Put the World in Your Pocket: A Smartphone Buyer's Guide for Students

You already know you need a smartphone, but finding the right one to fit your needs won't be easy. What operating system best suits your work and play habits? Is a large screen more important to you than the ability to slip the phone into a tight pocket? And will the model you want even work with your carrier?

A smartphone puts a browser, camera, audio recorder, music player, calendar, and even a plain old phone into your hand. You're going to use this gadget to research homework, record lectures, schedule social activities, and ask your parents for more money. You need to get the right one.

Provider availability

In the United States, when selecting a smartphone, you're limited to models available through your service provider. For instance, only Verizon customers can use the HTC Droid DNA, and the Samsung Galaxy S4 was only available to AT&T subscribers until Verizon began to support it recently. Luckily, many popular models, including the iPhone and the Samsung Galaxy Note II, are available from multiple venders.

Buying through the service provider saves you money. You'll pay $100-$200 for a phone that would otherwise cost more than $600. The downside: You'll have to commit to a two-year contract.

But there's another option: No-contract, month-to-month services can save you considerable money if you use your phone sparingly. But check a service's limitations before you go with it. For instance, Walmart and T-Mobile offer a $30 monthly plan with 5GB of 4G data and 100 minutes of phone use. But Sprint's $35 Virgin Mobile service, while offering only 2.5GB of 3G data, gives you 300 minutes for talking.

Operating System

Your phone's operating system determines the user experience, what apps you can use, and possibly your phone's security.

Google's Android, the most popular phone OS, is available on a wide variety of models, including the Motorola's Droid Razr Maxx HD, Sony's Xperia Z, and Samsung's many Galaxy models. It continues to give you choices after you've picked a phone. For instance, you can place an app on your home screen as either an unchanging icon or as a live widget that displays information like weather or upcoming appointments.

Apple's iOS only runs on iPhones, severely limiting model choice. Although not as versatile as Android, iOS is simpler to use. For instance, connecting an Android phone to a PC can turn into a complicated project; with iOS, you simply use iTunes. This closed system policy also protects you; Android phones have serious malware problems; iOS has virtually none.

If you use Windows 8 and are comfortable with its Modern Interface, consider try a Windows phone. The screen will look reassuringly familiar. Not as popular as Android or iOS, the Windows Phone operating system is gaining marketshare. Currently, Nokia's Lumia series dominates the Windows Phone market.

Form factor

Phones--especially Android phones--come in many sizes. The Samsung Galaxy Note II is nearly six inches high and more than three inches wide--large enough to be called a phablet, as in a phone you can use as a tablet. This makes it easy to read and type into, but difficult to slip into your pocket. On the other hand, the LG Lucid measures only 4.69 by 2.45 inches wide, and will be much easier to carry.

You'll probably want to visit a brick-and-mortar store to determine if a phone's physical size is right for you. But size is only one factor to consider.

Check out this chart to see a list of the hottest smartphones on the market.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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