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Smartphone Buying Guide: Everything You Need to Know to Buy the Perfect Phone

Whether you’re buying a smartphone for the first time or just trying to choose a device for your next upgrade, buying a smartphone can be an intimidating task. Just going into a store and seeing all the phones lined up can be overwhelming and with the added pressure of knowing that you’ll have this phone for the next 18 months under your new contract makes it even worse. Which phone should you choose? What’s the difference between them? And how do you know if it’s… The One? Even though it may feel impossible to wade through your smartphone options, there are definite ways to narrow down your selection and make your smartphone buying experience more enjoyable.

Narrow The Field

First, get an understanding of what you use your phone for now and what you would like to be able to use your phone for in the future. More and more people are chucking their desktop computers and switching to smartphones for their computing needs. If you’re thinking about getting rid of your desktop, then a higher-end device would be necessary (Samsung Galaxy SIII, Samsung Galaxy Note or Note II, HTC One X or iPhone 5) as higher- end devices can give you a computing experience that’s comparable to full desktop computer for either school, work or fun. Even if you opt for a higher-end device, all smartphones have their limitations. Make sure that your computing expectations are realistic. If you’re getting rid of your desktop computer, remember that your smartphone’s software has to be periodically updated on an actual computer for your device to function correctly. Some of the smaller software updates can be processed over WiFi through the phone itself, but the major updates must be made through a computer. Not being able to process software updates when needed is a guaranteed way to eventually have a malfunctioning phone. The only exception would be iPhones. Apple has included the wireless syncing feature, so you don’t have to plug your device into a computer to activate or update it as long as it’s running iOS 5 or later.

It’s important to have a clear understanding of what’s important to you in a phone before you go into a store or go online. Are you a picture junkie who has to have the absolute best camera? Are you a movie buff who has to have 64GB of memory to take your movie collection on the go? Are you a gamer who has to have advanced graphics and access to your Xbox Live account? Is having a large screen for doing document editing a must for you? Answering these questions will help you narrow down the field to a handful of choices and will make your phone buying experience more manageable.

Select Your Operating System

If you narrowed the field by determining the must haves in your device hardware, then you’ve probably narrowed down the operating systems that you’ll be able to choose from as well. Choosing an operating system can be the most confusing part of the phone buying process for the average person. The operating system differences are where it gets technical, but understanding the differences between the major operating systems is a critical step in selecting the right device. The software that a phone uses will determine what you see on your screen, which app store you’ll have access to and how your phone functions. Here are the points to understand about each major operating system when trying to choose the right one for you.

Tip: A shortcut to selecting the right operating system is by visiting the app store that goes with that operating system (i.e. the Google Play store if you’re using an Android device or the Apple app store if you’re using an iPhone) to see if they offer apps that fit your needs. At the face of it, unless you’re a gadget junkie, most smartphones are equal out of the box and it will be the apps that extend your phone’s functionality and enable you to make it your own. By getting a feel for the kinds of apps that you’ll have access to, you’ll be able to see if it is feasible for you to use that particular operating system.

iOS

iOS, is the operating system that powers Apple’s iPhone and can be characterized as simple elegance. There’s not a lot of flash and glitz but what you get is an easy to use, clean and high quality operating system. A big difference between iOS and other operating systems is that it’s not customizable. You can download different apps and adjust your settings but resizing certain app icons to be more prominent on your home screen, picking a different skin for your calendar or different fonts for your notes isn’t possible. If high levels of customization are a must, then you’ll probably be underwhelmed with iOS and happier with Android or Windows. A plus side to not having a customizable operating system is that it’s less likely to have bugs, malware (malicious software that can harm your device) and it delivers a consistent user experience. You know what you’re getting with iOS and its very reliable.
As mentioned earlier, the apps you’ll be able to get differ from operating system to operating system. The apps that are available through the Apple app store are generally higher quality than the apps on other app stores, this is because Apple has some of strictest app standards of any app store. Having stricter standards may result in better overall apps and a more consistent user experience, but iPhone applications tend to be paid and cost more than similar apps on other app stores. A perk to having a closed operating system, when it comes to apps, app developers only have to design their apps for one kind of device. The apps you download will work on your device as long as the version of the operating system is up to date. You won’t find many instances of an app just not working on an iPhone or crashing all the time once downloaded.

Android

If iOS is simple elegance then Android is techie heaven. Android’s layout is similar to iOS in the fact that it’s home screen revolves around app icons and that you can have multiple “home screens” with different apps on each. Where Android departs from iOS, is that it also has widgets. Widgets are always-on, at-a-glance information blocks. So, if you have the New York Times app, in order to see the headlines, you need to open that app. However, if you had the New York Times widget, then you would be able to see the headlines scrolling by without having to open anything. Android also gives you the flexibility of customizing the size and appearance of your widgets. So, if you want your New York Times widget to be the biggest widget on the page and your music widget tightly packed below it, you’re able to do that. One downside to having this much flexibility and so many options available is that the average user may find it overwhelming and unnecessary. The learning curve for Android powered devices is larger than that of iOS. If having customization is important to you, then it will be worth the extra effort (and temporary frustrations) to get the hang of it.

One thing to keep in mind when choosing an Android powered device is that Android is a customizable operating system and device manufacturers can modify it anyway they choose. For example, the Android that HTC uses is different than the Android you’ll get on a Samsung device. Some Android devices come preloaded with apps that others don’t have. Never assume that because your friend’s Android device can do X that yours will be able to do the same.
This is especially true when talking about apps on Android. Each manufacturer can modify the operating system, so it’s very difficult for app developers to keep track of whether or not their app will run properly on every Android device. A good example of this is when the app “Temple Run” was first released, over half of their support tickets were for device incompatibility complaints and they supported 700 Android devices. They key to remember about the Android operating system is by gaining customization, you lose reliability. For some users that’s worth it, but for others it can be too much of a headache.

Windows

Even though iOS and Android dominate the smartphone world, Windows is still a player and has its place in the smartphone industry. If iOS is simple elegance and Android is techie heaven, then Windows is their quirky cousin. The windows phone home screen layout breaks the convention that iOS and Android follow. Instead of apps and widgets on a traditional home screen layout, the Windows OS is based exclusively around live tiles. Microsoft took the widget concept of Android and brought it to the extreme. At a glance, you can see your email counter, social media activity, news and entertainment all on one place. The benefit of the live tile concept is that all of your favorite information is constantly updating and just a click away. Much like the Android widgets, the Windows live tiles are resizable, rearrangeable and you can design your home screen to best fit your needs. A feature unique to Windows is the ability to sort your friends into groups and have private chat rooms where your friends (who also have a windows phone) can chat, share images and be social with one another.
The Windows operating system is an acquired taste when it comes to user interfaces. At first glance it can be a little overwhelming, but there is an appeal to users who want to have something different, be able to quickly see all of their important info and still have a certain level of customization. A downside to not being one of the leaders of the mobile operating system industry is that the apps that are available on iPhone or Android are not guaranteed to be developed for Windows. A good example is the personalized radio app Pandora. Pandora does not have a version of their app for the Windows operating system. Although some developers may not create apps for Windows, Microsoft does a decent job of filling in the gaps to give their users a comparable experience in their app store.

Choose a manufacturer

After you’ve narrowed the hardware field and selected an operating system, it’s time to finalize your selection and choose the manufacturer who will put it all together. There are so many different manufacturers, there’s no way we could cover them all in this article. Here are the ground rules for choosing a manufacturer:

1) Make sure their devices have good user reviews. People love to both gush and verbally abuse electronics that bring them joy and grief. Read reviews from different sources and get the feel for what kinds of problems other users are/are not running into.

2) You get what you pay for. If a manufacturer mainly has free or low cost phones available, then their handsets are not going to be a good as the higher-end models. If you buy solely based on price, then you may end up with something that’s clunky, glitchy and not fun. You’re going to be stuck with this phone for a while, so spending a little bit more goes a long way and can save you hours of heartbreak and frustration. If you’re paying .99 for a handheld computer, expect price appropriate issues.

Price Check

By now you undoubtedly have your dream phone selected and it’s time to find the best deal available. Your carrier will offer you a discount off of the full retail price of your phone, but they’re not the only ones selling phones anymore. National retailers like Amazon.com, Best Buy, RadioShack and Sam’s Club have all gotten into the smartphone game. By going to one of these retailers instead of your carrier you can find better prices, package deals with free accessories and phone trade in programs where they’ll buy your old phone from you and put it towards your new device.

Going to a third party retailer gets tricky when trying to decipher the differences in the return policies between your carrier and the retailer. For example, AT&T has a 14 day period where you can cancel your contract without incurring an early termination fee. If you bought your AT&T device from Amazon.com, they have a 30 day return policy for the actual phone, but you would still be under the 14 day return policy of AT&T to cancel your contract. Whether you’re buying your device from your carrier or a third party retailer, read the fine print. Understand the return policies and refund processes of your retailer and your carrier. Also, if the retailer is offering a discounted price, make sure that there are no stipulations attached to that price. Using Amazon as an example again, they offer steep discounts for devices that come with contracts and are locked to a specific carrier. This is because Amazon receives a commission from your carrier if you still have active services with that carrier 181 days after purchase. If you cancel services with that carrier before 181 days have passed, then you owe Amazon $250 and they have the right to automatically draft those funds from whatever payment method they have on file for you.

Just like any other purchase: do your homework, make sure that your bases are covered and you know what you’re signing up for. If you follow these steps, you’ll be on your way to finding the perfect phone and keeping yourself sane during the entire process.

Consumer Reports Buying Guide