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How to find the right smartphone for your needs

Time for a new phone? Here are our expert tips to help you pick the best.

smart phones messaging each other BG

Smartphones are a key part of everyday life, from helping us stay connected with family and friends, to shopping online, paying bills, capturing videos, streaming music, and so much more. But it can be hard to know which phones give you the best bang for your buck when it comes to things like camera quality, battery life and even how easy they are to use.

Before you commit to buying your next phone, it's important to do your research to find the best option for you.

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How do smartphones work?

While the mobile phone has been around for decades allowing voice calls to be made using a mobile network, the latest smartphones offer so much more than simple talk and text. In fact, many users find their smartphone to be an indispensable piece of technology and an inseparable companion for everything other than actually talking to someone else.

Smartphones operate as a mobile phone over a mobile network using a range of network bands as well as local area network connectivity using Wi-Fi. Much of the added functionality of a smartphone is delivered by applications (or apps) that can be downloaded to the phone and used to replicate many of the functions that would previously be carried out on separate products.

These days a smartphone can effectively act as your camera, wallet, music player and car GPS all rolled into one.

Should you buy a phone outright or through a plan?

It really depends on what you want to buy. 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. However, 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.

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 (but really two) options to choose from.

Apple iPhone OS (iOS)

If you already have (or plan to buy) other devices made by Apple like an iPad, MacBook or iMac, 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 Apple iPhone using iOS, although you do pay a premium price. The operating system for the Apple laptop and desktop computing devices has been evolving into a similar look and feel to the iPhone so you should feel comfortable moving from one device to another without having to relearn anything.

Also, if you're considering buying the Apple Watch, or have already bought an Apple Watch, then you need an iPhone, as the Apple Watch won't work with any other smartphone.

Apple also has a strong reputation for providing ongoing OS update and security support for a smartphone for several years. 

Google Android 

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 option. The open nature of Android's OS means there may not be the exact 'sameness' in the look and feel compared to 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 Motorola phones and not so keen on Samsung or Oppo phones, even though all of these models operate on the same operating system.

Windows Phone OS (end of life)

We can't recommend a Windows Phone as it isn't getting any support from app developers. Even though you may still be able to find a handset, Microsoft has not included security updates for this OS for a few years now. 

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.

4G, also known as, LTE (Long Term Evolution) is a wireless standard to get faster online performance from your mobile phone and coverage is currently the widest available mobile network option.

Support for 5G networks is becoming standard for all but the cheapest and simplest mobiles

When combined with the latest 5G networks it should deliver even more bandwidth at higher speeds. Major carriers like Vodafone, Optus and Telstra continue to roll out stronger performance across a wider area, with smartphones offering support for 5G networks becoming standard for all but the cheapest and simplest mobiles.

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 all the available 4G and 5G bands for your network and local area, particularly if you're now using your smartphone as your home phone as well.

Battery life

Being unable to use your phone for longer than a day or so can be frustrating, but 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.

Battery life is one of the key things we test when we review smartphones. It's worth checking out the capacity of the battery for the phone you're interested in and comparing it to another phone with a similarly sized display. Higher capacity batteries generally deliver longer battery life.

If you really need to keep your mobile going and can't get to a charger, you may want to consider having a powerbank nearby.

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 phone, especially when the available light isn't very good. 

Almost all smartphones now have a front-facing camera, which lets you use your phone for video calls. It also makes selfie-snapping considerably easier. Check out the selfie camera score in our smartphones test, which focuses on the performance of the front lens embedded in the screen rather than the main camera.

Pixel 6 Pro in hand

A larger screen is great if you like watching videos and playing games, but it can make using the phone with one hand a challenge.

Other features to look for in a smartphone

Connection types: Connecting your smartphone to a charger or computer can be confusing if you use different brands or smartphone operating systems. Android smartphones use a mix of micro USB and USB-C cable connections with the vast majority of new Android model using USB-C. 

Until recently Apple had a mix of lightning and USB-C connections across their range of MacBooks and iPads, with iPhones using the company's proprietary lightning connection. The release of the latest iPhone 15 range with USB-C connection will most likely help push forward USB-C as the industry-wide connection option over time. 

Near Field Communication (NFC): This comes in handy with cashless transactions and as a quick way to pair devices with your Android smartphone. When Apple decides to join the rest of the world and introduce NFC, iPhone users will also be able to click and connect rather than just tap and pay.

Tethering or hotspot: If you want to use your 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 got a large data allocation and you're away from your normal home network connection. The wider adoption of 5G networks will also potentially get you better than NBN performance from your mobile; in theory.

Flight (airplane) mode: This is a very handy feature that turns off all the phone and network aspects of your phone, 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 shown as an airplane icon in the settings menu.

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 in our tests is calculated using the included software only. If you own an Apple iPhone or Android phone already, you can go to the 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. The latest iPhones and many Android smartphones no longer provide a 3.5mm headphone jack, arguing that you should use wireless headphones instead. Apple iPhone models from the iPhone 7 on 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 headphones.

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.

CH Best Brand generic

Australia's best smartphone brand

So which brand of smartphone should you buy? With so many choices out there it can be hard to separate the good from the somewhat average. That's where we can help.

In addition to independently testing over 60 smartphones in the past two years, we surveyed our members about the phones they own. We use this data to determine which brands are the most reliable, and which have the best customer satisfaction. This feedback, along with our test results, is used determine the best smartphone brand.

How the brands stack up

There is no Best Brand smartphone for 2023. Both Apple and Samsung had a number of models that performed well in 2022, but there was some variance between the two brands in our reliability and satisfaction surveys.

Apple's brand reliability is below the average compared to other brands (77%) even though it performs well for satisfaction (89%), and while Samsung earned a higher reliability score (82%), it scored lower than Apple overall.

To find out which specific smartphone models we recommend based on our test results, and to make sure you buy the best, click on the 'Recommended' box in the filters section of our smartphone reviews.

How to repurpose your old smartphone

An smartphone or tablet may be lacking the grunt required to meet your daily demands, but can still be useful for jobs that require a little less processing power.

Smartphones and tablets often find new life as a universal remote to control smart devices, and their various apps, around the home. You can also use them to play music and video from streaming services or a home server and cast to compatible devices.

It's not uncommon to see an old iPad attached to the wall as a digital calendar or family planner either, and you can save a bundle on baby monitors by mounting a phone/tablet with a monitoring app above the bassinet instead.

How to recycle your old smartphone

Smartphones are full of recyclable materials including rare, valuable metals such as gold, silver, platinum and copper. 99% of these can be reused if you recycle your phone correctly. They may wind up in new tech products, or they could have a new life as something entirely different.

For example, the plastic used in mobile phone casing can be processed into pellets which is used to make products like packing pallets. Not only does this mean less plastics are being produced, it cuts down on the energy required to make new plastics as recycling is far more efficient.

Mobile Muster is a free industry-backed organisation that recycles mobile phones, smartphones, phone batteries, power banks and accessories. You can drop accepted items off at a number of locations including Optus, Telstra and Vodafone stores, Officeworks and even some council chambers. Enter your postcode here to find your nearest location.

Why is e-waste so bad?

Toxic materials and hazardous chemicals are often used in the manufacture of computer and electronic equipment including smartphones, and when parts are disposed of improperly these chemicals can leach into soil and water and lead to environmental contamination.

Deleting data before you recycle

The reasons for not recycling your phone may include fear of losing personal data or data getting into the wrong hands, not knowing where to recycle your devices, and having to pay to have your devices properly recycled. Though there's a corporate responsibility for manufacturers to make greener products, the onus is still on consumers to recycle or repurpose their old smartphones. 

How to wipe your devices

Smartphones and tablets can be reset to factory settings with a few simple steps.

iPhone and iPads: Settings > General > Reset and then select Erase All Content and Settings. Enter your Apple ID, if needed.

Android devices: System > Reset options > Erase all data (factory reset) > Delete all data. Enter your password, if needed.

Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.