Back to School Guide 2010: Smartphones

Smartphones have dropped in price so that the top of the line is generally in the $200 range, making them more affordable for the student. Let's take a look at the top two smartphones and a BlackBerry device from each of the four major US wireless carriers.
Written by Matthew Miller, Contributing Writer

We just saw the latest Gartner data on smartphones which shows huge smartphone growth over the last year. Smartphones have also dropped in price so that most of the highest end super smartphones launch at $199 with a two-year contract. The smartphone world has been pretty active this summer and my May top smartphones article is already outdated. In this smartphones and BlackBerry shopping guide I will present my top two picks for smartphones and a top BlackBerry device for each of the four major nationwide carriers.

Most of the top smartphones today are centered around large touchscreen interfaces, but there are still some with QWERTY keyboards as you will see in the guide. I know that BlackBerry devices are smartphones, but often when someone gets hooked into the world of RIM and BlackBerry Messenger they do not want to look at other choices and since RIM also still leads in the enterprise I wanted to make sure to include one from each carrier in case that device is not one of my top smartphone picks. Let's walk alphabetically through each of the four carriers now.


Apple iPhone 4

If you are already an AT&T customer, then the top choice for a smartphone is most likely the Apple iPhone 4. If I was an AT&T customer this is the smartphone that I would personally purchase and use too. The iPhone 4 has a fabulous high resolution 960x640 pixel resolution display, incredible camera performance, and thousands of applications to meet your every need.

There are a few issues with the iPhone design and software (including reception problems, proximity sensor performance issues, and continued dropped calls), but most have said that a bumper case and future update will fix the issues. This is the first iPhone I did not buy and I have no regrets since there are very capable alternatives out there without these QC issues.

AT&T made some major changes to their pricing plans after the release of the iPhone 4 so that now there is a 2GB cap on data with the ability to also tether for another $20 per month. Each additional GB of data cost $10/month. There are additional charges for text messaging and AT&T Navigator GPS service.

Price: $299 for 32GB and $199 for 16GB with 2-year contract

[Check out the iPhone 4 ZDNet Reviews page]

Samsung Captivate

AT&T was the last carrier to finally get a Google Android device, but the HTC Aria was more of an entry level device so was not that great of an alternative to the Apple iPhone 4. Samsung is in the process of bringing their Galaxy S line of smartphones with 4" Super AMOLED display to each of the four major US wireless carriers. The Captivate is a powerful Android smartphone with a 1 GHz Hummingbird processor, 16GB internal memory, microSD card slot for up to 32GB additional memory, 5 megapixel camera, and more.

It comes with the Swype soft input keyboard and a few other keyboard options with support for the Android Market and thousands of applications. The display is beautiful and the device feels great in your hand. Like the Samsung Vibrant that I tested on T-Mobile, the Galaxy S series appears to be suffering from a GPS lock issue and Samsung has stated an update for this is coming in September.

Price: $199.99 with 2-year contract

[Check out the Samsung Captivate ZDNet Reviews page]

RIM BlackBerry Torch

The RIM BlackBerry Torch is the newest BB smartphone from RIM that sports both a capacitive touchscreen display and full hardware QWERTY keyboard. It brings the best of RIM's QWERTY legacy with the fresh perspective of the touch display world together. The Torch also runs the latest BlackBerry 6 operating system with a focus on improved usability, customization, and significant web browser improvements.

The Torch has a 3.2 inch 480x360 pixel resolution display, 5 megapixel camera, 4GB internal memory and microSD card slot, and 802.11 b/g/n WiFi support. It is powered by a Marvell 624 MHz processor and is a bit on the heavy side at 5.7 ounces.

Price: $199.99 with 2-year contract

[Check out the my first impressions article and the RIM BB Torch ZDNet Reviews page]

Let's check out Sprint's offerings »



It is pretty clear that the HTC EVO 4G is the top smartphone currently available from Sprint with everything but the kitchen sink thrown into this large 4.3 inch display device. It sports an 8 megapixel camera, front facing 1.3 megapixel camera, Android 2.2, HTC Sense, HDMI port, kickstand, WiMAX radio with support to share that with 8 devices, 1 GHz Snapdragon processor, and more. The great thing about Sprint is that they throw in some great services with the monthly data fee, including Sprint Navigation, Sprint TV, and NASCAR Sprint Cup Mobile.

There is a $10 fee for premium data services, but this does give you truly unlimited data on 3G and 4G while other carriers are starting to impose 2GB caps.

Price: $199.99 with 2-year contract and rebate/discount

[Read my review and check out the ZDNet Reviews page for more info.]

Samsung Epic 4G

The Samsung Epic 4G launches on 31 August, but will be a device that many will compare with the HTC EVO 4G when trying to make a smartphone purchase decision. This is another one of the Samsung Galaxy S devices, but with a full hardware QWERTY keyboard. The Epic 4G has that same Galaxy S 4" Super AMOLED display, fast 1 GHz Hummingbird processor, WiMAX radio for 4G connectivity, ability to WiFi tether with up to 5 devices, Android 2.1 OS (2.2 update should be coming soon), 5 megapixel camera, and more.

There is a front facing camera with support for video calling, the same as with the EVO 4G. The full QWERTY keyboard is the major differentiator here, along with the Samsung TouchWIZ user interface elements and widgets. It is more focused on media and gaming than the EVO 4G and is a worthy choice on the Sprint network.

Price: $249.99 with 2-year contract and rebate/discount

[Check out the ZDNet Reviews page for more info.]

RIM BlackBerry Bold 9650

The latest RIM BlackBerry Bold series are compelling QWERTY keyboard devices that have replaced the trackball with an optical trackpad for faster navigation and better reliability. The Bold 9650 comes in versions with and without the 3.2 megapixel camera. The keyboard is very good for messaging and there are plenty of apps available in the BlackBerry App World store. This device also supports GSM networks so you can use it outside of the US.

GPS, WiFi, and Bluetooth are all included so you can access the Internet and connect with other devices quite easily. Sprint includes their services with the monthly data fees as well.

Price: $199.99 with 2-year contract and rebate/discount

[Check out the ZDNet Reviews page for more info.]

T-Mobile also has some strong offerings »


Samsung Vibrant

The Samsung Vibrant is the T-Mobile USA version of the Samsung Galaxy S and just may be one of the best models in most respects. It has the same outstanding 4" Super AMOLED display, fast 1 GHz processor, 16GB integrated memory and microSD card slot, and much more. T-Mobile is focusing on the media and gaming aspects of the device with a full version of the Avatar movie included with the MySims 3 game too. The Vibrant feels great in your hand and the display is fantastic.

I purchased one, but returned it after a couple weeks because I wanted to save my upgrade subsidy discount for an HSPA+ smartphone and found the GPS and RF reception to be too weak and troublesome. I understand that a software update is coming out soon to fix the GPS reception and that another is coming to provide the Android 2.2 update to the Vibrant.

Price: $199.99 with 2-year contract and rebate/discount and $499.99 with no contract

[Check out my review and the ZDNet Reviews page for more info.]

T-Mobile myTouch 3G Slide

The T-Mobile myTouch 3G Slide is an Android device that comes in black, red, and white. It is the successor to the first Android device, the T-Mobile G1, and finally brings an HTC QWERTY keyboard Android device back to T-Mobile. The device is not much thicker than the myTouch 3G and surprised me by being a very capable smartphone with some unique features. The QWERTY keyboard is good, but a bit odd in that the alternate characters are sized the same as the primary characters.

HTC includes a unique version of their Sense UI on the myTouch 3G that helps make the myTouch 3G Slide a device to consider. There is a cool Genius button on the device that lets you call, send text messages, and search the Internet all with your voice. An 8GB card is included, along with a 5 megapixel camera.

Price: $179.99 with 2-year contract and rebate/discount and $429.99 with no contract.

[Check out my review and the ZDNet Reviews page for more info.]

BlackBerry Bold 9700

The BlackBerry Bold 9700 brings 3G and an optical trackpad to the BlackBerry lineup on T-Mobile and is one of the best QWERTY keyboard devices available today. It runs a fast 624 MHz processor, supports the T-Mobile UMA WiFi network, and has a vibrant 480x360 high resolution display. It has a 3.2 megapixel camera and a battery that gets you through at least two days of heavy usage.

The Bold 9700 is clearly the best BlackBerry device on T-Mobile USA and should be getting an update to the BlackBerry 6 operating system in the next few months. This update will improve the web browser on the Bold 9700 and is an update I am looking forward to.

Price: $99.99 with 2-year contract and rebate/discount and $449.99 with no contract.

[Check out my review and the ZDNet Reviews page for more info.]

Honorable mention: T-Mobile has some other excellent alternatives, including the Nokia E73 Mode (my personal T-Mobile smartphone), HTC HD2, and Garminfone.

Let's check out what Verizon has available »


Motorola Droid X

The Motorola Droid X is one of the largest smartphones available with a 4.3" WVGA display, 8 megapixel camera, 1 GHz processor, 8GB internal memory, and much more. Even though it has a large display, it also is quite thin and feels great in your hand. It ships with Android 2.1, but an update to Android 2.2 is coming soon.

The Droid X captures good photos and video in 720p quality. It supports the 3G mobile hotspot functionality so you can turn it into a mobile router for all of your devices. Skype Mobile is included and will help you make calls through the Skype network and reduce necessary call minutes.

Price: $199.99 with 2-year contract and rebate/discount

[Check out my review and the ZDNet Reviews page for more info.]

HTC Droid Incredible

The HTC Droid Incredible is an HTC device that carries the Droid branding and is much more pocketable than the Droid X. It comes with the HTC Sense user interface, 3.7 inch AMOLED display, 8 megapixel camera, 1 GHz processor, integrated 8GB flash drive, and more. It ships with Android 2.1 with Android 2.2 coming soon as an update.

The Droid Incredible has an interesting back cover design and red highlights under the back cover. There have been shortages of the device, but it appears to be shipping again soon.

Price: $199.99 with 2-year contract and rebate/discount

[Check out my review and the ZDNet Reviews page for more info.]

BlackBerry Storm 2

The RIM BlackBerry Storm was not a very successful product and showed that there was a lot more work to be done to get a good touchscreen device from RIM. The Storm 2 addressed most of the issues people had with the original Storm and has a unique touchscreen implementation (called SurePress) that seems to work well. The Storm 2 is one of those BlackBerry devices that support CDMA and GSM for worldwide use.

The Storm 2 sports a large 3.25" 480x360 touchscreen, 3.2 megapixel camera, 16GB microSD card, and much more. It feels great in your hand and media plays well on the BlackBerry. The Storm 2 has not been advertised as getting the OS 6 update so you need to make sure you are happy with this version of the software before making the purchase.

Price: $149.99 with 2-year contract and rebate/discount

[Check out the ZDNet Reviews page for more info.]

Honoroable mention: There are a few other great smartphones, including the new Droid 2, Bold 9650, and Palm Pre Plus.

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