A smartphone is a cellular telephone with an integrated computer and other features not originally associated with telephones such as an operating system, web browsing, and the ability to run software applications.

Smartphones can be used by individuals in both a consumer and a business context, and are now almost integral to everyday modern life.

Popular uses

Many consumers use their smartphones to engage with friends, family and brands on social media.

Social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn all have mobile apps that a user can download from their phone's app store. These apps make it possible for smartphone users to post personal updates and photos while on the go.

Another common use for smartphones is health and wellness tracking. The Health app for iOS, for instance, can keep track of sleep behavior, nutrition, body measurements, vital signs, mental health exercises and more.

Third-party wearable devices, such as smartwatches, can connect with a smartphone to monitor an individual's health statistics, such as heart rate, and send information to be aggregated on the phone.

Mobile payment is another widespread use for smartphones. Wallet features allow users to save credit card information on their phones to use when purchasing items at retail stores. Apps such as Apple Pay also enable users to pay other iOS users directly from their phones.

Smartphone use in the enterprise

BlackBerry devices were the first popular smartphone many organizations offered to their employees for business use due to BlackBerry's history with strong security. As smartphones added more advanced productivity features, security techniques and integrations with IT management tools, they began gaining popularity in the enterprise.

IT professionals in many organizations today support employees that want to use their smartphones for work. Businesses can adopt enterprise mobility management (EMM) tools to control this use, and can develop a bring your own device (BYOD) policy to govern what users can do with their devices. Apple and Google have both worked to improve the enterprise capabilities of their mobile operating systems (OSs), enabling IT to better support iPhone and Android devices in businesses.

Because the smartphone form factor is typically smaller than a desktop computer, business users typically use it for quick tasks, such as sending an email. Tablets and 2-in-1 devices have also joined the mobile device market as alternatives to both smartphones and PCs for enterprise use.

Important features

One of the most important elements of a smartphone is its connection to an app store. An app store is a centralized portal where users can search for and download software applications to run on their phones. A typical app store offers thousands of Mobile apps for productivity, gaming, word processing, note-taking, organization, social media and more.

The following are some of the other key features of a smartphone:

  • Internet connectivity.
  • A mobile browser.
  • The ability to sync more than one email account to a device.
  • Embedded memory.
  • A hardware or software-based QWERTY keyboard.
  • Wireless synchronization with other devices, such as laptop or desktop computers.
  • The ability to download applications and run them independently.
  • Support for third-party applications.
  • The ability to run multiple applications simultaneously.
  • Touchscreen.
  • Wi-Fi.
  • A digital camera, typically with video capability.
  • Gaming.
  • Unified messaging.
  • GPS.

A smartphone also has the ability to support accessories, including Bluetooth headphones, power charging cables and extra speakers. Because of the fragile outer casing of most smartphones, users often also purchase screen protectors and more durable cases to put their phones in.

Because they run an OS and applications, smartphones get consistent software updates. Vendors update their mobile OSs a few times a year. Individual mobile apps in an app store also get constant software updates that users can either choose to install or ignore.

Popular vendors, manufacturers and prices

Some top smartphone hardware manufacturers are Apple, Samsung, Huawei, Lenovo (which includes Motorola), Oppo, OnePlus and Google.

Vendors have started selling smartphones in different tiers, or entry prices. Flagship, or premium smartphones have started to rise in price-- with a common approximation around $800-$1,000. Upper/mid-range smartphones cost approximately $500-$700; while under this price point are budget phones. Original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) that make and sell smartphones may commonly sell versions of a smartphone that meets each, or two of those price points.

Apple is the only vendor that builds the iPhone and its iOS operating system. The most recently released iPhone is the iPhone 11, 11 Pro and the 11 Pro Max. The base price of the iPhone 11, $700, makes it into an upper/mid-range phone, as it compromises on some technical aspects such as having an LCD instead of OLED display. The 11 Pro is Apple’s Flagship at $1,000, while the Pro Max—a mostly just larger version of the 11 Pro. Apple still sells the iPhone XR, and 8; which fit in the budget phone market in price.

Multiple OEMs can produce smartphones that run the Android operating system—smartphones that use the Android OS are typically known under the “Android device” moniker.

Google is another smartphone vendor, offering the Google Pixel series. Within the Pixel line up there is currently the Pixel 3 and 3a. The Pixel 3 is currently Google’s flagship smartphone, at $800, with the 3a being Google’s $400 budget phone. Both 3 and 3a have a larger “XL” version as well.

Samsung offers two different popular lines of smartphones: The Galaxy S series, and the Note. As an example, the Galaxy S10 is currently the flagship for the S series, at $900, with a larger variant, the S10 Plus. The cheaper mid-tier version of the S10 is the S10e at $750.

Other smartphone vendors include OnePlus, with the OnePlus lineup; Asus, with the ROG and Zen smartphones; Redmi, with the K20 Pro smartphone, Huawei Mate and P series. Many smartphone companies follow the same trends in terms of flagship, budget, midrange and “Plus” smartphone variants.

Designs and trends

Smartphones have been following distinct trends, including moving certain parts around the phone to make more room for the display. Some trends include:

  • Offering two or three versions of a phone to fit flagship, mid-tier and budget entry points.
  • Having the display take up more room on the phone.
  • Removing as much of a phone’s bezel as possible.
  • Moving away from the “notch” style implementation of keeping the camera, speaker, and other sensors on a top section of the phone.
  • Moving the camera inside the body to be pushed up by a mechanical motor.
  • Moving the camera to a hole-punch in the display.
  • Moving the earpiece speaker grill to areas such as a top slot of the phone.
  • Implementing under-screen fingerprint readers.
  • Face unlock.
  • 90-120 Hz refresh rate.
  • IP68 water resistance ratings.
  • Glass backs for wireless charging.
  • Reverse wireless charging.
  • Fast charging.
  • Virtual assistants.
  • Night mode for cameras.
  • Phasing out the implementation of the headphone jack.
  • Dual SIM card support.


Smartphones commonly use LCD screens in their displays; however, OLED displays are becoming more common, and are preferred by most smartphone manufacturers.

An LCD (Liquid Crystal Display) is a type of flat panel display that uses liquid crystals as its primary form of control. LCDs are lit with a backlight as pixels are switched on and off electronically while using the liquid crystals to rotate polarized light. Polarizing glass filters are placed in front and behind the pixels, and the front filter is situated at 90 degrees.

LCDs are beginning to be outpaced by other display technologies, but still have a place in the smartphone market. Now, LCDs can be commonly found in budget to mid-tier smartphones- as the OLED is a bit more costly.

LCDs have been being replaced in a lot of flagship smartphones by OLED displays, or organic light-emitting diodes. OLEDs are very flexible in terms of how they can be implemented.  

OLEDs use a single glass or plastic panel, compared to LCDs which use two. In addition, an OLED doesn’t need a backlight like an LCD. Because of this, smartphones with an OLED display can be thinner and have much deeper blacks, as each pixel in an OLED display is individually lit. If a display in an LCD screen is mostly black with only a small portion lit, the whole back panel is still lit, which causes some light leakage on the front of the display. An OLED screen will avoid this issue, since it lacks the larger backlight. OLED displays also have better contrast and viewing angles with less power consumption, making for a more premium device.

With a plastic panel, an OLED display can be bent and folded over itself. This can be seen in smartphones, such as the Galaxy Fold in which the entire device folds; or in the iPhone X, which will bend the bottom of the display over itself so the display’s ribbon cable can reach in towards the phone-- eliminating the need for a bottom bezel. In cases where a device folds, the front screen also has to be made out of plastic, so it can bend with the screen-- this means that the display will be much easier to scratch, however.

Smartphone displays have started taking up more space on the front of a device- some smartphones now have edge-to-edge displays. Normally this is measured with a screen-to-body ratio. As an example, the iPhone 11 Pro has an 82.1% ratio. The Samsung Galaxy Note 10 Plus has a 91% ratio. With companies pushing the display to higher and higher percentages, the Chinese company, Xiaomi, announced a phone with a screen-to-body ratio of 180.6%. The Mi Mix Alpha is a smartphone with an OLED screen bent around nearly the entire phone, having a small non-screen band reach around the back for the 108 megapixel camera and 12 megapixel telephoto lens. The device can be turned around, where the user can take a selfie, using the back of the display to see themselves.

Most smartphone displays have a normal, 60 Hz refresh rate; however, some smartphones have started increasing the display’s refresh rate, like the OnePlus 7 Pro, at a 90 Hz. The higher refresh rate makes for a smoother experience because there is less time between each frame. This, however, will consume more battery life.


Cameras on a phone commonly include a normal camera lens, a telephoto lens and a wide-angle lens. A telephoto lens allows users to take a photo of a faraway subject while a wide-angle lens allows the user to take a photo at a wide field of view with a short focal length. On the front-facing screen, there is usually a selfie camera and, in some cases, a wide-angle lens.

Some phones, like the iPhone 11 Pro has three rear-facing cameras, while others, like the Pixel 3 will have just one camera-- relying primarily on computational photography. All smartphones use some level of computational photography, since they don’t operate the same way shutter-based cameras do.

Computational photography is the use of computer processing in cameras to make a better-looking image beyond what the lens and sensor could traditionally pick up in one shot.

Computational photography is used in smartphones since there is less space for a large lens that can enhance pictures. Smartphones also have more processing power over the typical digital camera; meaning smartphones can automate many settings and provide additional photo editing tools. These allow for a better photo-taking experience for the end user. Using image processing algorithms, computational photography can improve images through methods such as reducing motion blur and adding simulated depth of field. Other settings and tools allow users to improve color, contrast and light range.

Some features in digital photography are based on both hardware and software. Take, for example, image stabilization, where the camera’s lens will move to compensate small movements and shakes. The software-side of image stabilization cross-references the picture with data from the gyroscope to make more broad movement stabilization. Smartphone cameras can also take video which makes use of image stabilization. Videos can commonly be taken at 720p at 30 frames per second (FPS), up to 4K at 60 fps.

Some smartphones like the Pixel 3 will also use machine learning to implement features like a depth estimation technique which is used to estimate the depth of elements in an image.

Some front-facing cameras tend to be pushed up to the top of a screen with a notch. The notch will commonly hold the front-facing camera, speaker and other sensors which can be used for features like face unlock. The common trend in smartphones today has been eliminating bezels and the notch to leave as much room for the display as possible. To do this, phone companies have been slowly and steadily implementing new smartphone designs to find the best implementation. Some smartphones such as the Samsung Galaxy Note 10, will have a centered hole-punch cutout for a single front-facing camera. The Galaxy S10 and S10+ will have a hole-punch cutout for its camera and cameras respectively, located in the upper right corner of the display.

Some smartphones will include a feature to flip the rear camera around to become the front-facing camera, such as the Asus ZenFone 6. A mechanical motor is sometimes implemented to eliminate the font notch, such as in the OnePlus 7 Pro. The mechanical motor inside the phone will push the camera up through the top of the phone.

In 2019, the company Oppo announced an under-the-display, hidden selfie camera inside the body of the phone. The phone will use a custom transparent material that has a redesigned pixel structure that allows light to enter through the camera portion of the display.

iPhone vs. Android

Many people may mistake the moniker of an Android device as a specific device similar to the iPhone. However, Android devices tend to be a wide range of devices that all support the Android OS. So, it would be more apt to compare device software. As an example, iOS vs. Android OS.

iOS and Android Software

If a user is basing their smartphone purchase based on software, two of the most prominent ones are iOS and Android. Many people may make a deciding purchase based on the software, but what they decide on is up to preference-- as both OSs operate well. iOS is consistent amongst all iPhones, with changes only taking place in software updates. However, Android devices can vary much more in experience. OEMs have the ability to put a “skin” around the operating system, which can customize the OS experience.

iOS 13 and Android 10 are the most current versions of both OSs. Android has also moved away from naming their OS updates after deserts. Popular past android food updates included Pie, Cupcake, Éclair, Ice Cream Sandwich and Lollipop.

iOS 13 updated features included:

  • Updated photo app user interface (UI)- which uses the iPhone’s AI to curate the user’s photo library.
  • A dark mode- which turns parts of the UI black or grey.
  • Sign In with Apple- which allows users to use a unique, randomized email and password generated by Apple, increasing security.
  • Revamped Apple Maps- including new street level imagery.
  • Swipe keyboards

Updated Android 10 features included:

  • Dark mode
  • Live captions- which uses machine learning to display audio as subtitles without the need for an internet connection.
  • Focus mode- which allows users to hide notifications and apps temporarily.
  • Expanded Smart Reply- which now supports messaging apps such as Whatsapp and Messenger.
  • Support for folding phones
  • Support for 5G

Android 10 will be available for devices such as the Google Pixel, Asus Zenfone 6, Huawei Mate 20 Pro, the Xiaomi Pocophone F1 and OnePlus 6, 6T, 7 and 7 Pro.

Cellphone vs. smartphone

A cellphone is simply a telephone that doesn't need a landline connection. It enables the user to make and receive phone calls. Some cellphones also offer text messaging.

A smartphone has more advanced features, including web browsing, software applications and a mobile OS. In turn, a smartphone also offers capabilities such as support for biometrics, video chatting, digital assistants and much more.

Smartphone history

The first smartphone was IBM's Simon, which was presented as a concept device -- rather than a consumer device -- at the 1992 COMDEX computer trade show. It was capable of sending emails and faxes, as well as keeping a calendar of events for the user, as opposed to simply making calls and sending messages.

Consumer smartphones evolved away from personal digital assistants (PDAs) around the turn of the 21st century when devices such as the PalmPilot began to include wireless connectivity. Several manufacturers, including Nokia and Hewlett Packard, released devices in 1996 that were combinations of PDAs and typical cellphones that included early OSs and web browsing capabilities. BlackBerry released its first smartphones in the mid-2000s, and they became very popular with consumers and in the enterprise.

Many of these early smartphones featured physical keyboards.

In 2007, LG released the Prada and Apple released the iPhone, the first smartphones to feature a touchscreen. HTC released its Dream smartphone a year later, which was the first to include Google's Android OS.

Other significant advancements in the history of smartphones include Sony's release of the Xperia Z5 Premium phone with a 4K resolution screen in 2015. Networking advancements in Wi-Fi and LTE have also progressed over the years, improving the connectivity of smartphones for faster use. In 2019, folding smartphones have started being released, such as Samsung’s Galaxy Fold.


This was last updated in October 2019

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