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Cell phones & services

Cell phone & service buying guide

Last updated: July 2015

Getting started

Smartphones are finally getting smarter about serving the people who actually use them. Us.

If you're in the market for a new model, you can expect a larger, sharper display that's easier to read; better performance; and, perhaps for the first time, a battery you can lean on for a full day before needing a re-charge.

Smartphone cameras are improving too. Most have sensors with at least 8 megapixels and allow you to shoot high-definition videos. If camera performance ranks high on your list of criteria, look for models that earned scores of very good or better for image quality and good or better for video.

Phone-display resolutions are increasing, as well. So-called Quad HD displays offer very high pixel densities (often more than 500 pixels per inch, or ppi). That should mean sharper pictures and more detail. But in our tests, we found that most users won't notice the benefits in everyday use of Quad HD—partly because even the largest phones have relatively small displays.

You will notice a difference, however—and not in a good way—if you buy a phone with a display that isn't at least HD. Stick with resolutions of 720p and higher. (If the resolution is expressed in pixel density, you want 300 ppi or higher.)

Most handsets we tested have displays in the 4.5- to 6-inch range. The larger screens are great for viewing Web pages, maps, and videos, but the phones may be hard to manipulate. If you're considering one of these so-called phablets, make sure you can use it comfortably with one hand.

Before you buy a phone, consider the service provider. (See our Ratings of service providers, available to subscribers.) Service providers determine which phone models work on their networks. So when you're replacing your phone, use this guide to help you decide whether you'll stay with your current cellular service carrier or switch to a new one.

Major carriers rely heavily on two incompatible digital networks. Sprint and Verizon networks use mainly Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) technology, while AT&T and T-Mobile use Global System for Mobile communication (GSM) technology. All of those carriers also support high-speed data networks. The network plays a big part in the capabilities your phone will have and, to some extent, its performance.

Features


Today's phones come equipped with many useful calling and multimedia features, including a media player, camera, Web browsing, child-location, and call-management services.

Some features, such as programmable shortcuts, Bluetooth, speakerphone, and voice command, make the phones easier to use.

Bluetooth

This technology enables the phone to connect with smartwatches, tablets, wireless headsets and many hands-free car systems. (But avoid using any phone, even hands free, while driving.)

Many phones support stereo Bluetooth headsets for music and other multimedia. They can also wirelessly exchange pictures, contacts, and other files with other compatible Bluetooth devices, such as a computer, cell phone, speaker system, or printer.

Camera

Most smartphone cameras are capable of producing snapshots that are quite good and can even record UltraHD video, thanks to steadily improving image sensors, higher-grade lenses, and features such as auto focus, zoom, and brightness controls.

While smartphone cameras are still not as good as their the best stand-alone counterparts, they do have several critical advantages: With their built-in mobile network and wireless connections, it's easier to share the snapshots and videos you take.

Models with an optical image stabilizer can improve your chances of taking better pictures under low-light conditions or when it's difficult to keep your hand steady.

Onboard apps can actually improve unflattering shots—even after you've taken the picture. For example, you can choose the best individual facial expressions from several different shots to form one "perfect" picture. Another feature literally erases a passerby who may have strayed into your otherwise perfect snapshot.

Other notable camera features we've seen include a mode that starts snapping pictures even before you push the shutter button just in case your subjects flashed their best smiles before you uttered, "Say cheese."

Another feature lets you use the front and rear cameras simultaneously so you can appear as an inset within a video or still image recorded by the phone's main, rear-facing camera.

Document editing

Smartphones allow you to review documents, spreadsheets, and more. Some models add the convenience of creating, deleting, and editing them out of the box.

GPS navigation

Even the most travel-savvy consumers can lose their way enroute to a new restaurant, store, or out-of-the-way relative. For those times, you need look no further than the smartphone you already own.

The mapping and GPS navigation apps built into smartphones today have many of the features of stand-alone personal navigation devices (PNDs), such as traffic warnings and spontaneous alternative-route suggestions.

Plus, phones can also do things PNDs can't, such as warn you to leave early for an appointment in your calendar if traffic looks bad. And if you don't particularly like the navigation app that came with your phone, you have other great choices via your phone's app store, which are often free.

Hearing-aid compatibility

Most phone have hearing-aid designations, such as T3, M3, etc., though such phones are not guaranteed to work with all hearing aids.

Your doctor can help you choose a phone compatible with the hearing aid you use. For more information, go to www.accesswireless.org.

Infrared remote control

Smartphones with infrared (IR) ports can control and program TVs, set-top boxes, Blu-ray players, and more. Often, they'll also come with an app that shows local cable listings, including program details and search options.

Maps

Map apps on the latest smartphones provide an impressive amount of detail of any area, ranging from satellite views to photo-realistic, 3D views of major cities and landmarks. With the assistance of your phone's GPS connection, they can provide you with updated details on local business, traffic, and public transportation.

One interesting feature available on some Android and Windows phones is an enhanced view, which superimposes the names of businesses and other points of interest that appear in range of your phone's viewfinder.

Other features let you "walk" along streets or inside museums and other public places.

Media player

Many phones have very competent media players, allowing you to view videos and sort music tracks according to genre, album or artist, playlists, etc. They also typically have more than one playback option, such as repeat and shuffle.

Some phones, such as the iPhone, have media capabilities better than other stand-alone media players. The small number of phones that lack those convenient features are rather cumbersome to use.

Memory card slot

Phones that have slots that accept memory cards, typically microSD, allow you to conveniently expand storage capacity by up to 128GB, and sometimes even more.

Multiple windows

A split-screen option on some Android phones lets you interact with two apps on one screen. For instance, you can browse the Web while viewing an e-mail, or you can search the maps app for a restaurant and send a message.

On some phones, you can play a video within a smaller window on your phone's display while you read e-mails, browse the Web, or perform other tasks.

Near Field Communication (NFC)

This technology lets you beam Web links, contact information, and other small files between devices after you tap them together. It can also initiate media streams or large-file transfers over Wi-Fi or Bluetooth when two devices are bumped together.

Other NFC applications include reading smart tags and paying by phone at the register. While NFC has been available on Android phones for some time, it is a new feature on the latest iPhones, as are mobile payments.

Preset and custom text messages

Besides providing a quiet means of communication, text messages have been known to get through even when networks are overloaded.

Many phones come with preset messages, such as "running late" or "call home." And these also allow you to program customized messages for an emergency or frequent use, for example: "I've dropped Billy at soccer."

Programmable shortcuts

These let you assign functions to the phone's controls (touchscreen, buttons, etc.) so that you can quickly access contacts, apps, widgets, text messaging, camera, and other frequently used features.

QWERTY keyboard

Smartphones have touchscreens with virtual keyboards, though there are a few on the market with physical QWERTY keyboards.

Some users may prefer the feedback and feel of the raised keys on a physical keyboard, qualities that make it easier to type without looking.

But phones with physical QWERTY keyboards tend to be on the thick side, and the keyboards themselves may not be much better—or even as good—as the virtual keyboards on some of the latest phones.

Virtual keyboards often let you customize their layouts, change input options, and keep features such as predictive text at your fingertips to help you type quickly and accurately.

One downside to virtual keyboards is that they block a good portion of your phone's display. Regardless of which keyboard you go with—real or virtual—make sure it has all the keys you'll need, and that they are well spaced and easy to read under different lighting conditions.

Rugged phones

Such phones are designed to better withstand rain, high humidity, dust, dropping, vibration, or other harsh conditions, based in part in accordance with MIL-STD-810. Often, their innards should remain sand- and dirt-free when you're visiting rough terrain.

These models sometimes come with flashlights, compasses, and other apps that can be handy in the great outdoors, but they tend to be bulky.

Some normal-looking models can, according to spec, survive a 30-minute dunk in water up to three feet deep, some even more.

Of course, there are aftermarket phone cases that promise that type of protection for "non-tough" phones.

Smart screen

It's annoying when the phone screen times out on you while you're engrossed in an article or admiring a picture. But the front-facing camera on some Android phones can be set to monitor your eyes while you're reading a Web page or other document to prevent such occurrences.

Speakerphone

A built-in speakerphone, which allows hands-free use in a car or elsewhere. (But avoid using any phone, even hands free, while driving.)

Standard headset connector

The standard connector on the handset, also known as a 3.5-mm connector, is compatible with many aftermarket wired headsets. Some phones with a proprietary connector might include an adapter to a standard connector.

Touch-free control

With this feature on some Android phones, you can accept a call, move to another message, flip through photos, or skip to the next song on your playlist by waving your hand in front of the phone. These and other gestures might take some getting used to, however.

Touchscreen

Multi-touch displays typically allow you to zoom in and out of Web pages or photos by pinching or spreading your fingers, which gives you optimal control.

Some models let you write on the screen with your finger (or stylus) to jot down notes, draw, some even on images, Web pages, etc, which can be easily shared with others.

And while many touch screen displays only react to bare fingertips, some have settings or modes that allow you interact with them while you're wearing gloves.

Voice command

At its basic level, this feature lets you dial phone numbers by speaking the contact name or calling out the digits. It can also transcribe what you say into text for messages or browser searches.

Transcription accuracy has improved in recent years, but more impressive are the new levels of interaction that can be delivered via intelligent personal assistants, such as iPhone's Siri and Android's Google Now.

These assistants leverage advances in artificial intelligence to "understand" the context of your commands or questions when you to speak to them in plain English. They can also respond in plain English.

Besides initiating phone calls and sending dictated messages, intelligent personal assistants can schedule meetings and reminders, make notes, search the Internet, find local businesses, get directions, and make meaningful recommendations based on your GPS location, programmed preferences, and search history.

Wi-Fi

Smartphones with built-in Wi-Fi radios are able to realize fast Internet and e-mail access through home networks and Wi-Fi hotspots.

Wi-Fi can be used for everything from Web browsing to swapping files with a computer, and even making calls using Voice over Internet Protocol.

Some Wi-Fi wireless network technologies and standards include AirPlay, Wi-Fi direct, AllShare, and Miracast, and Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA). These enable phones to wirelessly share content and other files with HDTVs, tablets and other compatible devices.

Wireless charging

No more fumbling with adaptors and their sometime tricky jacks. Just lay the phone down on a special mat or dock and voila: Your phone begins to charge.

The feature, built into some models, is also available as an aftermarket add-on for some smartphones. That might require you to replace the phone's back cover with a special one, or put the phone in a special case.

The two main wireless-charging formats found in products today are Powermat by Duracell and Qi, pronounced "chee."

iPhones support the Powermat, while other phone platforms get a charge out of Qi. Samsung's Galaxy S6 smartphones are among the first we've seen to support both formats out of the box without any modifications.

Brands

Alcatel arrow  |  Amazon arrow  |  Apple arrow  |  BlackBerry arrow  |  HTC arrow  |  Kyocera arrow  |  LG arrow  |  Motorola Mobility arrow  |  Nexus arrow  |  Nokia arrow  |  Samsung arrow  |  Sony Mobile arrow

Alcatel

Alcatel is a brand within TCL Communications, one of the largest consumer electronics companies in the world.  It has established a small presence in the U.S. market with entry-to-midlevel smartphones primarily at T-Mobile.

Amazon

After successfully competing in the tablet market, this retailing behemoth launched its first smartphone.

The Fire is all things Amazon, heavily integrated with Amazon Prime, the Amazon Apps Store, the Kindle, and more. Several unique capabilities make it easy, and even fun, to spend money with the retail giant.

Firefly, for instance, is an onboard app that scans objects or listens to songs, movies, or television programs, then finds them in Amazon's content so you can buy them. Also interesting is Dynamic perspective, which can give 3D-like images onscreen.

Though technically an Android phone, its app choices are confined to Amazon's App Store, which is notably bereft of Google's apps.

Apple

Apple's smartphones have gone through years of conservative, incremental updates, but its latest models, the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, catch up to device offerings from other phone makers in a serious way.

The revamping includes a larger 4.7-inch and 5.5-inch screen respectively, a better battery life, enhanced messaging capabilities, and smart tweaks to their keyboard interfaces.

Their Touch ID fingerprint, which promises a safe transaction while eliminating the need to type in a PIN or perform other cumbersome steps, now support the new Apple Pay-wallet service.

BlackBerry

Once a leading handset manufacturer with fiercely loyal customers, BlackBerry has lost significant ground to devices running iOS and Android. It has a relatively small lineup. Nearly all models have a physical keyboard—a rarity with smartphones.

Some other BlackBerry strong points include phyical phone buttons, and a trackpad, useful for zipping through and selecting e-mail and messages, and makes it easy to change text, or select links on Web pages.

Its Classic, for instance has BlackBerrys' distinctly shaped, physical keyboard, a trackpad, and phone buttons. The Passport and Classic are geared toward enterprise-related tasks rather than wide-screen entertainment. And the Z10 is BlackBerrys' answer to a full touch-screen model. BlackBerry also offers models with or without a camera.

HTC

HTC, once a significant player in the category, has seen its share of the category decline but remains competitive with its flagship One series (now available in Android and Windows versions). Notable One-series features include amplified front-firing stereo speakers and a photo-rich interface called BlinkFeed.  

Kyocera

Kyocera's lineup is primarily focused on affordable rugged and waterproof smart phones—its newest waterproof series, the Hydro, is available at Sprint and T-Mobile, and the tough-minded Brigadier at Verizon.

LG

LG's G series smartphones are among the top performers in our Ratings. Models with Quad HD displays present photos, videos, web pages, and other objects with great detail.

LG phones typically have top-notch virtual keyboards with a dedicated row of numbers, though many models place the power and volume buttons in the back instead of the side, which some users may find awkward.

LG smartphones have among the industries most advanced technologies the Android platform has to offer. They include a feature that lets you intereact with two apps simultaneously on one screen. For instance, you can watch a video while viewing an e-mail, or you can use Google maps and messaging.

The front-facing cameras on many LGs monitor your eyes while you're reading a web page or other documents to prevent the screen from timing out.

Motorola Mobility

After a relatively short stint under the Google arm, Motorola Mobility has been purchased by Lenovo. Motorola Mobility offers a small but robust collection of phones, including the Droid line of phones on Verizon and the Moto X on multiple carriers. 

Some compelling Motorola features include always-on, voice-activated phone control, the ability to launch the phone camera with a twist of your wrist, and notifications that show up on your screen even when you're not using your phone.

You can also customize these models greatly, choosing such options as wood or leather finishes and a variety of color schemes. 

Nexus

The Nexus phone line lets smartphone users experience Google's latest version of Android without the sometimes-confounding embellishments other phone makers add to differentiate their devices.

The latest model, the Nexus 6, has a huge, excellent-quality 6-inch quad HD display, whose 2560x1440 resolution presents photos, videos, Web pages, and other objects with nearly 500 pixels per inch of detail.

Nokia

Nokia, one of the world's leading handset makers, is now owned by Microsoft.  In the U.S., it is mainly known for its Lumia line of phones that runs on the Windows Phone operating system. 

Samsung

Samsung is well known for its innovative designs and has one of the largest lineups of smartphones that run on the Windows and Android operating systems. 

Samsung smartphones have among the industry's most advanced technologies the Android platform has to offer.

They include a feature that lets you interact with two apps simultaneously on one screen. For instance, you can watch a video while viewing an e-mail, or you can use Google Maps and messaging. 

The front-facing cameras on many Samsung models monitor your eyes while you're reading a Web page or other documents to prevent the screen from timing out.

Notable lines include the Samsung Galaxy S and Galaxy Note series.

Sony Mobile

Sony Mobile offers a relatively small but competent lineup of Android smartphones. Its water-resistant Xperia Z line of phones have proven to be solid performers in our tests.

Shopping tips

How to choose and shop for a smartphone

 

Consider shape and size

Look for phones that you find comfortable to carry and operate with one hand. Models with very large screens are great for viewing Web pages, maps, and videos, but some may be more than a handful for most users.

Phones with a physical keyboard tend to be thicker. Some users may prefer the feedback and feel of a physical keyboard, though the virtual keyboards on some of the latest phones are also very good and often offer more options for customizing their layouts and features to better match your preferences.

Check the display

To most people, a smartphone is a portable window to the world of digital information. The bigger the window, the bigger the view.

A big screen has a direct impact on the presentation of Web pages, maps, videos, and photos. A large display also makes it easier to interact with your phone because Web links, app buttons, and keys on the virtual keyboard should be easier to spot.

But you can have too much of a good thing. Make sure the phone is not so big that it is uncomfortable to carry or difficult to operate with one hand. Also, pay attention to resolution.

Quad HD (1440x2560 resolution) displays should mean sharper pictures and some can exceed 500 pixels per inch. But in our tests, we found that most users won't notice the benefits in everyday use—partly because even the largest phones have relatively small displays.

Many smartphones have 1080p (1080x1920 resolution) displays for viewing full high-definition videos. Quad or full HD could be useful if you can connect the phone to a high-quality, high-resolution TV or monitor. You'll likely notice a difference, however, if you buy a phone with a display that isn't at least HD. And not in a good way. Stick with display resolutions of 720p and higher or 300 pixels per inch, or higher.

Also look for models that are easy to view in bright daylight. If possible, try the phone outside to make sure for instance, that you can see incoming and outgoing calls, read and compose messages, and view indicators such as battery life and signal strength.

Also check the display responsiveness to touch; launch an app or two, and zoom in and out of Web pages or photos by pinching or spreading you fingers. Some displays have the added convenience of being sensitive enough to work while you're wearing gloves.

Consider the keyboard

A phone's shape and size are largely determined by its keyboard and display. Smartphones have touchscreens with virtual keyboards, though there are a few on the market with a physical QWERTY keyboard.

Some users may prefer the feedback and feel of the raised keys on a physical keyboard, qualities that make it easier to type without looking. But phones with physical QWERTY keyboards tend to be on the thick side, and the keyboards themselves may not be much better—or even as good—as the virtual keyboards on some of the latest phones.

Virtual keyboards often let you customize their layouts, change input options, and keep features such as predictive text at your fingertips to help you type quickly and accurately. One downside to virtual keyboards is that they block a good portion of your phone's display.

Regardless of which keyboard you go with—real or virtual—make sure it has all the keys you'll need, and that they are well spaced and easy to read under different lighting conditions.

Consider the operating system

Smartphones all share the ability to browse the Web and run apps (Web applications), handle office and personal e-mail, multitask, and facilitate social networking. But how easily and how well you can do those tasks varies by operating system (OS).

Many smartphones have relatively large, multi-touch displays. Apps, which can be downloaded by the smartphone user, vary widely in number, variety, and price, according to the operating system.

Many apps are free, others cost a buck or two, and some go for hundreds of dollars. Some of the leading systems are Android, Apple iOS, BlackBerry, and Windows Phone.

Consider the data plan

Thanks to price-war incentives and greater plan flexibility, there are more opportunities now to save a few bucks on the new, no-contract plans from AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless—a.k.a. the Big Four.

These plans separate the purchase of the phone from the service charges, effectively giving you an interest-free loan you can pay off in about two years. When you’ve paid off the phone, your monthly bill goes down accordingly. And there are no termination fees; if you want to leave the carrier, you just pay any remaining balance on the phone.

Unfortunately, these plans are rather complicated, and the carriers have done their best to make apples-to-apples comparisons difficult among one another’s offerings. For example, they charge different rates for additional phone lines, break data allowances into chunks that don't match the competition’s, and provide differing discounts for multiple phones. In fact, plan pricing is so bizzare and counterintuitive that customers, particularly those with multiple phone lines, can often save money by buying more data for each phone.  

The good news: We’ve already done the math for you to help you find the best deal. And to make sure your needs are covered, we’ve presented the service-cost breakdowns for one to five family members for light, medium, and heavy data service. All you need to do is figure out how much data your family needs, which we also help you do in  "How much service do you need?"

Check for updates

Smartphone operating systems and apps require periodic updating. You might automatically be notified about an update (for example, via a message to your phone), but you should check for phone updates on your own.

Manufacturers and carriers often use updates to improve performance, such as battery life, or even add new features. In many cases, you can update your phone by looking for "update" under the settings menu, and following the instructions. Make sure you're in a good reception area to ensure that the file downloads fast and error free.

You should also periodically look up your phone on the websites of your carrier and phone's manufacturer. You might discover new features or learn how to use the ones you know more effectively.

Look for useful features

Today's phones come equipped with many useful calling and multimedia features, including a media player, a camera, and Web browsing, and child-location and call-management services. Some features, such as programmable shortcuts, Bluetooth, speakerphone, and voice command help make the phones easier to use.

Check for special prices and promotions

Rebates and special offers can be substantial, but they change frequently. To get the best deal, check the carrier's offerings online and in its retail stores, and then see what independent dealers offer at their websites and in their outlets.

If at all possible, buy a new phone when you're switching carriers or signing a new service commitment with your existing carrier. You almost always get a better deal—either a deeply discounted price or even a free phone—when you're signing a contract.

Be aware that some rebates are offered only if you also sign up for a data plan.

Check the return policy—and recycle old phones

Make sure you can return the phone if you're not happy with it. Some stores attach stiff service-cancellation fees on top of what a carrier might charge. Also, if you want to recycle an old phone or the battery, call 877-273-2925 or visit www.call2recycle.org.

Before turning in your smartphone for recycling:

  1. If you haven't synced your photos and other personal documents with a "cloud" service like iCloud for iPhone, SkyDrive for Windows Phone, or one of the several dozen available to Android phone users, back them up to your computer. Don't worry about e-mails, calendar appointments, and apps. Their data are stored on remote servers and will automatically flow into your new phone when you sign into your accounts. If all of your pics and docs are on a removable memory card, just remove the card.
  2. Go into your phone's settings and look for "Factory Data Reset," or something to that effect. This may be a Settings sub-menu item under "Backup and Reset" or "Privacy." Make sure you select the "erase everything" option if there is one.
  3. Repeat the reset process one more time.
  4. If your phone has a removable SIM card (fingernail-sized card that has your phone account on it), remove that as well.

Don't buy phone insurance

Cell carriers will insure your phone for about $4 to $8 a month with a $25 to $100 or more deductible, but they can replace your lost, stolen, or damaged phone with a repaired, refurbished one.

We don't think insurance or extended warranties are worth it. Only 15 percent of buyers polled got a new phone because the old one broke, and only 2 percent because the phone was lost or stolen.

A better idea: Keep your old phone until the new phone's contract ends. If you lose or break the new phone, reactivate the old one and use it until you qualify for a free or low-cost phone.

Smartphone operating systems

Smartphones all share the ability to browse the Web and run apps (Web applications), handle office and personal e-mail, multitask, and facilitate social networking. But how easily and how well you can do those tasks varies by operating system (OS). Here's your guide to all of them:

Read more about the leading operating systems:

Android
Apple iOS
BlackBerry
Windows Phone 

Android

 

The phones

If you want a wide choice of phones, you've come to the right place.

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 interface

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.

Apple iOS

 

The phones

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.

The interface

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.

BlackBerry

 

The phones

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 interface

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

 

The phones

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.

The interface

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.

Guide to cell phone carriers

When's the last time you heard anyone describe herself as "completely satisfied" with her cellular service? That's the kind of feedback we got from customers of several upstart carriers in Consumer Reports National Research Center's annual cell phone service satisfaction survey. (The survey was fielded in September to 63,352 ConsumerReports.org subscribers.)

Among the smaller carriers in our Ratings (available to subscribers) of traditional (aka postpaid) cell service are Consumer Cellular, which stands out for value, data service, and customer support, and Ting, which scored high for value and data service. The results from our most recent survey can be found in our February 2015 report, How to Save Money on Your Cell Phone Bill.

The picture was not so rosy for the major carriers. While Verizon gets very good scores for voice and texting service, it has a very poor rating on value. T-Mobile's parity with Verizon is a result of a jump in T-Mobile's overall satisfaction from last year, and a drop in Verizon's overall score. T-Mobile's rise in 2014 is largely attributable to a bump in perceived value by customers.

This might be a result of T-Mobile's aggressive "Uncarrier" strategy, which effectively decouples the purchase of your phone with the payment of your plan. Ironically, T-Mobile's good score for value makes it a standout among the big four carriers; the other three rate very poor.

The biggest black eye of our survey is reserved for Sprint, which ranks dead last with a very poor score for value, a poor score on data service, and middling results for voice and text.

National data paints a broad-strokes picture of overall carrier satisfaction, but for detailed results specific to your region, check our cell phone service provider Ratings for 26 metro areas (available to subscriber).

Consider the wireless technology

Major carriers Sprint and Verizon networks use a technology loosely labeled Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA), while AT&T and T-Mobile use Global System for Mobile communication (GSM) and Universal Mobile Telecommunications System (UMTS) technologies. These major carriers have now supplemented their third-generation (3G) networks with "4G" LTE networks that provide faster data service.

Sprint and Verizon phones, and AT&T and T-Mobile phones, may be able to roam on each other's network, respectively, but they're advanced 3G and 4G services have some compatibility issues. In other words, when roaming, you may not have access to them.

GSM smartphones work more widely across the world than do CDMA models, though many CDMA models also support the frequency bands and technologies used abroad.

The SIM card in your smartphone stores your account information and other details. When you switch to a new phone, you can remove the card from the old phone and insert it into the new one. But this can be tricky as there are different-size cards, and older cards may not be compatible with newer carrier services.

Also, you can't use a T-Mobile SIM card in an AT&T phone, and vice versa, and you can't use a Sprint SIM card in an Verizon phone, and vice versa.

Consider the data network

Cell carriers continue upgrading their networks to fourth-generation (4G) wireless communications.

Compared to 3G networks, 4G networks enable faster streaming, downloading, and uploading of high-definition videos and other large files. They also facilitate better Web browsing and support video chats.

All four of the major carriers provide varying 4G coverage based on one or more of the following technologies: HSPA+ (Evolved High-Speed Packet Access) and LTE (Long-Term Evolution).

Verizon's 4G network, which launched in 2011, is exclusively based on LTE, potentially the fastest and most dynamic of the three technologies.

Sprint was the first carrier to offer a "4G" network in 2010 that was based on WiMAX (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access) technology. The carrier began migrating to LTE in April 2012, as it phases out support WiMAX.

AT&T and T-Mobile launched 4G services based on HSPA+ technology, which is actually an upgrade of their existing 3G networks. Both carriers have since deployed a 4G network based on LTE. Many of their smartphones have the ability to run on both its LTE and HSPA+ 4G networks.

Phones marooned on 3G networks are still fine for Web surfing, streaming videos or music, and downloading attachments. Check with your carrier to see which broadband data networks are supported in your area.

For more information on which wireless service provider performed best in your area, check out our cell phone service Ratings by city and our overall cell-phone services Recommendations (both available to subscribers).

Here's what you should know about the four largest wireless service providers:

The Big Four

AT&T earned an excellent score for 4G service in our Ratings, though customers were significantly less thrilled with other areas of its service.

 

AT&T is one of the two largest carriers, along with Verizon, and uses GSM-based technology. It also has LTE (Long Term Evolution) and HSPA+ "4G" networks.

 

Many phones can be used outside the U.S.

 

AT&T phones can handle voice calls and data-dependent features simultaneously over its cellular network.

 

AT&T's prepaid service is GoPhone.

Sprint has fallen to the bottom of the Ratings, receiving low marks for value, voice, text, and 4G reliability.

 

It uses CDMA-based technology and its high-speed 4G network uses LTE technology. The carrier's rolling out its updated 4G LTE service called Spark, which is technically faster than its it "regular" 4G LTE service.

 

Only Sprint phones designated Spark compatible can make a Spark connection. However, we found that Spark phones can't handle voice calls and data-dependent features simultaneously over Sprint's cellular network—something nearly all older Sprint LTE phones can do, except the iPhones.

 

Sprint's other brands include Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile, which are prepaid carriers that use Sprint's network to deliver their respective services. A number of phones can be used abroad.

Among the Big Four carriers, T-Mobile outperformed the big carriers in terms of perceived value, though it's way behind many of the smaller cell providers in our survey.

 

It uses GSM-based technology. It also has LTE (Long Term Evolution) and HSPA+ "4G" networks.

 

Many phones can be used outside the U.S. T-Mobile phones can handle voice calls and data-dependent features simultaneously over its cellular network.

 

T-Mobile offers most of its phones, smart and regular without a contract.

 

T-Mobile owns prepaid provider MetroPCS.

Verizon Wireless is among the two largest carriers, along with AT&T. Among the Big Four carriers, Verizon's voice, text, and Web performance was judged among the best, though, like AT&T and Sprint, scored poorly for perceived value.

 

Verizon uses CDMA-based technology and has rolled out its LTE (Long Term Evolution) 4G network across the U.S. Nearly all Verizon LTE phones can handle voice calls and data-dependent features simultaneously over its cellular network.

 

Models that support Advanced calling (VoLTE) can simultaneous handle voice and data over the Verizon network, though it may have to be activated by the user. Verizon offers many of its phones, smart and regular, with or without a contract.

   

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