How to choose a smartphone

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4. Features you’ll want in your phone

When you get down to choosing your phone, there is no shortage of choices, but you cannot trust most employees at stores to know what they’re talking about or to steer you in the right direction. We recommend that you bring along a geeky knowledgeable friend of yours, if you have one, but if not, here are a few features that you will want in your next smartphone.

Super AMOLED logoNice screen: Read our guide to choosing between AMOLED and LCD. Both are nice in their own ways. Be sure to pay attention to the resolution (you want at least 800×480 pixels for a great experience). If you can, find a phone with a 720p or 1280×720 pixel resolution. That’s top of the line. Anything with the word “Retina” in the title and manufactured by Apple probably won’t let you down either.

Nvidia Tegra 3 chipDual-core processor: We recommend a phone with at least a dual-core processor, as it will have a longer shelf life than a phone with a single-core CPU. Single-core phones are cheaper, and some OS’s like Windows Phone and BlackBerry don’t offer dual-core devices yet, but if you have the option, go with dual-core or even quad-core. You’re not buying a phone; you’re buying a tiny PC.

4G LTE icon4G LTE: If you are on a carrier that supports 4G LTE, then make sure you get a phone that supports the feature (and gets good battery life, unlike the HTC Thunderbolt). AT&T and Verizon currently support LTE, with Sprint and T-Mobile beginning to roll out their networks. You may not feel that LTE is important now, but remember that you won’t be getting a phone for two years. By then, everyone will be on super fast 4G networks except you. 4G is worth the jump. To get an idea of speed, take a peek at our picks for the best 4G phones.

Update iconUp-to-date OS: If you’re buying an Android phone, you want one with Android 4.0 or a clear date when an upgrade will arrive; If you’re on Windows Phone, make sure it has Windows Phone 7.5; If you’re buying a BlackBerry, make sure it’s a BB7 device; and if you’re buying an iPhone, make sure it’s a 4S, or at least a 4. Don’t buy a 3GS. You’ll regret it, much like our own Molly McHugh. Someone send her a better phone.

Camera iconA good camera: Take a few test shots with your phone. Compare them with the iPhone 4S. If the phone you’re choosing just can’t measure up, then that sucks because even the iPhone’s camera ain’t that great. You won’t always have a DSLR with you when something cool happens, but you will have your phone. At least have one capable of taking a good picture. Currently, HTC, Samsung, Nokia, and Apple are leading in cameras.

Android bloatwareBloatware: Be careful of bloatware or altered features, especially if you’re buying Android. For example, on the LG Revolution last year, Verizon and LG chose to remove all of the Google services from the phone and replace them with Microsoft Bing. As much as you may like Bing, this decision hampered the usability of Android and would have made your life hell at one point or another. The cleaner your device is, the better.

Battery empty iconBattery life: Ask about this or look it up. The difference between a phone with great battery life (the Droid Razr Maxx) and a phone with poor battery life (Droid Bionic) is night and day. Battery life only gets worse with time. If your phone cannot hold a charge all day when you buy it, it’s going to be much much worse in 12-24 months. If possible, get a phone with a removable battery, so you can buy a spare or swap out a defective battery.

Smartphone sizesSize: Make sure you can hold it. A small screen is annoying, but if you buy something like a 5.3-inch Galaxy Note because it’s hip and the kids are doing it, make sure you’re not going to tire of having a massive phone in the next two years. Trends come and go, but you have to drag this piece of technology around with you all the time. Make sure it’s something that will actually fit in your pockets.

microSD cardMicroSD: Having a microSD slot is not required, but it is nice if you like to listen to a lot of music, podcasts, or want fill your phone up with other items. A phone with at least 8GB of internal storage is also recommended, but if you’re buying a top-notch phone, expect 16-32GB of internal Flash storage. Space is good to have.

5. Pick a service plan

There are an endless variety of plans and wireless carriers modify them every month with some new gimmick (see: Verizon’s Share Everything plans). Below are our basic recommendations for someone with a smartphone.

Google Talk iconTalk: We recommend paying for as few minutes as you have to. Carriers often include night and weekend minutes, but the truth is that we just don’t talk on our phones as much as we used to. We use them as much for browsing, email, GPS, and texting. Most carriers offer 450 minutes for $40/mo as a minimum. If you can find a way to pay for less, then do it.

Android text messagingText: Texting costs carriers nothing, but they charge an arm and a leg for it. We recommend a moderate plan for $10 a month or less. Many people are moving toward Facebook chat, Google Chat, iMessage, BBM, and other chatting programs, which eliminate the need for texting. If these options sound good to you, maybe skip a texting plan all together.

wireless data iconData: Here’s the tricky one. You’re going to want at least 3GB of data, but we wouldn’t recommend paying for much more, due to the extreme price. Most of these plans are about $30/mo. If you’re on Verizon, make sure to wait until they do a promotion to offer at least 4GB for $30 because the normal rate is 2GB. T-Mobile and Sprint do not institute bandwidth caps, but T-Mobile does throttle the speed of heavy users.

6. Enjoy!

Hopefully this cell phone buying guide has helped you in choosing a phone. If you want some additional recommendations, check out our many Best Phones guides. We update these frequently. Here are links to a few: Best Cell Phones, Best Android Phones, Best BlackBerry Phones,  Best Windows PhonesBest AT&T Phones, Best Sprint Phones, Best T-Mobile Phones, Best Verizon Phones.

What do you think of our how to choose a smartphone guide? Did we miss something? Let us know in the comments below.

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