Your phone is now the most important gadget in your life. With hundreds of handset options, and given the accelerated pace with which new features are adopted, it’s a huge challenge to simply “pick a phone” — especially since carrier contracts are structured to last 12 to 24 months. A lot of it comes down to the hardware and software of the handset itself, but equally so, your choice should be dependent on what you use a phone for — are you a talker? A super-Instagrammer? Do you do blog from your phone? Here’s what you need to know before picking the device that will live in your pocket for the next two years.
What operating system should I go for?
The three major smartphone operating systems (iOS, Android and Windows Phone) each have their strengths and weaknesses. The iOS experience is the most polished — it’s easy to use right out of the box. It has the widest selection of apps (over 650,000) and many of the apps work in tandem with other Apple products. Each new version of iOS is backwards-compatible with several previous generations of hardware, so you’ll be able to keep your iPhone’s software up to date for at least two years before needing to upgrade to a new handset. Android is tops when it comes to customizability and choice — and integration with all things Google. You can nerd out with custom ROMs and skins, or overclock your handset if you’re a performance wonk. Also, the Android platform offers the widest range of hardware choices. Unfortunately, when it comes to getting the latest version of Android on your device, you’re at the behest of hardware makers and carriers. Even if Google releases an Android update tomorrow, you may not see it for another month or two. One exception is with Google’s own Nexus range of devices, which always receive Android updates first. There are hundreds of thousands of apps available for Android phones on Google Play, and there’s very little you can do with iOS that you can’t do with Android. Historically, the Android platform suffers from more malware problems than the other platforms. Windows Phone offers a pleasant compromise between the boxed-in iOS and the wild west of Android: a standard software experience and a decent amount of hardware choices. The large, blocky Live Tiles of the Windows Phone home screen also make a fine antidote to iOS and Android’s tiny icons. But app options are significantly more limited right now, and the Windows Phone store is missing key apps in most categories. One area where you’re covered: productivity. The new Windows Phone 8 mobile OS promises tight integration with other Windows 8 devices and other Microsoft services, so you’ll be able to access and edit MS Office docs on your phone, as well as talk to all your other Microsoft-powered hardware and software. Blackberry: We can’t recommend buying a Blackberry device right now, especially with a 2-year commitment. The future of the platform is too uncertain.
Does It Matter What Carrier I Choose?
Absolutely. Data plans, coverage, and pricing vary widely from carrier to carrier, as do the handsets offered by each. For a 4G LTE phone — and you will want a 4G phone — Verizon still has the most robust network, covering roughly 400 markets and 260 million people. AT&T and Verizon are the best when it comes to reliability. Sprint is rapidly rolling out its LTE network, and T-Mobile will begin deploying its own LTE infrastructure in 2013. Other smaller or regional carriers like Cricket and MetroPCS also offer 4G smartphones on both a contract and pre-paid basis, but they typically don’t have the hottest, newest hardware. Verizon carries a number of flagship Android handsets, such as the Samsung Galaxy devices and the Motorola Droid line. T-Mobile traditionally offers some steals on Windows Phones, and it has great Android options, too. If you want an iPhone, those are limited to AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and some regional carriers.
Is a Bigger Display Always Better?
If watching videos on YouTube or Netflix is high on your priority list, you may want one of those lusciously large 4.5-inch plus Android handsets. But if your hands are on the small side, you may have trouble navigating onscreen buttons one-handed with a large screen. The latest iPhone, although sporting a 4-inch display, still maintains a thumb-friendly width, and it’s comfortable to use with one hand. Samsung’s Galaxy Note series of phones have massive 5-inch screens which most people need two hands to use, but which make it easier to watch videos and read lots of text.
What’s in a Display, Anyway?
There are two main breeds of screen: AMOLED and LCD. AMOLED displays (and their next-gen counterparts Super AMOLED and Super AMOLED Plus) are generally found in Samsung and Nokia handsets. They offer rich, vivid colors and don’t consume a lot of battery. We’ve found Nokia’s version of AMOLED to perform better in bright sunlight than Samsung’s. There’s also a subset of AMOLED called “PenTile” that’s less sharp. LCD displays tend to have more realistic, less-saturated colors, and IPS (in-plane switching) LCD displays like the iPhone’s have really nice contrast. The sharpest screen? The iPhone’s Retina display is the best we’ve seen, especially when it comes to reading text.
Multi-Core and Megapixels: What Specs Should I Care About?
Smartphone makers like to throw a lot of specs out there to make their phones sound more impressive, but there are only a few that really matter. For top performance, especially if you plan on doing a lot of mobile gaming, you’ll want at least a dual-core processor. Multi-core processors simply allow more advanced tasks to be handled by the phone at the same time, improving not only the performance of games and apps, but also making scrolling and swiping seem natural and seamless. Some phones boast three or four cores, but most people don’t need anything more powerful than a dual-core processor. Storage is another biggie — 16GB is enough for most people, but the best phones accept microSD cards so you can add more. As for the camera, 8 megapixels is the standard these days, but the quality of different 8-megapixel cameras varies wildly. Look for test images and reviews that talk about low-light performance, because this is where crappy cameras suffer the most. NFC (near-field communications) is a wireless technology included in some Android and Windows Phone handsets. NFC lets you pay for things at the point of sale by tapping your phone against a special nub on the cash register. You can also use NFC to wirelessly transmit photos, contact info and files between devices of the same make (like two Samsung Galaxy phones, for example). It’s slowly being adopted by retailers and phone-makers, but for now, its uses are limited.
Your not just buying a phone, you’re buying into a platform. If you already have other Apple hardware in your home, iOS makes sense. Likewise, if use Google’s services all the time and you love the fully-synced experience they provide, go for Android. Do you live for Windows 8, Xbox, SkyDrive, Exchange, and Office? Windows Phone is for you. For screen size, start with a 4.2-inch screen and then try bigger screens until you find the one that’s most comfortable to operate using only one hand. Don’t settle for less than a dual-core processor, and get a phone with at least 16GB of storage capacity (but you should always buy the most data storage you can afford). Any phone priced at $100 or more should have an HD screen. Steer clear of phones that offer anything less than 1280 x 720 pixels — videos and text will look blurry otherwise. Lastly, you definitely want a phone with 4G network capability. You can study carrier coverage maps online, but the best advice will come from your friends who live in your city. Ask them which carrier they use and how they feel about coverage, speed, price, and customer service.
Photo illustration by Simon Lutrin/get-gadget