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

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Curve is the first laid-back BlackBerry with a full keyboard, and its shortcomings are balanced by the fact that it is completely compatible with heavy, square BlackBerry devices. The difference is that Curve is more likely to be a mobile professional's phone, one that you'd buy yourself and use with your wireless operator's BlackBerry Internet Service. As a final note, AT&T has a U.S. exclusive on the 8300, but handsets that are purchased unlocked, or unlocked after purchase, will work on other GSM/GPRS/EDGE networks.

The HTC Advantage X7501 is a Windows Mobile 6 Professional handset that I didn't expect to like, but after I figured out what it was designed to do, it soon became my favorite battery-operated device.

The X7501 shares iPhone's can't-put-it-downedness. The display is of extraordinary quality. The screen resolution is 640-by-480, and even at its lowest brightness, the white is snow white. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the display is the most expensive part in this handheld.

The X7501 shares Windows Mobile 6 Professional with the T-Mobile Wing, so it has all of the qualities described in the T-Mobile Wing review. HTC licensed the Opera browser. Opera has a substantially different feel next to Pocket Internet Explorer, which is also standard on the X7501. The browsers are enhanced by HTC's proprietary VueFlo, an innovation that scrolls Web content up and down as you tilt the handset. This struck me as a novelty until I realized that without the keyboard, there's no easy way to scroll smoothly through a Web site. VueFlo worked for me, but only when I set it to low sensitivity. Otherwise, a mild tilt would send a Web page zipping off the top or bottom of the screen before I could set the display flat.

Unfortunately, VueFlo only works in Internet Explorer or Opera, not both, and it functions in no other Windows Mobile applications. The only other place I'd find it useful is in Adobe Reader.

Once again, Windows Media Player inexplicably turned in a pitiful performance with video. A freeware app called TCPMP plays video content without dropping frames. A TCPMP add-in called flvbundle enables direct viewing of full-resolution Flash video content from YouTube, Google Video, Veoh, and other sites. With its 8GB Microdrive plus swappable, expandable SD memory, you can blow raspberries at your iPhone-toting friends.

The X7501's three-megapixel camera is autofocus, rather than fixed focus as most phone cams are, so you will get satisfyingly blurred backgrounds in bright light. The attached LED light is no substitute for a flash. Close-in objects shot with this light are usually overexposed. The X7501 won't make you want to leave your camera at home, but it will do in a pinch, and it shoots movies as well.

As a phone, the X7501 is, well, not a phone in the traditional sense. You can't hold it to your face, and I'm glad that HTC didn't even try to make that possible. The X7501 works just fine as a speakerphone, and it mates with every Bluetooth headset I tested, including the Plantronics 590 stereo headset. This handheld also has a headphone jack, in part, so that you can connect the X7501 to a monitor or projector and a speaker system. HTC includes a VGA adapter in the box, so you can jack it straight into a data projector and run the slides that you organized in Pocket PowerPoint without transferring them to a PC. At 640-by-480, it's a little tight, but it beats balancing a notebook on a podium. An optional cable uses the same connector to output a composite or S-Video TV signal, but I didn't get that cable for testing.

The X7501 is a master of all wireless networks, covering HSDPA/UMTS high-speed 3G and GSM/GPRS/EDGE cellular networks, as well as 802.11b/g Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth 2.0. The device is sold unlocked, so all you need to do is get a SIM card from a wireless operator, slide it into an easily accessible hatch on the side of the phone, and power up. (HTC seems to have built the X7501 in anticipation of frequent SIM changes.) The GPS feature, paired with TeleNav's GPS Navigator, turns the X7501 into a terrific, turn-by-turn navigation system with a gigantic display and clear-spoken directions. It works with other GPS-enabled apps, too, but TeleNav's solution on this big screen turned out to be a real mind-blower.

This device uses a magnet to attach the removable keyboard to the display. The magnet is effectively the entire keyboard. If you stick this keyboard to your fridge, you'll have a hard time getting it off. It will wipe out the mag stripes on your credit cards. Fortunately, the X7501's carrying case is shielded to reduce the magnet's strength to a level comparable to the Mag Safe power connector on a MacBook Pro. I have had my wallet next to the X7501, while in its case, without incident.

The HTC Advantage X7501 is the best that Windows Mobile 6 Professional has to offer, at least among the devices that I've seen to date. True, it is too big for a pocket or a belt clip, but it's about the size of a Day-Timer, and everyone was okay with that. The screen is big enough for handwritten notes, and could well obviate the need for a paper pad. I've found room for the X7501 in my working life, and while it would never be the only phone I'd carry, I wouldn't feel lost if, for a short trip, I brought this machine instead of my Mac notebook.

The AT&T 8525 (also known by manufacturer HTC's model name "Hermes") was the second device I received for this review and the first Windows Mobile phone I had seen in a couple of years. Running the 8525 and Windows Mobile 5, I discovered what became of the Pocket PC, and I was impressed. Then I received the T-Mobile Wing, and I discovered where the Pocket PC is heading now that Windows Mobile 6 Professional is the standard: eBay. And I felt a bit silly for being impressed with the 8525. We evolve.

AT&T's 8525 is enormously popular as a hacker's toy. It is quite fast for a Windows Mobile device, and it can be overclocked to run even faster. Even though AT&T hasn't released the free promised upgrade to Windows Mobile 6 Professional, there are lots of 8525 owners running Windows Mobile 6. Putting WM6 on Hermes was a worldwide cause before iPhone begged to be cracked, and various leaked and concocted WM6 firmware upgrades for Hermes abound. Windows Mobile platform hacking is fun, and the AT&T 8525 is great for it.

None of that does you much good as you shop for Mobile Professional phones. The AT&T 8525 is a nice handset if it's your first brush with Windows Mobile. After being tweaked with some freeware, it plays many types of video clips smoothly. It performs marvelously on AT&T's 3G network, and it's even more impressive on a Wi-Fi LAN. The two-megapixel camera has a light, along with a switch that enables macro focus, unique among devices reviewed here. The display is clear and it responds well to stylus and finger pressure.

That's pretty much where the AT&T 8525's charms end. We all love speed, but it comes at the cost of battery life, and where this handset is concerned, you have to trade speed for looks. I'd rather have a good-looking, slower phone with a longer battery life (T-Mobile Wing) than an ugly, faster phone with a shorter battery life (AT&T 8525). The 8525 is a contourless brick, uncomfortable to hold to the ear and unsightly in a pocket. There are too many controls around the edge of the phone, and they are poorly positioned and faintly labeled. I had to take the phone down from my face to look at the buttons, and that's a show-stopper for me. Also, I never found a good way to carry the 8525 other than in the pocket of my notebook bag.

It's not that the AT&T 8525 is a bad phone; it's just not good enough to justify the extra bulk and the user-unfriendly, throwback exterior design -- not when there are so many good and good-looking handsets on the market.

Note that the scorecard for this review reflects the shortcomings of Windows Mobile 5, which was shipped with the device received for this review. A check of HTC's Web site on the filing date for this review showed that the Windows Mobile 6 update was still unavailable.

Enterprise, executive, and mobile pros and cons
No round-up of mobile devices could cover the entire range of purchasing options. I initially chose the four vendors -- BlackBerry, HTC, Nokia, and T-Mobile -- that were most approachable, and my priority was to hit the three most prevalent, most open mobile platforms on the market: BlackBerry, Symbian Series 60 3rd Edition, and Windows Mobile 6 Professional. You can be sure I'll cover more platforms and review more devices in the future.

Brand and platform shouldn't necessarily lead buying criteria for mobile users. It's more important to choose a device that fits the way you'll use it, and that's why I chose to split my reviews into the enterprise, mobile executive, and mobile professional categories. Don't see these as lines that can't be crossed. Upscale mobile professionals will find mobile executive devices worthwhile. Any professional who manages remote networks will probably find an enterprise handset to be an invaluable asset, far more useful than an ordinary phone and much more convenient than a notebook.

Still, a review needs winners, so without further qualification, here they are. The BlackBerry 8800 is the best BlackBerry yet made, and it is responsible for my discovery of GPS and TeleNav GPS Navigator, both of which I find indispensable. But the Nokia E61i's combination of Wi-Fi, a fast GUI, Adobe Flash Lite, in-device rich attachment viewing and editing, a quick and accurate browser, Voice Aid, ubiquitous messaging (which includes BlackBerry Connect), VPN, VoIP, and native custom application support gives the Nokia E61i a decisive win in the enterprise category and overall. I hope that TeleNav gets GPS Navigator ported to this device soon.

If trophy phone were a category, Nokia's E65 would win it hands-down. But the T-Mobile Wing (HTC Herald) looks great, feels good in your hand, pockets easily, has a full slide-out keyboard, sports a fine touch-sensitive display with portrait and landscape orientation, and shares many of the qualities of Nokia's E61i (but neither its performance nor its platform). Plus, it's compatible with all Windows Mobile 6 Professional applications. Of all the devices here, the Wing also fits best in both mobile executive and mobile professional categories.

Of the devices I judged suited to mobile professionals, the choice comes down to the better of two so-so devices. The BlackBerry 8300 (Curve) and the AT&T 8525 (HTC Hermes) are both imperfect. Of the two, AT&T's 8525 is more powerful, but it's a brick. Life's too short to carry an ugly phone. Curve is attractive and capable, but if you need a BlackBerry, I'd skip Curve and go straight to the 8800, which is marked down in preparation for the arrival of BlackBerry 8820.

Assuming you want better than so-so, your choice comes down to the Nokia E61i or T-Mobile Wing. It's only fair to subject myself to my own recommendations, so I'll be carrying these devices for the next several months, switching between them as my primary mobile phone. It will take me some time to transition from the BlackBerry 8800 to the Nokia E61i, and I'll chronicle that experience in my blog.

Now, if you can afford two iPhones and you can stand to carry something the size of two iPhones, then HTC's Advantage X7501 may be your wireless dream come true. It has everything: Wi-Fi, GPS, broad cellular network compatibility with no operator lock-in, Bluetooth stereo, a perfect display, a detachable keyboard, and video output. Expensive? Yes. A phone? If you already have a Bluetooth implant, then yes. For me, no, but with a data-only wireless plan and TeleNav GPS Navigator, the X7501 will be accompanying me everywhere I go.

I'm still dependent on the MacBook Pro, but I'm dumping the spiral notebooks that I always use to take notes and then promptly misplace. Maybe I won't need to blog on a BlackBerry or balance a notebook on my knees in a meeting hall. With the X7501 recognizing 95 percent of my sloppy handwriting (that's better than I can do), maybe I can just blog my notes. Or maybe I'm just dreaming. I'll find out, and you will too as you read my blog.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Networking (20.0%)
Multimedia (10.0%)
Messaging (20.0%)
Usability (20.0%)
Value (10.0%)
Extensibility (20.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
AT&T 8525 (HTC Hermes) 7.0 8.0 6.0 5.0 5.0 7.0 6.3
BlackBerry 8300 (Curve) 7.0 8.0 9.0 7.0 6.0 7.0 7.4
BlackBerry 8800 7.0 7.0 10.0 8.0 9.0 7.0 8.0
HTC Advantage X7501 10.0 7.0 8.0 9.0 7.0 8.0 8.4
Nokia E61i 10.0 7.0 7.0 8.0 8.0 9.0 8.3
Nokia E65 10.0 7.0 7.0 7.0 8.0 9.0 8.1
T-Mobile Wing (HTC Herald) 9.0 7.0 8.0 9.0 8.0 7.0 8.1

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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