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7/14/2010
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Fritz Nelson
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Phone Wars: Choose Your Weapon

A slew of new devices from HTC, Motorola, Apple; more coming when Windows Phone 7 ships; rumors of new BlackBerry handsets. Here's a guide to evaluating the combatants.

I have not mentioned Nokia, which is the world's leading mobile phone manufacturer. It has several impressive smartphones, to be sure, but the company's presence in North America has been anemic, and even its global share is slipping. The Nokia N8 is shipping in Q3, but the company has not announced a North American carrier partner yet.

I played with one briefly, and it's more elegant and phone-like than many other Nokia products; its 12-megapixel camera with Carl Zeiss optics is an impressive accomplishment, and most of its other specifications hold their own with the smartphones discussed throughout this piece.

The N8 runs Symbian's S3, and Nokia runs its Ovi app store -- if neither of these are on the tip of your tongue, you're forgiven. In its attempt to craft its own ecosystem, Nokia has made some baffling choices. The company's dominant global position means that it still has time to figure out the best path but phones with no carrier muscle, running neglected or forgotten platforms hasn't exactly been inspirational. It's ironic when the leader is also the underdog.

HP/Palm. There, I mentioned them. HP CTO Phil McKinney said that the company has put additional R&D and marketing dollars into Palm. Wait and see.

And while the BlackBerry is fairly well represented with the Bold 9700, Research In Motion clearly has more up its Canadian sleeves. As co-CEO Jim Balsillie said in a Q1 2011 earnings call recently: “We have an exciting line of products, services and promotions expected to be introduced between now and the end of the fiscal year." If you want a glimpse of what's in store, the following video should surprise you.

Now, here are some general guidelines about the choices in front of you -- and please feel free to provide your own experiences and opinions in the Comments section at the end of this article. Your hands-on work will be far more valuable to others than what I can outline here.

Table Stakes and Differentiators -- Hardware

Processors. Most of the phones have 1-GHz processors. If it matters, the EVO 4G uses Qualcomm's chipset, the Droid X uses TI's, Samsung uses its own Hummingbird technology, and Apple uses its A4 processor (one that Apple designed but Samsung manufactures using the same Hummingbird architecture). Clearly to these companies this isn't just some commodity item, but a differentiator.

Displays. Display size and quality are also becoming battle pawns. For a while, smaller was better, but smartphones packed with all the gizmos mean bigger is better today, especially for media consumption. The 4.3-inch screens of the Droidx and HTC HD2 are much better for watching videos on YouTube or BlockBuster (both phones come with the BlockBuster app pre-installed). The tablets, of course, provide much better video experiences, but for the combination of Web browsing, YouTube watching, and game playing, these screens are amazing. The iPhone has a smaller screen (3.5-inch), but Apple has managed to pack in the pixels for what users are saying is an incredibly vivid experience. By way of comparison, the Droid X resolution is 854 x 480, while the iPhone is 960 x 640 (on a smaller screen). Apple calls it a Retina Display, and says the pixel density is 326 pixels per inch.

Samsung's Galaxy S uses a Super AMOLED display, offering high quality with better energy efficiency. Many other manufacturers, including HTC, get the AMOLED technology from Samsung. Reports have surfaced that Samsung has a shortage, and some phone makers are switching to LCD displays, which Apple uses on its phones.

The manufacturers are also duking it out over various touch techniques on the display. Multi-touch is now a given for most of the new smart phones (BlackBerry being an exception). Most have created ways for users to "feel" or hear something when they type on an on-screen keyboard.

Storage (Device storage ranges) . The Droid X comes with 8 GB and a 16-GB memory card; but a 32-GB card gets the unit to 40 GB. The iPhone comes in 16-GB and 32-GB versions (the latter is $100 more). The Samsung Galaxy S come in different shapes and sizes, but 16 GB seems to be the go-to number for most of these phones. 64 GB is likely to be the next target as these phones start to capture higher quality photos and video.

Cameras -- of pixels and HD. The new low water mark for cameras seems to be 5 megapixels, but some of the latest devices offer more; the Droid X has an 8-megapixel camera. True camera features are starting to make a bigger difference, however. The Droid X, for example, includes a mechanical shutter, which is virtually unheard of in a phone. I'm not a camera expert, but this is supposed to help control the amount of light -- you can read a pretty decent explanation here.

Many new phones include dual LED flash and autofocus, in addition to finer zoom control. The DroidX also has multishot capability. You can see some excellent work with the Droid X camera here. Some of the comments indicate trouble and are critical of the quality; in fact, in my own testing, I was often frustrated by the inability to simply snap a picture, try as I might, as the autofocus worked on getting things just right. But the picture quality was fantastic when it worked.

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