On the lookout for a new smartphone? PAT PILCHER has the low down on what to look for, from price and plans to pixel density and optical image stabilisation.
While they’re all shiny and stylish, the reality is that the stuff you need to know when shopping for a new smartphone hasn’t changed for quite some time. Taking this into account, we at Witchdoctor have compiled this, our definitive guide to buying a smartphone. Check out these 10 points:
Understand your needs: Acquaintances often ask what the next big thing is to look for when buying a smartphone, but as is so often the case, it isn’t about what I like in a phone, it’s about what you need.
My answer to this question usually takes the form of the question “what is most important to you?” Are you all about screen, are you a shutterbug and camera focused or is it gaming and media, or price? Answering that question will help you narrow down which specifications and features matter the most.
Price: One of the biggest factors must be price. The key to navigating pricing is that smartphones fall into three key categories:
- Flagships: These are the expensive smartphones. They have the fastest processors, the most advanced cameras and the highest resolution and largest screens. If budget isn’t a problem or you want lots of computing power in your pocket/purse, then a flagship smartphone is your best bet.
- Mid-range: Buyers ignore mid-range smartphones at their peril. These days they offer a solid compromise between price and useful features that usually equates to good bang-per-buck value. Most mid-range phones are comparable flagship phones released not so long ago. There’s often compromises when it comes to their cameras and they may not have the fastest processor or biggest screens, but if these are compromises you can live with, then you may be pleasantly surprised. In short, if an edgeless OLED QHD screen, wireless charging and gazillion megapixel camera sensor doesn’t set your pulse racing, a midrange smartphone may just fit the bill.
- Budget: These are good options for people not wanting to sell a kidney or part with their first-born to own a smartphone. Budget smartphones used to be little more than affordable Tupperware awfulness, but things have improved, and most affordable smartphones will deliver usable photos and enough processing power for basic media browsing and gaming.
Plans: Perhaps the biggest factor figuring in smartphone prices are the deals on offer from retailers and telcos. When shopping for a smartphone, look at the mobile plans as well as hardware on offer and consider the following when evaluating mobile plans:
- Terms: While locking yourself into a plan may mean you get the latest smartphone at an affordable price, beware of contractual terms. The discounted hardware price is often misleading as you’re locked into paying off your phone as part of your monthly mobile bill and the amount you end up paying may be more than the actual value of the phone. A term commitment also entails early termination penalty fees should you decide to exit your mobile plan before it expires.
- Phone usage: Does the plan you’re looking at match how you’ll use your phone? A plan with lots of talk minutes will be about as useful as an ashtray on dragster if you don’t call anyone but use lots of data instead.
- Prepaid or post-paid: A common misconception is that prepaid is cheaper. It usually isn’t. A prepaid plan is typically a costlier option compared to a pay monthly plan. The best way to compare plans is to divide talk minutes by the cost of the plan. Repeat this for the plans data allowance and included text messages. Compare these numbers with an equal pay monthly plan and you may be surprised. Also, be sure to weigh up other benefits such as Wi-Fi calling and carry-over data.
- Goodies: Are there any sweeteners bundled? A lot of telcos will throw in headphones, cases or offer extra data/voice minutes etc.
Extras: As well as looking at plans, you need to factor in several must-have extras. These tend to fall into the following categories
- Cases: Most phones nowadays are crafted out of glass and will break rather than bounce when dropped. Given the fact that it isn’t so much a matter of if you’ll drop your phone, but when, buying a case makes lots of common sense. It’ll save you money longer term, with screen repairs starting at $300. A case will also keep your phone looking pristine, which could help preserve its resale value should you decide to sell it and upgrade later.
- Screen Protector: These usually take the form of a toughened glass shield that’ll protect your phone’s screen from scratches. A screen protector can be a pain to fit (pro tip, get the salesperson to fit it), but getting one will prevent your phones screen from getting dinged up by coins and keys in your pocket/purse. This really is a no-brainer.
- Micro SD Card: If music/movies and lots apps or photos is your thing, factor in a MicroSD card (assuming the smartphone can take one). They‘ll free up limited storage to greatly expand your phone’s usability
Shopping: Knowing all the above tips may be one thing but translating it into a good smartphone choice at the store can be another altogether. These tips can help to focus your thinking before you part with your cash:
- Try before you buy: Go to a store and have a play with whichever phone takes your fancy. Holding it and playing with it may reveal design features you’ll love or hate.
- Last year’s models: Wait for this year’s version of the smartphone you want to launch before buying last year’s phone. Odds are good that it’ll be steeply discounted as retailers try to clear their stock
- Narrow it down: Think about what matters most to you in a smartphone. Is it a big hi-res screen? A high-quality camera? Multi-day battery life and fast charging? Knowing this will narrow your options and make choosing the smartphone that’s right for you easier.
- Flagship or not: If you’re on a tight budget, consider a mid-range smartphone they’ll do almost everything a flagship phone can do, for much less damage to your wallet.
Android or iPhone? Choosing which camp to buy into may seem like a mission impossible, but in needn’t be a terribly difficult decision. Both have their strengths and weaknesses. If you’re a big Google user (Gmail, maps, docs etc), you’re probably better off sticking with Android.
- If buying Android: Opinions very, but the prevailing consensus is that Android has a better maps app and the assistant is smarter than Apple’s Siri. Android phones should get regular security updates and flagship phones will often get an upgrade to the next version of Android. These upgrades are usually announced mid-year in the US but typically don’t hit the NZ market until a few months later. Things to consider when shopping for an Android Smartphone:
- Look for Android 8.0 (Oreo) or newer: This will get you the latest features, such as autocomplete.
- Less expensive Android phones may run Android 7.0 (Nougat) this is Last year’s flavour of Android and while any versions of Android older than Nougat will mean you miss out on a bunch of key features.
- If buying an iPhone: If you own Apple gear, an iPhone is a no brainer. The reason for this is that an iPhone will play nice with other Apple gear in a near seamless fashion. iOS devices are arguably more locked down than their Android counterparts, but the flipside of that is that iPhone’s are both intuitive and easy to use.
- Older iPhones are often more affordable too, but the big downside is that you won’t get newer features such as face recognition.
- Another option is to consider an iPhone SE. These often use older tech and lack some features but they’re still sufficiently up to date that they’ll do almost anything you’re likely to need.
Screens – Big or small: It’s a telling trend that there are few phones available these days with a screen under 4.5 inches (measured diagonally). Commonly available choices include the iPhone SE. as well as older phones, such as the Sony Xperia Compact. The reasons for buying a smaller screen include the phone being easier to hold and use one-handed, as well the fact that will consume less room in a pocket or purse. When looking at screen specifications, consider the following:
- Resolution: One specification that confuses many buyers is screen resolution. Resolution refers to how many horizontal and how many vertical pixels (these microscopic dots that illuminate to make up on screen images) there are. More pixels mean more detailed on-screen images. Adding buyer angst to confusion, there are a bunch of confusingly named resolutions. These are:
- 720 vertical pixels x 1280 horizontal pixels – this is called HD
- 1080 vertical pixels x 1920 horizontal pixels – this is known as full HD or FHD
- 1440 vertical pixels x 2560 horizontal pixels – this is called Quad HD or QHD
- Many reviews recommend going to a higher resolution display, but doing so does involve trade-offs: More pixels mean more battery drain. Moving beyond FHD delivers little to no discernible differences when your phone is held at its usual viewing distance.
- Pixel density: If you plan to use your phone in a VR headset such as Samsung’s Gear VR or Google Daydream, the pixels per inch (PPI) specification becomes important. When the phone is just a few centimetres away from your eyes, you’ll want as high a PPI as you can get so you’re not seeing individual pixels. PPI quantifies the number of pixels in a square inch of screen. Imagine having to choose between a phone with a 5.8” screen, that sports a resolution of 1440 x 2960 pixels and a pixel density of 570 PPI, or one with a 6” screen and a resolution of 1080 x 1920 pixels at 367 PPI. While both screens are similarly sized, the 5.8” screen packs a lot more pixels which delivers crisper looking and more detailed onscreen images. Fonts looks better, on-screen lines and other detail is more accurate. That said, human eyes can’t perceive any extra detail once pixel densities go beyond 570 PPI for phone held at normal viewing distances.
- LCD vs OLED: is another specification that confuses buyers. In a nutshell: LCD displays use LED backlighting to illuminate pixels. OLED pixels produce their own light. The significance of this is that the brightness or darkness of an OLED display can be controlled on a pixel-by-pixel basis. This isn’t possible with an LCD display. Because of this contrast levels on an OLED display are higher than with LCD displays, and this helps make images look significantly crisper. OLED screens also tend to produce more vibrant colours and are more energy efficient than their LCD counterparts. Ironically even though LCD displays are more complex from an engineering perspective than OLED, they are often cheaper with OLEDs superior display capabilities being used in a growing number of flagship phones.
- Megapixels: More isn’t always better. A 12-megapixel camera might take better photos than a 16-megapixel camera. This is because of factors such as the quality of the lenses used (better equals sharper more focused photos) and aperture – this dictates the amount of light that can get to the image sensor. Bigger apertures will deliver better photos shot in low light conditions. Another key factor impacting on photo quality is post shooting processing. All digital cameras subtly teak captured images and this can play a large role in colour accuracy and exposure levels and so on. Phones with big (30-40 Megapixels) image sensors may only generate larger files that cost more to send and consume already scarce phone storage instead of delivering more photographic detail. That said, if cameras are a priority, avoid 8-megapixel rear camera sensors.
- Optical image stabilisation (OIS): diminishes blur from shaking hands. This is especially helpful when shooting indoors or in low-light. It won’t help with blur caused by a moving subject, though. Most phone cameras come with HDR, self-timers, beauty mode and plenty of filters and effects.
- The Camera app and Shooting Modes: Even if your phone has amazing camera specifications, they’re not going to matter all that much if the camera app is horrible to use and lacks shooting modes. When checking out smartphone purchase prospects at your local retailer, have a play with the camera. Don’t focus so much on photo quality, look at how intuitive the camera is to use. Look for shooting modes including auto, panorama, night as the bare minimum. A lot of phones also allow you to download additional shooting modes.
Battery and Charging: Larger capacity batteries and more energy efficient electronics mean that most midrange and flagship smartphones will typically deliver at least a day’s worth use. Battery life is often one of the last specifications buyers look at, yet it plays a huge role in the overall usability of a phone. When looking at batteries and charging consider the following:
- Aim for a 3,000mAh (milli-amp hour) battery or above. Higher capacity batteries typically equate to longer battery life. In addition to roomy batteries, also look for any built-in energy saving features. Android 6.0 (marshmallow) or later has a feature called Doze which will find energy draining apps running in the background and put them to sleep to extend battery life.
- While phone makers may scream loudly about their latest phone having an octa-core processor, isn’t always a better option, especially when it comes to battery life. Often a slower quad-core CPU will consume less power, but the downside is they’re less capable with demanding apps. In short, extra CPU cores can consume more power but as a rule of thumb, newer CPUs tend to deliver a better balance between battery life and power consumption.
- If in doubt, check reviews for battery life performance of any smartphone you’re considering.
- Charging: It isn’t just battery life either. How fast you can charge a dead battery makes a huge difference. Many vendors are adding fast charge capabilities to their phones these days. Fast charging means that putting your phone on to charge for just 10 minutes can deliver hours of use. Wireless charging is also a popular option owing to its sheer convenience (e.g. plunking your phone onto a charge-pad to charge it). That said, wireless charging is often a lot slower than using its cabled counterpart.
For Media Users
- MicroSD: While storage is growing on most phones, being able to expand what is available for large media collections is a definite bonus. If media a key factor, make sure your phone has a microSD slot.
- Audio: Again, if media is a priority, look for Stereo audio speakers and enhanced audio through headphones. If the phone you are considering doesn’t have a headphone jack (they’re on the endangered species list when it comes to smartphones), look for LDAC and APT-X Bluetooth capabilities.
- If there is no headphone socket, make sure an adapter dongle (such as a USB-C to headphone socket) is included so you can use your own wired ear gear.
For Outdoorsy Types
- Ingress Protection: If you are an outdoorsy type then water-resistance will most likely be a biggie: get familiar with Ingress protection (IP) ratings and Aim for an IP67 rating. Higher IP numbers mean greater protection
- Fingerprint scanners: Look for a rear mounted sensor. It should be where your index finger will naturally be when holding the phone. Rear mounted finger print sensors have the added advantage of not consuming valuable screen real estate. In use they need to be accurate and quick. Expect under screen finger print sensors later this year.
- USB-C connector: is a recent standard for Android phones. Aside from supporting fast charging, USB C has the added benefit of being able to be plugged in either way up. This mightn’t sound like a big deal but in the dark of night, it can be a god-send.
- Removable batteries: Forget about it – water resistance shock proofing and the ongoing search for slimmer designs have all but killed off removable batteries.