Get Smart with 3G

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Savvy travellers around the world are turning to 3G smartphones as the perfect tool to manage their personal and professional lives, writes Chris Reilly. A growing segment of the population depends on smartphones for business, social networking, e-mail, online shopping, banking, media playback and many other applications while on the move. Business Traveller looks at some of the smartphones available on the market.

Apple iPhone 4

The new iPhone 4 is available with either 16Gig or 32Gig of memory, and is thinner and sexier than the iPhone 3GS, yet it feels granite-solid. The front display and back cover stretch edge to edge without any joins to collect dust. Physically, the iPhone 4 represents a big move away from the curved plastic finish of the 3G to flat glass front and back. The two sides are held in place with metal bands, which do double duty as the phone’s antenna, a source of considerable worldwide consumer debate around a user’s hand degrading reception.

The iPhone’s 3.5-inch, 640 x 960-pixel resolution display screen, codenamed Retina by Apple, is so sharp that the human eye cannot differentiate individual pixels. The new upgraded iOS 4 firmware appears the same as that in the 3G or 3GS, except for the handful of new apps. Using the phone in an urban environment with strong network coverage, functionality remains fine even with only one bar signal. Testing online speed with a full hand grip around the phone shows no noticeable loss of speed. However, in an area of low network coverage, full hand grip kills the phone’s reception completely until the iPhone is held loosely in the hand. Though most of the iPhone 4’s hardware is the same as the previous model, the 5-megapixel camera is excellent. Under normal lighting conditions, the iPhone camera is among the best camera phones around and probably the fastest too. The iPhone 4 also records HD video, but it’s not as impressive.

The iPhone 4 offers slightly better processing performance than its 3G and 3GS predecessors, thanks to its new 1GHz processor. Web pages load faster and apps launch quicker, but only slightly. The two main new software features on the iPhone 4 are folders for organising documents and apps (drag and drop), and multitasking. The multitasking system works well and is actually a saved state process, which has limited functionality, but it does slightly speed up workflow across several open apps. A useful new feature is the unified inbox which shows messages from all mail accounts, and can organise messages by threads, open attachments in third-party apps like Acrobat. It doesn’t multitask like a BlackBerry and it isn’t customisable like an Android, but the iPhone is slick, fast, and supported by the largest of the applications stores.

Nokia E72

Nokia’s E72 looks and feels the business, with its rock-solid steel chassis built for the on-the-move entrepreneur. But it hides a complex operating system in need of an update. The E72 is basically wrapped in steel, from all edges right down to the rear battery cover, and it feels solid in the hand. The chrome trim around the edges and access buttons take the E72’s classiness up a notch. The navigation key in the middle of the E72 works both as a 4-way directional pointer while its centre portion works as a trackpad. Nokia calls it the Navi Key.

The Navi Key is a bit finicky to use and might be more useful turned off, unless you do a lot of web surfing. The voice command button on the side may not help navigation matters; simply saying ‘contacts’ or ‘mail’ often brings up a  ‘no results found’ message. Like most of Nokia’s latest smartphones, the E72 uses the Symbian operating system, version 9.3, but with Nokia’s S60 3rd Edition Feature Pack 2 as a user interface. However, as soon as the screen comes on the E72 looks old. The new 600Mhz processor is fast but the old S60 menu icons look pixelated and outdated. This wouldn’t be so bad if it worked well, but S60 is also complicated, long-winded and sluggish.

It has a full QWERTY keyboard, QVGA display screen with 320 x 480 resolution, a 3.5G HSDPA modem that can handle over 10Megabits per second, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 2.0, GPS, FM stereo receiver, voice-command capability, and a 5-megapixel camera with flash. The keyboard on the E72 is one of the best, better perhaps than even Blackberry’s Bold 9700. The keys bulge out a bit making them easier to tap, and they have a soft, positive click when pressed. You will be typing at full speed in no time.

Sound quality on phone calls is just outstanding with the Nokia. As a business phone, the E72 is highly recommended in this area. Battery life is pretty close to Nokia’s claims of 12.5 hours talk time and 20.5 days on standby. It’s pretty frugal on power. The camera shoots great snaps, when the autofocus system feels like it. The AF software needs a tweak or two, along with the OS, which would make the whole package a winner.

Blackberry 9700

The BlackBerry Bold 9700 is considerably smaller than its forebears, measuring just 109 by 60 by 14mm, and weighs only 122 grams. Its smaller size means that the screen is smaller; the display measures just 63mm diagonally. But it is high resolution. Of course, a smaller phone means a smaller keyboard too. But the keys have slight ridges that make them easy to use for thumb typing. The Bold 9700 uses a trackpad instead of the traditional trackball found on most BlackBerry phones, which is more durable and very comfortable to use.

The Bold 9700 comes with version 5 of the BlackBerry operating system, but even in its most recent version, the BlackBerry OS is mixed when it comes to software. You do get access to BlackBerry App World, but it lacks the vast and often overwhelming selection of apps that can be found in the iPhone App Store. The Bold 9700 features a built-in GPS as an extra-cost service, so unless you have it as part of your package the application is unusable.

Like all BlackBerry phones, the Bold 9700 is brilliant at messaging. It can support ten personal or business e-mail accounts, and setting them up is simple. Several instant messaging applications like Google Talk, Yahoo Messenger, and Windows Live Messenger are pre-installed. There’s also support for text and multimedia messaging. While the interface of the built-in e-mail client is a bit bland, it’s very usable. It’s easy to see unread messages at a glance, and typing messages on the 9700’s keyboard is comfortable and fast.

The BlackBerry Bold 9700 is 3G-enabled and supports both the high-speed HSDPA 3G network as well as Wi-Fi wireless networks, so there are plenty of options for web browsing. What it needs is a top-notch Web browser. The BlackBerry browser is usable, but lacks the refinements found on rival mobile browsers. You must open a menu to access the address bar, and while you can go back a page, you can only move forward by opening a menu again.

The 3.2-megapixel camera on the Bold 9700 is a slight improvement on the 2-megapixel version on the original Bold. The images are clear and colourful. The camera captures reasonable video clips. The media player is not brilliant, but it works and is easy to use. Sound quality is very good, and videos look amazing on the very clear display. The BlackBerry Bold 9700 is an excellent smartphone and probably the best BlackBerry yet.

LG’s new Optimus One

LG’s new Optimus One with Google’s Android operating system phone might not be a cutting-edge handset, but it’s sure to lead the budget brigade. The phone itself is plain, with a round, rubberised chassis featuring an 80mm screen and large, clickable buttons on the bottom edge. Essential extras that make it a worthwhile option include the Android 2.2 operating system, an efficient capacitive touch screen, a responsive and intuitive User Interface and a 1500mAh battery for extended talk and standby times. It’s also got the usual access points of headphone jack plus Wi-Fi, GPS and Bluetooth 2.1 on board. The only feature that lets it down is the 3MP camera without flash.

The new capacitive screen on the LG Optimus One makes it a lot easier to use, and it navigates menus with little fuss. However, the screen is not perfect. Internet browsing can be unresponsive at times, and the keyboard in portrait mode cannot keep up at normal typing speeds. The Android keyboard offers some improvement in typing accuracy and speed, but not much. The Optimus One supports memory cards up to 32GB. Video playback is a bit choppy but acceptable for the price point, and music quality is also fairly good. Flash video along with wireless hotspot ability is included thanks to Android 2.2. The LG Optimus One is a phone with a lot of tech crammed in.

Samsung galaxy si 9000

The Samsung Galaxy Si 9000 is a top-end Android smartphone with some excellent features that distinguish it from the masses.  The strongest feature on the phone is definitely its excellent Super AM-OLED screen. Even with its 10cm diagonal size the resolution is superb, with vivid colours that make the menus and icons jump out. It’s also brighter, with rich, solid blacks, a wide contrast ratio and usable in sunlight, unlike many other OLED screens.  The screen complements the smartphone functions superbly, displaying web pages without the need for lots of zooming. Videos and pictures are spectacularly displayed. Samsung has added the Samsung TouchWiz home screen to the standard Android menus which makes the phone much easier to use.

The superfast 1GHZ processor zips from one screen to another and does the multitasking without any noticeable lag. Battery life is excellent; Galaxy S can happily run normally for at least two days, provided you aren’t watching movies on maximum brightness and running apps that require GPS or constant web access.  The only thing that is needed on this otherwise superb phone is a simple LED flash for the camera.

Sony Ericsson Vivaz Pro

The Sony Ericsson Vivaz Pro sits comfortably in the hand, and you wouldn’t know it’s packing a full keyboard which slides out when needed. There’s no metallic casing, and the phone feels a bit plasticky. The screen is an 80mm resistive type, with three plastic buttons on the bottom to open the menu and answer or terminate calls. The Vivaz Pro comes with some useful accessories including an 8Gb microSD card and a USB microSD adaptor so that the tiny memory card can be connected to a computer. There’s also a micro USB lead with wall plug adaptor for powering or connecting the phone.

The phone uses the Symbian S60 operating system. This fiddly interface is let down by a rather small screen of the resistive type, which is far less sensitive and responsive than the capacitive version found on other top-notch smartphones. However, Sony Ericsson or Nokia fans will quickly get into using the Vivaz Pro, as it has a simple home screen and menu system that works fairly well. A constantly annoying feature of the Symbian OS is that some options require only a single finger touch to open while others need a double tap. Some functions, like the contacts list and media folder can be finger-swiped to scroll through, while others like the web menu have scroll bars that must be grabbed and pulled up or down, a painful exercise. There are several messaging options, from e-mail and text to MMS all supported.

The Vivaz Pro is slow. Symbian is a dated operating system that was not designed for touch navigation. However, its primary purpose of providing acceptable telephonics is still there from a sound and reception quality point of view. Dialling isn’t possible from the interface – there’s no easy way to get to the phonebook. You have to go the long way round to make a call, hitting a button to open the contacts list. The screen is still active during calls and there’s a chance your cheek could cut off or put a caller on hold. The signal quality is OK if you stay put. Moving around in a car or bus can cause the signal to fail. Not so bad for calls, but suddenly dropping off the web gets really frustrating.

The Vivaz Pro and its Symbian OS is poorly suited to Internet access; it’s slow and thirsty, sucking in huge dollops of bytes of data. It supports Flash Lite so it can run the full version sites like YouTube, but without the full screen video option or a way to reposition the playback window to see the whole video frame. A symptom of Symbian, this is not good enough for a top echelon smartphone. The camera might only have a 5Mp sensor, but it shoots great pictures in a variety of modes. The phone has a dedicated video recording button making it easy to change from photo to video. Playing media is a different matter. The Sony Ericsson Japanese-Swedish alliance uses the Walkman interface to bring video, music and pictures alive on the Vivaz Pro. Battery life on the Sony Ericsson Vivaz Pro is good for a measly 1200mAh battery. If push e-mail is disabled and Wi-Fi is off, the Vivaz Pro can easily get two days’ use out of the battery. 

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