It's the first thing you reach for in the morning — and usually the last thing you touch before you nod off. In between those two moments, your smartphone is an indispensable companion, helping you stay on top of email and social updates, take and share photos and videos, play music and games, and a whole lot more. So we probably don't have to tell you that choosing the right smartphone is a big deal, especially since most people will live with that device for the next two years.
Our smartphone buying guide covers everything you need to know before you buy, ranging from the carriers and plans to screen size, operating system and other features and specs. Use this advice to make sure you get the very best handset for your needs and budget.
To stay competitive, wireless carriers are becoming more flexible with their plans, offering off-contract options and new ways to upgrade your device more often.
Three out of the four Big Four wireless carriers — AT&T, Sprint and Verizon — still mostly sell smartphones with two-year contracts. If you leave within that two-year agreement, you'll be subject to an early-termination fee (ETF). For example, Verizon charges $350, minus $10 for each full month of your contract term you complete.
The benefit of a so-called subsidized plan is that you pay less up front for the hardware. However, you can decide to pay full price for the handset should you not want to go the contract route. T-Mobile is the only major U.S. carrier that has ditched contracts altogether.
In addition, Verizon and AT&T both offer shared data plans (with unlimited texts and voice), which allow you to use a pool of data for smartphones and other connected devices like tablets. Verizon forces this option on new customers, while AT&T shoppers can choose an Individual Plan with discrete buckets of minutes, texting and data.
Of the three major contract carriers, Verizon offers the broadest 4G LTE network (though it can be slower in large cities). AT&T is closing in and offers faster speeds in some of the larger cities. Sprint is a distant third in terms of coverage, but its new Spark LTE service offers faster speeds in the limited markets where it's available.
The fastest-growing segment of the phone market is off-contract, which means that you don't have to sign a two-year agreement when you purchase your device. Although you'll pay full price for the phone, you'll save money in the long run because you'll pay less per month for service. In fact, some off-contract carriers charge only half as much as their bigger brethren.
Major players in this category include T-Mobile, MetroPCS, Virgin Mobile, Boost Mobile and Cricket.
Of all of the above providers, T-Mobile offers the largest LTE network. And in the not-to-distant future, T-Mobile and MetroPCS will be joining forces, which will give users even more coverage. T-Mobile is unique among off-contract carriers in that you can pay a lower up-front cost for the device, and the rest of the cost gets divided into monthly installments. T-Mobile charges $70 per month for unlimited voice, text and data, which is about $30 less than what's offered by its contract competitors.
Other off-contract providers charge even less. Virgin Mobile, for example, starts at just $35 per month for 300 minutes and 2.5GB of high-speed data. Stepping up to unlimited minutes costs $55 per month. The carrier rides on Sprint's nationwide network.
The trade-offs for going off-contract include a more limited selection of cutting-edge smartphones (in most cases) and less-robust nationwide coverage.
With its Jump plan, T-Mobile was the first carrier to offer its customers the ability to upgrade to a new smartphone before those two years are up. For $10 per month, you can upgrade up to twice per year, and the fee also includes phone insurance. Just keep in mind that you'll be paying the full price for the next phone you buy.
Verizon, AT&T and Sprint have rolled out similar plans. These three carriers don't charge a monthly fee to upgrade before two years are up, but you'll pay more for the hardware (broken up into 24 monthly installments). For instance, the iPhone 5s on AT&T's Next upgrade plan costs $27 per month, or a total of $648 over two years. You also don't save anything on the service plans for AT&T or Verizon. At least Sprint drops the price of its unlimited service for its One Up customers to $65 per month.
LOOK AND FEEL
The design of a smartphone and its portability are two big factors to consider when shopping. Here's what to look for.
The weight of a smartphone is mostly dictated by its screen size. The 3.9-ounce iPhone 5s, for example, has a fairly small 4-inch display and is one of the thinnest and lightest handsets on the market.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are big-screen phablets like the 6.3-inch Samsung Galaxy Mega, which tips the scales at 7 ounces. Once you get above 6 ounces, you'll really notice the weight of a phone in your pocket. If portability is paramount, shoot for a handset that's less than 5 ounces.
Defining a good or bad smartphone design is highly subjective, but if you care about build quality and aesthetics, look for a device with a unibody design, whether it's made of aluminum or polycarbonate. Some good examples include the Apple iPhone 5s, HTC One and Nokia Lumia 1020.
Those who prefer a smartphone with a removable battery should opt for a device like the Samsung Galaxy S4 or Galaxy Note 3. The plastic look and feel aren't as premium, but you'll be able to swap in a new battery and upgrade the memory with ease via the removable back.
SCREEN SIZE AND QUALITY
Although bigger screens are en vogue, you'll still find a wide variety of display sizes. And size is only part of the story.
Small Screen (less than 4.5 inches)
At least among high-profile devices, the iPhone 5s and 5c are the lone holdouts in the smartphone world with 4-inch displays. You'll also have to make do with a relatively low 1136 x 640-pixel resolution. However, these iPhones offer very bright panels with excellent color accuracy. There are other smartphones on the market with 4- to 4.3-inch displays, but most of them are cheaper Android and Windows Phones. The main reason to buy a small-screen smartphone is for its compact design.
Medium Screen (4.5 to 5.2 inches)
With smartphone screens growing all the time, it's difficult to nail down what's medium-size, but 4.7 to 5.2 inches is a good middle ground. Here you'll find devices like the Galaxy S4 (5 inches), HTC One (4.7 inches), LG G2 (5.2 inches) and Moto X (4.7 inches). Depending on the materials used and button placement, a phone in this category can be difficult to use with one hand, but it's certainly possible. The Moto X is perfectly comfortable, while the G2 tries to compensate for its larger display by placing the power and volume keys on its rear.
Large Screen/Phablet (more than 5.2 inches)
Welcome to phablet country. Smartphones with displays larger than 5.2 inches, such as the 5.7-inch Galaxy Note 3, are not optimized for one-handed use. In fact, that device comes with a software option to shrink the dialpad to one side. Even larger options include the Galaxy Mega (6.3 inches) and HTC One Max (5.9 inches). While impractical for some people, those looking to combine a phone and tablet in one device should get a phone in this category.
The size of the screen is only one consideration. Pay close attention to a smartphone's resolution. The sharpest displays have 1920 x 1080 pixels (1080p), while 1280 x 720 pixels (720p) can result in lost detail in text or movies. In general, it's best to stay away from phones with resolutions any lower than this, such as those with 800 x 480 pixels.
Two other factors that determine display quality are brightness and viewing angles. Make sure that the smartphone you're shopping for has a panel that's bright enough to read outdoors in direct sunlight. Having a wide viewing angle is important, too, because you'll want to be able to share what's on your screen with others and play games without the screen washing out when you tilt the device.
As for whether LCD or AMOLED screens are better, the former tends to offer more accurate colors, while the latter technology delivers more saturated hues and deeper blacks. It's largely a matter of personal preference.
From the right platform to the best specs, here's a quick cheat sheet for a smartphone's key internal ingredients.
Android dominates worldwide sales of smartphones — and for good reason. You'll find many more choices than iOS or Windows Phone when it comes to design, display size, specs, capabilities and price. Plus, Android is an open OS, which means it's easy to customize with widgets, launchers, your choice of keyboard and more. Some Android phone makers, such as Samsung and LG, trick out the software with additional enhancements, such as more robust multitasking and easier access to settings.
With the latest version of Android, 4.4 KitKat, the OS offers smoother performance, easier access to Google Voice Search and the ability to search for businesses right within the Phone app. Plus, Android offers the largest number of apps in its Google Play store. However, some may find the interface on certain Android phones to be too busy or cluttered.
The iPhone 5s and 5c run the latest version of Apple's operating system. The OS offers a clean and modern design, a new Control Center for easily tweaking settings and a better way to multitask. Some of the new icons are a little confusing, but overall, iOS 7 has a more polished look and feel than most Android phones.
The biggest reason to opt for an iOS device is its selection of apps. Apple's App Store tends to get the hottest apps and games before Android, partly because it's easier for developers to target fewer devices with similar specs. By the same token, iPhones enjoy the broadest array of accessories because there's less variation in design from one model to the next.
MORE: 25 Best iOS 7 Apps
With plenty of appeal for both smartphone newbies and families, Microsoft's Windows Phone platform sports a dynamic Start screen with Live Tiles. These tiles tell you at a glance what updates are waiting for you, but you can also pin all sorts of things to your Start screen and turn them into tiles. Options include a favorite music playlist, a sports team or a shopping list. With the latest version of Windows Phone, you can choose from multiple tile sizes (to more easily customize the user experience).
Windows Phone trails Android and iOS when it comes to apps, but we're glad to see Instagram finally added to the mix. Speaking of photo apps, photographers will really enjoy Windows Phones like the Lumia 1020, which offers the most advanced camera on the market.
The company formerly known as RIM has struggled to win over shoppers with its latest platform, BlackBerry 10. On the plus side, there's a Hub that aggregates everything from email to social updates in one place. It's also fairly easy to multitask, and BlackBerry offers the best touch keyboard on the market. However, the UI is not that intuitive, and the app store trails Android and iOS (though several ported Android apps help).
Smartphones are becoming more like PCs in terms of processing power, but you don't have to pay as much attention to clock speed. Instead, look for the chip name, which will give you a good idea as to a given handset's speed and capabilities. For instance, as of this writing, Qualcomm's quad-core Snapdragon 800 processor (found on the Galaxy Note 3 and Lumia 1520) offers the fastest performance for Android and Windows Phones. Apple's 64-bit A7 chip delivers equal, if not better, speeds on most tasks.
The Snapdragon 600 CPU (for Android and Windows Phone) is still a quad-core CPU, but it represents a step down in terms of speed. Dual-core processors (like the Qualcomm S4) tend to be less powerful, and are mostly relegated to entry-level and some midtier smartphones.
Here's an easy way to look at RAM on smartphones. Try to avoid handsets with just 512MB of system memory. 1GB is fine for budget and midtier models. 2GB is good and standard on higher-end devices. But 3GB (found on devices like the Galaxy Note 3) is even better. You can get away with 1GB on entry-level smartphones, but you'll want 2GB or more for juggling multiple open apps.
Given that some games can easily take up more than 1GB — not to mention how many high-res photos and videos smartphone owners are capturing — we highly recommend opting for as much internal storage as possible. The minimum on most handsets is 16GB, but some phones (such as the HTC One) come standard with 32GB. We recommend 32GB, or at least a phone with expandable memory via a microSD Card.
OTHER KEY FEATURES
Here are some other important considerations when shopping for a smartphone.
Don't be fooled by megapixel counts, as this is just one way to measure smartphone camera quality. Instead, pay attention to image quality, shutter speed and features. Try the phone out for yourself in the store, or look at photo samples online before you buy. There are some exceptions to the megapixel rule, however; for instance, the 41-MP sensor inside the Lumia 1020 lets you reframe your shot after you take it.
As far as camera features, look for optical image stabilization to reduce blur, and the ability to erase would-be photobombers from your images. Samsung Galaxy phones, the HTC One series and Nokia Lumia devices offer this perk. Also pay close attention to low-light photo quality. You should be able to get a decent shot indoors without using the flash.
A lot of factors determine how long a smartphone lasts on a charge, from screen size and the processor to the operating system. However, those looking for the longest battery life possible should aim for devices that have a battery capacity of 3,000 mAh (milliamp hours) or more. Some examples include the LG G2, Motorola Droid Maxx and Samsung Galaxy Note 3. You should expect all-day endurance from smartphones like these.
With the exception of Samsung and LG, removable batteries seem to be falling out of favor with most smartphone makers. But there are some benefits to this kind of design. Third-party vendors, such as Mugen Power, make high-capacity replacement batteries that offer more endurance than the original. Also, if you carry a spare battery, you'll be able to swap in a new battery to keep your phone going longer. More important, once your existing battery stops holding a charge for as long as it did when it was fresh, you can just buy a new one without having to pay for a whole new phone.
Apps and App Store
The number of apps matters, but only to a point. As Android and iOS surpass 1 million apps, there are more than enough options for anything you could possibly want to download. Windows Phone and BlackBerry trail the two leaders by a significant margin, both in terms of quality and quantity, though Microsoft's platform seems to be gaining more steam with developers. BlackBerry ports many of its apps from Android, which results in a less-than-optimal experience.
Cellular Network and Connectivity
These days, a smartphone is almost worthless without a high-speed 4G LTE connection. But not all devices and networks are created equal. For example, several handsets on Verizon's network are upgradeable to AWS, which will add LTE capacity and, therefore, make connections and wireless performance smoother. Meanwhile, Sprint has introduced Spark, a high-speed LTE service that promises speeds in excess of 50 Mbps.
Now standard on most Android devices and Windows Phones, a near-field communications (NFC) chip makes it easy to tap to pair devices (for instance, a phone and wireless speaker). You can also use NFC for mobile payments at retailers that support the technology and initiate file transfers between phones and tablets.
Apple uses its own proprietary technology for transferring files between iOS devices, called AirDrop, and it does not support NFC.
The latest Bluetooth technology to look for when shopping for a smartphone is Bluetooth 4.0 with low energy. This low-power standard is optimized for connections between your handset and other devices, such as smartwatches and fitness trackers. The Galaxy Note 3 uses such a chip, as do the iPhone 5s, HTC One series, multiple Samsung Galaxy phones and Sony Xperia line.
With myriad competing standards and a lack of direction from both smartphone makers and the carriers, wireless charging is more of a nice-to-have feature than a must-have at this stage. The idea is to place your device, such as the Lumia 1020, on a compatible wireless charging mat. While convenient, wireless charging likely won't take off until the technology is built into everything from cars to furniture.
Popularized by the iPhone 5s' Touch ID sensor, fingerprint security on smartphones makes it easier to unlock your device. In the case of the iPhone, you can also use Touch ID to replace passwords in the App Store with a finger swipe. The HTC One Max even lets you unlock different apps with different fingers. Overall, though, this feature isn't critical.