I recently got two review handsets in the mail that got me to thinking about what a modern cell phone should be - from a hardware/industrial design point of view. Both are clamshell (flip) phones that pack a QWERTY board into the dialing keypad without making the handset larger overall than it would have been, anyway.
While I've seen market research claiming that QWERTY phones make up a mere 6% of the American market, I personally got hooked on the concept during the last year or so. Granted, I'm something of an early adopter/tech junkie when it comes to this stuff, but doesn't having a full QWERTY keypad make everything from texting to editing your calendar to Email and Web services on your phone so much easier?
Obviously if you want a phone that's "just a phone," QWERTY is overkill. But if you do want a full 49-ish key layout, what are your options?
First, there's the candybar-style smartphone with front-mounted display above a full keypad. The Motorola Q and Cingular Blackjack are two recent examples of this style. The pros to a phone like this are a generally decent sized screen, no moving parts, and a good form factor for actually talking on the thing. On the con side, phones like this tend to be rather long and wide, though the Q and Blackjack are pleasantly thin and, therefore, easily pocketable.
Touch-screen candybars like the Motorola ROKR E6 and, yes, forthcoming Apple iPhone try to offer the best of all possible worlds by way of virtual buttons that shape-shift on a use by use basis. While a good touch screen combined with great user interface design could yield the best possible keypad configurations for each application - something no physical button layout could do - the downside is the lack of tactile feedback. Typing on a touchscreen just isn't the same as clicking real buttons. Look for vibrating screens and other new technologies to attempt to tackle this hurdle in the near future.
Next up is the slider. While regular sliderphones feature a dialing pad that slides down vertically from the bottom of the phone, QWERTY sliders are usually meant to be held "the long way," in a landscape (horizontal) orientation. The popular Cingular 8125/8525 series is an example of this style handset. QWERTY sliders often feature touchscreens, so dialing keypads and other functions can be accessed without sliding the keyboard out. The pros of phones like this are versatility and roomy keypad layouts. Also, holding the phone in landscape mode is ideal for Web browsing and widescreen media consumption. On the down side, QWERTY sliders are often thicker than their non-sliding counterparts.
Then there's the category that the two phones I alluded to earlier fall into. Both the LG AX490 (Alltel) and Samsung u740 (Verizon) are flip phones with QWERTY keypads inside. The LG uses Fastap technology, which is a combination of raised buttons positioned on the corners of the normal dialing keypad and predictive text technology to help correct mistypes. The Samsung is a dual-hinge flip with a full QWERTY layout inside, 12 buttons of which double as a numeric dialing pad. The handset opens the "regular" way for dialing and the "long" way for most everything else, and the internal display orients itself according to how you've opened the phone. The pros of phones like this are the ability to fit a full text keypad into the chic, comfy design of a flip phone. The cons, of course, lie in the potential for too many buttons in too little a space.
Both phones are pretty neat, and work well, but so far I really like the Samsung. Though the keypad is a bit busy and crowded feeling, it's comfortable enough for SMS composition, and I really like using the phone in "widescreen" mode. While the phone suffers from Verizon's somewhat locked down menu and feature set, just today I caught wind of a rumor that Samsung's might just be coming to a GSM provider near you (and me).