Giz Explains: Illustrated Guide to Smartphone OSesS

You're more likely than ever to buy a smartphone, not just because they do so much more than dumb feature phones, with real email, decent web browsing and downloadable applications, but because they're cheaper than ever. With the exception of some expensive ass unlocked-but-unsubsidized European models, you generally don't have to pay more than $300 for a balls-to-the-wall smartphone—though the voice plan plus data fees can easily run you $80 or more per month. Here's a rudimentary overview of your choices (more now than ever before), why you might pick them, and why they might suck for you.

Giz Explains: Illustrated Guide to Smartphone OSesS

ANDROID by Google
The splashy new entrant into smartphone land, Android is Google's Linux-based open source mobile platform meant to bring real, constantly connected internet to phones. Even though it's debuting on a single phone, the G1 from HTC, expect to see the free OS show up on tons of phones, from HTC, Motorola, and others. It's totally modern and powerful, and the fact that it's open source makes it incredibly appealing to some developers, so most signs point to awesome applications and mobile internet.

Why You'll Use It Unlike BlackBerry, iPhone or Windows Mobile, there are no limits on what application developers can do. So its real strength is the power that developers hold—we're hoping to see some of the wildest, most innovative applications hit Android first. You'll have tons of hardware options, from low to high end, and pretty much any input you want—touchscreen, QWERTY, whatever—once the ball gets rolling. This is the ultimate geek phone.

Why It Sucks Developers have to plug a lot of holes right off the bat, like the complete lack of business features. If they fail to come through, it could fall flat. Not as elegant as the iPhone (though it beats, say, Windows Mobile, by leaps and bounds), it still doesn't quite pass the "mom" test.

Giz Explains: Illustrated Guide to Smartphone OSesS

BLACKBERRY by RIM
Research in Motion's BlackBerry started out as a glorified two-way pager before evolving into what most consider the best smartphone for email. It is also a shining validation of tightly integrated hardware/software model—they make the phones, they make the operating system. Previously it was a phone that corporations gave to people in suits because of its BlackBerry Enterprise Server, which integrates it with a corporation's email, plus its Exchange support and high security. Now, though, it's increasingly popular with real live people. The BlackBerry Bold offers the latest version of the standard OS, while the recently announced Storm uses one modified for a touchscreen.

Why You'll Use It It has the best email experience around—in part thanks to their traditionally awesome keyboards, so the touchscreen Storm is something of a risk. The OS is really to easy use, with everything neatly presented up front using rows and rows of icons. There's a reason it has surpassed Windows Mobile in marketshare and is the corporate drone phone of choice. Also, RIM seems intent on juicing up its already solid dev community, so expect even more great apps in the future. (Catching a pattern with the importance of apps?)

Why It Sucks It's totally closed and proprietary. You've gotta buy a BlackBerry phone to get the OS. If you're not using the Bold, Storm or the Flip Pearl, it's not very sexy and can easily look dated. Also, in past models, the web browsing experience was absolute garbage. Now just finding its stride as a consumer device, it's not as media-centric as some others, but that is fortunately changing as well.

Giz Explains: Illustrated Guide to Smartphone OSesS

IPHONE OS X by Apple
Some haters still stay that the iPhone isn't really a smartphone, but for all practical intents and purposes it is. Running a stripped down but very real version of Mac's OS X, it's one of the most powerful and modern OSes of the bunch.

Why You'll Use It It's the most attractive and usable smartphone around, period. It has the best mobile internet browser, largely thanks to multitouch navigation. But its killer feature might be its ability to run third-party apps, which come from one of the most vibrant dev communities around, and are often—but not always—actually useful. Not to mention that, as an iPod, it's also the best music phone on the planet—at least until that mystery Zune phone appears.

Why It Sucks For being so powerful and modern, it can't do things even the dumbest phones do, like MMS, or copy and paste, a smartphone standard. Also email and corporate features aren't quite up to BlackBerry standards, lacking email search among other deficiencies. Apple tightly controls it, which might hurt development and innovation. And the whole making a phone call thing itself still kinda blows.

Giz Explains: Illustrated Guide to Smartphone OSesS

WINDOWS MOBILE by Microsoft
Unlike the iPhone and OS X, the only thing Microsoft's smartphone OS shares with actual Windows is the name. It has its roots in Windows CE and originally went by the Pocket PC moniker before becoming Windows Mobile. Mostly for corporate troopers, the current version number is 6.1, and it comes in touchscreen and non-touchscreen flavors. It recently fell behind RIM's BlackBerry in marketshare.

Why You'll Use It Diehards swear by its power, even if it isn't so easy for Joe Six-Pack to pick up and run with. It runs on handsets from a bunch of manufacturers, and unlike the BlackBerry and iPhone platforms, you can build your own device to run it. So much of the most advanced mobile hardware you'll lay your eyes on runs Windows Mobile, including the HTC Touch HD and Sony Xperia X1. It's got a corporate soul, so it's designed for business users, and it has specialty applications (like in the medical field) that some professionals need and can't get anywhere else.

Why It Sucks There's a reason premiere Windows Mobile handset makers have become increasingly adept at covering up the user interface: It's frankly terrible, especially when it comes to touch navigation. It isn't a great media phone, has a god-awful native browser and doesn't look so hot either. Unfortunately the next version, WM7, is over a year away.

Giz Explains: Illustrated Guide to Smartphone OSesS

PALM GARNET
Oh, whither Palm. Without getting into the complicated story of Palm's various fits, seizures and splits, the Palm OS goes all the way back to 1996, when it powered Palm's PDAs. All but dead now, its last hurrah was on the Centro before Palm plunged ahead with Windows Mobile. Supposedly work on its Linux-powered follow-up is well under way, but it's been delayed multiple times.

Why You'll Use It Though dated, the Palm OS makes a great starter smartphone, hence the success of the cheaper-than-dirt Centro. The learning curve is shallow and it provides most of the smartphone features you expect, even if it does look like it's still trapped in 1996.

Why It Sucks Uh, it's basically dead. You probably won't see it on another phone post-Centro, Palm's more pricey phones use Windows Mobile, and prospects on the upcoming Palm OS overhaul are dicey. (They should take Android and use it as a powerful foundation for the next Palm OS, but that's just my two cents.)

Giz Explains: Illustrated Guide to Smartphone OSesS

SYMBIAN by Nokia
Symbian is the world's most popular smartphone platform, thanks to Nokia. The most prominent variant right now is S60. While it doesn't seem so ubiquitious in the US, abroad it's far more common. It powers some seriously sick hardware, like Nokia's N series, and has a solid dev community, though the free side of that isn't as big as on other platforms.

Why You'll Use It Did you miss the "world's most popular smartphone" thing? Buy a Nokia multimedia phone, and you buy Symbian. It offers a lot of the best smartphone features—strong email, web and calendar, plus a large global development community—in a package that is far more usable than Windows Mobile. Also, it works with Macs with far less hassle than Windows Mobile.

Why It Sucks It can be overly complicated, and still not as easy to use as a BlackBerry or the iPhone. If you're not using a really solid piece of hardware, it can be really sluggish. Also, connecting to the web can be annoying. And while it's on handsets from a couple of other manufacturers, for the most part, you had better love Nokia hardware.

And that's pretty much the lay of the land, at least for now.

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