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Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols: What's the best smartphone? That's the wrong question.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols | April 22, 2014
There is no one 'best.' All we can really do is determine the best smartphone for you.

As my town's resident technology expert, I am sometimes approached by complete strangers with tech questions. Lately, 9 out of 10 ask, "What's the best smartphone?"

I can see in their faces that they would like a straightforward answer, something along the lines of, "Buy Samsung's Galaxy S5; you'll love it." But I can't say that. That's not because the Galaxy S5 isn't an excellent phone. Everything I've heard about it tells me that it is.

The only answer I can ever give is, "It depends." And I follow that up with, "What are you going to be using the phone for? What do you really need from the phone? What can't you do without in a smartphone?"

For some people, including me, the first consideration is whether the phone has a physical keyboard. I hate typing on a screen, which is one reason I'll never be an Office for iPad user. For me, a physical qwerty keyboard isn't just nice to have; it's a must-have. Given that priority, the best smartphone I've found to date is the Motorola Droid 4.

But if a physical keyboard isn't a priority for you, I very much doubt that you would think very highly at all of my two-year-old Droid. What's a great phone for me could well be a dud for you or someone else.

It's all about your priorities. Do you want a smartphone that will work as a replacement for a point-and-shoot camera? Your best choices in that case are probably Apple's iPhone 5S or the Nokia Lumia 1020. But maybe playing games or watching videos is your top priority. If that's the case, the best graphics tester on the planet — DisplayMate president and research scientist Raymond Soneira — thinks you'll love the Galaxy S5.

For some people, it all comes down to apps. The argument over whether Android or iOS has the best applications will never be settled because the answer is personal. They both have thousands of great apps, but the only thing that really matters to you or any other individual user is whether they have the one app that you need above all others.

Other factors come into play in the Android/iOS divide. Personally, I prefer Android because I like open systems. But other people like the security of knowing that any up-to-date iPhone is going to work with the latest version of iOS. I have no such confidence in the Android world where I have chosen to live, but that's a trade-off I've decided I can accept.

The Runners-up

Of course, the smartphone universe is bigger than Android and iOS. What about Windows Phone? Firefox OS? Ubuntu? Well, here I can give you a definitive answer: no. Windows Phone is a fiasco; stay away. I can find good things to say about the other runner-up smartphone operating systems, but you won't have much choice in hardware or applications. What about BlackBerry? Well, if your top priority is securely accessing corporate email, or if you're the president of the United States, a BlackBerry may be for you.


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