The Smartphone Industry Has Some Clunkers of Its Own

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, August 9, 2009

After a few months of rapid progress this summer, the smartphone industry probably deserves some time off in August. And to judge from two new, Web-connected, GPS-enabled, photo-and-video-capable phones, it's doing exactly that.

In another year, T-Mobile's myTouch 3G and Verizon Wireless's BlackBerry Tour 9630 might have counted as breakthroughs. But after such products as Palm's Pre, Apple's iPhone 3GS and (more important) its iPhone OS 3.0 software and Google's Android 1.5 software, the two new devices seem unremarkable.

They don't represent a step back, but they don't count as a major advance, either. At best, they suggest better things to come if manufacturers and wireless carriers drop some bad habits first.

The myTouch -- notwithstanding its comically awful moniker -- offers more cause for hope. Like its predecessor, last year's T-Mobile G1, it combines decent hardware with Google's smart, elegant Android operating system. But this time around, the myTouch ($199.99, with voice and Web service starting at $54.98) employs an on-screen keyboard instead of the G1's external keyboard.

That change makes the myTouch slimmer and lighter than the G1 but less useful for prolonged writing -- the older phone's keyboard is as big as the newer device's screen. Even with the Android software's decent auto-correction, that makes for cramped, error-prone typing.

T-Mobile advertises better battery life with the myTouch. In one test, a myTouch stayed on the line for an extraordinary 7 1/2 hours of calling -- but for much of that time, the phone couldn't pick up T-Mobile's broadband service and had to fall back to a slower connection that didn't drain the battery as quickly.

As with the G1, the real reason to buy the myTouch isn't hardware but software. Android, like the iPhone and the Pre's operating systems, combines an outstanding Web browser, touch-screen controls and blissfully simple management of add-on programs.

The selection of third-party software for Android has grown immensely since the G1's debut -- Google says its Android Market now stocks 6,300 applications. The iPhone's App Store carries more titles (over 67,000 by one count), but Google has not engaged in the kind of control-freakery that has led Apple to reject seemingly harmless iPhone applications.

The myTouch doesn't include software to synchronize its calendar and address book with those on your computer. Instead, you're expected to use Google's free online applications, which sync over the air.

So if the myTouch's hardware is decent and its software is great, what's not to like? Its carrier. T-Mobile offers low voice and data rates, but this Bellevue, Wash.-based firm offers the worst mobile-broadband coverage out of all the big, nationwide carriers. Android deserves better.

Verizon's BlackBerry Tour doesn't have that problem -- whatever else you say about Verizon, it's hard to fault its coverage. But the Tour itself -- $199.99 to new and renewing subscribers, $489.99 to those in the middle of a contract, with voice and Web plans for $69.98 and up -- does little to distinguish itself.

As the name implies, its main addition to Verizon's BlackBerry lineup is a second wireless radio and a SIM (subscriber identity module) card slot that let it operate on GSM networks as well as Verizon's own signal, making the phone usable in most other countries. But you'll need to call Verizon to have that SIM card slot unlocked, lest you pay roaming rates that usually exceed a dollar a minute. You can't use WiFi Internet access overseas either, since the Tour -- unlike the myTouch and many other smartphones -- doesn't include a WiFi receiver.

The rest of the Tour should look familiar. Its keyboard matches that on the older BlackBerry Bold, while its battery life (about six hours and 10 minutes of calling) just beat that of the touch-screen BlackBerry Storm.

The Tour's software continues a pattern of disappointing releases from BlackBerry manufacturer Research In Motion. Although its fonts and icons look prettier than before, it continues to rely too much on lengthy menus cluttered with irrelevant commands.

As an Internet device, the Tour actually represents a step back from the Storm. Sites that looked correct on that older device -- including one formatted specifically for mobile use -- showed up partially jumbled on the Tour.

Verizon ships the Tour with RIM's BlackBerry App World, its belated attempt to compete with the App Store and the Android Market, but did not think to put a shortcut to it on the Tour's home screen.

The software RIM provides to synchronize your contacts, calendars, to-do lists and memos is as bad as ever. The Windows version is a bolted-together assemblage of third-party components, while the Mac release is so out of date the company is now advertising the September arrival of a different Mac application.

And yet for all its flaws, the Tour could fairly be called the most exciting phone Verizon sells. AT&T has the iPhone, T-Mobile has Android phones and Sprint has the Pre, but Verizon has nothing remotely as thrilling. The Tour isn't even exclusive to Verizon; Sprint sells a version of it, too.

Should we have to choose between good phones and good networks? When the smartphone industry gets back from its summer vacation, it ought to work on fixing that.

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