To Smartphone, or Not to Smartphone?

12/01/2010 07:08 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

My wife decided she wanted to upgrade her dinosaur cell phone (festooned with an exterior antenna) to a "smartphone" and enlisted my help. Initially, we ran into the brick wall of decisions smartphone shoppers frequently face: How to choose among the hundreds of available phones, pick the right service provider and predict which calling and data plan and other available options would best fit her needs without breaking the bank?

Here are a few things we learned on our journey:

What's a smartphone? These all-in-one devices generally let you: send and receive phone calls and text, email and instant messages; surf the Internet; shoot photos and video; manage and synch-up your calendar; run applications such as weather and traffic conditions, games, social networking (e.g., Facebook), and maps; play music and video files and much more. It's almost like having a 5-inch computer in your pocket.

Reception. Reception in your home, commute and work is a critical component when choosing a service provider. Unfortunately, signal strength, data download speed and other factors can vary significantly from block to block.

Ask friends and neighbors how pleased they are with their service. Also, remember carriers offer a grace period (generally 30 days) before an early plan termination fee kicks in, so try out all features extensively wherever you plan to use the phone.

No apples to apples. Many variables complicate the selection process, including:

  • Some models are only available with particular service providers. For example, Apple's iPhone only works with AT&T -- although that's rumored to be changing in 2011.
  • U.S. wireless carriers operate using one of two different, incompatible voice and data transmission networks: AT&T and T-Mobile use Global System for Mobile Communication (GSM) technology, while Sprint, Verizon and others use Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA). This can make it difficult to switch carriers without having to buy a new phone, unless your old phone has a removable Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) card that's compatible with the new phone.
  • Smartphones use a mobile operating system (OS), similar in principle to those that run computers. Among the more common platforms are Google's Android (or "Droid"), Blackberry, iOS (Apple), Symbian (Nokia), webOS (Palm) and Windows Mobile.
  • Most smartphones use some variation of the standard "QWERTY" computer keyboard, either as a touch screen (like the iPhone) or as raised keys located below the main display or on a slide-out keyboard. Some models now offer both. Key size, spacing and sensitivity vary widely, so try several types for comfort and ease of operation, especially if you have large hands.
  • Screen size, handset shape, weight and battery life vary considerably, so visit carrier showrooms or an electronics store to compare phones, even if you end up purchasing online. Ask to make a few test calls and evaluate sound quality at both ends.
  • If you want to receive work emails and open documents, make sure the OS is compatible with your employer's system and that you will be allowed to access your work network.

Cost considerations. Although smartphones can be pricey -- often several hundred dollars, depending on model and memory capacity -- to determine the true cost of ownership you must factor in how much you'll pay over time for a standard two-year carrier contract. Depending on whether you opt for limited or unlimited plans for voice minutes, text messaging and Internet data transfer, you could rack up $80 to $150 a month or more in operating costs.

Other expenses to consider include: accessories (vehicle charger, wireless Bluetooth earpiece, home charging dock and external memory card); various monthly plan taxes and fees; software applications such as ring tones, games, on-demand TV or radio, GPS navigation; additional fees for international calls; and replacement insurance.

Here are a few more online resources that may help you decide:

As for my wife, in the end a friend let her borrow an LG Ally and now she's hooked. The Ally is sleek, powerful and runs Google's Android. Now I've got phone envy.

This article is intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a legal, tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to you and about your individual financial situation.

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