How Are Cell Phones Different From Smartphones?

Is a Cell Phone the Same As a Smartphone?

Young woman browsing in phone store
Echo / Getty Images
Was this page helpful?

Nearly everyone knows what a cell phone is. It's the small device you can hold in your hand that lets you make phones calls on the go. However, adding the word "smart" in the mix can be confusing - aren't all phones smart?

Distinguishing between the two terms is more or less something of semantics. It doesn't actually matter that much if we call a Galaxy S a cell phone one day and a smartphone the next.

However, below are some tips to help you understand why some people use the word cell phones and others use smartphones, and why a smartphone is sometimes called a cell phone but not vice versa.

Note: Some cell phones are called cellphones (no space) or cellular phone. They all mean the same thing and can be used interchangeably.

Smartphones Are Like Computers

You can think of a smartphone like a miniature computer that can also place and receive calls. Most smartphones have a virtual store of thousands and thousands of apps that let you turn your phone into something much smarter than a regular cell phone. This is where we get the term "smartphone."

Some smartphone apps include games, image editors, navigation maps, and multiple web browser options. Some phones take this a step further and provide you with a built-in virtual assistant, like Apple iPhone's Siri, something that everyone can agree makes a phone much smarter than one without it.

Another way to grasp the differences between a smartphone and a cell phone is to realize that a smartphone has the ability to function as a cell phone but not all cell phones have the ability to function as a true smartphone. In other words, a smartphone can make calls like a cell phone, but a cell phone doesn't have a "smart" touch to it, like an assistant, for instance.

Though there lacks an industry-standard definition of a smartphone, and therefore no clean cut way to draw a line between the two, another simple way to tell a cell phone apart from a smartphone is to determine whether or not the device has a user-friendly mobile operating system.

They Have Different Mobile Operating Systems

A mobile operating system is much like what’s powering your personal computer at home or work, except that it's built for mobile devices. Both cell phones and smartphones have mobile operating systems.

For example, your computer is most likely running Windows or macOS, or possibly Linux or some other desktop OS. However, your mobile operating system might be iOS, Android, Windows Mobile, BlackBerry OS, or WebOS, among others.

Mobile platforms work entirely different than desktop ones because they are built with the intention that the menus, buttons, etc., will be touched instead of clicked. They're also built for speed and ease of use. 

The difference in a cell phone's operating system versus that of a smartphone's can, again, be determined by the usability of the software. iPhone and Android phones are typically accepted as the masses as being relatively easy to use by most users.

This is because the platform is built specifically for mobile use.

When it comes to a regular cell phone (one that isn't "smart"), the operating system is usually very bland and straightforward, with minimum menus and virtually no play for customizing things like the virtual keyboard.

Does It Really Matter What the Differences Are?

There really isn't any reason why it matters to know the difference between a smartphone and a cell phone. I can say "I lost my cell phone on the train yesterday. I really wish I could find it. I miss having my Google Maps app." and it clearly states that I am talking about my Google Maps app, which is only available for smartphones.

However, the device is still a cell phone in the sense that it can make phone calls.

Therefore, if a phone can do more than just make simple phone calls, you can probably get away with calling it a smartphone. Does it have a dedicated calculator app? What about a calendar app? Can you check your email? Most phones on the market can do all of those things, so most of the cell phones out there are considered smartphones.

To ease (or maybe compound) all the confusion on what a smartphone can mean compared to a simple cell phone, remember that they're both technically mobile phones too!

Something else to remember is that an iPod isn't synonymous with a cell phone or a smartphone, but it's certainly thrown around as if it is. Like I mentioned above, a mobile phone (i.e. cell phone or smartphone) is a device that can make calls. iPods cannot make phone calls like a regular phone, so they are not the same.

This is another place where confusion may creep in, is if someone calls their iPod or tablet a smartphone just because it's a smart device and looks similar to an iPhone or other type of smartphone.

Quick Facts About the History of Mobile Phones

IBM designed the first smartphone in 1992, called Simon. The smartphone was presented that year as a concept device in Las Vegas at the computer industry trade show known as COMDEX.

The first cell phone, on the other hand, was demonstrated 19 years prior. Motorola employee Dr. Martin Cooper, on April 3, 1973, called researcher Dr. Joel S. Engel of AT&T’s Bell Labs using a prototype from Motorola called the DynaTAC.