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 S3 or the iPhone 5. The Galaxy S3 offers all the power you'd expect from a high-end Android device in a gorgeous package. The iPhone 5, meanwhile, continues to set a smartphone standard, and it's the best iPhone you can buy. If you're an Android user who's always on the go and far from power outlets, the Motorola Droid Razr Maxx HD is the longest-lasting handset we've ever used plus flaunts a distinctive design. For more top cell picks, check out CNET's list of our favorite phones.
Still undecided or need a little more guidance? Well, if that's you, then read on for CNET's expert advice on how to buy the nest cell phone for you.
Three key phone shopping essentials
1. Don't be a cell phone cheapskateBecause of the way most people buy phones in the U.S. -- under a two-year contract -- chances are that once you commit to a handset, you'll probably 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 abilities 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 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-hand, and make sure it reflects your sense of style. This holds true whether you use a sleek iPhone, cutting-edge Android, simple flip, or 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 and top-notch components such as processors, memory, screens, and connections to fast wireless data. 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 abilities that their more pricey siblings do. Instead of popular mobile operating systems, these gadgets run proprietary software crafted by hardware manufacturers -- for example, Samsung or LG. Many feature phones tend to be 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 their 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 have been eclipsed by smartphones, they're uncomplicated, use traditional simple keypads, and are designed to one thing. That's to make and receive voice calls reliably and with excellent audio quality. Key components
Key consideration points
Large screens (4.7 to 5.5 inches)
The current rage among mobile phone design, especially in advanced Android smartphones, is having a massive display. We consider any handset with a screen of 4.7 inches or greater to be on the top end both in terms of physical size and display dimensions. Some gadgets such as the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 (5.5 inches) and LG Intuition (5 inches) push the screen real estate envelope to new heights, almost reaching a tablet level of functionality and girth. Keep in mind, however, that while devices with larger screen offers 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 4.5 inches)
Sitting in the cell phone size sweet spot are devices with screens ranging from 4 to 4.5 inches. Phones in this middle category typically strive to balance the high degree of engagement and entertainment a larger display brings while still remaining practical. Motorola's Droid Razr M and Apple's iPhone 5 are good examples of this approach, offering large hi-resolution screens that users can grip with one hand and whose thumbs comfortably reach all portions of the display.
Thanks to the swelling 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 individuals then we suggest limiting your shopping to devices that have screens that are 4 inches or less. Models such as these, like the HTC One V for example, are the most pocket-friendly, yet they manage to pack the hefty capability punch that Android can throw. 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 tasks, like opening and running applications. A fast processor also has a big impact on overall performance, like how smoothly a phone handles flipping through menus and running home screens. Traditionally, clock speed, listed in GHz, has been the quick way to judge CPU prowess. 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 and 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, though, 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 under low-light conditions.
Many phones ship with fancy image processors -- such as those from HTC and Nokia -- which promise high image quality plus the horsepower to drive the camera and auto focusing systems faster. The end result is nimble shot-to-shot times with no 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 range from 1,700mAh capacities and go all the way up to 3,300mAh.
Manufacturers also list battery performance in terms of talk time, standby time, or by 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 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 often or, to the contrary, plan on doing plenty of international trips. With your wireless usage in mind, settle on a carrier that offers coast-to-coast coverage (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile). 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 data
Equally as sophisticated as the devices themselves, though, is the wireless network technology they connect to. A veritable alphabet soup of acronyms and industry buzz words, 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 for how 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 U.S. 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 originally in French as Group 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, Evolved HSPA or 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. That causes us to think of it as really a 3.5G wireless solution. U.S. carriers who implement HSPA+ include T-Mobile and AT&T.
No doubt the buzz phrase 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 to provide "fourth-generation" wireless technology. At the backbone of American carriers' move to 4G is LTE, or Long Term Evolution, infrastructure trumpeted 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.
Short for liquid crystal display, LCD screens have come a long way from the alarm clocks and digital wrist watches of the 1980s. Today's smartphone LCDs offer HD resolutions of 1,280x720 pixels or higher and in sizes of up to 4.7 inches. Traditional weakness of LCD technology has been its use of an external backlight for illumination. This results is 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 iPhone (both the iPhone 4/4S and iPhone 5) sport LCD screens with 326 pixels per inch . Of course as a way to describe screen quality, ppi isn't quite cut and dry. Samsung's Galaxy S III for example has a lower ppi of 306 but has a larger display and higher resolution (1,280x720, 4.8 inches).
Long billed as the screen technology destined to replace LCD, active matrix organic light-emitting diode displays (AMOLED) use organic chemicals as the material to generate 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 to 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 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4 powers high-octane devices such as Motorola's Droid Razr Maxx HD, Sony Xperia TL, and the Samsung Galaxy S III. The new 1.5GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro found in the new LG Nexus 4 serves up even more processing oomph.
The A6 is Apple's latest wafer of processing silicon to grace the company's newest handset, the iPhone 5. So far all we know about the A6 is that Apple says it's twice as fast as the A5 chip that powered the iPhone 4S.
As well as displays and memory components, Samsung makes its own processors under the Exynos brand. Its most recent Exynos chip, the 1.5GHz quad-core Exynos, gives the Galaxy Note II its muscle and is one of the first phones to lean on four computing cores.
Operating system and software platform
Ever since the first iPhone, iOS has been the software powering Apple mobile devices. The current version, iOS 6, notably made waves when it dropped support for Google Maps in favor of Apple's own Map solution.
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. Android's freshest version, 4.2 Jelly Bean, only officially runs on the LG Nexus 4 but is sure to land on other phone models soon. Hopefully we won't have to wait too long.
Microsoft has been trying to convince phone users to buy devices running its software for almost a decade. The company's upcoming Windows Phone 8 mobile operating system is the most compelling yet with its new support for HD screens, multicore processors, and NFC. That said, the amount and caliber of applications WP8 boasts doesn't match the Android and iOS competition.
RIM, the makers of the once premier BlackBerry mobile communication devices, has been down on its luck lately. While many RIM owners in the U.S. have jumped ship and landed in either the Android or iPhone camp, the company hopes to reverse its fortunes with BlackBerry 10. BB10 is expected to provide a much improved interface, browsing, and application-friendly platform than RIMs aging BB7 products. You'll have to wait, though, since BB10 won't arrive until early 2013.
Cutting-edge phone features
Short for near field communication, NFC is a technology that has found its was into most current smartphone product lines except the iPhone 5. NFC enables fast data exchanges between devices over short distances, just by tapping handsets together. While NFC is behind solutions such 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 ability for NFC to make pairing with other wireless devices, such as speakers and headphones via Bluetooth, simpler and more hassle-free.
The CPU arms race once solely the domain of desktop and laptop computers has arrived to smartphones in earnest. First mobile processors with dual-core designs, or two dedicated processing centers on a single chip, will soon be eclipsed by silicon with four discrete cores.
Wireless charging isn't a new ability. Toothbrushes and other household appliances have been able to perform this trick for years. It's been slow to catch on with phones, however, despite the greater need of constant power on the go. Hopefully the Nokia Lumia 920 will change things for the better. Not only is this Windows Phone 8 handset able to pair with accessories in a snap via Bluetooth aided by NFC, the gadget supports for inductive charging too. Simply place the phone on accessories like pillows, mats, and counter tops to power up, sans cords.
Bluetooth and hands-free audio
Connecting mobile phones to accessories such as hands-free headsets has been available for years. Bluetooth is changing with the times, though, supporting new gadgets such as wireless stereo headsets and fitness trackers like the Fitbit Zip and Fitbit One. Additionally, Bluetooth version 4 promises to greatly improve battery life in supporting wireless phone accessories.