With cell phones, as with most things in life, you get what you pay for.
Sure, "dumb phones" (or, less harshly, budget phones) are cheap. And many of us get by just fine with the calling, texting, rudimentary Web browsing, e-mailing and basic gameplay that today's budget mobile phones offer.
But to supercharge your cellular ride through our increasingly wired world, you're going to need an aptly named smartphone.
Here are 10 reasons to ditch that jalopy for a hot new smartphone.
1. Smartphones have a full-fledged operating system
Perhaps the clearest dividing line between smartphones and the rest of the cell phone pack, including mid-level "feature phones," is the type of OS that smartphones have, said Michael Morgan, mobile devices analyst for ABI Research. An OS (operating system) is the framework that runs the software programs and allows users to access and interface with their phones.
"All of the dumb phones will be running off of what is called a real-time operating system," Morgan said, while "smartphones have what is called a high-level operating system." These top-notch OSs include Nokia's Symbian, Windows Mobile (soon to be Windows 7 Phone), Palm, BlackBerry, Google'sAndroid and Apple's iOS.
Real-time OSs are "designed to do one thing at a time in a specific order," Morgan said. By contrast, more-evolved smartphone OSs can perform multiple actions at once, making their powered devices rather like mini-computers.
So what does that mean for you, the handheld user?
2. Tons of apps
With a full OS, smartphones can run a rich variety of third-party applications, or apps, which are programs for both work and play.
Apple's App Store for its iPhone line of smartphones is the best-known and most expansive marketplace, with well north of 200,000 apps, for example, while over 50,000 apps are available on the Android Market.
Accordingly, it's little wonder that the phrase "There's an app for that" has caught on. In almost all cases there really is a smartphone app for whatever one can think of, from recipes to sports to travel to games to just fun, trippy visual apps.
3. You can get some real work done
Smartphones, which are essentially personal digital assistants, have become a must for on-the-go business people by providing them with a handheld digital office.
In addition to a slew of work-related apps, such as client data sheet and timesheet makers, smartphones have the best e-mail, calendaring, note-taking, stock quote access and other business-friendly programs.
"A high-level operating system brings a customizable work experience" in which myriad tasks and functions can work together seamlessly, said Morgan.
4. Landscape view on the screen
Aiding in this productivity is the option to view a smartphone screen's contents in "landscape" mode just by turning the phone sideways. "Not too many feature phones have landscape mode transition," Morgan said, and you can forget about it on dumb phones.
The key to this shift to a horizontal screen is an accelerometer, a device used to sense how a user is holding a device. Morgan said accelerometers are a particularly cost-sensitive component, so they tend to appear only in high-end phones.
Landscape view is better for viewing certain Web pages and text, and it gives smartphones a display versatility that comes in handy in numerous ways.
5. Smoother Internet and Wi-Fi
The mobile Web has come alive in recent years, in no small part thanks to smartphones. Higher-end cell phones can harness Web pages far better than can dumb phones, which often cram a Web page onto the small screen or render it as a vast, segmented sheet that is onerous to navigate.
"Because of the added processing power and the [high-level] operating system, you get more robust browsing" on a smartphone, said Morgan.
Most smartphones come with Wi-Fi capabilities, meaning they can hop on wireless networks, which lets users avoid eating up their monthly smartphone data plan allotments. Newer voice-over Wi-Fi programs can save wireless-talk minutes, too.
Smartphones also can act as Internet connections for other devices via tethering.
6. Sharper displays
Naturally, as they allow more Web browsing, video viewing and reading, smartphones tend to have bigger and better-quality screens than their cellular competitors. Sharper contrast, higher resolution and higher-quality screen materials and software ensure images are crisp and colorful.
Leading the way with screen resolution is the new iPhone 4, which boasts 326 pixels per square inch in a so-called "retina display." Text on the screen from a foot away appears about as smooth and un-pixelated as words printed on paper.
Though it lambasted the reception problem of the iPhone 4, Consumer Reports remarked that the device had the "sharpest display . . . we've seen on any phone," and tech critics have similarly praised the smartphone for setting the new standard in screen resolution.
7. More-responsive touchscreens
Touchscreens have caught on in a big way since Apple came out with the first iPhone in 2007. Having more-expensive, better technology under the hood leads to more-sensitive touchscreens that can recognize nuanced gestures.
"Better parts cost more," said Morgan. And with the higher price tag on smartphones, as well as a bigger profit margin per unit sold, "handset manufacturers can make back that [extra] cost."
8. More-advanced gaming
Landscape mode, combined with better displays, more-sensitive screens and a full-fledged operating system, allows for way more advanced cell phone gaming on smartphones.
Developers have been taking full advantage of the devices' enhanced system components to push the envelope in handset gaming.
In announcing 10 new 3-D games in May for smartphones, Gameloft senior vice president of publishing Gonzague de Vallois said: "With the arrival of smartphones that allow the creation of high-quality games, we are excited to bring consumers a unique lineup of diverse titles combining rich 3-D graphics and intense gameplay.”
9. You can really watch videos
Many feature phones can play video or stream it from the Internet, but the viewing experience will hardly be cinematic. "On feature phones, when it comes to streaming video, they can pull it off, but the processor will be really tired trying to keep up," said Morgan. "You can have good video and audio streaming on a smartphone."
Also, smartphones' video-playing software is usually superior to that found on lesser phones, with forward and pause features, for example, rather than just popping up in a window and running through, Morgan said.
10. You can produce good videos
Many smartphones have relatively sophisticated video and audio recording capabilities. And for those looking to create their own professional-looking bit of film, most smartphones now include video and audio editing software. "Video editing software – you won't find that on a feature phone," Morgan said.
For example, Apple last month announced a version of its desktop editing software iMovie for the iPhone, and other smartphone OSs including Android and Palm have their own video editing tools.
The take-home lesson
Overall, smartphones can be anything you want them to be. "Smartphones are robust enough that they can do everything" that one can expect of a mobile device, said Morgan, while dumb phones and feature phones "have to segment toward doing one thing."
And doing one thing on a cell phone is so 1990s.
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