Cellphones vs. Smartphones

Learn the difference before you buy

Young woman browsing smartphones in phone store

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A smartphone is a cellphone with advanced features, so the two terms aren't interchangeable, even if people sometimes use them that way. Technically, a smartphone is a cellphone, but a cellphone is not smart.

Overall Findings

Cellphones

  • Make calls, send texts, take photos, and access the internet

  • Cheaper alternative to a smartphone

  • Straightforward, simple interface

Smartphones

  • Make calls, send texts, take photos, access the internet, play games, and use apps

  • May include a digital assistant like Siri or Google Now

  • Sophisticated operating system with customization options

Think of a smartphone as a miniature computer that can place and receive calls. Most smartphones connect to a virtual store with thousands of apps that turn the phone into something much smarter than a regular cellphone.

Smartphone apps include games, image editors, navigation maps, budgeting apps, word processors, and multiple web browser options. Some phones provide you with a built-in virtual assistant, such as Apple iPhone's Siri, that responds to your verbal instructions.

Cellphones place and receive voice calls and send text messages. Smartphones do those things and much, much more. How much more depends on the smartphone's operating system.

Mobile Operating Systems: Smartphones Provide More Options

Cellphones

  • Simple and basic

Smartphones

  • Robust, customizable

  • Includes support for apps, reminders, and more functionality

  • Accessibility options

Both cellphones and smartphones have mobile operating systems, which is the software that runs their interfaces.

A cellphone's operating system is usually bland and straightforward with minimum menus and few if any ways to customize things like the virtual keyboard. Smartphone operating systems are much more sophisticated.

With the addition of apps, there is almost no limit to what you can do with a smartphone including check your email, get turn-by-turn navigation instructions, make reservations at a nearby restaurant, do your Christmas shopping on the internet, and many more things. Smartphones are easy to customize and include accessibility features so even people with physical limitations can use the phones.

Availability: Smartphones Dominate the Market

Cellphones

  • Cost way less than smartphones

Smartphones

  • Almost every phone on the market is a smartphone

  • More design and form options

Cellphones are still available from a variety of providers. They are, however, harder to find. Smartphones have almost completely replaced them, so your search for a simple, budget device may take a little more time.

Some carriers may not support non-smart phones at all. You're best off researching and looking for a particular device and then seeing where you can get one instead of going to a store and looking for the cellphones. That's not to say it's impossible to find a non-smartphone. But even some companies' "basic" devices are still smartphones.

Currently, if you're looking at a cellphone, odds are it comes in one style: a two-part handset in which the screen flips up from the keypad. You may also see other types, but flip phones are the most common form factor.

Smartphones are available in more sizes and shapes, although most of them use the same basic design: a large screen in a rectangular case. But even with that look, you still have choices in screen size and resolution, camera quality, and more.

Plans: Cellphones May Trap You

Cellphones

  • Models are usually carrier-specific

  • Usually available via prepaid plans

Smartphones

  • Same models are available from a variety of carriers

  • Monthly payment plans

Once you decide on a phone, your service and plan options will also vary. Typically, cellphones are provided as part of a prepaid/"pay as you go" plan that lets you buy calling time or data usage in chunks that you replace as you use them. This system may be less convenient than more common plans, which provide set talking, texting, and data pools per month with a regular bill.

Another consideration related to availability is the companies you'll be able to use with your device. While major businesses like AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon offer Apple's iPhone, for example, cellphone models tend to be "locked" to one provider. Even once you find a device you like, you may have to work with a company you don't.

Final Verdict

If you only want to make and receive calls, either cell phones or smartphones can handle that function. But if you want to access a store to play games and use other apps, you'll want a smartphone. Smartphones also have more customization options and functionality, including reminders, alarms, and security features to keep data and the device itself safe.

The price of cellphones is much lower than for smartphones, which have vanquished most of the nonsmart cellphones on the market. You'll have a much easier time finding a smartphone than a basic cell, but it's still possible.