SolutionBase: What are the differences between a Pocket PC and a SmartPhone?

PDAs are very popular, but so are cell phones. What if you could combine the two? This article explains the differences between a Pocket PC and a SmartPhone and introduces a blend of the two.

Both Pocket PCs and Microsoft SmartPhones will help you to stay organized and connected while you are on the go. If you are torn with making a purchasing decision between the two though, you might be wondering what the differences are beyond the fact that the SmartPhone can make and receive phone calls and the Pocket PC can't. This fact may be your first consideration, but it's important to understand the other differences as well.

The display

Aside from the fact that the SmartPhone can make phone calls, there are some other major differences between the two devices. Let's start with the display. A Pocket PC uses a typical PDA style display, in which the screen covers the majority of the front side of the device. A traditional SmartPhone uses a display that is only slightly larger than the screen found on the average cell phone.

The smaller display doesn't just translate into smaller images though. There is also a significant difference in the number of pixels that the two devices support. A typical SmartPhone's screen has a resolution of 176 x 220, while a Pocket PC has a resolution of 240 x 320. This means that the Pocket PC can display a lot more information on the screen than a SmartPhone can. If you look at the SmartPhone emulator shown in Figure A, you will notice that the Windows desktop is extremely condensed.

Figure A

The Windows desktop is extremely condensed

If you look at Figure B, you will see that the Start menu consumes the entire display.

Figure B

Even the Start menu completely fills the SmartPhone's tiny display.

In contrast, check out the display on the Pocket PC shown in Figure C. As you can see, the Display is large enough to show the Start menu plus a portion of the Windows desktop.

Figure C

A Pocket PC has a much larger display.

Input methods

Another serious consideration to take into account when choosing between the two devices is the amount of data entry that you will be doing. Data entry on a Pocket PC is typically done by using a stylus. Although data entry models vary from model to model, Pocket PCs usually give you the option of either entering data by clicking the keys on an on-screen keyboard or by using the stylus to write on a designated portion of the screen.

It is worth mentioning however, that excessive writing with the stylus has a tendency to scrape up the screen. It has been my experience that entering data through an on-screen keyboard, such as the one shown in Figure D, is fast, efficient, and isn't harmful to the screen.

Figure D

Data entry on a Pocket PC is often performed through an on-screen keyboard.

Because of the limited size of the display, SmartPhones do not offer an on-screen keyboard. Instead, data entry on a SmartPhone is done by using the Phone's buttons. For example, if you wanted to type the letter C, you would have to press the 2 button three times.

My personal thoughts on this are that SmartPhones are great if you just want to read your E-mail or check your calendar, but they aren't really suitable for replying to E-mail messages or composing new messages, because data entry is so tedious. Admittedly though, these are just my own personal views. I have seen other people compose text messages using the buttons on their phone just as easily as if they were using a computer keyboard. If you're used to sending lots of text messages, then using the buttons on the SmartPhone to enter data probably won't bother you.

Both Pocket PCs and SmartPhones support the use of external keyboards. However, there are only a few different external keyboards on the market, so the selection is slim. External keyboards also tend to make the devices seem a bit less portable. After all, who wants to have to carry around a keyboard and plug it up every time you want to compose an e-mail?


I've already talked a little bit about how Pocket PCs and SmartPhones differ in hardware, but there are other considerations to take into account as well. Pocket PCs generally have more memory and faster processors than SmartPhones because of their larger size and because they don't have to cram phone hardware into the package. For example, it isn't uncommon for a Pocket PC to have 128 MB of RAM. In contrast, some SmartPhones have as little as 8 MB of RAM.

Pocket PCs also tend to be expandable. Most Pocket PCs will allow you to gain additional storage through the use of compact flash memory cards or Secure Digital (SD) cards. SmartPhones support SD cards and SD devices, but at the moment there are some compatibility issues that have yet to be resolved, so not every SD device will work with a SmartPhone.


As I've explained, SmartPhones have much more modest hardware than Pocket PCs. It should therefore come as no surprise that SmartPhones can't run nearly as many applications as Pocket PCs can.

By default, Smart Phones do come with a basic set of applications including Inbox, Calendar, Internet Explorer, ActiveSync, MSN Messenger, Pocket MSN, Tasks, Voice Notes, and Windows Media. There is also a calculator and a couple of games.

Pocket PCs include the same basic set of applications as SmartPhones, plus a lot more. The most noteworthy addition is a Pocket version of Microsoft Office. I have always found Pocket Office to be one of the Pocket PC's best features. Being that I am a full time technical writer, I have used the pocket version of Microsoft Word to review changes that an editor has made to a document while I am on the go. I recently also used Pocket Word to compose an entire article while I was on a flight home from Tokyo. Sure, a laptop would have been better, but it was a fifteen hour flight and the battery in my laptop only lasts for about four hours.

In addition to the differences in applications included with the two devices, there are also major differences in the third party applications that are available. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of Pocket PC applications that you can download from the Internet. There are comparably few SmartPhone applications though.

I have heard that it is much more difficult to develop an application for a SmartPhone than for a Pocket PC because of the hardware limitations and because many cellular carriers require applications to be digitally signed (which costs developers money). The Pocket PC has also been around for a lot longer than the SmartPhone, which accounts for part of the reason why there are so many more applications available.

Because both devices run Windows Mobile 2003, it would seem as though an application that didn't exceed either device's hardware limitations should be able to run on either device. However, there are completely separate SDKs (Software Development Kits) for the two devices.


Both the Pocket PC and the SmartPhone can synchronize themselves with your PC through the use of a USB docking cradle. The biggest difference however is that the SmartPhone can only be synchronized with a single E-mail account, while the Pocket PC can by synchronized with multiple E-mail accounts.

Both devices are also capable of connecting to the Internet. The primary connection mechanism for a Smart Phone is a cellular link, while the primary connection mechanism for a Pocket PC is usually Wi-Fi. When it comes to connecting to the Internet, cellular connections are slower and more expensive than Wi-Fi, but are generally available anywhere that you can get a cell signal. Wi-Fi connectivity is great if you are in your home, office, or some public location with a Wi-Fi hot spot. Wi-Fi connectivity won't work however if you are cruising down the freeway.

While I'm on the subject of Internet connectivity, I want to tale a moment and mention the Web browser that is included with the two devices. Neither device has a screen that has the resolution of even a modestly equipped PC. This means that if you connect to a Web site, you are going to have to scroll the screen a lot. A Pocket PC will display a greater portion of a Web page than a SmartPhone will. Some, but not all, Pocket PCs give you the option of viewing Web pages in landscape format. This means that you will have to do a lot less horizontal scrolling

Making the choice

As you can see, both devices have their good and bad points. SmartPhones are small, compact, and allow you to make phone calls. Pocket PCs are much more powerful, but they are a lot bulkier, and you may also end up having to carry around a cell phone too. So how do you choose?

My advice is to make a decision based on your needs. It you only want to check your E-mail ever so often or have your Outlook contacts and Calendar with you while you're on the go, then a SmartPhone is probably a good choice. If you often need to respond to E-mails, compose or view documents, or do much Web surfing, then you're probably better off with a Pocket PC.

A happy medium

Although both of the devices that I have talked about are very handy to have, they both have their limitations. What if you could combine each device's best features into a single device though? Well, such a device does exist. Microsoft makes a version of the SmartPhone called Pocket PC Phone Edition. This version of the SmartPhone is basically a Pocket PC with a SmartPhone integrated into it. It runs all of the same software that a Pocket PC would run, but you can also use the device as a phone.

I bought one of these devices a few weeks ago for my own personal use. The device cost just under $700, but I have been very happy with the way that it has performed for me so far. Using the device as a phone takes some getting used to, since it's kind of like pressing your face against a PDA, but the phone does have good quality. The device also features a speaker phone and comes with a pair of ear buds and an attached microphone in case you don't like the idea of getting face prints on the screen.

One of the things that has impressed me the most about the device is all of the supplemental features that simply aren't included on your average Pocket PC. For example, my phone has an integrated camera that can function as either a still camera (with flash) or as a video camera. I have had a lot of fun snapping pictures and E-mailing them to friends directly from the device.

Another handy feature is that my device has a built in Bluetooth adapter. Originally, the Bluetooth feature was included as a way of making the phone compatible with certain hands free calling kits. However, I have a Bluetooth enabled GPS receiver that works just as well with my SmartPhone as it does with my laptop. I simply installed a copy of Microsoft Streets And Trips 2005 onto my device, held the GPS nearby, and the device did the rest.

Another feature that I have been really impressed with is a retractable keyboard. My device has the onscreen keyboard, just like any other Pocket PC. However, the screen slides forward a few inches to reveal a small keyboard that's built into the device, as shown in Figure E. This gives me feel of an external keyboard without actually having to lug a keyboard around.

Figure E

This SmartPhone / Pocket PC Hybrid features a retractable keyboard.

Hybrids can be best

For the most part, I have been extremely happy with my Pocket PC / SmartPhone hybrid. There are a couple of negatives though. Unlike many Pocket PCs, my device does not include a Wi-Fi adapter. The other negative is that my device is about the same size as the average Pocket PC, which is significantly larger than the average cell phone. The device fits comfortably in my back pocket, but it's not nearly as small and light as most phones.