Three 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.
3. Find the right design
Buying a cell phone means entering a deeply personal relationship with a highly portable physical object. That’s why you should think hard about how it’s designed, since you and it will be spending plenty of quality time together. 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.
Key consideration points
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 real estate envelope 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 and Apple’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)
Thanks to the swelling number of gargantuan smartphones hitting store shelves, compact cell phones are a shrinking segment of the mobile handset market. That said, 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. For more on specific display technologies, check out the “deeper dive” section at the end of this guide.
The beating heart of any phone is its processor or CPU. It provides the computing power to churn through various tasks, like opening and 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 prowess. 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. Read on and see the bottom section for more details.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 snazzy features in the world won’t be able to help you. 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. For more about carriers and networks, see the next section.Figure out if you’ll be sticking to urban centers or trekking through rural areas often. Perhaps you won’t even leave your home neighborhood much or, conversely, you plan on doing plenty of international trips. With your wireless usage in mind, settle on a carrier that offers coast-to-coast coverage (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, or T-Mobile). Alternatively, you may be satisfied with a regional carrier that covers a limited area.