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BUYING TIPS FOR THE YEAR OF THE SMART PHONE
By Phil Baker
March 29, 2007 -- With the introduction of more than a dozen new smart phones at last month's 3GSM World Congress in Barcelona and January's announcement of the Apple iPhone, 2007 looks to be the year that the smart phone goes mainstream and sales really take off.

The Gartner Group, a marketing research firm, projects sales will grow 70 percent this year to 122 million units worldwide. Another research firm, IDC, says that 24 million units were shipped in the fourth quarter of 2006.

What's causing the growth in smart phones? More competitors, lower costs and faster connection speeds that let you do things that once could be done only on a full-blown computer.

By definition, a smart phone is a mobile phone that has the ability to browse the Internet, send and receive E-mail, organize contacts and calendar, and sync with your computer. In essence, smart phones are the merger of a PDA and a traditional cellular phone.

But choosing which smart phone to buy is nearly as confusing as selecting a computer. (One example: Microsoft's new smart phone operating system, Windows Mobile 6, now comes in three separate versions.) So how do you choose which smart phone is best for you?

Consider these five factors:

SHAPE With a few exceptions, smart phones come in two different shapes, known as form factors. The first, originated by Treo and BlackBerry, is a slab about the size of a playing card with a 2 1/2-inch screen and QWERTY keyboard on its front face. The second form factor, which looks more like a PDA, is mostly all screen, with a hidden keyboard that slides out from the unit or pops up on a touch screen.

If you primarily want a mobile phone that also does some E-mail, syncs your calendar and contacts and occasionally accesses the Internet, look for products with the first form factor. They usually make it easier to access your contacts and make a call--all with one hand.

But if you do lots of typing, E-mailing and Internet browsing and want something that can occasionally serve as a computer substitute, consider smart phones with the second form factor. They usually have bigger screens and larger keyboards and they make browsing and typing easier. At times, however, it's more difficult to access phone numbers from your address book and dial quickly when using smart phones in the PDA shape.

CARRIER Next, consider the cellular carrier you wish to use. Most of the new models will show up on one carrier exclusively for the first three to six months. More often than not, it will be Cingular or T-Mobile. That's because both use the worldwide GSM standard and the new models of smart phones are often introduced worldwide. Currently, Cingular has the most new models followed by T-Mobile.

From my experience, the differences between carrier reception and customer service are shrinking and I wouldn't hesitate to switch to get the phone I really want. Early termination fees are often offset by incentives to sign up as a new customer.

Also worth noting: Some new smart phones can be bought from sources other than the mobile phone carriers and without a service commitment to those carriers. Nokia, for example, is opening stores to sell smart phones and other items directly to consumers.

CONNECTION SPEED If you plan to do a lot of Web browsing or use your phone as a high-speed modem with your personal computer, look for a smart phone with high-speed 3G connectivity. Using 3G also lets you use emerging services that stream audio and video, like Kinoma's media player for Treo and SlingBox for Windows Mobile and Treo. Phones using 3G also download music more quickly. Currently, Sprint and Verizon have the best high-speed networks followed by Cingular. T-Mobile is a distant fourth.

If your needs are mostly E-mail and occasional Web access, however, traditional (2G) cellular speeds are fine. Some phones also offer WiFi, which is even faster than 3G. It's a nice bonus if you can get it.

OPERATING SYSTEM Today's smart phones use one of four operating systems: Palm, Symbian, BlackBerry and Microsoft Mobile. The Palm and BlackBerry operating systems are both superb, particularly their phone and E-mail capabilities. Thousands of third-party applications are available on the Palm and Microsoft phones; fewer are available on the BlackBerry and Symbian.

Microsoft is making inroads with its new Mobile 6. It replaced Windows Mobile 5, which had numerous deficiencies. But most phones cannot upgrade from Mobile 5 to Mobile 6, so avoid models that are sold with Windows Mobile 5. If you use a Mac computer, you also need to be aware that Windows Mobile and Symbian smart phones don't sync with a Mac. You'll need to buy a third-party application such as Missing Sync to make your devices communicate with each other.

OTHER FEATURES If you want a camera or music player on your smart phone, that will limit your choice. No camera phone, regardless of megapixels, is quite as good as a well-rated, stand-alone digital camera. Be sure you get a phone with removable memory, which lets you move photos and songs into and out of your phone without paying extra fees.

Here are some of the top smart phones introduced this year that are worth considering: The Nokia E61i and E90 Communicator; the BlackBerry 8800; the Samsung F700 and F520; and the Motorola Q q9. But do not overlook some of the currently available models. My favorites are the BlackBerry 8700, BlackBerry Pearl, Treo 700p, Samsung Blackjack and the Cingular 8525.

Just like computers, however, you can assume that something better will come along only a few months after you purchase a smart phone. Such is the way with high-tech tools.

phil PHIL BAKER

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ABOUT PHIL BAKER
Phil Baker does product and market develop-ment consulting for companies around the world. He has done products for Apple, Polaroid and Seiko and he created the folding keyboard for Palm. Baker writes the weekly technology column for the San Diego Transcript, holds 30 patents and is the recipient of the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award. He is based in San Diego. Phil also maintains his own Web site.

THE FINE PRINT
Joe Brancatelli makes this space available to Phil Baker in the spirit of free speech and to help encourage editorial diversity and the wider discussion of important travel issues. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property of Baker. This material may not be reproduced in any form without the express permission of Phil Baker.

This column originally appeared in the San Diego Daily Transcript. This column is Copyright 2007 by San Diego Daily Transcript. This column is reprinted with permission.

JoeSentMe is Copyright 2007 by Joe Brancatelli.