The devices: Powerful and light, or small and cheap?

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The long-awaited multi-purpose devices that can play music and video, contain navigation devices and cameras and even act almost as laptops are here at last.

But the superficially similar specifications of touchscreen smartphones, with access to 3G mobile broadband and GPS location functions – notably Apple’s iPhone, the BlackBerry Storm and Google’s G1 – mask very different approaches to convergence.

Touch isn’t everything. RIM, maker of the BlackBerry, opted for an innovative touchscreen that presses in and “clicks” like a button for its Storm; this can work well but some users find it off-putting.

Google sacrificed slenderness (and some battery life) for the practicality of a physical slide-out Qwerty keyboard, in additon to a touchscreen on the G1, the first phone to use its Android mobile operating system.

Nokia is doing the same on its first touchscreen phone, the upcoming N97. The Palm Pre will have both touchscreen and keyboard, as do several Windows Mobile handsets such as the Sony Ericsson Xperia. Indeed, Windows Mobile devices such as HTC’s Touch HD, have had touchscreens, 3G connections and GPS for years without generating the same excitement.

“It isn’t the hardware, the software or the internet,” claims independent analyst Mark Anderson, “it’s the customer experience.”

Windows Mobile has always allowed users to install applications, but the mix of third-party stores and operator sites that Microsoft sees as “flexible” confuses everyone but enthusiasts.

By controlling what can run on the iPhone and providing one place to find new “apps” from either phone or desktop, Apple made installing them far simpler.

RIM is launching Storefront in March which will enable users to buy approved apps using the PayPal payment system. Android’s Market is more open – users can find, install and manage applications from the phone but developers are free to create and upload what they want.

Take ShopSavvy, a popular Android application that can scan a barcode in a store using the device’s camera and uses the mobile cell or the G1’s GPS location system to work out whether the item can be bought more cheaply in another nearby store or online.

The iPhone has the same hardware, but the iPhone version of ShopSavvy has not yet been approved. Similar, though less slick, applications have been available for Windows Mobile for some time, but most users have not known about them.

There are multiple applications for voice over the internet (VoIP) for Windows Mobile and Android, but only Truphone is approved for the iPhone.

And although users can use the iPhone GPS with Google Maps, there is no turn-by-turn navigation software, which gives directions, for the iPhone.

Garmin and Telmap both offer turn-by-turn navigation with spoken directions for BlackBerry. Windows Mobile users can get the excellent CoPilot software, with traffic warnings (and developer ALK is considering a version for the G1); only high-end personal navigation devices such as the TomTom Go have more features.

There are differences in core functionality, too: only the iPhone lacks copy and paste. The BlackBerry Storm can access e-mail from multiple e-mail accounts.

The G1 is technically the most limited, supporting only a single Gmail account, but this will be enough for many users; the iPhone supports multiple e-mail accounts, but only Yahoo, Mobile Me and Exchange users get push e-mail (an always-on service).

Windows Mobile also allows multiple accounts and supports push e-mail with Hotmail and Exchange.

The iPhone transformed browsing on a phone; the G1 browser is based on the same technology as the iPhone, and the Storm has broadly similar capabilities.

Windows Mobile phones will continue to lag until Microsoft delivers a better version of Mobile Internet Explorer but even on the most capable handsets the mobile web experience is compromised. Not only do Flash and Silverlight [that enable video applications] not work in phone browsers, but even the most intuitive zoom controls don’t disguise the fact that you’re looking at pages designed for a much bigger screen.

The popularity of cheaper mini-notebooks has risen alongside use of mobile broadband, although Microsoft’s Steven Sinofsky claims only 1.5 per cent are bought simply to browse the web.

Small compared to mainstream notebooks, the screen and keyboard are much larger than any smartphone and they have a fully capable browser, no-compromise e-mail and media player software that plays any music and video file format.

Most models are variations on a standard specification, with a low-power Intel Atom processor, 1GB of memory and screen sizes between 8.9 inches and 10.2 – but some stand out. Toshiba’s NB100 is one of the lightest 8.9-inch models and while performance and battery life are good but not exceptional, the compact keyboard has a full set of keys and the screen is higher quality than many.

For a mini-notebook with built-in 3G, the Dell Mini 9 from Vodafone combines acceptable performance and battery life with the best keyboard at this size, and on most contracts it is free.

For those not wanting to pay data contracts for both phone and notebook, i-mate has just announced a Windows Mobile touchscreen phone that slots into a laptop-like docking station with a 10.5-inch screen, full keyboard and more than 50 hours of battery life, giving a phone and a netbook for less than $200. Although the phone only runs Windows Mobile applications, i-mate plans to include a browser powerful enough to run web applications and software for a remote PC connection.

The 10-inch Samsung NC10 has exceptional battery life for such a small machine (well over six hours), while the fast hard drive in the Lenovo S10 gives superior performance.

HP’s new Mini 2140 keeps the superb keyboard of the earlier model, stretching the entire width of the machine; it’s the only mini-notebook that feels like typing on a real notebook.

Dell plans a 10-inch Mini this year, with a multi-touch trackpad and a higher resolution screen than competitors.

Sony already has a far higher resolution on the 8-inch screen of its ultra-small Vaio P Series.

This has a serious specification, with a fast Wi-Fi wireless connection, Bluetooth, built-in 3G and GPS (rare in netbooks because of the impact on battery life), but also a $900 price tag.

A cheaper ultra-slim option is the stylish Asus S101, which includes a faster than usual solid-state drive to improve performance.

We can expect many similar systems as PC vendors test whether buyers want something light and powerful more than something small and cheap.

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