Product Reviews

What makes a phone smart?

A look at the technologies behind increasingly powerful mobile devices

Smartphones can simplify everyday tasks like shopping, but they rely on a list of ever-expanding technologies to do that.
Jeff Chiu/Associated press
Smartphones can simplify everyday tasks like shopping, but they rely on a list of ever-expanding technologies to do that.

Cellphones are some of the hottest products on the market, as shown by the excitement that surrounds newly released smartphones, upgraded cellphone features, and cellphone providers.

In many families, every member has a cellphone. So it’s wise to do some research before making your cellphone buying decision.

Today’s phones come equipped with many useful calling and multimedia features, including a media player, camera, Web browsing, child-location, and call-management services. Consumer Reports offers this overview of some of the features available:


Bluetooth. This technology enables the phone to work with wireless headsets and most hands-free car systems for tangle-free calls. (But avoid using any phone, even hands free, while driving.) Some phones support stereo Bluetooth headsets for music and other multimedia. And some can wirelessly exchange pictures, contacts, and other files with other compatible Bluetooth devices, such as a computer, cellphone, speaker system, or printer.

Get Talking Points in your inbox:
An afternoon recap of the day’s most important business news, delivered weekdays.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Camera. Most smartphone cameras are capable of producing respectable snapshots and can even record HD video, thanks to steadily improving image sensors, higher-grade lenses, and features such as auto focus, zoom, and brightness controls. While smartphone cameras are still not as good as their stand-alone counterparts, they do have several critical advantages. With their built-in network and wireless connections, for example, it’s much easier to share the snapshots and videos you take.

GPS navigation. All phones have some type of location-based technology to help emergency responders find you when you dial 911. Many of them support GPS navigation services that access information wirelessly over the carrier network. They integrate GPS with maps and search engines to give you real-time, spoken, turn-by-turn directions to an entered address, and also traffic info. You can even find nearby businesses by name or category.

Hearing-aid compatibility. Some phones interfere with hearing aids. Even those with hearing-aid compatible designations are not guaranteed to work with all hearing aids. Your doctor can help you choose a phone compatible with the aid you use. Or go to

Near Field Communication (NFC). This technology lets you beam Web links, contact information, and other small files between devices after you tap them together.


Speakerphone. A built-in speakerphone, which allows hands-free use in a car or elsewhere.

Standard headset connector. The standard connector on the handset, also known as a 2.5-mm or 3.5-mm connector, is compatible with most aftermarket wired headsets. Some phones with a proprietary connector might include an adapter to a standard connector.

Touch-free control. Some smartphones let you interact with the phone without ever touching it. For example, you can accept a phone call, move to another message, flip through photos, or skip to the next song on your playlist by waving your hand in front of the phone. These and other gestures, however, might take some getting used to.

If you’re looking for more information about cellphones and services, Consumer Reports provides product ratings and advice on its website,

Consumer Reports writes columns, reviews, and ratings on cars, appliances, electronics, and other consumer goods. Previous stories can be found at