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Technology

The iPhone Challengers

Want a better camera phone? A cheaper smart phone? These other "iPhones" may suit your fancy.


Slide Show: Smart Phone Comparisons

It's the rare gadget that dominates its category from the moment consumers get their hands on it. The iPhone is such a device, and it's still the best-designed smart phone we've seen. But even the iPhone is far from perfect. Apple's competitors have fought back with some impressive improvements, and many of their smart phones surpass the iPhone in ways that may make one a better fit for you.

But each suffers from an electronic case of the Veg-O-Matic syndrome. You remember the infomercialQthe appliance that could slice, dice, cube and make fries, just the way you like 'em. Too many features crammed into too little space sometimes meant mush for dinner. Likewise, smart phones often feel as if they're 3 ounces of electronics crammed into a 1-ounce box.

The $400 iPhone best harmonizes smart-phone components, so here are its specs for comparison: a sharp 3.5-inch touch screen, a 2-megapixel camera, a music-and-video player and, of course, a phone. Its flaws are a too-small touch-screen keyboard, subpar support for corporate e-mail systems and reliance on AT&T's old Edge network when Wi-Fi service is out of range. Are the challengers any better? In some ways, yes, although none matches the iPhone's ease of use. Here are the top contenders:

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Slide Show: Smart Phone Comparisons

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Nokia N95 -- Freedom Has Its Price
This sophisticated smart phone packs nearly every conceivable featureQphone, video player, camera, Internet and even GPS mappingQinto a device that's slightly smaller than the iPhone. Its 2.5-inch color display is bright and crisp, although it's too small for movie-watching. The numerical keypad and media-player controls cleverly slide beneath the screen.

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That said, the N95 lacks a qwerty keyboard and is lousy for e-mailing and text messaging. That's surprising, given its $700 price tag. Otherwise, nearly everything else about the N95 is top-of-the-line, including a 5-megapixel camera.

That's great stuff, but why is the price so high? The N95 isn't locked to a single carrier, so no carrier is subsidizing its price. The N95 works with AT&T and T-Mobile, although AT&T is the better choice because the Nokia uses a new and faster AT&T data network. The N95 beats the iPhone on three counts. It uses a faster broadband connection, offers GPS navigation and has a better camera. On the flip side, the iPhone comes with 8 gigabytes of flash memory; the N95 has only 1GB (you can buy a 2GB memory card for $50 more). And the N95 needs to be recharged more often than any other smart phone we tested.

AT&T Tilt -- Clever but Quirky
The Tilt, built by HTC, features a clever slide-out keyboard that's handy for people who dislike touch-screen keypads, which can be tricky to use (including the iPhone's). In fact, the Tilt's qwerty keyboard is relatively spacious, although you must still use the two-thumb, hunt-and-peck typing method. You can use a finger or stylus to activate the touch screen. We liked the 2.8-inch color display, which tilts up for better viewing, even though it's slightly smaller than the iPhone's screen.

At $400 with a two-year contract, the Tilt is chock-full of innovations the iPhone doesn't offer, including GPS navigation, a 3-megapixel camera and broadband Internet access via the latest cell-phone network.

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AT&T's Tilt doesn't match the iPhone's elegance and ease of use. The Tilt's Windows Mobile 6 software will seem familiar to PC users, but the interface is clunky at times.

HTC Touch --Attack of the Clone
At first glance, Sprint Nextel's new handset looks like an iPhone clone. Sleek and slim, the HTC Touch features a 2.8-inch color touch screen and a large navigation button flanked by two smaller onesQexactly the sort of minimalist presentation that Apple has perfected. But the HTC Touch is no iPhone.

Like AT&T's Tilt, the Touch allows both finger and stylus navigation. It also uses Windows Mobile 6, although the Touch has large icons better suited for finger navigation. Another plus: The Touch lets you watch live TV via Sprint TV. By contrast, the iPhone doesn't do live TV. The HTC Touch is reasonably priced, too: $350 with a two-year contract.

Drawbacks: The Touch's display is slightly smaller and less crisp than the iPhone's, its interface is harder to learn, and the Touch comes with a mere 512 megabytes of memory (upgradable to 4GB). The Sprint TV service has a few quirks, too. In our tests, the audio and video were sometimes out of sync.

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BlackBerry Curve 8320 -- Easy to Navigate
Business types and e-mail junkies have long loved Research In Motion's BlackBerry, which integrates nicely with corporate systems and handles heavy texting with ease. The qwerty keyboard is a bit small for large thumbs, but BlackBerry devotees seem to like it. Navigating the on-screen menus and icons is easy, thanks to the mini trackball. If e-mail's your thing, the BlackBerry beats the iPhone hands down.

The Curve 8320, which costs $450 with a two-year T-Mobile plan, is less successful as an entertainment gad-get. Its music-and-video player and 2-megapixel camera feel like afterthoughts. The keyboard and trackball controls may be great for e-mailing, but they're not so hot for launching an audio player and hopping between tracks. The 2.5-inch screen is too small for watching videos.

Like the iPhone, the Curve 8320 supports Wi-Fi and can switch to a faster wireless network when available. T-Mobile, however, has added a particularly clever twist with its optional HotSpot @Home service, which lets Curve users make calls via Wi-Fi. The benefit here is that Wi-Fi provides better coverage inside the home, and you can make unlimited national calls via broadband without using up your regular plan minutes. The bad news is that Wi-Fi call clarity depends on factors unrelated to your cell connection, including the quality of your wireless and broadband connections.

Slide Show: Smart Phone Comparisons

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