Smartphones are one of the world’s newest inventions, yet billions of people now own one. Latest estimates are that 1 in 5 people around the world now own a smartphone and over a billion were sold in 2013. However they are not quite as popular as you might think – yet!
In 2012 up to 60% of all phones sold were NOT smartphones and although it seems as if “everybody has an iPhone”, less than 8% of those who own a mobile phone actually own an iPhone – and that percentage is falling!
However, in 2013 smartphones actually outsold feature phones for the first time, and feature phones are mostly distributed in larger numbers to smartphones in emerging markets. (Data kindly provided by mobiThinking ©)
So what is a smartphone?
Many of you will not have owned one of these mobile phone handsets yet. You may be buying your first mobile phone, or it may be the first time you have considered purchasing a smartphone. You can make calls and send text messages with them of course as with any mobile phone. But you can do so much more too.
It is probably easiest to describe them as a mini computer, which is effectively what they are, on which you can install programs or applications known as “Apps”. In addition, just about every smartphone includes a camera, music player and video playback and recording as well as the ability to access the internet from which you can watch movies, play computer games and send and receive email.
These apps are displayed on the screen as small symbols, called icons, similar to those in the picture. An app can be anything from an online banking portal, a computer game, electronic book reader, barcode scanner, photo album organiser, video player or even an electronic drum kit!
All have a touchscreen which vary in size from the smallest which are now usually at least 3.5 inches, to the largest which now reach over six inches. Screens are measured in the diagonal, much like televisions, so you would measure from the top left to the bottom right corner.
Most smartphones now include Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS for satellite navigation while the more expensive ones include DLNA, NFC and features such as Wireless Charging. We will discuss these terms in more detail later on and most can be found in our Glossary of Terms.
There are four types of smartphone, generally named after their operating system. All are effectively variations of the same thing and generally perform the same tasks.
Operating systems – Android
Invented by Google, smartphones with the Android operating system – Android smartphones – are now the most popular type, with Samsung being the largest manufacturer with the widest range available in the UK. A wide range of manufacturers now produce Android smartphones, including Sony, HTC, Huawei, Alcatel, LG and Motorola.
Nokia, whose smartphones to date have used the Windows operating system, now produce a range of Android phones known as the Nokia X series. Basic android smartphones can now been purchased very cheaply, often with very good specifications.
The now-ailing Canadian company was formed from it’s founder company Research In Motion (RIM) and most of their smartphones, originally aimed mainly at business users, usually feature a physical QWERTY keyboard beneath a landscape screen.
Higher priced model BlackBerrys have touchscreens while more recently full screen smartphones such as the Z10 have been introduced in a bid to revive the struggling company’s fortunes as they seek a buyer. BlackBerry’s major selling point is that they have always made high quality handsets.
The ubiquitous iPhone was the first ever smartphone and has been around since 2007, with an updated version being released approximately once every year. 2013 saw the first year that two different versions were produced, the iPhone 5c and the iPhone 5s. The design has changed very little over the years although the screen size, quality and features has been improved each time.
It is unique in that it is the only phone to use parent company Apple’s iOS operating system. While iPhones still remain incredibly popular many now consider that there are a large range of smartphones that offer better features and value for a lower price.
Windows of course is the famous Microsoft operating system which brought home computing to the masses. Windows Phone operating system has taken a lot longer to catch on and has been heavily criticised over the years as it has never really been the ideal type of system for a mobile phone.
As a result Nokia, who stuck with windows rather than switching to the more popular Android system, have struggled to make an impact. However the new Windows Phone 8 uses tiles for on screen apps and is far better suited to mobile phones. As a result Windows phones are now enjoying a new surge in popularity.
So what’s the difference between smartphones?
Generally speaking it’s like anything else. The more expensive the phone, the more features you get. Features start with the basics such as a touchscreen, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and GPS which can be found on virtually all smartphones. All work in a similar manner regardless of the operating system.
- Wi-Fi means you can connect to a wireless network to gain internet access, such as the one in most people’s homes
- Bluetooth is a means of transferring files short distances and is mostly used for cordless headsets for speech and music. In car phone kits use Bluetooth so you can talk hands free without the need to hold your phone
- GPS refers to the Global Positioning System, a series of satellites that tell your phone it’s current location. This is mostly used for satellite navigation, guiding you to your destination using an on-screen map. It is also used for geotagging, which adds information to a photograph’s file which records where in the world the photo was taken
As the price of the handset increases, generally so do the features. Larger screens with higher resolutions, which means text and pictures are sharper and clearer, get bigger and better as you go up the price scale. However it is now perfectly possible to buy a well featured, large screened android smartphone for under £100 with excellent features and screens such as the Motorola MOTO G released in 2013.
Top end smartphones
The most expensive phones are highly desirable and generally of outstanding technical and physical quality. They often have features such as water and dust proofing like the Sony Xperia Z1 or an all metal casing such as the HTC One M8.
Most top-end smartphones now feature NFC, which is the technology used for contactless payments, and DLNA which is a feature which allows you to transfer pictures, audio and video to a nearby device such as a TV screen using Wi-Fi.
Scratch resistant glass covered screens and powerful processors are also amongst top end features but are also filtering down to cheaper and cheaper devices.
We’ll talk more about Apps in another feature but these are the little programs, or applications, which are at the heart of every smartphone. There are quite literally hundreds of thousands of these to download from the various operating system’s own stores such as Apple’s App Store or Android’s Google Play market, where you will find descriptions, ratings and screenshots.
One of the remarkable things about these is you can download many of these from the internet using any computer and they will be downloaded and installed directly onto your handset once you have registered with them. Many of these apps are completely free though some do use small ads to sponsor them.
There are hundreds of thousands of apps. Take a look!