The best mobile devices for business and personal use
Products mentioned in this article
I'm confident that 2010 will go down as the year that personal and professional computing officially merged, as the iPhone finally knocked down the wall that had kept the two separate. Sure, working at home on personal computers had already put holes in the structure, but it was the iPhone that took the barrier out completely.
What is the best mobile device for the new, integrated world? There are many, many options available from Apple, Research in Motion, and Hewlett-Packard's Palm division, as well as Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 and Google's Android hardware partners. InfoWorld.com has winnowed down all of these choices to the handful that matter.
Best touchscreen smartphone: Apple iPhone 4
InfoWorld has tested the iPhone against every business-capable competitor, and no one has come close. The iPhone excels at apps of all sorts, as well as Web surfing, email and other messaging, and media presentation (music, movies, TV, books, and so on). With iOS 4, it offers business-class security and management capabilities, breaking the BlackBerry's stranglehold in this arena. Only the defunct Windows Mobile joins iOS and BlackBerry OS as business-class.
The iPhone's use of iTunes, though disliked by IT, also ensures an easily accessible backup of all apps, media, and even document files. These backups can even be encrypted to comply with government regulations on managing personal information.
The iPhone 4 is not perfect. Its weakest aspect is its phone; users regularly complain of dropped calls and poor audio. It's also tied in the United States to the worst network (AT&T's). Both weaknesses ultimately need to change, and they're barriers for many people to buying an iPhone, as is the lack of a model with a physical keyboard. But no other device comes close to the iPhone 4 when it comes to its ability to serve as a pocket computer—the "smart" in "smartphone."
Runner up: If the AT&T tie-in or phone-quality issues prevent you from going for an iPhone 4, our recommended touch-only runner-up is the HTC Droid Incredible. Note that the device runs Android OS 2.2, which means the Incredible less secure than the iPhone, and it may not be allowed onto many corporate networks—or at least not without a third-party software solution such as NitroDesk TouchDown or Good for Enterprise.
Best keyboard smartphone: RIM BlackBerry Torch
The BlackBerry has long been the de facto smartphone standard, thanks to its messaging capabilities. Many executives use the BlackBerry as their primary device for conducting business via email, but RIM's devices have not been good with apps, the Web, or media presentation. The company's first attempt, the Storm, was a poorly designed iPhone clone, and the Storm 2 was little better.
However, the BlackBerry Torch 9800 is not like a previous BlackBerry—well, it is and it isn't.
For messaging, the Torch works very much like a BlackBerry Bold—the executive's BlackBerry of choice—which makes it immediately comfortable for longtime BlackBerry users. Its slideout keyboard is essentially the same as the Bold's, so it's easy to type with.
Whereas Web browsing was the Achilles' heel of previous BlackBerrys, the Torch's new browser is thoroughly modern, displaying the Web in its full glory. And the Torch's touchscreen is both large enough and touch-responsive enough to handle the Web and iPhone-style apps well. At this point, there are few BlackBerry apps available, and many websites assume that the Torch is as Web-crippled as previous models, so they often autosubstitute a limited WAP version. As Torch adoption grows, both of these external limits should fade.
Although the Torch is tied to AT&T in the United States, that exclusivity will end soon, and you can expect models from all the major carriers this winter.
In a nutshell, the BlackBerry Torch is a good merger of the traditional BlackBerry messaging and security strengths with the modern touch, app, and Web capabilities pioneered by the iPhone.
Runner up: If the BlackBerry Torch feels too old-school for you, our runner-up for a physical-keyboard phone is the Motorola Droid 2. Note that, like the Droid Incredible, the Droid 2 runs Android OS 2.2, which means it's less secure than the iPhone and may not be allowed onto many corporate networks without third-party protection.
Best tablet: Apple iPad
A year ago, some pundits were questioning the viability of the then-unreleased iPad. But it's created a whole new market and proved to be a hit among consumers and businesses alike.
There's a reason for its success: The iPad is an amazingly good device, and one that can act as a surrogate laptop much of the time. Its large screen is quite good for desktop-like Web browsing, as well as for running productivity apps, playing movies, and working with multiple email accounts. With hardware attachments, it can act as a presentation device or pull in photos from digital cameras, for example. Additionally, it's very portable, thanks to its light weight (1.5 pounds) and long battery life (10 to 11 hours is typical).
Plus, because of the iPad's use of iOS 4 and native support for Microsoft Exchange policies, it can be securely used in most businesses.
The iPad is not perfect. Its Safari browser, for example, doesn't work well with many applications-oriented websites such as Google Docs and Microsoft SharePoint, but it is amazingly capable for a first-generation product. None of the competing Android tablets comes close to the iPad in terms of capability or performance. The closest competitor, the Samsung Galaxy Tab, is a weak imitation.
Of course, like the iPhone, 3G-capable iPad is tied to AT&T, whose network is iffy in several cities, such as New York and San Francisco. But AT&T doesn't require a long-term commitment to use its 3G data service with the iPad—you sign up for a month at a time. Apple also offers models without 3G radios (all models have Wi-Fi).
A new iPad this spring will all but certainly add front and rear cameras. It will probably be a bit thinner and perhaps faster, so you may want to wait. But today's model is a joy to use, and it's handy to boot. It's also likely to benefit from further software updates—Apple is very good about ensuring that OS updates run on at least two previous generations of its hardware.
Runner up: If for some reason the iPad doesn't appeal to you, we have no runner-up options. It's an iPad or nothing.
Expect new choices in the new year
In 2010, the Android platform took off, quickly rivaling the iPhone in popularity. RIM finally delivered its first viable iPhone competitor, but has yet to follow up with other models or bring the new BlackBerry OS to its previous hits, the Bold and Curve. I expect Android to get even more competitive in 2011—and perhaps start filling some of its business security gaps. We should also see, this spring, the first tablets running a version of Android. I also expect RIM to make a serious effort with its forthcoming PlayBook tablet and perhaps build on the Torch's momentum with smartphone upgrades.
Also in 2010, Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 crashed and burned, while Hewlett-Packard's acquisition of Palm put the struggling WebOS in deep freeze. On the tablet front, Hewlett-Packard's Windows 7-based Slate tablet proved to be more of a demonstration product than a serious product commitment. Either or both of these companies may get mobile religion in 2011—and may even deliver on it. Nokia's smartphone strategy is in disarray, and it's unlikely to be a serious option in 2011—but you can never know for certain.
You can be sure that Apple will continue to put distance between itself and its competitors with new versions of the iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch. Google's Android has the best shot at keeping up.
But that's next year. For now, if you need a mobile device, you know what to get.