The Definitive Answer Guide to Which Smartphone You Should Buy

by Brian S Hall   |   May 12th, 2013

Forget all the rumors of an Apple iWatch. Ignore the surprisingly good reviews of Google Glass. Neither of these will come close to replacing your smartphone. Not for many, many years; probably never. The question is not whether  you will buy a smartphone – you will. The question is: which smartphone should you buy?

I am here to help. Don’t worry, I promise this will be painless.

I’ve traversed two decades in the telecommunications industry and have spent ridiculous amounts of time over the years testing and sampling various smartphones across just about every single platform, price point and form factor. If it means anything to you, I even own a MeeGo. Looks great, but unfortunately it works about as well as your four-year-old netbook.

Let’s begin.

Dear Brian…

Which smartphone should I buy?

The iPhone 4S.

Perfectly designed, flawless to operate, affordable. Apple offers the best, most robust, most pleasing ecosystem of apps, games, content, payments, customer support, product integration and accessories. I cannot say exactly how many billions Microsoft, Google and others have spent over the years attempting to equal the iPhone’s operating system – iOS – but I can say that none have yet met the challenge.

Apple’s iPhone repeatedly tops the competition in customer satisfaction ratings. iPhone users are much more likely to stick with iPhone compared to Android users. That should tell you all you need to know.

Done! That was easy.

What? You have more questions? My singular advice simply not enough? Fine. What else?

Why not iPhone 5?

There is a reason why the iPhone 4S continues to sell so well around the globe: on form and function, ecosystem and compatibility, the 4S offers the best bang for the buck of any smartphone on the market, bar none.

Yes, the iPhone 5 is a great device. It has superior hardware specs to the 4S. In my opinion, however, it feels too delicate. It’s design is not perfect. iPhone 5 is too long and narrow. For many people, particularly women, they can’t control the entire screen with a single swipe of the thumb.

iPhone 5

I hate Apple!

No, you do not. Besides, Apple, just like Nokia, Google, Samsung et al is a giant, for-profit corporation unaware of your existence. This is not about them, this is about you – and the best smartphone for you. Get the iPhone 4S.

Don’t care. I refuse to buy an iPhone!

Fine. Buy an HTC One, it’s a good phone.

You’re saying the HTC One is better than the Samsung Galaxy S4?

No. I think the S4 is slightly better. But if you buy the S4 all your friends will think you did so only because of all those Samsung commercials.

Not a Droid or LG?

No.

Shouldn’t I just wait for the latest model?

I cannot recommend that which does not exist.

I read that Android has surpassed iPhone. True?

After years of slavishly copying iPhone, the Android UI inexplicably remains almost willfully confusing. This is compounded by the greed and short-sightedness of carriers and handset makers. However, Google nearly makes up for this with great search, maps, Google Now notifications and other services optimized for Android. Plus, many handset makers like Samsung put amazing hardware into their devices. If you simply cannot bring yourself to get iPhone, an Android is a suitable alternative.

What about all the “phablets” I keep hearing about? Should I get one of those?

No.

But…

Do not be swayed by that big screen – even if you can hold the device in one hand comfortably.  Smartphones are not televisions. You take your smartphone with you everywhere. You use it constantly. A phablet is almost certainly not right for you. Form is a primal factor in choosing the right smartphone and the phablet form is an evolutionary dead-end. The one thing it does well – offer a very large display – simply cannot overcome all that it does bad. Phablets are too big, too wide, too heavy and not optimized for the role they attempt to fill: a multi-purpose, always-on, fully mobile personal computer.

I’m going to buy a phablet anyway. I like the big screen.

If you insist, then I recommend you get the new Samsung Galaxy Note II. You will regret this.

You obviously hate Windows Phone.

How Nokia could have blown through two plus years of development and delivered only the Lumia 920 and the 928 (soon), is beyond my comprehension. Windows Phone deserves a far better flagship device.

But I do not hate Windows Phone – the operating system. It’s a beautiful, reasonably intuitive, highly customizable UI that delivers real-time updates probably better than any other platform. The problem, though, is that Microsoft simply made the wrong UI choice. I suspect they will never recover from it. Singular, static apps really do work better for smartphones – as iPhone has proven repeatedly – than the “live tiles” format that Windows Phone adopted.

My daughter loves Facebook. Should I get her one of those HTC Facebook Phones?

No.

But she really loves Facebook.

Get her any other (non-Windows Phone) phone listed here. I promise you, she will be fine.

I think you’re wrong about the iPhone 5.

The iPhone 5 was a very clever attempt by Apple to build a device with a larger display – as the market demanded – while maintaining all the benefits of their app ecosystem. Apple can and will do better.

I cannot afford any of these devices.

Whatever smartphone you choose, assume you will have it for between 1-3 years. The cost of the device itself will almost certainly be less than the cost for voice, data and texting services. Plus, you will buy apps, music and other content, and accessories – such as a car charger, stereo speaker and case – for your smartphone. Factor all of these costs into your decision.

If you still decide to go with a low-priced device, get last year’s top-of-the-line Samsung: the Galaxy S III. If you can get a refurbished model, this is a truly great buy. If you cannot afford this, I would encourage you to not buy a smartphone at all. Get a quality feature phone with a physical QWERTY keyboard. There are many options available.

My company doesn’t allow me to use iPhone or Android.

Delta doesn’t allow me to have my smartphone running during take-off. That’s never stopped me.

I can’t possibly type on that touchscreen. I need a real keyboard.

You will learn.

I refuse.

Then, wait. Very soon you can have a BlackBerry Q10. I think you will be impressed. (Note: do not get the BlackBerry Z10)

Blackberry_Q10

Which carrier should I go with?

That I cannot help you with. They all have their own unique set of faults.

Brian S Hall

Brian S Hall writes about technology and change. His work has appeared in Techpinions, ReadWrite, the Wall Street Journal, LinkedIn, The Push, CIO and Business Insider. His latest novel, "Love in the Time of Caller ID" is available from Amazon and on iBooks.
  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1573495479 Rene Stein

    Entertaining Q&A session, but I think most rich westerners need to think a bit more in depth. People need to look into which ecosystem they want to invest in. And, in order to get the most out of it, you need to invest in it over the long term.

    My solution to the small screen of phones, iPad Mini with cellular connectivity, and a Nokia 1280 for phone calls and SMS, can’t wait till I don’t need the phone. Just carry it around in a satchel, and I love the big screen for gaming and apps. If I could SMS with it, it would be perfect.

    • http://www.brianshall.com/ Brian S Hall

      Could the iPad Mini with Retina Display and full voice, voip, and SMS/MMS capabilities be Apple’s big announcement this year?

      • stevesup

        Or an iPad Micro, Touch, with data connectivity. Hallelujah.

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1573495479 Rene Stein

          You mean an iPhone?

          • stevesup

            I should have said: I don’t need voice connection; messaging and mailing will do just fine.

          • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1573495479 Rene Stein

            Oh, iPod Touch then? Sexy looking things, I wish the iPhone looked like them. I’m being only partially cheeky here. I wish they had an iPod Touch with 3G.

          • pawhite524

            Agreed It’s just that, imo, this won’t be occurring until the iPhone 4 and 4S models are history. As of now, they are what you are describing, no?

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1573495479 Rene Stein

        I don’t know, does a process shrunk A6X meet the thermal requirements to fit in an iPad Mini case? Because my guess is that is what they would need to drive it. I still think that the carriers have too much say to allow Apple to sell the iPad Mini with SMS/Voice capabilities.

  • http://twitter.com/DarkTemplar1111 Dark Templar

    Cool guide.

    Apple makes great smartphones indeed, although I am more impressed by their tablets. I also think that the HTC One is not just a good smartphone, but an excellent one.

    • benbajarin

      Yes, I would agree the HTC One is quite fantastic. Best Android phone to date. But for many non-techies, I still have a hard time recommending Android. Especially if they have no preference yet.

      • http://drrjv.wordpress.com/ drrjv

        Is the HTC One not upgradable to the newest version of Android?

        • benbajarin

          Not yet. No idea when 4.2 comes out. Which really sucks because I really like lock screen widgets.

    • http://www.brianshall.com/ Brian S Hall

      I find the One a bit too delicate. Hard to go wrong, though, with the HTC One or Galaxy S4 if you want an Android.

  • Glaurung-Quena

    “The iPhone 5 was a very clever attempt by Apple to build a device with a
    larger display – as the market demanded – while maintaining all the
    benefits of their app ecosystem.”

    My understanding was that it was a radio engineering decision in disguise — the pair of LTE antennas needed to be a certain distance apart to function properly, which meant making a longer phone. Since they were going longer, they expanded the screen since that was a marketing thing that people could understand.

    • benbajarin

      That’s interesting, I had not heard that before. I’m still hoping for a larger iPhone next time around.

      • http://twitter.com/DarkTemplar1111 Dark Templar

        will the 5S sport a bigger screen or will we have to wait until 2014 for that ?

        • benbajarin

          I have been digging in my supply chain contacts to try to get to the bottom of this. I’m hearing more about a more affordable iPhone than I am about a larger screen. But that is due to material changes. If Apple was planning a bigger screen iPhone, using many of the same components or designs of the 5 than it wouldn’t necessarily alter the key things I can track.

          I’ve repeatedly made the case for this and will as well in an article I want to publish this week that share some similarities to Brian’s on my discussions on helping consumer choose a smart phone. But will also add some interesting points I have not heard brought up before. Stay tuned.

        • http://twitter.com/DarkTemplar1111 Dark Templar

          Thanks Ben !

  • Rich

    Brian, there are some people who just don’t like Apple. Their reasons vary but that’s how they feel, and your saying “No you do not” will sound absurd to them.

    (BTW I’m not one of them – I’m a big fan of Apple.)

    • http://twitter.com/coolgato13 Maurice Bigio

      You do not discuss a very big issue for me and many other smartphone users…. battery life. On that score which is better the iPhone 4s or the Galaxy S4? Is it too much to ask that a fully charged phone battery last for a normal working day say 8 to 10 hours?

  • benbajarin

    I’m looking forward to another one of these in Q4 :)

  • Chris BSomething

    The iPhone 5 feels delicate? Who gives a rip, when the drop tests say that the iPhone 5 is *MUCH* tougher than the iPhone 4S. Not to mention they have really upgraded the notoriously unreliable home button, which on the 4S inevitably goes spongy after a year’s use. And I would never go back to that smaller 4S screen. Sorry, this is truly very bad advice.

    • http://www.brianshall.com/ Brian S Hall

      Wow. Some 4S hate. Fair enough – these devices are always with us, it’s a highly personal choice. But I stand by what I wrote: the iPhone 4S is the one phone for all.

      • jfutral

        I don’t know about any drop tests, but I have to say I skipped the 4 and 4s because of the glass front and back. I did inherit my wife’s 4 when she upgraded to the 4s. But when my wife, who is far more careful with her phone than I am, cracked the back by accident when it fell on _wood_, I knew I did not stand a chance. I’ve replaced the back twice and the screen twice on the 4. The 5 has proven far more rugged to me.

        Joe

  • http://macsmiley.tumblr.com/ MacSmiley

    The 4S fits my hand better, but my iPhone 5 is my only access to the Internet, so bigger phone got the nod.

    Another consideration: iPhone users are more apt to upgrade iOS at each iteration. Eventually, you hit a hardware wall. That will happen sooner, not later, when buying last year’s tech.

    • http://www.brianshall.com/ Brian S Hall

      Interesting. Why not a larger Galaxy screen? Or Note?

      • http://macsmiley.tumblr.com/ MacSmiley

        Female. Small hands. iPhone 5 is the same width as the 4S but taller, so the more compact “feel” was really an optical and psychological illusion.

        The Galaxy S3 (in January) not only felt like junky plastic, but the Samsung is too wide for me to hold in one hand securely, much less hold and scroll one handed. Same goes for the S4 which I only handled for the first time today.

        The Note is so large, I’d get cramps just trying to hold onto it while using it two handed.

        Another consideration: there’s no way either Samsung will fit in that womanly spare “pocket” between the…um…wait…Is that TMI? ;-)

  • http://twitter.com/bufalobobb BuffaloBob

    I like this no nonsense, straight to the point evaluation. Ok, Brian which tablet should I buy? Should I buy one with built-in 4G or get a hot spot? Don’t really want to haul my laptop around.

    • http://www.brianshall.com/ Brian S Hall

      That’s for another post;-)

  • stevesup

    That’s a bit impulsive or intuitive.

    Better? Decide what software and services you need and let the job to be done drive hardware decisions. If nothing else, it will drive the decision to get 32 Gbs; 16 Gbs soon becomes too small. Maybe it’s mail, travel, photos, contacts, etc. Some of these platforms are better than others at specific tasks. If you own Macs, iCloud is a bit of magic as a service.

    Bitter? If you hate your carrier, buy an iPhone. Carriers hate paying that very high subsidy to Apple. And you pay the same contract cost as someone who gets a cheaper phone. Why do that?

  • pawhite524

    Brian,

    Thanks for a truly entertaining and very informative opinion piece. Kudos!

    One consideration not mentioned in my decision to go with the 4S instead of the iPhone 5 is I do not live near now, nor expect to soon, an LTE signal. It’s all 3G (or 2G) around here and maybe 4G but not LTE in the not too distant future. For me paying extra for a phone with LTE would be like “buying snow tires for my car though I never left Florida.” So as not to cause confusion, I live within the Navajo Nation Indian Reservation but couldn’t find a fitting analogy for this area like my Fla analogy.

    All the best!

  • http://twitter.com/coolgato13 Maurice Bigio

    Brian you do not discuss a very big issue for me and many other smartphone
    users…. battery life. On that score which is better the iPhone 4s or
    the Galaxy S4? Is it too much to ask that a fully charged phone battery
    last for a normal working day say 8 to 10 hours?

    • http://www.brianshall.com/ Brian S Hall

      I considered all the major aspects – including battery life, compatibility, ecosystem. I think it’s fairer to compare iPhone 5 (not 4S), with the Galaxy S4.

  • jfutral

    Out of all that (good as it was) this is my favourite line:

    “Shouldn’t I just wait for the latest model?

    I cannot recommend that which does not exist.”

    Truer words were never spoken.
    Joe

    • http://www.brianshall.com/ Brian S Hall

      Thanks! Periodically, I write a line and think…good line, Brian.
      That was one of them.

  • barney_j_rubble

    A little late to this party but….. One thing I NEVER see discussed when there is talk of ‘phones’ is…does the damn thing actually talk? Yeah, the network often determines whether your call sounds like you are in someone’s swimming pool or in a tunnel somewhere but if ya hafta repeat half of your call, a string and a tin can ‘talks’ a lot better than many phones these days…..Feature sets are great but it is still a PHONE after all….

  • saksit

    Good Samsung product a cheap on sales
    click see more http://sungsamgalaxy.blogspot.com/

  • graffito

    Nearly a year later and this is still the best piece on this subject / obsession / evergreen.

    Great Job.