For most people these days, our phones are our connection to everyone and everything important in our lives. They organise our appointments, collect our emails, deliver podcasts and stream music, all at the swipe of a finger. We've heard you can even make phone calls on the clever little things!

Whether you're upgrading to the latest and greatest or taking the plunge on your first smartphone, it's important to do your research to find the best option for you - a fair amount of technology goes into them and there is a lot to consider these days.

Stick to a plan, even if you go prepaid

Don't be fooled into thinking that smartphones are cheap; more often than not, they're going to cost you a pretty penny. The big question is whether you bite the bullet and buy your smartphone upfront, or get your mobile on a plan and pay it off over time. Check out both options, and decide what's right for you. Once you've decided, don't let the salespeople fancy-talk you into changing your mind.

Paying upfront may end up saving you quite a lot of money in the long run so if you can afford it, it's definitely worth considering. For some, it's not an option because the upfront purchase price of a decent smartphone can take a big bite out of your back pocket. For these people, there are plenty of post-paid phone plan options available. If you go for the phone plan option, the amount you end up paying will vary depending on the individual contract and how you use your phone.

Video: What's the best smartphone on the market?

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OS options

The phone's operating system (OS) is the thing that'll turn the phone (and possibly you) on or off. There are three options to choose from: 

  • Apple iPhone OS
  • Android
  • Windows Phone OS

Although none can claim to be best overall, there are significant differences with each of them.

Web access

If you find yourself reaching for the phone instead of your laptop to check the latest CHOICE tests, then you need a good web browser on your smartphone. If you do a lot of browsing, watch a fair amount of YouTube videos or want to edit your photos before sharing them online, then screen size and resolution will be important factors for your phone too.

Reception and coverage

Getting a network signal remains the crucial factor in daily use of a smartphone, although more and more of us are taking advantage of hotspots and Wi-Fi areas to communicate via social networking. But if you still use your smartphone for making phone calls, or you want to go online away from a Wi-Fi hotspot, you need good reception.

Our smartphone reception test measures the phones' receiving sensitivity and sending power (particularly important in areas with poor network coverage) in both the GSM networks and 3G networks. Our Next G test measures the performance of the smartphone in real world conditions when operating on Telstra's NextG (850MHz) band, which is still the only option for large areas of Australia.

4G or LTE (Long Term Evolution) is a wireless standard to get faster online performance from your mobile phone. It doesn't affect voice reception coverage, just data download speeds. 4G coverage is not as wide as mobile phone coverage, but it's improving all the time. Major carriers like Vodafone, and Optus are now joining Telstra, with coverage to increase throughout the next few years.

Before buying your next smartphone, make sure it is optimised for your mobile network. To make the situation very clear when buying your phone, confirm with the salesperson that the phone supports 850MHz if you are with Telstra or 900MHz if you are with Optus. 

Wideband Adaptive Multi-Rate (WB-AMR) 

Also known as HD Voice, this is a speech technology introduced to help improve mobile sound quality by allowing a greater frequency of audio to be extracted, making it clearer and reducing background noise in the process. You may not get the benefit if you're calling someone without this feature though, or across networks that don't offer support for WB-AMR.

Near Field Communication (NFC)

This is a set of standards for smartphones that establishes radio communication when they're near one another or touching. This comes in handy with cashless transactions, and you can expect to see more mobiles supporting this technology when Apple decide to join the rest of the world and introduce NFC in its iPhone line.

Tethering

If you want to use your mobile phone as a Wi-Fi or Bluetooth modem – or if you have WLAN tethering, you can enjoy the same benefits as a personal hotspot, where you can share your internet connection with other devices like other mobiles or laptop computers. It's a handy feature if you've a large data allocation and are away from your normal home network connection.

Camera quality

Picture and video capture quality is not just determined by your smartphone's resolution, but also the ability to deliver a good image in different lighting situations. If you use your phone as a camera you may want to look for a model with a dedicated camera button rather than having to hunt through the menu system to capture the perfect selfie. An LED flash can be very useful too when you're taking a photo with a mobile, especially when the available light isn't very good. And if you look for a phone with a front-facing camera, this lets you use your phone for video calls as well. 

Capacitive touchscreen

Made popular on the Apple iPhone, these operate by recognising the touch of a finger without the need for a lot of pressure. This touchscreen works particularly well when you're swiping to make a selection or zooming in on a web page. The alternative is a resistive touchscreen which works well with a stylus or finger but requires more pressure. All of the latest smartphones use a capacitive touchscreen.

Battery life

All smartphones users find the inability to use a smartphone for any more than a day or so frustrating. However, it's important to remember that the increased functionality of a smartphone with a large screen demands more power than a simple talk-and-text phone.

GPS

While most smartphones provide support for online map services like Google Maps, a dedicated GPS chip using an offline navigation application allows you to use your phone to find out exactly where you are without having to use your mobile phone network. The GPS score is calculated using the included software only. If you own an Apple iPhone or Android phone already, you can go to their online store and buy a car GPS app.

Flight mode

This is a very handy feature that turns off all the phone and network aspects of your mobile, turning the device into a music or video player so you don't need to turn it off during a flight. Most modern smartphones have this feature.

Headphone connection type

A phone with a 2.5mm or 3.5mm jack will let you use a standard set of headphones to listen to music, while a proprietary connection forces you to use special headphones that are often pricey and of dicey quality.

Memory card

Mobiles with memory card slots have the option of expanded memory to store photos, videos and music. Check to see the exact type of memory you'll need, as there are quite a few different options.

QWERTY keyboard

This may be available as a virtual keyboard showing up on most smartphone touchscreens, or an extended keypad or slide-out mini keyboard, which can be useful for heavy texters or social media users.

Cost

Bought without a plan, smartphones range in price from $99 to $1100.

See our Smartphone tests and reviews to compare the latest models.

There's more info on plans in our Mobile phone plans buying guide.