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Is the iPhone 5 confusing shoppers for a new smartphone?

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September 15, 2012

With the recent launch of the Apple iPhone 5 this week, a whole slew of good Android handsets, and the rise of Microsoft's Windows Phone 8 operating system, choosing the right smartphone has never been more confusing for the average consumer.

But on a more positive note, all those options mean greater choice.

If you're armed with the knowledge necessary to make smart shopping decisions, you'll probably end up as a happy consumer once your choice is made.

Sit tight as we break down what you need to know to choose the right mobile platform and model to fit your needs. We haven't fully reviewed every phone listed below, but we have gotten our hands on every single one, and know quite a bit about each mobile handset.

Apple's iOS, the Android OS and Windows Phone 8 each have a lot to offer, and will appeal to people differently depending on what they want. If you aren't a fiercely loyal fan, a phone design could lure you to a new OS, but many people prefer to start with the platform itself instead.

iOS' strengths are its well-integrated ecosystem and fairly intuitive interface, but you're pretty much locked in to iTunes for the content itself.

Overall, Android is much more customizable, but each wireless carrier has its own benefits, which can make it less easy to just pick up and start using the device.

Windows Phone 8 is building in features that make for good high-end phones, and its fresh, simple interface is appealing, but real 'power users' may not find it flexible.

When choosing an Android phone, you have to think about the version of the OS. Android phones suffer from fragmentation, as wireless carriers and handset makers add their own software layers that sometimes get in the way of an update to the next generation.

As such, we'd avoid any new phone running Android 2.3 dubbed 'Gingerbread' or older, and stick with Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich or Android 4.1 Jelly Bean. Higher-end phones are typically the ones to receive OS updates first.

We'd also skip Windows Phone 7 devices in favor of Windows Phone 8 for most users. Windows 7 phones won't receive many meaningful software updates from now on, a long-standing tradition that is signed by Microsoft itself, in its PC devision.

iPhones have the advantage of receiving the same OS upgrade at the same time, and the newest OS is usually available on multiple devices. iOS 6, for instance, will work on the iPhone 5, iPhone 4S, and iPhone 4, but not on the iPhone 3GS or earlier.

Of the devices we've fully reviewed, the iPhone 4S is best, but we think that the forthcoming iPhone 5 is sure to beat it.

If you're happy with your wireless carrier, or if you're within an upgrade window, you'll probably pick from your carrier's choices. However, if you're off-contract or in between contract cycles, the world is your oyster.

Things you have to consider include: contract or no contract, a small data plan or a large one, and which carrier covers your area best.

National and regional wireless carriers sign you on for a two-year contract, have a strong retail presence, and offer phones at a subsidy, therefore at a lower cost.

They also typically have the widest coverage and the lowest up-front costs, and offer premium phones.

But every national carrier also has a prepaid option. Some, like T-Mobile and AT&T, offer a different, usually cheaper, range of phones. Verizon lets you buy nearly any phone at retail value and then pay month-to-month.

Sprint manages prepaid options through its Virgin Mobile and Boost Mobile brands. Depending on how you use the services, prepaid service could work out to be cheaper over time. You also won't have to worry about breaking your contract and paying a fee.

And several prepaid wireless carriers operate on their own networks as well, like MetroPCS and Cricket Wireless. These carriers have regional footprints and are sometimes slower to adopt premium phones and improve on their technology. MetroPCS for example was first with LTE, but its network is much slower and its coverage area is a lot smaller, so you may want to look into that carefully.

Cricket doesn't have 4G, at least for now, but it does offer a unique music service. U.S. Cellular is a regional network with both prepaid and postpaid options.

There are many more wireless carrier services as well. Voice and data coverage are also key. There are carrier maps you can look at to see roughly if your area is taken care of, but asking neighbors is usually more reliable.

And all carriers are still rolling out 4G LTE networks, but Verizon is far ahead of the others. Sprint has the smallest number of markets, currently, and T-Mobile is using the pretty fast HSPA+ for 4G.

The carrier's pricing structure is also something to think about. Verizon and AT&T have pooled data plans that could be better or worse for you or your family, but AT&T's aren't mandatory for existing customers. Sprint continues to offer an unlimited data plan, and T-Mobile recently introduced its own version.

In other mobile news

At a high profile hearing in Washington yesterday, Chinese handset makers ZTE and Huawei failed to reassure the long standing national security concerns of Congressmen surrounding their access to the U.S. market. And the debate has been going on for over a year already. The U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee on Intelligence investigated claims that the two companies are linked to the Chinese military.

Chairman Mike Rogers explained that the “on-going onslaught” of network intrusions originating in China are “almost certainly the work of, or done at the backing of, the Chinese government”, and that the PRC has the motive to tamper with the global telecoms supply chain. "We have heard reports about backdoors or unexplained beaconing from the equipment sold by both companies. And our sources overseas tell us that there is a reason to question whether the companies are tied to the Chinese government or whether their equipment is as it appears," he added.

“Huawei and ZTE provide a wealth of opportunities for Chinese intelligence agencies to insert malicious hardware or software implants into critical telecommunications components and systems. And under Chinese law, ZTE and Huawei would likely be required to cooperate with any request by the Chinese government to use their systems or access for malicious purposes.”

In response, both firms claimed that they were fully independent of any government or PLA interference, as was claimed in a recent Northrop Grumman report.

Huawei vice president Charles Ding offered the following "As a global company that earns a large part of its revenue from markets outside of China, we know that any improper behavior would affect our reputation, would have an adverse effect in the global market, and ultimately would strike a fatal blow to the company’s business operations. Our customers throughout the world trust Huawei. We will never do anything that undermines that trust. It would be foolish for Huawei to risk involvement in national security or economic espionage."

He added "Let me be very clear: Huawei has not and will not jeopardise our global commercial success nor the integrity of our customers’ networks for any third party, government or otherwise."

Huawei and ZTE also beefed up their security credentials, their adherence to advanced standards and the on-going efforts to improve the quality of their equipment. They also pointed out quite pertinently that most of their Western rivals in the telecom industry have their equipment made in China.

“We respectfully suggest that the Committee’s focus on ZTE, to the exclusion of the Western telecom vendors, addresses the overall issue of risk so narrowly that it omits from the Committee’s inquiry the suppliers of the vast majority of equipment used in the U.S. market,” said ZTE vice president Zhu Jinyun.

“ZTE should not be a focus of this investigation to the exclusion of the much larger Western vendors,” he added.

But the two handset makers were unwilling to budge on the most important matter-– allowing investigators deeper access into some business information to better explain their relationship with Chinese authorities, its corporate structure, various ownership operations and its general management.

“We were willing to work with both companies, to find a reasonable way to answer our document requests. But the 2 companies have refused, apparently because to turn over internal corporate documents would potentially violate China’s state-secret laws,” said Rogers.

“It's strange that the internal corporate documents of purportedly private sector firms are considered classified secrets in China. This fact alone gives us a reason to question their independence.”

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Huawei’s Ding responded that “the requests also sought highly sensitive, proprietary business information, which, we respectfully submit, no responsible company, foreign or domestic, would voluntarily produce”.

Short of both companies doing a monumental 180 degree turn and allowing the U.S. Committee access to this secret information, there seems little hope of a breakthrough.

Rightly or wrongly, the continued intelligence linking persistent cyber attacks on U.S. organizations originating from China will likely keep U.S. politicians from softening their stance.

In other mobile news

As expected, Apple has finally launched its shiny new iPhone 5 yesterday, and it's a neat new smartphone. And yes, it is faster. And yes, it has a larger screen and the casing is smaller and lighter at the same time. Looks all good from here.

The iPhone 5 debuted today at the usual hype-infused Apple event, with CEO Tim Cook and his team taking steps to reestablish the iPhone's leadership role in the world.

Executives spoke about the various upgrades and new features, with Cook leaving the general impression that Apple's products remain a step up from those of the competition. And they are. "Only Apple could create such amazing software, hardware, and services and put them together into such a powerful, integrated solution," Cook said at the event.

However, Cook could have used the late Steve Jobs' famed 'reality-distortion field' for this one. Jobs' strength of personality could have at least left the impression that the iPhone 5 was more revolutionary than evolutionary.

Yesterday's new product presentation event had few exciting moments and even fewer surprising ones. But nevertheless, it was still great.

The competition actually had it easy with the iPhone 4S, which launched last October but was largely seen as a placeholder until the arrival of the iPhone 5. The iPhone 4S featured the same design as the iPhone 4 and just a few software and internal hardware changes.

Apple managed to boost sales by expanding its distribution to even more wireless carriers, but despite impressive sales, it clearly couldn't sustain the momentum or buzz of previous iterations of the smash-hit product.

And that simply left other high-profile phones to make their mark, including the Motorola Droid Razr and Samsung's Galaxy S3 and Galaxy Nexus.

The new iPhone 5, which is 18 percent thinner and 20 percent lighter than the iPhone 4S, is the thinnest smartphone in the wireless industry, according to Apple.

With a four-inch screen, the iPhone 5 allows for five rows of mobile apps -- one more than previous versions of the device, which sported a 3.5-inch screen.

Apple said yesterday that the iPhone 5's CPU speed is twice as fast as the previous version, an advance made possible by the company's new A6 chip.

But most importantly, the iPhone 5 is also the first Apple smartphone to have 4G-LTE network connectivity, which allows for speeds of up to ten times faster than 3G, or about the same as the average home broadband connection.

In the U.S., the iPhone 5 will be compatible with all LTE networks supported by Verizon, AT&T and Sprint. The new smartphone features an improved "iSight" camera, with a better ability to take low-light photos and a new mode that allows for panoramic shots.

It also allows users to take photos while shooting videos -- an increasingly popular feature found on rival smartphones. Another new feature is "lightning," Apple's new eight-pin connector, which is significantly smaller than the 30-pin connector that Apple has used since 2003.

The Cupertino company will sell adapters so that users can still use older chargers and legacy connectors. The charging devices will cost $29 each, or $39 for versions with attached cables, according to a listing in the Apple Store.

The iPhone 5 will go on sale on September 21, starting at $199 for the 16-gigabyte version with a new two-year contract. Larger 32 GB and 64 GB versions will cost $299 and $399, respectively. Apple will begin taking pre-orders tomorrow.

As Apple has done before, the two previous iterations of the iPhone will continue to be sold at reduced prices. The 16 GB iPhone 4S will get a $100 price cut, selling for $99, and the iPhone 4 will be free with a two-year contract.

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