State of the Smart(phone)

I’ve been using the Palm Treo for about seven years now, ever since the original Treo 300 flip-phone was released. With my most recent two year Sprint contract approaching completion, and some motivation to ditch Sprint, I just took a pretty detailed read of the smartphone market and purchased a new model. I figure that this is worth sharing while it’s meaningful, but this is a market that changes rapidly, so if you’re reading this in 2008, it’s probably obsolete info.

Smartphones come in a variety of flavors:

  • Blackberries
  • Treos (PalmOS or Windows – new variant: the Centro)
  • Windows Mobile phones
  • Apple iPhone
  • Others (Nokia, Symbian).

My requirements were as follows:

  1. A decent voice phone
  2. A real QWERTY keyboard
  3. Push (or automated pull) email from my org’s Exchange server
  4. Access to GMail
  5. A good screen
  6. A Password-keeping application
  7. Third party apps
  8. Some ability to get internet connectivity for my laptop
  9. Not a requirement: small form factor. I actually prefer a decent sized screen and keyboard.

Note that this ruled out the iPhone on two or three counts. The iPhone can only do POP and IMAP email, making it far less capable for Exchange than a Blackberry or phone that supports Activesync (which includes any Windows Mobile device and all current Treos, Palm or Windows). iPhones also have only a soft keyboard, and I spent about an hour trying it out at the Apple store with way too many errors. Since I’m geeky enough to actually write things on my phone, the lack of cut and paste was pretty serious, as well. Finally, no java support and, at the time, no support for third party apps. Jobs announced a turnaround on the last one the day after I bought my new phone, but I’m still happy I steered clear. Maybe in two years the iPhone will be a better choice; for now, only buy it if you are looking more for a music and movie machine than a business phone. It rules for multimedia, yes.

There’s a reason why I’ve stuck with Treos for so long, and the new Centro – which is, essentially, the Treo 755p in a smaller body, is a great deal, particularly if you switch to Sprint to get it at the $99 price. The keyboard is small, but I had no errors testing it. I stayed away for a few reasons: Sprint, who I was trying to ditch; no wifi; and a small, lo-rez screen.

I’m not a Blackberry fan – having supported them at the last two companies I was at, I’m convinced that they’re buggy as all get out. And the push email, which was revolutionary a few years back, feels more and more like a hack, now that Microsoft has Activesync down. While it’s true that Activesync is more of a drain on the phone (it’s not true push; it’s just scheduled pull), it’s pretty seamless. My Earthjustice mail comes right to me, wherever I am. That said, I was pretty intrigued by the Blackberry Curve, and almost sold on the T-Mobile version, which comes with their Hotspot@Home service, allowing you to switch to VOIP (which isn’t charged against your minutes) whenever you’re in wireless range. But I couldn’t get all of the required T-Mobile and Blackberry required plans without upping my monthly bill by about $35 over Sprint, so I passed on it.

I wound up with what I think is the best Windows Mobile smartphone, the T-Mobile Wing (made by HTC, AT&T has something just like it). The Wing has a slide out keyboard, much bigger than the Blackberry or Treo; Windows Mobile 6; Wifi (but not Hotspot@Home); a 2 megapixel camera (very nice) and – this is important – a MicroSD slot that can take the new high density cards. The Curve maxes out at 2GB, but I’m carrying a 6GB card in my Wing. This allows me to copy my 500-600 song playlist to the card and have plenty of spare room for photos and other things.

Two warnings: It is Windows, so I have to reboot daily (I went months without rebooting my PalmOS Treo). it is sincerely Mac-hostile. My main computer is a Macbook Pro. I had to buy Markspace’s Missing Sync in order to sync iTunes playlists with it, and I still have to sync with a Windows machine to install additional applications and sync data in apps that don’t speak Mac. So if you don’t have access to a Windows box, or you don’t want this hassle, stay away from Windows Mobile.

The icing on the cake was that T-Mobile’s unlimited Internet plan (at $20/mo) includes unlimited access at any T-Mobile hotspot, for your phone and/or your computer. This means that, as long as I don’t mind buying Starbuck’s coffee, I have wifi access virtually anywhere I go. That was a killer feature for me.

To sum up, the best deal out there is probably the Sprint Centro. But T-Mobile is the only provider (as far as I can tell) that adds Hotspot access to their data plan. I’m paying about $5/mo more than I was at Sprint for all of the wifi access, and everything else that my Treo did.

I expect that buyer’s remorse will set in the day the Google phone arrives. Rumor or not, it is almost certain that they’ll be announcing a mobile OS, based on Linux, with a suite of java apps as cool as their Maps and GMail for Mobile tools, which are really nice cell phone apps (another gripe: Windows Mobile can do Google Maps, but not GMail. I’m hoping someone will fix that soon. But works fine). But in markets like these, I figure you have to just buy your phone when you need it, and avoid being too much of a beta tester.

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