Buying a new smartphone can seem like a daunting task. There's a dizzying array of different kinds of devices, each with a different set of features that may or may not be what you're looking for, all available on a different mobile networks.
In fact, smartphones are like cars — there's no single "best car" for everybody, and there's no "best smartphone" for everyone, either. Just like walking into a car dealership without doing your research on prices and features is a recipe for getting overcharged, walking into your local Verizon or Sprint store without knowing what you need is a recipe for future unhappiness.
So what seems like a simple question — "What kind of smartphone should I get?" — can quickly turn into days (or weeks!) of research, different pieces of advice from your friends and coworkers, and pressure from salespeople. We're here to help you avoid as much of that as possible. If you're new to this crazy world or if you're an old pro looking for some tips, read on to find the best tools and tactics for buying your next handset.
Before you decide
Before you ever set foot in a store or get your heart set on a particular device, the first thing you need to do is evaluate the current situation with your phone and service — that will often determine your course of action. There's a pretty good chance you were right to pick the carrier you're currently using.
With which carrier do you currently have service? The old adage, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" definitely applies here: depending on the locations of your home, workplace, and areas where you frequently travel, finding a carrier that works well around all of them can be tricky — so if your current carrier is getting the job done, that's something you'll want to take into consideration. Of course, the opposite is also true: you shouldn't feel compelled to stick with a carrier that has no signal or frequently drops calls or data connections in places you need it to work, just because you've been with them for a long time or you like the product lineup. Rest assured, there are great phones available with every carrier!
How far are you into your current contract? Early Termination Fees — often known by their acronym, "ETF" — are the unavoidable bane of the wireless world. In order to make an informed decision about how to proceed, you'll need to know whether you're eligible to drop your account without paying an ETF, which can run as high as $350 depending on your carrier and the device you're currently using. It's also important to note that just because you're eligible to get a discounted upgrade on a new phone with your current carrier doesn't mean you can leave the carrier altogether without getting hit with an ETF — most carriers treat those dates differently. Generally speaking, you can upgrade at a discount before you can leave, often by as long as six months or more. Carriers would always rather you stick around, and they're willing to give you steep discounts to do it.
If you paid full price (usually $400 or more) for your current phone or you bought it from someone other than your carrier, you may not be under contract at all, which means you can leave whenever you like without paying an ETF. Most carriers make it tricky to determine your contract status from your online account portal — they'd rather you not know whether you can leave for free, of course — so your best bet is to call into customer service and ask directly.
Are you part of a family plan? Virtually all carriers (including AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile) offer family plans, which bundle multiple lines of service into a single shared bucket of minutes. That means that you don't need to stick with your current carrier just because you want to keep your family on a family plan — but since it's more effort to move an entirely family over to another service, it may mean that you want to pay extra attention to your current carrier's latest offerings first before considering others.
Do you have multiple devices? In some situations, you can save money by going with a carrier that offers data buckets that can be shared between multiple devices (a smartphone and a 3G- or 4G-enabled tablet, for instance). On AT&T, this is called Mobile Share; on Verizon, it’s Share Everything. Either way, the concept is the same: you pay an extra fee for each additional device you attach to the data bucket. You’ll want to run the numbers before you sign up, though. In many situations, you’ll end up paying more on such a plan — if you only use data on your tablet every once in a while, for instance, you might be better off buying data for it a la carte rather than tying it to your phone’s data bucket.
Do you get any corporate or group discounts? When you originally signed up for service with your current carrier, the sales representative may have asked you who you work for. The reason? Some companies and organizations have arranged special rates with a specific carrier so that their employees and members can get discounts, often even if the line is for personal use. These discounts can sometimes total 20 percent off your monthly bill or more and can also include deals on handsets and accessories that regular customers don't receive. If you're in such an arrangement, you'll need to remember that moving to another carrier could result in some bill shock, so you'll want to ask every carrier you're considering (and your employer) if there are any deals available. And even if you're not currently getting a discount, it doesn't hurt to call your carrier's customer service line to ask if there are any available to you.
Choosing a carrier and plan
Finding the carrier that's best for you really isn't a black-and-white issue — there is no universal "right" or "wrong" answer, and there are many factors to take into consideration.
It goes without saying that you need your phone to work, otherwise it really doesn't matter how much you like it or how good of a deal you're getting on service. Though all of the national carriers (and most of the regionals) generally have excellent nationwide coverage through their own towers and roaming agreements, every carrier has dead zones — even in heavily-populated areas — and knowing where those dead zones are in your area will help you make the most informed decision that you can.
Before you buy, odds are good that you've got friends, family, or coworkers using each of the four national carriers, so be sure to ask around for their experiences in the locations that you frequent. These should actually be your main points of reference regarding coverage quality, simply because they've likely had their service for far longer than a 14-day return period — they have more experience to draw from.
When you purchase a phone and new service from a carrier, you've got a return period — typically 14 days, 30 in California — during which you're able to back out of your contract with no penalty whatsoever (you'll only be charged for the pro-rated portion of a month's service that you used). Take advantage of it! Use the phone in all your usual haunts for both calling and browsing; just because you've got good reception doesn't mean data speeds will be reasonable, and consistently bad data speeds can really ruin the smartphone experience.
Coverage doesn't necessarily need to be a dream-killer for you, though. If you've just got one nagging dead zone — say, your home or your office — all four national carriers now offer options to help patch the problem. Broadly speaking, there are three different types of solutions. We’ll lay them out below, but be warned that none of these are silver bullets and each has its own particular pain points.
just because you've got good reception doesn't mean data speeds will be reasonable
- Femtocells. Think of femtocells as miniature cell towers (about the size of a Wi-Fi router) that you can install yourself wherever they're needed. They need a connection to your broadband internet service — cable, DSL, FiOS, so on — and in turn, they produce a small cloud of cellular service that can cover several floors and a couple thousand square feet of a building. These devices typically support between five and eight simultaneous connections from different phones, and you can authorize specific lines so that outsiders can't use your connection. One word of warning: because they could potentially be used to "create" service in other countries where your carrier doesn't operate and the required frequencies are not permitted for consumer use, femtocells need an active GPS connection, which means they either need to be positioned near a window with a sky view or they require an external GPS that can be wired to such a location. AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon offer femtocells.
- Signal boosters. Unlike femtocells, signal boosters don't create a new cellular signal that gets routed over your internet connection; instead, they simply amplify an existing signal so that it's more usable by devices that are nearby. This means that you must be able to find at least a weak signal in some part of the affected area in order to use a signal booster, otherwise it won't do any good — but the advantage is that it doesn't require an active internet connection or a GPS signal to operate. T-Mobile offers a signal booster.
- Wi-Fi calling. Femtocells and signal boosters both require separate pieces of hardware that must be installed and set up, but Wi-Fi calling is much simpler: if the feature comes on your phone, you're good to go. When enabled, your phone places and receives calls through Wi-Fi (if you're connected to a Wi-Fi network, of course) instead of the normal cellular connection — and unlike services like Skype, it's totally seamless and it uses your regular phone number. There are downsides, though: if you go out of Wi-Fi range while you're on a call, it'll probably drop — in most cases, the phone can't switch from Wi-Fi to cellular mid-call — and many phones don't support the service at all. T-Mobile is the only major US carrier that offers Wi-Fi calling at the moment; most of its Android devices (and several of its BlackBerry models) have it pre-installed.
If Wi-Fi calling isn't a viable option for you (either it isn't available on your phone or carrier, or you don't have Wi-Fi where you've got a bad cellular signal), you should call in to customer service — don't go to the store! Femtocells and signal boosters frequently aren't carried in carrier stores, and more importantly, you may be able to talk a customer service agent into sending you a unit for free or a discount (for instance, AT&T's 3G MicroCell is normally a whopping $200). When you call, be sure that they're aware you don't get any signal in an important location and that you may need to cancel your service if it can't be fixed — that often catches their attention.
Though it was almost completely irrelevant a few years ago, most smartphone users end up caring about data speed much more than voice quality. A good smartphone without high-speed data is a much less compelling device.
As we mentioned in the last section, good signal strength isn't necessarily an indication that you'll get the best data speeds that your carrier advertises. It certainly plays a role, but actual speed that you receive is a combination of a variety of factors: the interface the connection between your nearest cell tower and the internet (known as "backhaul"), the number of active users in your area, the wireless technology between your phone and the tower, and the time of day, just to name a few.
All four national carriers refer to the fastest parts of their networks as "4G," but in practice, that's nearly meaningless — there are significant differences between them. On paper, the newest LTE networks deployed by Verizon, AT&T, and (to a lesser-extent) Sprint are the fastest. Take heed, though, that just as the definition of “4G” was muddled in years past, the spread of LTE networks is also a contentious issue. Verizon has the largest LTE deployment by far, though AT&T is doing its best to catch up and Sprint has plans to add more LTE markets soon.
A special note on Sprint: it still has a 4G network based on WiMAX, which shares many of LTE's technological innovations. You can still get WiMAX phones from its sub-brands like Virgin, but generally speaking you shouldn’t be betting on this technology as it’s getting replaced by LTE. You’re better off getting an LTE phone on Sprint instead of WiMAX even though the carrier hasn’t built a large LTE network yet.
T-Mobile, meanwhile, uses a highly advanced evolution of an older 3G technology known as HSPA+, and it's quite fast — in fact, it's not uncommon to find that it's faster than Sprint's WiMAX service in some areas at certain times of day. You may have noticed T-Mobile aggressively advertising that it has the "largest 4G network in America," and that's because it has aggressively upgraded its existing HSPA network to HSPA+ and called the upgrade "4G." It's questionable advertising, though it does mean you're more likely to get a relatively fast data connection on T-Mobile in more places across the country than on other networks.
When you’re talking to any carrier about their LTE coverage, make sure that you’re getting an LTE map and not just a “4G” map — AT&T in particular like to claim that its HSPA+ network is “4G,” and while AT&T’s HSPA+ is fast, it’s not as fast as proper LTE. Even better, take our advice and test the phone where you’ll actually be using it. LTE is great on paper, but in practice you need to see how your carrier has actually deployed it in your area.
What does this all mean? If you live in or travel through rural areas or smaller cities, you may not have access to your carrier's fastest speeds — and they may not be available for a few months or years to come. When you visit a carrier's store, be sure that it's a store nearby — that'll give you a better sense of network performance in your area — and do a couple things:
- Test speeds yourself. Find an iPhone or Android demo unit, go to the App Store or Android Market, and install Speedtest.net Mobile by Ookla (in fact, you may find it's already installed because it's such a popular utility). Run several tests — a network that performs inconsistently should be a red flag. If you're seeing latency of under 100ms and download speeds of over 1.5Mbps (1500kbps), that's a fast network that should give you a satisfying experience for browsing, email, streaming music, and the like.
- Inquire about network upgrades in the area. If the carrier isn't advertising 4G service in your area or you've run speed tests on some demo phones and haven't gotten good results, ask sales reps in the store whether there are any plans to bring 4G to town, and if so, when the upgrade will be coming. They may not know — but some carriers have been proactive about identifying markets where they plan on rolling out upgraded service soon, so it's worth a shot.
Another factor to consider is the speed you'll get when you're not connected to 4G. Verizon and Sprint both have 3G data available across the majority of their coverage area, which means it's not uncommon to have download speeds of 600kbps or higher — not blazing fast, but still good enough for a browsing experience that won't drive you crazy. This can really come into play if you do a lot of long-distance driving — it's very common to get 3G service on these carriers any time you're on an interstate highway, regardless of how rural it may be. AT&T and T-Mobile, meanwhile, fall back to much slower 2G speeds in some areas that typically peak at under 100kbps. It's a very big difference: browsing is difficult, streaming is virtually impossible, and even email can become a laborious task.
In other words, if you're in a rural area or you spend a lot of time traveling in rural areas, you may find that you're much better off with Verizon or Sprint than you are with AT&T or T-Mobile. As always, your individual experience may vary — as we mentioned before, be sure to nudge your friends and co-workers to gather intelligence on how different carriers perform nearby before you make any decisions.
Choosing a smartphone platform
Now that you've chosen your carrier, the next step generally isn't to get the best looking or most powerful phone you find
Now that you've chosen your carrier, the next step generally isn't to get the best looking or most powerful phone you find, it's actually to think about which software platform is right for you. In the US, Android, iOS, Windows Phone, and BlackBerry are the big ones to consider. All four have their own strengths and weaknesses, which we will get into below.
Before we do, though, here's something to consider: what are you friends and family using? If you have a community of people around you using the same kind of phone, you'll be able to help each other out with apps and even get unique communication options like BlackBerry Messenger or iMessage. We're not saying you should just follow the crowd here, but it's something to think about.
In cellphone terminology, a "form factor" is the physical style of the device. No doubt you're familiar with several of them:
- The "slab" or "slate" is the most common smartphone form factor these days. It's simply a flat rectangle with a large touchscreen; there are no hinges, slides, or keyboards. The most obvious example of a slab is the iPhone — the device that really catapulted this form factor into dominance — but most Android and Windows Phone devices sold today are slabs as well.
- The landscape QWERTY slider is the second most common, which features a full QWERTY keyboard mounted underneath the screen — usually on sliding rails — which can be pushed to the side and revealed. When the keyboard is out, you hold and use the phone lengthwise, hence the term "landscape" in the name. There are some phones that use more complex hinge mechanisms than a standard slide, but they're often grouped in this category as well.
- Portrait QWERTY is most common among BlackBerrys, which popularized this form factor several years ago. In this arrangement, there is a QWERTY keyboard mounted on the front of the device, usually with a relatively small landscape-oriented screen directly above it (it's called "portrait QWERTY" because the phone itself is held in a vertical orientation when you're using it).
That's not all, though. Other form factors include the portrait QWERTY slider (which is similar to the landscape QWERTY slider except that the keyboard slides out from the bottom of the device, not the side) and the flip, which used to be a dominant style in the old dumbphone days.
Which form factor is for you? Slabs are so popular because they're always the thinnest and most attractive phones available, and on-screen keyboards have gotten good enough in the past couple years on iOS, Android, and Windows Phone to make physical keyboards unnecessary in most cases. Still, some users strongly prefer having a physical QWERTY keypad available, and most carriers offer one or two landscape sliders in their lineups for those individuals — but the selection is never as wide as it is for the slabs.
Even among landscape sliders, the quality of the keyboard varies dramatically from model to model: take the original Motorola Droid, for instance, which had a famously hard-to-use flat keyboard without any key separation. You were almost better off having no keyboard at all! If you plan on getting anything but a slab, you'll need to test the keyboard before buying.
What's the best smartphone for your needs?
We've broken down the basics of software platforms and hardware choices, sure, but now it's time to get into some specifics. Unless you actually define yourself by your smartphone (something we don't recommend, by the way), chances are that you have some specific needs in mind. We can't identify every single use case scenario here, but we're going to try to hit the big ones.
Buying your smartphone
Now you just have to buy the darn thing
Now that you've made a decision on your carrier and your phone, you're almost there. Now you just have the buy the darn thing. A few pieces of advice on that.
First, you need to decided where to buy it from. You can go directly to your carrier's store. This is often the best option — it means you will get personal help from somebody and you'll be establishing a direct relationship with the company that you'll be paying monthly. If you find a cheap price online for your phone, don't let us stop you, but be sure to read the fine print. With third party sellers there may be a second early termination fee — those cheaper prices sometimes mean less flexibility if something goes awry.
Speaking of things going awry, there's no guarantee that you'll like the phone you've chosen. Make sure when you buy you find out exactly what the return period is and that you do everything you can in that time to make sure your phone is going to work for you. AT&T recently decreased its return policy from 30 to 14 days, too, so take note and don’t get stuck.
Finally, your smartphone will likely come with a one-year warranty from the manufacturer, but it's usually easier to handle warranty issues directly with the carrier. Most carriers also offer some sort of extended warranty plan for a monthly fee. This plan will cover a lot, but it will almost never cover water damage (which all phones have detection dots for). With most consumer electronics, it's best to skip the extended warranty from the seller. With phones, however, it's not such an easy call. The monthly fee is often reasonable and sometimes also makes it cheaper to replace the phone if it gets destroyed or lost. If you are hard on phones, it's worth considering.
Yes, smartphones are indeed like cars: intimidating to buy, available in all shapes and sizes, and no single one is right for everybody. But if you pick your carrier first — then pick your platform — there's a good chance you'll only be faced with a few smartphones that fit your needs. And remember that even once you sign your name on the dotted line, you're not trapped; you've still got time to back out and pick something that better meets your needs. No sweat.
Now that we've given you a crash course in all things smartphone, some of you will feel empowered to go forth, compare carrier plans, read some smartphone reviews, and put the screws to your local customer service agent about whether or not you'll be able to play Angry Birds Star Wars. Still looking a specific recommendation? Always keep an eye out for high scores on our ever-growing list of smartphone reviews. Also don't forget that you can head over to the Products section on The Verge to easily search, browse, and compare phones. And lastly, you can find our most recent picks for the best phones right here.
Go forth, compare carrier plans, read some smartphone reviews!