Today’s phones often come with a list of functions so long it can glaze the eyes. For some customers, more bells and whistles mean more performance and more functionality. Others just see feature bloat. Here we break down the main features to look for. And before you shop, make sure to check our cell-phone buying guide and Ratings.
A high-quality camera
Why you need it: Photo ops don't always wait until your full-sized camera is handy. But considering the quality of cameras found in many of this year’s smart phones, that might not matter. The phones tend to lack the long lenses and large sensors found on stand-alone cameras, but their software does a fine job of correcting angle distortions, color fringing, and noisy-image problems.
Phone cameras can perform other tricks to fix unflattering shots after you’ve snapped the picture. Some let you combine the best facial expressions from several shots into one “perfect” picture. Others let you erase a passerby who may have strayed into your shot, or they can start snapping pictures even before you push the shutter, then you pick the best shot. Many third-party apps can add some of the same functions to the phone already in your pocket.
Models to look for: The Apple iPhone 5c and iPhone 5s and Samsung Galaxy S 4, S 4 Active, and Note 3 capture the best still image quality. The iPhone 5s and 38-megapixel Nokia Lumia 1020 have image stabilizers, which improve your chances of taking better pictures under low-light conditions. The iPhones and Samsung Galaxy Note 3 were video standouts, capturing 1080p video on a par with what we've seen with better pocket camcorders.
A large, high-quality display
Why you need it: To most people, a smart phone is a portable window to the world of digital information. The bigger the window, the bigger the view. A big screen has a direct impact on the readability of Web pages, maps, videos, and photos.
A large display also makes it easier to interact with your phone because Web links, app buttons, and keys on the virtual keyboard should be easier to spot. Pay attention to resolution—many smart phones now have 1080p displays, enough for full high-definition videos. And some can exceed 400 pixels per inch, which makes for finer detail. Also look for models that are easy to view in bright light.
Long battery life
Why you need it: A smart phone serves so many purposes that you’re likely to check it frequently throughout the day. But if your battery dies before nightfall, your fancy phone becomes useless.
Big battery drains include weak cell-tower signals and heavy use of the display for, say, videoconferencing and video streaming. Built-in support for new wireless standards, such as Bluetooth 4.0, as well as systems that monitor a smart phone’s sensors while the device is in hibernation, can take some strain off the battery.
Why you need it: Voice-activated virtual assistants are now built into Android (in the form of Google Now) and iOS (Apple’s Siri), which can save typing time or let you use the phone while walking, cooking, or just twiddling your thumbs. Phones with that feature send your spoken commands to Internet-based voice-recognition services.
The assistants can help you dial phone numbers, transcribe text and e-mail messages, search the Web, translate phrases into another language, get directions, or recommend nearby shops and restaurants. Voice-recognition accuracy has improved recently. Not only can the assistants "understand" natural language commands, but they can also respond in plain English.
Why you need it: In Consumer Reports' recent national survey, 64 percent of smart-phone users didn’t use PIN-code screen locks for their phones. Typing in a code every time you want to check your messages can be a hassle, but now that everything from contact lists and e-mails to banking info can be found on our mobile devices, not using a screen lock can be a major security risk.
Phone makers have tried alternatives to personal identification numbers and passwords, including pattern unlocking, which is less secure than a PIN. A promising design from Apple called Touch ID puts a fingerprint reader in the home button that can scan your fingertip. It worked well in our tests and is faster than typing a PIN—taking you from the locked screen to the home screen in a second.
Models to look for: Apple iPhone 5s and the upcoming HTC One Max.
Infrared remote control
Why you need it: Several models have infrared (IR) blasters that can control many common audio/video components. The phones' screens can easily produce all of the controls for a home theater. Many also come bundled with an app that shows local TV listings, program details, and reminders geared to your preferences.
Models to look for: Some HTC, LG, and Samsung phones have IR ports and apps to help navigate, and even suggest, programming based on your television provider.
Why you need it: Using a variety of wireless standards, many phones can share photos, videos, and music with other phones, or push content to a TV or an external speaker. Many phones can send audio using Bluetooth, but when it comes to more sophisticated phone-to-phone or phone-to-TV sharing, each manufacturer seems to have its own proprietary method.
Models to look for: LG and Samsung devices can share stills and videos with other phones in their vicinity using a combination of technologies such as Wi-Fi Direct and near field communication (NFC). iPhones can send audio to specialized speakers using Apple's AirPlay protocol and share content between Apple devices using AirDrop.
Why you need it: Phones have traditionally been halfhearted multitaskers—multiple apps could run on the same device, but each one took up the whole screen. But as displays have become larger, new devices can fit two apps on a screen simultaneously, letting you, say, watch a video while reading e-mail.
Why you need it: Instead of scrambling for a cord to plug your phone in each night, you simply place the device on an AC-powered charging pad. The charging process, known as inductive coupling, has been used for years in many electric toothbrushes.
Models to look for: A growing number of phones have the capability, and several incompatible standards exist. The most widely supported, Qi, is built into phones from HTC, LG, Motorola, and Nokia (including the Verizon LG G2 and Motorola Droid Maxx and Mini). You can add Qi capability to some other Android phones by replacing their back panel with an adaptor, $20 to $40. To charge any Qi-capable phone, you must also buy a wireless charging mat for about the same price as the adaptor.
Apple iPhones aren't compatible with Qi. But you can wirelessly charge them using, for example, a Duracell case ($26 for iPhone 4 or 4s; $50 for iPhone 5 or 5s), plus a Duracell Powermat, $40.
Gesture and motion detection
Why you need it: Using cameras and sensors, some phones now let you change songs, accept calls, or skip to the next song with a wave of the hand. Or you can preview your messages with a nudge of the finger. These no-touch or light-touch interactions can be convenient if you’re preparing food or in the middle of a greasy car repair.
Models to look for: Some Samsung phones let you use hand motion in front of the screen to answer calls or skip a song. And some LG and Samsung phones use a camera to monitor your eyes as you watch videos or read, pausing the action when you look away and preventing the display from timing out when you’re paying attention.
Some Motorola models let you set up battery-friendly alerts, including calendar, clock, mail, and messages, that fade in and out. That feature allows you to display the time or preview recent text messages by nudging or moving the phone slightly. With some Motorola models, a twist of the wrist launches the camera, even if the screen is off.
This article appeared in the January 2014 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.
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