Choosing a new wireless phone can be an overwhelming proposition: There are hundreds of models to choose from; they come in many shapes and sizes; and not all are supported by every carrier.
"Smartphones" can be even more intimidating because they can perform many advanced functions, such as e-mail, Web browsing, music playback, photography, video recording and GPS navigation. Consider them pocket-sized computers that can run hundreds of applications ("apps"), turning your handheld device into the wireless equivalent of a Swiss Army Knife.
If you're considering upgrading to one of these high-powered devices, the following are five questions to ask yourself to ensure you're choosing the right one for your needs and budget.
1. What will I use it for?
A regular cell phone is ideal for making calls, sending text messages and taking basic pictures. If that's all you need out of a phone, you probably don't need a smartphone, which will require a monthly data fee.
But if you think you'd benefit from accessing your e-mail while on the go, surfing the Web, listening to music or getting turn-by-turn directions, a smartphone might be an ideal upgrade.
If e-mailing is important to you, be sure to pick a smartphone with a comfortable keyboard (see next section). Love surfing the Web? A bigger screen is key. Enjoy taking pictures of the kids or grandkids? Be sure to find one with a good camera.
2. What style is best for me?
Because you're going to be holding this phone quite a bit — for talking, texting or other things — you need to like the way it feels (and looks).
One-piece "candy bar"-style phones don't open up to reveal a keypad or keyboard, compared to "flip" phones that are clamshell-shaped (a design that's found more in regular mobile phones than smartphones). Some users like how you can answer or finish the call by simply opening or closing the phone, respectively.
Some smartphones have a physical QWERTY keyboard — like most BlackBerry smartphones — that are ideal for those who do a lot of typing, be it e-mail, texting or instant messaging (real-time text chats). Touchscreen phones, such as the iPhone, might be less comfortable for those who do a lot of typing as there is no physical keyboard. But they're better for managing your media, playing games and surfing the Web.
Finally, some phones aim to give you the best of both worlds by offering a large screen and a QWERTY keyboard that glides out of the bottom or side of the phone. These are referred to as "slider" phones, but they tend to be a bit thicker as a result. Some of the Android-powered devices (based on Google's mobile operating system) have both a touchscreen and QWERTY keyboard, as does the new BlackBerry Torch 9800.
Never buy a cell phone without touching it first, because you'll need to ensure the keys and screen can be easily seen and touched. The Internet is great for research, but nothing beats hands-on time with products like these.
3. What carrier is best for my needs?
If you’re happy with your existing cell carrier, pick a phone it offers — so you don't get your hopes up about a model that's not supported. That is, while you can often buy an "unlocked" phone, it might not work (or work well) with your carrier of choice.
To keep things simple, visit your carrier's website to see what phones it carries — or better yet, drop into one of its retail locations (or an electronics store) so you can get your hands on it.
Most of the major carriers — including AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless and Sprint — have similar smartphones to choose from, but there are instances where you’ll find exclusives (such AT&T and iPhone). Carriers usually offer similar wireless services, too, so there might not be much of a difference between each of their respective offerings.
That said, if you've decided to switch carriers, or if you're getting your first cell phone, be sure their service works well in your area by talking to friends and neighbors about reception strength. Carrier websites usually show a coverage map, too. This usually isn't an issue in major urban areas.
4. Where am I using it?
Along with assessing what you'll be using the phone for, you should also ask yourself where you'll be using the phone, primarily.
Some might only want an emergency phone to keep in the glove compartment, in which case you probably don't need the extra bells and whistles — and expense — of a smartphone.
Are you a world traveler? You'll need to make sure that your phone supports international roaming. And yes, always be sure to confirm rates before you get a surprise on your wireless bill, which can be substantial.
If it's something you'll use a lot while walking around town, you might want a phone that is small enough for a shirt pocket, lanyard or clutch purse — a consideration that might not be as important with, say, a phone used primarily in the car.
If you're in the work force — maybe in an industry such as construction, forestry or mining — a more rugged phone to withstand the elements might be a good pick (look for ones that have a rubberized shell).
You get the idea: Location matters.
5. What's my budget?
The longer you commit to a carrier, the cheaper the smartphone will be.
That is, a phone might only cost you, say, $199, with a two-year contract — or $649 without. Most carriers and electronics stores will give you the no-contract option in case you have commitment phobia.
And keep in mind that smartphones often require a monthly data plan on top of your voice plan. This is because smartphones use the carrier's data network to transmit information, such as e-mail messages, streaming video and music downloads.
So, how do you choose which data plan is for you? If you're a "casual" user — perhaps you want to simply read e-mail and download the odd song here and there — then less data, maybe 250 megabytes (MB), is fine. "Power users," however, who rely on these advanced services might opt for a more robust (and thus pricier) plan of a couple of gigabytes (GB) or more.
For example, AT&T offers data plans for $35/month (for up to 200MB of data usage) or $60/month (for up to 5GB of data).
Many of the cell carrier websites will offer calculators that help you determine your mobile data usage. It will ask you to give info such as how many e-mails you receive a day, how many websites you like to visit, if you enjoy downloading music or games, and so on.
Finally, downloadable applications for these smartphones — such as digital newspapers, crossword puzzles or photo editors — can cost money too, usually a few dollars apiece.