Cell phones have become the most crucial personal technology purchase you can make. Not only are these devices full-fledged miniature computers in their own right, they’re getting smarter with each product generation. But choosing the best one sometimes remains undecided or need a little more guidance. Well, then read on for expert advice on how to buy the best cell phone for you.
3 key phone shopping essentials
1. Don’t be a cell phone cheapskate
Because of the way most people buy phones in the U.S. under a two-year contract chances are that once you commit to a handset, you’ll probably have it for a while. Unless you’re buying an unlocked device that’s not subsidized or a basic feature phone, it makes sense to spend as much as you can. This will help your handset stay fresh for a long time.
2. Know what phone features you want
If you understand exactly what skills and abilities you’d like to see in your new phone, it’ll help you avoid paying too much for features you don’t want or need and you won’t be using them even after your phone is functional with them.
3. Find the right design
Buying a cell phone means entering in a deeply personal relationship with a highly portable object. That’s why you should think hard about how it’s designed, since you will be spending plenty of time with it. Make sure you’re comfortable with the way it looks and feels in-hand, and make sure it reflects your sense of style. This holds true whether you use a sleek iPhone, cutting-edge Android, simple flip, or armor-plated rugged handset.
Cell phone types
At the top of today’s handset pecking order is the smartphone. These devices by definition run true mobile operating systems such as Apple’s iOS, Google’s Android, and Microsoft’s Windows Phone and typically have the most power,not to mention top-notch components such as processors, memory, screens, and connections to fast wireless data. They also support downloadable applications via virtual stores tied to their associated software platforms. Because of all their capabilities, smartphones are usually the most expensive phones on the market.
Messaging or feature phones
One step below smartphones, feature phones strive to offer many of the same abilities that their more pricey siblings do. Instead of popular mobile operating systems, these gadgets run proprietary software crafted by hardware manufacturers for example, Samsung or LG. Many feature phones tend to be made primarily for text messaging and e-mail, sporting full QWERTY physical keyboards.
There are plenty of people who have no interest in running apps on their mobile device or viewing full desktop-quality Web pages . Simply they just want a phone for making phone calls. While basic handsets have been eclipsed by smartphones, they’re uncomplicated, use traditional simple keypads, and are designed to do one thing. That is, to make and receive voice calls reliably and with excellent audio quality.
Key consideration points
1. Screen size
Large screens (4.7 to 5.5 inches)
The current rage among mobile phone design, especially in advanced Android smartphones, is having a massive display. We consider any handset with a screen of 4.7 inches or greater to be on the top end, both in terms of physical size and display dimensions. Some gadgets such as the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 (5.5 inches) and LG Optimus G Pro (5 inches) push the screen to new heights, almost reaching a tablet level of functionality and girth. Keep in mind, however, that while devices with larger screens offer a bigger view, they are also harder to manipulate in one hand and can be uncomfortable to hold for long periods when you’re making a call.
Medium screens (4 to 4.5 inches)
Sitting in the cell phone size sweet spot are devices with screens ranging from 4 to 4.5 inches. Phones in this middle category typically strive to balance the high degree of engagement and entertainment a larger display brings while still remaining practical. Motorola’s Droid Razr M andApple’s iPhone 5 are good examples of this approach, offering large high-resolution screens that users can grip with one hand while their thumbs can comfortably reach all portions of the display.
Small screens (under 4 inches)
Compact cell phones are a shrinking segment of the mobile handset market. Some people still place portability highest on their list of phone features. If you’re one of these individuals then we suggest limiting your shopping to devices that have screens that are 4 inches or less. Models such as these, like the BlackBerry Q10 for example, are extremely pocket-friendly, yet they manage to pack a full QWERTY keyboard.
The beating heart of any phone is its processor or CPU. It provides the computing power to churn through various tasks, like running applications. A fast processor also has a big impact on overall performance, such as how smoothly a phone handles flipping through menus and running home screens. Traditionally, clock speed, listed in GHz, has been the quick way to judge CPU power. These days a chip’s architecture, specifically how many computing cores it has, is becoming a more reliable predictor. Another factor is that older processors tend to use less efficient designs, making them worse performers while being harder on batteries than their newer counterparts. We talk more about processors below.
A phone’s camera depends on a whole host of variables. Though you might think that more megapixels is better, that’s not always the case. You can get sharper images from a 5-megapixel camera than from an 8-megapixel shooter, so it’s better to concentrate on other specs.
There are other factors to keep in mind, though, such as the quality of the lens, which could aid the sensor by exposing it to more light. The sensor itself might also offer a lower pixel count, but be more sensitive to illumination, resulting in better performance under low-light conditions.
Many phones ship with fancy image processors such as those from HTC and Nokia which promise high image quality, plus the horsepower to drive the camera and auto focusing systems faster. The end result is nimble shot-to-shot times with minimal shutter lag.
If your cell phone battery conks out, all the features in the world won’t be able to help you. Now manufacturers have begun to recognize the critical importance of battery life and are squeezing greater capacity batteries into their phones. Typical phone batteries start in the neighborhood of 1,700mAh capacities and go all the way up to 3,300mAh.
Manufacturers list battery performance in terms of talk time, standby time, or by how many hours you can expect a device to perform tasks such as playing video and music.
Choosing a wireless carrier is perhaps the most difficult aspect of shopping for a cell phone. In many cases you don’t have much of a choice since you’re likely locked into a two-year contract and will pay a hefty early-termination fee if you cancel before your time is up. That said, when selecting a carrier, first on your list of criteria should be coverage. You’ll want a carrier with decent coverage in your home, at work, and all the places in between.
Figure out if you’ll be sticking to urban centers or trekking through rural areas often. With your wireless usage in mind, settle on a carrier that offers coast-to-coast coverage.
Short for liquid crystal display, LCD screens have come a long way from the alarm clocks and digital wrist watches of the 1980s. Today’s smartphone LCDs offer HD resolutions of 1,280×720 pixels or higher and come in sizes of up to 4.7 inches. Traditional weakness of LCD technology has been its use of an external backlight for illumination. This results is shallow viewing angles and lower contrast compared with AMOLED displays.
Apple uses what it calls Retina Displays in its latest iPhones. Essentially this is a clever marketing phrase to say the iPhone sport LCD screens with 326 pixels per inch (ppi). Of course as a way to describe screen quality, ppi isn’t quite cut and dried. Samsung’s Galaxy S4 for example has a higher ppi of 441, a larger display and higher resolution (1,920×1080, 5 inches). The HTC One on the other hand uses a 4.7-inch display (1080p) yet offers the highest pixel density of all three phones (468 ppi).
Long billed as the screen technology destined to replace LCD, active matrix organic light-emitting diode displays (AMOLED) use organic chemicals as the material to generate light. Much like neon light fixtures and plasma HDTV screens, AMOLED displays use OLEDs to create light when they’re exposed to an electric current. Since they don’t rely on backlights for illumination, AMOLED screens tend to have higher contrast and more-vibrant colors than LCDs. LCDs use liquid crystals to twist shut and block out light from LEDs placed behind them.
The current CPU smartphone king, at least for Android devices, is the Snapdragon family of processors. The quad-core Snapdragon 600 powers high-octane devices such as Samsung Galaxy S4, HTC One, and the LG Optimus G Pro. The 1.5GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro found in the LG Nexus 4, Sony Xperia Z, and HTC Droid DNA, is slower yet still potent.
As well as displays and memory components, Samsung makes its own processors under the Exynos brand. Its most recent Exynos chip, the 1.9GHz quad-core Exynos, gives the Galaxy S4 its muscle and is one of the first phones to lean on four computing cores.
The A6 is Apple’s latest wafer of processing silicon to grace the company’s newest handset, the iPhone 5. So far all we know about the A6 is that Apple says it’s twice as fast as the A5 chip that powered the iPhone 4S.
Operating system and software platform
Though it had a later start than Apple’s iOS, Google’s Android operating system has taken the lead both in terms of the number of products it powers and the number of individual users who rely on it. Android’s freshest version, 4.2 Jelly Bean, first officially ran on the LG Nexus 4 but landed on other phone models such as the HTC One Google Play Edition and Samsung Galaxy S4 Google Play Edition.
Ever since the first iPhone, iOS has been the software powering Apple mobile devices. The current version, iOS 6, notably made waves when it dropped support for Google Maps in favor of Apple’s own Map solution.
Apple recently unveiled iOS 7 as well which is expected to arrive by the fall of 2013. It features a cleaner, more modern UI along with a host of improvements including a new “Control Center” settings menu.
Microsoft has been trying to convince phone users to buy devices running its software for almost a decade. The company’s current Windows Phone 8 mobile operating system is the most compelling yet, with its new support for HD screens, multicore processors, and NFC.
BlackBerry, once the premier brand of mobile communication devices, has been in dire straits lately. While many BlackBerry owners in the U.S. have landed to either the Android or iPhone, the company hopes to reverse its fortunes with BlackBerry 10.BB10 does provide a much improved interface, browsing, and application-friendly platform than the company’s aging BB7 products. That said, the operating system which currently ships on the BlackBerry Z10 and BlackBerry Q10, lags far behind iOS, Android, and even Windows Phone 8 in terms of its app selection.
Cutting-edge phone features
Short for “near field communication,” NFC is a technology that has found its way into most current smartphone product lines except the iPhone 5. NFC enables fast data exchanges between devices over short distances, just by tapping handsets together. While NFC is behind solutions such as Google Wallet mobile payments and Android Beam, it’s not clear if there is strong consumer demand yet for NFC. One application that looks compelling is the ability for NFC to make pairing with other wireless devices, such as speakers and headphones via Bluetooth, simpler and more hassle-free.
Wireless charging isn’t a new ability. Toothbrushes and other household appliances have been able to perform this trick for years. It’s been slow to catch on with phones, however, despite the greater need for constant power on the go. Hopefully the Nokia Lumia 920 will change things for the better. Not only is this Windows Phone 8 handset able to pair with accessories in a snap via Bluetooth aided by NFC, the gadget supports for inductive charging too. Simply place the phone on accessories like pillows, mats, and countertops to power up, sans cords.
Bluetooth and hands-free audio
Connecting mobile phones to accessories such as hands-free headsets has been available for years. Bluetooth is changing with the times, though, supporting new gadgets such as wireless stereo headsets and fitness trackers like the Fitbit Zip and Fitbit Flex. Additionally, Bluetooth version 4 promises to greatly improve battery life in supporting wireless phone accessories.