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How To Shop for a New 2014 Android Phone

By Ryan Whitwam

How important are the internals? What about OS updates? Are there must-have hardware features on today's Android phones? Don't let the numbers fool you.

There are plenty of Android devices out there to choose from, and it's easy to make general statements about which ones are the "best." This is something we try to do each month, in fact. However, when you're buying a new phone this year, it's worth taking a look at the state of the industry as a whole and consider what's important to you. How important are the internals? What about OS updates? Are there must-have hardware features on today's Android phones?

Let's dive in and check up on the state of Android in 2014 so you'll know what to look for in a new device.

The Guts That Matter

OEMs are fond of saying how many CPU cores a device has and how fast they are, but this is not the aspect you should be looking at when considering ARM chips. The model number tells you much more about what a processor is capable of, and you might have to dig a little to see which one it is.

Qualcomm is dominant in the mobile device sphere currently, and the Snapdragon 801 is the top-of-the-line for the moment (805 is still in its infancy). It's not that it's much faster in absolute terms than the Snapdragon 800, which is still shipping in a great number of high-end devices. The big improvements in 801 come in the form of additional power-saving features, which is what allows devices like the HTC One M8 and Samsung Galaxy S5 to implement their super power saving modes. It's a slightly more efficient chip in general, but yes, it's also very fast.

So, 801 is where you want to look if you need a quick and dirty rule of thumb. However, being aware of the other things an OEM does with custom silicon is important as well. Take the Moto X for example. That phone (and surely whatever Motorola announces later this summer) uses a series of custom DSPs as part of the X8 computing platform. That's a fancy way to say that it offloads some of the sensor and display management to specialized low-power hardware. So again, it's not just about the number of cores or how fast they are.

On the subject of RAM, there's a big push to get devices out there with 3GB of memory. I don't feel like we're in a place that 3GB is necessary just yet. Android manages RAM efficiently as long as there is enough of it to keep a decent number of apps suspended in the background. 2GB is fine, even on phones running OEM skins with a ton of background services. 3GB might be a bit more future-proof, but it's by no means something on which to predicate your decision.

Design and Features

The resolution race is not yet over in mobile display tech. LG picked another fight when it announced the G3, declaring that there is actually a visible difference between 1080p and 1440p on a phone. That might be true to a degree, but there's a lot more to a display than the resolution.

A 1080p screen looks very crisp -- there's no denying that. What you also need to consider is what the panel is actually capable of. For example, Samsung's new Super AMOLEDs can get both incredibly dim and incredibly bright. The off-angle clarity is also excellent. There are definitely points to consider when picking the best screen on a phone, but the way it integrates with the chassis is important as well. LG is known for slim bezels, which makes a larger screen more usable. So, don't just pay attention to the screen size, but note how that compares to the overall device.

When that chassis is a single sealed unit, you're probably not going to be able to get at the battery in any reasonable way. A non-removable lithium-ion cell used to be unthinkable on an Android device, but it's slowly become even more common than removable batteries. Unless you're dead-set on running your phone for five days without access to a power outlet, okay, demand a removable battery. Otherwise, a device with more than 2000mAh will probably be able to get through more than a day, and there are legions of external battery packs if you really need a bit more juice.

So what about the SD card? Again, some people swear by this feature. There is still a use for SD cards as a place to dump large amounts of data, especially as 16GB phones have continued to be the base model. However, Android no longer treats SD cards the same as internal storage. You can't write to them very easily, so managing files is much easier on internal storage. If you want to store massive numbers of photos, video, and music on the SD card, that's fine. These people will need to settle for a phone with 32GB or more built-in storage, or get one with a card slot. For everyone else, don't start crossing phones off your list just because they lack card slots -- using the cloud is just easier now.

Updates and Support

The situation with Android updates has gotten much better in the last few years. It used to be that Samsung would drag its feet for months before even updating the international versions of its flagship devices, and forget about the likes of LG getting new Android builds out the door. Things still aren't ideal, but most OEMs have picked up the pace of OTAs thanks to continued shaming by tech blogs and Google's efforts to provide early access to Android source code (the Platform Developers Kit).

Most of the top tier device makers like Samsung and HTC are doing a good job with updates. HTC even has a handy progress page where you can track the status of updates for each variant of its flagship phones. Motorola is in a class all by itself, though. This soon-to-be Lenovo company is always getting updates out the door in almost nexus-like time frames.

Getting the latest and greatest version of Android is nice, but it's not the only thing you should consider. Google has moved many of the core apps into the Play Store, and Google Play Services can push new platform features to devices running older versions of Android (Android Device Manager, Google Play Games, etc.).

The other aspect of device support has the potential to make the biggest impact on your ownership of a device -- what happens if it breaks? Apple used to be way out in-front of all Android OEMs here, but things are improving. HTC has its Advantage program (updates are part of that) which promises you one free repair of a cracked screen in the first six months. It also takes direct responsibility for most repairs. Motorola will replace a Moto X for almost any reason, even a minor cosmetic defect. That's the kind of customer service you should take into account.

Every phone will have its fans, but you don't need to pick a phone just because it's popular. Keep these points in mind when shopping for your next new phone and you'll end up with what's right for you in 2014.