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September 8, 2010

What to Look for in a Cell Phone

Filed under: Main — Tags: — admin @ 12:01 am

Now that cell phones are becoming mini-computers, it’s a good idea to know what’s what, and what matters, when it comes time to buy a new mobile communications gizmo.

Provider. Your first priority is to find a good cell phone provider. The two issues are coverage and data signal.

For coverage, you want to ensure that the signal strength is strong enough in those locations where you plan on using the phone. My first cell phone picked up a signal only if I stood by the northeast-most window in my office.

The data signal is separate from the voice signal. To get the most from the data (Internet) side of your new cell phone, you want 3G coverage in your area. EDGE coverage is okay, but 3G is better. Remember: Just because you get a voice signal doesn’t necessarily mean that you get a data signal.

Screen. The cheap-o cell phones feature a doinky screen that’s pretty useless. What you want is a nice, big screen, but not so big that the phone no longer fits into your pocket. Further, I recommend getting a phone with a touchscreen, or one that accepts your finger touches and smudges as input.

As far as HD or high resolution is concerned, I’m neither here nor there. Watching video on a cell phone is okay for brief periods of time. Watching full-length movies, even on a transcontinental flight, is tedious. I don’t see any point in paying more for a “better” tiny screen.

Input. How you interact with the phone is important. Any phone that merely has a dialpad (the numbers 0 through 9 with the #, * and a couple of other keys) is a joke any more. You want a phone with a keyboard.

Touchscreen keyboards are popular and they work, providing that you’re not typing a novel or anything longer than a grocery list. If the phone does have a touchscreen keyboard, then see whether or not it supports the Swype program, which can really accelerate text input.

Physical keyboards are nice, and preferred by many people. Just make sure that the tiny buttons are adequate for your fingers. Also, note that physical keyboards add to the phone’s weight.

Finally, I give a big bonus to phones with voice input. Some phones are pretty much one-trick ponies on voice input, with maybe a dial command or other limited commands. Others offer full voice input, what I call dictation. It’s pretty cool to see it in action.

Operating System. Android. Hands down.

Well, to be objective, the key to any operating system is the number of apps. On that front, Apple’s iOS takes the lead. But for usability, I prefer Android.

Phone Price. Yeah, you’re a cheap bastard. Who wants to spend a fortune on a cell phone? Still, if you want a phone that does email, the Internet, is a camera, does maps, and just about anything else, you’re going to be spending real money.

Expect to pay around $200 for a good smartphone. Costco has the best prices.

Plan Price. The typical price for a limited cell phone plan, including data, is about $80 a month. That’s $40 or so for a 450/500 minute/month plan, plus $30 or so for a data plan. You need both.

I find that I can get by with 450 minutes a month. Especially if there are rollover minutes, plus unlimited night and weekends, you can manage well.

The data plan doesn’t need to be outrageous. Most smartphone users don’t use a lot of bandwidth.

The plan will bind you to a contract for two years, typically. That’s okay. By the end of that time, newer, better phones will be out, though you get more value from your phone if you use it longer.


  1. Provider: Don’t get AT&T.
    OS: Android. iOS is neat and everything, but if jailbreaking can cause the network towers to break (which it can’t), then what’s the use of using it?
    Phone Price: Save your money and don’t buy from Apple.

    Comment by linuxlove — September 8, 2010 @ 4:33 am

  2. I predict that in the future the Android OS will capture about 50% or more of the market share. iOS is going to stay in the 30s. As more iPhone users get frustrated with Apple and AT&T, they will move to Android.

    Windows on a Cell Phone? Oh, please: I’m laughing.

    Comment by admin — September 8, 2010 @ 7:35 am

  3. The thing with Windows Phone 7 though is that it’s shiny and pretty: have a look at the demos on Consumers go for shiny and pretty.. Exhibit A: iPhone. It’s not the best (I personally abhor the things), but it’s pretty and people have bought them. Lots of people.

    Down here, you can either pay through the nose for Telstra and get a slight trace of value but the best network in the country, or get decent value but horrible data speeds with Optus and Virgin.

    Most Android based phones here are on $49\month plans for 24 months with no upfront repayments, although Telstra do have a couple on $79\month plan. (For some stupid reason, the HTC Desire and HTC Wildfire are both on the same cap plan from Telstra, even though the Wildfire is a baby Desire for all intensive purposes. You’d be a fool not to choose the Desire over the Wildfire).

    I personally have fallen in love with the HTC Desire. The screen is crisp and clear, the browser excellent, the interface is not only useful but stunning, and the optical trackpad I can see myself using often.

    Comment by Douglas — September 9, 2010 @ 5:36 am

  4. The Windows phone does look cool, but Microsoft has demonstrated that they are utterly incapable of bringing innovation to the marketplace. They have innovation, but their political structure prevents it from seeing the light of day. Thank you, Steve Ballmer.

    My guess is that any Windows 7 phone will be a day-late and feature-short when it comes to the market. Unlike the PC market, where Microsoft also plays catch-up, they don’t control the market. They can’t give away a cell phone with Windows (though they could try), and they can’t demand that every cell phone sold have a copy of Windows 7 pre-installed or paid for.

    Comment by admin — September 9, 2010 @ 6:12 am

  5. You’re right about the missing feature, or in this case features, there’s no third party multitasking and no copy and paste, although Microsoft have been saying they’re working on this… hopefully they are.

    Comment by Douglas — September 10, 2010 @ 3:47 am

  6. Dan- Have you checked out the Nokia N900? Its drawing a lot of attention because it runs Linux…real Linux, not a Java layer running on top of Linux like Android. Dont get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with Android, running all Java is not a bad thing for security and stability. But the N900 runs Maemo which is basically Debian ported to the ARM processor, so this phone really is a mobile PC that can run any Linux app. I know of sys admins who use this phone in their job. I give credit to Google for doing a good job of providing apps as the iPhone does with its apps store. Nokia, MS, Palm have all dropped the ball in this area with their respective Symbian, winMobile, and Palm OSes that are nothing more that cellphones running a few PDA apps. The N900 uses a touchscreen input with a slide out keyboard. I have to say Im getting a little sick all smartphones copying the iPhone with exposed screens, I want a clamshell with the keyboard in the lid.

    If you were to have a phone like this it would make sense to have an unlimited data plan. I dont know how much that costs as I dont live in the US anymore.

    Comment by BradC — September 10, 2010 @ 10:57 am

  7. I haven’t seen any outrageous unlimited plans. Well, the one I had on AT&T was much higher than the unlimited plans I’ve had on T-Mobile or Verizon.

    Not sure if it’s really want pure Linux on a cell phone or not. I enjoy the Unicies, but I also enjoy a nice, happy monitor and full size keyboard. 😉

    Comment by admin — September 10, 2010 @ 11:06 am

  8. I have a Sony Ericsson TM506 with T-Mobile and a $36/month plan that includes 400 minutes, 400 texts, free mobile internet (with tethering) and of course unlimited received/weekends/nights. I think I’m falling behind…

    Oh and I also use Sprint’s 3G/4G USB modem thingy.

    Comment by samus250 — September 10, 2010 @ 12:35 pm

  9. @samus250, have you used the modem in a 4G coverage zone? What are the speeds like in a 4G zone?

    Comment by Douglas — September 10, 2010 @ 9:10 pm

  10. @Douglas No, I haven’t used it in a 4G zone, and I think I won’t have 4G access for quite some time. The fastest mobile connection in my area is 3G (EVDO and HSPA).

    I’ve seen speed tests though, and Sprint’s WiMax 4G is almost always 3mbps average. 6mbps is very rare. On the other hand, T-Mobile’s HSPA+ has a 7mbps average, but in my area T-Mobile doesn’t even have 3G, it is still running on archaic EDGE.

    I think the reason I still rely on dino cell phones is because actual services here suck.

    Comment by samus250 — September 11, 2010 @ 7:27 am

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