Speedy smartphone: the talk of phone show

When a phone trade show comes to town, we expect the news to revolve around phones. When the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association’s annual showcase, International CTIA Wireless 2010, visited Las Vegas recently, one phone in particular—a 4G darling from Sprint—grabbed most of the headlines. Still, there were a lot of other gadgets that I found pretty interesting, too.

First, let’s start with the buzz-worthy HTC Evo 4G (sprint.com/evo). The nation’s first 3G/4G Android phone, this very fast and very functional cell is set to debut on the Sprint network this summer—an appropriate time since this phone is hot. While it’s not 115 degrees in the shade, it does have a 4.3-inch screen (the iPhone’s is 3.5-inches), two cameras (one 1.3-megapixel lens faces the user for social media needs—look at me!—while the other one on the back is robust, at 8 megapixels), it runs on the increasingly popular Android operating system (30,000 apps and growing) and it is the first smartphone in the U.S. to run at 4G speeds.

What does 4G mean? Well, if you have pretty good broadband speeds in your house, this phone will operate at about the same pace. So, if the cable company offers 5-megabyte download speeds, for example (yes, you can get more and, yes, speeds vary depending on where you are), a 4G phone will closely match that speed and function as fast as, say, your computer. A 3G phone, by comparison, offers about 2-megabyte download speeds and is therefore about half as fast.

Sprint and HTC haven’t said how much this phone will cost, but I would expect it to fall in the $199-$299 range. It will be available through Sprint, and at Radio Shack, Best Buy and Wal-Mart stores, too.

As we ask our smartphones to do more stuff—find restaurants, post videos to Facebook or watch TV—more speed means your mobile Web life can move as quickly as your connected home life.

One thing a fast phone helps with is augmented reality, a veritable and growing mobile trend that’s about to explode here in the U.S. Augmented reality works like this: Users look at their phone’s screen while the camera is on, scanning the street ahead. Along with the real-time street scene, an augmented reality app displays text or animations (arrows pointing to the nearest pizza restaurant, illustrated footsteps leading to your ultimate destination, etc.) on top of the other, real things in the viewfinder. So if you’re visiting London and get hungry, you can pop open your phone as you walk around Piccadilly Circus, ask your phone to scan for restaurants, and have your phone show you what your options are as you walk around—and then take you straight to them. Poynt is a great (and free) app for this, while cAR Locator is highly useful, too—it helps you find your car when you lose it in the lot.

Multiplied Media Corp.’s Poynt (poynt.com) is already popular among BlackBerry users, but the Canadian-based company showed off its new and enhanced iPhone app at CTIA. Unlike other devices, the iPhone app has an impressive display of augmented reality, including search. (BlackBerry users can use Poynt for searching and direction, but the devices don’t support augmented reality—yet.)

The app essentially “points” you to a desired location. If you want to find the nearest bar, just type the term “bar” in the search box and point your phone down the block. A text notice for nearby bars will appear on the screen, embedded into an arrow that points you in the right direction. (The app is available for free download at the iTunes App Store.)

For those of you who feel a phone is too cumbersome to carry around in your pocket (or purse) all day, perhaps you should consider putting it on your wrist instead. The W PhoneWatch (kemplerusa.com) from Kempler & Strauss is an unlocked GSM phone (it will work with an AT&T or T-Mobile SIM card) that, when paired with a Bluetooth headset, can make and receive phone calls. The watch links with an earpiece so you don’t put have to put the phone to your ear to hear a call—or take and make all of your calls James Bond style—and can even hold a microSD card in case you want to put some music on your watch.

The phone supports the A2DP Bluetooth standard, which means you can also pair it with stereo Bluetooth headphones.

Secondary chargers made a strong showing at CTIA, with several different brands all entering and enhancing the market. By now most of us know how frustrating it is to be virtually stranded with an empty cell battery and no charger in sight.

My solution comes in the form of a case that doubles as a charger, the Mophie Juice Pack Air (mophie.com).

It costs $80, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s money well-spent. A hard case protects my iPhone from accidental drops—or, in my case, from a 2-year-old who likes to play with and occasionally drops the phone—while providing power at the flick of a switch. Using the Juice Pack Air essentially doubles the iPhone’s battery life. Unfortunately, doubling the battery also doubles the weight of the phone, since the case itself is pretty heavy on its own (it includes a built-in battery, after all).

Another charging option comes in the form of a clever lines from a Spanish company called Idapt that introduced the Idapt i4 (idaptweb.com) at the CTIA. The charger was welcomed with rave reviews—it won an industry design award—and is expected to go on sale in May for $60.

The i4 can charge four devices at the same time. If you’re like my family, with an iPhone, a BlackBerry, an MP3 player and a Bluetooth earpiece all needing power, having one charging station that can recharge each gadget would be pretty useful.

AT&T introduced a secondary charger, too—one that deserves snaps because it solves the problem of “vampire” power—the electricity a plugged-in charger (or other electronic device that’s not being used) draws even when it’s not powering up a gadget. Vampire power is an energy consumption nightmare, since it sucks unnecessary power and adds unnecessary expense to our electricity bills.

The AT&T Zero (tinyurl.com/yh2frr2), expected in May, plugs into the wall socket and only pulls power when charging a device. It uses a USB port to charge, which means most phones, music players and cameras can use it to power up.

The last CTIA ditty I want to talk about comes in the form of a new service called PoketyPoke. Still in beta testing, the conference call reminder service made its CTIA debut last week but I still have no comment about the name.

PoketyPoke (poketypoke.com) helps business professionals keep track of their conference calls by sending text messages or e-mail alerts five minutes before every scheduled call. While, yes, any standard scheduling application (like the ever-popular Microsoft Outlook or even Google’s Web-based Google Calendar) can do that for you, PocketyPoke sets itself apart by coordinating all the call-in numbers for you. This means when it comes time for you to dial in for a conference call, all you need to do is log in to your Internet-based PoketyPoke account and voila! You are connected to your call. The text and e-mail alerts even include a handy link in case you’re too busy (or if it’s too early) to dig up/remember that information.

Another useful feature: It will do this for all the conference calls on your agenda, no matter what call-in service is being used to host the call. Unfortunately, it can’t help with cross-country time changes, so your 7 a.m. EST conference call will always start at 4 a.m. PST.

And no, there’s not an app for that, either. Not yet, at least.

Chicago-based technology columnist Eric Benderoff writes about consumer electronics and runs BendableMedia.com, an editorial services firm. He frequently discusses tech trends and new gadgets on various national radio and TV programs. Follow him on Twitter @ericbendy.

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