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The cell phone buyer's guide

Everything you need to evaluate smartphones and cell phone deals

travelers using their phones on a bench

Trying to decide between smartphones? Here's a guide to the most common smartphone features.

How to find the best phone for you

Shopping for a new smartphone takes a lot of consideration. With so many different models, it can be difficult to understand what the differences are. Since you'll likely want your new phone to last, you should choose a device that not only offers the features you want today, but ones that may become important to you in the next few years.

Although some features may seem insignificant at first glance, they can affect your daily usage, depending on your lifestyle and device needs. For example, if you like to play games on your phone, you should look into features that include higher processing speeds to accommodate your on-the-go gaming. Otherwise, you'll be frustrated with your phone on a daily basis.

There are many reasons to enter the market for a new phone, but after you have decided to buy one, it can be tough to decide on the next step. This guide will offer advice on how to choose a phone, and how to know whether it's worth investing in a new phone.

When is it time to buy a new cell phone?

Many factors can contribute to wanting a new phone. Maybe you lost your old one. Or maybe an important feature has stopped working. Or maybe you just want an upgrade. Here are some factors that indicate you should upgrade to a new phone.

Significant performance issues or damage

Unfortunately, phones don't last forever. Even with proper care, a phone can suffer a part failure that affects performance eventually, or removes its ability to perform a key function. For example, if you have an old or broken battery, your phone may be unable to hold a charge, which can become annoying at best and dangerous in emergencies at worst. If your phone has issues such as these that make it run poorly or not at all, it is probably time for a new phone.

Poor connectivity and network performance

When connection technology improves, it has a way of highlighting outdated devices. As new tech such as 5G becomes the standard, developments such as the 3G network retirement cause old phones to become obsolete. For example, when 3G was phased out, 4G LTE smartphones that didn't support HD Voice became obsolete. Moreover, according to researchers at Stony Brook University, outdated phone tech can cause older phones to access content slowly, with errors or even not at all, regardless of what network generation you're on.

Buying a 5G-enabled phone can help to keep up with network and tech advancements. Even if 5G isn't currently available in your area, it may be worth it to get ahead of the emerging technology. That way you can make use of the connection when 5G expands to your neighborhood, or while traveling to an area where it exists.

Switching phone service providers

Whether you have moved, want to take advantage of new connection technology, or you're looking for a service provider that offers the network coverage you need, you may want to change your cell carrier. Perhaps your old carrier has poor service in your area, or you are interested in a feature offered by another service. If you decide to switch carriers it's worth looking into upgrading your phone at the same time as there are often cell phone deals for new customers like a brand new phone. This can offer a good way to remedy issues with an old cell phone provider, while also allowing access to a newer device.

Understanding cell phone components

Comparing smartphones can be overwhelming, especially if you don't understand what the different parts of a phone are. Each phone is made up of the same types of components — it is the specific combination of different versions of these components that make a phone unique.

It may seem apparent that buying a smartphone with the most powerful processor, largest storage capacity and highest resolution screen is the best option. However, higher-end components cost more to produce, leading to a more expensive device. For that reason, understanding what these components are helps to decide your individual needs, making it far easier to compare and choose a cell phone that is within your budget.

Memory vs. storage

When people talk about a smartphone's memory, they are often actually discussing its storage capacity, though the two are different things. This can lead to some confusion when comparing cell phones, but understanding the difference can sometimes help to determine which is being described through context.

Memory refers to Random Access Memory, or RAM, which is used as a sort of temporary space allocated for currently running applications. The amount of RAM you need depends on the device and the user. RAM is required by the operating system, as well as all applications currently running, so you should have enough to run necessary system functions and applications. If you're not sure how much RAM you need, check the settings in your current device, see how much it has, and use that as a starting point for your next phone.

Storage refers to the phone's capacity to store files such as photos, videos and applications themselves. Again, storage needs vary from user to user. This will depend a bit on the person. Of course, you're not always stuck with the storage offered by the phone manufacturer. Some phones come with expandable storage options, allowing users to supplement their storage capacity with SD cards. Furthermore, some phone service providers offer extra storage space through cloud storage.

Both storage and memory are typically measured in Gigabytes, or GB, though the amount of storage will usually be greater since users typically demand more space to store high-resolution photos and videos.

Display

A phone's display is its screen, and there are several factors to consider here as well. Since it is your main means of interfacing with your device, the display must be large enough to read and use comfortably. However, many modern smartphones have accessibility features that allow you to customize a display with larger icons that are easier to see and interact with. Additionally, screen resolution can make a big difference in phone displays, as a lower-resolution screen won't look as good when streaming high-resolution movies. If you aren't used to using a smartphone, it can be helpful to browse sample devices to see which screen size is comfortable in your hands as well.

Operating systems

One of the most important aspects of a smartphone is the operating system it runs on. An operating system, or OS, is the software that drives all of a phone's functions and determines which apps it can run. Though technically the OS just refers to the software, the specifications required by these programs mean that each requires particular hardware to run as well. The most common phone operating systems will be either Apple iOS or Google Android.

Best cell phone camera features to consider

If you're someone who enjoys taking pictures, the camera is an important area of consideration. Remember when reading a phone's specifications that most phones come with a front-facing and a rear-facing camera, and the capabilities of those two cameras may be different. In addition, different types of photos may require different considerations. For instance:

  • Action shots: A dramatic action shot at a sports game or other event may turn out blurry without the right settings. Make sure your camera offers image stabilization or a customizable aperture to capture the moment.
  • Landscapes: Outdoor landscapes can be deceptively difficult to capture. Disparities between light levels from the sky and the ground can make it difficult to find a balance, as the camera adjusts to one or the other. However, a camera offering HDR or ISO can help make the difference when adjusting for different levels of light.
  • Overall picture quality: Another aspect that should not be ignored, a photo's resolution can make a difference in how good a picture looks. A camera with a high number of MegaPixels will take a higher-resolution shot. For example, a 4K image is equal to 8.3 MegaPixels. If your camera can save photos in RAW format, you will get the best quality image with no compression, which takes up more storage space, but can be handy if you would like to edit your pictures later.
  • Nighttime shots: Night photos may end up grainy and low quality if you don't have a phone with night mode. If you want to take photos at night, look for phones equipped with night mode.

How to compare smartphone processors

The powerhouse of the device, a processor is what runs all the software applications and functions of a phone. Processors have a clock speed typically measured in GHz. The faster the speed, the better the performance of a phone. If you're looking to stream video or games, for example, you'll need a processor with a clock speed of at least 1 GHz.

According to researchers at Stony Brook University, the processor's clock speed is important for reducing latency of streaming. In other words, with a 1 GHz processor, you'll have to wait longer for a game, song or video to begin streaming than you would with a 2.4 GHz processor. But once the initial buffer time is over, a 1 GHz processor with multiple cores does not show reduced streaming quality compared to one with a higher clock frequency, because coprocessors run the application.

At the same time, a slower processor does impact page load time for the mobile web, because the processor's multiple cores don't come into play there. Specifically, a 384 MHz processor loads mobile web pages four times slower than a 1.5 GHz processor.

So, if you'd like to be able to stream video with low latency and browse the web without slow page load times, you'll need a multi-core processor with a clock speed of at least 1 GHz, but you'll do better with upwards of 2 GHz.

How to evaluate flip phones and other basic phones

A basic cell phone — commonly known as a flip phone — should run on a 4G network to even enter into your consideration. That's because 3G phones can no longer make and receive calls or texts. Beyond that, it's all about what you're looking for in a phone.

Look for a basic phone that has GPS and long battery life, which can be absolutely essential when you're traveling. Also, if you prefer using a laptop or tablet to access the internet, you can find a flip phone that acts as a hotspot for your devices. And just because it's a basic phone doesn't mean you should sacrifice features such as camera and storage space for your photos and MP3s — look for a phone with a decent camera (at least 2 MegaPixels) and MicroSD card storage.

No doubt you're looking for a long-term call and text solution. The best flip phone for you will be rugged and built to last. Additionally, if you're looking for a flip phone for a senior, you can find ones with large buttons, hearing aid compatibility and a button you can program to contact emergency services.

Evaluating cell phone batteries

The battery holds a charge that is measured in MilliAmp hours or mAh. That number corresponds to the amount of capacity the battery has, which allows the phone to stay powered on longer. However, it is important to understand that mAh doesn't relate directly to the amount of time the phone will stay on. Running more intense apps will drain the battery faster, as will apps that perform functions in the background such as step-tracking fitness apps.

Some phones also feature fast-charging batteries. These phones can charge more quickly. Some phones can even charge wirelessly by placing them on a charging pad, rather than plugging them in.

Data and cell phone privacy

Smartphones have access to many private details. Since they have access to behavior data such as the places you go, the things you buy, and the people you talk to, smartphones require an extra commitment to privacy from carriers and service providers. When shopping, make sure your carrier has a clear policy against collecting data and selling it to advertisers.

Physical security

In case a smartphone is lost or stolen, it must have a degree of practical security as well. Typically, a phone will have a password-protected lock screen that can be enabled to prevent unauthorized access. Some phones even come equipped with fingerprint scanners for added security.

Buying a cell phone

While keeping in mind the above factors, you should also consider the process of buying the phone, which may affect your decision about your chosen provider, your contract and your payment plan. In addition, you should always make sure you check a retailer's current offers. If there is a retail location nearby, you may want to visit an in-store location in addition to checking online, just in case either has exclusive deals. You could end up saving money through accessory bundles, trade-in promotions or limited-time offers.

How to choose a reliable network service provider for your phone

Compare and contrast different service providers to see which offers the best phone plan for you. Many providers will offer a coverage map, so you can see what service is offered in your area, as well as the available speeds, such as 4G and 5G. Additionally, the services offered can vary by provider. Some cell phone providers offer discounts on additional lines, beyond just a family plan, to help save money for those who need multiple phones for members of their household. The choice may also come down to which provider is offering the best current signup deal, or has the best customer service.

Choosing a phone service plan

Choosing a service plan depends greatly on how you choose to use the phone. Some plans offer unlimited data, which is important for those who do a lot of web browsing and music and video streaming while away from a Wi-Fi connection. Other plans may offer ongoing or temporary international service, which allows users to stay connected as they travel.

The choice of a service plan may also come down to a great deal. Sometimes a new phone bundle or a promotional price for a data plan can help influence your decision. Just be sure to shop around and see which service plan offers are out there.

Annual contracts versus no annual contracts

Payment plans are often for a set amount of time, and require additional fees if the customer wants to cancel before the contract is up.

prepaid plan offers users a set plan for data and service provided they pay for a month in advance. Other no-term contract plans may have no set period for maintaining the service plan but could have other incentives for staying, such as offering a lower phone cost but requiring the phone to be paid in full upon leaving.

Paying for the cell phone

Since a cell phone can be a fairly pricey investment, it is important to weigh different methods of paying for a device, as well as different purchase options. Through financing, trade-in programs, and refurbished phones, it's possible to find the best option for your situation.

Often, a cell provider will offer financing to help pay for a phone. This can greatly lighten the burden of paying for a new phone by reducing the overall cost into a smaller monthly fee that is tacked onto the monthly service plan payment.

New, used and refurbished phones

Next, you must decide whether you want to buy a brand-new phone, or perhaps buy a used or refurbished model. Even if you know which option you would like, it may be worthwhile to shop around for all options, as retailers and providers may offer extra money-saving incentives for choosing new, used or refurbished phones.

While retailers will generally take efforts to avoid selling a device with serious problems, bear in mind that used phones may have scratches, dents or other superficial damage (see, for example, how Verizon describes the condition of Certified Pre-owned phones, and what each grade level means). Furthermore, make sure your retailer offers some sort of guarantee in case something goes wrong, and that you understand its parameters.

If you're looking at used or refurbished phones, you can find some reliable and high-functioning devices, especially when those phones have been inspected and certified to be in excellent working order by mobile device experts like the techs at Verizon.

All of Verizon's Certified Pre-Owned devices are assigned a grade according to their cosmetic condition.

CPO grades include:

  • A phone in "Great" condition may have a few light scratches and scuffs.
  • A "Very Good" device will be slightly more scratched up.
  • Finally, a device in "Good" condition will have more substantial scratches, scuffs or dents on the phone case and may also have minor scratches on the screen.

All certified pre-owned and refurbished phones sold at Verizon will have a rating associated with them, and that will give you an idea of what kind of condition they are in. Overall, refurbished phones are safe to use and come in varying condition levels. And, if a device has only light scratching or scuffing, you may be able to cover them with a fashionable phone case.

Locked vs. unlocked phones

As a security protocol, some cell providers will offer phones that are "locked" for some time. This means that the phone can only be activated on that carrier's network for a certain duration.

After that time has passed, the phone will become "unlocked," and able to be used on another carrier's network. While there are benefits to unlocked phones, some features offered by the original carrier may be limited or unavailable.

Choose the best smartphone for you

The best phone for you will depend on several factors, and not all of the components of a phone will be important to everybody. As such, here are some things to keep in mind for different types of users:

  • Best phone for gamers: While searching for a gaming phone, perhaps the most important considerations are processor speed and screen resolution. This will help to run the most current games smoothly and without hiccups. However, performance requirements can be countered through the use of cloud gaming, though that will require a fast internet connection to avoid lag.
  • Best phone for frequent travelers: If you travel frequently, you will likely get a lot of use out of your phone, especially if you take long flights or commute via public transit. In these cases, battery life is a must, as well as storage space to keep photos and videos of your travels, or movies to watch when the connection is weak. Also, consider a plan that has good coverage abroad.
  • Best phone for adventurers: For someone who enjoys camping, hiking, or bicycling through the outdoors, durability is a must. Try to find a phone that is durable, and preferably waterproof. A good phone case can help to supplement these shortcomings. A phone with a satellite connection can be very handy to stay connected. Additionally, a good camera with strong image stabilization features or HDR for capturing your adventures and once-in-a-lifetime sights.
  • Best phone for seniors: Seniors will benefit from a phone with long battery life, durability, a large screen, and other features that prioritize ease of use. A phone with a list-style menu can make things easier to find, and it should have GPS capability to help you navigate. Depending on your needs and abilities, don't forget accessibility features like voice typing and hearing aid compatibility. And, when it comes down to it, a phone with video chat capability is oh-so-important if you want to see your loved ones while you talk.

Protecting your phone

A smartphone is an important device, as well as a relatively fragile one. To help protect your phone from drops, scratches and other damage, it is a good idea to consider some protective accessories.

Phone cases and screen protectors

A smartphone case is an extra accessory that can protect your phone from accidental damage. Some cases are designed to prevent scratches, while others have shock-absorbing designs to protect a phone from drops that could crack a screen or break components.

Screen protectors offer a thin layer of see-through armor for a phone's display without impeding touchscreen functionality. A large number of options also makes it easy to find a case that will protect your phone, while also making it easy to identify at a glance.

Aside from offering device protection, some phone accessories boost device functionality. This includes things like external Bluetooth speakers, phone stands, and styluses for more precise control.

No matter what type of phone you're looking for, from a basic phone on a reliable 4G network to a hyper-fast 5G smartphone with all the latest hardware updates, Verizon has something for you. What's more, you can find the right plan for the right price based on your data needs and what you love to do with your phone most.

Sources


FCC Map of Cellular Service Coverage Areas

Impact of Device Age on Performance

NordVPN, "iOS vs Android Security"

PC Magazine, "These Apps Drain Your Phone Battery"


Reviewed By: Verizon Editorial Team
Last Reviewed: 7.20.2023
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