How to buy a smartphone

A friend sent me this question (capitalization isn't her favorite part of the English language):

i'm considering purchasing an iphone, but those are EXPENSIVE, so i wonder if you would help me do a cost/benefit analysis?

i wouldn't even consider such a purchase except i was given the go-ahead yesterday to do an interview series/column, so i need a recording device. a dictaphone seems sort of expensive for a one-use gadget, so it seems that a smartphone that would allow me to do such recording as well as take photos and gps and play music (which look like the main features i would use aside from texting) might make sense. it's a large enough expense that it would be a major purchase for me, and i'm not sure what questions to ask (other than, hey verizon, will you please not charge me full price for the upgrade or i'm going to have to switch to sprint which totally makes me shudder).

thoughts? ideas? etc?

It's a great question, and one that's shared by many people. Here are some observations that might help:

If you're truly only buying a device so you can record interviews, a smartphone isn't necessary. Lots of budget-priced MP3 players have a recording feature built-in. The Sansa Clip, for instance, is usually about $30 or $40 in stores, and it produces a satisfactory recording. There are also dedicated digital voice recorders available for similar prices.

If you're looking to take advantage of using a smartphone for other reasons, too (and there are many), consider some of these matters:

1. Pick your network first. Nothing will make you more miserable than dealing with a bad cellphone network, no matter how nice your phone is. I've known people who couldn't get reception in their own kitchens. A great phone that doesn't ring and won't let you call out isn't worth any price.

2. Pick the form you like best, starting with the keyboard. You can get keyboards on the face of the phone (mainly from BlackBerry), slider keyboards, and virtual keyboards (they only appear on the screen when you're in a typing mode). The main advantage to a smartphone over a classic cell phone is the ability to do things like surf the Internet and send email -- the kinds of things that require a keyboard. If that isn't convenient for you, you're not going to get the experience you want from the phone.

3. After you've narrowed down your options based upon those first two questions, you may be ready to compare operating systems. People who like a hassle-free experience tend to rave about the iPhone because it's pretty seamlessly compatible with other Apple products. But it's also usually noticeably more expensive than comparable phones running the Android operating system, because there are lots of manufacturers competing to make Android phones, versus Apple's monopoly on the iPhone. If you get an Android-based phone, you will probably get more features than in a comparable iPhone (for instance, some Android phones can use 4G networks, which the iPhone presently can't), but the trade-off is that there remain more bugs in the Android system. There isn't a lot of customer support for the Android operating system -- but, offsetting that, there are so many other users now that any problem you have is probably one someone else has already addressed somewhere on the Internet. Android supposedly has 53% of the US smartphone market share. That's a pretty large number of fellow users troubleshooting the same problems you might be having, and it's also a very attractive market for developers creating applications.

4. From this point, some of the major distinguishing factors remaining include screen size, memory capacity, battery life, and camera quality. By this point in the process, you're probably down to just three or four remaining options anyway.

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This page contains a single entry by Brian Gongol published on January 6, 2012 2:35 PM.

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