You're probably already familiar with the typical cell phone plan—get your phone through a major carrier like AT&T or Verizon, and get locked into a multi-year plan with a monthly bill, often in exchange for a steep discount on your phone. These plans have their benefits, but being tied down isn't for everyone. Not to worry, you have other options: no-contract cell phones and unlocked cell phones.
On the one hand, signing up for a contract has its perks: you always know what your monthly payment will be, and you'll probably get a steep discount on a new smartphone if you renew. However, if keeping up with the latest and greatest smartphones doesn't interest you, and you don't use enough data to justify a steep monthly bill, no-contract cell phones will likely save you money in the long run.
Sure, you'll have to pay full retail for your phone upfront, but you may end up saving more over the course of several years. With many no-contract smartphones, you pay ahead of time for minutes (like talking and texting) and data (think email and Web browsing), so you're only paying for what you'll actually use instead of a blanket fee whether you use your smartphone two hours a day or two hours a week.
This can be especially beneficial for parents hoping to moderate their family's phone usage; by purchasing minutes and data upfront, the kids won't be able to go over their allotment—once those minutes are gone, they're gone.
GOOD FOR: People who want a phone on hand for convenience and emergencies, but don't use it enough to justify a multi-year contract; those who don't care about upgrading their phone every year or two; parents looking to moderate their kids' phone time.
Purchasing an unlocked phone is similar to a no-contract smartphone in that you'll pay more upfront for the phone itself, while saving money in the long run. The people who benefit most from unlocked smartphones are frequent travelers, particularly those who take international trips from time to time. If you're on a regular phone plan, international usage is very expensive, but unlocked phones have no roaming charges. You can use an unlocked phone in your hometown, across the country, or across the ocean without worrying about racking up unnecessary fees just for checking your email or phoning home.
Unlocked phones will generally give you a wide range of network options while also making it easy to switch networks without termination fees. However, there's a catchâbecause different carriers operate on different bands and frequencies, the unlocked smartphone model you want may not be compatible with the fastest LTE speeds. You might be stuck with 3G or even 2G speeds, so if you're planning on using a lot of data, that's something to keep in mind.
There are other benefits to having an unlocked phone; because it operates on a SIM card, it's easy to replace should your phone become damaged. And, if you do decide to upgrade eventually, unlocked phones generally have higher resale values, so you might get some of your initial investment back.
GOOD FOR: Frequent travelers, particularly international travelers; those who aren't planning on using a lot of data and don't need to rely on the fastest speeds; users who like having the option to sell their phone in the event they want to upgrade.
Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint, AT&T, Tracfone—these are just a few of the options for cell phone service providers in the United States. Which one should you go with? Well, that depends on your phone priorities. Do you want the fastest possible speeds or the lowest possible bill? Want to meet somewhere in the middle? Here's what you should keep in mind when looking at cell phone providers:
To get you started, here are the coverage maps for Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint, AT&T, and Tracfone, but these are far from the only available carriers—keep searching until you find one in your area that meets all of your requirements for mobile phones! This is perhaps the most important part of your cell phone plan comparison, because a phone that doesn't work in your area won't be helpful no matter how reasonable the cost.
You're probably used to your computer's operating system, whether you prefer the familiarity of Windows, intuitive features of OS X, freedom of Linux, or connectivity of Chrome. Well, much like PCs, smartphones come with operating systems of their own, and they're a big part of how you'll interact with your device. There's no right or wrong mobile operating system; it's all about which one's features best suit your style.
While there are more than three mobile operating systems in existence, iOS, Android, and Windows are the big three you're most likely to encounter.
Android is most notable for being an open-source system with tons of customization options, giving you lots of freedom and versatility. Android phones also utilize widgets, which let you add more functionality to existing programs so you don't have to keep going from app to app.
Unlike Apple's iOS, which is fairly consistent from model to model, the Android mobile operating system may vary from phone to phone. That's because it's available on devices from a wide range of manufacturers, and as such, each likes to put its own spin on the OS.
GOOD FOR: Tech-savvy mobile users desiring a fully customizable, open OS; users who enjoy having the latest phone models; those looking for the familiarity and reliability of Google's services.
Apple's iOS has come a long way since the iPhone launched in 2007. With the launch of iOS 8 in the fall of 2014, this incredibly intuitive mobile operating system has added even more functionality to once-basic things like messages, the search function, and multi-device synchronicity, to name just a few updates.
At its core, iOS is a user-friendly interface for Apple phones, with an app store boasting over 1.3 million apps. There are also plenty pre-loaded on all Apple cell phones, including tools for organization and productivity. The simple drag-and-drop folder system lets you organize your interface in whatever way you see fit, and having Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and flashlight controls just a swipe away is super convenient. And with the ability to send messages and make FaceTime calls over Wi-Fi or cellular, you'll never be lacking in ways to keep in touch.
Be wary if you're planning on picking up an older iPhone, though; iOS 7 and newer versions of Apple's OS can run poorly on older models, particularly the iPhone 4S and earlier. And if you've got a bunch of games and notification-heavy apps, those constant pop-ups can get a little annoying, not to mention a chore to manage.
GOOD FOR: Users of other Apple devices, particularly Mac computers and iPads; people who want an easy-to-use smartphone; those looking for the biggest variety of apps.
Windows Phone Pros:
Windows Phone Cons:
There's plenty to love about the Windows Phone operating system. For one thing, it puts pertinent information—social media updates, messages, email—right on the home screen in customizable, animated tiles. And let's not underestimate the familiarity aspect—on top of being the most widely used PC OS, Windows is compatible with Microsoft Office programs and comes with mobile versions of the apps.
As you might expect, you'll find another advantage to Windows cell phones if you also use Windows computers, because the mobile OS can communicate seamlessly with other Windows devices. And SkyDrive compatibility makes it easy to save files to the cloud and access them from anywhere and any device.
However, there's a downside—the app store on Windows phones is very limited when compared to iOS and Android. You'll find all the basics there, like social media apps, but if mobile gaming and the most up-to-date app store are important features to you, you'll find Windows Phone lacking. And though the Cortana voice-activated personal assistant is a neat feature, using Bing and Bing Maps as default search engines and GPS services might have you missing Google.
GOOD FOR: Windows PC users; those who frequently access Microsoft Office programs; users who like the idea of a customizable home screen loaded with useful information.
Now that you have a general idea of what you're looking for in a smartphone, there are still a few other factors to consider. Since smartphones offer so much more than simple means of communications, these features might be a game-changer or deal-breaker for you—or might not affect your choice at all, depending on what you need for day-to-day life. Nonetheless, here are a few more things to think about when making a smartphone comparison.
There's more to consider than just the on-board memory, however. If the smartphone has a memory card slot, you can expand the memory yourself with a memory card. Cloud storage can also help keep your files safe and accessible while clearing up some memory.
Whether you prefer a large or small display, you probably want your cell phone to be light, thin, and sleek. Most popular phones on the market meet these requirements, but take a close look at the dimensions of any model you're considering.