How to buy the best smartphone for your needs
Need a new mobile? Tips to help you pick the best.
How to buy the best smartphone
Before buying your next 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's a lot to consider these days.
Want to know how we get our review results? Check out how we test smartphones.
Should I buy a phone outright or through a plan?
Do you buy your smartphone upfront, or get your mobile on a plan and pay it off over time? The answer is - it depends on what you want to buy. Check out both options, and decide what's right for you.
- 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.
- But if paying upfront isn't an option, 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.
- Read more about the pros and cons of a prepaid phone versus paying upfront.
Smartphone operating systems
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 (iOS)
If you already have, or plan to buy, other devices made by Apple such as an iPad tablet, Macbook laptop or Mac desktop, then an iPhone using iOS would be a good choice.
- If you like dependable sameness with no surprises and solid compatibility with a good range of devices, then you should consider an iPhone using iOS, although you do pay a premium price.
- The operating system for the Apple laptop and desktop computing devices have been evolving into a similar a look and feel to the iPhone so you should be comfortable moving from one device to another without having to relearn anything.
- If you're considering buying the Apple Watch, then you need an iPhone, as the Apple Watch won't work with any other smartphone.
Google Android is an open platform which means any company can develop apps for smart devices that use the Android operating system. You can find it everywhere, from smartwatches to TVs to fridges to cars.
- If you like to customise your mobile experience and want to work with the latest tech devices as soon as they come out, then an Android-based smartphone is your best bet.
- However, the open nature of this operating system also means there isn't the same 'sameness' in the look and feel compared Apple's closed iOS environment.
- The latest Android smartphones are made by companies that introduce their own look and feel elements. So you may be a fan of LG or Huawei mobiles and not so keen on Samsung or Oppo mobiles, even though all of these models operate on the same operating system.
Windows Phone OS (end of life)
CHOICE can't recommend a Windows Phone as it just isn't getting the support from app developers, even though you may be able to find a handset.
- Not recommended.
What if I use the internet on my phone?
If you find yourself reaching for the phone instead of your laptop to check the latest CHOICE reviews, 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 (over 5 inches) and resolution (at least HD) will be important factors for your phone too.
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.
- 4G, also known as, LTE (Long Term Evolution) is a wireless standard to get faster online performance from your mobile phone.
- 4G coverage is improving and will in time be working with 5G networks which deliver even more bandwidth.
- Major carriers like Vodafone, Optus and Telstra, will deliver stronger performance over a wider area over the next few years.
Before buying your next smartphone, make sure it's 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're with Telstra or 900MHz if you're with Optus or Vodafone.
Smartphone 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. It also makes selfie-snapping considerably easier. Check out the selfie camera score which focuses on the performance of the front lens embedded in the screen rather than the main camera.
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 mobile.
- Check out the capacity of the battery for the phone you're interested in and compare it to another mobile with a similarly sized display.
- Generally, the higher capacity will deliver longer battery life.
- 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 and not just for tap and pay.
- 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 you're away from your normal home network connection.
- 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. A physical keyboard is now extremely rare.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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. Some of the latest iPhone and Android smartphones no longer provide a 3.5mm headphone jack; arguing that you should use a wireless headphone. Models such as the iPhone 8 and 7 as well as the latest Google Pixel mobiles force you to either go wireless or use a finicky dongle to plug in your favourite pair of cans.
- 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.
Bought without a plan, smartphones range in price from just over $100 to nearly $2000.