It's the priciest BlackBerry but worth it for serious users who put messaging first.
See review.

RIM BlackBerry Curve (T-Mobile)

Curve suits me best as a crossover work/personal device. It uses the same software build as Bold, includes DataViz Documents to Go for reading and editing Office attachments, and lasts several days on standby.

The new Curve does have a much faster CPU than its predecessors, but even on Wi-Fi Curve is no Internet tablet. That sort of duty is best left to G1 and iPhone.

BlackBerry Maps, Google Maps and TeleNav are all present, but these days it's almost always Curve and TeleNav showing me the way. My one gripe is that freaky thin USB connector. I can swap car chargers for everything else, but Curve and Storm need their own.

The BlackBerry Curve 8900 packs a fast CPU, a high-res screen, and a slick, high-function GUI into RIM's sleekest full-QWERTY handset. UMA support (enabling VoIP over Wi-Fi calling) and T-Mobile HotSpot flat-rate plans give the Curve 8900 the edge when it comes to keeping a lid on monthly telecommunications bills.
See review.

RIM BlackBerry Storm (Verizon)

It's a BlackBerry. Even POP mail is routed through RIM's network, so it's all pushed to your handset. Typing messages on Storm's landscape screen keyboard (nicer than iPhone's) would have been a pleasure if it weren't for that hinge.

Verizon's TV ads crow about Storm's fast browser. It is fast as long as you leave JavaScript in its default disabled state, and RIM brings a lot of software innovation to touch UIs. It's too bad the hardware didn't measure up. The need to repeatedly mash that stiffly hinged screen to get one keystroke in was the show stopper.

The bundled VZ Nav looks like a really nice turn-by-turn navigator with selectable synthetic voices. Storm's big, beautiful display is just right for real-time navigation – plugged in, of course. Unfortunately, the Verizon demo SIM expired before I had a chance to travel with VZ Nav. I'm keen to give it another shot.

The BlackBerry Storm, RIM's first touchscreen handset, brings the business and lifestyle worlds together. It lacks Wi-Fi, but delivers an uncommonly rich out-of-box experience for $199. Highlights include Verizon's quick 3G network, the ability to mount the Storm as a USB drive, quick-fix navigation, and client-side Office document viewing, and a bright, wide screen that displays all apps in both portrait and landscape modes. But then, there's that damned hinge.
See review.

HTC Touch Diamond

HTC's TouchFlo interface makes all the difference in Touch Diamond's messaging usability. The interface makes it easy to keep an eye on your inbox without leaving the mail client open, and one tap opens the most recently received message.

Touch Diamond has the same Opera 9.5 browser as Fuze. Faster rendering makes it more enjoyable to use, and you don't miss the keyboard.

Sprint bundles its version of TeleNav with Touch Diamond. Sprint's network makes swift work of downloading routes, and you can pay for the service as you need it. Watch out, though: Navigation really drains this phone's battery.

HTC Touch Diamond is Fuze (HTC Touch Pro) without a keyboard, and easily the most pocketable device of the lot. It gets voted out for two fundamental design shortcomings. Its front panel buttons are invisible unless they're lit, and the navigation ring is imprecise, having a tendency to activate home or escape when trying to navigate left or right.

T-Mobile G1

G1's messaging magic is all in the cloud. G1 handles push mail through Gmail, and over the air sync of Google mail, calendar and contacts. It works so well that I took to using Gmail and Google Sync for all of the devices in this test. Exchange and rich document viewer support are gaps that are being filled by hungry third party developers.

T-Mobile G1's WebKit-based Android Browser is a perfect match for G1's touch/trackball UI. It does multiple windows, full page zoom, keyboard shortcuts and silky smooth touch scrolling. Rendering is fast and gorgeous. What's missing? Embedded media and Java applets.

TeleNav landed on the G1 just before I filed this story, so that's the way to do turn-by-turn. Google Maps' Street View might become more than a gimmick with G1's built-in compass knowing which way you're looking, but not until it's possible to cache the data in advance of your trip.

T-Mobile G1, the mobile device born of the team of Google, T-Mobile, and HTC, is a complete surprise. Multitasking, a free and open Java SDK, a fabulous WebKit-based browser, a navigation trackball, and a QWERTY keyboard put the G1 at the top of the sub-enterprise superphone heap.
See review.

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