Manufacturers are constantly popping out new Android phones, and it can all be a bit overwhelming when it comes time to buy a new phone. Here's how to avoid getting overwhelmed by specs that don't matter and narrow down your buying decision.
The sheer number of Android phones dropping at any given time is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, you have a large number of phones to choose from; on the other, it's easy to get overwhelmed. The hype machine makes it especially difficult, since everyone always seems to be touting one phone as "the best Android on the market". The fact of the matter, however, is that it isn't about getting the newest and best phone. It's about finding the best phone for you. Furthermore, manufacturers try to market long and powerful spec lists as the ideal phone, which isn't true either. Here are the things you actually want to look at when buying a new phone.
When Should I Upgrade?
This is a pretty open question, and varies a lot from person to person, but there are a few pieces of advice that we'd give to those thinking about upgrading.
Beware of gadget envy: Because Android is spread across multiple carriers and manufacturers, there are new phones coming out all the time. It can be pretty hard to see cool phones being released left and right and not want one, even if they don't necessarily provide a huge upgrade over your current phone. If you're currently rocking a G1 (the first phone to run Android ever), you probably deserve to upgrade to a faster phone, but users of the HTC Magic might find themselves a bit more on the fence. Sure, your phone is a bit older and slower than the current Android lineup, but that doesn't mean you need a new phone. You could always speed it up yourself, after all (and the Magic does now run a newer version of Android).
Know what's coming in the near future: On the other side of the coin, a lot of people are constantly worried about upgrading when a newer, better phone is probably just around the corner. However, it's usually only worth waiting if something really big is coming in the near future (such as a major carrier upgrade). Similarly, if December rolls around and you're thinking about a new phone, maybe wait until January to see if Google announces another Nexus phone. Generally, if a new feature is worth waiting for, you'll know about it ahead of time—so keep those things in mind and don't stress about getting the "newest" phone on the market. There will always be another "newest" phone.
Wait until a line of phones come out before considering them: There's only so much you can learn about a phone from spec lists and first-look videos. You can get a pretty good idea of the phones you want to look at, but there's no substitute for actually trying out a phone. Furthermore, you don't want to just buy a phone blindly—if you wait for a few reviews to surface on the net, see if your favourite ROM developers are going to support a phone (if you're the rooting type), and so on, you'll make a much more informed decision.
Evaluating Specs Based On Your Needs
The most talked about features aren't always the most important ones when it comes to making a smartphone buying decision. Here are the things you'll definitely want to look at as you narrow down your list of possible phones, as well as a few we'd consider less important.
The Android OS has been updating a bit more frequently recently (they're already talking about 2.4 before 2.3 is even out of the gate for most phones), and those updates come with all sorts of goodies—so when you're shopping around, make sure the phones you're looking at are on the newest version of Android you can find. Right now, this means finding a phone with 2.2 Froyo on it (since Gingerbread isn't on most phones). You're never guaranteed to get an update to the latest version, so you want to look for the most recent version you can get out of the box. And, speaking of upgrades...
The Android OS And Manufacturer Upgrades
One of the sad facts of life with Android is that whether you get upgrades is completely dependent on your phone's manufacturer and your carrier. While grabbing a phone with the latest version of Android is a good idea, it's even more important that you buy one from a manufacturer that you trust to actually update your phone. Even then, you'll have to deal with whether your carrier wants to roll it out. No-one down under has a particularly good track record on this front — carriers often hold back even when manufacturers have released updates.
Third-Party Development (If You Plan To Root Your Phone)
If you have a favourite custom ROM (in this case, a ROM is simply a modified versions of Android)—say, CyanogenMod—it might be a good idea to wait and see if it will actually developed for a given device before buying. Unfortunately, that's pretty hard to know until the phone comes out and someone starts working on it. I've found Twitter and the CyanogenMod forums are good sources for information on that particular ROM, so keep an eye on the developers to see if they'll start developing for that device. You may have to wait a bit longer to get a phone if you can't live without your custom ROM, but that's the price we pay for such luxuries.
Nearly all manufacturers these days add their own user interface (UI) to Android, whether it's HTC's Sense UI, Motorola's MotoBlur, or Samsung's TouchWiz. While we tend to prefer running third-party launchers like ADW, LauncherPro, Go or Zeam, a lot of people are partial to manufacturer UIs. HTC Sense, for example, provides a bevy of very attractive widgets for your home screen.
Installing a different third-party launcher generally removes most elements of manufacturer UIs, but keep in mind they won't necessarily get rid of everything. Manufacturers may also change the UI in some apps like Messaging, will change icons on the home screen, and will add different keyboards (though they're usually better than the stock keyboard anyway). When you see a phone you like, make sure to check out the apps and see how they differ from stock Android, since unless you root and flash a custom ROM, you'll be stuck with that tweaked UI on your phone.
If you foresee taking a lot of pictures with your phone, you might want to check out the camera beforehand (if not, you can skip this). Unfortunately, this is something you can only really test in the store—camera specs won't tell you much. Megapixels only determine how large the photos will be, not how good they're going to look, so don't pick an 8MP cameraphone over a 5MP cameraphone just because of the spec list. Take some pictures with the dispaly unit in the store if possible, especially in low light, and see how it compares to other phones; if you can't try one in person, you can browse Flickr's Camera Finder page, which lets you view pictures taken by certain devices. For example, here are HTC's Android phones. Of course, there are a lot of things you can do to improve a mediocre cameraphone's performance, too.
The other thing to consider here is the now-popular front-facing camera. If you plan on video chatting with your friends and family, you'll definitely want to keep an eye out for this. If not, however, ignore it—there's no reason to gawk at a phone's longer spec list if it has things you aren't going to use (of course, there's no reason to avoid front-facing cameraphones either).
Bad battery life is one of the biggest annoyances in modern smartphones, for a number of different reasons. Because so many different things affect battery life, it's probably best that you just read reviews and battery comparisons of different phones instead of stressing out over processor speed or screen type.
There's a lot of name dropping and marketing push in the processor world of smartphones, from Snapdragons to Hummingbirds to OMAP. But what's the real difference between them all? While you could go into the minute differences between each processor, the fact of the matter is that a lot of factors influence the speed of your phone, and your processor isn't one of the first things on which you should base your buying decision. For example, Android generally includes solid performance boosts in OS upgrades, so at times, a phone that actually receives updates may run faster than one with a faster processor. Most phones stay pretty competetive in the processor region as far as most users are concerned.
There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. If you are taking a lot of video on your phone, editing video on your phone, or doing some hardcore 3D gaming, you'll want to be on the lookout for a good processor (maybe even dual-core, now that these are starting to show up in Android phones). If you don't fall into this category, however, don't fall for all the market hype. Better processor technology is great, but when it comes to starting up apps and swiping between screens, the launcher you use is going to make much more of a difference than whether you're rocking a Snapdragon or a Hummingbird.
A lot of manufacturers have been experimenting with different screen types today, like AMOLED, Super LCD and qHD. These new screens are a double-edged sword—while they make your phone look pretty amazing, they also drain battery like nobody's business. That said, most phones worth their salt nowadays come with one of these screens, so there's no use agonising over this fact—though you might want to check and see how it works under direct sunlight, since that is sometimes an issue.
As far as the differences between them, Engadget recently compared the AMODLED and Super LCD and found that neither was necessarily "better" than the other, though they do excel at different things on a minute level. That said, AMOLED did have better battery life than Super LCD, but I wouldn't base your phone decision on it. There are tons of other things that will influence battery life, and a phone with a Super LCD screen could easily outperform a different phone with AMOLED because of its battery type, processor speed, connection quality, and other features. Instead of stressing out about screen type, do some research on overall battery life and compare that instead (as mentioned above).
Build Quality And Other Convenience Features
Since it's hard to judge the build quality from a bunch of specs on a web site, this will probably be one of the last things you've looked at, after you've narrowed everything else down. Before you head to the store to check it out, look up some reviews online. You'll probably hear pretty quickly about device quirks, and you'll want to stray away from them (or at least factor them into your decisions).
Next, head to the store and play around with it. Don't just judge a phone on paper—you're going to have to use this thing for the next year or two, so note what it's made out of, whether it feels cheap or sturdy, whether the hardware keyboard is easy to use, how heavy it is, and whether it fits in the pockets of your most space-starved pants.
This is also a good time to note other miscellaneous features: a little trackpad or trackball, for example, can be super useful (since placing the cursor in between letters and words is so difficult on pre-2.3 Android). Similarly, if you want a hardware keyboard, that narrows down your choices. If you don't, I'd personally avoid it, since they can make phones a good deal thicker.
You can't replace quality time using a phone, so definitely head to the store and play with a few phones for awhile. It seems obvious, but it's surprising how little time people spend with a phone or two before they pick one.
Niche Hardware Features
Among the usual marketing hype, a lot of manufacturers will try to point out unique features in their phones that, frankly, few people are looking for (but once again lengthen the feature list, making it look like "the best phone on the market"). Examples that come to mind include HDMI out (necessary only if you want to watch your phone's videos directly on a TV), front-facing cameras (video chart has been far from standardised at this point, so few of us really use them), kick stands, secret speakers, and so on.
Our intern Aaron Martin put it eloquently: "The best way to get something hacked is to say that it's unhackable." While certain phones might be a bit easier to root than others, even the "unrootable" phones like the Droid X and G2 have been rooted by the fine folks over at XDA, so I wouldn't worry about the supposed rootability of a phone when you buy. Someone will root it. I'm convinced those guys at XDA have super powers and are unstoppable.
While there are no hard and fast rules, what we've learned here is that the most touted hardware specs are probably less important than the build quality, feel of the phone, and the software it comes with. Sure, the difference between an old G1 and the 1 GHz Hummingbird-powered Galaxy S is pretty big, but the difference between the Snapdragon-powered Incredible and Hummingbird-powered Galaxy S? Pretty negligible, especially when you start factoring in your own launcher and home screen preferences.
The best advice we can give is make a list of your must-have features, narrow down your selection using that list, then go to the store and actually use the phones for as long as you can. Reading reviews is always a good idea too, but it's a small substitute for actually using the phone yourself. Got any of your own Android-buying tips? Share them with us in the comments.