How to Choose a SmartPhone

Looking for a smartphone? 3G, 4G, "mobile hotspot capable", "8MP rear camera", "processor speeds", "unlimited data plan", "720p HD video recording", "pre-installed with Android 2.3", and "HDMI output". What does these all mean?

Phones now have video cameras, touch screens, mobile hotspot capabilities, speakers, GPS, gyroscopes, and accelerometers. They are like mini-computers with their own version of operating systems. And just like any other operating system, they can be hacked by hackers.

You heard names like "Android", "Droid", "Google Phone", "Windows Phones", "BlackBerry", and of course the much talked about "iPhone". How is one to decide?

Buying a phone has never been so complicated. There are too many factors to consider. Some people simply give up and go with whatever phone their friends have, or go with the brand recognition such as the Apple iPhone. But is iPhone really the best?

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Which Carrier?

In the United States, the major carriers are Verison, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Nextel, Metro PCS, and a few others.

If you have a your favorite phone carrier and want to stick with that carrier, then that narrows down the selection. Because certain phones will only work with certain carriers. And vice versa. For example, if you want to stay with Sprint, you can not get an iPhone 4 because iPhone can only run on the Verizon and AT&T networks (at the time of this writing). But who knows, maybe the next version of the iPhone (iPhone 5) may run on Sprint (as some rumor has it).

When choosing a carrier, you have to look at the coverage of the carrier. Good coverage means that you can get good reception on your phone for more places in the country. Bad coverage means that you get good reception in big cities and poor reception when you are out in the middle of nowhere.

If you go to a carrier and ask "How's your coverage", they all are going to tell you it is good. And rarely will they say openly that their competitor coverage is better, etc. And I'm not going to say with carrier has better coverage either. That is because firstly, I don't know. And secondly, it really depends on where you live and many other factors. And thirdly, carriers are upgrading their equipment all the time and by the time you read this, the coverage of each of the carriers may have changed. Also carriers make deals with each other all the time. For example, one carrier may rent or share a tower with another carrier, etc. (source).

If you want to investigate carrier coverage by zip code, read user comments, and even see where cell phone towers are located, visit CellReception.com.

Another consideration is to consider going with a carrier that has an unlimited data plan. Otherwise, if you have a plan with a fixed data amount and you exceed that amount, you may have to pay extra which can become very expensive. Since most contract are two-year contracts, signing up with an unlimited data plan can mean that you don't have to worry about using more and more data in the future.

4G versus 3G

4G is fourth generation of cellular wireless standards -- the successor of 3G.

Watch video of Craig Mathias explains the evolution of wireless standards. Although it probably has more information that you need. In short, 4G is the standard that has the greatest throughput and fastest as of this writing -- much faster than 3G. We are talking about digital transfer speeds comparable to DSL speeds on a moving device.

4G has two technology for transmitting data: LTE (as mentioned earlier) and Mobile WiMAX (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access).

If you want 4G transfer rates, you need to find a 4G phone or phone that is labeled as 4G. The iPhone 4 is not a 4G phone. The number "4" in "iPhone 4" does not mean "4G". It just means the 4th version of the phone.

But just because your phone is capable of transmitting at 4G speeds, it does not mean that you get this speed all of the time. It depends on many other factors such as network load and location at the time of transmission, etc.

Mobile Operating Systems

Android is a operating system for mobile devices. It was developed initially by Android Inc and is now owned by Google. Phones that are based on this operating system is known as Android phones.

According to report by Canalys, Android is the world's leading smart phone platform. According to another report by Gartner, it is Nokia's Symbian that is the leader.

In any case, according to both reports, both Android and Symbian has larger market share than Apple iOS (which is Apple's operating system that runs the iPhone).

Beside Google and Apple, Microsoft doesn't want to be left out. So Microsoft has an mobile operating system called "Windows Phone 7". As for Blackberry phones, it runs BlackBerry OS by Research in Motion.

Android Phones

Technically speaking, Android is more than an operating system; it is a "software stack" that includes the operating system, middleware, and certain applications.

Android is a free open-source software stack which enables any developer to write custom applications (using the Java language) that runs on the Android operating system (based on the Linux kernel). There is an "Android Market", you can find apps for your Android phone (some of which are free and some of which cost money and others in between).

Similar, the iPhone also has different apps that can run on it.

New versions of the Android software comes out very fast. At the time of this writing, Android 3.1 is the latest version. And phones are on the store shelves pre-loaded with Android 2.2 is common (with some phones come pre-loaded with Android 2.3)

HTC and Samsung together accounts for 45% of the Android based phones. So if you are looking for an Android phone, it is most likely going to be HTC or Samsung.

With Android phones, you have more choice of phones and carriers. Android phones can run full HTML browsers that support Flash. iPhone does not support Flash on websites. See CNet's video on why Android may be better than iPhone. Read also about the iPhone-to-Android switch.

Camera Mega-pixel

Years ago, we did not have to worry about camera mega-pixels on our phones and whether it had HD video recording. Because phones back then can only transmit voice and there were no cameras or video recording. Now we have to ask whether the phone has one or two cameras. And at what mega-pixel (MP) on each of them. The rear camera usually have higher mega-pixel than the front camera.. The higher the mega-pixel the greater the resolution of image you can capture.

The iPhone 4 has two cameras. The iPhone 4 camera has capability of 5 mega-pixel. However, 8 MP on the rear camera and 1.3 MP on front camera is now available in certain phones. For video camera capabilities, 720p HD is now available.

Other specs

If a phone is "mobile hotspot capable", it means that the phone is able to act as a "hotspot" so that another device (or multiple devices) can "tether" to your phone and use your phone's Internet connection. This tether can be wireless via bluetooth or WiFi. Or it can tether via a cable.

For example, it is possible to tether a netbook to a mobile hotspot capable phone so that the netbook would be able to have an Internet connection that it would otherwise not have. The iPhone has tethering capability. But some carriers may charge extra monthly fee for use of this feature.

Phones with "HDMI output" means that it has a port on the phone that connects it to a TV and play out media from your phone to your TV.

Swype means that you can "type" by swiping your fingers over the letters in a touch screen in a continuous motion rather than tapping letter by letter.

Special capabilities

The HTC Evo 3D 4G smartphone has a 3D display and you don't even need to put on special 3D glasses. So you can play 3D capable games for example.

If you are into games, there is the Sony Ericsson Xperia Play which is the first "Playstation certified" smartphone with a dedicated gaming controller. Slide the display up, and you have the familiar playstation controls with arrow button on the left and the square/triangle/circle/cross buttons on the right.

Many phones can pinpoint you on the a map (either via GPS or via cell phone tower triangulation). But often the map is not oriented to the direction that you are facing. Phones by HTC has "HTC Sense" where you have a map with compass so that it orients the map to the direction you are facing. And you can preview your drive. You can also silence the HTC Sense phone by flipping it over.

Then there are other phones that are "navigation capable" that can give you audible turn-by-turn directions and other features that you would find in car GPS systems (some carriers may have an additional monthly fee for this feature).

Conclusion

PCWorld article says that choosing a network is more important than choosing a smartphone since high-end smartphones are fairly comparable.

Note:

This article was written in July 2011 from the perspective of within the United States. Things may have changed by the time you are reading this. The content is only opinion at the time of writing and may not be accurate if you are located outside of United States. Author is not affiliated with Apple, Sprint, AT&T, Verizon, or other cell phone carrier.

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