A quest for an international travel capable smartphone

by Ned Levi on August 10, 2009

Great communication capability when traveling is essential for the business traveler. As a “Tech” consultant, travel writer and photographer, voice and data communication is critical to maintain my connections to business contacts and family.

I use a smartphone (cellphone/PDA) daily, at home and when traveling.

I was an early adopter of cellphone technology. My first cellphone was a “transportable” (bag phone). The phone’s battery alone weighed several pounds. I’ve also used PDAs (Portable Digital Assistants) since I first purchased a Palm Pilot in 1997, and threw away my contact and appointment calendar books permanently.

Until last month, I had been using a Palm Treo 680. Its top Internet speed was Edge (2G). By today’s standards, its processor and Internet speed were slow. In particular, I’d dropped mine a few times and it’s battery cover was held on with tape. At times it refused to sync with my computer.

It was time for a replacement.

As a frequent business and leisure traveler I found there was a plethora of possible replacements, so I devised a checklist to compare them, which you might find useful when you’re ready for a new smartphone.

• The phone portion of the smartphone had to work well, have quality sound, pull in weak signals, and have a speakerphone which was actually useful (ie. we could hear and be heard in a car on the interstate).

• It should have a fast, stable operating system, and enough battery power to last more than a day, with normal use.

• It should be Bluetooth capable, and be compatible with most of today’s bluetooth headsets, and enabled car hands’ free systems.

• The screen should be bright, with high resolution, and reasonably large to permit web, messaging, email and other uses to be productive.

• The keyboard should have sufficiently sized keys so typing emails and text messages wouldn’t be tedious.

• As information in business persons’ contact lists, calendars, and notes often contain private and confidential information, the smartphone had to be able to sync directly with a computer by wire, or Bluetooth, not via files stored on the Internet, for backup and direct computer use.

• While on a phone call, there must be access minimally to the smartphone’s calendar, contacts, and notes.

• The smartphone should have both 3G and WIFI cabability, to connect to the Internet, and the office LAN, to obtain and share data, and if possible, to reduce international data usage charges, a setting for WIFI preference over 3G, when both exist.

• There should be readily available business and finance applications which could be run on the smartphone including: time and billing, package tracking, unit conversions, dictionary, etc.

In addition, as a travel tool:

• The smartphone should be suitable for international travel, minimally to Europe, the Middle East, and Central and South America, the locations outside the country to which I travel with at least some regularity, which means to me it should preferably use the GSM standard.

• It should have GPS capability, coupled with an excellent map utility, with availability for other GPS aware applications as well.

• There should be readily available travel applications which could be run on the smartphone including: destination and tour guides, subway, airport and train maps, flight status, currency conversion, etc.

• It should have the ability to run Skype to reduce international phone costs.

• It should have at least a 3MP digital camera so one can take documentation photos of prior damage to one’s rental car, etc.

Armed with my list, I scoured the Internet for devices. Three devices appeared to have real potential; Blackberry’s Bold, Palm’s Pre, and Apple’s iPhone 3GS.

The BlackBerry Bold has a bright, high resolution display and it’s very fast. It has 3G, good productivity tools (not very good travel tools), WIFI, GPS and Bluetooth. It’s email capability is great, as is its keyboard, but it’s on the bulky side, and its web browser isn’t as good as my old Treo.

The PalmPre is fast, with a small but brilliant display. It’s only available from Sprint (CDMA not GSM), you can’t sync directly to your computer by wire, only wireless via the Internet, it’s keyboard is tiny (I had a very hard time not hitting multiple characters), and it’s battery capacity is a problem.

The iPhone is fast, with a large high resolution display. It has 3G, WIFI, GPS, Bluetooth, excellent Internet capablity, and can sync by wire to a computer. It’s screen based keyboard works well. It’s GSM based.

I chose the Apple iPhone 3GS 32GB smartphone. Yes I’ve heard some negatives about it, but its capability comes closest to meeting my criteria than any other smartphone. In next week’s column, I’ll discuss my iPhone 3GS experience and how I’m doing with it.

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  • jared

    you seem to have chosen the phone based on what it can do state side vs. one that has good international capabilities

    1. it can’t be unlocked (legally) and use local sim cards
    2.the 3g coverage is really behind in the rest of the world so its really not an issue
    3. cost of data outside the states .. other companies that don’t support the iphone are CONSIDERABLY cheaper outside the states
    4. no skype (or any other voice app) on the iphone ..
    5. the point about needing to be able to sync your files to a computer via a cable for archive made sense 5 years ago. You must not understand what push email or sync over the wire is

    was this a real article or a advertisement for apple?

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  • http://www.tripso.com/author/ned/ Ned Levi

    Jared, thanks very much for taking the time to comment on my article.

    GSM based phones from such cellular providers as T-Mobile and AT&T can be unlocked legally. AT&T actually gave me the unlocking code for my Treo 680 which I previously used. At this time Apple is preventing people from legally unlocking the iPhone. It is my best estimate that once the iPhone exclusive contract with AT&T is over at the end of 2010 that legal unlocking of the iPhone will be permitted when one’s contract is over. Many people have already unlocked their iPhones anyway. Apple, to the best of my knowledge hasn’t sued anyone for that.

    3G coverage for many travelers is a big deal. I know many travelers who go to western Europe regularly where 3G is generally available. It’s also available in the major cities in much of South America, Australia, southern Africa, and India. Over the next year, the number of places with 3G will probably more than double according to cellular network expansion plans.

    No one said the iPhone was inexpensive to purchase or use, in the US or abroad.

    Skype is most definitely available on the iPhone. It’s in the iTunes App Store, and I’ve already used it.

    As a Computer Network Consultant I do understand what push email and sync over the Internet or wire is. Moreover, I understand the vulnerabilities of those technologies. I also understand how iPhone synching over the Internet works without Microsoft Exchange and stand by my privacy and confidentiality points. Furthermore, synching over the Internet depends on Internet availability. And finally, consider the number of hacked servers which were supposed to have extremely high security.

    As it turns out, I was actually hoping the Palm Pre would be my choice when I started looking for a new smartphone. I’ve been very happy with Palm products since the 90′s, but the Pre is not my cup of tea.

    While you clearly don’t think the iPhone is a good smartphone choice, I’ve got to think there is a reason the iPhone is selling so well, for so long.

    We all have to make our own decisions and I respect yours, whatever it is.

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  • http://nodebtworldtravel.com brian from nodebtworldtravel.com

    @jared

    Skype is now available for the iPhone

    If you are syncing with your local laptop as you are traveling, using is wire can be much easier than trying to setup a Bluetooth or other wireless connection

    Your other points are valid. A Windows Mobile device would cover many of his requirements. HTC and Nokia are top choice for global travelers. My ATT 8925 covers most of what he listed.

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  • joyce

    I just arrived back from Europe. A friend of mine with an iPhone bought a local SIM card for each country we were in (Netherlands and Germany) with its own number for 20 euro. each. Then he just had to buy the minutes and it seemed to work well and much cheaper then here. In Europe your iPhone is 1 Euro to purchase with a with a 2 year contract.

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  • http://californiavacationrentalsinfo.com Eve White

    Smartphone is great to have. Especially when you travel.

  • Joe Coffman

    Move info on cell phone evaluations

  • http://www.tripso.com/author/ned/ Ned Levi

    Joyce, let me get this straight. Someone can buy an iPhone 3GS, 32GB for 1 Euro (less than two bucks) with a 2 year contract. Can you tell me which European cellular provider has that deal?

    In defense of Jared, he was talking about “legally” unlocking the iPhone.

    Brian, I agree with you about a Windows Mobile device being able to perform most of the items on my list, including running some excellent travel applications. I’ve owned a couple of Windows Mobile Smartphones, though not for a couple of years. While Windows Mobile has come along way since its early years, I continue to find Windows Mobile a bit on the slow side, and not as stable as the OS’s used in some other Smartphones.

    By the way, the 8925 was not one of the choices available to me by AT&T. It’s not on their available list of devices at this time. HTC and Nokia make excellent phones, but I didn’t like the ones available on AT&T or T-Mobile (none I saw of those brands) based on my evaluation.

    As I said in my column. These are my criteria and my evaluation based on them. I read articles by other columnists all the time. Sometimes I agree with them and sometimes I don’t. What I really was trying to accomplish with the column, was getting each of us to move past some of wow factors of these smartphones and base our purchase decisions on more down to earth parameters based on how we use these cellphone/PDA smartphone devices, by creating my checklist of features important to me as a traveler, which I actually used in making my decision.

    Next week I’ll let everyone know, now that I’ve been using the iPhone for a while, whether or not my decision is working out.

    Joyce, Brian, thanks for taking the time to comment.

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  • jared

    ned i should apologize my comment was a little aggressive

    there are hordes of people that swoon anything a apple logo on it whether it be a superior product or not

    that said some of the iphone travel apps are unbelievably cool

    i agree on the palm its still realllllly green .. released with a whole 13 apps .. …pretty sad

  • jonathan

    In Costa Rica, to avoid costly phone and data charges, I used my iPhone as a “slave” for internet use, via its WiFi feature on the hotel’s free WiFi service.

    Before departing the USA, I turned the cellphone feature off, using the “Airplane Mode” switch, and then manually re-enabled the WiFi feature.

    Not only was I able to check email, and access the internet, I was also able to access the Skype app, and place calls via the internet, at a very nominal rate.

  • http://www.tripso.com/author/ned/ Ned Levi

    Jared, no need to apologize. Around here, everyone has the right to express their opinion.

    I was really hoping the Palm Pre would have ended up being something like a Palm Treo version of the iPhone, but will better specs (there are definitely areas in which the iPhone can be improved) and perhaps some features Apple has yet to include.

    What I found most disappointing about the Pre was it’s contact list and calendar. Starting with the Palm Pilot Professional in 1997, Palm steadily built the best electronic PIM in existence, with regard to its calendar and contact list. Coupled with the Palm desktop, both the calendar and contact list by Palm were the best organized, with more features such as both user defined contact and calendar categories, user defined and named contact fields, and the ability for multi-day event displays better than anyone else, etc. With the Palm Pre, I feel they threw that away. What we see on the Pre is a shadow of those features that were.

    One of the things you’ll find in next Monday’s article is a description of a utility I found to work with the iPhone, which I believe dramatically improves the relationship of the calendar and contacts on the iPhone, with ones computer, at least in the Windows environment, and brings it close to what the Palm’s were.

    As a trained engineer, what I hope I’ve done is make my choice using something akin to the scientific method, in a rational, thoughtful way.

    I travel a lot and wanted a solid communications tool in my travel arsenal. I liked my Treo a lot when I got it, but it’s technology got old, and far better tools were available today.

    Next Monday I’ll report how much I actually like the iPhone, now that I’ve had a chance to really put it through its paces.

    Thanks again for being one of my and Tripso’s readers. I hope you’ll stay with us and continue to express your opinion. We have another wonderful outlet for your thoughts on travel and a wide variety of topics. I invite you to try out our forums where we have lively discussion daily.

    Regards,

    Ned

  • http://www.tripso.com/author/ned/ Ned Levi

    Jonathan, you did in part what I was talking about. You used the WIFI portion of the iPhone to keep your international communication expenses down.

    While I will not turn off my iPhone when out of the country as it isn’t practical for me, since I need to keep in touch with my clients, I will use the iPhone’s preference to connect to the Internet via WIFI whenever it’s available instead of 3G, or when that’s not available either, 2G.

    Having that ability was one of the important features in my checklist, for international travel.

    I’m happy to hear you were able to use Skype internationally on your iPhone. It’s another one of my criteria in the checklist for choosing the iPhone. Everyone in my family is using Skype these days for travel or to video phone communicate across the country. This helps keeps those international voice roaming fees down.

    I will say that most of the time I will probably continue to mostly use Skype on my laptop. That way I can combine video and audio for those calls. I was hoping one of the features that Apple would add to the iPhone this time around was a video camera on the screen side of the phone so it could be used for live video Skype communications. I know I’m dating myself, but I was hoping the iPhone would be like Dick Tracey’s video phone wrist watch. Perhaps Apple will add that with its next iteration of the iPhone, or some other smartphone manufacturer will.

    Thanks for your comment. I hope you’ll continue to be a Tripso reader.

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  • http://www.journeyidea.com Travel Trip

    Nice post. Traveling with technology like iphone makes it easier and more exciting. Search for flight status, airport and airline information before you reach the airport on via iPhone. Rocket Taxi locates you via GPS or Wi-Fi and finds taxi companies near you. Google Earth allows you to browse satellite images of anywhere in the world. instant currency exchange calculator is one of the best feature. You can Turn any photo into a picture postcard and send it to your friends. Hear Planet will give you information about nearby attractions. For more details refer http://www.journeyidea.com/your-sixth-sense-for-travelling/

  • http://twitter.com/billshepp Bill Sheppard

    Hi, Ned,

    Nice article in terms of summarizing what’s important. I think you missed out by not considering Nokia, however. While their smartphones aren’t well-represented in the US, many of them meet all your criteria with significantly less expense than the iPhone. For instance, the E71, the market’s thinnest smartphone, is hugely popular overseas (but has been crippled as the E71x by AT&T). Unlocked versions can be found for around $300 online, and you can use it with the $15/month AT&T Media Net dataplan plus whatever voice plan you want rather than being forced to the $30 iPhone dataplan, a savings of nearly $500/year, plus you’d have no contract. Or the E63, which is essentially a thicker version of the E71, is under $200. Battery life is superb (multiple days under heavy use, plus you can swap in additional batteries as needed), there is broad application support with a wider variety of core apps such as email and calendaring compared to the iPhone, you can tether, full multi-tasking, etc. The only drawback to the E71 is you have to choose a model with either North American or European/Asian 3G frequencies, but I find international dataplans are too expensive so I generally use wifi when overseas (including Skype). The upcoming E72 will have worldwide 3G support.

    Bill

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  • http://www.gsmbooster.co.uk/?cPath=89_93 vodafone mobile signal booster

    Such capabilities would make the phone such a smarter device for traveling. I must say the phone should has better reception or antenna that catch better network signals.

  • http://www.gsmbooster.co.uk/?cPath=89_93 vodafone signal booster

    A international travel capable smartphone is very beneficial for them who have to frequently travel from one nation to another nation. In such kind of case they have to required a phone which have all this features.

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