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

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, July 25, 2010; G03

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.

App selection only goes so far. Yes, Apple's App Store has some 225,000 programs, far more than available than any other smartphone platform. But just as Apple's Mac OS X remains a fine choice even though far more programs run in Windows, you shouldn't rule out competing platforms with fewer applications to their name.

Google's Android Market, now approaching 100,000 apps by an outside estimate, leads that list of alternatives. Indeed, users can justifiably brag about such Android-only titles as the Google Sky Map astronomy program.

RIM's BlackBerry has a decent number of titles, but not if you look in its BlackBerry App World catalog -- which only stocks 7,000 or so programs. Palm's App Catalog only stocks 3,000 and change.

Don't buy by the camera. The cameras in phones now offer multi-megapixel resolutions on par with many point-and-shoot cameras, but they continue to yield blurry, foggy shots, especially if you're dealing with too little or too much light. Why? They have tiny image sensors but feeble (or nonexistent) flashes, and you can forget about "real" camera features like powerful optical zoom lenses or image-stabilization systems.

The iPhone 4 is one notable exception to this pattern.

You'll have to trust the keyboard. Any new phone keyboard, onscreen or physical, will probably feel clumsy and annoying at first. But after a month of acclimation, you may find the entire business of typing on the phone completely natural.

Some platforms offer a choice of text-input options. Android makes up for the inferiority of its onscreen keyboard relative to the iPhone's by allowing users to install other keyboards, such as the crafty, efficient Swype (in which you "write" by tracing a path with your finger from one key to the next).

Junk the junkware. This suggestion is not for shoppers, but for wireless carriers. The idea that we as customers somehow appreciate getting a phone with a random set of add-on programs -- a NASCAR app from Sprint, a Blockbuster video player from Verizon, a navigation program from AT&T -- that we can't remove betrays an enormous amount of condescension on the part of these firms.

All the carriers have played this game for years, but it's especially irritating with phones that, like most Android devices, advertise their openness.

I have been too kind on this point myself in the past. No more: Carriers, you need to stop this nonsense. The first one to do so will look a lot better in a future version of this column.

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