What to look for when buying an Android phone - 2017


After the lull of the new year, the smartphone market is ready to kick off again. LG and Samsung have each unveiled their respective flagships for the year - the G6 and the Galaxy S8/S8+ - and we can expect many more phones to be released in the coming months. If you are an Android fan, the process of choosing a smartphone can be rather daunting, as there are hundreds of phones released each year. According to GSM Arena, there were over 500 Android phones released in 2016 all over the globe. Admittedly, these include region-specific devices, but that’s still a lot of devices to choose from. 

So how do you choose one phone from hundreds? What do you look for? What do you avoid? I’m going to help you answer these questions by explaining certain aspects of smartphones and giving my personal recommendations for each so you won’t get a headache when you choose your next smartphone.

Size

The most important physical aspect of your phone will be its size. Too big and it becomes a burden to use; too small, and it becomes too difficult to read or type. Videos and photos won’t be enjoyable either if the display is too small. If you want to see how big a phone will be before buying it, or if you want to compare the size of several different models, you can use PhoneArena’s size comparison tool. This useful tool can place phones side-by-side or overlay one over the other to see how the sizes compare. As we consume a lot of media on our phones like videos and photos, read a bunch of articles or text messages, and even play games once in awhile, the size of the display really is quite vital.

My recommendation: Get a phone with at least a 5” display. I personally think a display around 5.5” is the sweet spot.

Comparing phone sizes on PhoneArena. 

Display resolution

Don’t just think that the size of the display is important. The display is made up of tiny little elements that our eyes can’t see, called “pixels”. Generally speaking, the more pixels a display has, the sharper and clearer the display will be. It’s important to remember that a large display doesn’t necessarily have more pixels, and a small display doesn’t necessarily have fewer pixels. For example, the iPhone 7 Plus has a 5.5” display, but the smaller 5.1” display of the Galaxy S7 has more pixels. The number of pixels a display has is reflected by its resolution. A high-definition display (HD) has a resolution of 1280x720, commonly referred to as 720p, which equates to 921,600 pixels. A full HD display (FHD) has a 1920x1080 resolution, or 1080p. FHD displays are significantly sharper than HD displays, with a total pixel count of over 2 million. Finally, a quad HD display (QHD), which powers the flagship Android smartphones of today, has a resolution of 2560x1440, which gives us a pixel count of over 3.6 million.

My recommendation: Don’t get anything with a resolution below 1080p. Even more affordable phones now come with 1080p displays, so you shouldn’t settle for anything less.

Battery capacity

A phone isn’t any good if it doesn’t have enough juice to last you all day. Battery capacity is measured by the unit mAH, which stands for milliamp hours. Technically speaking, a larger capacity battery doesn’t guarantee better battery life, as other factors such as software optimisation and signal strength also influence battery life, but a larger battery is more likely to last longer than a smaller battery.

My recommendation: Smartphone batteries are quite large nowadays, so look for something with a battery capacity of at least 3500 mAh and you should be good to go all day.

Camera quality

Right off the bat let me tell you that the iPhone doesn’t reign supreme over Android phones when it comes to camera quality. In a blind camera comparison where readers voted for their favourite photos without knowing which phone took which photo, the iPhone 7 Plus came in third, behind the Google Pixel XL and the Galaxy S7 edge. The Galaxy S7 edge also beat the iPhone 7 in another blind camera comparison, by a hefty margin I might add. Phones from Google, Samsung, HTC, Sony, and Motorola also received higher ratings than the iPhone 7 from DxOMark for camera quality. So don’t believe the myth that iPhones have the best cameras. Android cameras can easily outperform the iPhone, so long as you choose the right ones. Having said that, what you plan on doing with your photos should also be taken into consideration. If you only plan on uploading them to social media or sharing them via messaging apps, any smartphone camera should be good enough for you, as those services will reduce the quality of your photos before uploading them. But if you plan on taking photos you want to keep as memories, or to view on your desktop/laptop, then you should get a better smartphone with a better camera.

My recommendation: Don’t worry about megapixels. A higher pixel count on the camera doesn’t guarantee great photo quality. Instead, you need to look at actual photos to see which smartphones have the better cameras. Samsung smartphones have pretty amazing cameras, but only if you get the higher-end models like the S series or the Note series. Don’t expect great camera quality from some random Galaxy J. Other than Samsung, any flagship from any other brand should give you decent photos. Unfortunately when it comes to smartphone cameras, the more expensive phones will typically have the better cameras. 

Software support

One of the main problems with Android smartphones is software support. Google releases new versions of Android every year, and the current version of Android is called Android Nougat, with the version number 7.0 (it has since received an incremental update to 7.1.1). It was released in August 2016, which was seven months ago, but manufacturers usually update their phones several months later. This delay can’t be avoided, but some manufacturers update their phones much quicker than others. Manufacturers like LG, Motorola, HTC, and Sony, updated several of their phones to the latest Android version within 100 days of its release. Other manufacturers like Xiaomi, OnePlus, and Samsung, took more than 100 days to update their phones. It’s also important to see which version of Android new phones come with. While the recently announced HTC U Ultra comes with Android 7.0, the Honor 6X was launched with Android Marshmallow (6.0), which was released more than a year ago in October 2015. 

My recommendation: Don’t buy a phone with Android 6.0, only buy a phone if it has Android 7.0 or higher. The only exception to this rule is if the phone has already been updated to Android 7.0, so you can update it immediately after buying it. As for update speeds, history suggests that despite being the most popular brand in the world, Samsung is also one of the slowest to update its phones. If you care for prompt software updates, other manufacturers like those mentioned above will be better options.

Speaker 

Most people don’t really think about the speakers on their phone, but you really should. If you enjoy watching videos, listening to music, or playing games, audio is very important. A speaker on the back of the phone doesn’t make sense, because when you are watching a video, the speaker is pointing away from you. A speaker on the bottom edge of the phone (where your charging port is) also doesn’t make much sense, since your hand will likely cover it when you hold your phone in landscape orientation. Back in 2013, HTC released the One M7, a phone which raised the bar for smartphone speakers by not only moving the speaker to the front of the device, so the audio is pointed right at you, but by replacing the common mono speaker with a set of stereo speakers. Other manufacturers have followed HTC by placing stereo speakers on the front of the device, like ZTE with the Axon 7, Sony with the Xperia XZ, and Huawei with the P9 Plus.

My recommendation: Avoid phones with rear and bottom firing speakers. Unless you always use earphones, you’ll really appreciate the quality of front facing stereo speakers.

USB port

If this article were to be written a few years ago, I wouldn’t need to write about this section. In the past few years, all Android phones came with a traditional micro-USB port for charging and data transfer. However, with the implementation of USB type-C, things are changing. Most new phones should now come with USB-C instead of micro-USB. That may not always be the case though, as seen in the new Huawei Honor 6X which was released last year, but still has a micro-USB port.

My recommendation: Many phones have been released with USB-C since 2015. So if you’re buying a phone in 2017, it should have a USB-C port. It’s the new standard, and will only become more commonplace as we move into the future.

Storage

The media and data we store in our phones is getting larger. Higher resolution cameras mean photo and video files are larger, and more complex games will take up more space as well. Even if you don’t play games, other apps can also get bigger as they incorporate more functionality and more features. How many times have you tried to install or update an app, only to be told by your phone that you have insufficient storage? Also, don’t always rely on microSD cards. They can fail and corrupt your data, whereas built-in storage is far more reliable. Performance of microSD cards can also be detrimental, as slow read times will lead to a frustrating user experience.

My recommendation: It’s always better to have more storage that you might not use, rather than not enough storage when you need more. So the bare minimum I suggest is 32GB. 64GB if you can afford it.

Memory cards may seem like a good solution, but built-in storage will always be better.

Processor and RAM

Most people don’t know anything about the hierarchy of smartphone processors; what’s considered fast, what’s good and what’s not. The good thing is, this is the one area where manufacturers usually use the best options available. Flagship smartphones will always have the most recent and most powerful processors available, while the more affordable midrange devices will have the latest mid-tier processors. RAM is what you need to look at. The rule is simple - more RAM, more better. There’s no downside to having more RAM.

My recommendation: It has been well established that Snapdragon processors made by Qualcomm will be better than other options, like Intel processors. That’s why the majority of Android phones use Qualcomm processors. So if given the choice, go for Qualcomm. As for RAM, most phones now ship with 4GB, some even 6GB, but 3GB should be the minimum.

Water and dust resistance

First, some background about water and dust resistance ratings. Water and dust resistance is indicated by an IP rating, which is displayed as IPxy, where “x” is the rating for dust resistance, and “y” is the rating for water resistance. Dust resistance is rated on a scale of 0-6, while water resistance is rated on scale of 0-8 (technically it goes until 9K, but that isn’t relevant for smartphone usage). Smartphones with IP ratings aren’t new. Sony got the ball rolling back in 2013 when it released the Xperia Z which had a rating of IP57. The only reason it may seem new to some of us is that now more and more manufacturers are making phones that are IP certified, including Samsung, Motorola, and Apple.

My recommendation: You don’t really need a water resistant phone, unless you plan on browsing social media while you shower. You could consider it a bonus, but not necessarily a must have feature.

Price

The ultimate factor when it comes to choosing a smartphone. Most people are restricted by their budget, so it’s important you get the best bang for your buck. However, it doesn’t mean you should settle for something bad just because it’s cheap. It’s hard to find a balance, but since a smartphone is something you’ll use for at least a couple of years, it’s important you choose something that’ll both fit your budget, but also be good enough to use for a long time.

My recommendation: It’s hard to recommend a good price, since there are so many different options out there, and people’s needs and budgets are very different. If you can afford to, try to avoid buying anything less than RM1000. Phones that cheap will likely have many compromises, which could lead to a poor user experience. At the other end of the scale, I don’t think you need to spend more than RM3000 on a smartphone. Exchange rates may not be in our favour, but I personally think anything over RM3000 is overpriced.

There are many other factors that go into choosing a smartphone. Like add-on software features, how the phone looks, and how it feels in your hand. Those are more difficult to compare as they depend on specific phone comparisons. The factors I listed above are the core aspects of a smartphone, and should also be the core of your decision making process. Hopefully now you are more aware of the differences between Android phones and will be able to make a well informed decision when you decide to buy a new smartphone. Happy hunting!

Popular posts from this blog

Are we witnessing the downfall of Apple?

5 differences between the black and white Nexus 5

Why Telegram is better than WhatsApp