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'So, what phone should I buy?' and other unanswerable questions

'So, what phone should I buy?' and other unanswerable questions


It's the question we all dread.

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four phones hero 2
four phones hero 2

It's the question we all dread.

Maybe you're your family's designated tech expert, maybe you're a writer who deals almost exclusively with mobile technology, maybe you're the CEO of a national wireless carrier. Whoever you are, if you've got a reputation as a "phone guy," the question is eventually going to come up in conversation with a friend, a coworker, or a cousin. Personally, I find that I get it maybe once a week — usually interjected at some odd, tangential moment in an otherwise technology-free conversation. A sneak attack, if you will.

And though it's seemingly innocuous enough, it's nearly impossible to answer.

First off, what are you really asking me? Do you want to know what my favorite phone is? (Because that changes every week or two.) Do you want to know what phone has the "best" specifications? (Come to think of it, that also changes every week or two.) Probably not; in all likelihood, you're asking me what phone is right for you, which is a very subjective matter, indeed. Even if I knew you as well as I know myself — and for the overwhelming majority of people who ask me that question, I don't — there are still countless variables we need to consider. And then we need to hash that with an endless array of phones offered by as many as six or seven carriers, depending on where you live.

Now, if you're my mom, this is the part where I'd say, "well, what do you want to be able to do with it?" Twenty or thirty minutes later, we'd rough out a list of maybe two or three phones, then we'd go into carrier stores and have her try out devices while I fight off pushy reps with smooth conversation (or, failing that, fists). But when I'm having a casual conversation with a casual acquaintance, that's often not a practical solution for either one of us. So out of sheer laziness, what's my stock response?

"You know, honestly, just buy an iPhone."

And mind you, I'm not proud of saying that. I'm not trying to push Apple products, and I don't currently own an iPhone myself. Rather, it's a very selfish piece of advice: you see, by suggesting a phone to someone, you become, on some level, "on the hook" for that individual's post-purchase satisfaction. You're going to hear the good and the bad. You're going to get the late-night emails and instant messages asking what to do when Angry Birds freezes. And maybe — just maybe — this person is going to like you a little bit less if you recommend a phone they don't like.

By recommending an iPhone, I cover the broadest swath. I cover my butt. I know I'm not going to hear a complaint that you can't find Skype or "that Infinity Sword or whatever it's called that everyone is talking about." I also minimize the chance that you're going to be flustered by misbehaving apps. And, for many of my iTunes-using friends, it means I don't need to help you set up DoubleTwist. It's simply my path of least resistance to ensuring my advice seeker an acceptable smartphone experience with minimal ongoing technical support from me. (Of course, I might hear a complaint that they've shattered the back when they "only dropped it a few inches," but that's their problem, not mine.)

That's not to say I don't love Android... I do. The Galaxy Nexus is the best smartphone I've ever used (which is why it's in my pocket as I write this). But anyone who's used Android at length knows that it requires more care and feeding to make it great than iOS does. Spec-for-spec, Android's raw potential is greater — but it takes more elbow grease to get it there. It's no different from desktop operating systems for the past thirty-plus years. Different strokes for different folks.

That's also not to say I don't love Windows Phone. Frankly, Mango is amazing. But even my tech-oblivious friends are starting to ask what LTE is all about and whether they need it (thanks in no small part to aggressive marketing from Verizon and AT&T). And like I said, the problems start to snowball once they've got the phone set up and I'm getting hit with "where is such-and-such app?" every few hours.

Coincidentally, that's why The Verge will never simply say "just buy this phone." It's not that simple, it never is. We can recommend you great phones by platform, by carrier, or even by specific need. But there'll never be a one-size-fits-all answer. In fact, more often than not, the phone that's right for you probably isn't the phone that's right for me.

Seriously, though: just buy an iPhone. It was nice talking to you. Catch you at the family reunion next year?