What is the difference between smartphones and cellphones?

There was a time, not that long ago when most people used to have mobile phones primarily manufactured by companies like Nokia, Sony Ericsson, Motorola and some others. While phones from these companies are still available (except Sony Ericsson phones now replaced by Sony phones), we do have a lot more choices. There are new leaders in the market and we have new categories like iPhones, Android, Windows phones etc. Do you sometimes wonder how it all changed? Well, let’s first get some terminologies right. Mobile phones and cell phones are the same things; the mobile phone is a term that is more common in the UK and Europe, whereas the cellphone is a term that is more common on the US side. The smartphone is a type of mobile phone and the simpler phones that were more common over a decade ago are now called feature phones. So in other words, both smartphones and feature phones can be termed mobile phones or cellphones.

Now that we have clarified the terminologies, let’s get into the actual details. Before the launch of 4G networks, a few enhancements like HSPA (High-Speed Packet Access) were added to the mobile networks which improved the mobile data (internet) quality considerably. As mobile internet became more common, we were able to browse the web and stream videos in good quality directly from our mobile phones. The demand for ‘staying connected’ increased lots of people started using mobile phones for online communication including emails. In 2007 with the iPhone launch, the industry changed in favour of mobile phones that allowed people to do more online activities than just voice calls and SMS (Short Message Service). Those computer-like mobile phones that we most of us use nowadays are called “smartphones”.

Smartphones are advanced cell phones that have computer-like capabilities in addition to the basic phone features; simpler cell phones that only allow voice calls, SMS and basic online services are called feature phones. All smartphones are cell phones but not all cell phones are smartphones.

Just like computers, these phones have a microprocessor, RAM, internal phone storage, and external storage (e.g. SD card). These smartphones have web browsers and also a vast number of mobile applications (or apps) easily available from the app marketplace commonly referred to as app stores. These mobile apps are able to use device capabilities and computing power to perform many tasks, just like computers do by using the software. Many business applications including security apps can run on these phones also. Smartphones are quite common nowadays and there are many phone manufacturers out there. As a result, the prices for smartphones vary quite considerably also.

Nearly all smartphones have touch-screen capability. Smartphone users can make and receive regular voice calls, and send and receive text messages (SMS). In addition, the users can also access advanced applications and browse the web just like on a computer. Through the use of specific apps, smartphones make it easier for users to access internet-based voice calling and messaging services such as WhatsApp. Email and satellite navigation are among the other services that smartphones enable in an easy to use way.

How do smartphones work?

A smartphone user, just like any mobile phone user, requires a connection which they can get from a mobile operator or service provider. Once the service is enabled (through a plastic SIM or eSIM), the smartphone can connect to the mobile network and get access to all the services including phone calls, text messages, and the internet. The traditional voice calls typically take place on the circuit-switched part of the mobile network. Smartphones can use multiple technologies for getting access to web services.

The packet-switched part of the mobile network enables internet connectivity through 2G, 3G and 4G technologies like GPRS, EDGE, HSPA and LTE. But smartphones are also WiFi capable so they can connect to any available hotspots. Most smartphones nowadays have embedded GPS capability (Global Positioning System) which enables satellite navigation for the users. It is worth highlighting that the packet-switched technology GPRS and the satellite technology GPS are two completely different technologies and it is important not to get confused between the two. Smartphones also have specific applications for email services with the ability to send push notifications to the users, so they know when they receive emails.

Depending on the phone manufacturer, you may have different mobile operating systems (OS). The two most prominent operating systems are Android and iOS that make up for the majority of the mobile OS market share. Other operating systems include but are not limited to Windows, Series 40, Symbian and Blackberry. iOS is from Apple for iPhones, while Android is from Google and used by a number of manufacturers including Google themselves (Google Pixel), Samsung, Huawei, Honor and a few others. The mobile apps for any operating system can be downloaded directly from their respective app stores.

What about the simpler phones?

While smartphones are the norm nowadays, there are still people who prefer to use simpler mobile phones also known as feature phones. Feature phones provide basic features such as voice calls, text messages, and possibly limited web services. Typically, a customer can make and receive phones calls by using buttons instead of having to swipe somewhere on the screen. They can also send and receive text messages through the traditional SMS service (Short Message Service). Feature phones also include built-in mobile applications and a web browser. All the mobile applications are installed on the feature phones directly by the manufacturer, and the users are not required (or able) to download or install any apps.

Just like any mobile phone, the customers require a SIM card to go into the mobile phone in order to connect to the network. Once the service is enabled, the feature phone can connect to the mobile network and use its services to make and receive phone calls, and send and receive text messages using the circuit-switched part of the mobile network. It can also use the packet-switched part of the network to use the internet-enabled applications and mobile web browsers. Some feature phones also have WiFi capability which allows them to connect to the fixed wireless internet. Most feature phones come with a built-in FM radio as an added value.

As feature phones are slightly smaller in size as compared to smartphones, it is easier to find phones that feel comfortable in hands. By the same token, you need to make sure that the phone has a decent-sized dial pad and a large enough screen. Some feature phones also have assistance features for the elderly. That allows an elderly family member to simply press an SOS button to trigger a phone call to any pre-selected emergency contacts.


In summary, smartphones are advanced mobile phones or cellphones that have computer-like capabilities in addition to the basic phone features. These phones allow you to do most of your online work like web browsing, using online applications (apps), watching videos etc. Basic phone features like voice calls and SMS are also included. The other simpler phones that just allow voice calls, SMS and basic online services are called ‘feature phones’.

Here are some helpful downloads

Thank you for reading this post, I hope it helped you in developing a better understanding of cellular networks. Sometimes, we need some extra support, especially when preparing for a new job, studying a new topic, or maybe just buying a new phone. Whatever you are trying to do, here are some downloads that can help you:

Students & fresh graduates: If you are just starting, the complexity of the cellular industry can be a bit overwhelming. But don’t worry, I have created this FREE ebook so you can familiarise yourself with the basics like 3G, 4G etc. As a next step, check out the latest edition of the same ebook with more details on 4G & 5G networks with diagrams. You can then read Mobile Networks Made Easy, which explains the network nodes, e.g., BTS, MSC, GGSN etc.

Professionals: If you are an experienced professional but new to mobile communications, it may seem hard to compete with someone who has a decade of experience in the cellular industry. But not everyone who works in this industry is always up to date on the bigger picture and the challenges considering how quickly the industry evolves. The bigger picture comes from experience, which is why I’ve carefully put together a few slides to get you started in no time. So if you work in sales, marketing, product, project or any other area of business where you need a high-level view, Introduction to Mobile Communications can give you a quick start. Also, here are some templates to help you prepare your own slides on the product overview and product roadmap.

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