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Review: Which smart phone OS works best?

Considering a smart phone? Will it do what you want it to? We tested four major platforms to see which is best for specific tasks.

By David Haskin and Ryan Faas
October 31, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Once only within reach for executives and the well-heeled, smart phones are now at the center of many road warriors' lives. But their popularity has led to a problem: With so many smart phones available now, it's hard to know which one is right for you.

The answer depends on what you most need your smart phone for. Do you need a device that excels at e-mail or one that's optimized for browsing the Web? And will the best smart phone for e-mailing or browsing also keep you entertained on a long flight?

A smart phone's power comes as much from its operating system as it does from the capabilities the vendor builds in. To help you at least narrow down your choices, we tested four smart phones, each based on a different operating system, to find out which platform is better for particular tasks.

To represent their different platforms, we tested Apple's iPhone 3G, based on a mobile version of OSX; the HTC Touch Dual, based on Microsoft's Windows Mobile 6.1; Nokia's E71, based on the S60 variant of the Symbian platform; and Research In Motion's BlackBerry Curve 8310, based on, of course, BlackBerry's proprietary operating system. (For more specific information about the phones themselves, see "About the phones.")

We compared how well these phones performed four common road-warrior tasks: browsing the Web, sending and receiving e-mail, taking a photo and e-mailing it, and playing music and streaming video. We felt these tasks were typical of what most smart phone users need to do, and would also test the power and usability of both the devices and their operating systems.

Here's what we found.

About the phones

We tested phones based on each of the major smart phone platforms (with the exception of the Palm OS -- Palm chose to not participate in this story with its Centro, the only widely available phone based on that platform).

Apple iPhone 3G
Apple iPhone 3G

Apple's iPhone has created a new benchmark for smart phone usability that other manufacturers are straining to meet. It's latest 3G phone adds support for high-speed 3G networks, expanded e-mail capabilities and the ability to download new applications from the iTunes App Store.

Dimensions: 4.5 by 2.4 by .5 inches
Weight: 4.7 ounces
Display size: 3.5 inches
Camera: 2 megapixels
Built-in RAM: 8GB
Claimed battery life: Up to five hours (talk time)
Price: $199 ($299 for 16GB) with two-year contract
Network: AT&T

BlackBerry Curve 8310
BlackBerry Curve 8310
BlackBerry Curve 8310
Click to view larger image

Research In Motion has positioned the Curve between enterprise-level BlackBerries and smaller consumer-focused phones like the BlackBerry Pearl. The Curve 8310 that we tested is at the low end of the Curve family; there are higher-end models that include features like Wi-Fi.

Dimensions: 4.2 by 2.4 by .6 inches
Weight: 3.9 ounces
Display size: 2.4 inches
Camera: 2 megapixels
Built-in RAM: 64MB
Claimed battery life: Up to four hours (talk time)
Price: Varies; approx. $100 after discounts with two-year contract
Networks: AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless

HTC Touch Dual

A follow-on to HTC's Touch, this unique phone has gesture-based navigation that, while not as snazzy as that found on Apple's iPhone, is still useful for tasks like browsing and going through your list of e-mail. It also has a sliding front panel that offers access to a snazzy keyboard.

Dimensions: 4.2 by 2.2 by .7 inches
Weight: 4.2 ounces
Display size: 2.6 inches
Camera: 2 megapixels
Built-in RAM: 128MB
Claimed battery life: Up to 410 minutes (talk time)
Price: $499 (unlocked version)
Networks: GSM carriers

Nokia E71

Nokia's most recent smart phone for road warriors eschews touch-screen technology, but it's notably full-featured -- including features such as GPS and a 3.2-megapixel video-capable camera -- and has a delightful keyboard.

Dimensions: 4.5 by 2.2 by .4 inches
Weight: 4.4 ounces
Display size: 2.4 inches
Camera: 3.2 megapixels
Built-in RAM: 110MB
Claimed battery life: Up to 10 hours, 30 minutes (talk time)
Price: $485 (unlocked version)
Networks: GSM carriers

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