Apple, Android, or ...? Probably the biggest thing to consider out of the gate is the operating system (OS) that your phone will operate on. Most buyers will opt for a phone that uses either Apple's iOS (for example, the Apple iPhone 6) or Google's Android (For example, the Samsung Galaxy S6, LG G4, Google Nexus and, almost everything else). Windows-based smartphones are also available, and have gained a small handhold on the market, while Blackberry-based phones are hanging on -- albeit by the thinnest of threads. Each OS has pluses and minuses that need to be carefully considered, especially if you are new to smartphones. See the introduction to this report for more about the major operating systems
Will your carrier support your phone? We have more details in our reports on cell phone plans and prepaid cellphone plans, but there are multiple cellphone technologies and frequencies used by the major national carriers (and the smaller, mostly prepaid carriers that operate by reselling capacity on those networks). Not every phone is supported by every carrier. That shouldn't be an issue if you buy a phone directly from them (see below), but if you buy an unlocked phone from a third-party retailer, such as Amazon.com, it pays to check first.
Locked versus unlocked phones. Not long ago, you had only one option when buying a phone -- direct from your carrier (or an authorized reseller). Those phones were sold locked to that carrier -- even after you were out of contract, the device could not be used on another network. Several lawsuits later, policies and practices have changed. Carriers (and their authorized resellers) still sell phones that are locked to that network, but will provide users with unlocking codes so they can take their phones with them once their contract is up and/or the device is completely paid for. You can also buy many unlocked smartphones from third-party retailers, such as Amazon.com and others. Many carriers, including AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon, along with most prepaid carriers, welcome users who bring their own unlocked compatible devices to their networks, but some make activating a phone bought elsewhere more challenging, so check with your carrier first if you are considering buying an unlocked phone.
What about call quality? If you've read through our comments regarding smartphones covered in this report, you'll probably notice that we don't delve deeply -- or at all -- into the quality and reliability of voice calls. Call quality is a function of the phone's electronics, of course, but also of the carrier and even the cellphone tower carrying your conversation -- and that can vary greatly from carrier to carrier and from location to location. In many cases, static, hollowness, and other audio artifacts are more likely to be an issue with the network rather than the phone itself, and a phone that sounds only okay in one location could sound a lot better -- or worse -- a few miles away or if used with another carrier. Unless otherwise noted, all the phones discussed provide at least good call quality under normal conditions, with easy-to-understand audio and -- network permitting -- solid connectivity.
Should you wait for that up-and-coming snazzy smartphone? If word on the street is the latest iPhone is releasing in a few months, or the Android platform is about to upgrade its OS, some may be tempted to wait things out. That's a personal call, but keep in mind that prices can drop ahead of a new release -- and these are usually leaked weeks in advance. Older phones can often be upgraded to run the newest version of the latest OS of either platform.
If you do decide to wait, it might be a good idea to wait a little longer. As with any new technology product, it's often good advice to wait at least one to two months to read user reviews, learn about any bugs in the software and watch for price drops on the horizon.