Buying a new smartphone is a big purchase decision. Your smartphone is your constant companion and your instant connection to the world. Whether you use your device for personal or work purposes, having access to a web browser at your fingertips, instant messaging to communicate with anyone, and dozens of apps that help you manage your life is the way of modern life. Because your smartphone plays an integral role in your everyday routine, choosing a new device isn’t a decision you should take lightly.
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You want a smartphone that has all the functionality you use on a daily basis plus user-friendly operation so that you can take full advantage of your device’s features without frustration. But with hundreds of smartphone options available, the choice can be overwhelming to say the least. We’ve put together this comprehensive smartphone buying guide to help you navigate the options, identify the operating system and device that best meets your needs, and choose a smartphone with the features and functionality you’re looking for.
Here’s what you’ll learn in this guide. Click a link in the menu below to jump to a specific section:
- Choosing a Platform
- Physical vs. Virtual Keyboards
- Smartphone Cameras are Replacing Traditional Cameras
- Other Important Features to Consider
- What Screen Size Should You Choose?
- Evaluating Size, Thickness, and Weight
- Durability and Materials
- Switching to a New Platform
- Additional Resources on Choosing the Right Smartphone
Currently, Google Android and Apple iOS are the top smartphone platforms, the platform being the operating system that the device runs on, according to PC Mag. There are plenty of options to choose from no matter what your preference; some smartphone users are firm Apple loyalists, while others prefer the open-source nature of Android.
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You’ll find plenty of convincing arguments on both sides regarding which smartphone platform is better. There’s a widespread belief, for instance, that the iOS platform is less susceptible to viruses and malware compared to Android devices, although reports from the past year or so indicate that the Apple smartphones are probably not much safer than their Android counterparts.
The State of Mobile App Security, a November 2015 report from Checkmarx, found that iOS apps have a larger percentage of critical or high severity security vulnerabilities compared to Android apps (40% for iOS vs. 36% for Android). However, an article from BGR points out that these numbers aren’t as indicative as the true dangers lurking in each type of smartphone, as percentages ignore raw numbers.
Also, CNET reported on a new malware discovered in March 2016, AceDeceiver, which can infect iPhones right out of the box. It’s likely that similar dangers exist regardless of the platform you choose, and there are plenty of other points of comparison that experts will happily point out between the two platforms. According to the International Data Corporation (IDC), in the second quarter of 2015 (the most recent data available at the time of this writing) Android held 82.8% of worldwide smartphone market share, while iOS held 13.9%. While Android clearly maintains a significant lead in market share, it’s worth noting that in the last quarter of 2014, Android held 84.8% while iOS held 11.6% of worldwide market share – marking a gain of approximately two percent for iOS from Android users.
Ultimately, it comes down to your personal preferences. If you’re a devoted iPhone or Android enthusiast, your choice may be straightforward. For those of you on the fence or considering making the jump to the other platform, the following 12 resources are helpful for analyzing the differences between the popular iOS and Android devices to help you choose.
- iPhone vs. Android: Which is better?
- Android Marshmallow vs. iOS 9: The Biggest & Best Mobile OS' Compared
- 8 reasons I still can’t leave the iPhone and switch to Android
- iPhone vs Android: 15 Reasons iPhone is Better
- Top 10 Mobile Phones Operating Systems
- Which smartphone OS wins 2015? Android Marshmallow vs. iOS 9 vs. Windows 10 Mobile
- iOS or Android, Which One Should You Pick?
- Android vs. iOS
- Android 6 Vs. iOS 9: The Showdown
- Smartphone Comparison: iPhone vs. Samsung Galaxy
- Android or iPhone: What Kind of Person Are You?
- Why iOS vs. Android no longer matters
When smartphones first appeared on the scene and began to capture a growing user base, many early adopters were business people who relied on their devices to communicate with clients, co-workers, and other work-related contacts. Most of these devices had a physical QWERTY keyboard, making it easy for users to quickly type messages using both hands.
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As smartphones began to gain more widespread use among both career and personal users, devices started becoming more functional – and they started to lose those physical keyboards in favor of touch-screen keyboards. It took some users a while to give up the physical keyboard, so much so that there have been numerous Kickstarter projects and startups, like this one, aiming to provide the coveted physical QWERTY keyboards today’s mobile devices are missing.
But the thing is, now that users have gotten the hang of this touch-screen keyboard thing – and now that device manufacturers have made drastic improvements to the original clunky, difficult-to-use virtual keyboards – no one wants them anymore. BGR points out that it basically took about four years for the physical QWERTY keyboard to go extinct in the smartphone world, maintaining about 25% of the market share in 2010 but dropping off the map almost entirely by 2014.
It’s still possible to find a smartphone with a physical keyboard, but you might also be impressed by today’s touchscreen keyboards. For that reason, it’s important to take a test drive of your preferred devices to get a feel for your keyboard preferences. Learn more about the keyboard options among smartphones and read about the physical vs. virtual smartphone keyboard debate in the following 10 resources.
- Don't laugh: 10 reasons why physical keyboards on phones still rock
- Anyone REALLY still want a physical keyboard on their iPhone?
- Top Smartphones with QWERTY Keypad
- 12 Smartphone Keyboards That Are Trying to Reinvent Mobile Typing
- Lots Of People Really Want Slideout-Keyboard Phones: Where Are They?
- Samsung resurrects the dream of a hardware keyboard
- Smartphone keyboards that can make messaging much faster
- Pocketable productivity: 5 folding keyboards for your smartphone
- Top 7 Android smartphones with physical QWERTY keyboards
- Pushing Buttons vs. Tapping Pixels: The Great Keyboard Debate
- 10 Reasons Why I Like Physical Keyboards over Virtual Keyboards
- Why do physical keyboards still exist for mobile?
Smartphone cameras, like keyboards, have evolved substantially since smartphones first began their world domination. Early smartphones produced grainy, poor-quality photos, but users quickly realized the benefits of having a camera available at any moment to preserve memories and capture moments on the fly.
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Mobile device manufacturers responded accordingly by tapping into every available technology to produce the smartphone cameras of today, which by most accounts rival some basic digital cameras in terms of quality. According to ConsumerReports.org, many of today’s smartphones offer cameras with higher-resolution sensors – 12 megapixels or more – that are capable of snapping photos of impressive quality. These smartphones, they explain, “produce sharper cropped or enlarged prints, optical image stabilizers to help minimize the blurriness from a shaky hand, and video cameras that can capture spur-of-the-moment action with high-definition clarity, too.”
One caveat: Higher-quality images mean you’ll need more storage. ConsumerReports.org says these higher-quality images are up to 5 megabytes per image, and videos can be several hundred megabytes in size. As such, you’ll want to look for a smartphone that accepts microSD memory cards (64 megabytes is ideal), or look for a smartphone that has at least 64 megabytes of internal storage.
The best smartphone cameras are differentiated by more than just megapixels, however. Check out these 12 resources for more information on selecting the best smartphone if a top-quality camera tops your priority list.
- The search for the ultimate smartphone camera
- Best Android Smartphone Cameras (March 2016)
- Best cameraphones 2016
- Best Android phone cameras 2016: the top 6 super-snappers
- Best camera phones of 2016
- Best camera phone: which should you buy?
- Best Smartphone Cameras 2016
- Choosing the Best Smartphone Camera [Opinion]
- Five smartphone camera features serious photographers will love
- More than megapixels - what really counts in a smartphone camera
- Smartphone Photography 101
- Smartphone cameras vs compacts: Is it still worth buying a compact camera?
In addition to the camera and keyboard, there are tons of other features to consider that set some smartphones apart from the rest. We’ve touched on memory, for instance, and you’ll also want to consider the tactile feedback and swiping functionality of the touchscreen (some users find touchscreen keyboards to be more usable when the screen offers a button-like feel with each key press), the ability to pass messages to another device (like the iOS 8 Handoff feature), and battery life (nothing is more frustrating than a battery that dwindles to 25% after you send a few emails).
Image via Pixabay by MariusMB
Additionally, other features such as the quality of the display, processing speed, multiple windows to see several apps at the same time, fingerprint sensors for added security, and wireless charging can make an ordinary smartphone extraordinary.
It’s impossible to list every possible feature, so it’s important to do your research and compare the top smartphones you’re considering and identify your must-have features that can help narrow down your selection. Check out the following 10 resources for more information on the latest smartphone features to look for.
- These are the 10 smartphone features you can't live without
- 10 smartphone must-have features
- What Makes a Good Smartphone: 10 Features You Should Look For
- Buying A Smartphone? These Are The Only Features That Matter
- Five Features I Want in My Next Smartphone
- Eight Smartphone Features That Deserve an Award
- 10 coolest features on Android smartphones
- 7 new smartphone features that will help define your future
- 10 Considerations When Buying a Smartphone
- 10 smartphone features that I'm pretty darn thankful for
The overall trend is towards larger smartphone screens – some even akin to a small tablet PC – but some smartphone users may find smaller screens more functional for everyday use as they are easier to tuck into a pocket when you’re on the go. If you tend to use your smartphone for a variety of computing tasks, however, such as browsing the web or communicating via email, you might find a larger screen more suitable to your needs.
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The Lowdown analyzes the pros and cons of a larger smartphone screen, pointing out that larger screens are trickier to navigate single-handedly than smaller screens. If you naturally use both hands most of the time when using your smartphone now, this isn’t likely to cause you frustration. However, if you’re a single-hand user, a larger screen may take some getting used to.
A 5.7-inch “phablet,” as these large-screen smartphones have become affectionately known, isn’t likely to fit into the back pocket of your jeans or even in your coat pocket easily. So if you need somewhere to tuck your device while you’re going about your day, some of the largest smartphones might not be ideal. On the flip side, larger screens are ideal for users who use their smartphones to consume media like YouTube videos, gaming, or watching movies. They also make some tasks easier for people who use their smartphone for multi-tasking at work.
According to PhoneArena.com, the most popular smartphone screen size is 4.7 inches, though you shouldn’t let the crowd’s opinion sway you in this case – choose a smartphone sized appropriately for your needs that will fit into your lifestyle. Check out the following 12 resources for more information on the increasingly larger screen sizes we’re seeing on smartphones and how to choose the ideal screen size for your lifestyle.
- Compare Smartphones by Screen Size
- io - Common Smartphone Values
- Poll: What is your preferred smartphone screen size
- A comprehensive look at smartphone screen size statistics and trends
- What's the Perfect Smartphone Screen Size?
- What Is the Perfect Screen Size for a Smartphone? [Poll]
- Find the perfect smartphone screen size for you
- You’re going to need a bigger pocket: These are the 5 best phablets money can buy
- 8 Best Phablets You Can Buy in 2016
- The downsides of a big smartphone screen
- Find the Best Phone-Screen Size for You
- What’s the Ideal Phone Screen Size and Why? (discussion)
- Smartphones: When is 'big' too big? (Smartphones Unlocked)
The size and weight of your smartphone is another major consideration that can contribute to whether you love your smartphone or despise it. Naturally, though, the size of your smartphone overall is pretty much dictated by the screen size.
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In a 2015 Gizmag comparison guide, editors took a look at various smartphones and their specs, including thickness, weight, size, build, colors, display size, and more. Gizmag points out that most of the widely popular smartphones today look pretty large compared to the handsets that were widely used just a few years ago.
Also important, according to Gizmag, is thickness. Generally, users prefer slimmer phones, which are also typically lighter and thus easier to hold for long periods of use. Finally, one interesting point that Gizmag brings up is the issue of size to weight ratio – of course, the larger devices are typically heavier, but looking at size and weight from this perspective offers some insight into the phone’s perceived heaviness based on how large and bulky it is. (The winner when it comes to size-to-weight ratio, Gizmag says, is the Samsung Galaxy 6, which is just two percent heavier than its primary competitor, the iPhone 6, but with a much larger body and display size.
The best way to choose a smartphone based on size and weight is to visit your local retailer and hold their display models. If you’re going for a substantial size increase, remember that you’re used to using your current device and therefore a larger, heavier device will probably feel like holding a bowling ball until you’re used to it. You can also check out this cool resource from Product Chart, which allows you to filter and sort all types of smartphones based on various specs. If you’re looking for a smartphone under 7 ounces, for instance, you can adjust the settings to filter the display to show only the phones that meet your criteria.
For more information on how the size, weight, and thickness of a device impacts usability, check out the following 10 resources.
- With smartphones, does thinness really matter?
- Slimmer than slim: Here are 12 smartphones that are thinner than the iPhone 6
- Smartphones, Tablets, or Laptops: What’s Best for Travelers?
- Top 14 Thinnest Android Smart Phones from 4.7mm – Too Slim to Handle
- 5 of the thinnest Android smartphones currently available
- The world's slimmest smartphone is now 4.75mm thick
- Smartphones of the Future: How They Will Look, What They Will Do
- Samsung Phones To Get Thinner, Lighter And Bendy-er Through Miracle Of Graphene
- Is the phablet the future of smartphones?
- Apple's iPhone set for thinner, lighter and brighter OLED screens in 2018 as contracts with LG and Samsung revealed
If you’re the person who is constantly losing or dropping your phone (usually in water-filled destinations, like a river or the toilet), durability should be near the top of your priority list when buying a new smartphone. Fortunately, you’re not the only accident-prone smartphone user prone to cracking your screen, sending your device for a swim, or any number of misadventures that should surely immediately end the life of any electronic device.
Image via Pixabay by DariuszSankowski
To meet the needs of the growing ranks of smartphone users likely to encounter such mishaps, device manufacturers are getting smart about material choices and producing more robust smartphones capable of taking a beating. Corning, the manufacturer of Gorilla Glass, holds a prominent place in the advancement of smartphone durability, creating ultra-strong glass solutions that resist cracking and breaking, along with other innovations such as embedded sensors and flexibility that are helping to shape the future of smartphones. Read about some of the latest advancements and improvements from Corning at Android Central.
Some smartphones sacrifice the sharp-looking aesthetics for rugged durability, ideal for backpackers, hikers, and the like who probably care less about the stylish appeal than they do the durability. Others aim to blend both durability and design in one, offering water resistance, the ability to withstand the occasional drop on a hard surface without cracking, and handling most of your day-to-day mishaps while still looking sleek.
Of course, you can make most smartphones a bit more durable with a carefully selected smartphone case, some of which aid shock absorbance and offer cushioning to protect the device from drops, bangs, and dings.
Take a look at the following 14 resources to learn more about the durability of today’s smartphones and what devices are rugged enough to withstand your lifestyle.
- Gorilla Glass 4: Better Smartphone Drop Protection
- The Indestructible Smartphone Is Closer Than You Think
- Shatter-proof Droid Turbo 2 dropped from 900 feet
- Durability smartphone test: Galaxy S7 v iPhone 6S
- These are the best rugged, most durable smartphones right now (2015 edition)
- SquareTrade Finds Samsung Galaxy S6 the New Phone to Beat for Durability
- 6 Best Rugged Smartphones of 2015
- Surf Report: Which smartphone is the toughest?
- Samsung’s Galaxy S7 can survive water, but not falls
- Four flagship phones put through paces in drop/dunk durability test
- 5 Smartphone Cases to Survive (Almost) Any Drop
- 5 Tips To Take Care Smartphone Battery Durability
- How OLEDs Work
- A Discussion on Material Choices in Mobile
If you’ve always been an Android smartphone user and have decided it’s time to make the leap and try iOS, or vice-versa, the choice to switch to a new platform can be anxiety-inducing. What about your contacts? The hundreds of memories stored on your camera roll?
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And what about all those apps? Android and Apple have different app ecosystems – you get Android apps at the Google Play Store and iOS apps from Apple’s App Store. Switching to a new platform means you’ll need to download or purchase the apps you rely on again.
If you have a lot of paid apps that you use regularly and you’re switching from Apple to Android or vice versa, the reality is you’ll be spending some cash to build your app library back up. However, most people have tons of apps downloaded that they haven’t actually opened in years, so take stock and purchase only what you actually need (and use) for your new smartphone. If you’re really unhappy with your current platform, don’t let the possibility of a few inconveniences hold you back. Your retailer might be able to help you transfer most of your valuable information easily.
Check out the 10 helpful resources below for more tips and information on making the platform switch.
- The true cost of switching to a new phone OS? It’s more inconvenience than money
- Samsung and Apple battle over the smartphone ‘floating voter’
- Smartphones: Why it's easy to switch
- We Surveyed People About Smartphone Ownership And Their Answers Reveal Just How Loyal People Are To Apple And Android
- The new switchers
- Get going on Android
- iOS and Android Retain Loyal Users at Similar Rates
- What you may lose when switching phones
- How to switch from Android to iPhone: A simple guide to going Apple
- 23 Important Apps That Work Great on Both Android & iOS
Still unsure which smartphone to choose? Here are 14 additional resources offering smartphone buying tips and advice, including some valuable tips if you’re considering a smartphone for your child.
Image via Pixabay by StockSnap
- Smartphone Buying Guide
- How to buy a new phone: The CNET smartphone buying guide
- 9 Handy Tips for Picking Out a Smartphone
- 5 Tips for Picking the Right Smartphone
- Tips for Picking the Right Smartphone
- Buying a smartphone
- Tips for choosing the right smartphone
- How to pick the right smartphone for your business
- Tips: How To Choose The Right Smartphone
- Great Tips On Choosing The Right Smartphone
- Smartphones for kids: What you need to know
- 5 tips for getting your child their first smartphone
- 6 Tips for Buying Children's Apps
- How To Choose A Mobile Phone For Your Kids