So you need a smartphone, and you need it now. Maybe it’s your first phone, maybe your contract is up for renewal, or maybe you just dropped the last one in the toilet. Fear not. There are a lot of good options out there and we’ve got a quick guide about how to choose a smartphone that should help you out.
For a more in-depth look at what the cell phone market has to offer, take a look at our cell phone reviews and our guides for the best cell phones, best Android phones, best BlackBerry phones, best Windows phones, best AT&T phones, best Sprint phones, best T-Mobile phones, and best Verizon phones.
1. Figure out what your needs are
Do you need a phone with a large screen, small screen, a physical keyboard? Maybe you absolutely need BB messenger, Exchange support, or a phone with an awesome camera. Figure out what matters most to you and write it down. Your decisions here will affect everything that is to come.
2. Choose an operating system
There are four main smartphone choices today: Android, BlackBerry, iOS, and Windows Phone. Brief descriptions of each are below.
Android: Developed by Google, this is an open source operating system that runs on the majority of new phones.. Android has a robust apps store called Google Play filled with Google services. Visually, it’s similar to iOS, but adds customizeable homescreens and widgets which show things like the weather. The main issue with Android is that because it’s open source, manufacturers like Samsung and HTC often modify its design and functionality, sometimes to the detriment of usability.
BlackBerry: If you’re hooked on BBM or love physical keyboards and small screens, BlackBerry may be for you. The OS is made by Canadian company Research in Motion and helped kick off the smartphone revolution years ago, but has had difficulty keeping up lately. Most BB devices have slower hardware and lack some of the core amenities that Android and iOS offer. BlackBerry 10 will supposedly fix most or all of these issues, but we don’t know enough about it yet.
iOS: The iPhone is the only phone that runs iOS and Apple plans to keep it that way. The iPhone kicked off the app revolution and in its fifth year, it is still the standard upon which all other phones are measured. If you own other Apple devices or enjoy services like iTunes, the iPhone may be a good option for you. It doesn’t allow as much geeky tinkering as Android does, but it has a clean, simple design and an app/game catalog that bests all other mobile platforms.
Windows Phone: After the failure of Windows Mobile, Microsoft started from scratch and built Windows Phone, which is based almost entirely on the Zune MP3 player interface. Windows Phone is the only OS to employ a new type of interface. Instead of relying on a grid of shortcuts and a notification tray, Windows Phone uses Live Tiles, which are half app icon, half widget. Everything on your homepage can display moving information or graphics.
3. Choose a wireless carrier
Unless you’re buying an iPhone or Galaxy, your carrier will determine your phone selection. And, for some of you, switching carriers is not an option. Here in the US, our wireless carriers rule everything. AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon are the major networks, but some smaller regional carriers and MVNOs (networks that piggyback on one of the majors) like Boost, Ting, MetroPCS, US Cellular, and Cricket exist, but hold very small market shares (and generally their phone choices aren’t the best). Every carrier has a different set of phones for sale and its nearly impossible to buy a phone on one carrier and take it to another.
Below is a quick rundown of the big four. Obviously, coverage will vary depending on where you live. We recommend you find a way to test each network at your home and place of work to ensure it’s a good fit for you. Try inviting a friend over, or asking your neighbors or coworkers.
AT&T: AT&T has the largest variety of phones available. If you’re interested in Windows Phone or smaller handset makers like Sony and Nokia, this is the place for you. AT&T doesn’t seem to turn ideas down. It was also the first, and is still the premiere, home for the iPhone. AT&T has a 4G LTE and 3G HSPA+ network and is attempting to catch up with Verizon in LTE deployment. AT&T, along with Verizon, dominate the market.
Sprint: Sprint is struggling and has been for several years now. It hasn’t been able to keep up with AT&T and Verizon when it comes to high-speed 4G network deployment, despite being first to deliver 4G (WiMax) through its partnership with Clearwire. Sadly, the service’s availability hasn’t moved beyond major metropolitan areas. An LTE network is in development. Sprint has the iPhone and many Android devices, but a very limited selection of Windows Phone and BlackBerry handsets.
T-Mobile: It’s hard to say where T-Mobile is right now. It does not have a high-speed LTE network or the iPhone, so that makes it a tough choice for many people. After AT&T failed to take over T-Mobile, the little carrier did get a big $4-6 billion dollar present and some valuable spectrum that should help it begin building out LTE service. T-Mobile is the most flexible carrier where it relates to plans and prices, and its Android, Windows Phone, and BlackBerry selection is solid.
Verizon: Verizon is the most expensive carrier, but it’s also the only carrier in the US with a nationwide 4G LTE network capable of delivering speeds faster than most people’s home Wi-Fi. It’s phone selection is also good, though it does tend to brand everything with the name ‘Droid’ and drench its phones in greys, reds, and blacks. Verizon has the iPhone, Android devices, and many BlackBerry devices, but it is curiously lacking Windows Phones.