Today, Samsung unveiled the new Galaxy S5—the latest iteration in the company’s line of upmarket Android phones. As is typical of these sorts of announcements, viewers were treated to a laundry list of new features (much to the amusement of members of the media, the list was actually lead by “style with a modern glam look”). Thing is, most consumers can and will ignore all of a phone’s incremental updates and attempts to differentiate itself from the crowded Android marketplace. If you’re buying a phone, here are the few things that really matter:
The app ecosystem is the number one reason why a modern phone’s “feature list” is basically a joke. It almost doesn’t matter what a manufacturer builds into a phone, as long as it has the tools needed for software designers to build clever apps that can expand the phone’s abilities. Currently, there’s a definite hierarchy to the app ecosystems. In terms of app selection and quality, Apple’s App Store is far and away the best since most startups tend to release apps for iOS long before moving onto Android. The one big exception to keep in mind: Google’s Android Play Store allows developers to build apps that offer a greater level of customization to the phone itself. If this is important to you, you may want an Android phone.
Beyond iOS and Android, there are a few other smartphone platforms with app stores. However, they are nowhere close to being competitive with the big two in terms of quality or selection of available software.
Battery life is obviously extremely important: If your expensive device won’t turn on, you’ll be begging for a flip phone when it’s time to make an important call. However, this stat is surprisingly hard to get a hold of. That’s because, even if your phone begins its life with fairly decent battery performance, its lithium-ion may quickly lose its legs after a few months. It’s also really hard to say if there is a significant difference in how different smartphone batteries hold up over time—to the best of my knowledge, this data isn’t really out there. Moral of the story: Battery life matters, but even if your phone begins its life with day-long charges, there’s no telling how it’ll hold up a few months later.
Smartphone manufacturers love to tout processor speeds. The thinking is remarkably similar to the camera industry’s obsession with megapixels: Since this is an easily benchmarked number, it gives them any easy way to tout their phone’s superiority. But getting caught up on this number is a waste of time. What really matters is how well the phone is able to take advantage of its high-powered chip for real-world applications. Let’s call this “smoothness”, for lack of a better term: Do applications open and run quickly? Are there random or inexplicable hiccups in operation? Does typing on the virtual keypad sometimes result in delays for the text to pop up on the screen? You’d be surprised how many supposedly superlative devices are actually quite clunky in operation.
Hold the phone in your hands. Does that cheap-feeling plastic back bother you? Is the screen big enough? Does the device fit into your pocket? This can get a bit personal, but I tend to prefer the luxurious feel of metal-backed phones (such as the Apple iPhone 5S and HTC One). I’ve also found that most upmarket phones have pretty decent screen sizes these days (though you’ll need to get an Android if you want a really freakin’ huge one).
Samsung and HTC devices may technically both be “Android phones”, but their operating systems look totally different. This is because manufacturers love to add custom skins on top of Google’s OS that stack on more features, promote their internal and partner software services, and sometimes seriously slow down the device. Most customers won’t really mind them, but if you want to completely avoid this sort of external tampering with an Android device (which some techies compare to the PC world’s obsession with “bloatware” in decades past), you’ll have to go for one of Google’s Nexus products, which also happen to be some of the best Android phones on the market).