Dozens of phones come out every season, and most of them are very closely matched on features. There are a few stand-outs, so if you're in the market, we've got some recommendations.
iOS vs. Android vs. Windows Phone
We recommend Apple's iOS if you'd prefer a clean, polished UI and access to the most popular games and apps. We recommend Android as the best alternative, especially if you crave the faster data speeds of 4G networks, if you want more hardware choices, or if you require more customization and control over the inner workings of your handset. Windows Phone is still young and currently only installed on about 5 percent of smartphones, but it's a beautifully designed operating system. We expect big things from it — an OS refresh, better hardware and improved apps — in the coming year.
4G is a loose term for the fourth generation of cellular communications, offering speeds that are about 10 times faster than they are on third-generation, or 3G, networks. These higher data speeds are making smartphones much more comparable to PCs, giving them better multimedia capabilities and faster web browsing. They are also causing strains on phone batteries, since 4G requires more power. The iPhone doesn't connect to 4G networks yet, but all the top Android phones can take advantage of 4G.
Should I Wait for the New iPhone?
If this is your first iPhone or if you're at the end of a contract, then no, don't wait. If you want an iPhone, just buy one now and start using it and enjoying it today. Most iPhone users skip every other generation — anyone who bought the 3G most likely skipped the 3GS and bought a 4, and is now skipping the 4S and waiting for whatever's next. There's a pretty big jump in performance every two years (the length of your carrier contract) but it's not astronomical, so the phone you buy today will still be awesome in a year when the next one comes out. After two years, you'll be ready for a new iPhone, but you won't be truly hurting.
Though they were rare just 12 months ago, dual-core processors have quickly become commonplace, and will soon be replaced by quad-core processors. But that shift won't happen on a large scale for a while. Don't buy a phone without at least a dual-core chip. Likewise, don't settle for less than 1GB of RAM if you can help it. Corning's Gorilla Glass is the preferable touchscreen material for most smartphones — it's durable, scratchproof and shatterproof.
Android phones typically come with less on-board storage than iPhones, but most non-Apple devices use removable microSD cards for boosting capacity. You can buy the cards separately depending on your needs. Not so with Apple's sealed handset. Don't be afraid to spend extra on storage. Yes, cloud services like iCloud and Google Music that store your data off the phone are all the rage, but you're better off having the extra space and never running out than constantly banging your head against the ceiling.
If you take a lot of photos or shoot video, don't dip below 8MP for your camera. There are plenty of phones with 8MP cameras to choose from (some even come with two cameras, so you can shoot in 3-D).
The physical location of your home and your workplace are probably the biggest deciding factors in choosing a carrier. After that, look at cost — study up on data plans and what your typical monthly bill will look like. There are ways to reduce usage by offloading tasks like voice calls and text messages to third-party apps, but you'll still end up using a lot of data.
Start by asking your friends which plans they have, and what they typically use their phones for — do they mostly talk and text, or are they streaming music and browsing the web? Also, most carriers let you switch to higher or lower pricing tiers mid-contract. Pick what makes sense, then monitor your usage closely to see if there's a different tier that saves you money.
Photo by Ariel Zambelich/Wired