We've selected the five phones that most feel like modern handsets to us—the iPhone 3G, iPhone 3G S, the Palm Pre, the HTC Magic (or, as we soon expect, the T-Mobile G2) and the BlackBerry Storm—and broken them down by hardware, software and cost. This is a guide in the strictest sense, meaning we aren't declaring winners or losers, just giving you the information you need to make your own choice. So! On with the matrices.
Phones' hardware specs tend to dominate carriers' marketing, but in many cases they just don't mean much. Only a few hardware features set these phones apart in any meaningful way: screens, storage, graphics performance and input.
The iPhones and Pre hold a sizeable advantage in the screen department, trumping the G2, which doesn't have multitouch, and the Storm, which has an ill-conceived clickscreen which people are unanimously unimpressed with.
In terms of storage, our phones take two fundamentally different approaches. The iPhone and Pre include healthy amounts of nonremovable storage—in the case of the iPhone 3G S, up to 32GB—which makes sense: if we're going to use our phones as they're marketed (as multimedia devices), we need space. The G2, like the G1 before it, depends on a removable microSD card for storage. So does the Storm. This is fine if the carrier bundles the handset with a capacious card.
3D performance is actually fairly uniform strictly across hardware, with the exception of the iPhone 3G S, which is, in this regard, a next-gen product. Only Apple and HTC, though, give developers any meaningful kind of access to their handsets' graphics accelerators. That said, the iPhone has emerged as a serious gaming platform, and Android phones collectively have not.
The Pre is an obvious standout in that it has a hardware keyboard in addition to its touchscreen. The hardware QWERTY/onscreen keyboard debate is all about personal preference, so whether this is a boon or a burden is up to you. Typing on a screen is an acquired skill—but much more so on the Storm than the iPhone or G2.
The greatest hardware in the world couldn't save a phone with shitty software, and your handset's OS is the single largest determining factor in how you'll enjoy your phone. We've explored the differences between the major smartphone platforms at length here, and there's no point getting too far into the specific differences right now.
To summarise: iPhone OS claims advantages in ease of use, its burgeoning App Store, and a respectable core feature set, but falters on multitasking and its lack of ability to install unsanction apps. The Pre's WebOS is extremely slick and friendly to multitasking, but its App Catalog is light on apps, and its development SDK is somewhat restrictive. Android and BlackBerry OS are both more laissez-faire, letting users install apps from whatever source they choose. Neither app store is spectacular, but Android's is markedly less anemic.
Carrier preferences will often override prices, but here they are anyway. The Pre and G2 are the most economic options, and the Storm ties the 3G S as the most expensive.