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Buying Guide: Smartphones

By: Carl Laron on March 17, 2017

What the best smartphone has

  • Ease of use. A smartphone with simple, easy-to-use menus, that's free of bloatware and heavy-handed customization will help you quickly find your way around even the most feature-packed device, whether you're a new user or a smartphone connoisseur.
  • Performance and reliability. While it's easy to get hung up on specs, the best smartphones will provide stable operation under everyday use. It's also important to keep expectations realistic. If you plan to play graphics-intensive games or run multiple applications at once, a budget device may buckle under the load. But for basic tasks -- browsing, reading and sending emails, watching videos and the like -- even a less expensive smartphone can do the trick.
  • Fast data speeds. LTE is the fastest cellular data technology, and all of the Internet capable smartphones in this report are LTE capable.
  • Durability: Build quality matters. Look for phones with solid fit and finish. However, even the best made phone will succumb to a hard fall on an even harder surface -- especially if it lands on its glass front. Well-made phone cases and screen protectors are surprisingly inexpensive and can save the day if accidents happen.
  • Appearance: The majority of smartphones sport the same slab design, but distinguish themselves with premium materials -- such as metal and glass -- or colorful shells. It's important to consider a phone's size, thickness and color to find one that fits your style and your hand. Large phones can be a challenge to use one-handed or to fit in a pocket.

Know before you go

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 or Google's Android. Windows-based smartphones are also available, and have gained a small handhold on the market, though we didn't spot a Windows smartphone with enough positive feedback to include in this report.  Blackberry-based phones are hanging on -- albeit by the thinnest of threads as the company is now offering phones that run on Android instead. Each OS has pluses and minuses that need to be carefully considered, especially if you are new to smartphones.

Will your carrier support your phone? We have more details in our reports on cell phone plans and prepaid cell phone 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 that a phone you are eyeing is about to get a major upgrade, some may be tempted to wait things out. That's a personal call, but keep in mind that a new phone might not necessarily be a better performer. Also, an older generation phone can still be available -- at substantially lower prices -- long after the latest generation device has been released.

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.

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