Roundup: Smartphone Gift Guide | Product Reviews

29 11 2009

Roundup: Smartphone Gift Guide

 Buying a Smartphone? Here’s What You Need to Know

Choosing a cell phone isn’t a simple cut-and-dried process anymore. Yes, they still make and receive calls. But now they’re also dynamic, multifaceted communication tools too. Here are some points to digest before investing in your next calling / texting / surfing / tweeting powerhouse.

What Are Your Carrier Options?

Don’t be fooled, there is no perfect wireless carrier. Since hardware exclusivity agreements are en vogue, it’s entirely possible the phone of your dreams won’t be available on your network of choice. That said, let’s have a look at the four main options:

Coverage Map


AT&T offers a solid nationwide voice network, but its high-speed data coverage is notoriously spotty. Despite this, AT&T remains one of the more accommodating carriers for overseas travelers.

Coverage Map
Exclusive all-star: iPhone 3GS
Hidden perk: Sells cheap iPhone refurbs (with warranty!) through the website.
On the horizon: Forthcoming 4G data network (LTE)

Coverage Map


Sprint is known for its speedy data network, lax credit requirements, push-to-talk offerings and passable voice network. Overall handset selection and customer service ratings haven’t been the company’s high point, though.

Coverage Map
Exclusive all-stars: Palm Pre, HTC Hero
Hidden perk: Roaming agreements with Verizon means extra coverage on certain plans.
On the horizon: Forthcoming 4G data network (WiMax)

Coverage Map


German-based T-Mobile positions itself as the cost leader in the wireless game. Setbacks like smaller voice and data networks are offset by cheaper calling plans, compelling handsets, overseas support and high customer satisfaction ratings.

Coverage Map
Exclusive all-stars: Motorola Cliq, T-Mobile G1
Hidden perk: Offers contractless calling plans for consumers who already own compatible hardware.
On the horizon: More network expansion

Coverage Map


Verizon prides itself on voice and data coverage, but it comes at a price. Lackluster handset offerings, limited overseas-ready handsets and pricey calling plans are the norm.

Coverage Map
Exclusive all-stars: Motorola Droid, Blackberry Storm
Hidden perk: Online phone purchases often offer instant rebates instead of mail-ins.
On the horizon: Forthcoming 4G data network (LTE)

Basic Features

You can hardly throw a Treo without hitting a cellphone user. So, it’s likely you already have a handle on universal goodies like caller ID, speakerphone and voicemail. Here are four oft-overlooked features worth considering.

OS: Operating systems have become a new battleground for phone shoppers. In short, the OS is the way you leverage a phone’s speed, capabilities and ultimate usability. Budget handsets often ignore this completely by putting a drab, utilitarian menu system in place. In contrast, Apple and Google have released the polished, full-featured iPhone and Android OSes respectively. Nokia’s Symbian, RIM’s Blackberry OS, Palm’s WebOS and Microsoft’s Windows Mobile are noteworthy as well, if less polished and user-friendly. Each OS has its good and bad points, but ultimately there’s an operating system out there for everyone.

Entry mode: Virtual keyboards, QWERTY keypads and everything in between appear on handsets now. Before choosing a device, consider how its entry mode(s) will affect your usage. Are you heavy texter or e-mailer? The speed and accuracy of a physical QWERTY may be the way to go. Want quick, seamless access to your calendar, music and pics? Stylishly whisking around on a touchscreen might suit you better.

Messaging: The question is simple: How would you like to connect with your contacts? If voice and text are all you need, then the choices are myriad. Advanced messaging services like IM, e-mail and even Facebook and Twitter have become common too, but they tend to be more common on advanced handsets. The right phone can be as much (or as little) of a communication hub as you’d like.

Multimedia: Even basic phones moonlight as an MP3 players and digital cameras now. In searching for a phone, consider the multimedia capabilities you’d like crammed in. High megapixel counts, video streaming and capture capabilities, as well as beefed-up memory can pump up even a ho-hum handset (and minimize the number of gadgets you have to carry).


Now that you’ve taken care of the core concerns, it’s time to think about the goodies. Before chasing the most expensive, feature-filled handset on the market, consider what extras you’ll actually need and which ones you’ll find handy down the road in your contract.

Wi-Fi: Sure, it’s not nearly as widespread as 3G. Wi-Fi is still the gold standard of extra features. Not only is it faster than 3G, but it’s easy to connect and hotspots are everywhere.

3G: Most budget handsets don’t offer this high-speed data standard. But, if web surfing is something you’ll only occasionally do, you’ll want a 3G-capable phone. Trust us, the fleet-footed download speeds are worth it.

E-mail: Extending your inbox has never been easier. Even budget handsets offer rudimentary web-based options, while upscale devices sport dedicated e-mail support and push updates from multiple inboxes.

App stores: Want to transform your phone into a gaming system, night light or pedometer? Then you want access to downloadable apps. Phones running software from Apple, Palm, RIM and Android all offer options. Tread carefully, though: Not all apps are created equal. Apple’s app store has far more selection than any others, with more than 100,000 apps. The Android store is No. 2 with 12,000. While selection isn’t everything (do you really need 42 different “pull my finger” apps?), it does make a difference — the more apps in a store, the more likely it is to have what you want.

GPS: Newer, faster alternatives to traditional GPS are turning phones into navigation powerhouses. Though services like aGPS are reliant on network coverage, finding a handset with the feature is often cheaper and more convenient than buying a standalone GPS unit.

Wired’s Top Picks

Blackberry Curve 8900

Business: Blackberry Curve 8900

The Curve is one of RIM’s best productivity workhorses with a (thankfully) revamped HTML browser. However, the retro OS/processor pairing puts a damper on multimedia playback.

Runners up:
Palm Pre
HTC myTouch

Motorola Droid

Multimedia: Motorola Droid
The newest flagship phone from Google’s Android army sports lightning fast access to music, pics, web and messaging. The only roadblock is the clunky (and unnecessary!) keyboard.

Runners up:
iPhone 3GS
Sony Ericson C905a

Palm Centro

Budget: Palm Centro
The Centro is cheap and hardly sexy. But, it makes up for that with reliability and stable performance.

Runners up:
Samsung Alias 2
Nokia E71x

Product Photos: Jon Snyder


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