What smartphone would you buy?
February 19, 2015 11:30 PM   Subscribe

I'm a newbie to smart phones and want to buy the best one I can while avoiding pitfalls. I don't even know what I don't know about them, enlighten me please!

I've never had a smartphone before but I am finally ready to get one. The biggest impetus is that I am sick of not being able to see driving directions, weather updates, and nearby restaurants with my crappy little pay-as-you-go Tracfone. A built-in camera will be nice as well, since my current Tracfone doesn't have one at all and my previous Tracfone had a very, very shitty one.

I will be piggybacking on a friend's T-mobile plan for now, and would like to get an "unlocked" phone since I don't even know if I will want to stay with T-mobile or what.

I don't especially want to spend a ton of money. I am not sure of my exact cap, but it's DEFINITELY lower than the $600 or $700 pricetags I've seen on some highly-regarded smartphones.

Since I am so new to smartphones, I am afraid I will get something that has some huge glaring flaw, or doesn't do something that I find out I desperately want it to do.

I'm especially interested in feedback from people who remember getting their first smartphone, and what they'd wished they'd realized before they did so.

I do know I want something hearty, that isn't going to break due to normal use, or be extremely finicky about how it is handled. I damaged both of my Tracfones due to water, so I'd also like to find something that isn't going to die if a freakin' partial-drop of moisture touches it. For the record, I didn't do anything stupid, two of my phones got unavoidable BRIEF exposure to moisture, and it didn't matter that I immediately took them apart and dried them--one was toast, and one (my current one) is barely usable because of it. If that happens again, to a phone I spent hundreds of dollars for, I'll be wildly annoyed.
posted by mysterious_stranger to Technology (20 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
If they are still available you might want to get a Nexus 5 phone. They are cheap but the build quality is high because Google subsidizes the Nexus program.

I have a Nexus 5 and quite like it. I haven't tried the Nexus 6, but apparently it is quite large and may be difficult to use with one hand.

The Nexus 5 is my fifth smartphone (I started out on Blackberry and have since had 3 Android phones). It just works. I don't see any real reason to upgrade since it does everything I need it to do.

I would guess that an iPhone 6 would be a better choice, but you mentioned you were on a budget.

I know that Samsung and Sony both have waterproof phones, but I prefer stock Android.
posted by Nevin at 11:49 PM on February 19, 2015 [5 favorites]

I also suggest a Nexus 5, maybe with a good case if you're worried about water damage or whatever. I'd buy it off Swappa, where they run ~$225 and up. It'll do everything you need it to do, and then probably a bunch of stuff that you don't actually need but will end up loving.
posted by MeghanC at 12:23 AM on February 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

I highly suggest checking out Ting. (MeMail me for a referral code for a discount if you'd like!) I have a refurbished LG Optimus S Android from a few years ago from them that was around $100 at the time and it's still cranking along just fine and can do all the stuff you want. I am horribly clumsy and have dropped it tons, no problems, except sometimes the back pops off and the battery comes out - which it's supposed to do so it doesn't actually break! I can cancel with Ting any time, it's not actually a contract, but I don't because my phone bill is usually $18 a month, and rarely $25 like that time I paid roaming fees in France for a week and a half.

They have a service where you can plug in all the stuff you want in your phone and your priorities and price range and an actual human being will look at the options and make an informed selection for you. You can use them for a few months to get an idea of the sort of usage you tend towards (need more data? more texts? actual minutes? a hotspot?) and then use that information to get a contract plan with somewhere else if you find a better deal (though their rates are quite competitive) without breaking any contracts or anything. Also if it turns out you actually prefer a dumbphone, they have those too, but more robust ones. Sorry if I sound like a shill for them. I'm just emphatically not a phone person and they solved a problem I had for a decade that was only getting worse.
posted by Mizu at 12:35 AM on February 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

My refurbished Nexus 4 cost $230 on Amazon and is quite nice. It works with T-Mobile as well. It's y first smartphone and I really like it.
posted by irisclara at 12:53 AM on February 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

Personally, if you've never used smart phones I find iProducts to be best (just from experience with people getting cheap touch phones and being underwhelmed.) They are pricey though.

Got myself a Nexus 5 and although I'm not sure I rate it as highly as my previous iPhones (mainly a software thing tbh, though the camera is rubbish) it is an amazing phone for the money.

It's kinda hard to be completely non-bias and I really want to love Android. If you are happy getting dirty you can optimise it really well, most people just want a phone though.

So my advice would be iPhone if you can afford, Nexus if not!

Something I am really considering is downgrading to a dumbphone to, you know, phone people. Then getting an iPad mini/small tablet for my internet etc. I'm not sure smart phones are really all that as an actual phone.
posted by twistedonion at 1:44 AM on February 20, 2015 [3 favorites]

I agree with twistedonion on iProducts being the best if you're new to smart phones. Even my nearly 60 year old mother can use them without problems. It feels like everything is where it needs to be. You can't customize them as much as you can android phones, but that's not going to be a problem.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 2:04 AM on February 20, 2015

If you were really asking me what smartphone I would buy, my answer would be:
I'm holding out for Firefox OS phones, because I don't want to spend the money for an I-anything and I don't trust Google, so I inherently don't want Android.

Just a different perspective to think about.
posted by Too-Ticky at 2:45 AM on February 20, 2015

In my experience, the Apple phones are easy to use and good for first-timers. The price premium is obviously a problem, but you can get them at a much cheaper price if you are willing to buy them used from eBay. If you do, be very careful and make sure you buy from a seller with a high feedback rating -- NEVER buy electronics from somebody with a 0 feedback rating. And, honestly, I would shoot for a feedback rating over 100. Whatever you do, NEVER buy a used iPhone that is "iCloud locked." That means you will be unable to use the phone, and it almost certainly means it is stolen goods. (Honestly, it baffles me that eBay even allows people to sell iCloud locked phones.)

Ideally you would buy from a big seller that specializes in refurbished phones, and which has some sort of off-eBay presence to help assure you they are legit. I bought my latest iphone from Gazelle and was very happy with them. If you don't want to deal with auctions, here is their regular non-eBay website. (I should probably mention that I have no connection to Gazelle, other than buying my current iPhone from them. But my one purchase was a very good experience, and I plan on buying my future phones from them as well.)

If you do buy an iPhone, I would probably recommend an iPhone 5, a 5S, or a 5C. Those will be recent enough to run most contemporary apps, but old enough that you can get a good discount for a used one. For example, Gazelle currently has a used iPhone 5c for $250. They describe it as "showing signs of moderate wear" so it won't be in mint condition, and you'll have to buy a charger and headphones separately. However, a 5C would certainly be good enough to provide driving directions, weather updates, etc. (And based on my one purchase, Gazelle is honest about the condition of their phones, so it should be fully functional.) I think that price is about as good as you are going to get for an iPhone from a reputable vendor that is recent enough to be moderately future proof. But I recognize that $250 is still a lot of money! If it is too much for you, you might want to investigate one of the non-Apple options mentioned in this thread.

If $250 is almost affordable but not quite, you might wait until September. That's usually when Apple announces its newest model of iPhone, and everybody rushes to sell their old iPhones, flooding the market and driving down prices a bit.

If you do buy an iPhone, be warned that Apple's default Maps app is famously flawed (although it is getting much better, and in my experience, is at least somewhat better than its reputation suggests.) Fortunately it is very easy to install new apps. I tend to use Google Maps for iPhone when I'm walking around a city and want to find a restaurant or something nearby, and Waze when I'm driving and I want directions that will get me someplace as fast as possible, given current realtime traffic conditions.

Other than that, I think Apple's default apps are good, and if you have additional needs, there are thousands of inexpensive (or free) apps available in the App store.

You mention that you want something hearty. Unfortunately, smart phones tend to be more complicated and therefore more fragile. I think your best bet is to just factor the cost of a really good waterproof phone case into your purchase price. If (for example) your total budget is $300, you might plan on spending $50 to $100 on a waterproof case, leaving you $200 to $250 to spend on the phone. Be warned that the really protective cases will add bulk and weight to your lovely sleek smartphone! You'll probably find it a worthwhile tradeoff but just keep that in mind.

One general tip, for after you've gotten your phone and starting adding apps. The first time you run a new app on an iPhone, you'll get a message saying something like "This App wants permission to send you notifications. Do you want to allow this?" It's not a big deal, but I would encourage you to pause and think for a moment about it before clicking "Yes." Some apps really need to notify you when you aren't using them -- obviously, you want a messaging app to let you know when you have messages! But you probably don't need Candy Crush to send you notifications remind you to play it more often. (You can always change the notification settings for a given app later by opening up the "Settings" app and selecting "Notifications." But I find thinking about it in advance is a good habit to get into.)
posted by yankeefog at 3:21 AM on February 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

I got a Moto G for my father-in-law and it was a great purchase. $180 for a new one on Amazon. It feels almost as good as my Nexus 4, but I was only using the 1st gen version of the Moto G, the 2nd gen has some better hardware. It's a quality phone for cheap.
posted by demiurge at 5:12 AM on February 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'd at least consider the OnePlus One. I've been using one for about 6 months, and it's by far the best phone I've ever had. It's unlocked, and only $300 for a 16GB phone, or $350 for 64GB.

The one biggest caveat prior to a few weeks ago was that they were somewhat difficult to actually get a hold of (you needed an invite), but they're now available to buy every Tuesday. I admit that's still a weird way to offer your phone, but, presumably it's because they're still ramping up production.

Although I would say you couldn't really go wrong with the Nexus 5 or Moto G (or an iPhone, really) - I've just been really impressed with my OnePlus One that I figured I should at least recommend it.

Lastly, it couldn't hurt to check out The Wirecutter's section on phones. They've got a nice in depth look at the current crop of Android phones, along with an article on the iPhone 6/6+.

Happy shopping!
posted by mrhaydel at 5:42 AM on February 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

One note to consider: what do the people in your social circle use? If everyone around you is on iPhones, there are small conveniences like iMessage and AirDrop that make communicating with each other easier.

On the other hand, if most people you know are on android phones, that might be the way to go.
posted by Fleebnork at 6:52 AM on February 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

Like mrhaydel, I too have a OnePlus One. I got mine in December and love it. It is big, but hey, for me, bigger is better. It works on the AT&T network (with any of the carriers using it) and the T-Mobile net. The phone is fast and works. The battery life is terrific. (There have been some reports of battery drain with the latest software update, but that is sporadic and apparently if you read the forums, easily addressed) It has little to no bloatware, it is easily customizable as it runs a version of Android that is close to stock, and there is a fanboy network that will help in the XDA forums if you have any questions. It can be easily rooted if that becomes your thing down the road.
posted by 724A at 6:57 AM on February 20, 2015

Nthing Oneplus One. I have it. its great and pretty cheap at $350.
posted by TheLittlePrince at 7:16 AM on February 20, 2015

Galaxy note 2 (swappa.com, ~$150,awesome in so many ways,read the reviews,specs,still very up-to-date), ting, also awesome in many ways. Extras:goospery TPU case $3, amazon. 32gb memory card ~$25, amazon.
posted by sexyrobot at 7:36 AM on February 20, 2015

My Moto G was $200 and it has served me well.
posted by ocherdraco at 8:32 AM on February 20, 2015

I love my Oneplus One but I'm not sure I would recommend it for anyone who was not already a smartphone user, since a lot of what makes it great is the flexibility and customization, which could feel overwhelming if you are just getting used to a whole new type of device. I do have invites available if you want one, though.
posted by camcgee at 10:08 AM on February 20, 2015

Nthing the Moto G. iPhones aren't worth the extra money.
posted by cnc at 1:00 PM on February 20, 2015

Response by poster: Thanks for the insights, everyone! I have a lot to go through... I de-"favorited" the initial ones because these are pretty much ALL valuable answers.

Again, thanks!
posted by mysterious_stranger at 7:49 PM on February 20, 2015

Response by poster: I'm paranoid about buying refurbished products. I don't want the headache of trying to return something if it's not in the condition advertised, nor of a product not lasting as long because of prior use/wear.

I don't want to pay the cost of a new iPhone, Nexus, Galaxy or etc.

A new One Plus One, at $300 is more than I wanted to pay, but I can live with it (after significant amounts of grumbling) and it seems to fit the bill in terms of features (including a good camera, which Moto G doesn't have) and reliability, so I am biting the bullet and purchasing one.

Again thanks for the ideas!!
posted by mysterious_stranger at 11:30 PM on February 20, 2015

Final update from the asker:
I am unhappy with the new OnePlus One smartphone I bought last year, and wouldn't recommend it to anyone.

I've never been particularly a fan of the phone since the beginning. It has numerous design and usability flaws, one of which I was just reminded of as I was typing this: because the space bar is too close to the home icon, fairly frequently an attempt to click on the space bar results in the home key being pressed instead, making the browser window disappear. Note I have relatively small, nimble fingers, great typing skills, and am very dexterous in general. This not the type of issue that normally experience.

I don't think I'm a fan of Androids in general, as some of the annoyances I've experienced seem to be Android-related rather than specific to the OnePlus One. For example, there is nothing analogous to Ctrl-z, which is sometimes extremely inconvenient. A couple times I have accidentally deleted big chunks of text with no way to get them back.

And Google Hangouts always shows me as on, which has led to problems with people thinking I'm available to chat when I'm, for example, driving. There is apparently no way to set it to show me as categorically unavailable when installed on Android.

Despite taking good care of the phone, right around the one year mark (not coincidentally, I think, when the warrantee expired) it started disintegrating.

It has gotten stuck "on" several times for no apparent reason. When this happens, the only thing to do is let the battery entirely drain, then recharge. This is apparently not an uncommon problem. Kind of defeats the entire purpose of having a smartphone, to suddenly and with no rhyme or reason not be able to use it for many hours.

The internet only works at this point using WiFi. It is almost always "offline" if I try to access email, web sites, or Google maps when I'm out and about. I've confirmed it's not the service but the phone. The other people who share my T-Mobile plans do not have similar problems, and this problem gradually became worse and worse, was not sudden as if due to an upgrade or change in service.

I was not planning to have to buy another new phone after just a bit more than a year. I feel ripped off and very much regret my investment.
posted by cortex at 11:52 AM on May 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

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