Carrier coverage, price plan and operating system are key to buying smartphones

For the technophile in your life, these items are must-haves.
By Rob Pegoraro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 16, 2010; 6:32 PM

The right way to shop for a smartphone is to pick a carrier with coverage and a price plan that fits your needs first. But if you're going to choose a smartphone first, you should start by picking its operating system.

This is the phone industry's version of the old "Mac or Windows?" query, but in this case you've got five contenders in the United States: Apple's iOS, the software in the iPhone; Google's Android; Microsoft's Windows Phone 7; Research in Motion's BlackBerry; and HP's webOS.

Apple's iOS does multimedia, calendar-and-contacts organization and Web browsing better than the others. It also has the widest selection of add-on applications - which doesn't mean the best in a given category. Its FaceTime video-calling software has no parallel in terms of reach and ease of use on other phones. And I've found the iPhone 4 is to be an excellent work of engineering. But the iPhone runs only on AT&T for now. That carrier also locks every iPhone sold in the U.S. against transfer to other services, limiting you to expensive roaming plans overseas.

Android's strength is its diversity. Every carrier offers an Android phone - which has led to a good choice of hardware designs and prices as low as free - and all of them do the Web as well as the iPhone and organization almost as well. Syncing music and photos to an Android device is a lot less elegant than on an iPhone; on the other hand, the selection of Android apps may be smaller but isn't limited by the sort of curatorial control Apple exercises over its App Store. But Android's diversity can become a weakness when carriers misuse their freedom to tinker with this open-source operating system to add their own, non-removable applications or even replace Google's search services with Microsoft's Bing.

If you're set on running a wide variety of applications, especially those that provide new location-based services or sci-fi "augmented reality" views of the world around you, you should stick with iOS or Android. Otherwise, read on.

Windows Phone 7 has a lot of potential, which is another way of saying it's unfinished. It's a great stay-on-top-of-your-life phone (if you use Microsoft's Windows Live services, not if you use its Outlook program at home), a decent Web phone and a weak app phone. WP7 phones are overpriced for what they do - but if you want long enough, the market should take care of that. The same goes for their limited availability; only AT&T and T-Mobile sell WP7 devices, but other carriers should join them by summer.

(You may still see phones running Microsoft's older Windows Mobile software. Avoid them.)

The BlackBerry is stuck in transition: While AT&T and Sprint sell phones running RIM's upgraded BlackBerry 6 software, others have yet to make that adjustment. BlackBerry 6 isn't in the iPhone or Android's class but is enough of an improvement that you don't want to be stuck with RIM's older version. (BlackBerry 6, however, may not be around for long, as RIM is using a still newer operating system on its coming PlayBook tablet.)

HP's webOS just got a major update, but Palm phones have not benefited from the same attention. The current lineup is badly due for a replacement, and HP's upcoming, Verizon-first Pre 2 doesn't look like it will count as such. WebOS also badly trails other platforms in its selection of apps, though it remains better off than WP7.

With an operating system picked out, then you should choose a carrier that offers coverage and a price plan that work for you. To recap earlier advice on those points: Your best choices for mobile-broadband coverage, in order of desirability, are Verizon, Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile. Everybody's prices are about the same for voice calling - and no, you almost certainly don't need an unlimited plan. But if you have a limited appetite for data, AT&T's and T-Mobile's tiered plans can save you money; if, however, you text all the time, Sprint's Everything Data may help you more. And if you can bring a phone bought elsewhere, such as a used model, T-Mobile's Even More Plus plans offer a healthy discount.

Only then can you decide on such specifications as battery life (there's never enough, especially on Android phones), its text-input methods (some people like physical keyboards and hate the onscreen kind, others feel the opposite) and its camera (none match the quality of a good point-and-shoot digital camera, although the iPhone 4 does better than most).

Still not sure? Look at the phones left on your shopping list and get the one sold by a carrier that offers the best coverage and price plans.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company