BUYING a smartphone, whether for yourself or as a gift, is a harrowing process made all the more mystifying by the language the marketers use. Every year they add new lingo and ever trickier claims — all networks can’t be the fastest, can they?
Here is a glossary to help decipher what the ads and sales representatives are talking about. Some of the terms are very familiar, others arcane.
3G, 4G, WIMAX, HSPA+ These may be the most confusing terms because there is a lot of marketing mystery around them. The G stands for generation. The higher the number next to the G, the newer, and presumably faster, is the network the device is using. (To make things even more confusing, when Apple calls a product 4G, that means it is the fourth generation of that device, but not necessarily that it works on a 4G network, although sometimes it does.)
Not all 4G is created equal. Different carriers use different kinds of 4G. If you are looking for speed (and who isn’t?), the technologies, rated from fastest to slowest, are LTE, WiMax and HSPA+. After that come EVDO and EDGE, which are 3G. RootMetrics, a company that measures mobile network performance, tested in 42 markets and found that the fastest provider over all was Verizon (it has the most LTE), followed by AT&T, then T-Mobile and Sprint.
But there are big caveats. One is, not every city has 4G from every carrier. Another is that you need a phone that receives the 4G network, and not all do. But most of all, the speed of a network doesn’t matter if you can’t get a signal. First, find which carrier has the strongest signal where you use your phone most. (There is a RootMetrics map you can check, and you can ask neighbors about their experiences.) Choose the fastest network with good reception in your price range.
TIERED PLAN Carriers talk about “tiers of service,” which are packages with varying amounts of minutes, instant messages and data. The more time and data you buy, the more you pay. Many people overpay.
With unlimited plans disappearing, many people buy a top tier for peace of mind — that way, they know they will not run over and incur expensive penalties. But paying for minutes and data that aren’t used may be more expensive than the occasional penalty. The trick is to buy only what you use, with a minimal cushion, which requires an accurate accounting of what you use. A Web site called BillShrink analyzes a current bill and makes a recommendation on what plan to buy.
CDMA VS. GSM These are different wireless standards: think of them as being like AM and FM on radios. Of the large carriers, Verizon and Sprint (and brands using Sprint’s network, like Virgin and Boost) are on CDMA. AT&T and T-Mobile (and its resellers) are on GSM. This matters mostly to international travelers: GSM is the standard in most of the world, so a GSM phone may be used in more places overseas. Another difference, less important to most people, is that a GSM phone keeps its identity and data, like contact lists, on a removable SIM card, which makes it easy to switch to a new phone. CDMA phones hold the phone’s identity on the network, so the information may have to be sent over the network to a new phone, which is a bit more complex.
WI-FI This provides the ability to connect to a Wi-Fi network using a phone.
Why would you want to? There is no charge for data transmitted by Wi-Fi. As data limits become smaller (and data charges rise), that’s a very good thing. If downloading two HD movies might eat up your monthly data limit, you could load them over Wi-Fi and leave the limit intact.
APPS Apps is short for applications, another word for software or simple computer programs. Apps add functions to a phone, like maps that give audible directions, a stock ticker or a game like Angry Birds. Even for those phones with the fewest number of apps, thousands will be available.
OS OS stands for operating system, the underlying software that runs the phone. The OS you get determines, among other things, the features of the phone and which apps it will run. According to market analysis by comScore, Google has the most popular OS in the United States (Android) with a 51 percent market share, followed by Apple (iOS) with 31 percent, Research in Motion (BlackBerry) with 12 percent and Microsoft (Windows) with 4 percent.
The picture is a bit different when you look at customer satisfaction, as J. D. Power & Associates does. In its survey, Apple iOS was the clear favorite, followed by Windows and Android at near parity, then BlackBerry.
Apple iOS has the greatest number of apps available. Often cited for its ease of use, it works easily across Apple products, and nearly does so with Windows computers as well.
Android is almost as easy to use as iOS, but because there are many different versions, it doesn’t work the same way with every Android phone. That means that not all phones can run all Android apps. If you want a specific app, check to see if it works on a prospective phone before you buy. Another difference from Apple is that with Android, extra software might be needed to connect a phone to a computer for sharing a contacts list or music.
The Windows OS has come a long way, with engaging “live tiles”: animated square icons that show updates, like the number of messages waiting, or the latest posts from social networks. A nice feature is that messages are threaded — strung together for continuity — even when they come from different sources. So a conversation begun on Facebook can continue by text and appear in one string.
The BlackBerry still has the security features that make it beloved of corporate I.T. departments, but it has fallen from the top of the heap in consumer popularity. It has two primary features that help distinguish it from other phones. One is that most BlackBerrys still have physical keyboards, as opposed to touch screens. The other is BlackBerry Messenger, an app that allows free instant chatting between BlackBerrys anywhere in the world. BBM, as it’s known, also allows the sending of pictures, videos and voice notes.