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What should you look for in a new smartphone?

Answered October 13, 2012

How should you decide which smartphone to buy?

First, understand that there's no single answer -- like cars, different smartphones suit different people's needs. But here are some general guidelines:

Step one is always to select the network first. Without a good provider -- however you define that, whether it's coverage, 4G coverage, customer service, price, or something else -- it doesn't matter how awesome your phone is. The greatest Ferrari is worthless if you live on a road that's impassable in a heavy rain.

At the time my phone and contract came up for renewal, I really only had choices between the iPhone and a phone running the Android operating system. Now, with the rollout of the new Windows phones, you really have at least three major categories to choose from aboard most carriers. I chose an Android phone, but I'm seriously weighing a Windows phone for my next choice. You may find that you like the look and feel of an iPhone, and there's nothing wrong with that. But don't let the sales staff just talk you into one or another. Insist on seeing one from each of the families. Choosing the operating system -- iPhone, Android, or Windows -- is largely a matter of what *feels* right to you, and you should *not* rely on someone else's preferences to guide you.

Once you've made that selection, take a look at a couple of technical factors: First, is it running the latest version of your operating system, or is it capable of being upgraded? (Some phones are sold on the cheap because they can't be upgraded, which means you'll spend the next two years missing out on many of the latest improvements.)

Second, how much internal storage comes with the phone? I've had a phone with just a gigabyte of internal memory, which meant I could only store one or two apps before I got an error message. It drove me nuts. I couldn't in good conscience recommend anything with less than 8 gigs...preferably 16.

Processor speeds are pretty uniform right now, so you're not likely to gain much from one to another -- but watch the quality of the camera! Some phones still record video at relatively low resolutions, while others go up to 1080p -- the kind of quality that shows on good HD TVs. And a good camera will take photos at 8 megapixels.

I take hundreds of pictures a month but I haven't dusted off my conventional digital camera in an eternity. A small difference in price -- say, $50 -- can get you a substantially better camera, and that will show up in those snapshots you decide later to print and hang on the wall.

Other factors may matter to you, too -- I, for instance, wanted a phone that could serve as a 4G hotspot for my computer and that came with good battery life. But you may be more interested in the look of the keyboard or the quality of the front-facing camera for video chats. Fortunately, there's a phone for virtually every specialty need. But do your homework first and don't be afraid to kick the tires with a look at the store, or to look up the reviews on respectable sites like CNet. Just recognize that everyone has different needs and expectations -- from the clerk in the store to the online reviewer -- and it's hard to strip away our own preferences to give you an unbiased opinion. Knowing that up-front may help keep you from being railroaded into a bad decision.