How to Buy a Cell Phone for the Holidays

iPhone vs. Droid smartphones
If you don't have to own the latest and greatest smartphone, right now is a good time to buy a new phone. With the holidays quickly approaching, some of the hottest smartphones of 2010 are starting to drop in price to make room for next year's inventory (check out PCWorld's Top 10 Cell Phones chart to see some of the best handsets of 2010). Before you hit the stores, however, do a bit of research and read our guide so you'll know exactly what to look for.

Features to Consider

When shopping for a phone, you can do some simple hands-on tests in the store to make sure the phone has everything you need.

Call quality: What good is a phone if it can't make calls? Some of the most simple, bare-bones "feature" phones offer the best call quality--and on the flip side, some fancy smartphones have dismal calling. When evaluating phones, be sure to make a few test calls. In PCWorld's hands-on tests, we generally make a few calls in a quiet room and a few calls in a noisy environment. You might not be able to replicate such tests indoors, but try your best. Take note of static, tinny voices, or any other interference. Ask the person on the other end of the line if they can hear a disruptive amount of background noise.

Design: Your choices range from flip-open clamshell-style phones to candy bar-style phones to slider-style phones with full-QWERTY keyboards. Whichever type of phone you select, check its ergonomics. Is it comfortable to hold against your ear, and can you hear callers without constant adjustment? Can you use the phone with one hand? Consider hands-free use: Can you comfortably hold the phone to your ear by scrunching your neck and shoulder?

iOS and Android
Operating system: If you're looking to do more than make calls and send text messages with your phone, consider the platform on which it runs. The mobile operating system you choose will greatly affect the capabilities of your phone. The most popular platforms are Google's Android OS (found on multiple devices), iOS (found only on the iPhone) and BlackBerry OS (found on BlackBerrys of various designs). Each has its advantages and disadvantages, and you should definitely familiarize yourself with all of the platforms before settling on one. Other platforms include Palm's WebOS, Symbian (found on most Nokia smartphones), and the brand-new Windows Phone 7.

Display: If you intend to send and receive text messages, surf the Web, or use the phone's organizer, make sure the screen is up to snuff. Is it big enough for you to take full advantage of the phone's features? If you're going to surf the Web or edit office documents on your phone, a screen that measures less than 2.7 inches diagonally will feel very cramped.

The screen's contrast and backlight are also important. The phones we've seen show marked differences in viewing quality. If your phone allows you to adjust such settings, you can make text and graphics easily viewable--even in bright places.

Consider the screen's resolution, too. The higher the resolution, the better the screen will look--an important factor if you plan to use your phone to watch videos or view photos.

4G support and availability: Although a lot of buzz surrounds the next generation of wireless networks, 4G has seen very little movement until this year. The two main technologies are WiMax and Long Term Evolution. 4G's faster download speeds significantly improve streaming video and allow features such as videoconferencing and network gaming.

Sprint Samsung Epic 4G smartphone
Sprint currently offers WiMax-based networks in 62 markets across the United States, and plans to add more by the end of the year. Right now, only two phones support Sprint's 4G network, the Samsung Epic 4G and the HTC EVO 4G. If you decide to buy a 4G phone on Sprint, confirm that your area has coverage.

AT&T and Verizon currently don't have any devices that support their soon-to-be-launched LTE networks--but 2011 is sure to bring a barrage of LTE devices from both carriers. If a 4G phone is something you've been desperately waiting for, you might want to hold off on buying a 3G phone and signing a new contract with either of these networks.

T-Mobile is currently rolling out its HSPA+ network, which is essentially a more advanced version of 3G protocols. Currently, only two T-Mobile phones support the HSPA+ network: the G2 and the MyTouch 4G.

Cameras: If you intend to take a lot of photos with your phone, you'll definitely want to pay attention to the camera specs. For mid- to high-level smartphones, 5 megapixels is now pretty much the standard. Some phones ship with 8- or 12-megapixel cameras, but a higher megapixel count doesn't necessarily mean a better camera. Verify that the phone you're interested in has a flash--dual-LED or Xenon flashes work the best--or else you won't be able to take any pictures indoors or at night without their looking like blurry messes. Try to take a few pictures in the store to get a good idea of the camera's photo quality.

Most cell phone cameras also have video-capture capabilities; some high-end phones can even capture high-definition 720p video. If video is your thing, make sure that the OS provides an easy way to upload your videos to Facebook or YouTube.

In Video: How to Buy a Cellphone

Shopping Tips

You can purchase a new phone directly from a carrier store, but if you're not sure what to buy, we recommend going to a third-party retailer. Best Buy, RadioShack, Target, and Walmart all sell phones, as well as carrier plans. A big advantage of buying a phone or a tablet from a third-party seller is that you have dozens of phones from multiple carriers at your disposal. If your contract is up and you're trying to choose between the iPhone 4 (AT&T) and the T-Mobile MyTouch 4G, for instance, you can compare the two phones side by side in the store. You can't do the same at a carrier store, because those phones are on different networks.

Wireless carriers
If you're considering buying a phone as a gift, definitely consult with the recipient before you go shopping--and although it will ruin the surprise, you'll probably want to bring them along on your shopping trip. We recommend getting as much hands-on time as possible with multiple phones before settling on one.

Shopping for a new plan? Be completely realistic about how you will use your phone. The national phone plans that the major carriers offer will let you send and receive calls anywhere in the United States (and even in parts of Canada) at no extra charge. You may be able to sign up for a local or regional plan that limits the areas where you can originate a call and still pull from your monthly pool of minutes; this option might be worth considering if you use your phone for local calls exclusively. If you have a world phone and plan to use it in other countries, choose service with international roaming.

When selecting a plan, it's best to overestimate the number of minutes you'll be using for every sent and received call. Because one carrier's definition of off-peak may be different from another's, ask the carrier to specify the times for its peak, off-peak, and weekend hours. Other service charges include those for a data plan, three-way calling, and downloads.

In particular, take into account your data usage (e-mail, photos, IM, and Web access) when picking your cell phone plan. Most carriers bundle voice and data plans together, while others let you select a voice plan and a data plan separately. You can always pay for messaging and data use à la carte, but you'll likely be charged a higher rate. If you think you'll be sending and receiving data with your phone, select some sort of data plan.

When dealing with store representatives, ask them to be as straightforward as possible. Tell them exactly what you're looking for and what phone or plan will fit your requirements. If you're completely unsure, ask them what phone they use, or which phones impressed them this year. Don't let them jump into a corporate spiel, or else you'll end up spending way too much time in the store. And remember, they're human beings too, and they're working during the holiday rush--be courteous, and you'll receive the same treatment in return.

Lastly, familiarize yourself with the store's return policy--especially if you're buying a phone as a gift.

Subscribe to the Best of PCWorld Newsletter