While this Friday's iPhone upgrade offers intriguing improvements over the first version launched last year, the competition hasn't been sitting still, either. Alternatives to Apple's popular handset all come with a touch-screen similar to the iPhone's. It's hard to beat Apple's user-friendly software, but these rivals offer unique features, from 3-D graphics to on-the-go television. Here are five promising competitors:
Samsung Instinct ($130 from Sprint)—A strong argument for this phone is Sprint's remarkably straightforward plan of $100 a month for all the calls, messaging, and Web browsing you can eat. The 3-inch screen is sufficient for using the phone's software, which includes well-integrated E-mail functions and visual voice mail. The messages are listed by date, time, and caller. You'll also want to tap Sprint's 3G network with an unlimited plan because the phone doesn't include Wi-Fi for accessing the Internet at home or at free hot spots. Price reflects a two-year contract and rebate.
LG Dare ($200 from Verizon Wireless)—A tinkerer's delight, this handset offers a drag-'n-drop interface for customizing menus, a drawing pad for creating your own works of art, and high-end camera settings, such as a choice of ISO (if you don't know, the phone may not be for you). The high-quality, 3.2-megapixel pics are a highlight. The camera also features a slow-motion video mode that shoots 120 frames per second. The video is somewhat grainy, and it's fun to slow-play at 15 frames a second, but we're not sure that it's useful. The 3-inch touch-screen is a bit unresponsive, the E-mail application is pretty basic, and other software is unremarkable. Also, there's no Wi-Fi support. Price reflects a two-year plan and rebate.
HTC Touch Diamond ($700 online)—The prettiest face yet on Windows Mobile, the full-featured handset includes animated graphics that mimic flipping through stacks of folders or images. Contacts, for example, become a pile of photos that you flick through by using a finger. The handset also comes in a bit smaller than its competitors—4 by 2 inches versus the iPhone's 4.5 by 2.4 inches—making it easier to slip into a hip pocket. The slimmer look also means a smaller, 2.8-inch screen (versus 3.5 inches on the iPhone), which can make Web browsing more awkward. The price reflects buying an unlocked version from online dealers. U.S. release at subsidized prices is expected later this year.
LG Vu ($300 from AT&T)—The 3-inch touch-screen excels at controlling one of the phone's distinguishing features: watching live broadcast television on the go. An antenna pulls out to draw in channels from CBS, Fox, ESPN, and the Comedy Channel. The phone can also send or receive one-way video streams from other handsets. Tactile feedback offers a little buzz when a key is hit, which many may find helpful or distracting. The TV feature is nice, but if you're happy with AT&T's coverage and plans, why not just get an iPhone? Price reflects a two-year contract and rebate.
Sony Ericsson Experia X1 (price and carrier to be announced)—A high-resolution touch-screen is just one navigation option. A hardware QWERTY keyboard that slides from under the display gives the X1 unsurpassed messaging strength among this group. Square panels organized in a grid offer one-touch access to applications, putting a more efficient skin on the Windows Mobile software underneath. But the skin can't fully hide the awkwardness of Windows on a mobile handset. Adding the keyboard also makes the phone about a quarter-inch thicker than other touch-screen models, which doesn't sound like much but can mean a difference of 40 percent. The phone will most likely be offered by T-Mobile or AT&T later this year.