Convergence is a term that’s all too often used in technology circles, and not always appropriately. But there’s one area for which the word perfectly captures the recent progression – it’s the world of smartphones.
Over the last year or so, the distinction between PDAs and phones has disappeared, and the result has been an explosion in the numbers of smartphones and the features they offer.
We’ve seen mobile data rates rocket to speeds of up to 3.6Mb/s with the advent of HSDPA (high-speed downlink packet access) and 3G; a new phone now seems behind the times if it doesn’t have a built-in Wi-Fi adapter, and an increasing number of devices include GPS receivers, too. Push email, once the sole domain of BlackBerry users, is also now ubiquitous thanks to Microsoft’s Direct Push technology.
Not only can you now keep in voice, email and text contact, stay on top of all your appointments, and store all your contact information conveniently on your phone, but you can also browse the internet on the move, use it as a satnav device on the road, listen to music, play video, and even use it as a camera.
Before we become blinded by impressive spec lists, though, the eventual award winners in this Labs weren’t necessarily just those packed with features. Rather, they were the phones that managed to offer the best combination of large screens, usable keyboards for emailing, and intuitive navigation methods, without sacrificing too much in terms of pocketability. But to see which of these 11 smartphones came up to scratch and which fell short, read on.
How We Test
Choosing a smartphone isn’t a straightforward task. You can’t simply shop by the numbers as you can with PCs and laptops, comparing processor speed, RAM and hard disk capacity. You have to get a feel for what a phone can do before you can properly assess its worth, its ergonomics and how easy it is to use.
Not every phone is suitable for all situations. While one phone may have every feature under the sun, it might be too bulky to double as a personal and business phone. And, while another may be easy to use with an excellent keyboard, it may not be the best for document manipulation or web browsing.
We’ve tried to encapsulate this as best we can in our testing procedures, subjecting the phones to real-world tests, investigating their capabilities and, at the same time, factoring in subjective panel-based assessments to find which offer the best all-round smartphone experience.
Ease of use
The ease with which email can now be picked up and answered on the move – and the huge amounts of data processed by the modern smartphone – demands an efficient way of entering text.
Unless you’re an absolute whizz with handwriting recognition, the most reliable way to do this is with a built-in keyboard. This is why we decided to restrict the test to phones with some kind of hardware keyboard, and why a large part of the Ease of Use score comes from a subjective assessment of how easy a device is to type on.
It’s equally crucial, however, with all that message data to plough through, that other aspects are up to scratch. We assess how intuitive each phone’s user interface is, how good the screen is at accommodating such information comfortably and how other hardware aids, such as D-pads and scroll wheels, contribute to the overall experience.
Points were also awarded for how responsive each phone felt in general use. We loaded each phone with more than 400 contacts and a couple of weeks worth of email to see how quickly each performed in its core tasks of locating phone numbers and collating messages.
We also tested each phone with a suite of standard file types, ranging from zip files to Word documents and PDF files, to see how many each would open, and whether the files could be edited. Finally, we awarded a score to call quality.
Features & design
Modern smartphones have a bewildering array of capabilities and features so, in this Labs, we’ve taken an absolutely ruthless approach and only given points to phones that stand out from the crowd.
We’ve awarded points, for example, to phones with 3G and HSDPA, Wi-Fi adaptors and premium extras such as GPS receivers. We also think that, in this day and age, the use of proprietary cables for synchronisation and charging should be long gone, so phones using standard USB connections were awarded extra points, too.
Portability is a crucial aspect of smartphone design, so we’ve taken into account not only the size and weight of each device, but also how easy each one is to slip into a pocket.
Value for money
Unfortunately, it seems that due to the high-end (and in some cases, cutting-edge) nature of this month’s smartphones, there are virtually no big discounts to be had by buying a subsidised handset along with a monthly plan from any network. Even the Vodafone-optimised Palm Treo 500v is available at full price no matter what Vodafone plan you buy it with.
As such we’ve used the full SIM-free price of each smartphone and combined it in a weighted average with the Ease of Use and Features & Design scores to achieve the final Value for Money score. However, phone plans and availability change all the time, so be sure to check all the purchase options available from all the networks before you do buy.
The Overall score is calculated using the mean of the Ease of Use, Features & Design, and Value for Money scores.
The star ratings you’ll find at the bottom of each review are relative only to the products on test in any particular Labs. A one out of six rating doesn’t mean the product is the worst of its type to be made, just the least impressive that month. Likewise, a six out of six score isn’t necessarily an indication of perfection.