Lindsay Soll tries out the iPhone and its competitors to see which cell is best for music, video, and games

By Lindsay Soll
Updated September 19, 2008 at 04:00 AM EDT

Test driving the new multimedia phones

Like many of you readers, my idea of a good time is pretty simple: I either head to the multiplex to catch the latest rom-com or settle in on a comfy couch to watch my favorite shows or play a videogame on a flat-screen TV. So as I set out to review three of the best touch-screen mobile phones around, I approached them with a certain skepticism: Could anyone in this phone family (big and solid iPhone’s the dad, curvy Instinct’s the mom, and lightweight Dare the kid) really satisfy the demands of my voracious pop culture appetite? Forget whether they work as phones (they all do, quite nicely) — I wanted to know whether these things could really take my music, video, and game life on the road.

I began my three-week examination with a simple question: Could any of these phones replace my iPod? The Dare (for Verizon) most definitely cannot. Its music service, Rhapsody, offers a ton of songs, but the tunes were expensive ($1.99 per track, compared with the 99-cent pricing on the other two plans), and they took a long time to download. (In many cases, a particularly annoying message — ”License Cleanup…” — would just kind of stay and stay and stay on my screen while I waited for the Rhapsody program to load.) You can save a dollar per track by downloading songs onto a PC (sorry, Mac users) and then syncing them to the Dare. But come on now — isn’t the whole point of a mobile phone that you’re, um…mobile?

The Instinct (for Sprint) and the iPhone (for AT&T) deliver. Downloading songs onto the Instinct is fairly simple, and you can choose from a great selection of tunes from the Sprint Music Store. The Instinct also features streaming radio (with more than 50 channels currently available). Even though the service was a bit buggy (it often timed out when I was tuning in), it’s a very cool add-on. As for the iPhone, well, its integration with the iTunes Store is as awesome as advertised. The store’s got an amazing selection, downloading is simple, the sound quality is great, and the graphics are so cool they’re a blast to play around with (swiping my finger to use the iPhone’s ”Cover Flow” was ridiculously close to playing a game). Could it replace my iPod? No, but only because I need access to more memory than the 8 GB that come with the iPhone I tested.

I’m such a TV geek that the prospect of mobile viewing seemed thrilling. But all three phones fell short on this front. The iPhone was the best, showing clean, vibrant images from the movies and TV shows I downloaded from the iTunes Store. But video viewed on the Dare, whose service offered everything from CNN news updates to Project Runway exit interviews, was often too grainy to be enjoyable. Still, TV watchers should be happy: Verizon recently added a fair number of full-length episodes from NBC, BET, and MTV Networks. Movie fans, however, will have to get their fix with only trailers and snippets. But the video you get on the Dare and the Instinct is streamed, not downloaded; it requires a strong wireless signal — something I couldn’t always get in New York City.

The Instinct does boast one insanely cool service: live — yes, live! — TV shows (featuring a sturdy selection of channels, from E! and MTV to Comedy Central and FOX Sports). But just as it did with radio, the Instinct’s TV service kept freezing up the screen — and the few times it did actually work, the picture would be clear one second and blocky the next. And I’m sorry, but even with the iPhone, this old-school girl found the whole TV-on-phone experience disappointing — I’ll stick to my big old flat-screen, thank you very much.

None of the phones came preloaded with games, but a good assortment of titles are available for downloading to the Instinct and the Dare. Downloading these suckers is easy and relatively cheap ($5 to $8). But actually mastering these games — among them, for me, Pac-Man on the Instinct and Paperboy on the Dare — is pretty tough. Even after I had gotten used to seeing these games on the phones’ small screens, the inconsistency of the controls (on both phones) was aggravating. Games for the iPhone can be purchased on a new addition to the iTunes Store. Added just a few months ago, the App Store is a well-stocked marketplace where third-party developers can sell all kinds of wares (see sidebar). The controls on the iPhone were easier to master. And I really like its motion-detecting hardware: In a game like Super Monkey Ball ($9.99), you control those cute critters by tipping the iPhone up and down and side to side. Very cool.

No, none of these phones will replace my home entertainment life. But they’re all strong enough to have turned this skeptic into a believer: Small-screen entertainment is here to stay — and will only get bigger. And best of all, I can still keep my comfy couch.
LG Dare: B+
Samsung Instinct: B-
Apple iPhone 3G: A-