Smartphone buying guide: Platform pros and cons
Cell phones have become the most crucial personal technology purchase you can make. Not only are these devices full-fledged miniature computers in their own right, they're getting smarter with each product generation. If you're looking for a new handset right now, start with the Samsung Galaxy S4 or the HTC One. The Galaxy S4 offers all the power you'd expect from a high-end Android device in an ultraslim package. The HTC One, meanwhile, is the most gorgeous smartphone we've ever held, yet also manages to match the S4 in terms of speed and performance. No handset, though, can touch the battery life of the new Motorola Droid Maxx and the company's Moto X is a pint-size powerhouse, too. Of course, if you're a loyal Apple fan, the iPhone 5S is the most advanced communicator the company has created yet. For more top cellular picks, check out CNET's list of our favorite phones.
Still undecided or need a little more guidance? Then read on for CNET's expert advice on how to buy the best cell phone for you.
Three key phone-shopping essentials
1. Don't be a cell phone cheapskateEven with T-Mobile's new plans, most people in the US buy phones with a two-year contract. Chances are, then, that once you commit to a handset, you'll have it for a while. Unless you're buying an unlocked device that's not subsidized or a basic feature phone, it makes sense to spend as much as you can. This will help your handset stay fresh for a long time.
2. Know what phone features you wantIf you understand exactly what skills and capabilities you'd like to see in your new phone, it'll help you avoid paying too much for features you don't want or need.
3. Find the right designBuying a cell phone means entering into a deeply personal relationship with a highly portable physical object. That's why you should think hard about how it's designed, since you and it will be spending plenty of quality time together. Make sure you're comfortable with the way it looks and feels in your hand, and make sure it reflects your sense of style. This holds true whether you use a sleek iPhone, a cutting-edge Android device, a simple flip phone, or an armor-plated rugged handset.
Cell phone types
At the top of today's handset pecking order is the smartphone. These devices typically have the most power, not to mention top-notch components such as processors, memory, screens, and fast wireless data connections. By definition they run true mobile operating systems such as Apple's iOS, Google's Android, and Microsoft's Windows Phone. They also support downloadable applications via virtual stores tied to their associated software platforms. Because of all their capabilities, smartphones are usually the most expensive phones on the market.
Messaging or feature phones
One step below smartphones, feature phones strive to offer many of the same capabilities as their pricier siblings. Instead of popular mobile operating systems, these gadgets run proprietary software crafted by hardware manufacturers, such as Samsung or LG. Many feature phones are made primarily for text messaging and e-mail, sporting full QWERTY physical keyboards.
There are plenty of people who have no interest in viewing full desktop-quality Web pages or running apps on a mobile device. Simply put, they just want a phone for making, well, phone calls. For these folks a basic phone fits the bill. While basic handsets don't have the capabilities of smartphones, they're uncomplicated, use traditional simple keypads, and are designed to do one thing. That is, to make and receive voice calls reliably and with excellent audio quality.
Key consideration points
Screen sizeLarge screens (Greater than 4.7 inches)
The current rage in mobile phone design, especially for advanced Android smartphones, is having a massive display. We consider any handset with a screen larger than 4.7 inches diagonally to be on the top end, both in terms of physical size and display dimensions. Some gadgets such as the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 (5.7 inches), LG G2 (5.2 inches), and Nokia Lumia 1520 (6 inches) almost reach a tablet level of functionality and size. Keep in mind, however, that while devices with larger screens offer a bigger view, they are also harder to manipulate in one hand and can be uncomfortable to hold for long periods when you're making a call.
Medium screens (4 to 4.7 inches)
Sitting in the cell-phone-size sweet spot are devices with screens ranging from 4 to 4.7 inches. Phones in this middle category typically strive to balance the high degree of engagement and entertainment a larger display brings against remaining practical. Motorola's Moto X and Apple's iPhone 5S are good examples of this approach, offering large high-resolution screens that users can grip with one hand while their thumbs can comfortably reach all portions of the display.
Small screens (under 4 inches)
Thanks to the increasing number of gargantuan smartphones hitting store shelves, compact cell phones are a shrinking segment of the mobile handset market. That said, some people still place portability highest on their list of phone features. If you're one of these people, then we suggest limiting your shopping to devices that have screens that are 4 inches or less. Models such as the BlackBerry Q10, for example, are extremely pocket-friendly, yet they manage to pack a full QWERTY keyboard. For more on specific display technologies, check out the "deeper dive" section at the end of this guide.
ProcessorThe beating heart of any phone is its processor or CPU. It provides the computing power to churn through various tasks, like opening and running applications. A fast processor also has a big impact on overall performance, such as how smoothly a phone handles flipping through menus and running home screens. Traditionally, clock speed, listed in gigahertz, has been the quick way to judge CPU power. These days a chip's architecture, specifically how many computing cores it has, is becoming a more reliable predictor. Another factor is that older processors tend to use less efficient designs, making them worse performers while being harder on batteries than their newer counterparts. We talk more about processors below.
CameraA phone's camera depends on a whole host of variables. Though you might think that more megapixels is better, that's not always the case. You can get sharper images from a 5-megapixel camera than from an 8-megapixel shooter, so it's better to concentrate on other specs. Read on and see the bottom section for more details.
There are other factors to keep in mind, such as the quality of the lens, which could aid the sensor by exposing it to more light. The sensor itself might also offer a lower pixel count, but be more sensitive to illumination, resulting in better performance in low-light conditions.
Many phones -- such as those from HTC and Nokia -- ship with fancy image processors that promise high image quality, plus the horsepower to drive the camera and autofocusing systems faster. The end result is nimble shot-to-shot times with minimal shutter lag.
BatteryIf your cell phone battery conks out, all the snazzy features in the world won't be able to help you. Manufacturers have begun to recognize the critical importance of battery life and are squeezing greater-capacity batteries into their phones. Typical phone batteries start in the neighborhood of 1,700mAh and go all the way up to 3,500mAh.
Manufacturers list battery performance in terms of talk time, standby time, or how many hours you can expect a device to perform tasks such as playing video and music.
Wireless carriersChoosing a wireless carrier is perhaps the most difficult aspect of shopping for a cell phone. In many cases you don't have much of a choice since you're likely locked into a two-year contract and will pay a hefty early termination fee if you cancel before your time is up. That said, when selecting a carrier, first on your list of criteria should be coverage. You'll want a carrier with decent coverage in your home, at work, and all the places in between. For more about carriers and networks, see the next section.
Figure out if you'll be sticking to urban centers or trekking through rural areas often. Perhaps you won't even leave your home neighborhood much or, conversely, you plan on doing plenty of international trips. With your wireless usage in mind, settle on a carrier that offers broad coverage (in the US, Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile operate coast to coast). Alternatively, you may be satisfied with a regional carrier that covers a limited area.
Feature deeper dives
Want to know more about some of the features mentioned above? Read on for a deeper analysis.
Cellular networks and 4G dataEqually as sophisticated as the devices themselves is the wireless network technology they connect to. It's a veritable alphabet soup of acronyms and industry buzzwords, and you could spend an eternity studying how cellular infrastructure is constructed, let alone the physics and computer science needed to describe how everything operates. Grasping all that is overkill, however, if all you want is to buy a satisfying phone. Here's a basic overview of what you need to know.
CDMA stands for code division multiple access, but more importantly it's a method by which cellular radios transmit and receive voice and data. This standard is found mostly in America and to some extent Asian countries such as Japan and Korea. Major US carriers that use wireless networks based on CDMA are Verizon and Sprint. Other carriers, such as T-Mobile and AT&T, rely on the GSM standard, which is more widely deployed across the globe.
GSM, aka the Global System for Mobile Communications, or first referred to in French as Groupe Special Mobile, is a standard created for use in Europe. GSM then spread to other corners of the world, with carriers operating GSM networks across Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.
Based on the older High-Speed Packet Access, which topped out at 3G speeds, HSPA+ supports a theoretical peak download throughput of 168Mbps. This may sound pretty fast, but in practice the protocol delivers data speeds just marginally faster than 3G, and average download speeds of approximately 3 to 5Mbps. This causes us to think of it as really a 3.5G wireless solution. US carriers that currently implement HSPA+ include T-Mobile and AT&T.
The buzzword that gets tossed around with abandon by phone makers and cellular providers alike is 4G. Technically a marketing term and not a hard universal standard, 4G refers to data networks that are touted as providing "fourth-generation" wireless technology. The backbone of American carriers' move to 4G is LTE, or Long Term Evolution, infrastructure that is supposed to offer blistering real-world download speeds. In our experience both AT&T's and Verizon's 4G LTE services deliver download speeds of about 15 to 20Mbps, and sometimes faster. Of course, carrier deployment of LTE centers around large metropolitan areas, so finding access to a signal may prove tricky.
LCD, short for liquid crystal display, screens have come a long way from the alarm clocks and digital wristwatches of the 1980s. Today's smartphone LCDs offer HD resolutions of 1,280x720 pixels or higher and come in sizes of up to 4.7 inches. A traditional weakness of LCD technology has been its use of an external backlight for illumination. This results in shallow viewing angles and lower contrast compared with AMOLED displays.
Apple uses what it calls Retina Displays in its latest iPhones. Essentially this is a clever marketing phrase to say the iPhones (the iPhone 4/4S, iPhone 5/5S) sport LCD screens with 326 pixels per inch (ppi). Of course as a way to describe screen quality, ppi isn't quite cut and dried.
Samsung's Galaxy S4, for example, has 441 ppi, a larger display, and a higher resolution (5 inches, 1,920x1080 pixels). The HTC One, on the other hand, uses a 4.7-inch display (1080p) yet offers a higher pixel density (468 ppi).
Long billed as the screen technology destined to replace LCD, active matrix organic light-emitting diode displays (AMOLED) use organic chemicals as the material that generates light. Much like neon light fixtures and plasma HDTV screens, AMOLED displays use OLEDs to create light when they're exposed to an electric current. Since they don't rely on backlights for illumination, AMOLED screens tend to have higher contrast and more vibrant colors than LCDs. LCDs use liquid crystals that twist shut and block out light from LEDs placed behind them.
The current CPU smartphone king, at least for Android devices, is the Snapdragon family of processors. The quad-core Snapdragon 600 powers high-octane devices such as the Samsung Galaxy S4 and HTC One. An even more robust chip, the Snapdragon 800, drives the new Samsung Galaxy Note 3, Sony Xperia Z1, Nexus 5, and LG G2. The older 1.5GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro found in the LG Nexus 4 and Sony Xperia Z is slower yet still potent.
The A7 is Apple's latest wafer of processing silicon, and graces the company's most recent handset, the iPhone 5S. Billed as the first 64-bit mobile phone processor, Apple says it's twice as fast as the A6 chip that powered the iPhone 5.
As well as displays and memory components, Samsung makes its own processors under the Exynos brand. Its most recent Exynos chip, the 1.9GHz quad-core Exynos, gives the Galaxy S4 its muscle and makes it one of the first phones to lean on four computing cores.
Motorola took a unique approach in its smartphone lineup for 2013. Instead of cramming the fastest off-the-shelf CPUs into the Moto X, Droid Maxx, Droid Ultra, and Droid Mini, the company crafted its own solution. Called the X8 Mobile Computing Platform, this silicon places six discrete processing centers around a dual-core 1.7GHz Snapdragon S4 Pro CPU. It includes a quad-core Adreno graphics chip, along with a processor for interpreting natural language and one for contextual computing.
With the X8, Motorola's fresh handsets can perform a host of tricks straight from Google's software labs. For example, thanks to a feature called Touchless Control, Moto devices are constantly listening for your voice commands. The X8 is also designed to be more efficient in an effort to extend battery life without sacrificing performance.
Operating system and software platformiOS
Ever since the first iPhone, iOS has been the operating system running on Apple mobile devices. The last version, iOS 6, notably made waves when it dropped support for Google Maps in favor of Apple's own Map software.
Apple recently unveiled iOS 7 as well, which features a cleaner, more modern UI along with a host of improvements, such as a new Control Center settings menu.
Though it had a later start than Apple's iOS, Google's Android operating system has taken the lead both in terms of the number of products it powers and the number of individual users who rely on it. The freshest version, Android 4.4 KitKat, officially made its debut on the Nexus 5 and is slowly working its way onto other phones. For instance Android 4.3 Jelly Bean is currently on the LG Nexus 4 and both the HTC One Google Play Edition and Samsung Galaxy S4 Google Play Edition. KitKat updates, however, should come to these handsets soon.
Microsoft has been trying to persuade phone users to buy devices running its software for almost a decade. The company's current Windows Phone 8 mobile operating system is the most compelling yet, with its new support for HD screens, multicore processors, and NFC. That said, WP8 doesn't match Android and iOS in amount and caliber of applications.
BlackBerry, once the premier brand of mobile communication devices, has been in dire straits lately. While many BlackBerry owners in the US have jumped ship and gone with iOS or Android smartphones instead, the company hopes to reverse its fortunes with BlackBerry 10.
BB10 does provide a much improved interface, with better browsing and a more application-friendly platform than the company's aging BB7 products. That said, the operating system, which currently ships on the BlackBerry Z10, BlackBerry Q10, and BlackBerry Z30, lags far behind iOS, Android, and even Windows Phone 8 in terms of its app selection.
Cutting-edge phone featuresNFC
Short for "near-field communication," NFC is a technology that has found its way into most current smartphone product lines except the iPhone (at least up through the iPhone 5). NFC enables fast data exchanges between devices over short distances, just by tapping handsets together. While NFC makes possible such things as Google Wallet mobile payments and Android Beam, it's not clear if there is strong consumer demand yet for NFC. One application that looks compelling is the capability for NFC to make pairing with other wireless devices, such as speakers and headphones via Bluetooth, simpler and easier.
Quad-core (and more) processing
The CPU arms race, once restricted to desktop and laptop computers, has arrived on smartphones in earnest. The first mobile processors with dual-core designs, or two dedicated processing centers on a single chip, are rapidly being eclipsed by processors with four discrete cores, and models with eight or more cores are on the horizon.
Wireless charging isn't a new capability. Toothbrushes and other household appliances have been performing this trick for years. It's been slow to catch on for phones, however, despite the greater need for constant power on the go. Motorola's fresh Droids on Verizon all offer wireless charging, provided you supply a compatible charger. The Nokia Lumia 1520 also shows an attempt to change things for the better. Not only can this Windows Phone 8 handset be paired with accessories in a snap via Bluetooth aided by NFC, the gadget supports inductive charging too. Simply place the phone on special accessories like pillows and mats to power up, sans cords.
Bluetooth and hands-free audio
Connecting mobile phones to accessories such as hands-free headsets has been possible for years. Bluetooth is changing with the times, though, supporting new gadgets such as wireless stereo headsets and fitness trackers like the Jawbone Up24, Fitbit Force, and Nike FuelBand SE. Additionally, Bluetooth 4 promises to greatly improve battery life in supporting wireless phone accessories.