Keeping tabs on the latest cell phone models can be a full-time job, especially given the number of cell phones announced by Apple, Palm, Nokia, and HTC (including, most recently, the BlackBerry-like T-Mobile Dash) over the past few months. But thanks to PC World, you don't have to hunt down and compare the various touchscreen smartphones yourself.
We pitted ten recently announced touchscreen handhelds against each other to see how they would match up. Then we compiled a series of three comparison charts to help you decide whether an HTC Hero with a 5-megapixel camera suits you better than, say, a Nokia N97 with a stereo FM receiver. The charts provide quick answers to questions such as these: Which smartphones have on-screen keyboards and which have hardware keyboards? Which touchscreens are best at multimedia? How much does each one cost?
The first chart lists basic specs: manufacturer, carrier, platform, size, weight, type of keyboard, colors, price, availability, and carrier. The second chart identifies the phones' multimedia capabilities (screen resolution, camera image resolution, autofocus, flash, video recording, secondary camera, audio jack, and radio) and navigation smarts (GPS and geotagging). The third chart focuses on storage capacity (on-board and expandable), connectivity (3G, Bluetooth, USB, and Wi-Fi), and battery features (removability, standby time, and talk time).
The phones included in this roundup are Apple's iPhone 3GS and iPhone 3G, the Palm Pre, two Symbian offerings (the Nokia N97 and the Nokia 5530,5800 expressMusic), three devices running on Google Android (the HTC Hero, the T-Mobile myTouch 3G, and the Samsung Galaxy), and two Windows Mobile smartphones (the HTC Touch Pro2 and the Samsung Omnia II).
If you're looking for a slim, pocket-size phone, consider the Samsung Galaxy and the Samsung Omnia II: With a thickness of just 0.46 inch each, they're the slimmest units in our group, followed closely by the iPhone 3G and iPhone 3GS at 0.48 inch each. If you want a colorful phone, your best bet may be the Nokia 5530, which comes in five color combinations (and also weighs the least of any smartphone here).
Sending e-mail or text messages should be a breeze from any of these smartphones, but only three of them have a full QWERTY keyboard: the Palm Pre, the Nokia N97, and the HTC Touch Pro2. The Palm Pre has the smallest physical keyboard of the three, as it is oriented vertically.
The remaining seven smartphones feature touchscreen keyboards. Though typing on a glass/plastic screen takes some getting used to, your keyboarding speed should improve within a week or two. The software keyboards on the iPhone and Android phones are quite similar, and they are designed to predict (and offer to complete) what you are typing as well as to make corrections.
Most smartphones are available from particular carriers at a much-reduced price when you make a two-year commitment to the carrier's wireless service. The overall cost of ownership thus depends on which call and data plan you choose. (For more information, see PC World's buying guide, "How to Buy a Cell Phone.")
For a snapshot-style glimpse at the wireless network performance of AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon on a particular day last spring in 13 major U.S. cities, see "A Day in the Life of 3G."
Specifications and prices for unreleased phones are subject to change by the manufacturer and by the wireless carrier. The prices and specifications listed here are correct as of July 1, 2009.
See PC World's chart on how the phones' basic specs compare.
Multimedia and navigation
What good would a smartphone be without some cool multimedia features? All ten of the touchscreen models here are solid overall, but not all of them deliver top-notch photos and videos.
Of the ten models discussed here, the Nokia N97, the Samsung Galaxy, and the Samsung Omnia II have the best three cameras. Each has a 5-megapixel lens, autofocus, and an LED flash. The not-yet-released HTC Hero has a 5-megapixel camera, too, but no flash. Three of the ten smartphones also have secondary front-facing cameras for video calls: the Nokia N97, the HTC Touch Pro2, and the Samsung Omnia II (see PC World's "Five Tips for Great Photos With Your Cell Phone").
The iPhone 3G and the Palm Pre are only smartphones in this cohort that can't record video (for the Pre, video recording is coming in a future update). The new iPhone 3GS adds video-editing features and can upload video directly to YouTube. Thanks to the 1.5 Android software update (see PC World's "Apple iPhone 3GS Takes Aim at ... the Flip?"), the three Google Android phones—HTC Hero, T-Mobile myTouch 3G, and Samsung Galaxy—can upload video straight to YouTube as well.
GPS is very nearly a standard feature on touchscreen smartphones these days, with only the Nokia 5530 omitting the technology. And if you're a cell phone photo buff, you may be able to use your phone's built-in GPS capabilities to generate automatic tags (called geotags) that indicate where each picture is being taken. In addition, all phones except the Palm Pre and the iPhone 3G have an electronic compass option to identify the direction you're heading toward (see PC World's "Geotag Your Digital Photos").
Only three of the ten smartphones come with an FM radio tuner: the Nokia N97, the Nokia 5530, and the Samsung Omnia II. The tuner on the HTC Touch Pro2 is factory-locked, so your access to the feature depends on your wireless carrier. One nice Nokia N97 feature is its ability to stream music to your car radio via its built-in FM transmitter.
The T-Mobile myTouch 3G and the HTC Touch Pro2 are the only phones in our group that lack a 3.5 mm headphone jack. This is a common omission with HTC-manufactured phones, which instead depend on a proprietary USB connection to double up as a headphone port.
All ten phones do a fairly good job of browsing the Web, though the two iPhones and the Palm Pre are at the top of the list. The HTC Hero will be the first model to offer built-in Adobe Flash support; other Android phones, along with Nokia and Palm models, will have the feature later this year. Currently, the Nokia N97 uses a scaled-down version of Flash called Flash Lite.
See the PC World chart on how the phones compare in the multimedia and navigation departments.
Connectivity, storage and battery
This year's smartphones are the best yet at conserving battery life. Large screens (like those on the iPhones and on the HTC Touch Pro2) tend to guzzle power, but handsets such as the Samsung offerings (which feature OLED screens) achieve long battery life. HTC claims that its HTC Hero will last for up to 10 hours of talk time hours or 750 hours of standby.
Smartphones that support multitasking—such as the Palm Pre, the Nokia N97 and the HTC Hero—tend to have shorter battery lives, owing to the power strain on the CPU. The only touchscreen smartphones in our review that come equipped with a nonremovable battery are the iPhone 3GS and the iPhone 3G.
The models with the largest amount of storage space out of the box are the iPhone 3GS and Nokia N97, each of which has 32GB of built-in storage (the iPhone 3GS comes in a 16GB model as well). Except for the iPhone models and the Palm Pre, all of the smartphones support expanded storage via microSD cards; you can pick up a 4GB SanDisk microSD card today for $5 (excluding shipping and handling) from any of several online merchants.
Wi-Fi connectivity has become a standard across the board, as has 3G (except on the Nokia 5530). Even better, all of the phones support A2DP stereo Bluetooth connections, so you can listen to music on wireless headphones, in your car, or over other devices that support this technology (see PC World's "Next-Generation Stereo Bluetooth Headsets").
Another major factor to keep in mind when selecting a touchscreen mobile phone is applications. All of the phones discussed here run on sophisticated operating systems, and application stores are at the core of improving their features. Apple pioneered the mobile app store with its iTunes App Store, which has tallied more than 1 billion downloads and contains more than 50,000 apps. Palm, Nokia, and Google have followed Apple's lead by opening their own app stores, but as yet these have not attained the popularity or the number of applications that Apple's store enjoys. Microsoft is set to introduce its Windows Mobile Marketplace later on this year.
See PC World's chart on how the phones compare in connectivity, storage and battery life.
The right touchscreen smartphone for you depends on your tastes, needs, and budget.
If you want lots of storage space so you can carry your music around with you, the 32GB iPhone 3GS or the Nokia N97 is a strong candidate.
If you take a lot of pictures, choosing a phone with a 5-megapixel camera—like the Samsung Galaxy, the Samsung Omnia or the Nokia N97—is a good idea. If capturing video is more to your liking, the iPhone 3GS may be a good match: It shoots great video that you can edit on the fly and share with your friends or upload to YouTube.
If you do lots of e-mailing, texting, and twittering, a phone with a physical keyboard—such as the Palm Pre or the HTC Touch Pro2—is very useful. Typing on a virtual keyboard can become comfortable over time, but some people never grow to like it.
Whatever your preferences may be, look for a phone that complements them. And don't forget that you're not just buying a phone—in many cases, you're also committing to a particular wireless service for the next two years. Take your time and focus on getting the best combination of smartphone and carrier for your needs.