How to buy a smartphone – what to look for in your next handset

PhonesThere are thousands of different devices out there to connect you to your friends and family, but a few things to look out for will help you whittle them down to just one: the right phone for you

We’ve come a long way since 2007, when Steve Jobs stood on stage at a packed press conference to reveal the very first iPhone. While not exactly the first smartphone, it forever changed our expectations of what these devices could do – and how conveniently. Sales exploded accordingly, and now more than a billion smart devices are shipped every year from an ever-increasing number of manufacturers. Of course, with more competition comes an overwhelming degree of choice. In fact, by some estimates, in 2015 there were more than 24,000 different Android devices in active use alone. That number is only likely to expand, making finding the right phone for you a major challenge. There are so many makes, so many specifications to understand: how can you ever hope to find the right phone for you? Luckily, we’re here to help.

1 What brand do I buy?
The first question that comes to mind to most is, surprisingly, perhaps one of the least important in 2016. Truth be told, brand matters less now than it ever did. Smartphone manufacturing is centralised in a few, massive factories in China, so whether you go for Apple or Samsung, Huawei or ZTE, ultimately, you’ll get very similar internal hardware, whatever model or operating system you choose.

There are still some benefits to going with a big brand phone such as HTC and Microsoft Lumia. These phones are more likely to be sold subsidised through mobile networks on contract (and discounted over the course of a contract), and you’re much more likely to receive support for them in terms of major software updates bringing new features and bug fixes.

In the case of new iPhones and Windows Phones, you’re guaranteed these, but only the most popular (and expensive) Android smartphones get timely updates – Motorola is by far the promptest for these, which is worth remembering if you want to stay on the smartphone cutting edge.

But you can also save a lot of money by going with a lesser known handset and the specs you’re after; and newer brands, such as China’s Oppo and OnePlus, are every bit a match for global names such as Sony and LG. Just be sure to read up on some customer reviews online first – avoid a company that isn’t easily contactable and doesn’t honour warranties, just as you would buying any other consumer product.

2 What operating system?
The answer to this question, however, is critical. Just as you choose Mac or Windows for your laptop, you’ll need to make a similar decision for your smartphone. Which operating system do you go for? This is the software that will handle everything from phone calls to emails, apps and games, after all, so finding the right one for you is crucial. You’ve got three main options, each with its own pros and cons.

The software onboard Apple’s iPhone remains unmatched when it comes to ease of use. The tile- based homescreen and simple control gestures of iOS have served as the inspiration for all rivals’ operating systems since its debut almost a decade ago, and in that time the App Store has grown into a download service offering literally millions of apps and games.

For better or worse, if you know you want iOS, your choices are rather limited. There are just a handful of different types of iPhone on sale, which makes it easy for Apple to keep them all up to date with the latest software updates. They are all, of course, beautiful. The downside? They’re all eye-wateringly expensive too.

If you know you don’t want an iPhone, you’ll almost certainly be getting an Android device instead. Google’s smartphone OS is now available on thousands of different devices, for better and worse. On the plus side, you can find phones in almost any size and at any price point, and Android’s open source nature means that you can tweak it to do just about anything or run whatever apps you want.

The downside: many different devices leads to many slightly different versions of Android. As a result of this fragmentation, apps don’t always run as expected, especially on less widely distributed devices, and you’ll be reliant on the manufacturer to adapt and roll out software updates (and many won’t). However, almost all major smartphones you’ll see in stores today run Android, including those made by Samsung, Sony, LG, HTC and Motorola, and these models won’t usually run into these problems. Android also supports most popular apps and services too, so you probably won’t face compatibility problems there either.

Windows 10 Mobile
Microsoft’s smartphone OS is brand new and pleasantly polished. It’s simple to use and integrates seamlessly with its desktop apps, such as Skype, OneNote and Office365. That said, it lags far behind in number and quality of third-party apps compared to iPhone and Android – you won’t get the latest and greatest services and games.

Almost all Windows 10 Mobile devices are made by Microsoft itself now after its acquisition of Finnish phone maker Nokia, so there’s only a few to choose from. There’s the powerful, handsome Lumia 950 flagship and the cheaper Lumia 640 XL. Both make great first time smartphones, but if you want to get more out of your device, Android handsets are much more customisable.

3 Is screen size important?
Yes, and more so than you may realise if you’ve never owned a smartphone before. There’s been a trend in recent years to larger and larger screens, with five inches diagonally now the norm for even the cheapest models, where by contrast the iPhone display measured 3.5-inches for years.

On paper, this sounds ideal – more bang for your buck. Games can be easier to play, documents and web pages easier to browse and videos more enjoyable to watch. But bigger screens come with ergonomic issues you might not have anticipated. Those with smaller hands will struggle to reach across them, which makes simple things like turning the screen off, typing with one hand or just tapping the address bar in the web browser difficult.

As a compromise, some larger smartphones such as the Samsung Galaxy Note range come with special software that shrinks the keyboard down to make one-handed use easier. But if a small screen paired with the latest software is still a must, consider the Apple iPhone 5c, with a 4-inch screen that’s easy to use one-handed.

Though it’s less of an issue nowadays, you’ll need to watch out for resolution as well. You won’t see many smartphones these days with resolution of less than 720×1280 (the number of pixels across and down in each line). Anything above this will be so sharp you’ll struggle to make out individual pixels (ideal), but anything less (480×800 is a common resolution in some phones still), and you’ll find text looks grainy; you won’t want to read an eBook on a phone such as this.

4 What should I look for in a camera?
If you’re after something to replace your compact camera or DSLR, you’ll need to choose carefully. While you should never assume that more megapixels equals a better camera, in general the better camera phones do feature cameras with larger sensors. So if you’re looking at a bargain smartphone with a 5- or 8-megapixel camera that seems too good to be true, that’s probably why – this is the first area manufacturers start cutting costs.

These days, Samsung, Sony and Apple’s best new phones are all tied for first place when it comes to photography, with HTC close behind in second; all sport cameras varying from 12 to 23 megapixels. Also look out for optical image stabilisation and aperture, but just as important is the software to let you sort through the myriad of settings easily – and process shots quickly.

In this regard, Apple may not be alone on top anymore, but the iPhone still cannot be bettered for video capture – the iPhone 6s can’t be matched for processing speed, clever editing tools, or the utterly amazing 240 frames per second slow-mo mode.

It’s also worth considering the quality of the front-facing camera too, especially if you like to make video calls or take selfies. While most manufacturers cut costs by popping a low resolution VGA™ or lowly 1-megapixel sensor, you’ll be talking to your friends in blurry-vision. Look for phones with a 3-megapixel front camera or higher – the HTC Desire Eye comes with a whopping 13-megapixel front camera.

5 I need great battery life, what should I look for?
Honestly? Not a smartphone. Sadly, in a race for the best performance and the biggest screens, the industry standard has eroded from several days between charges, to one day or less. Quoted battery life on a product box or website is meaningless too, since everyone uses his or her phone differently – look for the battery capacity instead. Anything above 3000mAh should get you through a day, but some phones, such as the Motorola Moto X Play and Sony Xperia Z5 Compact, can get through a whole weekend on one charge, which is as about as good as it gets.

You can extend battery life by turning off Wi-Fi and mobile data on your smartphone, and switching to 2G/GSM networks to make calls. You may be better off looking into a spare battery or a case for your phone with a built-in battery.

6 Price
While they have blurred somewhat, there are still three main price categories: budget, mid-tier and premium. Budget Android phones (up to US$150 or so) have come on in leaps and bounds in recent years, to the point where if you are not concerned about camera or screen quality or a slight edge in speed, there’s very little difference – Motorola’s Moto E and Moto G lines offer the best performance. The premium category (US$400 and up) comprise the latest and greatest models, such as the new LG G4 and Apple iPhone 6s – you may find it cheaper to purchase these on a monthly contract with calls and data rather than pay the full price upfront.

While many will simply opt for one of these two categories, do shop around, as the often ignored mid-tier offers some pleasant surprises. The OnePlus Two and Asus ZenFone Max offer huge screens and super-fast specs for under US$300 SIM-free (meaning no monthly commitments, and they can be used on any network). Good luck, and remember, always read reviews first!

Our picks by category
Still confused? These should help…

If money is no object
Apple iPhone 6S
Beautiful, powerful, intuitive – and breathtakingly expensive – Apple’s only got better and better at making mobiles since it first started almost a decade ago.

Compact and petite
Sony Xperia Z5 Compact
Smaller than an iPhone, but every bit as powerful, this Android phone also sports
rock-solid battery life as well as an amazing camera.

Epic battery life
Asus ZenFone Max
Tired of having to charge your phone at your desk before lunch? This audacious Android smartphone packs an enormous 5000mAh battery for days of use.

Big hands, big screen
Samsung Galaxy Note 5
The 5.7-inch screen is beyond huge, but that extra space means you can run two apps side by side, and control them both with the clever built-in stylus.

Bargain blower
Motorola Moto E
A spacious 4.5-inch screen, fast Android OS and 4G download speeds – quite how Motorola makes money on this one is anybody’s guess.

Killer camera
Sony Xperia Z5
The 23-megapixel sensor on the back can’t be beaten for image quality – although the 5.1-megapixel selfie snapper on the front gives it a run for its money.

What about Blackberry?
Once upon a time, the BlackBerry smartphone-cum-emailer was a status symbol, as well as a productivity tool. But times have changed: the company has failed to keep up with Apple and Samsung, and in recent years has seen a drastic decline in sales and large losses, in part due to its insistence on sticking with its own operating system, which lacked much of the polish of iOS or Windows. Last year BlackBerry made the momentous switch to Android with its new Priv handset, and while it’s perfectly adequate, there are better built, better value Android phones on the market. The switch also means you shouldn’t expect much more support for older BlackBerry handsets from software developers. So unless you’re given one to you by work – many firms still prefer BlackBerries for security – we don’t recommend you buy one right now.