Some wise advice on smart phones

It may seem like smart phones(smart phone batteries) are everywhere, but these hand-held computers are far from ubiquitous. Nielsen reports that, at the end of last year, only 31 percent of cell users had smart phones.

That means nearly 70 percent of those reading this aren’t likely to own one. But, I bet you’ve been considering it. Smart phones — which let you access the Internet via the Web and connection applications, or apps — are at the point now that personal computers were in the mid-1990s. They’re on their way to becoming the dominant online device.

But if you’ve never bought one, the process can be confusing. There are scores of models from four major U.S. carriers, all running different operating systems. Where do you begin?

Right here! I’ve put together some basic info and shopping tips for first-time smart phone buyers.

The handset

The most important handset buying tip I can give you also is the most basic: Actually use a phone before buying it, even if you’re familiar with the operating system you want to use. Don’t just buy it online, sight unseen. Spend time at a store working with the device, or ask a friend if you can spend some quality time with his or her phone.

Why is this important? Some smart phones have no physical keyboard, instead using a virtual one that appears on the touch screen. Others have physical keyboards that sit below the screen or slide out from beneath it. The keyboard will be how you interact most with the phone, so spend plenty of time testing it. Nothing’s worse than buying a smart phone and then discovering you hate the keyboard.

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You’ll also want to pay attention to battery life. A smart phone’s stamina will vary based on the features you use, the size of the screen and how you have it configured.

For example, if you have e-mail pushed to your phone automatically, your battery life will not be as good as if you fetch e-mail manually. And be aware that some phones’ batteries can’t be replaced by the user, such as those in the iPhone.

The operating system

Just as with traditional computers, mobile operating systems often are debated with near-religious fervor.

The top operating systems for U.S. smart phones are Google’s Android, Apple’s iOS, RIM’s BlackBerry OS and Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7. They’re similar in that each allows you to install different applications, or apps, to extend the phone’s capabilities.

The most current version of Google’s Android OS is 2.3, sometimes called Gingerbread. It’s a slight refinement of 2.2, or Froyo. You also may find phones running version 2.1. However, since both the carriers and handset makers must sign off on Android upgrades, they can take a while to appear — or never come at all. I wouldn’t buy a phone with an older version of Android with the presumption that you’ll get the latest version later.

Apple’s iOS is up to version 4.2.1, and all iPhones now come with this. Apple controls the iPhone upgrade process, cutting out the carrier, which means updates come in a speedier manner. Last year, Apple released five updates to its iOS for iPhones.

Microsoft and RIM control the updates for their phones, as well.

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Before choosing your phone, you’ll want to take a good look at the app selection. Apple has the largest number of offerings in its iTunes App Store, with more than 300,000. Android has about 220,000, according to, which tracks the Android Market. RIM has about 15,000 apps in the BlackBerry App World. There are 5,500 apps for Windows Phone 7.

However, raw numbers don’t tell the tale. Apple and Android may have hundreds of thousands of apps, but only a small percentage are worth your time. Again, time spent with your friends’ phones will give you a feel for the apps you may want to install on the platform of your choice.

The carrier

The simplest option is to find a smart phone you like with the carrier you already have if you’re happy with its service so far. But if you’ve never bought a smart phone, there are things you’ll want to consider before committing yourself to a contract with any carrier.

Smart phone purchases require that you pay monthly for a data package, in addition to any voice plans. Depending on the carrier, you may be able to get an unlimited amount of data for a monthly fee, or you may have to choose between tiers of service that limit how much you can download. You’ll need to balance how much you want to spend with how much data you think you’ll use.

If you’re a newcomer to a smart phone, that may be hard to figure out. Items such as images, audio, video and online gaming can chew up lots of data. If you think you’d mostly be doing casual Web surfing, e-mail and searching, you can opt for a smaller data package.

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You also should investigate how good a signal a potential carrier provides in the locations you frequent most. Ask your neighbors at home what carriers they use, and what kind of signal they get. Do the same with your colleagues at work.

Also, if you care about a speedy data connection, you may want to switch to a carrier with a faster, next-generation 4G network. Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile all have launched new networks, but phones that take advantage of the new service still are rare. AT&T’s 4G network won’t start rolling out until the middle of this year.

If you can be patient and wait until later this year, you’ll have a better selection of 4G phones from all the carriers.