Her search is on for a smarter phone

Image: BlackBerry Pearl 8120
The BlackBerry Pearl 8120 is one of two leading candidates for columnist Athima Chansanchai, who is looking to get a new smartphone. Her other contender is Palm's Centro.Research In Motion

So, there's a new iPhone, something’s that inducing just a wee bit of salivating by me.

Many of us have fallen in lust with this compact and cool device that makes Web surfing easy, viewing and sending pictures seamless and appeals to those already indoctrinated by the iPod.

“The iPhone has been enormously influential. It has a delightful user interface and its secret weapon — seamless iTunes integration — is something that most of its handset competitors have overlooked,” said Avi Greengart, research director of mobile devices for Current Analysis.

But I’m still holding back getting one because I’m locked into a contract with my current service provider, which is not AT&T, the exclusive carrier of the iPhone in the United States.

So, I need to make do. I suppose in a way, I am looking for an iPhone killer, or a phone that won’t make me feel so bad that I don’t have one.

I continue to conduct auditions for a smarter phone, or at least a phone that can satisfy several needs: reliable Web surfing, a camera, video recorder, voice recorder, easy texting and e-mail, and an efficient calendar system, GPS and instant messaging.

It also needs to be durable, small and its keyboard should be something I don’t fumble around on, which means the keys have got to feel comfortable to my fingers, whether it’s on a touchscreen or an actual keyboard.

In my latest batch of tryouts, two candidates emerged as the most likely keepers: the BlackBerry Pearl 8120 and the Palm Centro. I also looked at some Samsung options.

The Pearl is an updated version of the first BlackBerry I had, the 7105t.

"I think the BlackBerry Pearl hits a real interesting sweet spot in terms of functionality and design,” said Mark Guibert, vice president of corporate marketing for Research In Motion, which makes the BlackBerry.

“A lot of people prefer to stick with the smaller design of a traditional cell phone, and the Pearl gives them that small size and a fashionable design, but it's also packed with advanced communications features and other consumer-friendly features like a camera, MP3 player, video player and memory card slot. Plus you get an organizer, Web browsing and multimedia.”

The BlackBerry 7105t, with a 2.1-inch diagonal screen, allowed me to get comfortable with the QWERTY keyboard. I confess when I tried out the BlackBerry Curve, I loved the full keyboard and the bigger, 2.5-inch diagonal screen.

Using the Pearl, however, did not slow me down. Its intuitive SureType keyboard sped texting and e-mailing along, even if there were a couple stumbles along the way. It picked up new words (like my very long name) fast. Unlike the Curve, I was able to get online consistently with the Pearl, which also felt more streamlined, not just physically, but in being able to pack a lot in a little package.

Centro like a homecoming
The fun-sized Palm Centro felt like a kind of homecoming because at one time, I was a Palm PDA girl. I would get my mother’s hand-me-downs and use them to organize my increasingly chaotic life.

The Centro’s small, full keyboard is deceptively easy to use (I was skeptical, at first), and I loved its fully loaded applications, including instant messaging, GPS, pleasing contact displays and being able to download documents into a user-friendly format. 

The Palm Centro, carried by AT&T and Sprint Nextel, has a touchscreen and keyboard, and is based on the user-friendly Palm operating system.

“With the Centro we had a few things in mind — making it phone size and able to move seamlessly from day to night in your pocket or purse,” said Rob Katcher, Palm’s senior product manager for smartphones.

“Secondly, we wanted to make (it) affordable at $99, and at the same time wanted to maintain signature elements of Palm — the familiar keyboard as well as Palm software.”

The one complaint I have with most of these phones: a less-than-satisfying Web surfing experience. I’d like to be able to use my phone instead of a laptop to do so.

“There are always trade offs,” said Katcher. “Our users tend to do quick Web hits — find a movie time, read a review of a restaurant on Yelp, or pop open a map on Google Maps. These things are very easy to do. You can drag things around with the touch screen and there’s a fast Internet connection.

"Certainly you can do more. If you’re doing heavy browsing, you’re going to want to want to tend to want a device with a large screen. The Centro is really optimized to be a messaging device. You trade off a little bit of screen real estate, but we think it’s worth it.”

Samsung’s BlackJack II was another device that I thought was acceptable, but I didn’t love. It’s slim – less than a half-inch thick — has a full keyboard (but the way the keys are spaced, it’s awkward), and a big, 2.4-inch screen display. But I wasn’t crazy about the navigation and soft keys. It didn’t work as smoothly as the Centro or Pearl in that regard, and in fact, slowed me down.

Samsung’s SCH-i760 did not make my cut. The SCH-i760 is a relative brick to me, 5.29 ounces and about three-quarters of an inch thick. It would be impractical for me to lug that around, especially during summer when jackets — and jacket pockets in which to carry phones — aren’t really an option.

I did not test out some of the obvious iPhone lookalikes, although I did play a little with the LG Voyager. I still found it awkward to go between the full pull-out keyboard and the touchscreen. The all-in-one aspect of Apple's device is what makes it so darn appealing.

Her journey continues
Maybe trying to find a substitute for the iPhone isn’t the way to go.

“Finding a phone that can go head to head with the iPhone; there isn’t any,” said analyst Greengart. “There is no phone other than the iPhone with Apple’s logo on it, that syncs with iTunes, and that has the iPhone’s simple, responsive, and fun user interface.”

But, Greengart said, there are other options that are less expensive, that do what some people want phones to do, simply – make calls. You can even get some for free. Then there are touchscreen phone, he said like HTC’s Touch and upcoming Touch Diamond, that have gesture-based controls. Other phones are more entertainment-oriented, including a pair of touchscreen phones from LG that have mobile TV (the Voyager at Verizon Wireless and Vu at AT&T).

“There are phones from Nokia that play music with gigabytes of on-board storage, have full GPS navigation capabilities, take higher resolution pictures — with a flash for taking pictures indoors — and use the same Web browser as the iPhone,” he said.

Good advice. This is like looking for love, still searching, still dating, still trying out until I find the one that fits. The journey continues.