Have you ever been involved in the timeless debate over which smart phone is better than the next? Do you often wonder why some people prefer one phone over another, regardless of technological advancements, ease of use or other standard measures of quality? After years of constant debates, I believe I am close to a general understanding.
Ultimately, most people can be categorized into one of three groups when considering the implementation of smart phone technology. These groups, in general, are as follows:
- Casual Users
- Average Users
- Power Users
Depending on which group you fall into, your goals and ambitions for your smart phone purchase could vary greatly, and these personal preferences will ultimately slant any argument over which phone is “better”. The very idea of “better” is a subjective concept, and once you understand your goals for the technology you can better engage in a thoughtful discussion regarding which smart phone is right for you.
THE CASUAL USER
Ok, grandpa – so you’ve decided to get a smart phone. Good for you! Your entry into 2014 is welcomed with open arms – claim your technological independence and start calling or texting your grandkids, right away!
You might not use your phone for games, business applications or advanced functionality, and you may never know the joy of ordering your phone to follow specific commands (“Siri, remind me to order pizza when I leave work!”) or perform trivial aggregation of information (“Siri, how many feet are in a mile?” or “Siri, what is 1,542 times six?”), but your decision to venture into the current technology is a huge personal leap and you plan to make the most of it by keeping in touch with your loved ones and figuring out what the hell those stupid emojis mean.
Hell, you might even download a news or weather app to deliver some up-to-the-minute, practical information which might actually improve your daily life! I’m not here to speculate. Bottom line – look for whatever fancy phone your provider is offering for FREE when you renew your service plan, and don’t sweat the details. They can all call and text, so you’ll be perfectly satisfied (and possibly confounded) by the technology… Regardless of which brand or model you go with.
THE AVERAGE USER
Look at you, you technological badass…. You finally gave up that flip phone or (God forbid) Blackberry and decided to join us in this new digital age. Welcome to the club! You will probably use your phone to surf the web, download a few case-specific apps and maybe a game or two. Hell, you might even discover Pandora or Shazam and let your musical imagination run wild! Regardless, it would be no surprise if you also used your device to check your various social media accounts, process e-mails, manage your online banking and other such tasks. We commend you on your new-found embrace of technology, and we look forward to your imminent assimilation….
For the average user, the mere fact you are holding a miniaturized computer in your hand (which far exceeds anything you had ever seen in high school) is incredible enough on face value, and the mere excitement resulting from the overwhelming power at your fingertips is more than you had ever hoped to achieve in your lifetime. From time to time you might use your maps application to find a local restaurant or navigate to a client. You will communicate with the world like never before, browse the web on-demand wherever you go and possibly even discover some useful apps which make your life easier and more efficient.
At the end of the day, the average user does not concern themselves with the specific technological nuances of each device, and would be excessively happy with almost any front-running smart phone on the market. If you start with an Apple product, you will love Apple products – if you start with a Samsung product, you will love Samsung products. In some cases, your service provider may be deficient in their data network availability, or some app might not work as well as you would like and you might immediately condemn your smart phone for not being “smart enough”. In most cases, anecdotal evidence and the experiences of your friends will be enough to inform your overall opinion of your device as a useful (or not) piece of technology.
Check for whatever upgrade deals are available from your service carrier, and make sure you pay the discounted contract renewal rate for your new smart phone – you will probably pay a little money out-of-pocket to avoid winding up with a budget “dummy” phone, but for a small investment you will be perfectly content (for awhile) with any front-runner you choose (Apple, Samsung, HTC, etc).
In many cases, a certain “fan boy” syndrome will occur which causes some individuals to endorse their particular smart phone without regard to objective facts or empirical evidence – this is to be expected, and in some extreme cases it is completely futile to engage in thoughtful debate with these particular users. For that matter, there is no logical reason to engage these users, save the fact that some average users can easily develop into power users with a minimal amount of device-specific or general smart-phone education. Sometimes an average user will erroneously point to a flaw in a particular platform, prior to researching what the actual issue might be – for this reason, it is often important to research and double-check any information provided by a casual third party, regarding the usage or limitations of any smart phone. Remember – Google is your friend!
THE POWER USER
Now we come to the nitpicky bastards who criticize every decision and expect nothing but the technological best from any carrier or smart phone provider. Power users tend to research heavily any decision, and rely on statistic and empirical evidence (rather than anecdotal references) to build informed opinions.
Power users love raw data, and absorb as much as possible (whether it be from online reviews, public studies or other researched information) – we carefully dissect each review to separate opinion from fact, and we consider an array of logic when determining which specifications are most crucial to our own specific needs. Power users will use their phone for business management, data research, security, e-mails, phone calls and conferencing, video calls, social networking, mapping, purchasing movie tickets, booking travel accommodations, professional photography, translating documents and so much more!
For the power user, screen resolution, camera quality, processing speeds, RAM volume, ease of use and other such comparisons are critical, and subtle advancements could sometimes mean the difference when deciding between two different platforms. If you find yourself in this category, you should consider researching as many tech reviews as possible (as well as reviewing as much real-world user feedback as possible) to form a more well-rounded opinion (rooted in fact) prior to your purchase. Selecting between the major smart phone providers will be crucial, as the current front runners (Apple and Samsung) provide strikingly different products, considering the overwhelming similarities.
If should be noted, of course, that power users are equally susceptible to the dreaded “fan boy” syndrome, and will often latch onto their chosen platform as if their meager life depended on it. Any true power user will do their own research, and perform the necessary field studies to determine if their next device is the proper device for their individual situation.
These three groups represent the majority of smart phone users in the current market. The first step is identifying which group you belong to (ahem, Dad) and then proceeding accordingly. When you consider the question of “which smart phone is the best?”, perhaps start framing it in the context of “which smart phone is best for me?” This will provide a more relevant direction when it comes time to make the actual purchase, and prevent you from over-purchasing or under-purchasing. Which smart phone you select is not a minor decision – you will probably be using it for the next year (or longer) and the cost is often significant, these days… Make sure you are buying something you need and want, and try to visualize how you will actually be using the device – keep in mind, however, that advancements in technology are happening so quickly these days, and you probably can’t even envision most of the cool things your phone can do for you at this point. Do your homework (I know we all hate that word) and, in this particular case, you won’t regret it.
SO WHAT SHOULD I LOOK FOR WHEN BUYING MY NEXT PHONE?
Here are some physical and abstract features that may or may not matter to you, depending on which category you find yourself in:
THE DIGITAL CAMERA
Although I come from a family of traditional shutterbugs (the ol’ 35mm “expose and develop” system), my wife is by far the most prolific photographer I have ever met…. Having been raised on the crest of the digital photography boom, I have never known her to be without a digital camera by her side – she not only takes more pictures than anybody I know, she also has the courtesy to organize, upload and share those digital photo collections with all who desire to partake! During the early days of smart phone technology, we had our phones and we had our digital cameras; sure, we could always use our phones in a pinch to take a photo, but this was never the ideal option. Instead, when it came time to record our digital memories, we always opted to pull out the rather heavy “purse brick” that was her digital camera. In our experience, the shift happened at the inception of the iPhone 4S phone model – with the upgraded phone and software, the ability to take digital photos on our smart phones finally rivaled that of the particular digital camera we had, at the time. For us, this was a game changer.
Since the time of the iPhone 4S, there have been multiple iterations of the iPhone (as well as the Galaxy equivalent) with ever-increasing digital photography capabilities. Manufacturers have clamored to add more pixels into every shot, taken through lenses which have become increasingly complex and desirable – operating systems and associated software have become smarter and more efficient, allowing for a wide range of photo and exposure control (complete with a wide range of post-processing effects)… It has now been many years since my wife has carried a digital camera in her purse, and we live in a time where high frame rate HD video quality is possible on many advanced smart phones – I can pretty much guarantee at this point you will be happy with damn near any camera on any of the major front-runners in the smart phone world. If digital photography is extremely important to you, look into phones which may be less advanced in other areas, but which focus all of their attention to detail on the camera functionality – there have been some models over the years from HTC which included some of the most advanced digital cameras I have seen in a smart phone device.
PROCESSOR SPEED AND RAM SIZE
Your processor speed is indeed an important factor, as is RAM (you RAM allows you to load more programs and to load them faster, while processing speed determines how quickly those programs will run, once they have been launched) – while these features can easily be compared on most phone models, the factor than most people never consider is the efficiency of the software and operating systems which the hardware is intended for. Traditionally, Apple iPhones have been able to operate more efficiently with less RAM – by limiting developer controls and software behaviors and through strict operating quality guidelines, they can generally guarantee the software running on their phones is going to run great with the provided hardware.
While less RAM or slower operating speeds might seem like an obvious negative, you should also consider the effects of more computing power on the overall life of the battery. With faster processors and more RAM you are using (along with all other hardware elements), the battery will generally be draining with a similar increase in speed. This doesn’t take into consideration more efficient processor chips, better battery chemistry and a host of other related factors, but it does make a difference. Do you remember how long those old Nokia brick phones used to last on one charge? You could literally go two full days without plugging that beast in, and you were just fine – these days, large, bright screens and powerful mini-computers drain the batteries at a greatly accelerated rate.
Don’t take the processor and RAM specs at face value – try to get some hands-on time with different devices and see how quickly programs load, data is accessed, etc…. You might be surprised in some cases.
SCREEN SIZE / RESOLUTION
The resolution of most major front-runners these days is incredible, so at the end of the day you definitely won’t be disappointed. However, the size of the screen might make a difference to you – compare the viewable areas on each model to determine what might work best for you. While all the major brands are going to come with great screens no matter what, if you are shopping on a tight budget and find yourself looking at the off-brand phone models, make sure you get a chance to see the screen with the phone turned on, so you have a realistic idea of the quality…. Aside from the actual visual quality of the screen, mess around with the touch screen gestures to find out if they are as smooth and well-implemented as some of the major brands. If you can use it effectively and the screen quality makes you happy, go for it!
HARD DRIVE STORAGE SPACE
How much storage space your phone is able to accommodate can ultimately become the limiting factor as you continue to ad an increasing number of apps to your device, as well as taking photos and videos over a long period of time. While most devices allow you to add additional storage by way of a Micro SD card (or other removable media), some phones are simply limited on physical space, with no obvious means of expansion.
While Cloud storage has come a long way in recent years, it is important to remember that the Cloud is not an inherently secure place to store sensitive files (just ask some of the many celebs who have had their accounts hacked and critical photos leaked), and you are generally very limited on how much Cloud space you actually have access to (you can always buy more, but that seems like a waste of money to most people). Of course, you can take the photos and videos off your device from time to time in an ongoing effort to manage your available storage space, this can also get annoying.
A few decades ago, a bunch of tech folks were designing early home PC’s for public consumption (folks who, surprisingly, lacked long term vision) – during this time, they claimed that nobody would ever really need more than a few megabytes of storage space for all of their programs and files. Fast forward a few decades and we find ourselves filling up 32GB hard drives like its going out of style…… You may think the smallest (budget-friendly) hard drives on the newest devices offer an appealing compromise, but once again try to visualize how you plan to use the device. Will you be downloading lots of games, videos, music, etc? If so, remember that disk space fills up quickly, so the middle or large hard drive option might be better suited for you.
OVERALL SIZE / WEIGHT
The size and weight of your phone will have a direct impact on how convenient it is to carry in your pocket, and will therefore impact the frequency in which you use it and the overall impact it may have on your daily life. If it is too big, too small or just generally awkward to hold in your hand (giggity), you won’t enjoy using it. If the keyboard (where applicable) is not easily accessed, you won’t enjoy using it. Make sure you choose a product which is light and easily manageable for you – this will make a practical difference in how much you may or may not integrate the technology into your life. Hey, if you’re going to buy it, you might as well use it!
EASE OF USE
When considering how easy a product is to use, I look at a number of factors:
- How many clicks does it take to get something done (for instance, to open your camera and take a photo)?
- How simple is the overall interface? Is it too oversimplified (making it inherently more complicated to figure out)?
- Are the motion and swipe gestures intuitive and responsive?
- Are my common tasks easily accessible, regardless of what I am doing or where I am at in the software or apps?
- How reliable is the voice recognition?
- How much control do my voice commands have over my phone (can I simply tell my phone to dial numbers or change music, or can I tell it to schedule meetings, remind me to do things when I leave or arrive at a location, open apps, change the volume / brightness, etc)?
If your phone is so damn powerful that you can’t even figure out how to access or control most of the features, then what’s the point? You want something that makes it easy to take out of your pocket and perform a task, rather than something which makes you feel like you’re performing a burdensome chore whenever you make a new calender entry. Since you will most likely be using your phone a lot, every extra click required to perform a task will eventually add up to lots of wasted time.
Ease of use can also refer to the general reliability of key features – just because a phone is sporting all the “latest and greatest” features, does not necessarily mean they will work well in the real world… Additionally, there are many features that can be found on “most” phone models these days, but you would not necessarily choose to use them every day on some devices simply because they aren’t very reliable (voice recognition is a great example – it has been around on mobile phones for many years, but most people never really embraced it until recently because it never really worked well on most devices). Finally, there are also features which can be found on multiple devices, yet they definitely don’t work consistently across all devices (the fingerprint touch sensor on the iPhone, for instance, blows away the one found on comparable Galaxy devices). Don’t make your decision based on the “list” of available features – make sure you have a chance to test everything in real life, because you might ultimately decide that some of the features are not really appealing to you (even though they might sound great on paper).
Come on, we all drop our phones – we may not intend to (most of the time), but it happens. Hell, some of us drop our phones in the pool or the toilet – don’t judge. How much abuse do you think your phone is going to take, and can it survive? This is an important question to some people – there are actually phones out there which can be dunked in water and dropped on concrete with no damage, but when considering how many “life proof” phone cases are available today (including phone cases which allow you to operate your phone underwater), this may be somewhat of a moot point.
No matter what phone model you choose, please remember to keep it protected – here is a great source for cool, custom printed phone cases for your smart phone, which will usually cost less than buying a generic phone case at the Apple store!
CUSTOMIZATION ABILITY / SYSTEM FLEXIBILITY
For some people, the ability to fully customize the smart phone experience (much like customizing your PC desktop) is critical – in this case, it is important to look for a phone which allows greater control over the functions and appearance, with an emphasis on a more open environment for programmers. As an example, Samsung allows developers to interact with the actual call functions of the phone, whereas Apple does not offer the same control to its developers – as a result, there are some apps which simply won’t work on the Apple platform (for instance, an app that actively searches Facebook when an incoming call is detected, attempting to identify a photo of the incoming number even if it is not in your contact list).
This might seem like something you would want, but waitaminute…… Let’s really break this down. While there might be a small handful of examples of apps which won’t work on a more “closed” platform, are they really enough to leverage your entire purchase (and subsequent future smart phone experience) on? I have been assisting friends, families and associates with computer-related issues for many decades… During this time, I have helped people resolve “issues” that were often based on a simply lack of understanding on the part of the user – sometimes, I am literally showing someone how to install or remove a program from their computer. Have you ever found yourself asking for help on a common computer task, simply because you didn’t know how to do it? How about plugging in a second monitor, or installing a printer? Most people I have offered tech help to have had zero idea of how to perform these simple, yet common tasks. So why does that matter? Consider your average Windows based PC – although it comes with an entire host of customization functionality, allowing you control over the most mundane visual or performance standards, 90% of users have never bothered to take advantage of them. This is because most users, at the end of the day, really don’t give a sh*t.
Do you expect things to be different with a smart phone? Technology is technology…. People are going to be confused, and most people will never use most of the features available to them. Don’t base your entire purchasing decision on the ability to have a more “flexible” platform, especially if you are one of those folks who have ever asked someone how to install a printer driver or rotate their screen orientation through the operating system or graphics card software – really, you’re not fooling anyone.
So there you go….. A bunch of words strung together which provide zero concrete answers to base your decision on. Ambiguity is, in fact, what I do best. But don’t let this simple fact bog you down – take some of this general advice and embark into the world upon this great endeavor. It is difficult to make a “bad” decision in this market, especially if you focus on what is important to you, personally. Don’t be complete persuaded by what your friends and family are using – decide how you want to use your phone, get input on these key features as much as possible and maybe even throw in a few Google searches…. You might be surprised what you find! Have fun, and enjoy life in the 21st Century.