Tech Talk with David Pogue

New Smartphones From Motorola, HTC and BlackBerry


Ever notice how many bits of common wisdom actually contradict each other? I mean, haste makes waste — yet the early bird gets the worm. There are no second acts in American lives — but if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

The “try, try again” part is definitely what the Motorola , HTC and BlackBerry people are up to. One year ago — one year into the iPhone era — each of these three companies stumbled publicly. The BlackBerry Storm, the first touch-screen phone from Research in Motion , was a buggy, sluggish, counterintuitive mess. The T-Mobile G1, made by HTC, was the first phone that ran Google’s new Android operating system, but the phone itself was chunky and clunky. And Motorola, well, it’s been looking for a hit ever since the Razr phone.

Motorola CLIQ Phone

All three are back with much more impressive, much more refined new phones. None is as thin, attractive or flexible as the iPhone, but hey — maybe you don’t want an iPhone. Maybe there’s no AT&T coverage where you live, or you want a swappable battery, or you just hate the thought of running with the hypey herd. In that case, a new BlackBerry Storm 2, HTC Hero or Motorola Cliq might be a perfectly O.K. alternative.

All have cameras, video recording, GPS, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, five or six hours of talk time and standard headphone jacks. But that doesn’t mean they’re all the same. Here’s how they shake out.

BlackBerry Storm 2

Brothers and sisters, if there was one thing last year’s Storm made clear, it’s this: you don’t rush a product to market just because it’s the holiday season. That’s what R.I.M. did last year, and the Storm was a mess. You’d tap one menu item, and a different one would highlight. You’d flick a list of phone numbers, and it’d stop scrolling the instant your finger stopped (i.e., no momentum). You’d turn the phone 90 degrees, and wait till your next birthday for the image to rotate.

The Storm 2 fixes all of that ($180 from Verizon, with contract, after rebate). Bugs are out, list momentum is in, screen rotation is instantaneous.

The original Storm’s big gimmick was that the entire screen was clickable, like a mouse button — but it wound up requiring too much effort to press the on-screen keys, like a manual typewriter. The Storm 2’s redesigned clickable screen requires far less effort and no longer leaves alarming gaps around its edges; magically enough, it also loses its clickiness when you’re on a call or the phone is off.

The Storm 2 can now exploit the speed of Wi-Fi wireless Internet hot spots, and boasts an impeccable checklist of goodies: autofocus camera, voice dialing, memory-card slot (a 16-gigabyte card is included) and so on. It even works overseas (for added cost, of course), thanks to a slot for a GSM account card (the network type most countries use).

I still don’t get the point of the clicky screen, though. It still has dual feedback mechanisms — colored highlighting on the screen means one thing, a click means something else — that often clash. For example, every time you swipe to scroll a list, your finger highlights the list item it first touched, alarmingly.

Typing is faster on this screen, because you don’t have to fully lift Finger A before pushing down with Finger B (using the Shift key is especially improved for this reason). But it’s still not a true multitouch-screen, and using the Web browser is still slow and fumbly. Isn’t the Web browser the primary point of an all-screen phone? Otherwise, why not get a regular BlackBerry?

The Storm 2 will make many more people happy than the original Storm, but try it in a Verizon store before you buy; the clicky-screen bit isn’t for everyone.

Motorola Cliq

Social networkers, you may have just found your phone.

Motorola’s big-deal new phone ($200 from T-Mobile with contract) is the only one here with a slide-out keyboard. But atop Google’s Android phone software, Motorola has built an ingenious, if initially overwhelming, archipelago of social-networking “widgets” (little floating windows). Each reports the latest from Twitter, Facebook and MySpace, with incoming text messages and e-mail notes — all on the Home screen. In one place, you get a complete picture of your online social network and can post your own updates, too.

Similarly, the address book fills itself with information and headshots from those online worlds, and the awesomely powerful History tab shows you a complete list of recent communications with each person: text messages, calls, e-mail and so on. (It’s therefore simple to contact that person using any of these channels.)

And when someone calls — your brother, say — you see not only his photo, but also his latest status broadcasts from Twitter and Facebook. At the least, this display provides a built-in conversation starter; at best, you have advance warning about your caller’s mood.

Breaking away from the iPhone model

There’s good news if you lose your phone, too. Motorola lets you locate the phone on a Web-based map, and even erase its memory by remote control — just like the iPhone, but without the requirement for a $100-a-year MobileMe membership.

If you’re not that into online networking, the Cliq is a wasted opportunity. The slider keyboard makes the whole thing bulky, and the two halves feel as if they don’t fit especially well together. The keyboard is plenty big, but something about the domed square keys makes it harder to type on than it should be.

And then, of course, there’s the reliance on the T-Mobile network, whose tiny call coverage area and even tinier 3G (high-speed) Internet coverage area are recipes for disappointment.

HTC Hero

If R.I.M. got sick of hearing how buggy the first Storm was, then HTC must have gotten sick of hearing how homely and bulky its first Google Android phone was (the T-Mobile G1). The HTC Hero ($180 from Sprint with contract) is thin, sleek and a pleasure to hold. At 4.5 by 2.2 by 0.5 inches, it’s far narrower than the Storm 2 and far thinner than the Motorola Cliq.

The sharp, bright multitouch-screen lets you perform all the usual iPhone gestures for zooming in, panning and zooming out. Navigation is simple, and dedicated Home, Back and Menu buttons are always there to guide you. There’s even a big, illuminated, clickable trackball that lets you drive the whole thing with one hand.

The on-screen keyboard, with pop-up autocomplete suggestions, is as good as on-screen keyboards get. And while the Android store offers only a fraction as many apps as the iPhone store, there are still 10,000 apps to choose from. (They work on the Motorola Cliq, too.)

If Sprint has decent coverage where you live, and if you don’t need physical keys, you may really love this phone. It has a 5-megapixel camera with autofocus and video recording, memory-card jack, Wi-Fi, GPS, Bluetooth, Twitter and Facebook apps, visual voice mail — and Sprint adds free TV and turn-by-turn navigation. The Hero may also be the first smartphone to play Flash videos on the Web.

So there you have it: three phones, three companies, back with a vengeance and a lot more polish than before. None is the iPhone, so you’re missing out on the universe of chargers, cases and accessories, not to mention the convenience of the iTunes music/TV/movie store and the vastness of the App Store.

On the other hand, the iPhone isn’t the only yardstick of success. These phones are growing out of its shadow and learning to cultivate their own personalities. After all, they may say that everybody loves a winner. But they also say, “This above all: to thine own self be true.”

David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: