Buying Guides

How to pick a cell phone

Picking the right cell phone has as much to do with personality as it does with needs. Handsets vary from the feature-rich and slickly styled to the strictly functional and unassuming. Ultimately, though, it's a personal choice, and you'll want to buy a handset that is right for you, one that you'll enjoy using and carrying around. And while there are many factors to consider, it all boils down to which handset will offer the best blend of design, features, and performance.


Each design has its unique characteristics, so you'll want to think carefully about which is best for you.

10 key cell phone features

1. Organizer functions: Even the most basic handsets offer organizer features. Typically, you'll find a calendar, an alarm clock, a stopwatch, and a calculator. Higher-end handsets will have many more options, while other models will offer offbeat applications such as a compass or a thermometer.

2. Calling features: Consider how many contacts you can store. Voice dialing lets you make calls without using the keypad, which is particularly handy when you're on a headset or if you're using the speakerphone. Speaker-independent voice dialing is best, since the phone will respond to your voice without any training. Also, get a unit with a full-duplex speakerphone, which allows both parties to speak at the same time. Many smartphones also offer dual mics for active noise canceling to dampen background din.

3. Web browser: This lets you surf the wireless Web and get information such as news and sports recaps, weather reports, and stock quotes. It also lets you download files including games and ringtones. WAP (Wireless Access Protocol) browsers are optimized to view sites configured to display on small, mobile devices but keep in mind that not all sites are made for WAP browsing. On the other hand, most higher-end phones have full HTML browsers, which, when combined with a large display, rival the desktop browsing experience. You can even use some phones as tethered modems and wireless hot spots for Wi-Fi devices, but this isn't a universal feature and carriers typically charge more for this ability.

4. Messaging and e-mail: Text messages send text only, and multimedia messages send pictures and videos as well as text. Some handsets support instant messaging from services such as AOL and Yahoo. If you'd like to receive personal or work e-mail on your handset, make sure it supports this feature. Most handsets that support e-mail use a Web interface for accessing your inbox, which can be clunky, but smartphones and high-end devices such as iOS, Android, and Windows Phone models can sync e-mail automatically with your server. Messaging and e-mail cost extra, however, so purchase a data plan if you'll be using these features frequently.

5. Camera and video recorder: Use them for taking pictures and shooting brief video clips. A few models still have a low-grade VGA resolution, but most camera phones now have resolutions of 3 megapixels or more, which offer much better photo quality. Similarly, modern phone camcorders offer at least 720p HD video recording with some boasting full 1080p HD resolution. Other quality features to look for include a flash, editing options, plus extras like face detection, panorama modes, and swift shot-to-shot performance.

6. Memory: For the best experience with a multimedia phone, make sure your phone has plenty of storage space (an external memory card slot is best).

7. Push-to-talk: This is a walkie-talkie-like service that lets you immediately connect with individuals or call groups, which is especially useful for business users who need instant contact with their colleagues. Best of all, you don't need a cell signal to use them and you won't use standard calling minutes. Not all carriers offer this feature, however, and it's not available on all phones.

8. Bluetooth: This feature lets you wirelessly connect via low-frequency radio waves with external devices, such as a headset for making calls. Many phones also allow you to use Bluetooth to exchange or sync data with other Bluetooth devices or to connect to stereo headphones to listen to music.

9. Multimedia options: Some features to look for include a digital music player and an FM radio. Also, many phones now support streaming video through 3G wireless broadband networks, live TV, and wireless music downloads.

10. Applications and games: Though every cell phone supports games, not every model comes with integrated titles. In that case, you'll have to buy them for a few dollars a pop and your selection will change by carrier and software your handset uses. Extra applications are available depending on your phone model and your carrier. The iPhone supports a wide range of third-party applications through the App Store, as do Android and Windows Phone via their Google Play and Xbox Live stores. Carriers sell software, too.