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Which smartphone should I buy?

People often ask for my opinion about which smart phone is the best.  I don't know what is best for you, but I can give you this advice.

No smart phone is perfect.  The designers have to make compromises or the device would cost too much and it wouldn't sell.  Successful products that do many things really do one thing extremely well, a few things ok, and the rest just barely enough so the company doesn't get sued.  The 7-in-one printer I have at home is really just a good printer.  The scanner is pretty good but a real scanner would turn pages for me. The fax capability is minimal.  I can't remember what the other 4 functions are.  In fact, I could swear that this kind of device used to be called a 5-in-one printer but then someone started claiming that the power button is two features (can you name both?).

Generally a smart phone has some combination of these features: phone, music player, web browsing, time management (PDA) features, and some would say that the ability to run apps counts as another feature.  Some phones do one or two of those well and fake it through the rest.

If X represents the set of features that were the focus and Y is the set of features that were not the focus, you can easily summarize a product's focus by saying, "it's an X that happens to do Y".  For example, "it's a PDA that happens to make phone calls and surf the web."  If you want to imply more disdain, add "in a pinch" to the end.

Think long and hard about what you want the most.  To me the most important features are the PDA tools: todo list and calendar. To someone else it might be the ability to surf the web.

Here's my opinion of the utility of the most popular smart phones:

  • Palm Treo: A PDA that happens to make phone calls and will surf the web in a pinch. (Actually, the web browser is excellent in a few respects:  You can cache pages [important to me since I ride subways a lot] and it strips the pages down to text so they load fast.  Really fast.  www.nytimes.com doesn't look like the front page of the newspaper, but I get all my articles just fine.)
  • iPhone: An iPod music player and web browser that runs apps that happens to make phone calls and is a PDA in a pinch.  Actually it isn't a PDA at all, but the web browser lets you access on-line time management tools.  This is good if you always have connectivity, which is not true for me; thus this violates one of my fundamental principles of time management: tools must always be available and fast to access.
  • Android/T-Mobile G1: A phone that surfs the web that happens to play music. The music player is weak especially lacking in areas important to podcast listeners. The apps are getting much better over time.
  • Palm Pre: I haven't used one but it seems to be focused on web browsing and PDA features.  I'd love to get my hands on one. Sadly all I've done so far is watch someone unbox one for the first time.
In summary: Treo=PDA, iPhone=iPod/Web, Android=Phone/Web, Pre=PDA/Web.  Obviously these products are getting better in all areas with each release.

So what do I use?

Interestingly enough, I'm an example of the serendipity that only accidents can bring. I was very happy with my Palm Treo.  I wanted a PDA that happened to have other phone and web features and it was perfect (especially after enhancing the PDA functions with DateBk 6 from Pimlico Software). Then my Treo phone was damaged beyond repair and I had an opportunity to get an iPhone. How bad could the PDA features be?  Oh, they are non-existant?  Ugh.  I started muddling through using web-based todo systems like Google Tasks. What I discovered, however, was that the one feature I didn't plan on using became my favorite feature: the music/video player!  I have a large music collection but I never have time to listen to it. There are many podcasts I'd like to listen to but I never have time to hear them. I didn't expect to use the iPod features of my iPhone but now I listen to about 20 hours of podcasts and music each week.  I'm listening to music that I've owned for more than a decade that I've hadn't heard in years. I'm getting a huge education through TED.com videos and keeping up with the world through NPR and IT Conversations Network podcasts.

So much for following my own advice!

Posted by Tom Limoncelli in Time Management

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10 Comments | Leave a comment

I felt the need to correct you. The iPhone is a PDA. It syncs quite nicely with iCal and Address Book on a Mac, so all my appointments and contact info is with me all the time. It also has GTD apps like 'Things' which help me parse through my huge to-do lists. I've been using the iPhone since the day it was released in 2007 and I would never go back. My friends who have various other 'smart' phones never have the seamless syncing capabilities as I do. Just my .02 cents Buy whatever phone you want, the economy needs people to waste their money. :)

I've actually found my iPhone to be a very good PDA.


My TODO system of choice is OmniFocus (a Mac only app from The OmniGroup, which has an iPhone version too). I sync my TODO list to my colo server over webdav, so that the same TODO list is available on my laptop, desktop and iPhone. The sync happens every 60 min or when manually invoked, so I can work offline quite happily on my iPhone. The iPhone client even has a few extra features such as GPS location awareness, so I can see tasks on my list relative to my location.


For email I use Gmail, so between the native iPhone IMAP client and the Gmail iPhone interface, I can do nearly everything I can do with the full Gmail UI.


For calendar, I use GCal via the iPhone web interface and it's getting better and better over time. I would like to be able to use it in the iPhone Cal app, but it's not a high priority.

Yeah. Not a single word about Nokia, world's biggest smartphone manufacturer. They sell more than Apple, RIM, etc combined and Symbian is most used OS in phones. For example my E90, which has nice qwerty keyboard, 3G+wifi+GPS+etc and 800 x 352 resolution display. Best phone there is to control servers with ssh or RDP.

Great blog though, i really enjoy reading it, even it is sometimes pretty "yankee".

Good point about Nokia. I don't have experience with it but I always hear good things.

As far as the iPhone comments... I stand by my comments as far as iPhone out of the box. Yes, the apps you mentioned do improve things. I should try Things and OmniFocus. Google Calendar sync has gotten much better lately. Sounds like a good mini-project for me would be to try them all.

I've been wanting an iPhone for a while. I finally justified it to myself a few months ago, but wanted to wait for the next hardware rev, and I plan to pick one up when the new one is available.

Since I do most of my PIM stuff on Google tools, the Google Sync app looks like it'll take care of me pretty well. I'll probably end up redefining my GTD method to make use of some iPhone app or other, but my current process of simplegtd.com plus printouts to notecards will last me as long as it needs to.

I also look forward to consolidating the phone & iPod nano I carry around everywhere; I too listen to a bunch of podcasts & music.

A nice little app on the iPhone for todo lists is, well... "Todo". It syncs with "Toodledoo" or "Remember the Milk" in case your iPhone ever ends up lost or broken.

It has a few GTD things like Contexts and Focus.

On the iPhone, there's also iMinder, which syncs with hiveminder.com. (I've been using hiveminder for a while and like it; I just got an iphone and haven't really started using iMinder for real yet). Both are free, though hiveminder has a paid version.

Definitely key to have the PDA kinds of apps on an iPhone be based on synchronization so that they work off-line.

I have been a Palm Treo user since the 600. I moved from it to the 650 and then the 680. I did EVERYTHING on that phone and dared people to offer something their phone did better (OK, except for wifi). I read several complete books on that little screen, ran bluetooth hacking tools (with varying degrees of success), played several games (old school games like Dope Wars!), etc. I felt like I ruled the world with that phone.

Then I got an iPhone and everything changed. The keyboard is awesome and I can type faster on it than I ever could on the Treo. The graphics are clean and crisp and web pages in Safari compared to Blazer / Mini Opera are insanely better. The way it seamlessly interacts with the Internet is just crazy smooth. You can update your GTD app, notes, etc on your phone and have them sync on the web for access from a PC (over either 3G or wifi).

There are also apps like Instapaper, available from both the phone and your PC's browser, that let you save webpages for offline reading (something I hear is coming out for Safari in the 3.0 release).

I also read a lot of books and like having access to those books with me (mostly fictional stuff) and the iPhone displays text-based PDFs flawlessly. I use Stanza to sync my PDFs from my PC to my phone. The desktop and iPhone app are both free which is a huge plus to me. Stanza doesn't handle graphics-based PDFs (like InSecure) but you can email them to yourself and open them from there. I haven't thought to test this until now so I can't comment on it.

Also, the iPhone app store is incredible. My son and I were at some restaurant one night and were bored waiting for everyone else to finish so I pulled my phone out and downloaded tic-tac-toe. The app store is going to ruin me. It's like moving to Debian from Slackware ... the repositories are sooo nice. :)

Also, and I realize a lot of phones offer GPS now, but being in a new place (with kids) and needing to find the nearest McDonald's is very easy with Google Maps. Turn-by-turn directions would be nice and I hear that's possible in 3.0 but I'm sure the apps for it will not be cheap.

BTW, after reading your Time Management book I forced my manager to order one for the entire department (about 6 of us)! That book changed the way I tackle my ever-growing pile of things to do. Thank you.

I had a palm T3 until its battery went down and I cannot find a replacement for it in Argentina.
Anyway... bought an Iphone 3g. Very nice indeed. But cannot do everything with it as I did with the T3.

I used Agendus Pro (from iambic) on my T3 a lot. I loved the way you can move task, znooze the alarms, reset/edit/change settings in a task,etc.

And found very dissapointing the lack for alarm control from third party apps on the Iphone.
Now they say with the update to 3.0 you'll get push notifications replacing the lack of alarms. I don't find it a nice replacement. What if I don't have signal on my phone? no alarm at all?

Now I'm using SmartTime+ from LeftCoast Logic for organizing tasks.It's the only one with task duration that I found.

But REALLY missing the alarms.

For sync, Nokia is the best. Need connectivity for once in a day - why do we need sync in every 1 minute (the phone is always with us and if we need to set a new reminder, just input it directly to the mobile - it will remind us). My to-do list, calender entries, address all in one place (Yahoo). That means, I use yahoo - not a separate program. Besides, it will sync all multi media items and photos from my laptop. I can update through my mobile phone, or through my laptop outlook or directly through my yahoo. I am using Nokia N97. That phone is weaker in some areas; but it will cover all applications (All (I mean all including iphone) other mobile phones have) GPS-free offline Maps, Music, Web surfing, multi-tasking, photos , 32 GB storage, wi-fi and much more. There is no need to purchase a dataplan. I can connect through any wi-fi (wireless router as well as Mc Donald etc.). This may be the cheapest way. We only pay $60 for two phones. When we are in India (phone is unlocked), we will buy data plans (very cheaper there). Nobody knows Nokia well in America. That is why nokia has no popularity. I know the phones are costly (because no carriers offer a good phone like N97 mini, N900 etc. in a reduced rates). Nokia is meant for the middle class which are not interested to take a costly data plans; but interested to use smartphone features. That's why all carriers (At&t and T-mobile) ignoring Nokia.

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