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Grow Your Business Technology

Smartphone Buying Guide

image for Charnsitr/Shutterstock
Charnsitr/Shutterstock

Investing in high-quality phones for your employees can increase productivity and connectivity, especially if your business uses work apps to get things done. This smartphone buying guide is constructed with the needs and limitations of small business owners in mind, many of whom lack in-house IT talent and have limited experience buying hardware for groups. By working through the steps outlined here, you should be able to eliminate unsuitable options and find the right phones to help your team work efficiently.

The first step before buying most business technology is to set a budget. With smartphones, however, this is trickier, because the long-term costs are tied to paying for continued service as well as the hardware itself. Additionally, the choice of service provider is just as important as the choice of phone, since even high-end iOS devices are useless if there's no reliable coverage. For that reason, we encourage all small business owners to do their homework on service providers before buying any devices.

As you research the major service providers, pay close attention to not only the phones each provider supports, but also the small business plans it offers (many of which make buying for groups more affordable) and local coverage maps. Opt for a service provider that has a diverse offering of smartphones, solid service and affordable business rates.

These are the major service providers to consider:

  • AT&T
  • Google Fi
  • Republic Wireless
  • Sprint
  • T-Mobile
  • Verizon

For simplified mobile device management (MDM), we recommend small business owners choose one general operating system for all their mobile devices. Using different versions of Android across devices usually isn't problematic; however, managing both Apple (iOS) smartphones and Android phones is needlessly complicated.

Unless you have a compelling reason to choose iOS for your business, such as the need to run a specific business app that can only work on Apple products, Android is usually the better choice. There are far more types of Android smartphones, with more security features and a broader range of prices, so you'll have many more choices if you eschew Apple. If you choose to purchase iOS smartphones, you should expect to spend at least $750 per device at the low end, whereas solid Android smartphones can be purchased for as little as $130, up to $1,000 for the most luxurious phones. If these numbers seem shocking, remember that many service providers wrap monthly financing into the service fees, so it's unlikely you'll have to shell out the full cost upfront.

At this point, you should have your service provider and operating system narrowed down, so it's time to look at specs to find the right smartphone for your employees. Not every spec will be vital to your purposes, so if you can't think of a use case for an OLED screen or headphone jack, don't let those details impact your purchase decision. 

For business users, battery life can be a make-or-break spec, as can charging time. When looking at phones, keep in mind that claimed battery life from the manufacturer is just that – a claim. It's best to compare the claimed battery life that a phone seller publishes to the battery life that review websites have recorded for the phone. Unless your workforce includes field workers who are deployed to remote locations for days at a time, a battery life of six to eight hours is sufficient.

Most midrange and higher smartphones have dual cameras: a front camera, or selfie camera, and a rear camera. Selfie cameras are especially important if your employees will be using their phones for video chats with clients. Reading reviews of smartphone cameras and looking at example images can be helpful, as can test-driving different phones in person. The reason we recommend this approach rather than simply comparing specs is that camera and lens specs are relatively complicated to learn about if you have no prior experience with cameras. In general, though, most phones in the $500-plus range have acceptable cameras for most standard business users.

Even low-end smartphones have decent displays these days, and the display isn't going to make or break a mobile device for most business users. However, there are some exceptions. You should look at the display specs if you have field workers who will frequently be using devices in extreme lighting (or lack of lighting), graphic designers or other creative employees who will use their phones for design work, or another extenuating scenario that makes display a major priority. Many high-end iOS and Android devices have OLED or AMOLED screens rather than LCD screens, so look for those descriptors as well as high resolution, as determined by a dense PPI (pixels per inch) rate.

A surprising number of new, luxury smartphones no longer have headphone jacks. If you aren't sure what types of ports and slots your employees will use on a regular basis, ask them before you make any buying decisions. Along with headphone jacks, microSD and SIM card slots are widely used, so inquire about those as well if you aren't sure. If you intend to buy smartphones without headphone jacks, you should factor the cost of wireless earbuds into your business hardware budget.

A lot has changed in smartphone processing in the last five years. Even low-end (under $300) and midrange ($300 to $500) smartphones have enough power for basic needs like texting, browsing the web and accessing apps. If you want top-of-the-line performance, you can opt for a $1,000 device with the fastest processor on the market, but it's certainly not the only viable option for business users. If most of the apps your employees will be using are widely used business apps like Evernote, Trello and Slack, standard processing power should be fine. If your employees will be using apps that involve processing huge amounts of data or advanced visuals (like VR, MR or AR), go for the high-end smartphones.

Like design preferences, security needs vary from user to user. If you require business-class security features, you may benefit from selecting an established phone manufacturer, like Samsung. Samsung offers an add-on product called Samsung Knox, which is essentially a lightweight SaaS MDM solution. You may also opt for a third-party MDM solution, but for microbusinesses and solopreneurs, it may be easier to get everything from one provider. 

Most business users won't need a lot of phone storage, with the possible exception of mobile game developers or people who will be spending a lot of time downloading and storing large amounts of sensitive data or media on their phones. In general, though, the 64GB of storage built into most smartphones should be adequate.

Hopefully, by this point, you've identified one or two devices that will work for most of your employees and you can buy smartphones for everyone on your team. Many SMB owners select multiple tiers of smartphones to suit the needs of their lower-level, midlevel and high-level employees. You may also want to consider investing in an MDM system to manage your business's hardware.

MDM is offered in a SaaS format for SMBs, and it's become much simpler and more affordable in recent years. It can help you do things like track employee activity and location, manage security, and protect lost and stolen phones by locking or wiping them remotely. For more information on MDM, check out our buying guide now.

Mona Bushnell

Mona Bushnell is a New York City-based staff writer for Business.com and Business News Daily. She has a Bachelor of Arts in writing, literature, and publishing from Emerson College and previously worked as an IT technician, copywriter, software administrator, scheduling manager, and editorial writer. Mona began freelance writing full time in 2014 and joined Business News Daily in 2017. She covers business technology and reviews CRM systems.