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Smartphone Guide: Help Choosing Right Device for Your Needs

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The iPhone 5 sold more than 5 million units in three days, making it the biggest iPhone release ever. But the Apple device still makes up just a small percentage of all the smartphones out there. In just six years smartphones have gone from a niche product used mostly by business professionals to a ubiquitous status as the most common type of cellphone available.

JPMorgan predicted 657 million of them will be sold this year, and multiple reports have indicated that more smartphones have been sold than feature phones -- that is, non-smartphones -- for more than a year.

Despite their majority status, lots of people don't use smartphones. For those who are new to the device, trying to pick one out can be a daunting task, what with four major platforms selling dozens of wildly different models.

We've put together a guide to modern smartphones. It starts with some general information you need to know and continues with an overview and comparison between iOS, Android, Windows Phone 7 and BlackBerry.

SMARTPHONE Q&A Why would I even want a smartphone anyway? I don't want to read the Internet on my phone.

There are countless things you can use a smartphone for other than just getting online. Smartphones now have mapping apps that can locate you if you're lost and tell you where to go. You can take and share pictures. They're also all music players. And thanks to downloadable apps, new uses are added all the time. You can find helpful phone numbers, check the weather, watch videos, translate other languages, manage your bank balances, identify songs or do countless other things in an instant.

Do I have to buy the more expensive data plans in order to get the most out of a smartphone?

No. Every smartphone can connect to Wi-Fi networks, and data taken from them won't count against your plan total. It's always a good idea to connect to Wi-Fi for data-intensive tasks such as streaming music or video. You can set up Wi-Fi in your home, or you can use the many free networks set up in public venues.

What will having a smartphone mean for my phone bill?
You'll have to pay an extra data charge on top of your regular phone fees. Fortunately, you can keep that extra fee as low as $20 per month, but the price goes up for more data usage. Each provider has its own plans, so you'll have to see what each one offers.

I'm not sure I know how to use this thing. Can I get help?

Yes. Many cellular carriers have seminars on how to use smartphones, and the local Apple Store has frequent classes on working with iOS, the iPhone operating system.

Even with all the things they can do, I don't think I want to use or pay extra for a smartphone. Would that make me hopelessly behind?

No. If you don't think you'll get anything out of the features or don't understand how to operate it, there's no sense in paying extra for something you won't use. All the cellular providers still have basic cellphones available.

I saw a smartphone a few years ago, and it was a mess. Have they improved?

Definitely. All of the major platforms have improved by leaps and bounds since the first iPhone and Android phones were released. So it's worth taking another look.

I heard about a cool feature on one smartphone, but surely every smartphone has that feature, right?

Not necessarily. Smartphones can be vastly different, not just with different platforms but different models within the platform. If there's a specific feature that you really want, be sure to double check and make sure you buy a phone with it. IPHONE Price range: free-$399

Current models: iPhone 4, iPhone 4S, iPhone 5 with different memory sizes

Description: In terms of single models, the iPhone is the best-selling smartphone by far and the one that has gotten the most attention from the public.

All iPhones are chiefly operated by just a touchscreen and a single home button. Every function or application is represented by its own icon that can be tapped to activate, and all the icons are placed onto a series of home screens that can be swiped from side to side. The exception is four icons of your choosing, such as the phone function or the email button, that permanently rest on the bottom of each screen.

The operations are simple and smooth. Other than the settings button, which can affect a variety of options across the phone, you can do anything by tapping the appropriate icon.

Apple doesn't give you as much freedom to customize the experience as other platforms.

Backing up the phone requires the use of either iTunes, which can run on a computer and also allows you to import your personal music collection, or iCloud, which can store your information wirelessly on remote servers. No non-Apple alternatives are available.

The iPhone generally has just three models available at a time -- as they get more expensive, they get faster and have more features. Whenever Apple updates and improves the iOS operating system, every phone has access to it at the same time. The iPhone 5 is generally regarded to be a great phone, and the iPhone 4 is still a decent choice, particularly because it's now given away free with a cellular contract.

Pros: Simple, slick operating system. The most apps of any platform by far. Friendly to newcomers. All models are well-regarded. Unified operating system updates.

Cons: Not as customizable as other smartphones. Battery isn't removable or replaceable. The iPhone 5 versions with more memory can be pricey, especially because memory isn't upgradable. No alternatives to iTunes or iCloud. No widgets.

Might be good for: Newbies, fans of other Apple products, those willing to trade options for style.

WINDOWS PHONE Price range: free-$179.99

Current models: Nokia Lumia 900, HTC Trophy, some others

Description: If you've used a Windows PC, you may think Microsoft's smartphone platform will be similar. That's not the case at all. Microsoft's created a portable operating system with a striking look and a unique feel.

Like Android, navigation is done with a touchscreen and three buttons. Rather than populate the home screen with icons and widgets, Windows Phone 7 has a number of tiles that lead into categories such as "media" or "people." From these major categories, users can then get into specific functions.

Each of the tiles in Windows Phone 7 are dynamic, with the people tile cycling through a number of profile photos from friends in social networks, for example. Panes are customizable, and a tile can be created that's a shortcut to a frequently-used app. Overall it feels more customizable than iPhone but less than Android.

Naturally, Microsoft has tied the phone to many of its other services, in particular a version of Office called Office Mobile that can let you view, edit and send Office documents. Gamers with an Xbox 360 will be able to incorporate their profile into the phone, and game apps on the phone will generate achievement points for the profile.

A few different manufacturers make Windows phones, though the number of available models is vastly fewer than Android. The hardware and performance can vary, though manufacturers don't modify the operating system other than sometimes contributing their own panes.

The operating system has earned praise from the tech community, but its weak sales have resulted in precious few apps developed for it. However, it's also caused the wireless carriers to slash prices, and it's not difficult to find a good Windows Phone for free.

The other point of concern is that Windows Phone 8, along with new models, will be released in November, so those looking to stay ahead of the technology curve might want to wait.

Pros: Attractive pane system. Close integration with Microsoft Office and Xbox Live. Inexpensive.

Cons: Few apps. Will be replaced by Windows Phone 8 in November.

Might be good for: Office power-users, Xbox 360 gamers.

ANDROID Price range: free-$299

Current models: HTC One X, Samsung Galaxy S III, dozens of others

Description: Android is the biggest smartphone platform. Google allows manufacturers to use it for free, so there are many different types of Android smartphones available.

The phone is operated by a touchscreen and three or four buttons, depending on the type and version of Android installed. Android also uses tappable icons, though some options can only be accessed by tapping the menu button.

Not all app icons are represented on the home screen -- you'll need to tap a specific icon to get to them all. Instead, the home screen can be populated with a selection of most-used icons and widgets -- larger icons that automatically display new information without opening them up. For example, a weather widget could automatically display the current temperature, and a music widget could display what is being played in the background.

Android is well-known for its openness and is the most customizable of all the smartphones.

As such, you're free to use a variety of programs to load up music or back up the phone. Google's services such as Gmail are intimately integrated into the phone, though other smartphones can use the services via apps. However, Android isn't as polished as other smartphones and can be confusing to newcomers.

With the huge variety of Android models available, potential buyers have the potential to choose the exact set of features desired -- for example, a photographer could choose an Android with a particularly strong camera function.

The sheer number of models can be confusing, however, and though there are fantastic Android phones, others can be downright bad. It's critical to research before you buy.

Android software can also vary from phone to phone, as individual manufacturers are free to modify things. Some modifications are better than others. This also makes upgrading erratic because a phone's upgrade is released when the manufacturer chooses, not Google. Many phones are sold with versions of Android several revisions behind the most recent version.

Pros: Extremely customizable. Freedom to access the phone with a wide variety of programs. Close ties to Google's services. Many good and/or cheap phones are available. Wide variety of apps.

Cons: Less polished than other platforms. Can be confusing to newcomers. Many bad phones are available. Erratic or unavailable upgrading, depending on model. Manufacturers incorporate varying amounts of undesired crapware that can't be deleted.

Might be good for: Experienced users, buyers looking for a specific feature, those willing to trade style for options.

BLACKBERRY Price range: free-$199.99

Models: BlackBerry Bold, BlackBerry Curve, BlackBerry Torch

Description: Research in Motion's BlackBerry was one of the earliest smartphones and had a dedicated following in the years before the iPhone was released. The platform has evolved over time and now barely resembles the tool many business professionals couldn't put down six years ago.

The various current BlackBerrys are controlled by touchscreens on all but a few models, five dedicated buttons and sometimes a physical keyboard. BlackBerry is known for making the best physical keyboard on smartphones, though that feature has all but vanished everywhere else.

The operating system feels most like Apple's iOS, with functions generally controlled by icons, though most of those icons have submenus. Unfortunately, the BlackBerry is hard to recommend to anyone but BlackBerry die-hards. Its interface quickly devolves into a baffling mess of long menus and hidden options.

RIM manufactures all the BlackBerry models. Most of them can be had for relatively little money, though be warned that most of them are more than a year old and don't compare well to newer phones.

Relatively few developers have chosen to develop for BlackBerry, and sales have been so weak the future of the company is in doubt. The company is releasing a new operating system and presumably new phones next year, so those who want to stick with the platform should probably wait until then.

Pros: Good physical keyboard on some models.

Cons: Clunky operating system. Aging hardware. Few apps.

Might be good for: BlackBerry die-hards who hate change.

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