Picking a Smartphone: 7 Criteria To Help You Out

I leave on vacation tomorrow, my first since December…. Apple releases the ridiculously hyped iPhone today. I have heard reports that it cures cancer… we launched our first BlackBerry product last week… Infinity Softworks’ web site or email system has been a headache for two straight weeks now… Palm and RIM announced quarterly earnings yesterday (my how fortunes have changed) and RIM has more new BlackBerry customers than Palm shipped Treos…

I have spent quite a bit of time during this maelstrom of activity thinking about what drives my purchasing decisions for mobile devices that fit in the pocket. Now I specify like that because I think there is room in most bags for two mobile devices — one that’s pocket-sized and another that’s notebook sized. I will talk about the differences and the future that I see later.

The pocket-sized device is one many of us are using today. It is what is popularly called a smartphone. Here’s the basics: it will be small enough to fit in your pocket, it will be easy enough to type emails and basic, personal information, it will include web browsing via multiple methods, it will help you stay in touch with people you need to stay in touch with.

Okay, we have that today, don’t we? Yes and no. Sure we have devices that do all these things — Palm Treo, Motorola Q, Samsung BlackJack, BlackBerry smartphones, iPhone — kind of. The kind of key word here is trade off — and I don’t see any single device that satisfies every need.

The critical factors that everyone thinks about are battery life, form factor, and device size (we’ll call these Market Factors). But I think it is just as important to consider carrier issues, cost to value ratio, available software and something I call flash (we’ll call these Elia Factors).

Market Factors:

  • Battery Life: it’s never long enough, no matter what. I expect my cell phone to last a week of heavy usage. Since I won’t find that today and get internet, email and the rest, I am satisfied with a day and the ability to charge over night. But if you travel multiple days at a time, the need is completely different.
  • Form Factor: tall screen and full keyboard, wide screen, reduced keyboard, no keyboard, rotating screen… they have all been done. If you send a lot of email or do a lot of typing, forget reduced keyboards or no keyboard. If you mostly answer calls then you can handle reduced size keyboards or no keyboard. Rotating screens, as far as I am concerned, is a gimmick because the screen is still too small to see anything well anyway.
  • Device Size: does anyone ever really want a bigger, fatter and heavier device? I don’t think so.

Notice that these are all trade-offs. Smaller devices mean smaller batteries and smaller screens.

Elia Factors:

  • Carriers: we don’t spend enough time thinking about the carrier’s impact on our device. When you have a problem, does the carrier provide relief for that problem or run you through the mill? Can you actually get and keep a signal when you need it? Is access to the web and email fast and simple? Does the carrier bother the snot out of you trying to get you to upgrade to their latest features? After a lot of research over the winter, I think you would have to be foolish not to go with T-Mobile or Verizon in about 90% of the US given what I read.
  • Cost-To-Value: is the device bringing appropriate value to make the price worth it? Does the product lock you into a carrier that charges excessive fees? Does it come with the basic features you want and how expensive is it to add these on? Are you paying for the features you don’t? And is it flexible enough to do tomorrow when you don’t know what you will need? I read somewhere over the last few days that purchasing an iPhone will cost close to $3000 over two years. This includes service, phone and replacement battery in two years when Apple expects the battery to need replacement.
  • Available Software: I mentioned flexibility in Cost-To-Value and software to me is such a critical factor. Is there a wealth of third-party and device manufacturer software available that makes this device really useful? Is there enough going on in the development community to know that as my needs change that accessories will be available to match my needs?
  • Flash: let’s face it, most of us want a device that is functional and works, but our nature as humans is to also have a device that’s flashy, that’s cool and hip, and does some tricks. All you have to do is watch the commercials to see that iPhone will score very high on this factor.

If this is my criteria, then what do we have today? A lot of weak options, to be honest. How do the devices stack up:

  • Palm Treo: 2.5 of 7 criteria met. wealth of software available, cost-to-value is solid (although data plans are expensive), works with all carriers so take your pick, battery life is poor, form factor is inflexible (meaning there are no options if you like everything else but hate the layout), device is too big, not very flashy anymore.
  • Motorola Q/Samsung BlackJack: 3.5 of 7 criteria met. almost no software available, cost-to-value is solid, a variety of carriers available, battery life is mediocre, form factor is inflexible, devices are pocket sized and won’t pull your pants down to your ankles, sexy for a Windows product — which makes it not very flashy. 
  • BlackBerry: 5 of 7 criteria met. very little software available (but growing), cost-to-value is solid, a variety of carriers available, battery life is decent, a couple of form factors available offer some flexibility, devices are pocket sized, nothing flashy about these machines at all.
  • iPhone: 2 of 7 criteria met. no software available — in fact none even allowed, cost-to-value is low, only works with one carrier, one form factor — better hope not having a keyboard works out, devices are pocket sized, flashy and Apple go together like football and Sunday, email and BlackBerry… enough said there.

So based on my criteria, BlackBerry rates best and iPhone rates worst. Surprise! Even I didn’t expect iPhone to rate that poorly.

Picking a device is far more art than science. The entire process reminds me of buying a car. Do a bunch of research, talk to people that use one, test drive it for a few minutes, spend a ridiculous amount of time signing papers, and finally make a multi-thousand dollar committment that locks you in for years!