mHealth - Hardware

Due to the rapidly-changing nature of the mobile device market, this section does not address specific products within the market. General categories of devices will be described, with their individual merits and issues discussed at some length.

There is a lot of change taking place within the mobile market.  Some phones are getting simpler while others get more complex or "smarter".  Touch screen phones occasionally look like small tablets while tablets start to look like large phones.  Some tablets have removable keyboard docks while some laptops can be used without their keyboard.  Laptops and desktop PCs both allow users to access cellular and wireless signals as easily as a phone or tablet, while some phones can only be used on limited networks.  New terms are being coined to reflect these adaptations, such as "phablet" and "hybrid", yet the basic categories still remain:

Cell phones

The cellular phone has been around in the consumer market since 1983.  In the years since its introduction, the cell phone has developed from a relatively simple and straightforward device for making phone calls into a complex, miniature computer that provides a full range of audio, video, photography, and software services.  Within the cell phone market, there are several categories of product that are significantly different from one another.  

The main categories for cellular phones are simple phones, feature phones, and smart phones.  The smart phone market is the one that most US-based consumers will be familiar with, and is where most of the advertising and development money is being spent. Users in developing countries will likely be most familiar with simple phones and feature phones.  There are tradeoffs between each of these cell phone platforms.  

Simple Phones

Over time, the initial phone developed in its ability to support additional features, including built in contact lists, support for Short Message Service (SMS) or "text messaging", and an increasing number of applications and services.  Simple phones are still used in significant quantities throughout the developing world, as many countries do not have cellular networks that can support the bandwidth demands of other, more advanced cell phones.  There is also a growing niche market within the US and abroad to produce simple phones for the elderly and for those who either do not want or cannot afford expensive data plans typically associated with modern smart phones.

Feature Phones

New marketing terminology was developed as the number of supported applications on cellular phones increased, resulting in a collection of phones that had more complex graphical user interfaces (GUIs) for applications, offered games and calendar services, and provided a limited ability to access the Internet.  These phones are still widely distributed throughout the United States and the world as lower-cost alternatives to the wide range of smart phones.

Smart Phones

Modern smart phones typically consist of a multi-core processor with a touch-screen interface, and support a wide range of software applications and peripheral interfaces. These devices typically connect to high-speed cellular networks and allow switching to a Wi-Fi access point for Internet use and various web-based services and systems.  The products often use one of six predominant operating systems - Android, Blackberry, iOS, Web OS, or Windows - though the majority of the smart phone market consists of iOS and Android devices.  The current trend for most smart phone designs is to increase the screen size and the resolution of any built-in cameras.


Once derided as underpowered laptops without a keyboard, modern tablets have become increasingly popular alternatives to cell phones and laptops in some market segments.  These products often include a processor that is more powerful than a smart phone but less than a PC or laptop, utilize an operating system with a touchscreen interface, and support a range of peripherals and attachments.  Some products support cellular service and Wi-Fi interfaces, while others only offer Wi-Fi options for connecting to the Internet.  The standard form factor for tablets, which once was focused on screens that had a diagonal screen measurement of at least 10 inches, has become less clear.  Some manufacturers are producing sub-10 inch products in the 7-inch range, which has created a new marketing term for the "phablet", or phone-tablet.  Others designs focus on creating tablets with options for keyboard-based docking stations.


Some technologists would hesitate to place laptops into the category of mobile devices, as they tend to have more in common with desktop computers in terms of processing power, operating systems, and user interfaces. It can just as easily be argued that laptops fit within the mobile descriptor as some devices have built-in cellular connectivity, others can be connected to cellular networks with a USB attachment, and a trend has been developing to produce lighter and smaller laptops in the netbook and ultralight category.  Hybrid laptops also provide the option of rotating the keyboard to the back of the device, turning the screen into a touch interface very similar to that found in tablets and smart phones.


A wide range of products are offered as peripherals to mobile devices, with functions including protecting the device, personalizing it, providing additional input or output options, and transmitting medical data.  An increasing number of peripherals are used to collect information related to patient health, including heart rate, blood pressure, and glucose levels, among other data.

Medical Peripherals

Medical peripherals include devices that can be found in a consumer's home as well as a clinical setting.  Examples of these products include pulse oximetry monitors, blood pressure monitors, and Bluetooth-enabled scales.  Additional devices are being released, such as multi-parameter vital signs monitors, that provide integration with electronic health records or mobile devices. 

General Peripherals

The mobile device peripheral market is vast, with a range of cases, covers, carriers, attachments, and input mechanisms available.  Cases can be bought to protect the devices from accidental damage due to dropping.  Different attachments exist to make the tablets and laptops easier to hold with one hand.  Styluses support easier interaction with drawing and annotating applications or various checkbox-intensive forms, while keyboards and mice can wirelessly connect with many devices to ease text input and data entry.  Other devices exist that make it possible to connect laptops and other mobile platforms to cellular networks.  These USB adapters, or "dongles" as they are sometimes called, make it possible for mobile platforms to access data when a Wi-Fi signal is not available.