The 411: Feature phones vs. smartphones

Every two weeks, Nicole Lee answers your questions and occasionally gives her opinion on the state of the mobile industry.

Nicole Lee Former Editor
Nicole Lee is a senior associate editor for CNET, covering cell phones, Bluetooth headsets, and all things mobile. She's also a fan of comic books, video games, and of course, shiny gadgets.
Nicole Lee
6 min read
Hi, 411 fans! I'm taking a break from answering questions this week and will instead go over a particularly interesting topic in the mobile phone industry. I'll go back to answering your queries next time around. Please send your questions to nicole.lee@cnet.com. Thanks!

As much press as smartphones like the Apple iPhone and the Nexus One get, Americans by and large still prefer to use less powerful "feature phones." For example, the LG enV Touch (just a feature phone, not a smartphone) was one of the most popular phones on Verizon for a long time- our CNET review of the enV Touch consistently made our monthly Top Five list for the most pageviews from July to October in 2009. It was even No. 1 for two of those months (August and September). There was also an NPD report last year that claimed around 72 percent of new handset sales in Q2 of 2009 were feature phones, not smartphones.

The LG enV Touch was one of the most popular products from Verizon. Corinne Schulze/CNET

On the face of it, this is understandable. Smartphones are seen as complex and might have features that many consumers don't need or want. Feature phones are typically easier to use, and are cheaper to boot. But this field is rapidly changing--feature phones aren't so simple anymore, while smartphones are focusing much more on the consumer market. More importantly, the pricing differences aren't as clear cut as you might think. The lines between the two categories are blurrier than ever, and I'm thinking a shift in the balance might be forthcoming.

But let's back up a little here and try to clarify the exact definitions of a smartphone versus a feature phone. A smartphone, as CNET defines it, has a third-party operating system. This includes all of the phones running Android, as well as those that run on the Windows Mobile and Symbian operating systems. We also include the BlackBerry and the iPhone in this, because those operating systems run on more than one device (It's admittedly no longer a "third-party" OS in that case, but they do exist outside of just one device. It's like how Mac OS X runs on different Apple computers.).

Beyond that, smartphones are also defined by the ability to run third-party software, typically known as applications or "apps." These existed long before the iPhone, of course, but Apple managed to popularize the App Store concept with the idea that you can buy apps directly via the phone itself. These apps are often integral to the smartphone experience, and most people with smartphones end up getting at least a handful of third-party apps to make the device more useful. E-mail is a necessary feature component, as is access to corporate push e-mail, since smartphones are usually marketed toward business professionals. By the same token, calendar syncing and document editing are essential as well.

Feature phones, on the other hand, are a midway point between smartphones and basic phones. They usually have a limited proprietary operating system, and not all feature phones support third-party software. If they do, they're usually run on Java or BREW and are often standalone items that don't integrate with other features of the phone. While e-mail is usually an included feature, you often have to pay extra for it, or you have to access your e-mail via the mobile browser. Push email is often nonexistent. You can get corporate e-mail on some feature phones, but the experience is usually far slower and not as smooth. Calendar syncing is often a problem, as is document editing. However, feature phones make up for that with a big focus on multimedia and texting, and almost all feature phones have GPS, full HTML browsers, and 3G speeds. A lot of feature phones also have popular social networking abilities now; Twitter and Facebook integration is especially popular.

Seeing as feature phones are so much more limited, what are the advantages of having a feature phone over a smartphone? If you don't feel the need for corporate syncing or third-party apps, getting a feature phone might be a more affordable middle-ground. You might think that you will get all the benefits of a mobile multimedia device without the extra premium cost of owning a smartphone (Though this is changing; see below). Some people also feel that feature phones are easier to use, and that smartphones are too complicated. And while it's not as prevalent, there could also be a social stigma associated with owning a smartphone--perhaps there's a stodgy corporate suit image, especially with BlackBerrys.

But today, the differences are no longer so clear-cut. Now that most if not all smartphones have strong multimedia capabilities, the corporate suit image is largely outdated. More smartphone companies are focusing on consumers rather than just the enterprise. The BlackBerry Storm, for example, was RIM's effort to take control of the consumer space. Android phones like the Motorola Droid and the MyTouch 3G also have a strong consumer focus, if the advertising campaigns are any indication. The simplicity argument is slowly losing ground as well, as many smartphones are actually very user-friendly. The Palm Pixi, the HTC Droid Eris, and the Apple iPhone 3GS are just a few that make great beginner smartphones. Perhaps some feature phones are even easier to use than these, but the learning curve isn't as steep as one might think.

The HTC Droid Eris is cheaper than some feature phones. Josh P. Miller/CNET

So the most important factor in choosing a feature phone seems to be price. Feature phones are usually cheaper, and you don't need to pay a monthly data plan, right? Well, not really. The aforementioned LG enV Touch retailed last year for almost $150 with a two-year contract. The HTC Droid Eris, on the other hand, retailed for only $99 right from the start. Yes, the enV Touch is available for only around $40 now, but that's only after a year since its debut. Of course there are still expensive smartphones, especially if you want more storage and a faster processor, but that doesn't mean you can't get a cheap one if you can live with fewer features.

The real bugaboo, then, is the monthly data plan. Up till now, feature phone owners saved a ton of money by not having to cough up extra money each month for a data plan they might not ever use. But even this is changing. Verizon, for example, will now start requiring a monthly data plan for "3G Multimedia" feature phones like the LG Chocolate Touch, the Samsung Rogue, and the Nokia 7705 Twist. The cheapest plan is $9.99 a month for 25MB and e-mail privileges, or you can upgrade to the regular data plan price of $29.99 a month for unlimited data. Yes, you can get the $9.99-a-month option, which is far cheaper than most smartphone data plans, but the fact that you have to pay for a data plan at all for a feature you might never use is just annoying, to say the least. While not quite as draconian, AT&T is requiring you to get either a messaging and/or data plan with certain feature phones as well--$20 for unlimited messaging, $30 for unlimited messaging and data, or $20 for 200 messages and unlimited data. So far Sprint and T-Mobile don't require data or messaging plans for feature phones, but who knows how long that will last.

I'm certainly not saying that feature phones are dead, at least not yet. If you're willing to shop around and wait a little bit, you can still get feature phones for as low as $30 with a two-year contract--smartphones aren't nearly as cheap. As above, the data plan requirements tend to be cheaper, and there are still carriers that don't require feature phones to have data plans. But I have a sneaky suspicion that as feature phones get more complex, and as smartphones get cheaper and easier to use, there will be a convergence: The advanced feature phone will become synonymous with the basic smartphone, and the only difference will be the operating systems.

So what to do if you're one of the many people who don't want a data plan and you don't want all of this complexity? I think that manufacturers will still push the midtier and basic feature phones for that specific market, but the only way these devices will take off is if carriers will quit imposing these data plan requirements, or at least keep them on the low end. Because otherwise, consumers will either just give up and get a basic dumb phone, or give in and trade up for a smartphone.

How about you, readers? Do you prefer feature phones or smartphones? Do you agree with the categorization? What do you think of the data plan requirements? Feel free to sound off in the comment section below.