What Smartphone Should I Get?


  • October 2014: added Wirecutter "The Best Android Phones"
  • March 2014: added NYT "practical guide" 
  • February 2014: updated Resources links to include latest Engadget guide 
  • January 2014: general revision; added eWeek slide show on switching carriers
  • December 2013: updated Resources links to include latest ars technica guides
  • October 2013: added PCMag.com Top 10 list, Ocober 9
  • December 2012: updated Resources links March 4; added PCMag.com guide August 29


"What smartphone should I get?" I get asked this question all the time. Below is advice I usually offer.

Note --

  • Most important things listed first. 
  • Things change fast: the advice is sufficiently general to stay relevant. 

Be clear what a smartphone is and does. Smartphones run sophisticated operating systems; support data connectivity (for example, connectivity for email and web), in addition to voice and texting; and have associated app stores to install and update applications for email, calendaring, web, social media, shopping, search, file storage, maps and navigation, media and books, etc. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smartphone.) It's helpful to think of smartphones as hand-held, palm-size computers, that also are cell phones. 

is this is a personal purchase, versus a smartphone provided by the company/organization? If the latter, check with the organization (if applicable) to see if it does support, is neutral, or won't support particular devices for work-related applications that may be important for you to be able to use, such as email and calendar.  

Don't focus too much on the cost of the device per se -- that's a one-time expense. What is expensive, and something you have to be comfortable with, are the monthly charges -- and what with voice, a decent data plan, fees, and insurance, you're likely looking at something approaching $100/month (for the first device; there could be discounts for additional smartphones on the same account). Get the insurance.

Operating systems. The dominant devices have either the iOS operating system -- iPhones made by Apple -- or Google's Android operating system -- devices made by a range of manufacturers (the dominant one is Samsung). There are other operating systems -- Windows Phone 8, Symbian, Blackberry -- but they're relatively new (for example, Windows Phone 8) or increasingly minor players (Blackberry). 

There are multiple releases of the Android OS; favor the most recent one if possible.

If you live in the Upper Valley and want to be able to use your smartphone most places, I suggest going with Verizon as the carrier. I think most folks here would agree that Verizon Wireless provides a good combination of outstanding national coverage and the best local coverage. I'm not saying regional carriers (like US Cellular) should be avoided, but national carriers are likely to have a larger selection of devices, less expensive out-of-region service, and more service features.

Your company/organization may broker an employee discount for you. 

Do you already have a "mobile ecosystem"? That is, do you or your family members or coworkers already have tablets that are iOS or Android? (Don't worry too much about whether you're generally Apple or Windows for your laptop and desktop computers.) If you already have a mobile ecosystem, stick with it for your smartphone. I personally find there's tremendous value in having the same environment across my mobile devices -- my smartphone and tablets.

Favor high-speed service -- 4G. In the US, most carriers have deployed or will transition to a 4G standard called LTE (Long Term Evolution). If 4G isn't deployed yet in your neighborhood, it likely will be soon. 

Get the most generous data plan you can afford.

Can't imagine being separated from your music player? If so, and assuming it's an iPod, just get an iPhone. Who wants to carry around two devices?

Do you know you want to customize your smartphone extensively? -- for example, to totally change the appearance of the home screen? Try a different (touchscreen) keyboard? Install "unapproved" apps? If so, an iPhone may not be for you. Other OSes -- notably, Android -- let you tinker with your smartphone to a great degree. 

Battery life. Smartphones, what with their large, bright screens (the screen consumes most of the smartphone's power) and multiple radios (4G, 3G, WiFi, GPS), are power-hungry devices, and battery technology has not kept pace. Get used to charging them during the day, dimming the screen whenever possible, and perhaps even carrying spare batteries or generic battery packs (search "Cell Phones & Accessories › Accessories › Batteries › Extended" in Amazon, for instance). 

Think about form factor. The vast majority of smartphones are slabs (all screen, or keyboard as the bottom half); a few are sliders (physical keyboard or second screen slides out of device). Borrow one or go to a retail outlet, and try it out. Some of the screens (Androids) are now quite large; make sure they're not too big.

Is a camera that takes high quality photos important? For photos posted on Facebook, Flickr, etc., probably any smartphone's camera will do. If you really, really want crisp and true digital images, you're probably going to use a real digital camera. That said, see http://reviews.cnet.com/best-camera-phones/

Many smartphones allow you to augment storage (for photos, music, and applications) by adding Micro SD cards or some such similar storage technology. OSes also suport cloud-based storage (for instance, Google Drive and Apple's iCloud) -- and there's always Dropbox. 

Should you avoid a Blackberry? Aren't they going out of business? Who knows. A Blackberry may, in any case, be a good choice for you -- see above.

Questions, comments, suggestions? Feel free to email me -- william.garrity@gmail.com.