PCWorld has just posted a general overview of the basic issues that face somebody interested in buying a Smartphone. For those of us in the mobile world, there's no new information here, but it's a nice one-stop article for new people who don't know the difference between UMTS and IMAP (mixed categories.. shudder):

There is no single greatest handset for all users, but with a little bit of forethought, you can easily choose the best phone and service plan for your own business needs.

Read: PC World - How to: Buy a Mobile Phone

I link it for two reasons: 1) the above mentioned "save this link for the next time somebody asks you about mobile phones" and, more importantly, 2) I think the article is exactly backwards when it comes to buying a mobile phone. Let's assume you're interested in buying a smartphone and, naturally, you think that you're going to want a very powerful device -- so you've settled on Windows Mobile as your platform of choice. What next?.

If you're not careful, you'll let the gadgetlust tail wag the smartphone dog. So read on for the "default advice" I give to friends, family, and even enemies (turn the other cheek, right?) about how to buy a Smartphone.

Step One: Pick Your Carrier

Seriously, this is step one and failing to make this step one is, I think, most often the biggest pitfall for a new smartphone buyer. It's very easy to be taken in by the gadget lust, but let me speak from long, personal experience:

Paying cancellation fees sucks. Getting stuck with a carrier whose coverage and plans don't fit your needs sucks a lot. I've paid 4 cancellation fees in the past two years. If I'd followed my own advice, I would have paid just one and been happier in the long run.

Really, there are stupendous Windows Mobile devices available now on every single carrier in the US. Even with the new stuff coming out soon, you'll be much happier in the long run sticking with the one carrier that best fits your needs instead of switching around to get the latest and greatest. So, how do you pick your carrier? There's no one way, but this is what I recommend:

  1. First, coverage. If you don't have good signal at home and in your office, find the carrier that has the best signal. Invite friends over who are on other carriers and check their bars. Check with your coworkers. Heck, waltz into a store and ask to borrow a test device for an hour. You might think you can "get by," but I promise you: if you have horrible signal in the places you live and work at, you'll end up switching again.
  2. Second, plans. If you're lucky enough to have several carrier options when it comes to coverage in your area, the next step is to delve into the mysterious and hateful world of cell phone plans. Here's a fair warning: this step will depress you. Nearly every carrier has overpriced data plans, overpriced text messaging, and confusing-as-all-get-out choices. Generally: assume that you'll need slightly more minutes than you think; Get unlimited data, period; get more text messages than you think you'll need, too -- as every single carrier is milking text message costs these day as a part of their master plan to be as evil as possible.
  3. Third, the little things. Maybe your family uses a certain carrier. Maybe your friends do. Maybe, like me, it's important to be able to switch up devices by swapping your SIM card out. Maybe you need a phone that will work in Europe. Maybe you think the customer service at certain carrier is better. I should say, though, that in the mobile space, the grass always seems greener on the other side. Take it from me, with the possible exception of T-Mobile, every carrier's customer service is slightly worse than you'll get from the most offensive fast food employee you can imagine. Maybe you prefer a certain 3G technology, or believe that a certain carrier will have better 4G tech.
    ...Maybe, just maybe, you're loyal to a certain carrier. ...Ok, scratch that last.

Step Two: Pick Your Moment

This step is tricky. If you're caught in a contract, it might be worth it to wait it out and avoid the cancellation fee. If you're not, it might be worth it to wait for the latest and greatest smartphone that's coming out soon. Or heck, your life is a little hectic right now, you can afford to stop hitting refresh on your favorite gadget blogs for a few hours and go outside. Go Fishing or something: HobbesIsReal swears by it. :)

The point is don't act hastily. Let the decision sit in the back of your mind for a bit. Let it stew (or fester, if that's your style). Eventually you'll feel that, yes, now is the time.

Step Three: Pick your Smartphone

FINALLY, you get to the good part. Reading reviews. Fondling the device at the store. Going through a spec breakdown device by device. Oohing and Aahing. Still, I advise caution here. I oohed and aahed at the Vox, only to find it wasn't for me.

We're assuming, of course, that you want the power, work-friendliness, and customization you can only get on Windows Mobile. That basically means your decision tree is very simple.

Decision One: Pro or Standard?

With Windows Mobile 6, the Touchscreen devices are "Pro" and the non-touchscreen devices are "Standard." On windows Mobile 5, the nomenclature is "PocketPC Edition" and "Smartphone Edition." At this stage in the game, anything you're considering will either be WM6 or will be upgraded to it very soon. So relax.

The real question is whether or not you need the extra power and ease of use of the touchscreen. Nobody can answer that for you but you - so you'll really need to get the gadgets in your hands and play around. Generally speaking, the Pro editions are slightly faster and slightly easier to use because you can interact directly with the screen instead of navigating around with the 5-way pad. Also, generally speaking, the Standard editions are slimmer, sexier, and have slightly better battery life.

So it's power or pocketability, basically.

Decision Two: Which one?

Well, we've finally come to it, you've already done your due diligence, having:

  • Picked a Carrier and a Plan
  • Waited to be sure you made the right decision
  • Picked your platform

...here's the good news / bad news - once you've made those decisions, it's highly likely that you'll only have 2, or at the most three, devices to choose from. The only exception is if you're considering importing some unlocked GSM phone, but let's leave that out of the picture for now.

When you're choosing between the devices that are available for your carrier and your platform, you basically just go with your gut. Maybe one-handed use is important so you go with a Treo 750. Or maybe you want a super-powered device, so you wait for the HTC Tilt. Or maybe you think the MotoQ9 is ugly as sin so you get the Blackjack. The best thing to do is get ahold of an actual phone and play around with it, plus read as many reviews as you can.

Here's a teaser: WMExperts is currently working on a comprehensive buyer's guide that you can use to compare specs, comment on phones, and generally figure it all out. Coming in September, Web Gods Willing.

Wrapping Up

Sad but true, nearly every point I've made here comes from personal experience. More specifically, personal experience doing the wrong thing. I've switched carriers out of a desire for a different phone, only to find that my signal was unacceptable. I've left carriers in a huff over customer service only to find it was worse with the new guys. Most often, though, I've snapped up too many new phones to count only to find they didn't fit my needs.

So slow down, chill out, and follow my easy three step plan to smartphone bliss. I know I will from now... OHH, SHINY! Where's my credit card!?

Did I get something wrong? Let us know in the comments!