According to recent data, almost 70 per cent of American adults now own a smartphone. For many of us, the smartphone has become an essential tool of everyday life. We use it to text our kids, check our schedules, take pictures, surf the web – and even make the occasional phone call! Often, our smartphones are the first things we look for in the morning and the last things we put down at night.
But eventually, every smartphone needs to be replaced. Maybe the current plan has expired, or we want a bigger screen, or maybe the phone just gave up and died. Whatever the reason, it’s time look for something new. And if it’s going to be our constant companion for the next two years or more, then we better make the right choice.
Here are some tips on how to go about it.
Choose a carrier first
The first step to being happy with a smartphone is being happy with your carrier. You can have your heart set on an iPhone or a Samsung Galaxy S5 but if your home or office is in the wrong place on those carrier coverage maps, then your happiness with your new phone will quickly turn into frustration as calls are dropped and data transmission speeds slow to a crawl.
Ask friends and family in your area about their experiences with the major carriers. If you can, check what kind of reception their phones get in various areas of your home. Think about how much you travel and where. If you travel abroad, not all carriers have the same access to international networks.
Finally, make a note of the quality of customer service you receive as you check out phones and visit the stores. Having a store nearby with a friendly representative behind the counter can be a huge help as you try to get used to all the unfamiliar features on a new smartphone.
Choose an operating system
There are four main operating systems for smartphones: iOS (iPhone), Android, Windows Phone and BlackBerry OS. All of them are very different, with clear distinctions in how they handle basic functions such as e-mail and web browsing and how they integrate with other devices.
That last criteria is becoming increasingly important, as more data is stored in the cloud and users constantly switch between smartphones, tablets and PCs. If you are a Mac user for example, it might be far easier to own an iPhone, so your contacts, photos, music and more are automatically synced as you switch between devices. Similarly, a heavy user of Google Docs may find it much easier to work with the Android mobile device.
While it’s quite possible to switch between operating systems, developing your own personal tech ecosystem has enormous benefits and it can make a lot of sense to invest in a single unified platform.
Choose a model
Now comes the fun part. For some people, choosing an individual smartphone is all about screen size; for others, it’s all about the camera. Whether you like to watch last night’s TV shows during your lunch hour or you are a compulsive smartphone photographer, make sure the smartphone you choose is going to satisfy your needs. If you want to enhance your photos with 3D effects or use your phone as a remote, keep looking until you find what you want. There’s nothing worse than being stuck with a phone that doesn’t do what you want it to do.
As well as getting recommendations from friends, do a little research. The carriers’ web sites will list all available phones, including their various features and any special deals. Don’t be afraid to visit Consumer Reports or some of the consumer tech sites like CNET. They review phones in terms that non-techies can understand and will often include straight-up comparisons between similar phones from different manufacturers or service providers.
Choose a plan
Once you have identified your preferred carrier and the phone you like, it’s time to select a plan. While this is slowly becoming less intimidating, setting up the right plan now requires you to estimate your data consumption, which can vary wildly depending from person to person.
Use the online and in-store support of your chosen carrier to guide you. There are also some useful online Data Calculators that can help you estimate data usage. They will break down your expected usage between e-mail, web-surfing, music or movie downloads, and more.
Whether you have an individual plan or are part of a family plan, make sure your monthly data allowance is sufficient, so you don’t incur those costly overage charges. Set up e-mail or text notifications as you hit data usage milestones, so you know where you are on your monthly plan. If you are likely to go over your plan, most carriers will allow you to adjust retroactively to minimize the cost.
Check for extras
Before you sign on the dotted line, make sure you understand the total commitment of the contract and what extra fees could be incurred. If you want to get out of the contract, is there an early termination fee? What if you wanted to upgrade to a different phone or add a line? What are the roaming charges and what happens if you go overseas?
Finally, all providers are required to give you a grace period – usually 14 days – during which you can return the phone for a refund. Don’t be afraid to do just that, if the phone or service doesn’t meet your expectations.
Depending on your comfort with electronics, finding the right smartphone can be fun or it can be a chore. But if you do it the right way, it’s something you will only have to think about once every couple of years.