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Operating Systems Give Phones Personality

Funny how a pair of smartphones from the same handset maker come across so differently. The Hero from Sprint is generally a pleasure to use and a credible new rival against BlackBerrys and iPhones. AT&T's Pure, on the other hand, reminds me of cranky child. The two phones are sired by HTC of Taiwan.

The disparity has less to do with hardware genes - or the wireless carriers peddling the new devices - and more to do with the mobile operating systems at their core.

Hero, which arrives Oct. 11 for $180 after rebates, represents a fresh approach to Google's still relatively youthful Android operating system. The Pure, available now for $150 after rebate, runs the latest Microsoft Windows Mobile operating system, version 6.5.

Android is primed to make some noise. Besides Hero, a bevy of devices are set to arrive shortly, including the Cliq from Motorola. This week Google and Verizon Wireless announced a partnership that will result in more co-branded Android smartphones. And, though neither company is commenting, a report in The Wall Street Journal says a Dell-AT&T Android phone is coming next year.

And then there's Microsoft. A lot of Windows Mobile phones have been sold through the years, many to corporate customers. But the cumbersome software lacks mass appeal.

Version 6.5 is prettier than previous iterations: You can slap on a "Start" page designed by Isaac Mizrahi, for example. But in too many respects, the phone is a clunker. Not only is there a stylus, I actually had to use it to tap the tiny X to close out of some screens. The keyboard drove me nuts.

A closer look at the siblings:

Hero. The stately Hero is packed with features you expect from a smartphone: Wi-Fi, GPS navigation, music downloads (via Amazon's MP3 Store), stereo Bluetooth, and push e-mail - which works with Microsoft Exchange. You can sync it up with Gmail, Google Maps and other Google services.

The phone is simply and functionally designed. Slightly raised call and end buttons flank a trackball below a 3.2-inch multitouch display. Clickable menu, home screen, back and search keys are flush against a metal finish. It also has a 5-megapixel still and video camera, but the camera on my test phone was damaged, so all the images were blurry.

Hero is light on supplied memory (2 gigabytes) and battery life (up to four hours of talk time). But the battery is removable, and you can expand the memory with optional MicroSD cards.

Hero has a customizable feature called Scenes that gives you a different look depending on what you're up to. When I chose a "social" scene, icons for "people" (an integrated contacts list), sending messages, the Web browser and a camera appeared. Switch to "work" and my next business appointment was prominently displayed, along with icons for e-mail and Google Maps.

As with the earlier Android phones from T-Mobile, you can drag a list of notifications down like a window shade, or slide your finger to the left or right to move from the "home" screen to others. HTC gives you up to seven panels for custom Android and HTC widgets. You can access some 8,000 applications through the Android Market.

Data plans start at $70 a month.

Pure. Though late to the party, Microsoft's new Windows Marketplace for Mobile is welcome, with the usual collection of free and for-pay apps found on rival smartphones. There are just shy of 250 apps at launch. The store has a slick interface similar to Microsoft's Zune portable media players. Microsoft also uses this interface on its start page. Alternatively, you can use HTC's TouchFlo 3D design, which sports a prominent digital clock and a row of simple icons.

As part of Windows Mobile 6.5, Microsoft added a free service called My Phone that lets you sync, back up and, should you lose your phone, restore contacts, pictures, etc. A premium version ($4.99 for seven days) lets you remotely ring the phone, wipe out data and show its location on a map.

The black slab is comfortable to hold, but remarkably you need to use an adapter to plug in standard 3.5-mm headphones. You'd think by now that manufacturers would learn. As with its HTC sibling, the Pure has a 5-megapixel still and video camera and expandable memory (only 512 MB are on board). Other features include GPS and an FM radio.

I didn't love the Web experience despite the presence of two browsers, Microsoft's own Internet Explorer (with flash support) and a mobile browser from Opera. You can slide your finger just below the 3.2-inch display to zoom in on text, but it was not as friendly as browsing on an iPhone or even the Hero.

Worse, setting up everything from Wi-Fi to e-mail was more complicated than on rival devices. Talk time on the battery exceeds five hours. Wireless data starts at $30 a month for an individual, $45 a month for a business.

The Hero is worth considering. Pass on the Pure.

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