Smartphones have come a long way in the last ten years. They’ve evolved from relatively simple Palm Pilots, Blackberries, and Windows Mobile devices to full featured computers you can fit in your pocket. Whether you’re paying an unlocked price or committing to a two-year agreement, this will be a substantial investment you’re making for the foreseeable future. It’s best to weigh your options and make the right decision. Hopefully you can use this guide as a cheat sheet. It should be noted that for the most part, this also applies to tablets and media players with a smartphone OS.
You’ve heard it all before, “iPhone rulz, Android sucks, iSheep, etc” . It’s the same junior high antics that was the Mac vs PC before it. First piece of advice when buying a smartphone: Don’t listen to a word of it. Your device is a tool, not some grand ideological struggle. Here’s something that the fans don’t want to hear, each OS and piece of hardware has its own strengths and, yes there are weaknesses too. Strengths and weaknesses you have to consider based on your own needs. There is no best option, but if you don’t do your homework, you could pick one that poorly suits you.
The most noticeable feature of any smartphone is the Operating System. You have three main choices: iOS, Android, and Windows Phone 7/8. The user interface of iOS and Windows Phone is pretty tightly controlled by Apple and Microsoft. There is little to no variation device to device. When an OS update is released, most phones within a generation or two will probably get it…with a major Windows Phone exception that I will talk about when I discuss that operating system.
iOS brought in the current era of smartphones when iOS 2 (then known as OSX iPhone) brought apps to the iPhone. iOS offers ease of use, an outstanding app ecosystem and unwavering support. While the newest skinned Android phones may or may not ever see an update, the iPhone 3GS released in summer of 2009 with iOS 3 could update to iOS 6 the day it came out. It also offers full integration with your Mac and iTunes and all of Apple’s services, as well as security features like Find My iPhone that Android does not offer.
iOS can be plain jane at times and offers the least amount of customization of the desktop. In fact, its desktop is only an app launcher with no widget capability whatsoever. Some of the newer services such as the Siri personal assistant or the Google-free version of Maps aren’t as mature as you’d hope they be. However, the marriage of OS, device, and services under a single umbrella definitely has its advantages.
Android is a different animal. With the exception of Nexus devices which run pure Android, they allow each manufacturer to create their own customized interface skin. Thusly, a Samsung will be a somewhat different experience than a HTC, LG, or Motorola. The downside, skinned versions of Android are far less likely to see timely updates, if they ever do. In some cases, like the versions run by the Kindle Fire and Nook tablets, they might be so skinned that very little android remains beyond the underpinnings. You might not even have access to the Google Play store in some cases. Make sure you test out the skin at a retailer before purchasing your phone. Remember, you’re stuck with it for the next year or two.
In terms of feel, Android and the various skins are generally icon based with a dock at the bottom. It’s similar to iOS in many respects, but there are notable differences once you get beyond the superficial. The desktop is customizable for both app icons and widgets and those you don’t routinely use are available via an app launcher. Getting to device settings is also a little bit easier on newer versions. Unsurprisingly since Google is the developer, most skins of Android are very much integrated to Google services, though others may be tied to Yahoo, Bing, or even the manufacturer’s own. The device maker may also add features or services.
Window Phone uses a radically different different look and feel than iOS or Android. Rather than traditional app icons, the Windows Phone desktop (called the start screen) consists of square and rectangular icons that can be customized into either 1 unit app icons or 4-unit widgets based on the user’s preferences. This interface also now forms the basis of Windows 8/RT and the newest Xbox 360 desktop. Once the platform is established, you get a consistant user experience across your phone, tablet, computer, and video game system. However, the once-it-gets-started part is the key.
Windows Phone is not the mature ecosystem that iOS or Android is and it doesn’t help matters that Windows Phone 7 users can’t upgrade to Windows Phone 8. As attractive as the OS and some of its devices may look, it might take a while for Windows Phone 8 to meet feature and service parity with iOS and Android. Realize that going in if you go this direction.
Next look at the iOS app store, Google Play Store, and Windows Phone store. Decide what kinds of apps you want to use and what services you want to use. When it comes to app selection, iOS has a sizable head start. To put things in perspective, Japanese game publisher Square Enix makes 44 titles for iOS, 9 for Android, and only 1 for Windows Phone. That being said, most major apps have a version on Android or something comparable. Some, like Netflix may be limited to certain handsets. Windows Phone, is well, still in its infancy. It’s getting better with the release of WP8, but there are still major app gaps.
Once you get to a store, try a variety of devices, and pick the one that works for you. Your needs, work style, and your hands will dictate a device. With how much you’ll be using it, it has to be something comfortable you won’t drop. Since all devices and people are different, let the feel of the device be your guide more than screen size. It doesn’t matter how fast something is or how great the screen is, if you can’t hold it, it’s all a moot point.
Now think of what you’re planning to do with it. Modern smartphones can be your point-and-shoot camera, video camera, Gameboy, GPS, flashlight, and a hundred other things. Your needs determine what class of CPU, GPU, camera, and storage you want to have. If you find some devices you could see yourself buying, start thinking budget. As I said before, compromise as little as possible. If something is a little more expensive than you expected, consider waiting another paycheck or two.
Choosing a Provider and Plan
There are typically two main types of plans: prepaid and postpaid. Exactly what’s available depends on your market. Prepaid plans, come in two main varieties: Those where you buy a card with an amount of network access and those that offer monthly service for a discounted price compared to contract plans. Most carriers offer some form of prepaid service and since there is no contract, you can switch providers at any time. Here’s the catch, while you can get a selection of outdated phones at rock bottom prices, new devices come with little or no discount and you may not get the same roaming options as postpaid customers.
As I just alluded to, the second type is postpaid. You chose a plan and you pay at the end of the month for services used. If you go over the limits of your plan, you get overage fees unless you go for a pricey unlimited plan. This is the most common type of service in the US. Postpaid services typically offer you the best network coverage and a deep discount on the latest devices in exchange for a one, two, or three year commitment. Most factor that discount into your plan price and you’ll be paying for it even after your contract period is over if you don’t choose a new device for a new contract. If you choose to leave before your contract is up, you will have to pay an early termination fee.
Types of Cellular Technology
There are three main types of cellular radio technology: GSM, CDMA, and LTE. GSM and its 3G data technologies UTMS and HSPA is the most popular technology internationally. It uses a SIM card to identify the network and user data. If unlocked (most North American GSM devices are locked), a device can be moved to a different network by obtaining a new SIM card. It comes in four main bands: 850, 900, 1900, and 2100mhz though there are additional bands such as the 1700mhz AWS band used by carriers in the US and Canada.
The other main type of cellular technology is CDMA with its EV-DO data technology. CDMA technology is used in North America, Japan, India, and a couple other plans, though the Canadian CDMA providers have overlaid a GSM/HSPA network on top of their CDMA/EV-DO network. Unlike the rest of the world, this is the dominant technology for carriers in the US. CDMA uses no SIM and instead codes the network and user data into the phone itself. This makes moving your phone to another carrier almost impossible. Historically, CDMA/EV-DO devices have not been able to do simultaneous voice and data, but Verizon, Sprint, and other carriers have introduced SV-DO technology which allows this in newer phones.
LTE is the newest and fastest kid on the block. In fact, if your carrier has enough bandwidth, it might even be faster than your home data connection. LTE is technically part of the GSM evolution path, but CDMA carriers have chosen to adopt it as well. LTE technology will not only replace UMTS, HSPA, and EV-DO for Data, but eventually high definition VOLTE voice calls will replace GSM and CDMA voice calls as well. Yes, there is a catch. First off, most LTE networks are in their infancy and require their existing 3G networks as backup. Therefore devices must have both 3G and 4G radios. Second, since LTE uses a lot of bandwidth, carriers are trying to get it wherever they can and using an ungodly amount of different bands. AT&T uses three different LTE bands alone. Devices may not be interchangeable within a country let alone using your LTE device internationally. There’s also no guarantee that when things settle down in a couple years, your current LTE device will even work on the final network configuration. Carrier data allotments are also unchanged. You might reach your data cap rather quickly if you don’t pay attention.
When it comes right down to it, choose the platform and device that fits you the best. Use this to guide you as to what to look for, but in the end listen to your self. Don’t listen to hype and take what anyone else says with a grain of salt. Your mobile device will be the computing device you use most. Make sure you get the one that fits you.
Terms You Need to Know
CPU: Central Processing Unit. Your phone’s engine. A fast CPU such as the ARM A15, Qualcomm Krait, and Apple A6 can make a world of difference when running programs on your phone.
GPU: Graphics Processing Unit A dedicated processor for running your screen and 3D graphics. Games and 3D animation will run faster.
SoC: Cell phone chips are usually packaged as a System on Chip with the CPU, GPU, memory, and other items.
Memory: Temporary storage for running programs. The higher the better.
Storage: Permanent space for your apps, songs, pictures, ebooks, etc.
GSM: Wireless voice protocol that uses SIM cards for device identification.
UTMS, HSPA: GSM based 3G data protocol
CDMA: Wireless voice protocol that does not use SIM cards.
EV-DO: CDMA based 3G data protocol
LTE: Next-generation data protocol. Uses SIM cards like GSM. Both CDMA and GSM carriers are adopting this for their next generation networks.
Band: Radio frequency used by a wireless device carrier.
Prepaid: Wireless Plan without a Commitment may be month to month or per Minute/MB. Paid before service.
Postpaid: Traditional contracted wireless service plans. Customers receive a bill after the month.
Unlocked: Device that is not locked to a certain carrier. With a SIM based device this means you can easily transfer your device to another carrier, assuming it is capable of operating on their band. CDMA devices can also be unlocked, but require the carrier to manually program their network information. Most are unwilling.