You should be picky when it comes to buying a smartphone. After all, you two are going to be doing everything together, from capturing hundreds of photos and playing games to social networking, texting and email. Oh yeah, you’ll be making phone calls, too. But with multiple operating systems, screen sizes and carriers all screaming for your attention, picking the right device can feel like an endless maze. But it doesn’t have to. Use these seven tips to make the right call on your next smartphone.
And then there were three. With BlackBerry struggling, most consumers are now deciding among Android, iOS (iPhone) and Windows Phone. Here’s a quick breakdown of the platforms’ strengths and weaknesses.
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Google’s OS isn’t the most popular smartphone platform for no reason. Compared to iOS and Windows Phone, there’s a much wider array of hardware options from several manufacturers (Samsung, HTC, LG, Motorola, ZTE, etc.) in multiple sizes. Android is also much more open than iOS, which means smartphone makers can more easily innovate on top of Google’s software. That’s why a Samsung Galaxy S4 or Note 3, for example, can run two apps on the screen at once, and a Moto X can respond to your voice without you having to touch the phone.
With more than 1 million apps, the Google Play store has pretty much everything you need, but Apple’s App Store tends to get some hot apps and games first. And while we like that Android is so flexible and customizable, some interfaces can be cluttered and/or difficult to navigate.
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iOS 7 represents a fairly major overhaul for Apple, with a cleaner look, improved multitasking and a new Control Center for quickly changing settings. Some aspects of the update are confusing, such as the Notification Center with three separate tabs, but overall, iOS remains the most intuitive smartphone platform. Apple also benefits from having the best selection of high-quality apps and games (though Android is narrowing the gap). Siri has improved, and the new iTunes Radio is definitely a plus.
Thanks, in large part, to Nokia’s well-received Lumia phones, more people are paying attention to Microsoft’s OS. The platform boasts a dynamic interface with Live Tiles that display updates, and it’s easy to resize and rearrange these tiles to customize the experience. Other benefits include Xbox games, video and music, as well as Office and Outlook integration. The Windows Phone Store recently surpassed 200,000 apps, and the collection now includes Instagram, but Microsoft’s platform still has about one-fifth of the apps available for Android and iOS.
Big-screen phones are growing on shoppers. In fact, phablets (phones with displays 5 inches or larger) now account for about a quarter of all smartphones sold. Nevertheless, the iPhone 5s, which sports a 4-inch screen, is the best-selling smartphone in the U.S. A smaller display allows for a more compact design. But if you want something bigger, you’ll want to opt for an Android or Windows Phone handset.
The 5.7-inch Samsung Galaxy Note 3 gives you a lot more real estate for watching movies, playing games and enjoying photos. The trade-off is that the phone isn’t easy to operate with one hand. Phones with displays even larger than this, such as the HTC One Max (5.9 inches) and Nokia Lumia 1520 (6 inches) tend to be heavier and can be a tight fit for front pockets. But some are willing to live with the larger size, especially those who don’t want to carry a separate tablet.
A phone’s processor is the brain of the device, and a fast one will enable you to open apps quickly, play games smoothly and even edit video. Today’s state-of-the-art chip for Android and Windows Phones is Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 800. (The 805 is coming soon.) This CPU offers swift multitasking and high-powered graphics in devices such as the Galaxy Note 3 and Lumia 1520.
The Snapdragon 600 (inside the HTC One) and S4 Pro (in the Moto X) are also very capable. On cheaper phones, you’ll find the Snapdragon 400 CPU, which offers fair performance for everyday tasks but isn’t designed for more intensive activities. For example, the Galaxy S4 Mini with this CPU took 7 minutes and 19 seconds to transcode a 1080p video clip, compared to just 5:15 for the Snapdragon 800-powered Galaxy Note 3.
For iOS, Apple’s A7 chip inside the iPhone 5s offers 64-bit power and about double the performance and graphics of its A6 CPU (in the iPhone 5c). That’s just one reason why you should invest in Apple’s higher-end device.
The amount of system memory plays a significant role in how well a smartphone performs. Today’s flagship devices offer 2GB to 3GB of RAM, while lower-end to midrange phones get away with 1 GB to 1.5 GB. If you want to load applications from memory faster and switch between them faster, more RAM is better.
The size of the screen definitely matters, but so do the brightness, sharpness, color and viewing angles. Right now, 1080p screens (1920 x 1080 pixels) are the sharpest you’ll find on smartphones. However, we’ve seen some 720p displays (1280 x 720 pixels), such as the one on the Moto X, deliver fantastic image quality. We highly recommend putting the smartphone in your hand to evaluate the viewing angles; if the screen washes out when you tilt the device, think twice about that purchase.
When testing smartphones, we hit every one with a light meter to get a lux rating, so be sure to read our reviews to find out how each handset stacks up. As far as screen technology, AMOLED panels (found on many Samsung phones) tend to produce very rich and saturated colors, while LCDs tend to offer more realistic hues. It really comes down to personal preference.
Storage and Expansion
Given that you’ll store everything from photos and music to videos and apps on your smartphone, opt for as much internal memory up front as you can. Although 16GB is fairly standard, we suggest 32GB of storage so you don’t run out of room. The 32GB iPhone 5s, for example, costs $299. But you’ll also find some cheaper options with that much space, such as the HTC One; it starts at $199 for 32GB.
It’s becoming a lot harder to find, but if you like the idea of expandable storage, choose a device that has a microSD card slot, such as the Samsung Galaxy S4, Note 3 and Mega.
Just when you thought the megapixel war was over, there’s now a handful of smartphones with 20-MP cameras or higher — and more are certainly on the way. However, the quality of both the sensor and the images is more important. For instance, the iPhone 5s has an 8-MP camera, but its new sensor allows for bigger pixels and, therefore, sharper-looking photos.
Also look for camera features that you’ll actually use. The Galaxy S4 and Note 3 both sport a nifty Eraser mode feature that filters out photobombers from your images. The Nokia Lumia 1020 has prosumer-grade manual controls to help you get the best shot in all sorts of conditions. Optical image stabilization, which steadies your shots to reduce blur, is found in the LG G2 and Lumia 1020.
One way to tell how much juice your smartphone will provide on a charge is to take a look at the battery capacity. If you care about endurance, the closer you get to 3,000 mAh (milliamp hours) — or above the better. For example, the LG G2’s 3,000-mAh battery lasted a whopping 13 hours and 44 minutes over T-Mobile’s network on the LAPTOP Battery Test, which involves continuous Web surfing over 4G LTE on 40 percent brightness. In contrast, the Galaxy S4’s 2,600-mAh battery for the same carrier lasted 6:41. The average phone lasts 6:46.
Choosing a carrier comes down to a few factors, including coverage, plan pricing and data speeds. Most shoppers opt for one of the Big Four (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile), but there are other perfectly viable options, especially for those on a tighter budget.
Carrier Pricing Compared (with Unlimited Voice and Text)
Among the four major carriers, Verizon offers the broadest 4G LTE coverage, spanning more than 500 markets and 303 million people. That’s part of the reason Verizon’s service costs more than Sprint’s and T-Mobile’s; you’ll often see an LTE signal in the suburbs. However, we’ve noticed serious data congestion in major cities, including New York. Verizon will be rolling out an AWS upgrade to increase capacity, but only newer handsets compatible with the technology will be supported. A 2GB Share Everything Plan with unlimited voice and text costs $100 per month, and the 4GB plan costs $110.
AT&T is closing in on Verizon, with more than 270 million people covered and more than 500 markets. Plus, AT&T has offered stronger data performance, both in our testing and according to independent third parties like RootMetrics. The carrier’s phone selection tends to be better than Verizon’s, offering exclusives such as the Nokia Lumia 1020 and 1520, and the Samsung Galaxy Active. AT&T’s data plans tend to be pricier than Sprint’s and T-Mobile’s. You’ll pay $95 per month for 2GB of data and $110 for 4GB.
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Offering 4G LTE in more than 300 markets, Sprint’s claim to fame is the guarantee of unlimited data for life, but that hasn’t stopped the carrier from losing customers. However, a new high-speed Spark LTE service, offering speeds of up to 60 Mbps, could provide a boost. Sprint’s pricing is lower than AT&T’s and Verizon’s but higher than T-Mobile’s, costing $80 monthly for unlimited voice, text and data.
However, Sprint has also launched a new “Framily” plan that enables subscribers to lower their bill as they add friends and family to their group. A group of seven, for example, would pay $45 per month for unlimited voice, text and data (which includes an annual phone upgrade).
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T-Mobile is making the biggest waves in wireless, banishing contracts, eliminating overseas data charges and now offering would-be switchers to pay their early-termination fee when they trade in their old phone from another carrier. In our testing, T-Mobile’s LTE performance has been stellar, but coverage is still improving. The carrier covers more than 200 million people across 273 markets. Unlimited data and voice costs a very reasonable $70 per month.
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Other Carriers and Unlocked Options
Those looking to save money over the long haul can opt for a smaller carrier, such as MetroPCS, which provides unlimited data for $60 per month. Virgin Mobile costs an even cheaper $55 per month and piggybacks on Sprint’s network. Just keep in mind that the up-front costs for smartphones is higher on these smaller carriers because the phones are not subsidized. The iPhone 5s, for instance, costs $494 on Virgin Mobile.
Last but not least, if you want more freedom in selecting your carrier and don’t want to deal with a contract, opt for an unlocked phone. A good example is the Google Nexus 5, which Google sells directly for $399. The device supports AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile service.
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Take our advice. If you can afford to pay more up front for your smartphone to get the best possible hardware, do it. Over the course of two years, you’ll wind up paying much more for the service than the handset anyway. Take Verizon. A $99 iPhone 5c with a slower processor and less advanced camera than the $199 iPhone 5s will wind up costing you $2,499 over 24 months with a 2GB shared data plan, versus $2,599 for the more advanced device.
Carriers are making it easier to upgrade phones every year (or sooner) through such special programs as T-Mobile Jump, AT&T Next, Verizon Edge and Sprint Easy Pay, but they’re not necessarily good deals. With AT&T, Sprint and Verizon, you’re essentially breaking up the full cost of the handset (including subsidies) into monthly payments. T-Mobile at least saves you $10 per month on unlimited data, but you’ll pay $10 per month to be in the Jump program. The good news is that this plan includes handset insurance.