Rich Warren | Intelligent smartphone choice calls for savvy

Rich Warren | Intelligent smartphone choice calls for savvy

Smartphones divide people into two camps. Some need basic voice communication, the ability to send an occasional text, and perhaps a basic camera. The rest crave a palm-size computer able to accomplish nearly anything that can be done by a laptop computer, plus take better photos.

Several of my friends still proudly display their simple flip phones or candy bar phones. Others aim to impress with their phone that can Skype or Facetime with life on Mars, capture a photo of a hummingbird 30 feet away and include an app for the meaning of life.

That second category, commonly called a smartphone, divides into two camps: Apple and Android. Only Apple makes iPhones; everyone else in the known universe makes phones that work on Google's Android operating system.

While all iPhones work identically using the same iOS operating system, any company using Android can customize it. The only pure Android phones are the two Pixel models marketed by Google.

Every other company embellishes Android for better or for worse, usually for worse. Critics consistently admonish Samsung's obfuscating modifications.

Other companies, including Microsoft, Nokia, Blackberry and Samsung, attempted to market phones with their own operating systems, most of which failed faster than New Coke. Currently, Android leads in the U.S. with about a two-thirds share.

If you're an Apple aficionado, you need only choose between big and small, or last year's and this year's models. If you want a headphone jack on an iPhone, you have to return to the iPhone 6. Otherwise, an iPhone is an iPhone is an iPhone.

Meanwhile, the Android camp resembles an anarchists convention. While the bedrock of the operating system may be Android, everything else is up for grabs. Half the companies still include headphone jacks; half don't. Some use metal bodies; some wrap the entire phone in glass.

Some screens are various flavors of LCD while a few use the newer OLED technology. As a strange aside, while LG makes superb large-screen OLED TVs, it fumbles with small OLED smartphone screens. Samsung passed on marketing OLED TVs, but makes excellent OLED smartphone screens.

Manufacturers now trend toward glass-backed phones because glass does not interfere with antenna placement, it facilitates wireless charging, and it looks sexier. Sadly, glass-backed phones are more fragile and scar easier than those with metal backs. Drop a glass-backed phone, and you may lose more than the screen.

Buying a phone requires a major decision not required in buying a car or a washing machine. You must decide whether to buy your phone from a cell provider, such as AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-mobile or a few smaller companies, or buy it outright, what is referred to as "unlocked."

Once you decide to buy a phone from a carrier, you're locked into that carrier for at least two years. The carrier may give you a subsidy or financing to buy the phone, but the deal always looks better than it is. When you buy on a provider contract from a retailer, the salesperson may not always have your best interest at heart.

An unlocked phone provides maximum versatility and choice of cell company without a commitment. That means if AT&T disappoints you, then sprint over to Sprint.

However, beware the indecipherable technical fine print. Not all phones operate on all cellular frequencies. Each carrier uses a few exclusive frequencies not used by other carriers.

While Samsung, LG and Pixel phones should work with just about any carrier, be sure to check with an expert when buying an unlocked phone to ensure it is truly universal. While nearly any phone will work with any carrier, in some locales certain carriers offer much higher data rates or better reception on particular frequencies.

Intelligently choosing a smartphone makes buying a TV akin to falling off a log. Whoever dreamed a large-screen TV would cost less than a cellphone?

Rich Warren, who lives in the Champaign area, is a longtime reviewer of consumer electronics. Email him at hifiguy@mchsi.com.

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