Android phones are becoming more popular every day, and for good reason: Android phones are powerful, attractive, and (sometimes) easy to use. But not all Android phones are the same. The open nature of the Android platform means that a wide variety of manufacturers can offer Android phones, and those phones can offer a variety of features.
Here are the key features to consider when you're shopping for a new Android phone.
All of the big nationwide carriers offer Android phones, as do many of the smaller, regional carriers. And, sometimes, selecting a carrier is more important than selecting a phone. After all, the most expensive, best-reviewed Android phone isn't going to do you any good if its carrier's service doesn't work well where you need it most.
Even the big nationwide carriers have dead spots in their coverage areas, and if one of those dead spots is where you live, you're out of luck. So before you get your heart set on a specific Android phone, find out which carriers will work best for you. You can do this by asking around -- find out which phones your friends, neighbors, and co-workers are using.
You should also ask your carrier about a trial period when you buy a phone. When you buy a phone, you typically sign a lengthy service contract in order to get a discounted price on the handset. But you may be able to negotiate a 30-day trial period as part of that contract, so that if the phone doesn't work where you need it to, you can get out of your contract.
For more information, see Find Your Cheapest Cellular Service Plan.
Another factor to consider when selecting a carrier and an Android phone is whether or not it supports the newer, high-speed 4G networks. More carriers are offering 4G networks, but Android phones were the first to run on the super-speedy networks. But not all Android phones support 4G. If the super-fast speeds of a 4G network are important to you, make sure that your carrier of choice offers a 4G network and that the Android phone you want supports 4G.
Because Android phones are made by a variety of manufacturers, you have a variety of options when selecting a handset. That means that you can choose one that fits your needs. One of the most important things to consider when looking at a phone's design is whether or not it includes a full keyboard. Many of today's Android phones are touch-screen-only devices, and while they may look cool, they're not always as usable as their keyboard-equipped counterparts. A full QWERTY keyboard can add a bit of bulk to the phone, especially if it's a keyboard that slides out of sight when you're not using it, but that can be worth the convenience that comes with having an actual keyboard to type on.
Other features to consider when looking at a phone's design are screen size and resolution. More and more phones are offering super-sized screens -- 4-inches to 4.3-inches diagonally, or even bigger -- which are certainly easy on the eyes. But a bigger screen may mean a bigger phone, and a bigger phone may be hard to slip into a pocket. A bigger phone also can be uncomfortable to hold next to your ear during lengthy phone calls.
A screen's resolution can be just as important as its size. In general, the higher the resolution, the crisper and clearer the display will look. Whenever possible, try the phone out in a store before you buy it. See how the display looks to you. You should also try it out in various lighting conditions, as different lights -- especially bright sunlight -- can drastically affect the look of the screen.
All Android phones differ slightly, and so, too, do the cameras they offer. Some Android handsets offer 3-megapixel cameras while others pack in 8 megapixels. Some offer front-facing cameras for video conferencing, while others only offer rear-facing cameras for capturing photos and videos. And while all Android phones will record video in addition to capturing still photos, not all do so in HD. Make sure that the handset you choose has the camera you need.
Not all Android phones run the same version of the Android OS, and not all of them will get updated to the latest version of the OS as soon as it's available. This, the fractured nature of the Android OS, is one of its greatest weaknesses, and it means that you have to ask questions before buying your Android phone. Find out what version of the Android OS it will be running when you buy it, and ask the carrier when (or if) it will be updated to a newer version.
For more information, see Android OS: Powerful, Customizable, and Confusing.
While Android's update schedule can be confusing, it is actually made possible by one of Android's greatest strengths: its open-source background. That means that anyone can develop apps for Android, so the impressive selection of apps already available in the Android Market should continue to grow.
The open nature of the Android platform also means that it's possible to make changes to the look and feel of the OS itself. That means that an Android phone made by HTC may operate a bit differently than one made by Samsung. Some manufacturers put overlays on top of the Android OS, which alter its interface slightly. Samsung, for example, uses its TouchWiz interface, which adds widgets that let you access various phone features and online resources (like social networks) more easily. Motorola, meanwhile, offers a MotoBlur interface, which aggregates information from a variety of social networks and delivers it to you in a constantly-updated feed.
These overlays or interfaces vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, and from phone to phone. Motoblur, for example, will look a lot different on a phone with a 3-inch screen than it will on a phone with a 4.3-inch screen. Whenever you have the chance, try out the phone before you buy it, so you know what the experience of using it will be like.
Timing really is everything, especially when it comes to buying an Android phone. New Android phones are announced all of the time, so today's shiny, new top-of-the-line Android phone could be old news by tomorrow. That doesn't mean you should hold off on buying a new phone, though. It just means you should take your time and do your research. Make sure the Android phone you buy today is the one that you're going to want a month from now -- and even a year from now.