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As strong rivals emerge, do you really need a new iPhone?

By John D. Sutter, CNN
A new Apple iPhone is expected to be announced Monday, but it's far from the only app-laden phone on the market.
A new Apple iPhone is expected to be announced Monday, but it's far from the only app-laden phone on the market.
  • Apple is expected to unveil a new iPhone on Monday
  • But experts say the iPhone is not the only dominant smartphone
  • Consumers should look at the options before rushing to buy a new phone
  • Consider apps, technical details, operating systems and network plans

(CNN) -- For months, the tech press has been drooling over details of a next-generation Apple iPhone, which likely will be unveiled on Monday at an event in California.

The phone is expected to be fitted with a higher-resolution screen, a front-facing camera that can be used for video conferencing and a camera flash.

But even with those new features, the iPhone is far from the undisputed crown jewel of the smartphone market, industry experts said in interviews on Thursday.

"They've lost their lead, and I don't think this is going to vault them ahead of the pack again," said Kevin Tofel, a blogger in the GigaOm network.

A growing number of competitors are giving the touch-screen, app-driven phone a run for its money. And they're doing so not only with iPhone-like technical features, but with increasingly robust app stores and a variety of mobile phone contracts.

All of this makes choosing the right consumer-oriented smartphone incredibly confusing.

Before you jump to buy the new iPhone, check out the market to see what works best for you. Here are a few tips for your search:

Look at the carrier

Tofel, who covers mobile technology, said it's smartest for consumers first to look at wireless network carriers -- such as AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile in the U.S. -- and then choose a phone from within the network.

"Don't become totally enamored by the phone," he said. "Make sure you pick your carrier first. If you buy a phone that drops calls all the time ... or you're going with a phone that really doesn't have great coverage where you live and work, basically you've just bought an expensive brick.

"The phone isn't really anything without the connections."

Apple's iPhone is available, for now, only through AT&T, which has the worst customer ratings in many major cities, according to Consumer Reports.

That's a big advantage for phones that run on Google's Android operating system, such as the Nexus One, Motorola Droid and HTC Droid Incredible, said Ramon Llamas, a senior research analyst at the firm IDC, since those phones work on other networks.

"A lot of people really like the [iPhone] device, they just don't want to go to AT&T. So one of the advantages of looking at the Android platform is -- guess what? -- it's at Sprint, it's at T-Mobile and it's at Verizon wireless," he said.

Experts said potential phone buyers should ask friends and neighbors about how their cellular coverage fares near their homes and offices.

Hurry up and wait

Last year, when Apple introduced the iPhone 3GS, the price of the previous iPhone model, the 3G, dropped from $199 to $99.

Combine that with the fact that smartphone prices, in general, are coming down over time, and there's quite a bit of financial incentive for consumers to wait before purchasing a new phone, said Ross Rubin, executive director of industry analysis at the NPD Group, a research firm.

"Prices for the devices themselves continue to come down on average and given the AT&T announcement yesterday [that it will end unlimited data plans], we're starting to see a little progress on making the data plans for smartphones and high-end feature phones more affordable, which should also help spur growth," he said.

Geek out on the OS

You may not use the term "OS" in daily life, but it's important to know about mobile "operating systems" if you're in the market for a smartphone.

The two main competitors these days -- at least in terms of the touch-screen, consumer-oriented smartphones -- are from Apple and Google, which puts out an operating system called Android.

In the same way that Windows manages the way you interact with information on a personal computer, mobile operating systems control the look and feel of a phone.

"It comes down to the experience. If you take away the experience, you just have a multihundred-dollar device filled with plastic, glass and metal," Llamas said.

Apple is known for its sleek, simple-to-use OS.

"iPhone ... has really set the standard for what a smartphone experience is for consumers," Llamas said. "One of the great things about Apple is that part of its DNA is to make the entire process incredibly simple. Forget the manual; you take it out of the box, and you'll figure it out in no time."

Android leads the pack in some ways, however. Apple has said it will allow its phones to run more than one application at once starting this summer. The Android platform has allowed that functionality for some time.

"The software is really the differentiator," said Tofel.

Is there an app for that?

If you've figured out the OS, the next things to think about are apps. Each mobile operating system has its own app store, where you can purchase apps -- or "applications" -- that will run on the phone.

Think games, social networks, maps and other fun tools.

Apple still has the biggest app store, with more than 200,000 apps. Google's Android Market is known for being more open than Apple -- meaning it doesn't have to approve apps before they go on sale -- but it only has about 50,000 on sale now, according to CNNMoney.

Michael Gikas, senior editor for electronics and technology at Consumer Reports, said Apple's App Store provides consumers with a bigger reason to get the iPhone than the hardware of the phone itself.

"There's no better source for all the things people love about smartphones than Apple's iTunes and App Store," he said. "They're the giant."

'Screen' the competition

Screens are becoming a bigger deal to consumers who are looking for new smartphones, the experts said. The standing logic is this: When you use your phone to watch YouTube videos and movies, bigger is better.

"People want a lot of screen real-estate," Llamas said.

So far, Apple has not been the leader in screen technology, according to experts, although there are rumors that Apple may update the iPhone's screen on Monday. The iPhone screen currently is 3.5 inches, measured diagonally, and that's not as big as some of its current and upcoming Android competitors.

The HTC Evo, for example, which comes out on Friday, has a 4.3-inch screen.

Gikas said several Android phones are technically superior to the iPhone, but cautioned that consumers should consider the whole smartphone system.

"The Android phones are really kicking butt," he said. "The phones are really good. They're very close or may even surpass this generation of iPhone in terms of performance. They have large screens. They have fast processors."

Rubin of the NPD group said future smartphones screens will continue to get bigger -- as big as possible so that they'll still fit in a pant pocket -- and may add 3-D capability in coming years.