Choosing a smartphone

Image: Family Search
Thanks to my constant spamming sharing of information related to mobile tech on Facebook, some of my friends have trusted me enough to ask my opinion before they purchase a new smartphone. It's normal for people to want to gather information before spending a lot of money on something, especially if that something is a phone they plan on using everyday for the next few years. The mobile industry has grown at such a rapid pace that it can sometimes get a bit overwhelming looking at all the choices in the market. This is why I decided to write a simple guide for anyone who is looking to buy a new smartphone. I'll share some basic information about what some terms like quad-core, ppi and mAh mean, what influences a phone's performance and what factors you should focus on when choosing a smartphone. Don't worry, this guide won't be too technical, it'll be very consumer-oriented. A guide for even the most non-tech savvy consumer.

Operating system
This will most likely be the most important decision you make before purchasing a smartphone. The two most popular choices at the moment, and for the past few years have undoubtedly been Android and iOS. The next two although not so popular, still have a loyal fanbase - Windows Phone and Blackberry. Once you decide which OS you prefer, the choice of smartphone either gets much easier, or more difficult. If you choose iOS, you only have one phone to choose from, the iPhone. The only things you need to decide are which colour and storage capacity you want. If you choose WP or BB, you have a few more choices, but not enough too make a decision any harder. If you choose Android however, this is where the fun starts. Samsung, HTC, Sony, LG, Motorola and ASUS are some of the major Android manufacturers in the market and each have several smartphones too choose from. Each manufacturer's phones run custom-made versions of Android. Samsung's modified version of Android is called TouchWiz, while HTC's is called Sense. The rest have their own versions as well. Each are Android, yet each are different, offering different features and interfaces with different designs. You will need to decide for yourself which version you prefer.
The four main contenders in the mobile market. Image: Digital Trends

Display
When comparing the displays of different phones, you need to look at 3 main factors - screen size, resolution and display technology. Most new Android flagships come with screens in the 4.7"-5.0" range. The iPhone 4s has a significantly smaller screen, merely 3.5" while the iPhone 5 came with a slightly larger 4" display. On the opposite side of the spectrum you have phablets like the Note 2 with a gigantic 5.5" screen. Size is a preference, some people like smaller phones, some larger. The choice is up to you.

Screen resolution is important when determining display quality. Terms like 720p and 1080p are in reference to the number of pixels on a screen; 720p screens have a resolution of 1280 x 720, while a 1080p screen has a resolution of 1920 x 1080. The term ppi stands for pixels per inch. A higher number means a more dense display, which means a crisper display. Text is sharp and images are beautiful. No blurriness. ppi is determined by screen size and screen resolution. Smaller size + higher resolution = higher ppi. The HTC One for example has a higher ppi than the S4 (469 vs 441) even though both are 1080p phones. This is because the One has a smaller screen compared to the S4 (4.7" vs 5"). The iPhone 5's Retina display in case you were wondering, has a ppi of just 326. Small screen, but also a lower resolution. 

There are basically two types of display technology on phones - LCD and AMOLED. There are variations, but these are the basic categories. AMOLED screens have colours which are more saturated, blacks are really black and reds are really red for example. LCD displays are more natural, colours are not as intense. LCDs generally have better visibility in outdoor environments under direct sunlight, but AMOLEDs use less battery. Black colours on AMOLED displays are actually made with pixels that are off. Pixels which are off don't use battery. This too is a preference. Some like the bright colours of AMOLED displays, some prefer the more "realistic" tones of LCD screens.

Performance
Everyone wants a phone which is snappy. No lag, no hiccups. They want a fast phone which handles tasks like a boss. Most phones are now capable of delivering that experience. Most Android flagships now come with quad-core processors, which means the processor has four cores. Dual-core obviously means a processor with two cores. Since last year, most Android flagships have come with quad-core processors, while the Z10 and iPhone 5 still come with dual-core processors. Clock speed is the number that usually accompanies the core count, measured in GHz (gigahertz). Higher GHz basically means the processor can process commands faster. RAM is also important, more RAM is better. Android flagships now come with 2GB of RAM, so does the Z10. iPhones however are still surviving on 1GB. Normally, more cores and more RAM is better, but the iPhone with two cores and 1GB of RAM performs just as well (if not better) than some of it's competitors. This is where OS optimisation comes into play. Apple have optimised iOS to work on less powerful components. So even though the hardware is outdated, the iPhone is still a reliable device to use. If you are looking for an Android phone however, you should look for a device with at least a dual-core processor and 1GB of RAM, quad-core and 2GB RAM would be best.

Battery life
If your phone's battery doesn't satisfy your
usage, you'll need one of these. Image: Wimar
Battery life is the one area where smartphones have failed to evolve. We have full HD screens, quad-core processors, but battery technology hasn't evolved at all. mAh (miliamp-hour) is the unit of measurement for battery size. Larger is better. It lasts longer, but also takes longer to charge. Most phones should have batteries in the 2000-2500 mAh range. Anything larger than 3000 mAH (like the Note 2) is beast.  Battery drain will depend on usage. The largest battery drain will come from the screen, so a larger display with a higher resolution will use more battery than a smaller display with a lower resolution. Connectivity affects battery drain as well, a lot of Bluetooth use, coupled with 3G/4G connectivity will drain the battery quickly. With moderate use, anything around 2500 mAh should be good enough for a days use. Removable batteries are also something you need to consider. Not many phones now come with removable batteries. All Samsung phones do, but most HTC's and Sony's don't. Even iPhone's don't have removable batteries.

Storage space
Good for media. Not for apps.
This is quite easy. Most phones come in at least 2 options, 16GB or 32GB. Some even go up to 64GB. A lot of phones only have internal storage, but there are also some which offer expandable storage via microSD cards. It's important to remember however that with Android phones, you can only store media (music, videos, images etc) on memory cards. You can't install apps on memory cards. So if you plan on installing hundreds of apps, get a phone with at least 32GB of storage.

Build quality
If you plan on putting a case on your phone, skip this section. If you plan on using the phone the way it was designed, then you need to get a unit and hold it to see how it feels. Some phones have glass backs, some use hyperglazed-polycarbonate and some use metal. Some are flat like the iPhone or Xperia Z, some are curved like the Nexus 4 or the One. See which build material and design you like to hold in your hand. Glass feels more premium, but is more prone to scratches and cracks. Polycarbonate won't crack, but it is a bit slippery. Metal is probably more solid, but gets really hot with heavy use (like gaming).  Again, it's a preference.

Camera and sound quality
The reason I grouped these two together is because I feel like there are no tips to help you decide which phones have better camera and sound quality. The only way to know is to see and hear for yourself. Look at sample images from review articles, and listen to audio quality in review videos. The only tip I can share, is don't be fooled by megapixel count. MP count just refers to the number of pixels in images. Two phones with 8MP camera's are capable of taking very different images thanks to different camera software and image sensors. As for audio quality, front facing speakers beat rear facing speakers. And only One phone currently has front facing speakers (see what I did there? haha).

So there you have it. Some tips on how to choose your next smartphone. Remember, this is just a general guide. You need to read and watch reviews to get more specific information about phones you are interested in. Once you have narrowed down your choices, use the tips above to help you decide which phone is better suited for you. Good luck!

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