How to choose the right mobile device

When you assess your needs first, picking the right smart phone will be a cinch.

It seems as though technology is evolving so quickly that by the time you think you've got the latest trend figured out, the world has already moved on. But after reviewing thousands of products in the GCN Lab, I can tell you some good news: Technology keeps advancing for a reason. If you're careful in choosing the right gadget, it can become an invaluable tool that works as hard as you do. Choose unwisely, and at best, you'll waste your money. At worst, you'll also squander your time.

Choosing the correct smart phone is more like hiring a personal assistant than deciding which TV to buy. Whereas almost all TVs do the same basic thing with only size, resolution and features separating them, personal assistants can do almost anything if they have the correct skills. It's the same with smart phones. To pick the best one, you first have to know what you need and what you want.

Smart phones aren't called that for nothing. Many are so advanced and powerful that they're practically network clients, with all the advantages and drawbacks that entails. Getting one that's too advanced or has lots of features you won't ever use is unhelpful, and it could unnecessarily expose you to security or compatibility problems.

So ask yourself what you would do — or could do — with a smart phone. Would you only check your work e-mail, which can be automatically forwarded, or pushed, to the phone? Would you ever need to check a Web site while on the road, and if so, can you get by accessing the Internet only from the limited range of a wireless hot spot, or do you need to tap into a cellular network so you can access the Web almost anywhere? Do you need to view customized applications on a mobile device? Would you consider a rugged smart phone if it was not much more expensive than a normal one and had all the features you wanted?

After you've decided what you need, the right gadget will practically come to you. To help you see how this can work, we've provided some examples of common situations and a good choice for each.

Plain Jane

Albert Einstein, one of our heroes at the lab, once said everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler. In many ways, the Research in Motion BlackBerry Tour is a perfect example of that theory.

Feds know that push e-mail and security are the main strengths of the BlackBerry platform. Even President Barack Obama carries a specially modified unit. Any BlackBerry device can integrate a lot of Microsoft Outlook features, such as your contacts, so that being away from your desktop PC doesn't have to mean being away from your familiar e-mail program. And government administrators can easily incorporate a BlackBerry into almost any network. Of course, it can also act as a phone on almost any cellular network.

The Tour makes basic features easy to use. It functions well as an e-mail device but also has some nice extras that might come in handy. It even has a full 35-key backlit keyboard. You can surf the Web using a little trackball that functions like a mouse but stays out of the way. You might not need to go online, but it's nice to know you can if you want without taxing the device.

The Tour can be had for as little as $149, with a service contract that's good on several networks. It comes with a camera as a standard feature, but a special government model for the same price eliminates that possible security sticking point.

The Full Monty

At the other end of the mobile device spectrum from the Plain Jane Tour is the Samsung Q1U-XP. This tablet computer runs a full version of Microsoft Windows XP, but the device weighs only 1.52 pounds and is a svelte 0.93 inches thick, 8.96 inches wide and 4.88 inches high.

Forget about using just a subset of Outlook features on the Q1U — install the full program instead. In fact, almost anything that can run on Windows XP will work on the Q1U, with the only drawback being that tasks will take longer to execute because the device has less processing power than your government-issued desktop PC. The Q1U has a full QWERTY keyboard that's split into halves, so you can thumb-type when holding it.

Of course, when you mention a tablet computer, it's hard not to think of Apple's new iPad. However, many government folks will find the Q1U's Windows support more helpful for running the office programs they typically use than the iPad's operating system.

In addition, the Q1U's built-in Web camera makes it perfect for videoconferencing. A second, rear-facing camera takes video and still images, so you can use it like a standard digital camera. And it can attach to a cellular network for connectivity almost anywhere. Although it might be a little bigger than a smart phone and more expensive at $899, it offers sharper video than the grainy images we see from most mobile devices.

The Mothership

If you want to jump in with both feet and have full mobile smart-phone capabilities that rival those of laptop computers, the Motorola Droid is a good way to go. Some fans will question why I'm recommending the Droid over the Apple iPhone, and the answer is that I'm talking about government use. I love my iPhone, but even with Version 3.1x of the operating software filling in a lot of lingering security holes, the iPhone still has problems with application management, which is the ability to send software updates to the phone and make sure new applications are installed in accordance with relevant government security policies.

The Droid also is a bit easier to handle, and I know several feds who now carry one. Its push technology is similar to that of BlackBerrys, so you can access your e-mail securely and administrators can ensure that installed applications comply with agency policy. An administrator could lock down the Droid pretty well if he or she takes the time to learn how to do it.

The Droid's innovative design features a 3.7-inch, 480 x 854 LCD screen that can display 16 million colors, easily beating most smart phones. The screen slides up to reveal a full QWERTY keyboard and a little square touchpad that acts like a flat joystick.

In terms of applications, you can easily put all your Microsoft Exchange into the Droid, and you can also access Outlook or Gmail accounts with ease. Google Calendar and Corporate Calendar are included to keep your schedule intact. And because the Android operating system, which Google owns, is open source, thousands of other applications are available, including many made by the Army Go Mobile program.

The one sticky wicket for some feds is the inclusion of a 5-megapixel camera. The camera has a powerful dual LED flash and automatic image stabilization for shooting video. However, if your agency forbids cameras, you're out of luck.

Prices vary, but you should be able to get a Droid for $200 to $300 after you factor in contract signing bonuses and rebates.

A Real Road Warrior

What good is a smart phone if it ends up shattered in a million pieces at your feet or overheats when left in your vehicle?

When your smart phone must perform under extreme conditions, the Motorola Adventure V750 is a good choice. Compared to the functional-but-clunky G'zOne Boulder from Casio, the Adventure is so streamlined that you probably won't believe it meets the military's 810G specifications for shock, dust, vibration, solar radiation, temperature and altitude.

In the lab, we subjected it to our rainforest environment — 120 degrees and close to 100 percent humidity — for more than three hours, and it continued to accept calls the entire time. When we dropped it onto each of its surfaces from a height of 4 feet so that it landed on plywood sitting on top of concrete, the Adventure bounced without even dropping the call.

The Adventure has some multimedia features, and you can download a variety of applications from Verizon. The device is exclusive to Verizon, which we found to be a robust nationwide network in roundup reviews. If you don't want to use Verizon, you'll have to find another phone. Also, the Adventure can't withstand water intrusion, so if you want to go scuba diving with your phone, you'll have to get a G'zOne instead.

But in most above-water environments, the Adventure will survive where almost every other phone fears to tread. Where else can you buy peace of mind like that for $130?

Heavy Lifter

If your agency has customized smartphone applications, you probably don't want to spend all day gazing at them on a tiny screen. The Redfly Mobile Companion C8N can bridge the gap between a full laptop computer and a smart phone by taking whatever is on your smart-phone screen and displaying it on a bright, readable 8-inch screen.

The Redfly looks like a tiny 2-pound notebook, but it has no native intelligence of its own. Once you establish a connection — preferably using a USB cable, though Bluetooth wireless also works — you can see anything that is displayed on your smart phone. You can use applications such as Microsoft Word with a regular keyboard, and Web pages look the way they should because the Redfly is optimized for the Opera browser. And given that there are tons of desktop apps available for mobile devices, you can easily turn your phone into a laptop PC.

Here's the best part: The Redfly is completely secure, which is why the Army's Go Mobile program uses it. If someone steals your Redfly, they won't get any of your data. Remember, it's just a dummy terminal that is useless without the accompanying cell phone. In that situation, you can simply buy a new Redfly for $282 from the General Services Administration schedule and continue your work as if nothing happened — and you won't make the news for losing important data.

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