Finding the right phone is hard. No matter which wireless carrier you’re on, there are dozens of choices and even the nicest store agent is hard to trust. Everyone has a phone to sell or a commission to make. Few of them have the time to really help you make a decision that will affect the next two years of your life. That’s why we’re here to help.

At Digital Trends, we write our product reviews to provide you with insight into both a product’s technical performance, and its usability. To that end, we go beyond specs and measurements by placing emphasis on the user experience. For smartphones, that means taking a close look at all the small things that, taken together, make the difference between a phone you can live with and a phone you’ll love. Here’s how we test the phones we review.

We do have a number of phones that we like, check out our list of the best cell phones on the market — our list does cover every major carrier.

Unboxing

The first thing we generally take a look at, but rarely report on, is the boxing. We check how well the phone is boxed up and what cables and doodads the manufacturer has included in the box. Usually, it’s just a charge cord, but occasionally, manufacturers get generous. Unboxing does not heavily factor into the review process unless a vital component is missing or inadequate.

Design and feel

The first thing we note about a device is how good it looks and how well it appears to be made. We attempt to decipher what materials the casing and other components are made out of, how sturdy (and reflective or fingerprint resistant) the screen is, how heavy the entire phone is, how easy it is to access the battery, and the general placement of key buttons, ports, and other physical attributes. If, for example, the rear speaker is in a bad location, it may be muffled every time you set your phone down. We also look at common problems like poorly placed power and volume buttons or a physical frame that’s difficult to hold, uncomfortable, or displaying any number of other problems. We try to look at all these factors to determine if your $100 to $300 (with a two-year contract) investment looks and feels as good as it should and will hopefully last.

Hardware specs

We note the internal specifications of the hardware as best we can based on information from the manufacturer, from other sources, and from the device itself. While listing off specs is not helpful to everyone, they are helpful to some of you. More importantly, we try our best to examine how those specs affect the experience of using the phone. Is it sluggish? Can it multitask? How does it perform when we try to load a difficult game? Publicly available benchmark tests like Quadrant are also used to provide a bit of context for those who like numbers.

Operating system

Having a phone that looks good and feels great is one thing, but if it’s running a poor or outdated operating system, then it might as well be a $700 paperweight. We’re intimately familiar with every major smartphone operating system, from Android to iOS to webOS, and even BlackBerry and Windows Phone. We know them all, and we know our history too – Windows Mobile, Series 40, Series 60, QNX, Zune, iPod, Palm, Treo, Brew, we’ve used them all.

We note changes made to the operating system and how those changes may affect your experience using the phone. Some operating systems (Android) allow every manufacturer to tinker and toy with the way the OS looks and works, creating subclasses of operating systems with names like Samsung TouchWiz and HTC Sense. We tell you when a particular modification may get in your way or not deliver on its own promises. Manufacturers and wireless carriers also regularly install a number of apps on phones. Some are useful, but others are put on the phone to make a few quick bucks. We note when it’s possible to remove this “bloatware” and which of it may get in your way.

When the operating system is affected by external factors, for example, a touchscreen that is unresponsive or too large, we note this as well.

Camera

While a smartphone camera certainly doesn’t compare to a DSLR, more and more people are using their phones as their primary camera. As such, we’ve ramped up our testing of smartphone cameras in the last year. We have a standard set of shots that we take with each device, including macro, landscape, portrait, outdoor, indoor, night, low lighting, and shots with the LED flash (assuming the device has one). We also do some light examination of said shots on a PC to look for things like red-eye reduction, detail, and color saturation. We also note the speed of the shutter, accuracy of autofocus, how well the camera app operates, special options available, and record some video to make sure that it records moving images just as well.

Voice quality

Though talking almost seems like a minor thing we do on our phones these days, we do test the audio quality during voice calls. We test how clear the audio is that we hear from the handset and how well we sound to others during a call. The speaker phone is also tested. We don’t use any peripherals during these tests, like Bluetooth headsets, unless that is a special feature of the phone.

Data speeds

Though data speeds are heavily affected by the coverage in your area, we test every phone to see what data speeds it achieves using benchmarks like Speedtest.net on the network and note what level of connection is available to any one device. Can it connect to 4G LTE, 3G, HSPA+? These are all relevant to you, whether you want to know the details or not.

Battery life

We currently do not perform specific battery rundown tests, but instead try to see how well a phone performs in real-world usage. When we review a phone, we try to use that phone as our primary device for a few days (or longer) to see how long it can hold a charge while on idle, when using navigation (GPS) services, using data intensive apps, on Wi-Fi, streaming over Bluetooth, and many other tasks. While this is not a scientific test in a lab, our goal is to try the phone with moderate and heavy usage to see how long the battery holds up.

Price

Price plays a small factor in our reviews, particularly when an item is especially expensive or cheap. We tend to evaluate more expensive models on a higher scale. If they cost more money, they should live up to a higher standard. Having said that, a cheap phone that doesn’t provide adequate features or performance is no better. As much as we wish we didn’t have to factor price into the equation, it plays a role.

Overall

After evaluating each section of a phone, we note the major positives and negatives in the final section of the review and provide our opinion on whether the device is worth your time and money. We attempt to grade each device on its own merits, but if there are other devices that provide better functionality (maybe for less money), it is our job to inform you of better options.

As always, we value reader feedback and will take comments, requests, and questions into consideration as we continually refine our testing processes.

[Top image courtesy of JMiks/Shutterstock]