If I had a nickel for every time someone asked me, “Which phone should I get?”, I’d be rich. That’s a hard question for any consumer to answer (and an impossible one for an outside party to even approach). There are a lot of variables inolved, not least of which are the user’s particular preferences and usage scenarios. Then there’s the monstrous load of choices available. Let’s face it, weighing all those options can be daunting, especially if your heart’s not already set on a particular device (or you’re a newbie at this).

Choosing a smartphone is enough to make a phone shopper turn to the ol’ dartboard decision making method, no? But you don’t want to do that. Picking the handset that will be your daily driver is no small matter, and chances are you’re going to be tied to this device for at least a year and a half once you commit.

So how do you choose? Well, narrowing down your options is a good place to begin. So let’s talk strategy: Obviously, you want the best phone you can afford, but “best” can mean different things to different people. Before you sign on the dotted line, be sure to bear the following in mind.

Pick the carrier before the phone.

Maybe you’re already locked into a carrier, maybe you’re not. But one way or the other, this is the first thing you need to think about. Focusing on a particular provider’s portfolio of phones will slim down your choices immediately.

If you’re not already tied to a contract, choosing a cell provider is a good place to start, and a primary consideration should be their coverage. After all, what’s the point of getting a handset if you can’t ever connect? Try to resist the urge to pick the phone before you pick the carrier — otherwise, you could wind up with an expensive paperweight. In other words, hit those coverage maps. Hard.

Assess your budget.

Who doesn’t want the most advanced phone on the market? But, sadly, many of us need to weigh our desires against what we can reasonably afford.

If you’re thinking pre-paid, you’ll probably be relegated to technology that’s at least a generation or two behind the cutting edge. If that works for you, it can be a great way to save some real cash. If not, expect to pay anywhere between $100 to $300 for a mid- to upper-level phone on a two-year contract (You’ll pay more for a contract-free device. A lot more). But there’s more to budgeting than just the money you plunk down at the point of purchase. There are ongoing fees to consider. Overall, Sprint and T-Mobile offer less expensive plans, but their coverage isn’t as comprehensive as Verizon and AT&T.

Indeed, there’s a lot to consider when choosing a carrier, and once you’ve zeroed in on your choice you’ll want to consider your budget yet again. Depending on the handset, there are data plans, texting plans, possible LTE/WiMax fees (for 4G phones) and even tethering options to mull over. And many of the most alluring smartphone options add to your monthly bill. In other words, if you can’t afford tethering or 4G as part of your service plan, then there’s no need to consider a phone that offers them.

Evaluate your usage scenario.

Ideally you’ve picked your carrier first, or maybe your current contract isn’t up yet, and you’re staring down the barrel of that company’s smartphone choices.

So how do you choose? Well, resist the temptation to go by specs alone. Everything relates back to how you plan to use the device. Are you mostly texting/emailing/updating Facebook? Then all that processing power (and extra cashola) might be wasted here. Do you game a lot? Then yeah, go for the higher GPU, raw CPU speed and RAM.

I have a friend who bought an epic Android smartphone for $300, complete with roomy storage and dual-core processor. For what? Just to read emails, check RSS feeds and do the occasional web surfing. It didn’t suit him at all, but because he didn’t get around to returning it right away (see below), he wound up tied to a carrier he couldn’t stand, packing a huge device whose battery drained constantly and form factor he complained about toting around. What a waste. He bought it based on reviews, but didn’t consider his own usage scenario and wound up with “too much phone.” Some of us love buying gadgets and trying out new things, but smartphones are different: We carry them around constantly, so if it’s annoying, it’s not something we can just stick in a drawer and forget about. So consider the way you plan to use the device, and let that inform your decision.

Of course, you’ll want to read reviews — hey! We happen to have some great ones here on TechnoBuffalo — but don’t let anyone try to dictate what’s best for you. Some people love big screens, others want a compact form factor. Do you absolutely require LTE? A keyboard? Is thinness more important than battery life? Do you watch a lot of videos, or do you simply need a powerhouse of a texting machine?

If I had to give any general advice, I’d say this — if you’re not already loyal to a particular OS, hit your local wireless shop and try out a few. I personally like going to places like Best Buy, Radio Shack and other carrier-agnostic retailers. The reps there will usually give you the straight scoop, since they don’t have an allegiance to any particular carrier or platform. And you can compare models across more than one carrier right there in the same physical space.

Once you have a viable option, do your research.

Older devices can be fine, but there’s also a risk to weigh — the potential for forced obsolescence. Some people bought the iPhone 3GS and wondered where Siri was, or were dismayed that Android’s Ice Cream Sandwich update won’t come to older Droids or certain Samsung devices. One of the compelling reasons that newer models are attractive, is that you can be sure there will be software updates for at least a while. But even then, there’s also the rate of software updates that can vary by brand. There’s not much you can do about this, except adjust your expectations and know what you might be in for.

For example, there’s less to stand in the way of updates for stock Android, assuming it’s running on fairly new hardware. (And if it’s a flagship phone, it might not come cheap, but at least you know you’ll always be updated quickly. Well, almost always.) So if you love, say, the HTC Sense user interface for Android (and I don’t blame you if you do), just know that updates might not reach you first.

Try before you commit.

Did you know that most carriers have a 30-day money back policy? They may not take kindly to you doing this all the time, but if you’re suffering over a decision about a particular handset, you can test drive it for a little while first. (But that return window is usually firm, so if it’s not what you want, make sure you return it in time!)

A Word About Specs, and Some Final Thoughts

The whole point of specifications lists are that they give you an indication of how much processing power and capacity you’ll have at your literal fingertips. In other words, they’ll give you an idea of what you can do with your phone. Some people lose themselves in specs and buy based on that alone. While I don’t recommend that, I do recommend the following:

  • One spec that you should look at is battery life. Nothing worse than dealing with a dead phone when you need it most.
  • If you have a choice, get a phone with as much RAM as you can. CPU speed isn’t the only factor in the zippiness of a device.
  • Don’t just go by whether a processor is single-, dual- or (as more phones release) quad-core. Some phones are actually zippier with a single-core CPU than others with dual cores, likely because the software was written optimally for it.
  • Consider your storage needs. If you know you’re an app hound, or you tend to stash large amounts of media on your phone, you’ll need as much room as you can afford.
  • Don’t be quick to fall for buzz words and hype. Right now, LTE sounds great, but it doesn’t exactly cover the whole U.S., so if you’re not in a supported market it does you no good. And 3D may sound sexy, but frankly, everyone I know who has a 3D phone barely ever (or never) uses the feature.

While your choice of phone is an important decision, there’s no need to over-stress about it. The dominant platforms right now — Android, iOS and even Windows Phone — are all evolved enough to offer a pretty decent experience. So no matter what you choose, you’ll have plenty to be excited about. In fact, the people I know who were the most disgruntled about their smartphones weren’t dismayed so much about the platform or specific handset features — they were ticked off about more fundamental issues, like coverage, cost and battery life.

Now, some people have been asking me which phones I have my eye on, either current or about to drop, so I’ll add them in here. For now, it’s the MyTouch 4G Slide, Galaxy Nexus, Galaxy S II, Lumia 800, iPhone 4S and the HTC EVO 3D. (Yes, it’s a 3D device, but it’s still a damn fine phone.) For a mid-tier option, I also dig the HTC Rhyme quite a bit. But phones have been releasing so often, my choices change pretty regularly — and so may yours. Don’t fret. And don’t let it intimidate you. Once you’ve gone down this list, you’ll be able to narrow down your options.

And if you’re still not sure, then remember: Just try, try, try before you buy. At the very least, it can inject some fun into the shopping process.

Do you have any tips of your own to share about shopping for smartphones? Or is there anything you wish you’d done differently? Let us know about them in the section below.