How To Buy A Smartphone

By now you may have heard about the iPhone 5. This holiday season, Apple’s svelte but big-screen wonder will propel what’s already a staggering number: Nearly 60 percent of all phones sold now are smartphones. But the iPhone 5 is hardly the only exciting device you can give. Samsung has a one-two punch in the Galaxy S III and Note II that give Apple a run for its money, and there are plenty of other awesome alternatives. Here’s a quick look at the latest trends and what to look for before you buy.

What to Look For

Screen Size

Remember when 4.3 inches was considered the limit of what people would carry? Now you’ll find plenty of handsets with 4.7- and 4.8-inch HD screens, which give you more room to surf the Web, watch movies and play games. There’s even a 5.5-inch model on the market. Anything above 5 inches might be too much to some, which is why these handsets have taken on the phablet moniker (part phone, part tablet). The iPhone 5’s screen is a relatively small 4 inches, but it’s easier to use one-handed than larger phones.

Your Next Point-and-Shoot

It’s no longer about megapixel counts but special modes and apps that help you take better pictures and have more fun with them after they’re taken. For instance, the Samsung Galaxy S III has a Best Shot mode that snaps a bunch of pics and then lets you choose the one you want. And the iPhone 5 has a sweet new panorama mode for capturing sweeping 28-megapixel landscapes. Also pay close attention to speed; shutter lag is so last year.

Choose Your OS

For the last couple of years it’s been all about Android and iOS. And that’s still pretty much the case. In a nutshell, Apple’s iOS remains the easiest operating system to use and has the broadest selection of high-quality apps. IOS 6 adds such welcome new features as turn-by-turn directions, a smarter Siri and a new Passbook feature for storing everything from coupons and plane tickets in one place.

Android remains the most customizable OS, which means that you can personalize your device with widgets instead of having a static home screen. It also means that smartphone makers can add unique innovations on top of Google’s software, such as pen input on the Galaxy Note II. And Android offers a lot more choice in terms of hardware.

Windows Phone 8 is certainly worth considering, especially for first-time smartphone owners. You can now resize the live tiles on the dynamic Start screen and use cool Lens apps to get more out of the camera. Like Android, Windows Phone 8 supports NFC chips so you will be able to pay for stuff with a tap of your phone.

What you get for…

less than $50

Budget smartphones are jam-packed with all the features they’ll need, including 4G LTE speeds, at least a 5-MP camera and a 1-GHz or faster processor. Most value-priced models come with a smaller, lower-resolution screen (3.5 to 4 inches), but you can also find more powerful handsets for loved ones that have been discounted, such as the $49 LG Lucid for Verizon Wireless.

$99 to $149

The sweet spot for a lot of shoppers includes older superphones at a lower price (such as the iPhone 4S and Samsung Galaxy Nexus). The HTC One X, for example, boasts a super-fast camera, a huge 4.7-inch HD screen and Beats Audio for $99. You’ll also find many phones with slide-out keyboards in this price range (such as the Motorola Droid 4) for the messaging fiend on your list.

$199 and up

The biggest screens, the fastest processors, the sharpest cameras and the most cutting-edge designs. That’s what they’ll enjoy if you splurge on a premium smartphone, which makes the most sense to us since they’ll be living with that device for two years. At $299, they’ll be able to have more capacity for movies, music and more, such as the 32GB Galaxy S III and iPhone 5.

Mark Spoonauer
Mark Spoonauer
Responsible for the editorial vision for Laptop Mag and Tom's Guide, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.
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