Choose a Wireless Provider and Smartphone

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How do you choose the right smartphone? What if you get a great smartphone, but the network it is on is flaky, unreliable, and constantly drops calls? What if you choose an awesome wireless provider, but can't get the smartphone you really want? The following process will help you find the right combination of wireless provider and smartphone that works best for you.

Let me begin by saying that I abhor device exclusivity. I understand that there are technical differences between the GSM and CDMA networks, and that compatibility is dictated to some degree by those limitations. But, I don't believe users should have to switch wireless providers to get the smartphone they want, or that some customers should be prohibited from choosing specific smartphones based on the strength or weakness of a give provider in their area.

In a perfect world, you would be able to independently determine which wireless provides works best for your needs, and then choose which smartphone you want without being limited to the smartphones offered by the provider you chose. But, for now--at least in the United States--that is not the way it works.

Given that device exclusivity does exist for most smartphones, what is the best approach for choosing a wireless provider and a smartphone that can perform the various functions you need it to without making you want to smash it on the pavement? I believe if you follow these steps--in order--you will have a more satisfying experience all around.

Signal Strength

By signal strength, I mean signal strength for you. One of the things that gets quickly lost in the zealous debate over which provider is "best" is that they all have dead zones and gaps in coverage. Just because Verizon has the strongest signal or fastest network performance for your cousin in Topeka doesn't mean that it will be the best network for you in Albuquerque.

You should also consider the entire range you might use the smartphone in. Obviously, you want to have strong network coverage at your home, and at your place of work--the combination of the two probably make up the majority of your waking hours. But, also consider where else you might go frequently and make sure your provider of choice has got you covered. The bottom line is that without an adequate network and decent signal strength your smartphone is a glorified MP3 player, so this is really the most important part of the decision.

Globe Trotter

For the world travelers among us, the question of network availability and signal strength has to be applied on a more global level. If you also travel overseas frequently, a GSM-based provider like AT&T or T-Mobile might make more sense because GSM is a more universally accepted wireless standard than CDMA. If there is a specific region or country that you visit frequently, make sure your choice of wireless provider and smartphone will still be functional there.

Price and Perks

Assuming you have multiple wireless providers capable of meeting your needs in terms of coverage and signal strength, the next thing to consider is the cost. Verizon still offers an unlimited data plan, but AT&T claims that 98 percent of its customers use less than 2GB of data per month, and nearly two-thirds use less than 200MB of data per month, so perhaps buying an unlimited data plan is just expensive overkill.

AT&T has rollover minutes, but only on large voice packages where it is significantly less likely you will ever go over your monthly allocation and dip into the rollover pool--so again it may be a case of expensive overkill for the illusion of a service you won't really use.

When it comes to cost, Sprint seems to be the better of the available choices. Sprint offers a $99 unlimited everything package, and generally allows the use of capable smartphones as Wi-Fi hotspots and other features like tethering without nickel and diming like Verizon and AT&T tend to do.

Make sure you consider all of the ways you might want to use your smartphone--as a phone, surfing the Web, texting, e-mail, streaming video, etc.--and calculate the total package for each wireless provider to figure out which works best for you.

The Smartphone Itself

At this point, either you have made a decision on the wireless provider, in which case you can simply choose from the available smartphones to pick the one that meets your needs and be done. If you are still undecided between multiple wireless providers, you can review the smartphone options at each one and select the wireless provider that has the smartphone you prefer.

Truthfully, the smartphone itself is not nearly as important as the wireless provider. There is no point in having a great smartphone on a network that doesn't work. And--frankly--the high end smartphones are relatively comparable. If you choose Sprint you won't be able to get an iPhone (yet), but you can get the EVO Shift. If you elect Verizon as your wireless provider, you can't get the Samsung Epic 4G, but you can get the Droid X or the iPhone.

You get the idea. I understand some people are very passionate about specific smartphones, but on paper the high end devices are all relatively comparable, and the difference between an iPhone, a BlackBerry Torch, a Droid 2, or a Samsung Focus are not nearly as critical to the functionality and overall smartphone experience as the network it runs on.

This story, "Choose a Wireless Provider and Smartphone" was originally published by PCWorld.

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