What do I need to know about buying a smartphone?

My current smartphone is getting quite old. It’s a Samsung S5; some apps don’t even support it anymore, and the ones that do still work are rather slow. It’s time to bite the bullet and get a new one, but the selection has been rather limited lately. I suspect it’s another manifestation of the computer chip shortage.

The size of my current phone is fine. I’m on Verizon, and would be happy to stay with them. The one thing I didn’t like about my old phone is that it came pre-loaded with a bunch of apps that I have never used. I’ve tried to uninstall some of them and they come back. And since I tend to keep devices for so long, I’d like it to have enough memory to not be obsolete in five years.

So what do I need to know? 256GB, 512GB, or 1TB? Would buying an unlocked phone from the manufacturer avoid all of those apps I don’t use, and how tough is it to get an unlocked phone working with a particular carrier? Anything else?

I think they all do that.

I like to run a lean device. Verizon keeps “helpfully” suggesting games and apps for me. Ugh.

Also, every time I call customer service they try to hard sell me on stuff I don’t need/want.

I find smartphones really aggravating and often have a pang of regret I ever upgraded.

Also: Get off my lawn!

Sorry, I realize this isn’t terribly helpful. However, I’ve heard that going to the phone manufacturer might be a better source for a new phone than buying from your service provider. Mostly, I wanted to see any suggestions other people have because I will eventually have to get another phone whether I want to or not.

There’s maybe 2 dozen icons on my iPhone that represent apps, but the apps aren’t actually there, and aren’t taking up any memory, because Apple stores unused apps on the cloud. They’re marked with a little cloud symbol. It’s a relatively new feature, and I like it.
My phone is the ‘basic’ iPhone, the SE. Its pretty small and does everything I need it to.

My new-ish Google Pixel came with the usual non-brand apps (calculator, photos, etc.), but they’re tucked away out of sight. The battery life is great, and it charges really quickly.

@Capn_Carl mentions his iPhone SE, and my wife has that one and likes it. To some extent it’s how you feel about Apple vs Android.

As for lock/unlock, we always get unlocked so we can move to a new carrier if necessary. The major carriers like Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile don’t care (well, other than they’d like to lock you in), not sure about the others.

Five years is probably pushing what’s actually safe in terms of security updates, etc… The manufacturers’ suggested replacement schedule is driven by their profit targets, but at some point, they quit pushing new operating systems to older phones and quit updating the old operating systems. This is the point at which they probably ought to be replaced, or you risk having any security issues go unpatched forever.

For example, the oldest supported Android version is 8 (Oreo), which was the second OS update for the Galaxy S7. That means that anything prior to the S7 is running on an unsupported operating system.

Personally, my approach is to buy the very best one that’s out when I’m ready to change, and then hold on to it for several years- until the phone itself has some sort of unsurmountable issue, or until the OS is no longer supported. So in the case of my S5, I kept it until early 2019 when the SIM card slot quit working/wouldn’t connect. I had plans to get something new no later than mid-2019 anyway, as that’s when Android 6 was no longer going to be supported (September 2019).

I’ve got a Galaxy S9+, and my wife has a S9, and they’re great. Like all phones, they come with a raft of crap applications bundled with it, but there’s no way around that really. What I do is squirrel them off in a folder that isn’t on my “desktop”, so I don’t have to see them unless I go look for them.

As far as storage size goes, I don’t know what all you use your phone for, but I’ve had my iPhone 11 for a couple of years with just 64GB of onboard storage and I’ve never run afoul of the “low storage” warning. I’m currently at 24.42GB of phone storage used, with 35GB of photos in iCloud. The vast majority of what’s stored on my phone is downloaded music, podcasts, and audiobooks.

Based on the limited terms you’ve mentioned upfront, I’d probably suggested the Pixel 5a (5g) as your best bet. It’s 5g which is probably not needed if you’re fine with your current phone, but you did mention future proofing. It is stock android, so no manufacturer or carrier based material, just the default google apps (which are fine), and if you want something specific, the app store will take care of you. You’d buy it straight from google, and it would be carrier agnostic - so if you ever did leave Verizon you’d not have to worry about unlocks.

It’s got 128G of memory, which should be plenty based on the storage of your current unit unless you start taking a bunch of pictures and/or storing a lot of video locally. And it currently shows at $449 new on the Google store. Pixel’s normally get a few years of promised software updates, which is more than most offer, but nothing is forever of course. And they tend to be produced in strangely low numbers despite their value, so if you break one, they can be hard to replace.

The only phone I know of that doesn’t come loaded with junk apps is the Google Pixel line. I have a Pixel 3a that I bought right at the end of its run when is was being heavily discounted as new models were imminent. I chose it because of the lack of junk apps and am happy with it.

Let it be known that I am a long-time Google hater. I don’t use Google for search, I never sign in to Youtube (always use ‘private’ to watch videos there), never use any other Google service except for gmail (never found a better anti-spam service). That said, the ‘pure’ android on the Google phone is good.

There seems to be a bit less of the completely egregious crapware on phones - e.g. it’s been several versions since I’ve had a non-deletable NFL Football game on my phone. I once rooted a phone (probably my S5, come to think of it) partly because of that. Later ones (S7, then my current S9) are difficult or impossible to root and since I use it for business purposes, I’m not allowed to do so anyway (due to security issues / inability to patch etc.).

I suspect that even with an unlocked phone you’ll run into stuff you cannot delete. Looking at mine, there doesn’t seem to be all that much any more. Some of them include

  • AR Zone
  • Galaxy Store
  • Digital Secure (a Verizon app; a couple other Verizon apps also)
  • Internet (built-in browser)

There are probably a few others; I mostly looked at things I don’t typically use. There were a few I looked at that seemed unfamiliar, but that were installed due to my use of the phone for company purposes.

You can disable them, which means they’ll waste less space and use less battery power / data.

Honestly I’d say go for the biggest memory you can afford. Some apps can run off the SD card, but even if not, you’ll have more space for photos etc. which is important if you keep the phones that long. Plus, more RAM may make it more robust and less likely to slow down as ongoing “improvements” to the OS bog things down.

I’ve had my S9 for about 3 years and it has 6G of memory (of which it’s using half) and 128 GB of storage (it’s using about 75% of that - time to do some cleanup!).

The phones really do slow down as time goes by. My first smartphone was a Droid, bought in 2012. 2 years later it was so incredibly slow to respond that at times I literally could not answer the phone if I’d been using any other app at the time. I missed photo opportunities for the same reason. I did factory resets several times, which would help for a few weeks, but ultimately I truly HAD to upgrade (as opposed to later swaps, which were more for convenience / new toy reasons). My S9 is still working pretty well, nearly 3 years after I bought it.

They are legally required to unlock the phones on request.
As long as the phone is paid off, of course - e.g. if you bought it with a “pay 25 a month for 2 years” plan, you won’t be able to do so until you have finished out that 2 years (or have otherwise paid it down early).

Since Verizon (and I suspect others) charges an activation fee on any new phone - even one they’ve sold you (bastidges!), I think the only extra cost to purchasing one from another source would be the cost of a new SIM card - 10 or 20 bucks, I think.

Something else to think of: if you have your eyes on one of the flagship phones, you may do better to wait until the day after Thanksgiving to see if your carrier has a Black Friday deal. That is, if you can make your current phone work for you for another 7 weeks or so. My Note 9’s list price was 1,000 bucks, but on Black Friday it was going for 600 (as long as I paid monthly - 25 a month). Since we had no plans to quit Verizon, that was fine with me. I think if I’d tried to pay it off early, I’d have had to cough up the full thousand (or whatever remained of it) - something to check carefully if you go this route.

I do agree with @bump on getting the best one you can, and for the same reasons. A one-year-old model is probably OK there; it’s not that much closer to obsolescence, and will likely be cheaper than the newest, shiniest one.

… and that right there is just one reason why they try to get you to upgrade your phone constantly, to keep you on those contracts and keep you locked into their service

I appreciate all the feedback so far. I was planning on sticking with a Samsung phone because my old one lasted so well. It still goes a long time between charges and doesn’t really have a scratch on it. I’ll take a look at the Pixel, though. I kinda wish I could try an iPhone for a while, see if I like it any better than Android.

One thing I did for a while was play around with a photo-processing app called Prisma. It will take a picture and apply a filter; one of them makes that picture look rather like a stained-glass window, so sort of thing. I had a lot of fun with that, but it was slow even when my phone was new. If the app is still around, maybe I’ll try it again.

Why would you ever call customer service? Any problems I’ve ever had, I use MyVerizon to troubleshoot. Occasionally on MyVerizon I’ve used the Chat to go further, but there has never been any attempt to sell me anything. In fact, the most recent time I used MyVerizon the chat person pointed out I could do a few minor changes that would bring my monthly bill down a good bit.

What will you be doing with the phone? What is your budget?

iPhones are going to last you much longer than Androids. Apple supports phones for 6 - 7 years vs the 1 - 2 years for Android. Right now is a good time to pick up a 2nd hand iPhone as everyone is upgrading to a new one and Apple has gotten so far ahead in the processor game that 3 year old iPhones are faster than the current fastest Androids you can buy. If you’re comfortable with a used phone, anything iPhone X or above will be more than enough for you or Apple sells a new iPhone 11 for $499 and the SE for $399.

Because I find the chat “service” to be awkward and difficult to use and I can’t ever seem to the the crappy app AI to understand me when I’m having an issue. I’m not calling customer service to “manage my account” or “manage my Verizon experience”, I’m calling it because I am having a problem I can’t figure out on my own.

I had a half century of getting help verbally over a phone so I’ve been thoroughly trained to use that method. Why shouldn’t I be able to seek help in the format I find most comfortable?

You probably won’t. I actually have a Galaxy S9+ for my personal phone, and an iPhone XR as a work-issued phone, so I’ve actually used comparable, contemporary phones side-by-side.

The iPhone XR doesn’t really offer anything that the S9+ does; in fact, my S9+ has two camera lenses- basically two fixed focal lengths. The XR doesn’t have that. Its camera is good, but not noticeably better than the Galaxy S9 cameras (my S9+ or my wife’s S9). They’re all terrific cameras honestly.

Otherwise, it’s got good battery life and is light. But it uses iOS, which drives me batty- the lack of home and back buttons is infuriating. The screens seem about the same as well- better than my middle-aged eyes can see at any rate.

Essentially it’s a bare bones 2018 smartphone- no nifty features or anything like that. The only real downside is that it didn’t come with a charger or cable (?) and it doesn’t seem to support any of the fast charging methods that my multiport charger does- USB power delivery or Qualcomm Quick Charge. So it charges pretty slow. Don’t know if that’s the phone, or just a consequence of not having the specific Apple charger that allows this particular model to fast charge.

I use a MacBook for work, and I’m fine with it. I can adapt to a new UI pretty easily, but when I do notice the difference it’s usually something that annoys me. If I had my druthers, I’d stick with an Android phone because I’m used to it.

If there really are good reasons to switch to an iPhone, I’d consider it. That’s why I’d like to try one for a little while first; to see if I could learn to live with the new UI. I find some things about computers to be very mildly helpful when they work, and completely infuriating when they don’t.

You won’t go wrong with buying another Samsung. I tend to buy a previous top-of-the-line model once a new one is introduced (I bought the Galaxy S10 right after the S20 was introduced) and keep them for a long time. You miss the latest bells and whistles, but right now those aren’t deal breakers. The cameras on the Galaxy line are excellent, they have expandable memory, and very adequate battery life.

My mom (in her 60s) started with the iPhone SE when it came out and I started with the 6s. We’ve both enjoyed them so far. There wasn’t really any “crapware” installed, but they did have Apple apps like, I dunno, Garage Band or something. We deleted them easily.

Now it’s been 7 years and I think Apple is about to ditch support for 6s and SE. I just bought a 13 Pro and mom got an SE (2020). I haven’t gotten my 13 yet but mom has been happy with the SE (2020).

I like the price and size of the new SE. I would recommend it for anyone who’s not trying to have all the bells-and-whistles of a new smart phone. It’s a solid Apple product.