Features to Look for When Choosing a New Android Phone

So many phones, so many choices. Here are some points to consider.

Woman using Android phone

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One of the biggest appeals of the Android operating system is that it's truly versatile—available on a huge number of phones at a wide range of prices. Owners like Android phones because they're powerful, attractive, and (usually) easy to use. Also, as an open source system, Android devices can be manufactured by a variety of manufacturers, including Samsung, LG, and Google.

Here are the key points to consider when you're shopping for a new Android phone.

Carrier

All of the big nationwide carriers offer service on Android phones, as do many of the smaller, regional carriers. Choosing a carrier is sometimes more important than choosing a phone. Even the major carriers have dead zones, and if you live in one you're out of luck. So before setting your sites on a specific Android phone, make sure you have your carrier situation figured out—namely that it works with your phone and is available where you live.

You can also ask your carrier about a trial period when you buy a phone. In order to get a discounted price on a new phone you will need to sign a lengthy service contract. But you may be able to negotiate a 30-day trial period as part of that contract; if the phone doesn't work where you need it to, then you're not tied to the network carrier in the long term.

4G

4G refers to the fourth generation of cellular network service; it began rolling out on devices in 2010. Most phones now support 4G service, especially pricier flagship models, but the contracts for 4G service are usually more expensive than 3g. Consider your contract budget when choosing a 4G device.

4G vs. 5G

The successor to 4G is expected to finish rolling out by the end of 2021. Called 5G, it will use unique radio frequencies to achieve speeds and provide capabilities that 4G cannot. A growing number of devices are expected to be 5G-compatible as the roll-out period continues.

Design

Because Android phones are made by a variety of manufacturers, you have a variety of design options to choose from. Consider the following design elements:

  • Keyboard style
  • Screen size
  • Screen resolution

Most of today's Android phones are touchscreen devices, but there are still a lot of options with mechanical keyboards. A full QWERTY keyboard adds a lot of bulk, but it may be worth the convenience if you have big thumbs or just prefer the tactile familiarity of a mechanical keyboard.

A bigger screen means a bigger phone, but it emulates much of the capabilities of a tablet. You can find phones with screen sizes up to around six inches in length—a difficult size to slip into your pocket but a joyful viewing experience. Most phones are between 5 and 5.6 inches.

Screen resolution is arguably more important. It refers to both the number and density of pixels on screen. In general, the higher the resolution, the crisper and clearer the image. Most phones are 750x1334 or greater, which is enough to constitute a high-definition (HD) display.

Camera

All Android phones differ slightly, as do the cameras they come with. Most include cameras in the range of 12 to 16 megapixels, which refers to the resolution of images captured. These stats are guaranteed to capture beautiful, HD photos that rival any consumer-grade point-and-shoot camera. Combined with fairly sophisticated editing tools, cameras on today's smartphones are plenty powerful. With some devices including zoom and wide-angle lenses, smartphones truly have come to replace dedicated cameras for most people.

Software

Open-source is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, discrepancies between manufacturer, carrier, and OS can making updating Android software fussy and inconsistent.

Conversely, while Android's update schedule can be confusing, the open-source nature allows developers to more easily target bugs or add features than would be possible with closed-source platforms like Apple iOS. That also means anyone can develop apps for Android, which is why the Android app market is so massive.

Some manufacturers are developing their own modified versions of Android. Samsung, for instance, has One UI—an Android "skin" that makes it easier to use your thumbs and control large-screen devices with one hand. But it's only available with Samsung phones.

Manufacturer

The open nature of the Android platform also means it's possible to make changes to the look and feel of the OS itself. That means, for example, that an HTC Android device may operate differently than a Samsung Android.

Some manufacturers put overlays on top of the Android OS, which slightly alters the interface. These interfaces vary from brand to brand and phone to phone. If you have the chance, try out the phone before buying it so you know what to expect.

Can You Wait?

New Android phones are announced all the time, so there's no need to rush out in search of the latest and greatest. Android phones range in price from less than $100 to more than $1000; if you're going to shell out the big bucks, be certain you can live with the features for a few years to get your money's worth.