Review: Buying Guide: Mobile Phones

Phone shopping is more complicated than it was in the days when a dial tone was all you needed.

Today’s devices are multifaceted communication tools that do far more than simply make and receive calls. (Some don’t even do the calling part all that well, figuring that you’d rather text your friends anyway.)

That, combined with a sudden explosion of OS options, apps and skins, have made deciding which phone to buy as complicated as shopping for a computer.

Here are some pointers for picking out a calling/texting/surfing/tweeting device for this holiday season.

What Are Your Carrier Options?

In our guide, we start with the carrier, because it’s the largest single factor determining how happy you will be with your phone. (Just ask the millions of iPhone users stuck with AT&T.)

Hardware exclusivity agreements mean that it’s entirely possible the phone of your dreams won’t be available on your network of choice. If that’s the case, you may just have to deal with an inferior carrier in order to get the phone that you want.

But don’t be fooled, there is no perfect wireless carrier. Knowing that, let’s have a look at the four main options for U.S. customers.


AT&T offers a solid nationwide voice network, with a steadily improving 3G data network. Though spotty data coverage is still reported in problem areas like San Francisco and New York — thanks in part to overwhelming demand for the iPhone — AT&T remains one of the more accommodating carriers for traveling overseas.

Exclusive phones: iPhone 4, BlackBerry Torch
Hidden perks: Sells cheap iPhone refurbs (with warranty!) through the website.
On the horizon: Forthcoming 4G data network (LTE) due by summer 2011.


Sprint is known for its speedy data network (it was the first to offer next-generation 4G coverage), lax credit requirements, push-to-talk offerings and passable voice network. Customer-service ratings haven’t been the company’s high point, though.
Exclusive phones: HTC Evo 4G, Samsung Epic
Hidden perk: Already offers 4G coverage in 55 markets.
On the horizon: Steady expansion of its 4G footprint throughout 2011.


T-Mobile positions itself as the cost leader in the wireless game. Setbacks like smaller voice and data networks are offset by cheaper calling plans, compelling handsets, overseas support and high customer-satisfaction ratings.
Exclusive phones: T-Mobile G2, HTC HD7
Hidden perk: Offers contract-free calling plans, and some of the cheapest smartphone promotions this holiday season.
On the horizon: 3G coverage expansion and speed upgrades. (Wait, didn’t we say that last year?)

Verizon Wireless

Verizon prides itself on its reliable voice and data coverage, and its network is the most extensive of the U.S. carriers — but it comes at a price. The tradeoffs include a paucity of overseas-ready handsets, less-than-blazing throughput speeds and pricey calling plans.
Exclusive phones: Droid X, Droid Incredible
Hidden perk: Online phone purchases often offer instant rebates instead of mail-ins.
On the horizon: Forthcoming 4G data network (LTE) in mid/late 2011.

Basic Features

Once you’ve picked a carrier, you need to decide which phone to get.

Let’s face it: If you’re reading this guide, a smartphone (with advanced web browsing, e-mail and music features) is probably what you want. Unless, that is, you’ve decided to ditch your smartphone for a tablet.) Besides, it’s likely you already have a handle on universal goodies like caller ID, speakerphone and voicemail.

Here are four important smartphone features worth considering.

Operating system

Operating systems are more and more relevant for smartphone shoppers. That’s not just because the OS determines how easy it is to use your phone’s basic functions (though that’s part of it), but also because the OS determines which add-on apps you’ll be able to use (see below for more on that).

Apple, Google and Microsoft have released polished, full-featured OSes in the form of iOS, Android and Windows Phone 7. Apple and Microsoft have focused on uniformity in looks and functionality with their OSes, while Google is more laissez-faire with Android. In use, this means the look and basic functions of iOS and Windows Phone 7 handsets are the same across a family of devices, while individual Android phones like the Nexus 2 and the Droid Pro sport entirely different layouts and menus (called ‘skins’).

Some consumers have found the differences between Android’s various skins confusing, so make sure to research whether your carrier actually offers the right hardware/skin combination you prefer.

Much like Apple and Microsoft, Nokia’s overhauled Symbian^3 and RIM’s Blackberry 6 are noteworthy “uniform” OSes, although in use we’ve found them less polished and user-friendly than Android and iOS.

Text entry

Virtual keyboards, QWERTY keypads and everything in between appear on handsets now. Before choosing a device, consider how its entry mode(s) will affect your usage. Are you heavy texter or e-mailer? The speed and accuracy of a physical QWERTY may be the way to go. Want quick, seamless access to your calendar, music and pics? Stylishly whisking around on a touchscreen might suit you better.

Some people find that typing on a virtual touchscreen “keyboard” is actually easier than with a physical keyboard. Our advice is to test out a few different kinds of phones and see how you like their keyboards, physical or otherwise. And keep in mind that physical keyboards can vary wildly.


Practically every gadget doubles as an MP3 player and digital camera now. In searching for a phone, consider the multimedia capabilities you’d like crammed in. For the richest experience, we suggest a handset with five or more megapixels that’s capable of recording 720p video. As far as memory, we’ve found that 16 GB or more is a good start for storing a modest helping of music, video and apps. Remember, the more multimedia chops your phone sports, the less gadget clutter you have to worry about dragging along with you at all times.

Also, as streaming video services like Netflix and Hulu start to pop up on mobile devices, you’ll want to be well-positioned with a capable handset.


Now that you’ve taken care of the core concerns, it’s time to think about the goodies. Before chasing the most expensive, feature-filled handset on the market, consider what extras you’ll actually need and which ones you’ll find handy down the road in your contract.


Sure, it’s not nearly as widespread as 3G (much less 4G). Wi-Fi should still be one of your first choices when it comes to extra features. When hotspots are available (say, at your home, office, or local Starbuck’s) Wi-Fi provides much faster download speeds than 3G.

Another potential advantage of Wi-Fi support: In addition to sucking down a Wi-Fi signal, a phone with a Wi-Fi chipset is at least theoretically capable of broadcasting its own Wi-Fi signal, turning itself into a hotspot. When combined with a 3G or 4G cellular data connection, that means your phone can provide internet connectivity to your laptop or other gizmos, a feature that’s often called “tethering.”

Each carrier has put the kibosh on Wi-Fi tethering at one point or another, but providers like Verizon and Sprint are starting to ease up on their restrictions (for a fee). Unless you have an Android phone, which has tethering built in to the latest versions, you may need to download an app and/or jailbreak your phone in order to make it work. Check the specs for tethering capabilities if you want to be sure.


If web surfing is even remotely appealing to you, you’ll want high-speed data service. Trust us, the fleet-footed download speeds are worth it. Although the unlimited all-you-can-surf plans are quickly becoming scarce, there’s a price plan out there for everyone. Here’s a quick breakdown on speed and pricing:

Current Data Network: 3G
Quoted Speeds: 700 Kbps to 1.7 Mbps download; 500 Kbps to 1.2 Mbps upload
Price: Around $35 for unlimited e-mail and web

Current Data Network: 3G
Quoted Speeds: 600 Kbps to 1.4 Mbps download; 500 Kbps to 800 Kbps upload
Price: $30 for unlimited e-mail and web

Current Data Network: 3G + 4G in select markets
Quoted Speeds: 3G: 600 Kbps to 1.4 Mbps download; 350 Kbps to 500 Kbps upload 4G: 3 to 6 Mbps download, and 350 Kbps to 500 Kbps upload
Price: $60 for unlimited 4G or 5 GB of 3G coverage

Current Data Network: 3.5G
Quoted Speeds: 4 to 5 Mbps download; 1 to 3 Mbp upload
Price: $30 for unlimited web if paired with a calling+text plan


Extending your inbox has never been easier. Even budget handsets offer rudimentary web-based options, while upscale devices sport dedicated e-mail support and push updates from multiple inboxes. It’s worth noting that each OS tends to handle message management a little differently. For example, iOS and Blackberry 6 have unified inboxes that group together e-mails from various accounts, while Android sports one app for Gmail and a generic “E-mail” app for other accounts. As a general rule, if staying on top of mission-critical e-mails 24/7 is crucial for you, then we suggest a unified inbox. Otherwise, the minimal work of hopping between and setting up periodic syncs works just fine.

While most smartphone OSes support “push” e-mail, some systems do it better than others. If you really want your phone to beep every time you get a new message, and you want it to happen reliably, BlackBerry is hard to beat. But if you’re not a stock trader, other OSes probably provide as much speed as you need.

App stores

Want to transform your phone into a gaming system, nightlight or pedometer? Then you want access to downloadable apps. Phones running software from Apple, Google, Microsoft, RIM and Nokia all offer options. Tread carefully, though: Not all apps are created equal. Apple’s app store has far more selection than any others, with more than 300,000 apps. The Android store is No. 2 with 70,000. Laxer oversight in the Android Market means that apps may be available there that Apple has forbidden in its own store — but it also means Android apps can sometimes be less polished and more buggy.

While selection isn’t everything (do you really need 42 different “pull my finger””apps?), it does make a difference: The more apps a store has, the more likely it is to carry what you want.


Newer, faster alternatives to traditional GPS have turned smartphones into navigation powerhouses. Though navigation services like assisted GPS, or A-GPS, (which uses cell-tower triangulation and Wi-Fi hotspot data to supplement signals from GPS satellites for more precise positioning) are becoming the norm, their reliance on wireless coverage can be a bit of a crutch in remote areas.

If wireless coverage isn’t an issue, then indulging in an A-GPS-powered handset and all of its location-based services (FourSquare anyone?) is a good choice. However, if you spend a lot of time off the grid, we wouldn’t recommend ditching a regular old satellite-pinging GPS unit for a smartphone.

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