What is a Smartphone?
Without boring you with the history, there are basically two types of modern cell phones: Feature Phones and Smartphones. Feature phones have a basic feature set covering calling, texting, and a low resolution camera. Some add features such as music players or slide out qwerty keyboards, but as a general rule a feature phone is limited in what it can do and limited on its ability to extend its functionality. On the other hand a smart phone is like a mixture of the now archaic PDA and a cell phone. They are basically a pocket computer. The standard feature set for most modern smartphones includes a large touchscreen display, installable applications, 5+ megapixel camera, email, web browsing, 3G or 4G data (more on this later), media player capabilities, and the ability to install additional apps. All of this in addition to the basic phone functionality which seems to have become more of an afterthought these days.
What to look for in a Phone?
I will now give a rundown of the different hardware elements of smartphones and give a summary of what is considered high end and what is passable.
Screen: The most important screen specifications can be divided into 3 catagories: Size, resolution, and screen type.
- Size - Most phones have a screen size that falls somewhere in the range of 3.5" (iPhone 4) to 4.5" (Samsung Infuse). This size is measured diagonally from one corner to the opposite corner. Some phone have smaller screens but I really would not recommend them. My wife has an iPhone and it is about as small of a screen as I could imagine having a pleasant web browsing experience with. 4" (Motorolla Atrix, Samsung Galaxy S, Droid 3) is generally considered the sweet spot. Not too big to be bulky in your pocket and not so small that typing and browsing on the touchscreen is difficult. If you don't mind a little extra bulk 4.3" in my opinoin is the way to go (HTC Evo, Thunderbolt, Inspire, Motorola Droid X). Screens smaller than 4" seem to be going out of style and can mostly now be found on lower end phones, phones with slide out keyboards, and the iPhone. Summary: High End - 4.3+" Mid Range- 4" Low-End - 3.7" or less
- Resolution - This is one area where there is not a lot of variance. Screen resolution measures the number of pixels the screen has, generally shown as height x width. Generally the more pixels the better as with more pixels your images and text will be sharper and more can fit on your screen. The standard seems to be the WVGA resolution which is 800 x 480 px. Some new high end phones have a qHD resolution which is 960 x 540 px. A few manufacturers use special resolutions such as FWVGA (854 x 480) on certain Motorolla phones, or Apple's special retina display with a resolution of 960 x 640. One additional factor that may matter to some is pixel density which effects the sharpness of your image. It is basically a ratio of how many pixels per square inch. The magic behind Apple's Retina display is that the pixel density is very high, given that the screen is only 3.5" and the resolution (960 x 640) is pretty much the highest resolution you can find on a phone. The makes for a very high pixel density, so high that Apple claims the individual pixels are packed so tight that the are indistinguishable with the naked eye. Summary: High End - qHD 960x540 px, Mid Range - WVGA 800x480 px. I do not recommend any phone with a resolution lower than WVGA.
- Screen Type - This is where things get a bit more complicated so I won't go too in depth here. Just know that different phones have different screen types such as Samsung's Super AMOLED Plus which is known for very vivid colors and high contrast. I highly recommend Samsung's displays, they just look awesome. Other high end screen types include Super LCD and IPS. Summary: Super AMOLED is awesome.
Battery: Battery slife is also hard to tell from the spec sheet. Batteries are measured in mAh (milliampere hours) and the higher the number the more juice in the battery. One benefit of getting a phone with a larger screen is that the manufacturer has more room to fit a big battery in the phone with a lot of juice. However just because a phone has a larger battery does not necessarily mean that it will get longer battery life. A larger screen will use up more battery than a smaller screen, 4G data will use up your battery faster than 3G or wifi data, and older generation processors or ones with higher clock speeds will drain your battery faster than newer more efficient processors or ones at lower clock speeds. Anandtech has very good smartphone reviews that include a table showing battery performance for each phone they review, and is a good place to look to compare battery life of various phones. 4 hours (Droid X, Nexus S) is about average for battery life when browsing on 3G, while 5 hours is good(Atrix), and 6+ is very good (HTC Sensation and iPhone 4). Summary: High End- 6 hours, ~1900 mAh, Mid Range - 4 hours ~1500 mAh, Low - 3 hours ~1300 mAh
Data Speed - A phone's data speed is normally specified as 3G (3rd generation) or 4G (4th generation), although these specifications are not very specific. However it is true that across the board the mores Gs the better. Different cellular networks have different technologies they use to implement their 3G and 4G networks. While most 3G networks have similar speeds (.5-1.5mbps) despite their different technologies, there is huge variance is "4G" data speeds due to varying definitions of what is really 4G. Currently the fastest 4G is verizons LTE network which they are rolling out to more and more markets throughout 2011. I have seen reviews showing average speeds of 13mbps download speeds over Verizon's LTE network. That is pretty amazing. This may be due to the low traffic volume on this network due to the relatively new technology, so these speeds may slow down a bit as adoption increases. ATT and T-Mobile use HSPA+ for their 4G data, which has impressive theoretical bandwidth (up to 42mbps), but from what I have seen average about 2-4mbps in practice. Sprint's WiMax fairs a little better averaging around 4-6mbps. Summary: High End - 4G LTE, Mid Range - 4G WiMax or HSPA+, Low End- 3G
RAM - Ram is a pretty straightforward category. RAM is a measure of how much space the phone has to store information on what it is doing right now. With more RAM you can have more things going on without your phone slowing down as it transfers data from long term to short term storage. When it comes to RAM, the more the better. Some high end phones have 1GB of ram while it seems that 768MB is becoming the high end standard these days. The minimum for a relatively modern high end phone is 512MB and should be plenty for most people. Summary: High End - 768MB-1GB, Mid Range - 512MB, Low End - 256MB or Lower
Processor - The processor effects how fast your phone runs through menus and applications, as well as the smoothness of 3D graphics and video playback. Things can get kind of complicated when comparing processors across different manufacturers. There are basically 4 big players in the marketplace right now. Qualcomm (Snapdragon), Samsung (Hummingbird), Texas Instruments (OMAP), and nVidia (Tegra). It can be confusing because processors with the same clock speed can have a lot of variance in performance. For example the Qualcomm Snapdragon 8650 is a 1GHz processor paired with Adreno 200 graphics. The Samsung Hummingbird is also a 1GHz processor paired with SGX 540 Graphics but it generally performs much better than the Snapdragon 8650. However the Snapdragon 8655 is an updated processor paired with Adreno 205 graphics and performs just as good, if not better than the hummingbird processor at similar clock speeds. For more general comparability, all these processors are based on ARM's Cortex architecture. Most single core processors are based on the Cortex A8 architecture and will have comparable performance at the same clock speeds across manufacturers. The dual core processors based on the Cortex A9 architecture are more efficient, thus using less power, while performing faster. Summary: High - Cortex A9 based processors, nVidia Tegra 2, Snapdragon 8660, TI-OMAP 4, Samsung Exynos, Apple A5, Medium - Samsung Hummingbird, Snapdragon 8655, Apple A4, Snapdragon 8650, TI-OMAP 3, Low - Other
Other - Other features like wifi, which is pretty much 802.11n across the board, do not vary much from phone to phone so there isn't much to say about them.
That is the basic run down of what to look for in a phone these days. Let me know if there is any more information you would like to see. Thanks for reading!