The Smartphone Buyer's Guide 2015 (2015)

The Five Pillars of a Good Smartphone – How To Choose The Right Smartphone



The earlier chapters of this book have given you a thorough introduction to the cell phone and how quickly cell phone technology has developed.  Since the original smartphone was introduced, the pace of development accelerated even more. We can look forward to that development trend increasing further in the future.   Clearly a smartphone can perform many functions, delivering an incredible amount of utility for its owner.  All that utility increases the difficulty of choosing the right smartphone for you.


In this chapter, we will talk about the important points to consider in choosing a smartphone. We referred to these of the five pillars of a good smartphone.   These are the key functions that drive overall performance and owner satisfaction. They are also the drivers of cost. In addition, we are going to talk about your personal wants and needs and how they will influence the selection of your smartphone.


  • First, we are going to talk about the size and design of your smartphone. You are going to be handling, looking at and viewing your smartphone countless times a day. The design and size are extremely important.  If you cannot hold it and operate it comfortably, or you cannot read it easily you will be perpetually frustrated.


  • They say that “patience is a virtue”, but our expectations for the performance of the technology is high and our patience is low.  We will be talking about processor speed and storage.  These capabilities are very important to the usability of your smartphone. If your GPS app, cannot keep up with the speed of your car, it will not be very useful will it?  Once you begin to depend on features like GPS navigation, speed and storage are essential for usability and for safety.


  • Our third pillar is storage.  You will see that this is essential to your personal satisfaction because it relates to using camera features, video functions, listening to music, playing games and overall storage capacity for the information you wish to retain and recall instantly.


  • Pillar number four is dedicated to camera functions.  These too, relate to processor speed and storage, but can also drive your budget through the roof.  Never the less, your picture and video taking capabilities can make a difference in how much fun and utility you get from your smartphone.


  • The last pillar is the budget.  Hardly anyone escapes being constrained by the straps of the budget. Unfortunately, this is a tricky area to negotiate and can make or break your plans for entering smartphone nirvana.


Getting Grounded


This is not going to be a quick process but it can be easy and fun if you relax and enjoy it.  Selecting a smartphone is like shopping for your clothes.  It is very personal and subject to your tastes, habits and fit.  You have many things to consider and self-examination is required.  Nothing else you can buy has the potential to serve you in as many ways as a smartphone.  Having a good smartphone is like holding the world in the palm of your hand.


Get your research hat down from the shelf, because it takes thorough investigation to uncover the facts you need to make the many choices at hand.  This will be a great learning experience and a good investment in your time.  The smartphone market changes so quickly that you will be able to use the experience when you need to replace your smartphone for newer technology.


Choosing is not a sequential process.  You will need to do a little work in each pillar area and then switch back and forth between them until you have balanced all your requirements and fit them into your budget.


So take out your favorite journal or pad and finest writing instrument.  Are you ready to take notes?  Ok, here we go.


The Preliminaries


Choosing a smartphone needs to be placed within the right context. 

If you do not have one already, you will have to choose a wireless network provider such as AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, or Verizon.  This book is not about choosing a network provider, but it is important, so here are a couple of essential points.

Understand what you need and make the best choice for you.  There are three main focal points.

  • COVERAGE:  Your smartphone needs to work wellfrom home, work, where you hang out, on the highways and byways you use.  If you travel a lot, you need to check out how well those destinations are covered. 
  • EQUIPMENT:  Can you buy your smartphone elsewhere, or do you have to buy it from the provider.  What is the difference in support and price based on where you buy it?
  • PRICING:  Understand what components affect the price and understand what your needs are.  Do not buy more than you need.  You can upgrade later if you need to.

Do your research with the help of knowledgeable sources.  Use the Internet to dig for information.  There are organizations that publish evaluations and comparisons annually.  Check these for starters but searching the internet will get you many more.




If you do have a wireless network provider already, and you are happy with that provider, then you only need to address equipment and pricing.

The big network providers have the broadest choices for smartphones.  The local providers have narrower offerings.


Size and Design


Let me start with size because one size does not fit all.  You have to get this right.  Here is what is important.


  • It must be comfortable in the palm of your hand.  This size and shape of your hand and fingers is a big influence on comfort and ease of operation.  I have small hands with fat fingers, what do you have?  This is a very important item.  The only way to evaluate this is a field trip to the supplier, where you can pick it up and handle it every conceivable way.  Do not overlook weight and balance.  Hold it up to your ear.  Pretend to be on a call.  How long can you hold it up there?  Can you feel cramps developing in your hand?  Will you need to operate it with one hand?  Try that out.  Do you do a lot of texting?  Try using both hands on the keyboard simultaneously.  How does that change the feel of balance and comfort?
  • Where are you going to carry it?  If the answer to that question is “in my purse”, your pretty much done with this concern.  Otherwise, you had better figure out what to wear or bring on your field trip.  Many smartphones will not fit well in pockets due to large screen sizes.  Continue your tests.  Put the device where you will carry it.  Pretend you are receiving a call or a text and retrieve the device.  How does it handle when you are taking it out of your carrying location.  How easy is it to put it back?
  • How big is that screen anyway?  Do you actually need a big screen?  Devices with large screens can be unwieldy and difficult to store.  Also, you cannot effectively replace your TV with a smartphone.  So think about what is driving you to want a large screen.  Will you watch video on the screen for long periods?  Do you have a vision problem?  Does your choice of phone support visually impaired display functions?  How about the on-screen keyboard?  Try it out, especially if you have fat fingers.  The keys may look larger, but do they work any better when you try to use them?  Fat finger alternatives are stylus pens and voice commands.  Those might be better for you and eliminate the higher cost of a larger screen device.  With all the graphics and video used today and planned for the future, you need a reasonablysized screen.  Most people can live happily with between 4.7” and 5” screen, but never go less than 3.5”.


Let us talk about the quality of images on the screen.  There is more hype around this than anyone would really care to encounter.  What counts is that the screen works well for you.  Forget about the technology.  Many people have vision problems and are unable to discern subtle differences in image quality.  On your field trip, you need to test the phones and compare the screens.  You will need sales assistance for this test.


              Ask how to put the device in Auto Mode, used for saving battery.  Now put the phone through some paces.  Look at web pages, pictures, text, video and stare at the screen closely.  Do you notice any of the following?


  • Reflection
  • Dull or artificial looking colors
  • Blurry text
  • Feeling of eyestrain


If you do not experience any of these, then you are in good shape.  Otherwise, keep shopping or consider the need to get an eye exam.  


Moving on to design, most designs are for use in friendly environments.  Will you be using your smartphone in tough environments?  Might it be subject to drops or moisture?  You may want to look a ruggedized design.  That changes dimensions and weight significantly.  However, if that is what you need to get utility from your phone, then that is the way you have to go.  Sorry!


Keyboards are important.  The touch screens on most smartphones have multiple keyboard style options.  However, if you are a large person, you may have trouble with on-screen keyboards.  If you cannot interact easily with your device, you will be unhappy.  Start looking at tactile keyboard devices immediately.  Some manufacturers have done a nice job for folks with large hands and fingers.


Controls for things like volume, should be located on the sides of the device and easily manipulated with one hand.  This is another test item for your field trip.  Have fun with it.  Pretend your significant other or boss is screaming at you over the phone.  How quickly and easily can you get the volume down?


Attaching things like earphones and chargers should be easy and when connected, should not hamper your operation of the device.  Be sure to check while on your field trip.


Let us not forget appearance.  Some smartphones have metal skins and others are plastic.  Finishes can be shiny, dull, or textured.  They can come in nifty color schemes or just boring black.  This might not matter to you if you intend to apply an external case to your phone.  Cases are relatively inexpensive and provide a little extra protection.  You can put a personal touch on some cases by using your own photos and graphics.  If you are interested in this, it will be an added cost, though a small one.


Processor Speed and RAM


A smartphone is actually a computer that can provide telecommunications functions.  It is very sophisticated and manages many tasks simultaneously.  It can store huge quantities of information within its tiny framework, and needs to be able to retrieve it instantly.  It also manages real-time communications over multiple networks, for data, the Internet, voice, video, and positioning.  This means your smartphone is running many programs simultaneously. 


The number and type of programs you run drives the need for processing power and the number of processors.  Each running program is stored in RAM (random access memory) to make it easy for the processor to execute the instructions.


There are millions of applications or APPS you can acquire to run on your smartphone as well.   Some of these can place a very large burden on your device in terms of processor power and RAM.  For example, a GPS navigation app runs multiple programs that work together.  It can be a blockbuster on processor power and RAM.  If you were to be using this application frequently, you might want to be sure to have multiple processors. 


Your smartphone’s basic design has the processor configuration and RAM it needs to provide high performance for all its inherent functions plus an allowance for running a reasonable number of apps.  How you personally use your device, will dictate the need for more or less processing power and RAM.  If you keep many programs running simultaneously, you will need more processor power and RAM to ensure you get high performance at all times.   If you are the less demanding kind of user, you will need less. 


Once you become a smartphone user, you will notice that apps are updated frequently to increase functionality and correct errors.  As with PCs and larger computers, app design holds little regard for your devices resources.  That means the longer you own your device, the more updates you will receive and the more processor and RAM capacity is used.  This will likely result in you finding it gets slower over time.  To avoid this, consider the following guideline.


  • If you feel like you are going to be happy with the standard features of your device and only very few apps, do not worry about the processor speed or RAM.  You will be fine.
  • If you think owning this device is going to be fun and you are looking forward to all the dynamite apps you can use, consider a 1GHz processor and minimum 512MB of RAM package.  


Storage – Internal and External


Storage is a tricky subject.  Again, it is going to depend on how you use your device.  All devices come with system memory.  This is the internal storage.  A large portion of that goes to operate the device, but the rest is available for apps and data.  Right now, many smartphones have options for 16, 32 or 64 GB of system memory.  If your device uses 6GB to run itself, subtract that from the total and that is what you will have left for everything else. 


The incremental price of those system memory options is high.  An alternative is to find a device that permits removable storage such as an SD Card.  This is external storage.  However, do not get confused by the term.  The card is actually stored within the device.  These cards come in similar sizes to system memory but are less expensive.  They are great for storing music, pictures and video that take up large amounts of memory.  Buying a device with 16GB of system memory that also supports the use of an SD card, should be less expensive than buying a device with more system memory.  Do the math to be sure.  


Another kind of external storage is available through apps that specialize in storage.  Storage apps keep your information in the cloud, and not on your device.  There are two big things to remember about using these apps.


  • Your data cannot be stored or retrieved unless you have a connection to the Internet. 
  • Large data files such as pictures, videos, and music may take a little longer to access than those stored in system memory or on SD cards.


Storage apps are very inexpensive.  Anywhere from free to a few dollars a month.  They are a great alternative for storing many types of data.




Just about every phone has a camera.  Smartphones have what I call serious cameras.  That is to say, they can rival the capabilities of some high-end digital standalone cameras.  This makes talking about this subject a bit cumbersome because digital photography is a broad technology.


If you do not care, much about taking pictures, or only want to take some occasional shots and selfies, you can jump to the next heading.  I guaranty anything you need to photograph with your smartphone will come out just fine.  Unbelievably, regardless of megapixel rating, any smartphone picture will look great on any other smartphone or computer display.


Before we go further, let us get something important on the table.  Do not make photography functionality the primary criteria for selecting a smartphone.  They cannot replace sophisticated digital photography equipment.  You will end up being disappointed.


Therefore, you shutterbugs, videophiles and semi-pro photography enthusiasts will need to do homework.  Start by writing down what you want to do with the camera in your smartphone, how frequently you will do it and in what quantity.  Do not forget to note the conditions you expect to be under, such as high light, low light, reflectivity, indoors, outdoors.  Are you going to shoot action stills, videos or whatever?  Will you be making prints?  What sizes, etc.  The more you want, the more you will pay.  Here are some things to think about as you do your research.


  • Camera functionality can change the dimensions of the smartphone. Most notably, making it thicker and perhaps having a bulge somewhere.  This can alter the utility of the smartphone.  It may change the way you carry it around with you.  It may create an uncomfortable feel due to size and balance.


  • The more sophistication built into the camera functions, the more likely that buttons on the device will take on multiple roles.  You must get into this in some detail while on your field trip to the smartphone supplier.  It is important to understand any difficulty related to the position and use of the buttons.  For example, if you miss the button, will you accidentally power off the device, causing you to miss the shot.  Another concern might be the tendency to block the lens with your finger, forcing you to hold the device in an uncomfortable position or ruin the shot.


  • Camera activation is another operational characteristic you will want to test.  How do you actually activate the camera, when in lock mode or unlock mode?  How long does it take?


  • Other time related actions can make a difference to your personal satisfaction.  How long will it take to get your image in focus in auto and manual modes?  How quickly does the zoom feature work?  How long does it take to change shooting modes, like changing to panorama?


  • Some camera features need to be invoked using on-screen buttons.  Try these out paying particular attention to whether you can use them easily and without having to look at the screen.


  • Test the camera’s image quality at various distances.  Some cameras will be better close up, or when the subject is at a longer distance.  How will you be using the camera and will you get the quality you want for the most frequently shot subjects.


Here are a few more memory joggers to help stimulate your research.


  • Larger image sensors are better at light collection.
  • Regardless of sensor size, squeezing in too many pixels can make grainy images.
  • If prints are important, more megapixels yields larger print sizes.
  • Do you want flash capability?
  • Do you need auto-focus or image stabilization?
  • Do not forget to check shutter speed and frames per second regarding video.


The Internet is your friend for this kind of research.  Check manufacturer sites and YouTube.  Just don’t forget that field testing your alternatives is the most import part of the job.


The Internet is your friend for this kind of research.  Check manufacturer sites and YouTube.




Smartphones are telecommunications equipment and require a wireless network services to function fully.  Network service providers are the kings of razzle-dazzle pricing.  Keep in mind that their objective is to keep you as a customer forever.  There are no exceptions to this rule.


Smartphones are expensive and their price is justified based on what they do.  The capabilities are very enticing and can get you hooked easily.  The question is whether you can afford to have what you want. In reality, smartphones are luxury items but promoted as indispensable by the telecommunications industry.  Let me give you some real insight.


On the day I researched this information, you could buy a particular HTC smartphone at a big electronics store, without any wireless network provider services for $599.99.  This is not a top of the line phone but a good one.  This price is the list price, not discounted at all.  Is not the electronics store a discounter?  It is because smartphones receive discounts when packaged with wireless network provider services.  It is a standard practice in the telecommunications industry.  IMPORTANT SIDEBAR:  The electronics store is also a re-seller of wireless network provider services.  This influences how he sells smartphones.  There are other sources for buying smartphones, where the seller does discount the smartphone because he has no affiliation with the wireless network service providers.  CONTINUING:  Now if you were to choose to purchase this smartphone in conjunction with a wireless network provider service, you would receive a substantial discount.  For example, if you agree to take a 30-month network provider service contract, you could own this phone after 30 installment payments of $14.97 for a total of $449.  To sweeten this deal, you can upgrade your phone after the first 24 months, at which point you stop paying for this phone and save six payments equal to about $90.  Now the total cost of the phone is only $359.00.  The plan also waives activation fees and upgrade fees you would have to pay if you supplied your own phone.  Why would they do that?  To ensure you renew your wireless network service at the end of the contract.


The above is only one example of a pricing plan.  There are many more.  None of them is tricky, but the marketing puts emphasis on those things that will draw you in, not inform you of the important details.  Be diligent and make sure you understand everything.


Getting back to your budget, you are going to need to cover one-time charges and monthly charges regardless of how you go about acquiring your smartphone.  Do not forget your smartphone requires a wireless network service provider. 


There will be no escaping the need to conduct thoughtful mathematical analysis as you make your choices.  Using a spreadsheet will make this easier.  Additionally, carefully examine the fine print of the agreements.  Cancelation charges will apply if you need to get out of your contracts.  To be thorough, you may want to calculate what cancelation can cost you.  It might help reinforce the need to make careful decisions.


Your mission


Your selection of a smartphone is a small project that can facilitate making many positive changes in life.  Have fun with your project but be practical.  Coming up with a budget that is comfortable for you is most important. 


Smartphone technology changes quickly.  The simpler your needs are, the longer your smartphone will provide good service for you. 


Advances in app development are likely to entice you to add more functionality to your device as the months pass.  Remember to create an allowance for those additions.


The five pillars of a good smartphone will guide you in looking at your needs and fulfilling them in a stepwise fashion.  It will also help you create a balanced approach to controlling the cost of your smartphone.  You can work out trade-offs within each pillar and then among the pillars.  Do not let the volume of options and considerations take your eye off the real needs you have.


  • Size and Designare very important.  This is a tool you must handle and take with you all the time.  It needs to compliment your body, mind, and spirit.
  • Processor and RAMwork together to ensure top performance.  The more you do and the sophistication of what you do are the influences here.
  • Storageis a big variable.  If you keep lots of photos, videos, and music for instant access, this can be expensive.  Ask yourself if you really need those things instantly available all the time.
  • Camerasadd fun to your life.  This will likely be the first time you have a camera available at every moment.  You can capture a lot of memories and information.  Do you want to create art, or just record memories?  It makes a difference.
  • Priceis what it comes down to in the end.  There are many options and you will need to look at all of them.  Be sure to do the math.