Smartphone Buying Guide 2014: 7 Things You Need to Know

phone buyers lead2

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.

1. Choose the Right OS

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.

MORE: Best Smartphones 2014

Android

Android-interface_NEW

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.

MORE: Top 10 Android Phones

iOS/iPhone

iOS_interface_NEW

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.

More: 10 Best iPhone Apps You’re Not Using

Windows Phone

windows-interface_NEW

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.

MORE: Top 25 Windows Phone Apps

2. Get the Right Size: Phablet or No Phablet?

phone sizes 2
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.

MORE: The Biggest Smartphones in the World

3. Pay Attention to These Specs

Processor

qualcomm_processorA 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.

RAM

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.

MORE: Most Anticipated Smartphones of 2014

Screen

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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.

4. Get the Best Camera Possible (and Don’t Obsess Over Megapixels)

camera lead

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.

camera features

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.

MORE: iPhone 5s vs. Lumia 1020 Camera Shootout

5. Don’t Settle for Low Battery Life

battery_life_NEW_2

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.

MORE: 10 Smartphones with the Longest Battery Life

6. Select the Best Carrier for Your Needs (and Budget)

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)

  Verizon AT&T Sprint T-Mobile MetroPCS Virgin
Pricing $110/month $110/month $80/month $70 $60 $55
Data  4GB 4GB Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited

Verizon Wireless

verizon_carrier_logoAmong 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.

MORE: Best Verizon Wireless Phones

AT&T

att_carrier_logoAT&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.

MORE: Best AT&T Phones

Sprint

sprint_carrier_logoOffering 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).

MORE: Best Sprint Phones

T-Mobile

t-mobile_carrier_logoT-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.

MORE: Best T-Mobile Phones

Other Carriers and Unlocked Options

metro_virgin_carrier_logoThose 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.

MORE: Best No-Contract Phones

7. Splurge for the Best Device, Be Wary of Upgrade Plans

splurge_ss

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.

Smart Phone Buyers Guide

AUTHOR BIO
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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  1. Joseph Says:

    Unsurpassed hardware design for the iPhone? Are you kidding?
    Whenever a new iPhone comes out, it is always behind the curve in terms of hardware.
    And for iOS, forgot to mention “terrible, productivity-impeding notification system”, something that is widely criticized by experts and gadget geeks.
    And one of the cons for WP7 was “No multitasking for third-party apps”, yet that fact escaped mention in the iOS cons list…
    Also, “Lackluster game selection” for Android? What about Tegra Zone and Playstation Suite?!
    And this page was last updated February 2, 2011, and the Verizon iPhone is on there, so why are the best devices for Android so old? Why not the Atrix 4G? Or the Nexus S, widely seen by the afore mentioned gadget geeks as one of the best Android phones out there. What about the Incredible S, the Desire HD???
    And all of the pros and cons lists include things like “UI not as elegant”, “Gorgeous interface”, “Easy-to-use interface”, says who??!! You can’t just throw your own biases into the mix if this is supposed to be a guide to which OS is best for each person individually.
    If this needs to be approved by moderators like the last comment I made on this site, I doubt it will go up, but as long as someone reads this, then let me say, please polish up this post, remove your biases and get your facts straight. I know you may not be a smartphone-centric website, but if you’re going to post buying guides for the average consumer, make sure you know what you’re doing!

  2. Charles Says:

    While it’s true that notifications seem much slower on my iPhone4 than on my old BlackBerry, and the call quality isn’t as good either. I must, however, defend the iPhone because it’s display is much sharper and more colorful than any other phone available at the time I bought it.

  3. guezati hicham Says:

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  4. ayoub Says:

    thank’s

  5. ayoube bouzine Says:

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  6. khadeja Says:

    from where can I get it

  7. mohammed Says:

    Thank you

  8. Norm Brooks Says:

    Okay, I’m an old fogie but, when I want to read about the best Smartphone, the very first thing I want to know is, how well does it function as a phone? Good reception? Good audio quality? The next thing would be, how well does it work with WiFi? Can I use Skype for free VoIP calling or something else? How is it with Internet use and display? Bottom line, how well does the phone communicate?

  9. Debby Says:

    if i need to buy a blackberry curve 9300 without the plan,how much will it cost and how do i make my payment?

  10. Bob Harvey Says:

    Time for an update?
    I rather think this page is too far out of date, at 13 months, to be so prominently featured

  11. Phil T Says:

    All of this is spot on and great advice! Ideal screen and body size for me is somewhere around the Samsung Focus S with a 4.3 screen. Good camera and video quality is always a plus. I have the Lumia 900 and a big setback is the lack of apps and customization. If I had another chance I would go with Android, Google is doing some great improvements to its ecosystem. Watch out for GS III from Samsung.

  12. Windows 8 Release Says:

    I personally feel that it is the OS and thereby UI which is most important in a smartphone. Personally, my recommendation has always been Android in case of smartphones till now. But I doubt Windows 8 might change the whole smartphone game. Most people like Windows on their PCs and if they are habituated to the Windows 8 OS soon whose metro style is similar to Windows Phone tiles, I won’t be surprised if Windows Phone also becomes popular very soon. Android is genuine good and is adopted by every smartphone manufacture be it small or big as it is an open source free OS. Apple is highly restricted with limited choices as they release only one flagship phone in every major release. On the other hand, Windows Phone is more of an underdog as people have associated Windows with desktop OS rather than mobile ones. Windows 8 might change this though as Windows 8 version are quite similar be it on desktops, tablets or smartphones.

  13. H Fied Says:

    Late to the smartphone party, but dumbphone contract is finally up.
    Very common possibility: Wife calls and asks me to look something up on the internet or check email while we are talking.
    Which smartphones can do this? I heard some can’t.

  14. Jakub M Says:

    @ H Fied
    Any smartphone with WP8 can do that easily. Switch to loudpeaker, tap windows button, open IE / mailbox and there you go. 3 “clicks” only.

    And for the article… 4. Know what specs you need.
    Go for high specs for Android OS, as it’s very resource hungry.
    Go for ANY specs (1GB RAM preferably) for WP 8 and the experience will be buttery smooth.

    WP8 phones don’t need 8 core processors to work well, Android needs them :) Now think if you need them to eat your battery :)

  15. Biscuitbum Says:

    I`m due an upgrade in June, but I need a phone that will fit into my jeans front pocket and also allow me to sit down comfortably. Problem is that most of the phones with the features I want are way too big.

  16. Jillxz Says:

    This is suppose to be a smartphone guide ? Pleazeee

  17. steve Says:

    this is a bad article. no updates whatsoever. And now blackberry is back in league with the q10 and z10. you should add a section, probably, which brand would suit you. And they should not only focus on apple or samsung or other big brands. the other brands come a lot cheaper with better or equal specification.

  18. steve Says:

    and moreover, anyone looking to buy smartphone, PLEASE DO NOT BUY A SCREEN SIZE OF MORE THAN 5″. it isn’t easy to use. i bought a galaxy note two. frustrated, i was. it wont fit in jeans pocket and let me sit comfortably.

  19. Zamir Yusof Says:

    4. Know your specs.

    I have several complaints for this section.
    Only android phones require users to check for the specs to make sure they have the best experience for the price!
    I use WP8 and it’s about 99% lagless compared to Android phone with quad core cpu. Octa core cpu for Samsung Galaxy S4 is simply dual quad core processor that switching depending on the load. They don’t utilize all 8 cores together to run the apps. The thing that matters is how the user experience on each platform, not about which platform have the most cutting edge cpu since each OS have different level of optimization. Saying the BB10 and WP8 have specs of a generation behind of without justify the user experience is unacceptable.

  20. ajit chowdhury Says:

    Hallo,can you help me and guide me I have got smart phone Android 4.0 HD telefoon ThL W7- 5.7 inch IPS HD screen, total width of telefoon is 3 1/2 inch total length is 6 1/2 inch,do you have any flip case/cover for this big size telefoon,I will be highly obeligd,Ajit.

  21. Christine R. Says:

    Personally, I haven’t owned a smart phone just yet. I think I will head to the mall this coming week to maybe get my toes wet. I’ve always used a traditional phone but this article, has rather intrigued me to try one out.

  22. Mrion DeMayo Says:

    What is the initial cost of buying a smartphone for the first time. If you don’t get a contract do you still need a plan? How does that work?

  23. Sasha Hore Says:

    I agree that iPhone is the best for an average Joe. However people with specific needs have certain difficulties, for example I listen to vinyl images mostly and they are quite big since recorded using higher sample rates. So far I found only one app Kamerton which can play the images and it is for Android only, bye-bye Windows and IOS. But since images are big I can’t use them with phones without memory extensions, so bye-bye all phones coming directly from Google since they all consider you can store everything on Cloud but Cloud is too small and good for MP3 only. So I am limited mostly to some Asian Android phones makers as Samsung or LG. So go figure which is the best for non average Joe.

  24. Sean H Says:

    Time to classify this article under “obsolete”.
    Windows Phone has now surpassed BlackBerry and is the largest growing OS in Europe. iOS7 is a major failure and Android is becoming the Windows 95.

  25. sid g;uckman Says:

    I’m on my 3rd HTC one x. I’d like a review of the reliability of some of these phones. Asking around everyone seens to have problems

  26. Heather Says:

    Thank you so much for the info that you put up on this site

    it has been so helpful to help me find a phone and a plan.

    I’m not a phone person to begin with and my friend said I had a phone from the “ice age” with my flip phone! I said yes I like the ice age price too. But I know I need to update myself and you have helped ! Thanks

  27. Heather Says:

    I need a phone that works well.I only use my cell no home phone, but do not play games on it my use it for e-mail and Facebook .Would like it to take fairly good pictures.My use it to help me fine a address Please help me choose

  28. Haris Says:

    Which smartphone should i buy keeping in mind the next 3 years. Iphone 5s or HTC one m8 ?

  29. google Says:

    Amazing! Its truly remarkable piece of writing, I have got much clear idea regarding from this piece of writing.

  30. Luis Says:

    hi im going to buy a smartphone but im limited to money so im not going to spend so much money the choices im looking at are sony xperia z, google nexus 4, lg optimus g pro, samsung galaxy s4 active or maybe the htc one m7. so please help which one of these is the best choice?

  31. nokinoks Says:

    apple fanboy -___- Came here to find a great article, read a decent one. I have nothing against Apple because I admire Steve Jobs a lot, but seriously, this would have been more informative if the author stopped making those small remarks that pushes people towards Apple. You are supposed to help people decide, not push them towards a biased decision. Could have been a great and detailed article, what a waste.

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