Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Smart Phones 101

I know a lot of us tend to feel not so smart when it comes to figuring out smart phones and cellular plans. I looked at cellular plans a few months ago in a post Lower cost cell phone options.

But I realize that the wide array of choices of smart phones can also be somewhat daunting. So, I'll attempt to give you an idea of just what your choices are at this moment in time.

See CNET Cell Phone Reviews for reviews of these handsets and more.

Apple iPhone

August is not a great time to consider buying an iPhone. It is expected that Apple will announce their new phones in September. So, even if you are interested in buying an iPhone 5 or older model and don't really care what the new one will offer, the prices of older models will go down considerably in a month. September will also be when the latest version of the Apple operating system iOS 7 is released. While many in the tech world are bemoaning Apple's lack of innovation in their mobile devices, I think that iPhones still have high customer satisfaction. I have several friends and family members with iPhone 4 whose contracts are up and they're not upgrading because they're happy with their 3 year old devices. I think it is worth looking at later models, however, because there have been major improvements - notably LTE in iPhone 5. The difference between 3G and LTE for data speeds is similar to the difference between dial up and broadband. iPhones are available on all the major carriers.

Apple store

Android phones


Android is Google's open source operating system that is available on numerous handsets. Samsung is the largest and best selling manufacturer of Android phones. Models vary widely in size, price and capabilities. Probably the most advertised and best known is the Galaxy series, including Galaxy Notes 1 & 2 (also known as phablets because they're so big they're part phone and part tablet) and the Galaxy S - most recent models 3 & 4. The S 3 was their biggest selling phone last year and the S 4 is the successor. I have a hard time recommending Samsung Galaxy phones at this time because of bloatware (software preloaded on the phone by the manufacturer and carriers) and sporadic operating system updates. But I know many people who are happy with their Samsung phones. They are widely available and often have attractive up front prices. Samsung phones are available on all the major carriers. 

There is also a Samsung Galaxy S 4 available as a Google edition phone meaning it comes in a more pure Android version without all the bloatware. It's also not subsidized by the carriers so you have to pay the full price up front. I believe it will only work on AT&T and T-Mobile in the U.S.


While Samsung continues to dominate the Android marketplace, HTC is also making some top of the line handsets. Many prefer the HTC One to the Samsung Galaxy S 4 for the premier Android phone. You really need to look into some of the special features of the high end phones to see which one is preferable for you. HTC One is not yet available on Verizon. 

There is also a Google edition of the HTC One with a more pure Android experience available from the Google Play store. Like the Google edition Galaxy S 4, it comes unlocked and unsubsidized meaning you pay full price but can use it on any supporting carrier without a contract. It will not work with Verizon at this time. Nor is there any word about when or if it will.


You may recall that Google bought Motorola about a year ago. Many of us were curious as to what this would mean for Android handsets. While Motorola dominated the Android marketplace early on, many of their phones have been disappointments. Motorola recently announced the Moto X. It has many of the latest Android innovations including voice activation. It will also be customizable and manufactured in the U.S. It's currently only available on AT&T but promises to roll out to the other major carriers by September. The only real criticism of the Moto X that I've heard is that its up front price is too high. Hardware wise it's classified as a mid level Android phone yet it's currently priced as a top tier phone like the Galaxy S 4 or HTC One. It will probably be a very good deal once it becomes widely available and its price is more realistic.


While LG is generally regarded as a second tier Android phone manufacturer, they did make the last Nexus phone, last year's Nexus 4. Nexus is the brand bestowed on the phone that Google uses to show off its software innovations each year. They have the pure Android experience largely uncluttered with manufacturer and service provider bloatware that can make other Android phones painful to use. Nexus phones also get all the Android updates as soon as they come out. It remains to be seen if the same will be true for this year's Google edition phones. If you're looking for a bargain Android phone, this is the one to get. It's currently priced at $299 from the Google Play store and that's unlocked and without a contract. It's also best on T-Mobile but will run on AT&T just not at LTE speeds.

LG's next big Android phone will be the G2.



Microsoft partnered with Nokia last year to create flagship Windows phones. Nokia has its strong points, among them are reportedly the best cameras available in smart phones today. The top of the line in that regard is the Nokia 1020. It boasts a 41 megapixel camera that allows you to zoom into a photo with incredible detail. Nokia also boasts some very good software of its own including Nokia maps. But theWindows phone app store does lack a lot of the apps that iPhone and Android users take for granted. Still, if you're new to smart phones and don't have a laundry list of apps you can't live without, Windows phones do have a lovely and distinctive interface and are reportedly more user friendly than Android phones. So, I think they're worth considering. The Lumia 1020 is currently only available on AT&T but it is expected soon on Verizon. There are other Nokia Lumia models available at very good up front prices. 

HTC and Samsung also make Windows phones with models that are available on all major carriers.


I know a lot of people who dearly love their Blackberries and are traumatized at the idea of having to give them up for another smart phone. While Blackberry is not entirely out of the picture (they did introduce two new handsets this year), they are way behind the curve. And most analysts don't hold out a lot of hope for their survival in the long term. Still, they do have nice hardware and software that's probably good enough that you can hold out for another couple of years anyway. The latest handsets are the Q10 for those who can't imagine living without a keyboard and Z10. They both got pretty decent reviews when they came out and are available on all the major carriers.


As for me, I've got an iPhone 5. The deciding factor was really the camera. iPhone cameras are better than other phone's except for Nokia. And there are a lot of great apps for photo editing.

I love the idea of Android, I just think their implementation leaves a lot to be desired especially in the 2 year contract phone world that most of us live in. Sporadic updates and bloatware make most Android phones almost unusable before the 2 year contract is up. I would no longer even consider buying an Android phone that wasn't a Nexus or at least a Google experience phone. Since Verizon seems not to be terribly interested in either, I find I'm avoiding Android phones and getting my Android experience from Google Nexus 7 tablets. Even that I find frustrating at times when apps that work great on iOS freeze up and cause problems on Android. I think that Google Android is most interesting for their innovations. Therefore, it's really frustrating that those of us who are attracted to the innovations find them shut down shortly after purchase. I think Android is also great for those people who like to play around with and tweak and customize their phones. There are a lot of really creative ROMs you can run on Android. If you don't know what a ROM is, it's probably not something you need to worry about. Google focuses on innovation while Apple focuses on user experience. I heard the guys on Mac Break Weekly say that Samsung will roll out a lot of new features regardless of whether or not they work whereas Apple tends to only roll out features once they've been proven. Siri and maps are notable exceptions. So take your pick based on what's most important to you.

I continue to maintain that up front price should not be your primary deciding factor as you're going to end up paying around $500 for any phone in monthly surcharges over a two year contract. So, that free phone that you're going to end up hating in 6 six months is still going to cost you around $500. While you can probably be satisfied with an older iPhone if up front costs are really an issue for you, buying a cheap Android phone is never a good idea. Even the top of the line phones date quickly. The cheap ones are a problem pretty much out of the box.

Another thing to remember about contracts is that you continue paying the contract price even after your contract expires. So, if you paid $100 up front for your iPhone 4 and kept it for 2 years, it will cost you $580. If you keep it for an additional 6 months, it will cost you $700. Isn't it ironic that you end up paying more by being conservative and thrifty. The only way to be thrifty in the cell phone world is to buy your phones outright up front with no contract.

I'm getting a Windows phone - an HTC 8X on Verizon - for work so I'll soon have a chance to try it out and review it. While I caution others not to worry so much about up front costs, it does matter to the state of Montana so the free up front price was a deciding factor. Obviously I have enough faith in the platform to be able to trust it will work for me for 2 years. I'll let you all know what I think about the platform after I've had a chance to play with it a bit.

I expect for most people the deciding factor will be form and features. If you want a really large or really small phone, you'll probably end up going with Android. There are hundreds of models to choose from in all sizes, shapes and colors. The apps are now roughly on a par with Apple. Apple does have a corner on accessories, however. That's the positive side of only having a couple of different models. iPhones also tend to have higher resale value. And they're supported with updates for several years. This year's iOS 7 update will include iPhone 4 and 4s. So, that's going back 3 years. iPhone 3 and 3GS are no longer being supported but those are 5 and 4 years old respectively. On the other hand, Samsung has yet to roll out the Android 4.2 update to its Galaxy S 3 phones that are only a year old. And the update has been available for 9 months. Nexus devices are currently running 4.3.

Would love to hear why I'm wrong from the Android faithful. And what about you Windows and Blackberry users, what do you think about your devices? How about those who've left iPhone for Android? It's all opinion and personal preference after all.