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Updated on 4 December 2015 by Krishna Pérmi
The ReviewGist 'Best Cellphone Buying Guide' takes you on a tour of the most relevant cell phone related taxonomies of 2015. We look and explain in detail some of the most important features which you need to keep in mind and link out to quick recommendations on the top picks.
When you purchase a smartphone from a wireless carrier, you are required to sign up for a contract in most cases. Depending on the carrier, the contract may run for one year, two years or even more. If you want to purchase a phone without a commitment, you'll need to purchase an "unlocked" smartphone. Alternatively, you can request your carrier unlock your phone after you complete the contract successfully.
If you want a phone that you can use with providers and carriers outside the United States, you'll want to buy one that requires a SIM card. GSM phones provided by AT&T and T-Mobile require SIM cards and are compatible with most carriers in other countries. If international roaming is not a concern for you, CDMA phones offered by Verizon and Sprint may be an acceptable option. CDMA phones don't require a SIM card, but are also not compatible with most networks outside the United States. Additionally, GSM phones are considerably easier to unlock than their CDMA counterparts.
Each carrier offers a different set of technologies - CDMA and GSM and services. Both the technologies transmit voice and data, but in different ways. CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) is used by Sprint, Verizon, MetroPCS and U.S. Cellular and GSM (Global System for Mobile Communication) is used by AT&T and T-Mobile. The CDMA coverage is very good within the US, but GSM technology is popular the world over. Also GSM phones use SIM cards, which means you can not only change your handset but also your SIM card, a useful feature if you travel abroad. Use the carrier's coverage map to get an idea of the signal availability in your area.
AT&T has made available plenty of cell phone offers - from very low priced and free phones to the most coveted devices in the market. You'll find even affordable-priced, refurbished phones from AT&T. AT&T offers pre-paid options for customers who do not want a wireless contract under the 'Go Phone' brand.
AT&T is the obvious option for frequent travelers who need to remain connected in places outside the US, mainly because AT&T services uses the GSM mobile standard that is popular worldwide. (Note that the operations of both Verizon Wireless and Sprint are based on the technically superior but not quite popular CDMA system). The other attractive feature about AT&T is the roaming agreements with over 220 countries that allow reasonable international call rates. Nearly all the AT&T cell phones are tri-band, making them compatible with networks of non-US GSM service providers.
T-Mobile USA, the fourth largest wireless carrier in the world is a subsidiary of T-Mobile International AG. While T-Mobile's digital cellular network spans U.S., Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands, their coverage is not limited to areas within their frequency range; and by way of roaming agreements with operators of compatible networks, T-Mobile brings reception even in places where they currently own no radio frequencies.
T-Mobile presents an array of tailor made plans to choose from, such as individual plans, family plans, unlimited nationwide 4G data, value plans, unlimited value talk and texting, specific plans for children and more. However, in the US the cellphone selection available directly through T-Mobile is much more limited as compared to AT&T. However, T-Mobile also works on the GSM platform so you should be able to use any unlocked phone also directly on T-Mobile by purchasing a SIM card.
As the US's largest cell phone service provider, Verizon Wireless offers its customers a wide choice in handset models, from high-end smartphones to basic budget-friendly models.
Verizon is also USA's biggest CDMA based carrier. CDMA is generally considered to be a superior technology as compared to GSM (used by AT&T and T-Mobile) and offers better reception. Indeed, Verizon does a far better job with reception in far flung rural areas as compared to AT&T and T-Mobile. The only downside is that CDMA phones do not work internationally due to most other countries supporting primarily the GSM standard.
Customer service, network reach and reliability have been the reasons behind Verizon Wireless' popularity. The service is well-liked for the variety of unlimited pricing plans on offer - unlimited voice plan for individual users ($69.99 per month), unlimited talk and messaging plan ($89.99 monthly) and unlimited talk & text plans for families (starting $149.99 for two lines).
Sprint Nextel's wireless services are offered under the brand names Sprint, Boost Mobile, Virgin Mobile, PayLo and Assurance Wireless and is the second biggest CDMA based network provider after Verizon.
Being the first, national carrier to provide wireless 4G service, Sprint leads prepaid brands like Boost Mobile, Virgin Mobile and Assurance Wireless; and now have over 56 million customers making use of their leading mobile data services. Furthermore, Sprint offers instant push-to-talk capabilities for national and international calls, along with global Tier 1 Internet backbone.
Over the last few years, modern mobile operating systems have revolutionized the way people use their cellphones. Whereas only a few years ago, people used their phones only to place and receive calls, users now use smartphone much more to perform specific tasks using the applications or apps hosted by a mobile operating system.
The most prominent mobile operating systems today include, in the order of popularity, iOS running on Apple's iPhone, Android and Windows running on devices from various brands and BlackBerry OS running on BlackBerry devices.
The big shift vis-a-vis mobile operating systems that started in 2013 and should continue throughout 2014 is the rise of the Windows OS and the downfall of Blackberry OS. The next section takes a small historical detour on the background of each of these OS - however you can also jump down to the table below where we summarize the key points to note before choosing either of these OS for your next buy.
Apple produces a line of highly regarded smartphones under the iPhone trademark, which run on the company's proprietary operating system - iOS. Apple introduced the original iPhone in 2007 and continues to release models and versions of iOS until this day.
The iPhone series of smartphones has developed a solid reputation and following due to its deep integration between hardware and software and its intuitive touch interface that supports various multi-touch gestures like swipe, tap, scroll and pinch.
The latest generation Apple smartphone - iPhone 5 sprawled through the various predecessors including iPhone (first generation), iPhone 3G, iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S. As Apple has released new versions of the iPhone, the phone's list of features and improved hardware also increased considerably. The latest iPhones boast support for high-end specs such as 64GB of storage, 4G LTE network support, a high-resolution 8MP camera and a 4-inch Retina Display - a proprietary display technology from Apple which provides vibrant, detailed high-definition pictures.
Just as the iPhone itself has seen several revisions, iOS - the phones operating system has progressed as well. Currently, the latest version is iOS 7.0. Apple designs it iPhone to be compatible with future iOS upgrades, but some older units may not work with the latest version. Nevertheless, most series 4 and newer iPhones should work with iOS 7.0 without any problems. In fact, Apple generally allows users to update the iOS version on their phones automatically when logging in to iTunes or the App Store.
The only caveat is that there have been substantial user reports of series 4 iPhones and earlier facing a performance lag on the latest iOS version. Even though the functionality itself is not compromised but most user interactions feel a bit slugging on older iPhones sporting iOS7. Consequently, if you are looking at buying an iPhone, it might make sense to go for the latest hardware out there.
The most compelling feature of the Apple ecosystem is the access to nearly one million apps through the Apple App Store. In addition iTunes, which is Apple's media platform provides anytime access to countless movies, music clips and TV shows. Apple has had a head start in app development and the Apple App Store beats all other App Store hands down both in the number and the quality of the apps.
Android, is an open source platform for mobile devices developed by Google and used on about 75% of smartphones around the world. Smartphones running on Android are powerful and affordable (since it is a free operating system) at the same time, making it the most popular smartphone operating system today. Even though Android has a 75% market share across the world, it comes close second to iOS in the US - iOS commands close to a 50% market share in the US. The reason Android sells more in other parts of the world because it is more pronounced in cheaper cellphones with reduced hardware capabilities.
Android runs on some of the most advanced cellphones and smartphones ever released from manufacturers like Samsung, HTC, Motorola and others. Additionally, LG manufactures the Nexus smartphone as an OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) for Google. The Nexus series sport Android directly from Google and are often the earliest to get any OS upgrades - the other brands often customize the original Android OS on their devices, which is why they are slow to receive updates.
Android phones also provide user with access to more than 600,000 apps and games on Google's Play Store. Google Play also enables Android users to browse millions of songs, movies and TV shows for immediate download and playback on Android smartphones or devices. Android also provides tight-knit integration with other Google Services such as Google Search, Gmail, Google+, Google Drive and YouTube.
While not as popular as Android or iOS, Windows Phone is another mobile operating system that is gaining in popularity with users that require tight integration with Microsoft's desktop OS and access to Microsoft Cloud apps such as Office 360 (Microsoft's online version of their Office suite of applications). Microsoft Phone's new tiled interface definitely brings a breath of fresh air to mobile interfaces and has won it a fair share of fans.
The best Windows Phones, come from some of the top manufacturers such as Nokia, HTC and Samsung. The most notable among these are the Nokia Lumia's which not only sport a fresh look in smartphone interfaces with the live-tiled interface but have also set new standards as far as the phone camera capabilities are concerned.
Microsoft has been a late comer to the modern smartphone OS market and has already lost dominant market share to iOS and Android. In all likelihoods, 2014 should be the watershed year for Windows Phone OS and should see the Redmond based company trying to fight out a niche for itself. The stakes are pretty high - if it fails, it is unlikely that Windows Phone would be able to budge from the number 3 spot anytime soon.
Like Android and iOS phones, smartphones running Windows Phone have access to the Windows Store for downloading apps, books, games and media . Even though smartphones running Windows Phone have built-in basic apps like People, Messaging, Skype, Mail and Internet Explorer, the Windows App Store lags behind the Apple and the Android App store, both in the number of apps and the consistency of interface. This in our view is the single biggest factor why you should choose iOS and Android over Windows Phone, atleast for the first half of 2014.
BlackBerry phones were once the mobile device of choice for many on-the-go business users - best known for the full QWERTY keypad built for email on-the-go. Over the last couple of years though more innovative smartphone operating systems like Android, iOS and Window Phone have reduce BlackBerry's user market share to the single digits.
BlackBerry though still has a strong following among a niche set of users that use their phones primarily for chatting, texting and using email services, and even though Android and iOS have become the dominant smartphone platform, this has not happened at the expense of BlackBerry users, which have even grown marginally for the last couple of years. However, most of this new growth has come from markets outside the US and at the expense of older feature phones.
QWERTY keypads are designed and laid-out just like a standard computer keyboard. Therefore, many users find the layout more comfortable and familiar when typing lengthy emails or messages on their phones. Additionally, BlackBerry phones include the BlackBerry Messenger app that many users find intuitive and easy to use versus other chat or messaging apps. The combination of the QWERTY keypad and BlackBerry Messenger also help to make BlackBerry phones popular with many die-hard social media site users (i.e. Facebook and Google+.)
BlackBerry release the latest iteration of its OS - BlackBerry 10 in 2013 - though it received little media attention and did not bring many notable innovations apart from a revamped input interface. BlackBerry World is RIM's(the company which owns BlackBerry) App Store which provides access to online apps and media. Again, BlackBerry World is limited in its selection of Apps and lags behind both Android and iOS in selection as well as quality. Blackberry has recently tried to ameliorate the situation by offering the provision of running Android Apps on its platform. This hasn't helped much though as the user experience has been spotty, with users reporting one or more app features not working across different apps.
Jan 2014, US Only, Comscore
||If you are looking for the latest and greatest, an iPhone is definitely one of the best buys. It is also a great phone for seniors and hearing disabled due to intuitive user interface and good compatibility with hearing aids.|
||Androids are the best options out there if you want to lay your hands on the latest hardware but on a budget. Even though these are great developer phones and offer exhaustive customization options, the interface and lack of consistency across Apps might be a stumbling block for seniors and the less tech savvy.|
||The only good reason to get a Windows Phone in 2014 seems to be the superior camera capability of the Nokia Lumia's. The 41 MegaPixel PureView camera has been widely voted on as the most capable camera out there when it comes to smartphones.|
||BlackBerry devices remain attractive to a small niche in 2014 - they are an option only if you are a heavy user of email/messaging on-the-go.|
Generally speaking, bigger displays screens offer higher resolutions and support HD formats like 1280x720 (720p) and 1920x1080 (1080p). However, the key spec that you need to look at while evaluating screen clarity is what is known as PPI or Pixels per Inch. PPI is a measure of the number of pixels contained in each square inch of the screen - the higher the PPI, the denser the pixels and the more clear pictures and videos appear to be.
The race to higher PPI was kick started by none other than the iPhone, with the so called Retina display screen with a PPI of around 320. However, other brands caught on quickly and increasingly offered higher PPI's touching almost 450 throughout 2013. The best phones of 2014 should continue this tradition and routinely hit the 400+ mark - though there is law of diminishing returns here and increasing PPI beyond 500 wouldn't be discernible by the human eye.
As far as the screen size is concerned, 2013 proved one thing - larger is mostly better. The best smartphones of 2014 should easily surpass 4.5 inches and some even have displays as large as 5.5 inches. Larger displays are useful for watching videos, reading books and playing games. Smartphones with extra-large screens (5.5 inch plus) have even contributed in creating a new sub-group of smartphones aptly named "phablets" - combining "phone" and "tablet" because of the large screen sizes with these models.
As cool as many of the features are with modern smartphones, they're only useful if the phone's battery lasts long enough for you to enjoy or utilize them. Battery technology has advanced to the point where you can use some smartphone for days at a time before needing to recharge them. Nevertheless, battery life with some phones is significantly better than with others. The best smartphone batteries can power a phone for more than a week or more in standby mode and support upwards of 20 hours of talk time.
Broadly speaking, the higher the mAh rating of a battery, the longer it will power a smartphone. However, depending on many variables such as screen size, network connectivity options and others, the phone many not need an overly large battery. Still, if you're shopping for a high-end smartphone, you may want to consider one with a battery with at least a 2500 mAh rating - the best of 2014 should easily hit the 3000 mAh mark though.
Regardless of the size of a smartphone battery, though, you should be aware that connecting to the Internet over a 3G/4G or Wi-Fi connection will reduce the time you can use the phone considerably.
Many modern smartphone allow you to snap pictures that compare in quality with those taken with mid to high-end digital cameras. Generally speaking, the bigger the megapixel rating for a smartphone camera, the better pictures it will take. If you're looking for a camera to take pictures only for sharing on Facebook or other social media sites, look for something with a 5MP or higher rating.
If you're a serious photographer and want to be able to shoot high-resolution photos without lugging around your digital camera, the best smartphone cameras support resolutions of 12, 20 and even 40 megapixels. The top spot as far as the cameras have been concerned have been cornered by the Nokia Lumia's in 2014. The 40 MP PureView camera has been widely reviewed to be the best in the industry with superior performance even in low-light conditions.
Not too long ago, mobile Web access meant plugging your laptop into a modem in a hotel room or some other location to connect to the Internet. These days, though, modern smartphones can access the Internet from virtually anywhere with nothing more than the wireless network used to place and receive calls. Depending on the network used with the smartphone, access speeds on the mobile devices can be as fast as broadband computer connections using a high-speed cable or DSL service.
Most modern smartphones support Internet connections over data networks already used by the various wireless carriers. If you're not a hard-core Internet user, basic 3G connections may suffice for you. On the other hand, if you use the Internet frequently, you may want to purchase a phone that supports faster network options.
Virtually all carriers in the United Stated support wireless connections over some 3G networks, which can offer bandwidth speeds of up to 3Mbps. With a 3Mbps connection, you can usually stream low-bandwidth videos without much lag or delay. If you need to stream HD videos or other bandwidth-hungry content to your phone, though, you'll need a phone that support 4G/LTE connections. Even if you opt for a phone that supports 3G only, though, you can still obtain a faster connection if you connect to a Wi-Fi router or network (virtually all modern smartphones support Wi-Fi connections.)