(See Correction & Amplification below.)
It’s raining smart phones. No, make that super-smart phones, the type of hand-held computer, like Apple’s iPhone or the models powered by Google’s Android software, that browse the Web well, have sophisticated communication functions and are made to run a wide variety of modern third-party apps. This holiday season, new super-smart phone models seem to be appearing weekly.
So far, the king of this new field, in my view, remains its pioneer, the iPhone. Apple’s phone has its limitations, but its design, usability and versatility have kept it ahead. There’s a well-equipped iPhone model available for as little as $99, and the platform offers a staggering 85,000 downloadable apps. By comparison, there are around 10,000 apps for Android, 3,000 for the newer models of the Research in Motion (RIMM) BlackBerry, a few hundred modern apps for phones running the latest versions of Microsoft’s (MSFT) Windows Mobile software, and even fewer than that for Palm’s (PALM) Pre and its soon-to-be released little sibling, the Pixi.
But nobody is conceding the game to Apple (AAPL). A flood of new Android models is upon us, and RIM, which has a fanatical following for its BlackBerry models, is still potent despite the disappointment surrounding its first touch-screen model, the Storm.
I’ve been testing two new contenders, and both represent second chances of sorts. One is the revised version of the BlackBerry Storm, called the Storm2, from Verizon (VZ). The other is the first super-smart phone from Motorola, the fading former phone leader. It’s an Android-based model called the CLIQ, which will be offered by T-Mobile.
Here’s a quick look at these two new pocket computers.
The CLIQ is a hefty slider phone, with a touch screen on top and a slide-out physical keyboard underneath. It has a smaller screen than the iPhone or Storm, and comes with just two gigabytes of memory versus 16 gigabytes for the $199 iPhone. But the CLIQ claims six hours of talk time, an hour more than Apple’s device, and, unlike the iPhone, it has a removable battery and expandable memory. It also has a higher-resolution camera—five megapixels versus three megapixels.
It boasts all of the standard Android features. But what sets the CLIQ apart is that it’s built around the idea of consolidating all your communications and social networking, and making them easy to access. Motorola (MOT) does this with special software called Blur, part of which exists on the device itself and part on a special Motorola-run server.
Blur takes the form of special on-screen widgets. One constantly displays your own status on various services, such as Facebook and Twitter. Another, called Happenings, shows your friends’ latest updates on social-networking services, without requiring you to enter separate apps. A third, called Messages, offers a quick snapshot of current emails and text messages from all your accounts. Each entry in your address book also displays the person’s social-networking status and information.
In my tests, all of these Blur features worked nicely and proved handy, except that I couldn’t get it to consolidate both of my Gmail accounts.
My biggest gripe was with the physical keyboard, which I found cramped and hard to use. The top row is too close to the bottom of the screen and, on the bottom row, I kept hitting the symbols key when I was aiming for “M” or “N.” So I found myself constantly resorting to the virtual on-screen keyboard, which worked pretty well.
The original Storm, RIM’s first phone without a physical keyboard, didn’t convert droves of traditional BlackBerry lovers. This was partly because it had an odd typing mechanism where the whole screen moved with each tap on the virtual keyboard. Also, the phone lacked Wi-Fi and, when held vertically, the device offered only a cramped on-screen keyboard with multiple letters on each key.
The Storm2 fixes all those flaws. The screen now stays still when tapped, providing tactile feedback electronically instead of mechanically. This allows for faster, smoother typing. The new model also has Wi-Fi. And you can now use a full, albeit squeezed, virtual keyboard in vertical mode.
In addition, while the dimensions haven’t changed, the Storm2 looks sleeker and has a few user interface refinements, like an on-screen Send button.
Overall, I found the Storm2 worked well in my tests. Battery life was decent, with 5.5 hours of claimed talk time, and typing was much improved, though I doubt it will satisfy lovers of physical keyboards.
The browser is still inferior to Apple’s, Google’s and Palm’s. And the traditional BlackBerry interface cries out for a major overhaul in a touch device like this, especially when you add a lot of apps. RIM’s menu and folder metaphor seems tired on this device.
Verizon hasn’t set a launch date or price for the Storm2, but it’s likely to appear in November at around $200.
The super-smart-phone war is still in its early stages. There are more and even better devices on the way, and Apple will have plenty of clever competition.
Corrections & Amplifications
The Motorola CLIQ comes with two gigabytes of memory and the $199 iPhone comes with 16 gigabytes. A previous version of this column incorrectly expressed these figures as megabytes, not gigabytes. An earlier version of this column also mistakenly stated, based on a BlackBerry fact sheet, that the Storm2 will ship with two gigabytes of memory. Wednesday night, after the column was published, the company said the Storm2 will actually ship with 18 gigabytes of memory.