If you’re serious about building responsive sites then you need to start building up a device lab. Sure, you can go and visit one of the community-driven ones, there don’t seem to be many about though, so depending on your location this may not be terribly feasible.
It might seem like a waste of time and money gathering up some widely used devices but I’d bet that you wouldn’t bat an eyelid at testing your latest design on IE. These days IE is fairly predictable, but you can’t say the same about mobile browsers.
You should aim to cover as much ground with as few devices as possible. At the very least you need to cover iOS and Android. I’ll go out on a limb and guess that you’ll probably have a phone running on one of these platforms. If so, congratulations you’ve made a start.
I’ll start with iOS only because it’s much more straightforward than Android. Ideally you need something that runs the latest iOS (currently iOS 6). The 3GS will do this, you’ll miss out on new features but for web dev testing this shouldn’t matter. If you want something with a retina screen you’ll need to move up to an iPhone 4.
Android covers a wide gamut. If you want to test Chrome you will need a phone running Android 4 as a minimum. There are differences in how Android 2.1, 2.2 and 2.3 display pages so ideally testing all three would be something to aim for. Various Android phone manufacturers add their own tweaks, so gathering a variety of phones including a Samsung and an HTC (two of the most popular manufacturers) would be smart.
A cheaper way of running Android 4 is to buy a phone that isn’t officially upgradable to version 4, such as a Samsung Galaxy S. You can then install CyanogenMod 10 on it, which is Android 4 in every way but name. This will then allow you to run Chrome. You should also consider getting something to test Android 2.3, as it was the most popular of the older Android versions.
The Android SDK includes an emulator, using this you can supplement your actual devices with emulated ones. I use this to test Android 3 (Honeycomb) and 2.1 (Gingerbread). The only drawback with the SDK is you can’t access the Play Store and download aftermarket browsers.
There are two distinct groups of BlackBerry from a web design standpoint; pre OS 5 and post OS 5. OS 6 and up uses a Webkit browser, which brings it more into line with other smartphones. Ideally you’d get one of each OS but I know this isn’t realistic so maybe aim for an OS 5 and 6 device each. The Blackberry Curve 8520 and 8900 both run OS 5, neither are touchscreen devices so you’d be covering an extra bit of variation, and the BlackBerry Curve 9300 and BlackBerry Curve 9360 run OS6 and 7 respectively.
BlackBerry also provide Windows only BlackBerry Smartphone Simulators so you can fill in the blanks much like with Android. These can be installed on Parallels if you’re run on OSX. To run the OS 5 simulator you need to install the BlackBerry email and MDS services simulator and JDK if you don’t already have it. Helpfully, BlackBerry don’t mention this.
The last smartphone variant is Windows Phone. Version 7 included IE Mobile 7, which is actually a mix of the IE7 and 8 rendering engines. Windows Phone 7.5 updated the browser to IE Mobile 9, so it’s a lot more modern. Ideally then, you should consider getting a version 7 device, something like an HTC 7 Mozart, along with one that runs 7.5 or higher. The Nokia Lumia 610 comes preinstalled with Windows Phone 7.5, whilst the HTC Windows Phone 8S is a newer Windows Phone 8 device.
Microsoft supply a Windows Mobile 7 emulator. I found it incredibly slow to the point of being unusable, this might be because I attempted to run it on Parallels, your milage may vary. To run it you will first need to install Microsoft’s Webmatrix, once done simply follow Microsoft’s instructions to install the emulator.
Finally, you should consider testing on something that isn’t a smartphone. Try to find one that has wifi to minimise faffing with extra data plans. The Nokia N95 is a reasonable Series 60 phone, although it is quite high end. Probably a good rule of thumb for choosing a feature phone is; the crapper, the better. Finding a crappy feature phone with wifi is something of a challenge however.
This sounds expensive
It isn’t cheap, but you can reduce the cost a bit by keeping an eye on eBay. Look for phones that have some cosmetic wear or damage. As long as the phone’s wifi, screen, and ability to load software isn’t compromised it’s worthwhile to put in a bid. My Samsung Galaxy S has a buzzing microphone, my HTC Wildfire has a small crack on the corner of its screen, and my BlackBerry has a broken camera. None of these things affect their ability to load websites, and they were all cheaper because of these faults.
This blog post covers the most likely basics, a starting point. To gain more insight into what devices to test on you should look to your website’s existing webstats, and maybe the geographic location of your audience. Don’t just assume your audience are all using iPhone and Android devices.