Buying a Mobile Phone: 18 Questions to Ask

What to look for, what to ask and what to avoid when shopping for a smartphone, feature phone or basic cell phone.

You or someone in your family needs or wants to buy a new mobile phone. Selecting the right one shouldn’t be too hard, right? Guess again. Regardless of whether it’s your first or your 15th, buying a phone today is a lot more complicated than it was just a few years ago. But you’ll have an easier time finding that handheld if you ask yourself these 20 questions before you shop.

Motorola Razr i smartphone

Smartphones have become the handheld of choice due to their many capabilities, but there's still a use for less-capable basic cell phones.

1. Do I want a smartphone or “standard” cell phone?

This question is easier to answer now than it was a few years ago, when the so-called dumb phone still seemed practical for those who only used their phones to make and receive calls. But the various features available with smartphones — 4G connectivity, a better-resolution camera, texting, a bigger display and greater memory, among them — as well as shrinking variety of standard units, could make the basic cell phone all but obsolete in many consumers’ eyes. The price tag still carries weight, as smartphones can sell for up to five times the price of the basic versions. And, to enjoy all the features of a smartphone, you also need to pay for data service.

2. What’s the phone’s call quality like?

Individual phones can vary in reception, earpiece quality, transmission quality and even speakerphone volume. You’ll want to read user reviews for various models for a better idea of which ones work best. If you’re in a bricks-and-mortar store, ask to make a few test calls. Don’t be fooled by price: Some of the least-expensive phones have the best call quality, while some of the higher-priced models offer substandard sound.

3: How ergonomically friendly is the phone?

Check if the phone is actually comfortable against your ear, and whether you can hear callers without constantly adjusting the phone’s position in your hand. Moreover, can you use the phone in one hand? Although you should always use a hands-free earpiece or headset when driving, you’ll also want to check if you can comfortably hold the phone between your neck and shoulder if that’s ever necessary.

4: Does the design work for me?

Consider whether the phone fits comfortably within a pocket or purse, and the availability (and style) of protective carrying cases. Also, make sure the phone is durable enough for your lifestyle. If you’re the outdoors type or you’re accident prone, you may want a phone that’s more impact- and water-resistant.

5: Do I like the display?

Apple iPhone 5 ZTE Grand S Huawei AscendMate

The display is a key element to how well you enjoy your phone. Many types exist, some with only subtle differences.

Consider the size of the display screen (at least 3 inches in diameter; 4 or more is better if you’re going to edit documents or spend a lot of time on the Web), its type (touchscreen or QWERTY slider), and its resolution. The higher the resolution, the better photos and videos will look. Also consider the ability to adjust screen contrast and backlight settings, as well as contrast and brightness. Finally, you’ll have a host of types of screens to contend with, such as the low-end QVGA, the everyday TFT-LCD, and the eye-friendly Retina and Super AMOLED HD displays.

6: What operating system is the right one?

The two most widely adopted platforms are Google’s Android operating system and Apple’s iOS. But BlackBerry’s OS and Microsoft’s Windows Phone have their advantages as well. Take time to familiarize yourself with each before you settle on one.

7: How does it access the Internet?

In the United States, you basically have a choice between 3G (“third generation”) and 4G (“fourth”) wireless if you want a smartphone. 4G is generally faster, but still has fewer coverage areas. Also, exact speed comparisons between the two vary: Some 3G protocols can achieve 4G-like speeds. Keep in mind that 4G will definitely be faster than 3G only if they’re on the same carrier. Otherwise, you’ll need to gauge the way you plan to use the phone against service cost and availability.

8: How easy is it to use?

Touchscreens are all the rage, as they make it very easy to go from one app to another. But some people find such little nuances as texting a nuisance. That leaves you with models that use QWERTY keyboards and standard push-button scrolling, which are slower but less prone to “pushed the wrong place”-type errors.

9: What cutting-edge features should I look for?

There’s always something deemed “latest and greatest,” and you’ll need to think carefully about investing in any of them. For one, they might not turn out to be something you really need. And, you might pay a premium for that ultra-hot item now but be able to get it for far less a few months later. Some examples of these are near-field communication (NFC), which enables data exchange between phones by tapping them together; wireless charging, which has been available for a couple years for various household appliances; and advanced Bluetooth hands-free audio, which allows mobile phone connection to items such as wireless stereo headsets and fitness trackers.

10: How much tech support can I get?

Not all manufacturers provide the same degree of aid when it comes to helping you actually use your phone. This is especially true in regards to third-party apps.

11: How much variety do I have in my phone?

You’ll want to think product selection. For example, in the United States, Android phones are available from seven major U.S. carriers (AT&T alone, for example, currently sells more than 20 different models). At the other end of the spectrum is Apple with its iPhone 4s and iPhone 5 models.

App Store on Smartphone

Your smartphone isn't as smart without various downloadable apps, which can be found at such app stores as the Apple App Store and Google Play.

12: What about apps?

If you’re buying a dumb cell phone or a feature phone, this question won’t mean much. If you’re shopping for a smartphone, you’ll want to think about the types of apps you might need, and from where to get them. For example, the Apple App store and Google Play each have more than 700,000 apps.

13: Does it have a good camera?

Today’s smartphones, and even basic phones, are almost on par with regular camera and video cameras when it comes to everyday photos. Bare minimum, you’ll want a phone with a 3-megapixel camera, although most are 5MP or greater now. If you want to post videos online, you’ll want a handset that captures at least 640-by-480 pixel videos at 30 frames per second or better.

14: How’s the battery life?

How long your phone can run between charges varies greatly: The more features you pack onto a phone, the shorter the battery life. Ideally, you’d want to be able to go 2-3 days between phone charges, but in some cases you’ll only reach that total through use of task killers and battery management apps (two things to check for when buying the phone). Also remember that a phone’s battery life will decrease over time simply through regular use.

15: How much do I want to spend?

Go into your shopping with a set amount in mind. Remember that you’re buying a consumable that is designed to last at least 2 years — the length of a standard phone service contract — so you may not want to bargain shop. Also remember that in addition to the phone, there are accessories, insurance plans and various apps to consider purchasing.

16: What will this really cost me?

Sure, the phone sells for one price, and it’s one that’s usually far below normal if you agree to a service plan contract. The phone itself could be a one-time cost of $50 to $1,200, depending on the system. As for the service plan, that could cost you $30 to $150 per phone per month, depending on exactly which plan you choose.

4 US Wireless Carriers

The four biggest cell phone service providers in the United States all offer contract plans, but they vary slightly depending on your exact need.

17: Which carrier do I choose?

No matter what phone you buy, it’s a paperweight without an actual service provider. For example, the U.S. Big Four — AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon — offer similar plans at comparable rates, although some differences exist when it comes to the type of network used for 3G and 4G service, the ability to stream videos, and availability of family sharing plans. Many smaller, regional providers are out there, too. Cellular markets outside the U.S. are characterized by vibrant competition, often between former wireline incumbents and new market entrants. Shop around for the best deal, and be sure to read the fine print.

18: Do I opt for a contract, pay-as-you-go or prepaid service plan?

This depends on whether you’re going to need full-featured coverage nationwide (and worldwide), or if you can stick with mostly local coverage. Bigger players offer a variety of voice and data coverage plans for national use, but only if you agree to a multi-year contract. On the other hand, smaller, regional service providers offer month-to-month contracts, allowing you to change your plan as needed, but your overall rates are higher (especially outside your network). If you don’t think you need a plan with all of the bells and whistles, pay-as-you-go might be worth it. Another option: prepaid service, which allows you to better control how much you spend each month on your phone.

Buying a Mobile Phone: 18 Questions to Ask

What to look for, what to ask and what to avoid when shopping for a smartphone, feature phone or basic cell phone.

You or someone in your family needs or wants to buy a new mobile phone. Selecting the right one shouldn’t be too hard, right? Guess again. Regardless of whether it’s your first or your 15th, buying a phone today is a lot more complicated than it was just a few years ago. But you’ll have an easier time finding that handheld if you ask yourself these 20 questions before you shop.

Motorola Razr i smartphone

Smartphones have become the handheld of choice due to their many capabilities, but there's still a use for less-capable basic cell phones.

1. Do I want a smartphone or “standard” cell phone?

This question is easier to answer now than it was a few years ago, when the so-called dumb phone still seemed practical for those who only used their phones to make and receive calls. But the various features available with smartphones — 4G connectivity, a better-resolution camera, texting, a bigger display and greater memory, among them — as well as shrinking variety of standard units, could make the basic cell phone all but obsolete in many consumers’ eyes. The price tag still carries weight, as smartphones can sell for up to five times the price of the basic versions. And, to enjoy all the features of a smartphone, you also need to pay for data service.

2. What’s the phone’s call quality like?

Individual phones can vary in reception, earpiece quality, transmission quality and even speakerphone volume. You’ll want to read user reviews for various models for a better idea of which ones work best. If you’re in a bricks-and-mortar store, ask to make a few test calls. Don’t be fooled by price: Some of the least-expensive phones have the best call quality, while some of the higher-priced models offer substandard sound.

3: How ergonomically friendly is the phone?

Check if the phone is actually comfortable against your ear, and whether you can hear callers without constantly adjusting the phone’s position in your hand. Moreover, can you use the phone in one hand? Although you should always use a hands-free earpiece or headset when driving, you’ll also want to check if you can comfortably hold the phone between your neck and shoulder if that’s ever necessary.

4: Does the design work for me?

Consider whether the phone fits comfortably within a pocket or purse, and the availability (and style) of protective carrying cases. Also, make sure the phone is durable enough for your lifestyle. If you’re the outdoors type or you’re accident prone, you may want a phone that’s more impact- and water-resistant.

5: Do I like the display?

Apple iPhone 5 ZTE Grand S Huawei AscendMate

The display is a key element to how well you enjoy your phone. Many types exist, some with only subtle differences.

Consider the size of the display screen (at least 3 inches in diameter; 4 or more is better if you’re going to edit documents or spend a lot of time on the Web), its type (touchscreen or QWERTY slider), and its resolution. The higher the resolution, the better photos and videos will look. Also consider the ability to adjust screen contrast and backlight settings, as well as contrast and brightness. Finally, you’ll have a host of types of screens to contend with, such as the low-end QVGA, the everyday TFT-LCD, and the eye-friendly Retina and Super AMOLED HD displays.

6: What operating system is the right one?

The two most widely adopted platforms are Google’s Android operating system and Apple’s iOS. But BlackBerry’s OS and Microsoft’s Windows Phone have their advantages as well. Take time to familiarize yourself with each before you settle on one.

7: How does it access the Internet?

In the United States, you basically have a choice between 3G (“third generation”) and 4G (“fourth”) wireless if you want a smartphone. 4G is generally faster, but still has fewer coverage areas. Also, exact speed comparisons between the two vary: Some 3G protocols can achieve 4G-like speeds. Keep in mind that 4G will definitely be faster than 3G only if they’re on the same carrier. Otherwise, you’ll need to gauge the way you plan to use the phone against service cost and availability.

8: How easy is it to use?

Touchscreens are all the rage, as they make it very easy to go from one app to another. But some people find such little nuances as texting a nuisance. That leaves you with models that use QWERTY keyboards and standard push-button scrolling, which are slower but less prone to “pushed the wrong place”-type errors.

9: What cutting-edge features should I look for?

There’s always something deemed “latest and greatest,” and you’ll need to think carefully about investing in any of them. For one, they might not turn out to be something you really need. And, you might pay a premium for that ultra-hot item now but be able to get it for far less a few months later. Some examples of these are near-field communication (NFC), which enables data exchange between phones by tapping them together; wireless charging, which has been available for a couple years for various household appliances; and advanced Bluetooth hands-free audio, which allows mobile phone connection to items such as wireless stereo headsets and fitness trackers.

10: How much tech support can I get?

Not all manufacturers provide the same degree of aid when it comes to helping you actually use your phone. This is especially true in regards to third-party apps.

11: How much variety do I have in my phone?

You’ll want to think product selection. For example, in the United States, Android phones are available from seven major U.S. carriers (AT&T alone, for example, currently sells more than 20 different models). At the other end of the spectrum is Apple with its iPhone 4s and iPhone 5 models.

App Store on Smartphone

Your smartphone isn't as smart without various downloadable apps, which can be found at such app stores as the Apple App Store and Google Play.

12: What about apps?

If you’re buying a dumb cell phone or a feature phone, this question won’t mean much. If you’re shopping for a smartphone, you’ll want to think about the types of apps you might need, and from where to get them. For example, the Apple App store and Google Play each have more than 700,000 apps.

13: Does it have a good camera?

Today’s smartphones, and even basic phones, are almost on par with regular camera and video cameras when it comes to everyday photos. Bare minimum, you’ll want a phone with a 3-megapixel camera, although most are 5MP or greater now. If you want to post videos online, you’ll want a handset that captures at least 640-by-480 pixel videos at 30 frames per second or better.

14: How’s the battery life?

How long your phone can run between charges varies greatly: The more features you pack onto a phone, the shorter the battery life. Ideally, you’d want to be able to go 2-3 days between phone charges, but in some cases you’ll only reach that total through use of task killers and battery management apps (two things to check for when buying the phone). Also remember that a phone’s battery life will decrease over time simply through regular use.

15: How much do I want to spend?

Go into your shopping with a set amount in mind. Remember that you’re buying a consumable that is designed to last at least 2 years — the length of a standard phone service contract — so you may not want to bargain shop. Also remember that in addition to the phone, there are accessories, insurance plans and various apps to consider purchasing.

16: What will this really cost me?

Sure, the phone sells for one price, and it’s one that’s usually far below normal if you agree to a service plan contract. The phone itself could be a one-time cost of $50 to $1,200, depending on the system. As for the service plan, that could cost you $30 to $150 per phone per month, depending on exactly which plan you choose.

4 US Wireless Carriers

The four biggest cell phone service providers in the United States all offer contract plans, but they vary slightly depending on your exact need.

17: Which carrier do I choose?

No matter what phone you buy, it’s a paperweight without an actual service provider. For example, the U.S. Big Four — AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon — offer similar plans at comparable rates, although some differences exist when it comes to the type of network used for 3G and 4G service, the ability to stream videos, and availability of family sharing plans. Many smaller, regional providers are out there, too. Cellular markets outside the U.S. are characterized by vibrant competition, often between former wireline incumbents and new market entrants. Shop around for the best deal, and be sure to read the fine print.

18: Do I opt for a contract, pay-as-you-go or prepaid service plan?

This depends on whether you’re going to need full-featured coverage nationwide (and worldwide), or if you can stick with mostly local coverage. Bigger players offer a variety of voice and data coverage plans for national use, but only if you agree to a multi-year contract. On the other hand, smaller, regional service providers offer month-to-month contracts, allowing you to change your plan as needed, but your overall rates are higher (especially outside your network). If you don’t think you need a plan with all of the bells and whistles, pay-as-you-go might be worth it. Another option: prepaid service, which allows you to better control how much you spend each month on your phone.