If you want a wide choice of phones, you've come to the right OS.
Google's Android platform supports the largest variety of hardware from handset makers such as HTC, LG, Motorola, and Samsung.
Choices include everything from compact models to phones with displays larger than 5 inches.
This platform is the only one other than BlackBerry that has phones with a physical keyboard.
Android phones support real-time updates from the Web and social networks, gesture and touch-free controls, and a virtual trackpad-like cursor control that makes it easier to change text.
Innovative features include Wi-Fi Direct, facial recognition, and NFC (near-field communication) for wireless sharing and mobile payments. For enhanced gaming, look for models that support multiple-axis motion sensing.
In addition to touch screen support, three or four real or virtual buttons provide the core navigation control. There's always a home button for returning to the main home screen and a back button for backing out of the most recent action. A third button usually either launches Recent Apps for easy access just a tap away, or the menu, for summoning task options.
Some models combine multiple functions on one button via a press and press and hold. For instance, pressing and holding the home button typically launches Google search.
There's a wide variety of features, capabilities, and controls, so make sure a phone has what you want.
The Android OS is highly customizable, thanks to widgets and other tools for tweaking phone controls, as well as the overall look and feel.
Many phones themselves can support up to seven home screens, and some even more, handy if you want separate launch pads for games or work-related apps.
Pressing and holding the home screen key launches an easy way to organize the home screens with widgets, apps, and shortcuts.
Customized via widgets, the OS lets you gather and present in a single view, contacts, calendar appointments, and other data from online sources. You can group apps into folders to conserve desktop space and prevent clutter and stash little-used apps in a separate app drawer.
The Android OS provides fine text-editing tools, more controls for managing data usage, and enhanced voice-activated navigation and dictation.
Various models offer on-screen multitasking, screens that won't time out while you're viewing Web pages or documents, and split screen views for e-mail or messages. Though, with some models there isn't a way to close all recent apps at once, a convenience found with many other phones.
Some larger models let you shrink the dial pad and keyboard and slide them to either side of the phone's screen to bring them closer to your thumbs in portrait mode.
The interface and features can vary greatly from phone to phone, and OS updates can radically change features.
The interface of latest version Android, Lollipop, offers absorbing visual cues throughout via color, spacing, shading, graphic elements, and type, including in e-mail, settings, layouts, and more.
It also improves notifications from calls, apps, social media, and so on. You can, for example, view and respond to messages from a locked screen.
Priority can be set for certain contacts or notification types such as messaging vs email vs facebook messages, etc. You can also set which notifications from which contacts will result in an alert.
Many of the interfaces are pre-customized by the handset maker, such as HTC's Sense, Motorola's Motoblur, and Samsung's TouchWiz, so before you invest in a new phone try it out.
Searches & navigation
Google's OS excels at search and mapping and includes GPS-based navigation, usually a free app. Google Maps are first-rate. You can use Google, Yahoo!, or Bing search engines and can simultaneously search both your phone and the Web.
Apps & more
The Google Play Store, the main source for Android apps and other content, carries a large selection of music, video, apps, e-books, and more from phone carriers, manufacturers, and providers such as Amazon.com, which provides access to its MP3 library. Payments through your Google account are easy, but sometimes you have to pay the carrier or app provider directly.
The iPhones complement their sleek designs and intuitively simple operation with high-quality multi-touch displays, front- and rear-facing cameras, and music players.
iPhone 6 models give Apple fans who reluctantly turned to Android phones for their larger displays a great reason to come back home. The 4.7-inch iPhone 6 and 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus higher resolution displays make images and video appear more compelling and e-mails and messages easier to view. Their smooth, rounded edges, reminiscent of earlier iPhones, make them comfortable to hold.
Models that include a fingerprint reader in the Home button let you safely and quickly unlock the phone's screen or authorize an iTunes purchase with just a light press of your finger. Phones that support Apple Pay combine the security of Touch ID fingerprint reader with NFC (near-field communication), a short-range wireless communication technology that could ultimately allow you to pay by phone at the register.
The iPhone 5 series was the first with a 4-inch display and support for fast 4G LTE data networks. The iPhone 5S is the first phone we've seen with a 64-bit processor and a fingerprint reader, which is built into the Home button. The 5C models sport brightly colored outer shells.
iPhones have a built-in voice-controlled personal digital assistant called Siri that understands context, allowing you to speak naturally when you ask it questions. It helps you make calls, send texts or e-mails, schedule meetings and reminders, search the Internet, find local businesses, get directions, and more. You can also get answers and information just by asking. Multiple-axis motion sensing for enhanced gaming experiences is another plus.
One of the biggest iPhone draws is the iOS interface, which is not only ultra-easy to master, but is also among the best for accessing music, videos, games, and other content.
Consistency is another plus: iOS is the same from carrier to carrier and almost identical to that of the iPad and iPod Touch products.
iPhones have a home button for closing or backing out of apps, checking app status, launching universal search, and returning to the home screen.
The large-screened iPhone 6 models let you slide the phone desktop down to the middle of the screen to bring the top apps and controls closer to your thumb. You activate this Reachability mode by lightly double-tapping the home button.
You can create folders to organize apps, but you can only minimally customize the interface, and the screen can become cluttered. Colorful icons make it little easy to find some often-used apps. Even when the phone's screen is locked, the interface presents a scrollable preview of your new notifications, including messages and calendar appointments.
You can access the Control Center with a swipe up from the bottom of the screen which presents the user with key controls such as Airplane mode, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth, as well as access to the flashlight, calculator, and more. You can even resume playback of the last song playing.
Double-press the Home button to see preview screens of the apps you have open. This method, however, can get cumbersome if you have a lot of apps to close.
Apple's Air Drop lets you wirelessly share photos, videos, and more with other compatible devices.
Though, many of these features and capabilities are Apple's version of what we've seen previously supported on other OSs.
Searches & navigation
You can use Google, Yahoo!, or Bing search engines and can simultaneously search both your phone and the Web. The Safari Web browser's unified search bar accepts both URLs and search terms. Apple Maps provides effective navigation guidance, but some features can be glitchy, such as 3D views.
Apps & more
If it's apps you want, you'll no-doubt be impressed with huge and diverse selection of music, video, games, and apps from iTunes and the App Store, which has expanded to include networked, player-to-player gaming via its Game Center. There are more than a million apps at the Apple App Store, including some unavailable on other platforms.
iTunes access is a big plus. And it's easy and safe to buy via your iTunes account.
Apple's iTunes Radio service has a plethora of options for streaming—and especially buying—songs from iTune's vast library.
You'll also find accessories galore—cases, compatible devices, and more.
This is the only platform besides Android that supports phones with a physical keyboard.
BlackBerry seems committed to its business roots. Nearly all of its phones have a physical keyboard—a rarity with smartphones.
Other BlackBerry characteristics include physical phone buttons—a Send button for making calls (increasingly rare on smartphones) and an end (hang-up) button, which also serves as the Home button.
And a trackpad, useful for zipping through and selecting e-mail and messages, makes it easy to change text, or select links on Web pages.
BlackBerry also offers models with or without a camera.
Models include the Classic, which has BlackBerrys' distinctly shaped, physical keyboard, a trackpad, and phone buttons, and the Passport, whose square-shaped display more ideal for viewing documents than wide-screen entertainment.
The Z10 is BlackBerrys' answer to a full touch-screen model.
The BlackBerry OS and phones have been radically redesigned, centered on a simpler interface with clean, refined icons that provide more direct access to core functions and fewer options for fiddling with settings.
You can use gestures and swipes to enhance e-mail and messaging, key functions for many BlackBerry fans. The control system, called BlackBerry Flow, relies on finger sweeps and other gestures made on a touch screen.
For example, sliding your thumb up from the bottom of the screen and then to the right takes you to the Hub, a list of calls, messages, and calendar alerts received by the phone.
Slide your thumb to the right again to filter messages—say, by Yahoo or Gmail account.
To access wireless connections, alarms, and settings, slide your finger down from the top of the screen.
To return to the home screen while in an app, slide your thumb up from the bottom of the screen, or press the end button. This action also produces the virtual buttons for launching the camera and phone, or Hub.
You can organize apps into folders.
The virtual keyboard has a predictive text tool that lets you "flick" suggested words up into a sentence. The keyboard's Flick feature suggests words it thinks will be next, based on what's already in the sentence.
For example, type the word "Here" and the words "we," "you," and "is" will appear on the keyboard.
The keyboard can handle multiple languages at once, making it easier to insert foreign words into sentences. The keyboard also handles more traditional predictive-text tasks, such as completing a word after you type a few letters.
You can press and hold the period key to engage the voice-to-text feature, or the space bar for text formatting, such as boldface, italics, bullets, and font size.
BlackBerry Messenger supports video conferencing and lets you share what's on your phone screen (such as a photo or spreadsheet) with the person on the other end.
Maintaining its business bent, the BlackBerry OS lets you separate business and personal data so your IT department can control corporate info while you control personal materials. You can easily switch between both.
Searches & navigation
To share something you found online, you can post it to a social network with a few gestures. You can also view Web pages in the less-cluttered Reader mode.
You can search files, settings, apps, help, and more by typing a search term on the Home screen or within an app. You can narrow the search to include only specific apps or extend it to include Internet sources.
You can search and perform functions such as creating appointments by speaking commands, but it isn't always as smooth as on other smartphone platforms.
Apps & more
BlackBerry World, the primary source for content, has more than several hundred thousand apps, games, music, videos, and more.
Windows Phone is still playing marketplace catch-up, and there's only a small selection of phones from HTC, Nokia, and Samsung.
It supports large multi-touch displays; we've seen it on phones with screens 4.5-inches and larger.
Models that include Cortana, the voice-activated assistant, can perform searches, launch apps, and more on your command.
The phones come preloaded with Xbox, which lets you play games with your friends and use your avatar and gamer profile to keep track of game scores and achievements online through the Games hub.
Various models support NFC technology for wireless sharing and mobile payments.
In addition to the touch screen support, three keys provide the core navigation controls. There's a back key for backing out of applications, a start key for returning you to the home screen, and a search key that launches the Bing search box or Cortana.
Windows Phone provides straightforward yet flexible access to most functions via two main panels.
One is a Start Screen with a scrolling interface of resizable Live Tiles, which are animated app icons that can display real-time updates from social network feeds, news, appointments, and other sources. The other is a simple alphabetical list of all the apps on your phone.
You can pin any app in this listing to the Start Screen, if it's not already there. But panels can get unmanageably long.
The simple fonts and contrasting backgrounds provide a clear, distinctive presentation of e-mails, calendars, and other phone content.
You can easily change most Live Tiles to one of three sizes: a full-screen-width rectangle, a half-screen square, or a tiny quarter screen. And you can change their color palette.
A number of models let you create folders to organize apps, though on some phones it's easier to do this than on others. Overall, it has a similar look and feel to Windows desktop on computers and tablets.
Windows 10, which rolls out later this year, promises more seamless integration between mobile and computer platforms.
People Hub puts all of your contacts and social-network updates in one place. It also lets you send updates to several social networks, such as Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter, at the same time. And it allows you to arrange contacts into smaller groups, like the default setting "Family Room," or "Work Friends," enabling you to share messages, social-network updates, and pictures just with them.
Its Kids Corner feature lets you create a home screen of selected apps, games, and other preferred goodies so your kids can use your phone securely.
Searches & navigation
You can use only Microsoft's search engines, Internet Explorer or Bing. Pressing the search key launches Bing or Cortana.
Cortana, the voice-activated assistant, can perform searches, launch apps, make calls, schedule meetings, and more, on your command. Cortana will either speak her answers to you or show what she thinks are relevant results from a Bing search.
Free GPS navigation app may not be on-board some models.
Apps & more
In the Windows store you'll find a small, though complete selection of music, video, apps, games (including Xbox), and other content from Microsoft, phone carriers, and phone makers,
You can pay via a Microsoft account in many cases, though sometimes you have to pay the carrier or app provider directly.