Menu

How to Buy a Smartphone

  • Category: Buying Guides

By Jamie Lendino

If you thought choosing a smartphone was difficult last year, it's even tougher now. That's a good thing, though, because it means innovation in the wireless industry has skyrocketed. All four major U.S. carriers have stepped up their data network speeds. The latest crop of Android smartphones is more diverse and powerful than ever. And Apple's game-changing iPhone 4 has finally made it over to Verizon Wireless, opening up access to another 90 million customers.

But not everyone in the industry has met the same level of success this year. Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 and HP's webOS have been struggling to stay in the game. Research In Motion is paddling furiously to stay afloat with an aging BlackBerry lineup. And Nokia sold its Symbian soul and threw in with Microsoft; as a result, Nokia won't be a player in the U.S. for at least another six months.

Taken together, these massive changes make most of the old advice about choosing a smartphone obsolete. So let's throw it all away and start over. What should you be looking for when buying a smartphone? Here are seven key points to consider:

Carrier
Despite all the hardware and mobile software innovation, your wireless service provider remains your most important decision. No matter which device you buy, it's a doorstop unless you have good wireless coverage. Maybe you have friends and family on the same carrier that you talk to for free, and you don't want that to change with your next phone. Maybe you're lusting after a certain device—say, an iPhone, or an unlocked smartphone for international travel. And of course, you want to choose a carrier that offers fair prices, and provides the best coverage in your area. These are all good reasons to put the carrier decision first.

We have two major features to help you choose. For our Readers' Choice Awards, more than 10,000 PCMag.com readers told us which carrier they prefer based on coverage, call quality, device selection and other factors. And for our 2011 Fastest Mobile Networks feature, we're sending drivers to 21 U.S. cities to scope out which smartphone carriers have the best Internet access.

Operating System
Sometimes, a platform's user interface or app selection just speaks to you, and that's all there is to it. With that in mind, and at the risk of attracting flames, let's break it down as well as we can for those who aren't so fully vested.

At the time of this writing, Google's Android and Apple's iOS have the buzz. The iPhone has the best app store, the smoothest user interface (which some people don't like, but many do), and the best media features. But the iPhone limits you to Verizon and AT&T's 3G data networks, and Apple's tightly controlled ecosystem can feel stifling. Android sales have now surpassed the iPhone, and you can buy Android phones on all seven of the top U.S. carriers. Many Android phones offer rich features like high-speed 4G Internet, dual-core processors, 4-inch screens, and free GPS navigation, and Android's open-source nature makes it a tweaker's dream. But it also means fragmented third-party app compatibility, occasional bugs, carrier-installed bloatware you can't remove, and scattered, sporadic OS updates.

Don't get us wrong: there are other solid smartphone platforms. But there are issues with each. BlackBerrys still command hefty U.S. market share and work as well as ever, but RIM's star is fading as attention shifts away from email and enterprise-managed devices. Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 is surprisingly polished and easy to use, but Microsoft hasn't sold many units yet. HP bought Palm last year, but we're still waiting to see new WebOS devices beyond the disappointing Veer. Nokia still dominates outside of the U.S., but sales continue to erode here, and now the company is in the middle of a complex transition to Windows Phone 7. Perhaps most importantly, none of these platforms have nearly the same level of third-party app support as iOS or Android.

Form Factor
Touch screens allow for slimmer devices, smoother user interfaces, easy Web browsing, and a quality video-playback experience. And thanks to a lack of hardware buttons, third-party app developers can design their dream control schemes without worrying about differences in button layouts. But, for some, typing on a touch screen can be a drag. Hardware QWERTY keyboards are easier to type quickly on, and are still ideal for many messaging fiends. But hardware keyboards either add bulk, in the case of horizontal and vertical sliders, or they reduce screen real estate, in the case of BlackBerry-like slabs. A few oddball designs tilt upwards like the Nokia E7.

Apps
For many folks, apps are the primary reason to get a smartphone. If that describes you, go iPhone or go Android. Apple's App Store leads with more than 300,000 apps that are put through a rigorous quality check process. The iPhone also plays the best games. Android Market is catching up quickly, though. Many independent developers like the freedom Android Market offers, as Apple can put the kibosh on whatever app category it feels like (such as vintage game console emulators), but not all apps run on all Android phones; there are so many phone models that maintaining quality control is tough. Other smartphone OSes can run apps, but there are much fewer available, and usually don't match their iPhone or Android counterparts in sheer power.

Call Quality
These things are still supposed to make calls, right? For voice quality, check the individual phone reviews. Wireless network coverage is always the biggest factor. But individual phones can vary in reception, earpiece quality, transmission quality through the microphone, and side-tone (the echo of your own voice that helps prevent you from yelling at the other person). A phone with middling to poor reception quality can be almost impossible to use in a marginal coverage area, while one with excellent reception can make the best of the little signal that's available. Another point to consider: some phones have much louder speakerphones than others. A few have buggy Bluetooth stacks that make pairing with headsets and in-car hands-free stereos a pain.

Up-Front Prices
Cell phones are more expensive than they appear. American wireless carriers subsidize the price of handets, in exchange for signing customers to binding two-year contracts. That's why you can get a phone like the powerful HTC Inspire 4G for just $99 on AT&T, even though the phone's actual retail price is $449.

Still, amortize the up-front cost out over two years, and it pales in comparison to what you'll pay every month. Look at it in that light, and maybe it makes sense to splurge up front to get the awesome HTC Thunderbolt or Apple iPhone 4 you really want, while maybe paring back your minutes or an extra feature or two to hold monthly costs in check. (Or just go with a cheaper carrier. More on those in a second.) Unlocked phones such as the Samsung Galaxy S II lack subsidies and cost the most up front, sometimes well in excess of $500. But they let you swap in any AT&T or T-Mobile SIM card, as well as use any prepaid international cards that help you save big when traveling. Unlocked phones don't work on other American carriers, though.

Monthly Fees
This is where things gets tricky, as the carriers make it exceedingly difficult to figure out how much you'll actually pay per month. Verizon and AT&T plans tend to cost the most, but those two carriers have the best voice and data coverage in the nation. Sprint and T-Mobile offer considerable savings, especially on unlimited voice, data, and texting plans, but don't have quite the same level of network coverage.

Don't want to play the contract game at all? Go for a smaller carrier or even a prepaid phone. We're beginning to see prepaid smartphones appear everywhere, especially on smaller regional carriers like MetroPCS, U.S. Cellular, and Cricket Wireless. If you live in an appropriate coverage area and don't need a cutting edge device, the potential savings can be huge. Even phones with contracts on the smaller carriers like MetroPCS can run as little as $40 or $50 per month, and that's with unlimited voice, data, and text messages, and no extra taxes or fees.

Which Smartphone to Get?
Well, that depends on the factors discussed above, but our recent phone round-ups and top products lists are a good place to start your search:

The Best Android Phones
Phones with the Best Battery Life
The 10 Best Touch-Screen Phones
The 10 Best Phones with Keyboards

For more phone reviews, news, and tips, check out the Cell Phones Product Guide.