The variety of music and media focused phones available can make it difficult to be sure you're getting the best device for your money. The following is the most important factors to consider before you hand over your coin or sign your life away on a long-term contract.
Dedicated music hardware
Like your home audio system or your PC, the quality of music produced by a mobile phone is dependent on the audio hardware under the hood. Many phones rely on a standard set of chips to do the job, but some phones feature a more considered approach and are worth checking out for this reason alone.
Samsung has an ongoing partnership with audio hardware manufacturer Bang & Olufsen. This partnership has yielded some of the more expensive mobile phone handsets of recent times, as in the Serenata, but has also produced a few reasonably priced models as well. Last year, Samsung launched the i450 with B&O ICEpower hardware and the result was an excellent sound at a mid-ranged price point.
Sony Ericsson took advantage of the Japanese side of the company's legacy in audio hardware. The Sony Ericsson W980 and W705 feature "Clear Audio Experience", a very literal name for the use of dedicated audio hardware in the music player.
Music file recognition
For many people, music files come in but a few flavours, mostly MP3 audio files. For others, especially those who appreciate high sound quality, their music library is a mishmash of file formats including AAC, WMA, OGG and FLAC to name a few. When buying a music player these people will need to make sure the phone they choose is capable of playing back all their music, or capable of transcoding the files to be compatible with the software on the phone.
The major culprit here is Apple's iPhone. Similar to its iPod music players, Apple's phone is only capable of playing MP3, WAV and AAC (including protected-AAC) files. This means if you've bought WMA files from your favourite online store, or if you've ripped your CDs in high quality FLAC or OGG formats, you won't be able to play the files on the iPhone.
If your new phone refuses to play your existing music files, you should check if the PC software that comes with the handset is capable of converting the files to a format it recognises. Nokia PC Suite, for example, will transcode files, both video and audio, to a format optimised for use on its devices.
3.5mm headphone socket
This one is a no-brainer. Whether it's a stand-alone player or a mobile phone, buying a music player without a 3.5mm headphone jack is like buying a car that runs on leaded petrol. A standard headphone socket means you can use most popular brands of headphones with the device, and many hands-free headsets as well. Using a proprietary port restricts you to using only the headphones that come with the phone, or headphone manufactured by the maker of the phone. In most cases these headphones are garbage and binding us to these sub-par units drive us crazy.
Most dedicated music-playing phones come with a 3.5mm headphone socket, but you do have to be vigilant before you hand over your money. Samsung and LG are notorious for sneaking in a proprietary socket, and Sony Ericsson has all but refused to include the standard-sized port in previous releases (though this will change come the launch of the W995). Definitely something to check on CNET or while you're in the phone shop.
Spending extra on good headphones
While you're double checking that your new phone has a 3.5mm headphone socket, check your budget and make sure you have enough left over to pick up a decent set of headphones. As mentioned above, the headphones that come bundled with mobile phones are incapable of producing a rich sound, so we seriously recommend you splash out on a good set of 'phones.
Check out our round-up of the best headphones for portable devices to see which headphones you should include on your shopping list.
A2DP stereo Bluetooth
Now we know what you're thinking — don't most phones come with Bluetooth these days? It's true that almost all phones, cheap or expensive, are capable of some Bluetooth connectivity, but the A2DP stereo profile is what will allow a phone to transmit a stereo audio signal to a headset. Otherwise the signal sent will be mono only.
For many people, A2DP stereo Bluetooth will not be high on their shopping list, but it is a handy feature to have, especially if you like to listen to music while exercising. With A2DP you can pair your phone with a wireless headset and jog free of those pesky cables getting in the way.
Do you really want to use a music player that is difficult to use? Apple sets the benchmark for sexy, easy-to-use music players with its iTunes Coverflow menu system, but in our opinion, the Sony Ericsson and Nokia handset music players are quite close behind. Even if they don't look as sharp as CoverFlow, they are definitely as easy to access.
Storage: internal vs. expandable
It may be an obvious point to make, but all storage is created equal, ie, 8GB of internal storage in your iPhone, is the same as an 8GB microSD memory card in your Nokia. The big difference is flexibility. Internal storage cannot be changed, swapped or expanded, while memory cards can be replaced. This point is fast becoming redundant with many manufacturers, Nokia and Samsung in particular, starting to release handsets with both internal storage and the option to expand with a memory card as well — the new Nokia N97 is an example.
When buying memory for your music-playing phone pay close attention to the format you choose. All phone makers choose microSD for their models, with the exception of Sony Ericsson which uses the Sony M2 memory card. But under the broad heading of microSD there is also SDHC (high-capacity SD) and the newly announced SDXC (eXpanded capacity). Older phones may not support the newer memory cards so be sure to double check this.