The best guide to buying smart phones

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Choosing a smart phone seems to be an exercise which becomes more complicated each year as phones become increasingly advanced. Just when a buyer thinks he has all of the information he needs to make an informed decision, some sort of new feature becomes all the rage. When one considers that the computer which flew the astronauts to the moon had less computing power than a four-function calculator, it’s amazing to consider what the modern smart phone can do and how far technology has come in just the last decade regarding these amazingly useful handsets.

Choosing the Most Important Features

Each smart phone user is going to utilize his or her phone for a different purpose. While some users may simply use their handset for phone calls and texting, other users might want to have as much power as possible packed into their device. This means that the first thing to do when searching for a new phone is to identify the most important features that one desires, and to then base their search off of those parameters.

For example, battery life, large screen resolution, and app functionality might be the most important features for one user, while another person might be more focused on call quality and the weight of the phone. Given all of the variables available in purchasing a smart phone, it makes sense to list one’s “must haves” and to then look at phones that provide all of those needs. There’s very little reason to compromise on phone features with all of the different devices that are on the market today.

Operating System

Everything that a smart phone can do as well as its compatibility with various apps and programs is dependent upon its operating system. Depending on what a user might want to do with his or her phone, getting the right operating system is important. Although many app creators are starting to make their applications available for the widest possible market, the iOS (from Apple) still has a significant lead in overall available applications. Android is catching up to Apple’s popularity, while Windows and Blackberry are a little further behind.

The most common operating systems are:

Android – A very customizable open source operating system that is easily changed, manipulated, and molded to fit whatever functionality you have in mind. Android has true multi-tasking capabilities and the second largest app store.

iOS – A closed platform. All applications look and function with the continuity of the Apple operating system in mind. IOS is a very secure and stable environment with little customization features. The screen is much smaller than most of it’s competitors, but the iPhone has the largest app store and selection of available accessories.

Windows and BlackBerry – The two other major smartphone platforms (Windows and BlackBerry) also have individual perks, but realistically it is too early to call whether they will be successful since they haven’t reached the level of app proliferation of Android and the iPhone.

Carriers and Plans

Not all smart phones are available from every single carrier. If a buyer has been a customer of a particular cellular service provider for years, he or she might be reluctant to change companies just to accommodate the need of a new phone. While not all smart phone users are particularly loyal to their carriers, there are often discounts and loyalty coupons that come with repeat business with a single carrier. This may mean that a buyer could pick up a more expensive phone with those discounts applied. Taking a quick look at available phones is a good idea when beginning the smart phone search.

Another decision that will be required once a buyer has settled on a carrier is which plan will be appropriate. Group plans that offer users the ability to put all of their devices on the same account along with data usage are starting to become popular, but whatever data plan is chosen, it needs to be monitored after the smart phone purchase to ensure that excessive data usage doesn’t drive up bill cost. Keeping an eye on data usage is very important to avoid overages, and smart phones typically come with simple features to help users keep on top of their usage with ease.

Call Quality

Smart phones can do some amazing things, but at their very core they are still used as a communication device. Using a smart phone like a traditional telephone remains one of its most popular uses. A cool design and some great apps can’t make up for poor call quality. Finding a way to test out different phones and their call quality is a worthwhile investment of time. Fortunately, most cell phone providers do offer retail outlets where phones can be tested. Beyond pushing all of the buttons on the device, it’s important to make sure call quality is tested as well.

Exterior Design and Physical Appeal

A simple scan of available smart phones from any major carrier will usually showcase phones in just about every color of the rainbow. While choosing the color might be fairly simple, the actual feel and look of the phone when it’s used can be a little more complex. Smart phones with keyboards will usually be thicker (the keyboard is often housed in slide-out form) while phones that offer a hefty battery life will be heavier as well.

Another element of design which is important is how the phone actually feels when it’s in use. With some phones, there is a distinct feeling that the components are very plastic-like and that the materials just don’t feel solid and durable. The feel and weight of the phone along with its tactile appeal is definitely another reason to hold the phones in person before any purchases are made, so even if someone ultimately makes their purchase online (usually to take advantage of special deals), going into a brick and mortar operation to hold the phone first is important.

Battery Life

Batteries seem to be a topic of contentious debate within the smart phone world. The only solution seen thus far for such issues has been the addition of a larger battery on the smart phone, which has resulted in some rather hefty devices. While a heavier device isn’t likely to bother everyone, holding a phone up to talk when it feels like a brick can annoy some users.

The issue that drains a battery the most on a smart phone is the use of applications, so if a person is only talking on the phone as their primary use for the device, sometimes that big, heavy battery and phone aren’t actually required. There are simple ear pieces that can help with excessive phone weight so that the device can be placed in a purse or pocket during use, but being able to hold a light and spry phone is more convenient.

Display and Screen Resolution

Many smart phone manufacturers today are seeking ways to enlarge the screen size without making the phone the size of a tablet device. This has led to some crossover options that have hovered between the size of a tablet and a smaller smart phone, allowing for some of the increased functionality that would be available on a tablet but would still be unavailable on a smaller smart phone interface.

The addition of just a fraction of an inch of screen space doesn’t seem like it would make a big difference, but observing two phones next to one another makes the difference surprisingly apparent. After several years of offering a 3.5″ screen and a 480×320 resolution, the latest Apple iPhone made the jump to a 4″ screen and a larger resolution of 640×1136. Some initial complaints regarding the iPhone 4S when it came out revolved around the smaller screen size even though the resolution had been enhanced by that point.

Generally, most of the screen sizes of the newest smart phones on the market are going to be at least 4″ while some of the hybrid or cross-over phones might get as large as 4.3″ to 4.8″ or even larger on a select few. The best screen size to choose is often going to be a decision made in tandem with the choice regarding the overall size of the entire device. Not everyone has the room to carry around what is essentially a small tablet computer.


All smart phones today have a camera built in. Some manufacturers will even tout the cameras inside these phones as being great devices, but it usually will not have a heavy impact on the purchase decision. Cameras within smart phones will continue to be handy features, but they still are not a proper substitute for a stand-alone camera.

Basic Technical Information

Two commonly discussed features of a phone are its processor speed and how much storage the device offers. With each passing year, the phones are getting faster and it’s easy to figure out whether a phone will have a large amount of storage within it because it will be much more expensive. Doubling the storage space tends to add about a hundred dollars onto the overall purchase price. Getting the most storage isn’t always the most important factor in choosing a phone, but it is an important factor for anyone with significant multimedia and music collections that they want to store on their smart phone.

Regarding speed, the idea that “faster is better” is always going to be appropriate. Whether someone only uses their phone occasionally for its advanced features or whether someone is on the internet all the time and plays games on their phone every day, a fast processor will be noticeable. Today’s phones have processors within them that rival the power of a desktop computer from just a few years ago (or around 1.5GHz or higher) and so they are virtual powerhouses in a tiny size.

Advanced Technical Specifications

Terms like “4G” and “3G” are bandied about with regularity in most commercials for smart phones, but these terms are fairly easy to understand in that a 3G connection is one that would allow a maximum of 400kbps, while a 4G connection is supposed to be much faster and offer increased performance and speed for apps and communication.

There hasn’t been a lot of conformity regarding the implementation of 4G as a standard speed. The additional designation of “LTE” is thought by some to be a good indicator of whether a 4G phone is in fact a significant upgrade over a 3G device. The reasons why a smart phone user might want to seek out a 4G network will generally include web surfing, big downloads and big streaming habits.

One of the most important issues regarding 4G availability and choice is whether a buyer’s chosen cell phone carrier will offer a 4G network. Not all carriers offer the widest availability of such networks, so if someone lives in a particularly remote area, issues with 4G availability could become a problem.

Other technical elements which might be under discussion during a smart phone purchase are whether a phone is CDMA (Code-Division Multiple Access) or GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications). The easiest way to understand these phone types is that a CDMA phone is going to keep its number associated with the actual handset, while a GSM phone will have a device called a “sim card” installed within it that houses the phone number and account information. In recent years, the majority of device manufacturers have moved to a GSM device standard