Smartphone selection criteria: What factors matter most to you?

Different people have different priorities when they select a smartphone, thus there is no "one size fits all" phone. Deb Shinder discusses some of the criteria that you might want to consider before purchasing a smartphone.

In the early 2000s, there weren't many choices for those who wanted a smartphone. You might be able to pick from a Symbian model, a Microsoft Pocket PC phone, a Palm, and a Blackberry. The phones were expensive (my first one cost $600) and were used mostly by business people. Then the iPhone came out in 2007 and became a huge hit, and suddenly consumers were clamoring for smarter and smarter cell phones.

Today there are too many smartphone models to enumerate, made by many different companies and running various operating systems. Choosing the right one can be a challenge, and despite the popularity of the iPhone, there is no "one size fits all" answer. It's important to think about exactly what you'll be doing most often with the phone, and what criteria are most important to you because it's likely you'll have to make a tradeoff somewhere.

Selection criteria

Some of the factors to think about in choosing a smartphone include:

  • Hardware design and features
  • Manufacturer brand name
  • Network technology - GSM, CDMA, 4G
  • Operating system and interface
  • Included/available software
  • Wireless carrier
  • Cost

The order in which these factors matter to you will help narrow down your choices. If you insist on a hardware design that includes a physical keyboard, for example, that eliminates the iPhone and many other touch-only phones from consideration. If you're locked into Verizon or Sprint as your carrier, all GSM phones are out, and so forth. Let's look at what each of these criteria mean.

Hardware design and features
Droid 2 (Image credit: Jason Hiner)

For some users, the physical design of the device is of utmost importance. If you plan to do a lot of text input and your fat fingers don't work well with on-screen keyboards, a physical keyboard may be a necessity for you. You'll probably also have a strong preference regarding whether the keyboard is located at the bottom of the device (in portrait mode) or slides out on the side (in landscape mode). Which works best for you may depend on the size of your hands as well as the layout and key design, and whether you prefer the portrait or landscape display when you're typing. Traditionally, BlackBerries have long been a favorite of those who want a physical keyboard, but the Motorola Droid 2 and the Samsung Epic 4G also have good physical keyboards.

The display is another important hardware feature. If you'll be viewing images and videos a lot, or visiting websites, an extra large screen, such as those on the HTC EVO and the Motorola Droid X, might work best for you. On the other hand, if portability is an issue, you might prefer a more compact device such as the Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 Mini with its 2.6 inch touch screen and corresponding smaller size.

iPhone 4 (Image credit: Jason Hiner)

Almost all smartphones today have a built-in camera, but quality varies. If you want your phone to replace your point-and-shoot, you'll want one with a good camera, such as the iPhone 4 or the Droid X. Those who need to do videoconferencing will want one of the models that has a front-facing camera. Again, the iPhone 4 fills the bill, as do the EVO 4G, the MyTouch HD, and at least some models of the Samsung Galaxy S. On the other hand, some business users want smartphones that don't have cameras, because some facilities ban camera-equipped phones. In that case, you may not find many choices, but some BlackBerries, such as the Bold 9650, don't have a camera.

A must have for many smartphone aficionados is an SD or microSD card slot for removable storage. If you don't want to be stuck with the amount of storage built into the phone, forget the iPhone -- and, according to some rumors, the first version of Windows Phone 7. The popular Android phones have microSD support, but many of them require that you remove the battery to swap out the card. If you like to pop the card out frequently, you might want to check into a different design, such as that of the Samsung Fascinate. You still have to remove the back cover, but not the battery.

Those who like to output their phone's video to a monitor or TV will want a device with an HDMI port, like the Droid X and the EVO. Another consideration is whether the phone has more hardware buttons, like the Motorola Droids, or takes a more minimalist approach to buttons, like the iPhone. Something else to consider is whether the phone includes Wi-Fi connectivity, or just cellular. And if you want to be able to use another device, such as a Wi-Fi iPad, using your phone's network, you need one that supports Wi-Fi hotspot functionality, such as the Droid X or the EVO.

When it comes down to it, the hardware design can make the phone a delight to use or an exercise in frustration.

Manufacturer brand name

We don't see as much customer loyalty to brand names today as we might have in the past, but some people do have strong preferences based on their experiences. My last four phones were made by Samsung -- the i730, the i760, the Omnia, and the Omnia II. That doesn't mean I wouldn't buy a phone made by another company (and in fact, I'm looking at Motorola and HTC models right now), but I do know and like the hardware Samsung makes and, if I were given the choice of phones with the same basic features made by different vendors, including Samsung, I would probably go with that manufacturer again.

Network technology -- GSM, CDMA, 4G

In the United States, there are two basic types of cellular network technology: GSM and CDMA. GSM is the standard in most of the rest of the world, so if you plan to travel to Europe (where the Group Special Mobile was created in the 1980s to develop a standard for European mobile telephone systems and where the European Union mandates the use of GSM), you'll probably want a phone that can work on a GSM network. In the United States, AT&T and T-Mobile operate GSM networks. GSM phones use a SIM card to store account information and personal data. If you want to be able to easily move your information from one phone to another, you may prefer GSM.

CDMA and CDMA2000 (EV-DO) are used in the United States by Verizon Wireless and Sprint and in some Asian countries. Call quality is generally better on CDMA networks, and data rates have traditionally been faster. Account and personal information are programmed into the phone itself, although some CDMA2000 phones can use removable User Identity Module (R-UIM) cards for this purpose.

These technologies are expected to converge, as both GSM and CDMA operators replace their current 3G services with Long Term Evolution (LTE), which is a 4G technology providing theoretical data rates of 1 Gbps. Both Verizon and AT&T plan to roll out LTE networks in the upcoming years. Verizon has announced that it will have 4G coverage in 38 major cities by the end of 2010. However, the company doesn't expect to offer LTE phones until sometime in 2011.

Another 4G option is Mobile WiMax, which is already in operation in some locations by Sprint. Average download speeds for Sprint's 4G are 3-6 Mbps, with peak speeds of 10 Mbps. 4G offers faster data transfer rates than 3G with high quality of service for multimedia such as HD video streaming.

Operating system and interface

Operating systems can be almost like religions in terms of the passion with which some users defend their OS of choice and denigrate others. There are several mobile operating systems in play currently. The most popular (in no particular order) are:

  • Apple iOS
  • Google Android
  • Microsoft Windows Mobile and (coming soon) Windows Phone 7
  • Symbian
  • RIM BlackBerry
  • HP (Palm) WebOS

The operating system helps to determine what the user experience will be like, so it's an important consideration. Techie types tend to have their own OS loyalties (Apple, Linux, Windows) based on their overall computing experiences. However, many "break ranks" and get phones that run an OS different from their preferred desktop/laptop OS.

In the opinion of many, the iPhone offers the smoothest experience; this is in part because Apple makes the hardware and the software and exerts rigid control over it and over the third-party software you install on it. Many chafe at this overprotective approach, and don't like the fact that you have to use iTunes to synchronize your phone with your computer. You can jailbreak the phone to gain administrative control and install unauthorized apps, but that voids your warranty.

Android is, at least in concept, much more open and gives the user more control, although the wireless carriers can and do lock Android phones down and "cripple" some of their features so they can offer those same features as extras for an additional fee. As with the iPhone, you can overcome the restrictions and gain administrative privileges, which is called rooting but again, you sacrifice support from your carrier and, depending on your contract, the carrier could even terminate your service (although the latter rarely happens).

The Windows Mobile operating system suffered from its design as basically a "downsized" version of the Windows desktop OS. Windows Phone 7 has been redesigned from the ground up to be touch friendly and highly usable on the small form factor. The interface is a departure from the "app centric" approach taken by the iPhone and Android, and instead uses a data centric approach that aggregates content from different data sources.

Symbian is an open source mobile operating system that has been around since the 1990s (formerly called EPOC OS) and was acquired by Nokia in 2008. It has the largest installed base worldwide, but its market share has been dropping.

Research In Motion (RIM) makes smartphones running the Blackberry OS, formerly used for their personal digital assistants. RIM smartphones are optimized for business use and are especially good at handling email.

Palm's webOS was introduced on the Palm Pre in 2009 and was acquired by HP earlier this year when it purchased Palm. HP is expected to use it on consumer-targeted slates that will compete with the iPad, in parallel with its Windows 7 based slate for the enterprise market. HP has also indicated that it will be using webOS exclusively on its smartphones.

A smartphone's interface has a lot to do with how user-friendly it's perceived to be. The iPhone has one set interface that you can't really alter. Android phones can have interface overlays installed by the phone vendors, such as SenseUI on HTC phones and TouchWiz 3 on Samsung phones. These give the phones a different look and often include special widgets for added functionality. At the time of this writing, Windows Phone 7 hasn't yet been released, and there are conflicting reports as to whether phone vendors will be allowed to include their UI overlays or at least some elements of them.

Included/available software

For some smartphone users, it's all about the apps. There are a huge number of apps available for the iPhone; Apple claims "hundreds of thousands." The Android Market only claims "thousands" of apps. One advantage of Android is that developers can distribute their apps outside of the Android Market, whereas Apple allows installations only from their App Store (unless you jailbreak the phone).

There are tens of thousands of applications for Windows Mobile, available from a variety of sources such as Handango, but these won't run on the new Windows Phone 7 platform that will launch this month. Microsoft has been actively encouraging developers to port their iPhone and Android apps to Windows Phone 7, and encouraging their own employees to write apps for Windows Phone 7. As I discussed in my recent column, Windows Phone 7: Is Microsoft "all in?", over 300,000 developers have downloaded the beta development tools.

Handango and other sites have free and paid Symbian and BlackBerry apps available for download. HP has confirmed that the company has no problem with users installing so-called "homebrew" apps that come from sources other than the App Catalog, and the Palm Pre doesn't have to be "rooted" in order to do it.

Thus, if sheer number of available apps matters to you, Apple is your best bet. On the other hand, if being able to get your apps wherever you want is important to you, you'll probably not want to get an iPhone. It's not yet certain whether Windows Phone 7 devices will have to be jailbroken to install apps that don't come through the Windows Marketplace.

In some cases, there may be particular apps that are must haves for you. For example, after falling in love with Swype on my Omnia II, I don't want a phone that can't run it. Fortunately, Swype is available for Android (and comes already installed on the Droid X). The makers of Swype are said to be working on a version for the iPhone and iPad, but Apple has to approve it. And there has been much speculation about whether Swype will be available on Windows Phone 7 devices, especially after it was seen in the demo of a Windows 7 multitouch display at the Microsoft Worldwide Partners Conference.

Wireless carrier

Some people are willing to switch wireless carriers to get the phone they want. For others, it's not about the device, it's about the network. This is a common lament from Verizon customers who want an iPhone but who aren't willing to go to AT&T for it. Based on my experience and research, the quality of the network among all four major U.S. carriers varies a lot depending on the area of the country you're in.

Some people are locked into a particular carrier because the others don't service their areas or have weak signals there. Some stick with a particular carrier because that company gives them deep discounts through their employers or because of their occupations. Others are loyal to the carrier that has given them good customer service. And still others are locked into their carriers by contracts that carry heavily penalties for early cancellation.

Whatever the reason, if the carrier is your most important criteria, you'll be limited in the phone models you have to choose from. However, remaining loyal to a particular carrier may be advantageous, even after your contract term is up. For example, you may be able to renew that contract with the same terms (such as an unlimited data plan) even though those terms are no longer available for new customers.


In this economic climate, for many people cost is an important factor, if not the most important. The popular smartphones tend to be priced similarly after carrier subsidies (around $200), but it's possible to get a bargain by buying a refurbished handset, and if you wait until the latest and greatest models come out, the slightly older ones may drop drastically in price. For example: the Omnia II on Verizon, for which I paid $199 when it came out a year ago, can now be had for $49. You can also find popular smartphones on sale during various promotional events such as Best Buy's Free Phone Fridays that run through the end of October.

Something to keep in mind, if money is a big factor in your selection, is that the upfront cost of the phone is only a small part of its cost. You also need to take into consideration the cost of the data plan (for example, Sprint charges $10/month more for its 4G EVO than for its other smartphones -- even if you're in a location where the 4G network is not available). Also remember to account for the cost of extra features you may want and what you want out of those features. For example, Sprint charges $30 per month for Wi-Fi hotspot functionality on the EVO, whereas Verizon charges $20 for Wi-Fi hotspot on the Droid X. However, you can connect eight devices to the EVO's hotspot and only five to the Droid X's. If you're a brave soul, you can root either phone and install the Wifi Tether app to give you the same functionality without paying an extra monthly charge, but it may violate your service agreement and/or void your warranty.

There are good deals to be had when it comes to service plans, too -- if you're willing to go outside the "Big Four" providers. For example, Virgin Mobile offers the Samsung Intercept running Android with a $40/month plan for 1,200 minutes talk time, unlimited text, email (corporate included), data, and web.


Different people have different priorities when they select a smartphone, thus there is no one phone that's best for everyone. This article discusses some of the criteria that you might want to consider before you commit to purchasing a smartphone.

Take the poll

By Deb Shinder

Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 add...