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Choosing a Mobile Device: What to Look For

Shopping for a new mobile phone or tablet? Essential hardware features and tips on choosing a carrier

Mobile devices 
Ginny Mies - January 23, 2014
Check out the essential features you should keep in mind when choosing a mobile phone or tablet, as well as tips on looking for a carrier and a data plan.

Shopping for a new smartphone can be as overwhelming as buying a new computer. You have to consider the operating system, design, carrier, a data plan, and hardware specs. We've narrowed down the essential features to look for while shopping as well as some in-store tests you can do. Additionally, we provide tips on looking for a carrier and a data plan.

Smart Versus Basic

There's no shame in toting a basic, phone-calls-only mobile phone. Smartphones can be pricy, and if you're not away from your desk very often, you might not see a need for one. But here are a few work-related benefits to consider:

  • Email: While being constantly connected can sometimes be more trouble than good, having quick access to your email is a huge benefit in case of emergencies or urgent requests.
  • Web access: Need to look up something quickly? Your smartphone's browser will come in handy.
  • Camera: The truth is that basic feature phones have poor cameras. Having a good-quality camera on you at all times is a big help when you want to document events, fundraisers, or staff meetings.
  • Apps: There's a world of productivity apps out there that can help you work more efficiently — but you can only use them if you have a smartphone.

Operating System

Choosing an operating system can be tricky, but a good way to decide is by thinking about the services you already use at work and home. Do you use Outlook and Microsoft Office at work? Microsoft's Windows Phone might be a good choice for you. Do you depend on Google Calendars to get through the day? Consider one of the many Android phones out there, which provide the best integration of Google services. If you're using a Mac at home or in the Office, Apple's iOS might feel like a natural choice.

But you don't necessarily need to go with an operating system that aligns with the services you use. Most services are cross-platform. For example, you can still use your Gmail on an iPhone. It also comes down to personal preference. Test a few phones while you're out shopping: Does the interface feel intuitive? Can you easily find essential apps (Mail, Internet, Dialer, Calendar, etc.)? Here are a few more things to consider about operating system:

  • Android: If you're looking for options, Android is your best bet. Android phones range in design, price, manufacturer, specs, and interface. Manufacturers have free reign over the Android interface, so it can look drastically different between phones. For example, the Nexus line of phones from Google have a more minimalistic look than the Samsung Galaxy phones, which have a colorful, almost animated interface.
  • iOS: Apple makes phone hardware choices much easier than Microsoft and Google. You only have two (of the newest) models to pick from: the iPhone 5s and the iPhone 5c. The operating system looks identical across all models.
  • Windows Phone: Like Android, Windows Phones come in a variety of designs from different manufacturers. The one big difference, however, is that the interface is uniform across phones.

You might notice that we left BlackBerry off this list. Although it was once a major player in the smartphone world, RIM BlackBerry has been slowly declining for the past few years. Because of the unsteady future of the company and the risk of technical support loss, it is difficult to recommend the operating system.

Hardware

Design and Display

As mentioned earlier, operating system informs the design of your phone. With the iPhone, the 5c is less expensive and more colorful while the 5s boasts a fingerprint reader. Both of them have 4-inch displays, however.

With Android and Windows Phone, you have a lot more hardware choices. Android phones range in display size (from the gargantuan 5.3-inch Samsung Galaxy Note 3 to the 2.55-inch Sony Xperia X10 Mini), but the average for new phones seems to be 4.7 inches.

Camera

To make an inspiring video about your organization's work, you don't necessarily need to shell out money for an expensive camera. Smartphone cameras are getting better and better. And with an abundance of editing apps out there, you can produce professional-looking photos and videos to boost your digital storytelling efforts. You can test out the camera in the store by taking a few photos or videos.

When looking at smartphone cameras, here are some specs to look for:

  • HD video capture: Most cameras support video capture, and many of the mid- to top-tier phones can record 720p or 1080p video.
  • Megapixels: A few years ago, it seemed like hardware manufacturers were in a megapixel arms race. Like digital cameras, a higher number of megapixels doesn't necessarily translate to better-quality pictures. The standard right now for new phones seems to be 5 or 8 megapixels.
  • Flash: Almost every modern smartphone camera has a flash, but if the phone you're pondering doesn't, you might want to reconsider.
  • Extras: Many phones have on-board photo- and video-editing software, which is a bonus if you want to post something to social media right away. Other extras include "advanced" camera controls, like white balance or focus, or fun filters or borders to spruce up your gallery.

Processor

Most of the flagship smartphones this year boast quad-core processors, but there are still many dual-core phones out there. Do more cores mean a faster phone? Not necessarily. Anandtech found that the iPhone 5s's A7 dual-core processor still beat out a large number of Android quad-core phones in the publication's independent benchmarks.

Call Quality

It might seem fairly obvious, but call quality is an important factor to consider. Smartphones can do a lot, but making a clear call that doesn't drop (disconnect) is essential. When assessing phones in a store, try and do some test calls and listen for tinny voices, static, or any other sort of interference.

Battery Life

Manufacturers will give an estimated time for how long a phone's battery lasts, but these specs aren't always accurate. We recommend checking out sites that do independent testing of battery life, like CNET. If you're concerned about conserving battery life, be conscious of what you're doing on your phone and how often. Apps that require a lot of network support will drain your battery life faster than others. Also, be attentive of your display settings (brightness), how often you're on Wi-Fi, and how quickly your phone goes into standby after you use it. There are apps, such as JuiceDefender (for Android) or Battery Doctor (iPhone), which can help you conserve your phone's battery.

Choosing a Carrier

Shopping around for a new carrier can be a confusing and sometimes arduous affair, but if you do some research beforehand, it doesn't have to be. The U.S. cellular market is ruled by four carriers: AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon (also known as "The Big Four"). There are also a handful of regional carriers, such as U.S. Cellular and C Spire. When deciding on a carrier, check out coverage maps for both 3G and 4G. Ask your neighbors and coworkers which network they have and how well it works at home or in the office.

4G Support

The "Big Four" all now offer 4G network support. 4G is much faster than 3G and ideal for watching videos, browsing the web, and using connected apps. There are two technologies that are classified as 4G: LTE and HSPA+. Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, and AT&T all have their own LTE networks. T-Mobile and AT&T switch to HSPA+ when LTE coverage isn't available.

Find the Right Plan

For the latest and greatest smartphone, we recommend picking a plan that offers at least 2 GB of data. That way, you can download apps, browse the web, and stream media without worrying about going over your limit. To conserve data, make sure to switch to Wi-Fi whenever possible (such as when you're at home or at the office. Most carriers offer unlimited talk and text with smartphones so you won't need to worry about counting minutes or texts.

Going Prepaid

The prepaid market has seen a boom in the past few years with a bigger and better selection of phones and plans. With prepaid, you're not bound to a two-year contract. You don't get the subsidized price for your phone (be prepared to pay up to $600), but the inexpensive plans make up for it. Prepaid carriers are a bit limited, however, in terms of the network services they offer. While some offer 4G LTE, most don't offer tethering or international roaming services.

Tablets

The first decision to make when purchasing a tablet is whether you want it tied to a carrier, like your phone. Here are some things to consider:

  • Cellular connectivity: Be connected anytime, anywhere when you have both cellular and Wi-Fi connectivity. This also means you'll have to pay for a wireless plan, much like you do with a phone.
  • Price and contract options: The Big Four carriers offer both contract and contract-free plans for tablets.
  • Limited selection: Keep in mind that your carrier won't have every tablet model available.

If you decide not to tie your tablet to a carrier, you'll only be able to use it when Wi-Fi is available. You could also go the mobile hotspot route, which gives you both cellular and Wi-Fi connectivity. The Mobile Beacon donation program at TechSoup offers mobile hotspots with both 4G and Wi-Fi.

Shopping for a tablet is a lot like shopping for a phone in terms of what features to look for. Of course, some features are more important than others. For example, you're less likely to care about the back-facing camera on your tablet (since taking pictures with a tablet is just plain awkward).

Size and Display

Most tablets come in two flavors: 7-inch or 10-inch. There are a few in-betweeners and outliers, but generally you'll find tablets in those sizes. If you're not sure which is right for you, think about what you'll be using the tablet for. Will you be editing photos, videos, or working on your website? You might benefit from a larger display. The best way to decide is by testing tablets in the store.

You should also consider the size. Is it comfortable to hold? Does it feel too heavy in your bag? If you plan on taking your tablet to work and using it every day, these are important factors to consider.

Lastly, you should consider screen resolution when shopping for a tablet. The higher the resolution, the better videos or text will look.

Operating System

Like smartphones, the three main candidates for tablets are Android, iOS, and Windows 8. The popular Kindle runs an Amazon-branded version of Android.

Apple's own office applications suite, iWork, comes with photo- and video-editing applications as well as a word processor, presentation software, and an Excel equivalent. Currently, iWork comes installed on new iPads.

Windows 8 tablets can run the full version of Microsoft Office — something you might consider if your organization relies on Office's software suite.

Accessories

While it is entirely possible to type up a report on a tablet's virtual keyboard, you might eventually want to invest in a keyboard accessory for your tablet.

It might seem like a lot to take in, but a mobile device is something you'll likely use every single day. Following these guidelines will ensure you get the best fit for your work and personal life.