As smartphones flood the market, here's how to avoid falling for the flavor of the month

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, July 25, 2010

Twice this year, I've had a chance to review the Phone of the Month, then failed to take advantage of the opportunity.

I was lucky each time.

Google's Nexus One was lauded as a "super-smartphone" in January, but the Web giant's vision of selling an Android device directly to customers went nowhere. Verizon and Sprint abandoned plans for their own Nexus Ones, and last week Google quietly announced that it would soon stop selling the device.

A few months later, Microsoft's Kin One and Kin Two were supposed to fuse social media and the smartphone -- but those models lasted a mere 48 days in the market before Microsoft terminated the entire Kin project.

The pace of smartphone evolution doesn't seem likely to slow down as the year rolls on, and there's no way I'm going to get to all these things -- even the models that survive to the end of the year. Instead, I'll share general advice applicable to people buying any smartphone.

Know your upgrade options. You should know upfront whether your particular smartphone will allow an update to its manufacturer's next operating system.

With Android phones, though, you first need to see what version of Android ships on the phone. If it's not 2.1 -- available since January --the carrier selling that model has explaining to do. If it can't give you a date within weeks for a 2.1 update, find another phone.

The upgrade picture is far cloudier for Research In Motion's BlackBerry. The company plans a major new operating system later this year (among other things, its Web browser will run on the same open-source core as the terrific browsers on the iPhone, in Android and in Palm's webOS). But RIM won't say which, if any, of its current phones will support this BlackBerry OS 6 update.

As for Windows Mobile phones, there is no upgrade possibility to worry about: Microsoft's upcoming Windows Phone 7 won't run on existing devices.

Battery life counts, if you can define it. More is better, but in what scenario: standby time, talk time, Web browsing, music playback, GPS?

Considering how many people use phones more for data than for voice calls -- last year, AT&T told me that for every voice call, it saw three data sessions -- you can probably set aside the talk-time figure, even though it's the one most often cited. Standby time is even less relevant.

Instead, look for battery-life estimates or tests that focus on data and GPS. The former represents the most common use of smartphones (for my worst-case test of the iPhone 4, I had it play Web radio nonstop), while the latter taxes the battery more than anything else.

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