Physician's Guide to Buying a Smartphone

31 August 2011

Editor’s note: Nate Gross is a Product Manager at Doximity.

Until recently investing in a smartphone hinged mainly on two factors: good voice reception (think Verizon versus AT&T) and prolific data options (iPhone versus cell phones).

Over the past several months, however, the field has leveled significantly. Now, if you’re one of the 81% of physicians currently in the smartphone market, you may be finding yourself reconsidering your alternatives. Herewith, Doximity’s guide to what to look for now.


  • With 75% of doctors using at least one Apple product, this is the established brand.

  • Seniority equals more existing applications. Apple’s broad market penetration means that developers still tend to view the iOS system as their primary focus, so new products and features hit here first.

  • iPhone and iPad applications are generally interchangeable, making it easy to sync information.

  • From video conferencing to full web browsers, Apple is known for leading with innovation that’s gone on to become mainstream. Notably, medical applications often launch for the iPhone first.

  • The touch keyboard can have a steep learning curve for some users.

  • Provider choice is (currently) limited to Verizon and AT&T.

  • Applications and programs tend to mold themselves to the latest version of a device, and the iPhone hardware is due for an upgrade within the next few months.

Know before you buy: With iPhones there are two memory sizes – 16 and 32 GB. For most users, 16 GB will be sufficient for a core music, photo, and video library. Because the phones themselves are on a roughly one-year roll-out and contracts last for two, the $100 cost difference can be applied to upgrades or contract terminations once new phones are released.


  • Overall, this is the fastest growing market. Recent Nielsen data shows that among new smartphone buyers, Android is now the dominant choice.

  • Provider options aren’t limited to just AT&T or Verizon.

  • Blackberry lovers will appreciate the full keyboard.

  • Incremental hardware tends to be better on the Android. Because newer features roll out sooner, processors are often more powerful, and screens larger.

  • The Android application market is new, so it’s not yet as large as Apple’s, and many developers still consider it secondary. Since there’s a great deal of variation among phones, there’s no guarantee that a particular application will work well with a given model.

  • The fact that the Android market is open-source makes it easy for hackers to access to source codes, so hacks are currently more common. In one recent McAfee-sponsored study, the amount of malware targeted at Androids increased by 76% this past spring alone.

  • Synergy with the iPad or any tablet that’s not the same brand as the Android itself can be poor.

Know before you buy: Since Androids are constantly innovating and competing with each other, the advantages of choosing a phone for hardware alone last a few months at best–long before a contract would expire. The smarter strategy is to choose a carrier first, then the best available phone. What’s your favorite model? Share with fellow readers in the comments!

Choosing a Carrier

  • Data: In the race to transmit data as quickly as possible, all four networks are now touting 4G capabilities, a significant leap forward in speed from 3G. While all 4G services are sufficiently fast to make this concern a distant second to reception, to date, the truest, highest-performing 4G service comes with the technology currently used by Verizon, called LTE. Both AT&T and Sprint have recently announced plans to adopt LTE, with the former aiming to have 15 cities covered by year’s end. The iPhone 4 hardware does not support 4G / LTE on any carrier.

  • Voice: Verizon is considered to be the best option for reception in certain urban areas such as New York and San Francisco. Less advertised is the fact that AT&T can actually have superior coverage in some rural areas. While these can be useful starting points, hospitals add a second layer of complication, with Verizon outperforming AT&T in the depths of some medical centers. Therefore, before investing in a plan, borrow a friend’s phone and test it out in the radiology reading room, the operating room and in the core of your building.

  • CDMA vs GSM: Verizon and Sprint both use a system called CDMA, a 3G technology unique to America and a few others areas of the world. This means that international roaming is extremely limited on CDMA devices. AT&T and T-Mobile, by contrast, operate off of a system called GSM, which relies on SIM cards. Hence, GSM phones can not only roam globally, but also be unlocked with one service’s SIM card being swapped out for that of another. Nevertheless, carriers often make it difficult to unlock subsidized GSM phones.

Correction: In terms of speed, reader drrjv shares a detailed guide explaining why AT&T’s 3G GSM is faster than Verizon’s 3G CDMA theoretically and practically in most areas. Additionally, CDMA streams its data continuously, while GSM sends its out in small bursts: the pauses between GSM’s data bursts are what enable users to access voice and data simultaneously, something CDMA can’t yet do. As healthcare applications proliferate, it’s not hard to imagine a scenario where one might want to reference patient information while conferring with a colleague by voice. Still, that problem can often be circumvented by relying on a WiFi connection for data streaming.

Addendum: Our helpful readers have shared updates including a list of countries that support international CDMA roaming. We’re as excited as everyone else by rumors of new iPhone models and carriers on the horizon!

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