Review: Smartphones That May Win Over VARs


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With a lot of mobility news this week, largely driven by the CTIA conference in Las Vegas, the Test Center decided to take a look at four smartphones that VARs may want to consider for customers who are seeking advice on devices that provide lots of nifty features, decent connectivity and accessibility to corporate data.

The Test Center has looked at phones from Palm, Research in Motion and Samsung that VARs may want to consider when looking for what will ultimately make their jobs easier and their customers happier. Note: this review roundup focuses largely on the devices themselves, and not as much on the carriers behind them. This is where mileage, unfortunately, may still vary depending on geography and experience.

A customer may love that neat smartphone, but the VAR may be left to deal with the dissatisfaction weeks later when connections are dropped or quality is lacking. With that caveat in mind, here is a look at for interesting smart phones you may want to keep in mind:

BlackBerry 8830 World Edition

The BlackBerry 8830 is a World Edition smartphone that is stylish, sleek, and packed with features. This phone from Research in Motion fits both business and personal use.

The large, bright, high-contrast display is easy on the eyes when reading messages. The menu icons for navigation are clearly distinguishable. The screen is a 320 x 240 landscape TFT color display that supports over 65,000 colors. Video and images are bright and of surprisingly high quality.

Perhaps the best feature for the busy business executive is international roaming. The 8830 works nationwide on CDMA/EVDO networks on 800 and 1900 Mhertz bands. It can also roam globally on GSM/GPRS networks, on 900 and 1800 Mhertz bands. There is no need to get a new phone or phone number when travelling abroad.

Plenty of advanced phone features abound on this smartphone, such as voice-activated dialing, smart dialing, conference calling, and call forwarding. It also supports multiple ringtone types (polyphonic, MIDI, and mp3), speed-dial, and a speakerphone.

All that's nice, but the most important aspect of a phone is the sound quality. The BlackBerry doesn't disappoint, providing clear sound. Even when walking outside in heavy traffic, the person on the other end is clearly audible.

The 8830 is not just a phone; it is a full media player. Users can listen to music, stored either on the MicroSD card or on the phone's 64 Mbyte flash memory, while browsing the Web or reading messages. The media player can also display photos and play MPEG4 and WMV videos. This BlackBerry did not have a camera.

The phone also has excellent organization capabilities, with a calendar, memo pad, and a task list. Users can email, text, and phone contacts stored in a centralized addressbook. The BlackBerry could integrate up to 10 email accounts, including Exchange and other corporate platforms.

The 8830 has GPS enabled and supports Bluetooth for hands-free use. There is an embedded wireless modem, as well as tethered modem support for EVDO. It is optimized for the EVDO network, so users can view attachments and graphics without difficulty. Browsing the Web was painless and pages loaded quickly, whether it was an address listing from Google Maps or March Madness results from ESPN.

The phone is very comfortable to hold, measuring 4.5 inches long, 2.6 inches wide, and about half an inch thick. Weighing about 4.6 ounces with the battery, the phone has 64 Mbytes of flash memory. The material and finish are all of high quality, none of the cheap plastic feel from other phones. The phone supports a MicroSD card, which is inserted in the back, next to the battery.

The phone is easy to work with, with a 35-key QWERTY keyboard, seven convenience keys (Send, End, Power, Mute, Volume, Escape, Menu, and a programmable key), and a trackball. The keyboard's backlight is blue.

The battery is a removable/rechargeable lithium cell battery. RIM promises battery life of up to 9 days on CDMA and 16 days on GSM standby. Talk time is up to 220 minutes on CDMA and 300 minutes on GSM. Despite spending two hours browsing the March Madness-related pages on ESPN.com, the battery was still half-full.

The BlackBerry 8830 is available on the Verizon Wireless network.

Palm Centro

For users accustomed to Palm's Treo smartphones, the Centro looks like a Treo that went on a diet. The newest phone from Palm measures 4.22 inches long, 2.11 inches wide, and 0.73 inch thick. Tipping the scales at 4.4 ounces, it's also lighter than the Treo line, but heavier than the BlackBerry 8830.

Despite its smaller size, the Centro features a decent-sized 320x320 pixel transflective color touchscreen. The screen supports 16-bit color, up to 65,000 colors. The touchscreen is a nice differntiator from other competitor smartphones, letting users use the stylus or their fingers to select options on the screen. The stylus is a piece of plastic junk, though. And for all other input needs, there is a backlit (green!) QWERTY keyboard and convenience buttons to access the phonebook, menu, and volume. The keyboard also highlights the number-pad in green for easy access.

The sound quality is also high on the Centro, even when walking outside in heavy traffic. It is a quad band world phone, supporting 850, 900, 1800, and 1900 Mhertz bands. As a GPS phone, it uses a SIM chip, so it doesn't switch between GPS and CDMA networks like the BlackBerry 8830 would.

The Centro has a 1.2 megapixel camera that can zoom 2x and shoot video. Color quality was pretty good. A picture of the lime-green wall in the building came out a little paler than the real shade, but it was fairly close. The camera can also shoot decent-quality video, but the sound seemed a little muted. Images and video can be stored on a MicroSD card or on the phone's internal 64 Mbytes of storage. Only MicroSD cards of up to 4 Gbytes are supported at this time.

The phone runs Palm OS, and the look and feel remains the same from previous Palm phones. The Palm addressbook can be used to send email, make phone calls, and send messages. Other Palm applications, such as calculator, calendar, instant messaging, memo, task list, voice memo, world clock, push to talk, and voice dialing are available. PocketTunes can play music, Xpress Mail can be used to read mail, Blazer 4.5 browser surfs the Web, and Documents to Go Professional is used to read documents and attachments.

The battery is a removable 1150mAh, lithium-ion battery. Palm promises battery life of up to 4 hours talk time and 12.5 days standby. Reviewers used the phone's web browser and camera for about four hours before the battery was drained.

The Palm Centro features a GSM/GPRS/EDGE class 10 radio, and can connect to play XM Radio. It supports Bluetooth as well. Like previous Palm devices, the Centro can be hot-synced with computers running Windows XP, Vista, or Mac OS X.

Despite being smaller than the Treo, it is easy to get used to the Centro in how it feels. The feature set is attractive, especially considering that the smartphone is priced affordably, for $100.

The Centro is available on both AT&T and Sprint networks.

Samsung BlackJack II

We loved the BlackJack II.

Samsung's first BlackJack hit the market when Apple's iPhone was still on the drawing board and when the smartphone market was a slightly different animal. And even though we're now in the iPhone era, Samsung delivers what Apple has only announced it will: a business-friendly, sleek device that gets the job done in splendid fashion.

For this review, Samsung provided us with an evaluation unit of the BlackJack II that works on AT&T's 3G UMTS/HSDPA network. The device is loaded with Microsoft's Windows Mobile 6.0, built with a metallic, burgundy-colored finish and a QWERTY keyboard.

Some specs: The 2.4-inch, 320-by-240 pixel 65 TFT color screen is bright and easy on the eyes. It's listed weight is 3.52 ounces and it is runs a dimension of 4.4 inches by 2.3 inches by 0.4 inches. It's got an integrated 2 megapixel camera with a 4X zoom; TeleNav GPS service; streaming media and great voice quality on the AT&T network. It supports AOL, MSN and Yahoo instant messaging; its flash memory capacity runs 128 MB of RAM/256 MB ROM; comes with a microSD external memory slot and supports up to 4 GB memory cards, as well as SDA 2.0.

Samsung's listed specifications for the BlackJack II say its battery is good for up to seven hours of talk time. We tested it in the lab on a call with a Samsung Ace, also provided for testing purposes by Samsung. (The Ace uses the Sprint network.) After a call between the two phones that lasted for three hours, the Ace's battery ran out. The BlackJack II? It still showed all three bars of battery power with a bright display.

What the Test Center liked about the BlackJack II is the way Samsung has integrated the Xpress Mail application for "push" (or near-push) capabilities, as well as the way it's integrated Microsoft's Mobile Office. Simply put: during testing it was not a big deal to get the BlackJack II to access some corporate data inside a firewall using the Xpress Mail application.

Particularly, Xpress Mail is designed to work well with Microsoft Exchange as well as most web-mail applications and the BlackJack II's screen and interface allow for real-time monitoring of email -- both visually and with a soft sound prompt. Samsung has done a good job in bringing it all together in a nice package.

Though Samsung's mobile business may not offer VARs the same, robust and mature channel program as Samsung's IT unit, VARs should consider the BlackJack II for corporate clients on a Microsoft platform. Opportunity is there to provide service and support through integrating the device with a corporate network.

On the down side, the retail list price of the BlackJack II through AT&T Wireless was $349 at press time; that's only $50 less than an 8GB iPhone which, later this year, will offer much of the same corporate friendliness -- including Exchange integration -- as the BlackJack II does now. Samsung Mobile should keep all of this in mind -- and consider a much more aggressive channel strategy, perhaps with its Samsung IT brethren - as Apple upgrades the iPhone to enable corporate use.

(Apple has no channel strategy for the iPhone that its company executives have discussed publicly.)

The Samsung Ace We had a little bit of trouble with the Samsung Ace because of the spotty coverage the Sprint network provides the area where we work, live and test. What we saw we mostly liked. And for VARs who are in, or whose customers are in, areas where providers like AT&T Wireless and Verizon don't provide coverage, but Sprint does, it's certainly viable.

Here's the spec breakdown: The Samsung Ace runs on Windows Mobile 6 and on Sprint's network, with GSM/GPRS/CDMA/EVDO connectivity. With a dimension of 4.6 inches by 2.3 inches by 0.47 inches, it weighs 3.84 ounces. The Ace lacks the hardened, metal feel of the Samsung BlackJack II or the Blackberry 8830 World Edition, but its screen proves to be a real winner. With 320 by 240 Pixel, 65K TFT, the Ace screen had both a brighter look and easier-to-read interface than other devices we've examined recently.

The Ace supports MPEG4, H.263 and WMV video; is built with a 1.3 megapixel camera; supports Microsoft Mobile Outlook (although it wasn't included in the device we reviewed); comes with flash memory of 96 MB of RAM, 192 MB of ROM and its microSD slot supports memory cards of up to 2 GB.

The Ace supports "Internet Sharing" functionality -- meaning that, over Sprint's network, you can connect the phone via USB to a laptop for wireless broadband connectivity. Again: it's a great solution for on-the-fly mobile access if you or your customer are within a good Sprint coverage area.

Samsung's spec sheet says the Ace gets 4.3 hours of continuous talk time with its battery -- much less than other smart phones in this space. If you or a customer has to be on the road for an entire day, and that day includes one or two long conference calls, there's a good chance you'll be out of luck. In our lab, on a continuous call with a Samsung BlackJack II, the Ace died after three hours.

So with some aspects of the Ace to like, and some that left us less than thrilled, what's the bottom line?

The Ace has just enough going for it to be easy to recommend for those of you, say, in great swaths of the Heartland or Southwest where you can't get other coverage.

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