Smart phones

The iPhone 4 and other versatile phones are among 40 tested models

Last reviewed: September 2010
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Assorted smart phones
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Almost all smart phones now have a touch screen, sometimes accompanied by a physical keyboard.

It's arguably the best time ever to shop for a smart phone, whether you're buying a sophisticated cell phone for the first time or upgrading from an older model. Apple's newest entry, the fourth-generation iPhone 4, is the highest-scoring smart phone we've ever tested, though at press time consumers complained about spotty phone reception—a problem we confirmed in our labs. Until Apple fixes this design defect, we can't recommend the iPhone 4.

The iPhone is increasingly under challenge from an army of similarly versatile, high-scoring phones such as the HTC Evo 4G and various Droid models, including the new Motorola Droid X. BlackBerry and others still offer fine, work-focused phones, and Palm phones offer welcome compact smart-phone choices.

We tested 40 models for this issue, which includes our largest smart-phone Ratings (available to subscribers). All but a handful of the phones offer a touch screen, driven by consumer-friendly and computerlike operating systems, along with access to multiple e-mail accounts and a slew of downloadable applications.

The hottest phones usually include new features, such as a second, front-facing camera for two-way video chats (the iPhone 4 and Evo 4G) and the ability to act as a portable Wi-Fi hotspot for multiple devices (the Droid X, Evo 4G, Google Nexus One, and Verizon's Palm Pre and Pixi Plus).

Here's what to expect when shopping for a smart phone:

A big, sharp display

A 3-inch or larger touch screen is all but standard. Some phones, including the Droid X, Evo 4G, and HTC HD2, even hit 4.3 inches, a screen size that for all its pluses does fill more of a pocket. With screens also getting sharper, images are more pleasing and you need to do less zooming and squinting to read text easily. And many touch screens now have multitouch display, which allows photos, Web pages, or documents to be magnified by pinching your fingers out.

A decent camera

Resolution of at least 3 megapixels is now the norm for smart phones, with many models offering 5 MP and a few boasting 8 MP. That's sufficient resolution for most shots you'll take with a phone and should yield good or very good prints. A majority of rated models have a flash, and some have more advanced features, such as manual ISO settings and face detection. Video capability is now standard. Some phones can even shoot high-def (720p) video. Among such phones we tested (the iPhone 4, Evo 4G, Microsoft Kin Two, and Droid X), the iPhone 4 yielded the best HD video, though all rivaled the quality of a pocket camcorder's output. With the Evo 4G and Droid X, you can also pipe video and photos to a TV set via HDMI cable.

Easy social networking

Some phones, including Palms and those running Android, now integrate many particulars for a contact, such as e-mail address, cell number, and Facebook page, in a single entry. Many of those phones also allow you to post photos and videos directly to your Facebook page or Twitter account.