Every store and phone carrier offers holiday deals on their smartphones. It's a good time to buy yourself a phone, but should you buy one for someone else?
Like buying someone a puppy, that's a complicated question. Big-ticket electronics are popular holiday gifts because stores tend to keep prices low through the holiday season. If someone on your list is in the market for a game console, laptop, tablet, or e-reader, this is the perfect time of year to save on them.
Smartphones, however, are a different story. Stores love to advertise phones as a great gift idea, and offer buy-one-get-one-free deals or discounts when you sign up a new line. However, our phones are deeply personal devices. Someone might dislike a particular phone because it doesn't fit in their pocket, because it doesn't work on the right carrier, or even because it's not the right color. Here are some of the big stumbling blocks to watch out for when phone shopping for a loved one, if you want to do it at all.
Make sure you get the right carrier
A new phone without a cellular network to support it is just a tiny Wi-Fi tablet. Before you buy a phone for your friend or relative, you need to know what carrier they use, then find out whether or not the phone you are buying works on that carrier. Cameron Summerson, news editor for website How-To Geek, has covered and reviewed smartphones for years and he said that getting the carrier right should be your top concern.
"Depending on what carrier the recipient is on, you'll need to make sure that the phone is compatible with that particular network," he said. "This is most true for Verizon and Sprint, which tend to be more strict with bring-your-own-device policies. While most phones these days are quad-band — meaning they should work on all major carriers — "there are definitely still some outliers that don't offer the compatible bands for all networks. This is most true for new iPhones, which should be purchased for the specific network they will be used on."
This can be easier said than done. As Summerson points out, the iPhone faces a unique problem. If you buy one from Apple directly, or buy a phone from Verizon or Sprint, it will include both the radios required to work on Verizon and Sprint as well as the radio most of the rest of the world uses. Once unlocked, that phone will work on just about any carrier.
However, if you buy an iPhone from AT&T or T-Mobile, it will only include the radio that those carriers support, which means you won't be able to take it to Verizon or Sprint. See the problem?
The most surefire way to make sure you are getting a phone that works on a certain carrier is to buy it from that carrier (or an authorized reseller like Best Buy).
When to stick with what they know
Picking a phone for someone else is like buying them clothes. When in doubt, Summerson recommends making as few changes to what they have now as possible. "Pay attention to what they currently have and any complaints they have about that specific handset," he said. "Unless you specifically know that the person wants to change platforms, it's usually easiest [and best] to stick with what's familiar — so, a new iPhone for an iPhone user, and a new Android phone for an Android user."
If your recipient has a large phone, stick with something big. If it has a fingerprint sensor on the back, try to find a new phone with those same features.
An exception is if you know that your gift recipient has a complaint about their phone. Are they complaining that their phone is too big? That's a good time to look for a smaller phone.
Ask — even if it ruins the surprise
The only surefire way to make sure that your loved one likes the phone you are buying, though, is to ask them. You can even turn it into a shared experience. Tell them that you will go phone shopping with them and buy the phone they like most. That way you don't just buy a present for them, but you get to spend some quality time together.