Choosing the right cell phone gets complicated

With smart phones, 'can you hear me now?' is only one of the questions

Can you hear me now?

I always got a kick out of that Verizon commercial with the guy walking around testing out their network. That’s because only a few years ago, that was a pretty good description of my job, only I didn’t work for Verizon.

Back when The Washington Post owned GCN, they would have me gather up a cell phone on each network and make a two-day trek to several out-of-the-way locations in and around the Washington area. Besides creating a cool interactive coverage map, I would write up my notes on how each service performed. Readers would then have a pretty good idea how well their new phones would perform where they lived and worked around D.C.

Testing was done by making five calls from each location to a set number that was programmed to answer me and record call quality. If a call dropped or did not go through, the service would fail one of its five tests. If there was any noise in the connection, it would get a cautious passing grade. And if all was perfect, it would get a coveted green dot for its map.

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After I did that testing for several years, people actually started to recognize me, or at least what I was doing. Though I didn’t look anything like the cartoon spy in a fedora The Post depicted me as, I was still easy to spot hanging out at the National Zoo or at an Ikea in Dale City with half a dozen cell phones strapped inside my trench coat. Come to think of it, perhaps I did resemble that character a bit.

Anyway, thanks to the Verizon guy, people picked up on what I was doing right away. I would get lots of questions about phone coverage, which slowed me down a bit, but it was fun being a pseudo-rock star. My point is that cell phone coverage is important to people. Everyone thinks the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, and people want to know that their phone is on the best network. If they didn’t care about the network, the hubbub about the iPhone jumping onto the Verizon network from AT&T wouldn’t be such a big story.

But 2004, one of the last years I did my lonely trek, is not 2011. Back then, voice data was all that really mattered. You could check the coverage map and buy a phone on the network of your choice. Today, any similar test would have to involve sending data packets to and from the phone, and running a bunch of apps.

In that sense, the burden of a good cell phone experience has shifted somewhat from the network to the phone itself. Testing would need to involve lots of different types of phones, many of which would be on the same network.

I've been asked whether the processor chip on a phone makes any difference these days, since we report that in our reviews. You bet it does, if you want to do anything beyond simple voice data.

There are, by my count, 36 different types of Android-based phones available right now. Some have smooth interfaces and some don’t. A few are strapped with anemic processors that make flipping through the menus seem sluggish, not to mention what happens when you try to run advanced applications.

Want to see how complicated it is? Check out this comparison chart made by Lifehacker. And that doesn't even tell the whole story. A faster processor might mean less battery life, for example, or it might not, depending on the architecture.

So how do you pick out a cell phone these days? Well, the network is still important, but so are other factors. The best advice I can offer is to go to a store and play around with the phone you are thinking about buying. Sluggish menus and slow-to-open apps will become apparent pretty quickly.

Beyond that, read reviews from testers who have spent a lot of time with specific phones to see if it suits your needs. At GCN, we try to pair products with specific users or groups. So if a phone is good for one type of user but not another, we’ll point that out. Other publications are starting to follow that same track.

With enough research, you can buy a phone that will let people “hear you now.” It’s just a bit more complicated these days.

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.


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