The Tech Specs That Matter

The Phone Specs That Matter

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Considering a new phone? It's easy to get pulled into the specs war: single-core or dual-core processor? 3G or 4G? But today's smartphones are mostly big screens and it makes more sense to pay attention to how good apps, pictures and video will look on those screens.

Phones: Specs That Don't Matter

Photograph by Robert Cardin
Noise-reduction technology: A few phones out there boast “noise-reduction technology,” which supposedly blocks out background noise when you’re calling on a busy street. In our hands-on tests, we’ve noticed that this technology can make your voice sound really strange to callers on the other end of the line, and it sometimes adds a weird muffling effect to your contacts' voices. Related: Will 4G Fix Voice Quality?

HDMI port: Unless you store a library of HD movies on your phone, and unless you own an HDMI cable with the proper connection for your phone’s port (you’ll have to buy that separately) plus an HDTV, pay no attention to whether a phone has an HDMI port. It’s a nice extra for movie junkies who have a lot of full-length flicks on their handset, but we’re not sure that describes many people. Related: Android Multimedia AppGuide | iPhone Multimedia AppGuide

Phones: Specs That Sometimes Matter

4G: If you don’t have 4G coverage in your area (or even close to your area), don’t bother getting a 4G phone yet. If you do have coverage, 4G is fantastic for streaming music and movies on your phone, surfing the Web, and downloading apps quickly. Be careful, though: 4G will drain your phone’s battery life long before you finish streaming any one of the entries in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Related: 4G Speed Tests: Which Carrier Is Fastest?

Camera megapixel count: When it comes to image quality, megapixels are largely irrelevant, as we've seen better photos taken with a 5-megapixel phone camera than with an 8-megapixel camera. If you’ll mostly be viewing your photos on your phone, sharing them via e-mail and MMS, occasionally uploading them to Facebook, and overlaying image effects such as the ones you’ll find on Instagram and Hipstamatic, a 12-megapixel camera is overkill in both resolution and file size. That said, looking for a phone with at least a 3-megapixel camera is a good idea, just to have a little more flexibility with your images--especially if you plan on using your phone as your primary camera. Related: White iPhone 4 vs. Black iPhone 4: Do They Have Different Cameras?

Processor speed: We’ve heard a lot of buzz about phones that use dual-core processors, but such power is really not necessary for the average user. Unless you’re doing a lot of app multitasking or playing games with 3D graphics, you’ll probably be fine with a 1GHz processor. Aside from the processor speed, other factors--such as the version of software your phone is running (Android 2.3 is faster than Android 2.2) and the speed of your network--contribute to speedy, fluid phone performance. Related: Overclock Your Phone, If You Dare

Phones: Specs That Always Matter

Photograph by Robert Cardin
Display size/resolution: If you intend to surf the Web on your phone, use the calendar and organizer, or compose and read a lot of e-mail and text messages, make sure the screen is up to snuff. Is it big enough for you to take full advantage of the phone's features? For browsing the Web or editing office documents, a screen that measures less than 2.7 inches diagonally will feel very cramped.

Consider the screen's resolution, too. The higher the resolution, the sharper your videos and photos will look. Also factor in what kind of screen technology it uses. AMOLED displays perform well in sunlight, but many people think they make colors look oversaturated. qHD displays (whose resolution is one-quarter of a full-HD 1080p frame and three-quarters of a 720p frame) generally look the best in video playback and games.

Being able to take control of the screen's contrast and backlight settings can also be important, as phones have noticeable differences in their default display settings. If your phone allows you to adjust contrast and brightness, text and graphics can be easily viewable in well-lit places, and you can also save battery life in a pinch. Related: 10 Ways to Boost Your Phone's Battery Life

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