Choosing the Right Phone

I like gadgets a lot. If I could buy a new gadget every day, I would. Recently, I have had a number of people ask me what phone they should buy. That is a really tough question to ask without knowing more about the person, their needs, their current carrier, and their willingness to dish out money for a new phone. All of that being said, I have tried to condense my own internal logic into a set of steps that other can use (or criticize) when making a phone purchase decision.

Step 1: Are you willing to abandon your carrier and change providers to get a new phone?
I usually start with this question. It greatly constrains the problem. For example, if you are a Sprint or Verizon customer and are unwilling to change, there isn’t a whole lot of choice for you — you are basically constrained to CDMA phones and shouldn’t even bother drooling over all of the cool GSM phones that you cannot buy. It also simplifies the search problem — just go to your provider’s website and look at the phones that they currently offer.

If you are willing to switch providers, things are a lot more interesting. I almost always encourage my CDMA-bound friends to switch to a GSM carrier as it greatly expands the number of handset options.

Step 2: What do you need your phone to do?

This is usually the other question that greatly constrains the problem. If you need a smartphone (and not everyone does), you should be looking at an entirely different set of phones than someone who is happy with a phone that simply makes calls and turns on/off. Do you really need a camera on your phone or are you getting one because everyone else tells you that you need one? Do you need a color screen? What about speakerphone? The ability to get numbers from a PC? These are all really basic questions to ask yourself to figure out what phone you should think about. For what it’s worth, I have put some basic guidance below:

“I need a smartphone” – I know I am a contrarian here, but I have a strong preference for Blackberries (especially 7100 series phones) over Treos and PocketPC devices. To be fair, if you buy any of the market-leading devices (Blackberry or Treo), you should be fine. Venture into the world of hPaq and Windows-powered devices at your own risk.

“I need a solid phone that makes calls and has a good antenna” – Buy Nokia. I don’t have much else to say.

“I like features and stuff, but don’t want a smart phone” – Samsung and LG are your best bets, really. Both companies make solid phones with many of the latest features (cameras, good screens, etc.) for reasonable prices.

“I like pretty packaging and don’t care a whole lot about UI or usability” – You are clearly a Motorola person. Okay, that was mean. But I think it’s true. The RAZR is beautiful on the outside but has that world-famous Motorola UI. I probably won’t buy another Motorola product until they bring back the StarTAC. That being said, their bluetooth headsets are awesome.

Step 3. What are you willing to spend?
This is usually the last question I ask. Why is it last? Because there are a ton of ways to get cool phones at less than retail price. First, if you are not up for a new contract or otherwise being wooed by your carrier, you won’t get great pricing buying the phone through them. I have bought 10 of my last 12 phones on eBay, which is great for two reasons. One, the pricing is really really competitive — you can get some great deals on anything but the latest phone. Second, you can buy unlocked phones, which is a huge plus when you go to sell it down the road. Often, I can find unlocked phones on eBay for the same price as the locked version from a carrier. You can also often find US-compatible phones that were released in Europe several months ago that are new to the United States but old hat to the person selling it. Good bargains abound here.

This obviously doesn’t tell you what phone to buy. But this is a simple decision tree to help you narrow down the field of choice. If, however, you want to expand the world of choice, here are the best places to get the latest scoop on new phones and devices:

http://www.phonescoop.com/
http://www.engadget.com
http://www.gizmodo.com
http://www.phonemag.com

There are tons of others. Those can get you started.