How to choose a new mobile phone

Last week, we had a bit of trouble with the old iPhone. We tried everything we could think of, but nothing worked until our last-ditch effort — returning the phone to its factory settings. Like with most devices with software (which is, for the record, most devices), this resulted in lost data and a functioning device.

However, we spent quite a bit of time contemplating what our new phone would be should we not be able to restore normal functionality to our phone. Contemplation should not take place in a vacuum, and we looked to the Internet for help.

There was none to be found.

In fact, it turns out that there is not much in the way of good advice out there when it comes to purchasing a phone. Sure — there are many phone reviews, lists of “best buys”, feature comparisons and the like. But none of these will help you choose the phone that is right for you – almost all of them seem to push the reader towards buying the phone that the reviewer likes best.

Mobile phones are, however, very personal devices. Users carry them everywhere, and use can differ vastly from person to person.

How to be unhelpful

One of the top search results on Google for the question “which mobile phone should I buy?” is this article from Phone Dog. We are sorry to use it as an example — it does not stand out as being particularly unhelpful, but is merely typical of what can be found online, in that it does everything but give advice on which phone to buy.

Let’s take a look:

One of their big questions is “Who’s it for?”. As we will see below, this is close to being the correct question, but the reviewer’s answers are extremely unhelpful:

  • The iPhone faithful
  • Anyone who wants an iPhone, but wants Verizon more
  • Tech and video junkies
  • High-tech junkies
  • Smartphone buyers who want lots of features, good value, and that hard QWERTY board.
  • Would-be Evo owners who like actual buttons
  • People who want lots of power in a pocketable phone and/or have small hands.
  • iPhone haters who secretly love iPhones

Who is this supposed to help? In every single case they are completely vague or they assume the reader has already chosen a phone.

Tech junkies? They do not need this review. They already have a spec in mind, and are checking what’s actually in the phone.
iPhone lovers? They have already made their decision. And people struggling with a pair of options (like iPhone vs Verizon) won’t be helped much here either.
“Lots of power”? “Lots of features”?

This sort of comparison drives us crazy. So does the “Killer Feature” — we usually do not care about the completely-random non-phone feature that has been added. And if we do care, we likely already know about it.

How to actually choose your phone

The above review, as much as it drives us crazy, does seem to fit with the way people buy phones. They become enamoured with Apple or Google — or disgusted with them — and decide to buy (or not to buy) one of their phones.

Or they get excited about the App Store (Apple) or uncensored App Store (Android), or FaceTime, or some other new feature. But they don’t know if (or how) they will use it. And they make a decision based on things that they neither know nor understand.

Is it the phone for them? Who knows. But currently smartphones are so awesome (and improving so rapidly) that a newer model is very likely to please.

The best advice we could find on the Internet came courtesy of PC Magazine: First, choose your carrier (they will be providing you with service, after all), then think about the features you want.

Here at the Big Bad Blog, we would like to expand on that second point.

Primary Uses

The first thing you should do if buying a mobile phone is identify how you usually use your phone. Gone are the days where a phone was something you used to make calls with. You can now sit in a room with five other people, all on their phone, and none making calls. For hours.

That is to say, when you pick up your phone, 80% of the time it is to … what?

Keep the list down to two or three items, and leave “checking the time” off the list. Here’s ours:

Listening to music: We have music on for most of the day, here at the Big Bad Blog. Our iPhone is actually primarily an iPod — the phone functionality is definitely secondary. We listen to music while travelling between places (if alone), while working, and plug the iPhone into speakers in various rooms in the home to listen to music wherever we happen to be.

Twitter: Our #1 mobile communication function is Twitter. The tweet occurs far more often than e-mail, telephone and text messaging combined.

Navigation: Here I’m cheating a little, but the most critical function that I use the iPhone for is navigation. Although it doesn’t quite fit in the 80% rule above, knowing where to catch the train, which bus to catch, or walking directions from where I am to where I want to be is a function of the phone that I cannot live without.

And there we have three — clearly, I need the phone to be Internet-enabled with a quality Twitter client (which should be simple for any smartphone). It needs to have GPS with an offline maps option (as I’m often in parts of the world where data roaming charges are an issue), either native or via an App. And it needs to have good music integration.

The first two are standard smartphone features, and do not narrow the field much – although frequent Tweeting requires a QWERTY keyboard (real or virtual). As a result, I have identified that the quality of the music player in the phone is actually extremely important — this is not something that often comes up in the phone debate.

Your primary functions might — and probably do — vary. But it is important not to evaluate phones on the ground set by the manufacturer’s marketing department. Instead, know why you use your phone.

Secondary Uses

Secondary uses are functions that you do not use as often as the primary ones, but which are still important. For instance, you might not rely on navigation very heavily, but occasionally join a friend for a geocaching adventure. Hence, such a functionality is important.

Our secondary functions are as follows:

Phone and SMS – The basics of a phone.
Alarm clock – We no longer use a traditional alarm clock in the Big Bad Household. The phone must wake me up every morning and have an “Airplane” mode so it does not ring in the middle of the night.
e-mail – We like reading e-mail in real time, but tend not to write e-mails on the go.
RSS reader – We read a lot of blogs, and it is good to be able to keep up on the go.
Camera – We like taking photos, but have some pretty decent equipment to do so. Having a camera in the pocket for those instances where the real gear is unavailable is still pretty nice.

We need a phone with reliable secondary functions. They do not need to be the top phones for these functions — in fact, they are areas where we might be willing to sacrifice some quality for savings, or better quality primary functions. But any phone that is lacking these features is off the table.

Tertiary Uses

Tertiary uses are all those things which are nice-to-haves. Things you like about your current phone (or would like in a potential phone), but should not really influence your decision except as a tie-breaker.

Examples for us at the Big Bad Blog include video games on the phone, a decent calendar which can sync with other virtual calendars, and a weather app.

Any of these being absent (or sufficiently poor to consider them to be absent) should not really impact my decision to buy a particular phone.

So what have we done?

If you look up, you can see that we have identified the 20% of applications that make up the 80% of our phone usage — we concentrate on these functions when buying a new phone, as a phone which excels at these will be a better phone for us, regardless of what experts and specifications tell us.

We then looked at the remaining applications we use or want, and separated them into “must haves” and “nice to haves”. These are used to limit the field and break ties, but our primary apps are what we really use to make the decision. The phone is a personal device, and — for us at the Big Bad Blog — a great camera means nothing without 3G. Excellent graphics and video mean absolutely nothing compared to quality of design in the music player interface.

Security considerations

Of course, it is also important to remember that your phone is a computer. You likely shop online with it — if you buy Kindle books or Apps, for instance — and almost certainly log into your e-mail (and other accounts) with it. And most certainly are charged for data usage and/or phone calls made with the phone.

Your phone also logs into multiple network nodes as you travel around with it.

In other words, mobile phones are an increasingly attractive target for hackers and the makers of malicious software, and — just as with your PC at home — steps should be taken to make sure that it’s safe.

The world of mobile anti-virus and firewall software is still quite young — though it does exist — and the EFF’s analysis of mobile security raises some eyebrows as to how quickly security holes are closed.

In particular, if you have decided to choose an Android platform, be sure that your version of Android will be updated with the latest (and most secure) versions of the Operating System as it becomes available.


Another consideration when buying a smartphone is your previous smartphone.

While incumbency should not trump the actual functionality (or security) of the phone when making your decision, it is certainly more convenient to be able to port your existing applications and settings into your new phone than it is to go about starting your phone from scratch.

When all is said and done, there is value to being able to simply plug in the new phone and run with it. While some people might enjoy the experience of learning a new device, for most the comfort of familiarity needs to be considered.

Any other advice?

You can probably see from the above that we here at the Big Bad Blog did lots of thinking about what we would want in our next phone, but had not actually got to the point of researching the phones that fit the bill.

The incumbent – Apple’s iPhone – has a pretty good music interface, so the bar will be set fairly high for a different manufacturer to break into our pocketbook when the time finally does come to identify a replacement.

However, the Big Bad Blog is not all-seeing or all-knowing. Did we miss anything that prospective phone buyers should be considering?

Let us know in the comments.

The morning coffee, mad scientists and the smart phone

Stephanie Fox, Kelly Faircloth and Mary Ratliff have combed over the annals of literature and created a definitive chart of Mad Scientists in literature, noting what fields they tend to study. The maddest of the sciences? Biology.

(by Lucian Olteanu)

Google recently added Google Instant, in which they try to guess what you type while you are typing. But some search terms are off limits to Google Instant, as Google is worried you might see things that you wish you had not.

Nokia seems to have real problems. Seems that in 2004, their R&D engineers developed a prototype phone. It was internet-ready, and had a large touchscreen. In 2004. Ready to go to the production line. But the company’s management decided it was “too risky”, putting Nokia behind the competition, instead of three years ahead of it.

The morning coffee, tigers, zelda and chemical crayons

We kick off your September with a quick guide on how not to smuggle a tiger out of Thailand.

(Awesome live-action Zelda re-creation from The Zelda Project.)

Looking to raise a little genius? Then ditch the traditional crayon colour names, and go with Chemistry Crayons.

Ladies, do you hate not having anywhere to put your phone when you’re wearing that dress? A solution is now available — your phone and your dress can now be one and the same!

Do bans indicate Blackberry is better?

One of the big news stories in the tech world this past week are the plans that the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have to shut down the data transfer services on Blackberries in their country.

In short, it would be a Blackberry ban — after all, what good is the device if it only makes calls?

The United Arab Emirates argue that the phone does not comply with their laws, because the data coming in cannot be monitored (and thereby appropriately censored). Various news sites around the web site “security concerns”, but never seem to have a quote from an authority or industry expert to back that up, giving us pause to make the same claim here.

That said, if the authorities are experiencing difficulty in monitoring phone traffic, it could conceivably cause consternation for their security agencies.

Not alone

Back in 2007, India was contemplating a similar ban — thoughts that seem to be heating up again, now that there are others in their corner. At issue then is the central issue that is present now: the Indian government wanted a back door to the system that would allow them to monitor traffic.

The problem was that Blackberry does not have such a back door, and was not willing to create one. Research In Motion’s official statement on the matter is that such a thing does not exist and will not exist:

The BlackBerry security architecture for enterprise customers is based on a symmetric key system whereby the customer creates their own key and only the customer ever possesses a copy of their encryption key. RIM does not possess a ‘master key’, nor does any ‘back door’ exist in the system that would allow RIM or any third party to gain unauthorized access to the key or corporate data.

Is this free advertising?

Research In Motion has had a tough time of it recently. Google Android has recently become the top selling smartphone platform in the United States, ousting Blackberry from the top of the list for the first time. It’s next closest rival — the iPhone — is not far behind despite severe competitive limitations (it is only available in two models, and on one network).

In the battle of Application Stores, Blackberry is a distant third, well behind the second-place Android store, which itself it light years behind Apple’s App Store for the iPhone.

And when it comes for the battle for hearts and minds, RIM’s device is even further behind — people are genuinely excited about new Android phones, or the iPhone 4. When was the last time you heard someone daydreaming about owning a Blackberry?

In the midst of all these developments, a ban in Saudia Arabia and the United Arab Emirates might look like one more blow, but looking closer, one has to wonder if that is really the case.

Why only Blackberry? Why not the iPhone, too? Why not my phone?

Why, indeed. When the concern of the authorities is that they cannot monitor incoming and outgoing data well enough to know what it is, one has little choice but to wonder how secure your data transfers truly are through other devices.

When a government says “iPhone? Go ahead, use e-mail!”, and “Blackberry? No e-mail — we cannot identify the content, so it is not allowed”, can any conclusion other than the government is reading my e-mail be reached?

This applies domestically, too, for those who are not in Saudi Arabia or the UAE. While the government might not be reading your e-mail, we cannot say the same about hackers. These bans demonstrate the relative ease of breaking into systems that we think are safeguarding our privacy.

Research in Motion should be trumpeting this “defeat” as a measure of how secure their devices truly are. While they are slumping in the consumer market, this event could be enough to maintain their huge advantage in the business market for years.

Al Jazeera
Apple Insider
The Australian
BBC News
International Business Times
The New York Times
PC Magazine

Photo credit: Newsbiscuit, The Blackberry Burqa