The Difference Between PDA Cell Phones & Smartphones

By Gina Poirier

Is it a smart phone or PDA?
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When shopping for handheld technology, it can be confusing when you come across industry terms like "PDA" and "smartphone." What is the difference and which type of device better suits your needs? There are no standard definitions that completely separate the two; in fact, they are becoming more alike as the technology evolves. To best understand what differences do exist, you can examine the origin of the two terms and what roles they have played in the industry.

Traditional PDAs

PDA with stylus.
i pda image by T.Tulic from <a href=''></a>

PDA stands for "personal digital assistant." They function like small computers, running operating systems and software; most are also capable of Internet access. Traditionally they require the use of a stylus to operate, but many now have keyboards or touchscreens. Originally they were not designed as phones but primarily as pocket computers. PDAs with phone call capabilities came later.


Smartphone with full keyboard.
i modern smartphone image by Albo from <a href=''></a>

Smartphones are primarily cell phones with some computing capabilities. You need a wireless provider to use one. They are usually smaller than PDAs and have less computing power. Users direct operations with a keypad or touchscreens. Smartphones generally do not have the same software capabilities and computing power as PDAs --- such as the ability to view and edit documents and spreadsheets.

PDA Cell Phones

As the industry has evolved and consumers demand powerful, multi-functional and compact devices, PDAs have changed to operate more like smartphones. While many models traditionally did not have phone capabilities, most new models do. Their primary function remains computing, however, so PDA cell phones are generally bigger in size and more powerful than smartphones.

Merging Definitions

As technology advances, smartphones are becoming more powerful and PDAs are becoming more compact. Sometimes the terms are used interchangeably. In the future there will likely be little to no difference between the two devices.