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The complete beginner's guide to buying a smartphone

All the help you need. With none of the patronising attitude.
Stack of phones - smartphones

Life comes at you fast, it's often said. But technology comes at you even faster.

So much so that it's often pretty hard to keep up. And harder still to decide which phone's right for your needs.

Do you really need the latest model with all the bells and whistles? Or will last year's handset fit the bill just fine?

With that in mind, we've knocked up a beginner's guide to buying a smartphone. It's everything you ever wanted to know about smartphones but were too afraid to ask.

Along the way we'll explain some of the jargon that you'll read in reviews and ad blurb and we'll introduce you to the brands and phones that are most highly rated.

And we'll look at some of the key factors you should consider before splashing out too.

Making sense of smartphone specifications

Buying a phone visual cheatsheet

Having to wade through acres of meaningless marketing phrases and impenetrable techy jargon seems to be par for the course when it comes to buying a smartphone.

With that in mind, in this section we make sense of all the specialist terminology you're likely to encounter and give you the information you need to sort the trash from the treasure.

Camera

OnePlus 5 camera sample dog

When it comes to phone photography, the best handsets to choose are good all-rounders with fast focus and decent low-light performance.

Contrary to what you might have been told, don't get hung on on how many megapixels a camera has. And while dual- and even triple-camera set-ups are currently very fashionable, they don't always mean better images.

Instead look out for Optical Image Stabilisation (OIS), Auto-HDR and fast focus technology such as Phase Detection. OIS reduces blur, Auto-HDR gives more depth to the image, while Phase Detection helps you focus.

And to help you get the best possible idea of how the camera performs, search for real-life samples in a range of lighting conditions.

Screen

Samsung Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus angled

Pixel density, measured in pixels per inch (PPI), is the easiest way of comparing screens. In general, the more pixels packed into a screen the sharper the images.

Something between 350 and 450ppi (Pixel Per Inch) is acceptable for a mid-range phone. For the latest, more expensive handsets you can expect 500ppi or so.

Battery

Phone with no battery

Keeping your screen lit up saps your battery almost as much as using GPS or multi-tasking (for example: playing a game on your phone, while downloading TV shows and streaming music simultaneously).

With that in mind, it shouldn't surprise you that the bigger the screen, the more it saps your battery.

Battery capacity is measured in mAh: look for something in the range between 2500mAh for phones with smaller 4.5" screens. Then keep an eye out for 3000mAh or over for handsets with big 5.5" screens.

Check out our pick of the phones with the best battery life.

Water/dust resistance

iPhone 7 Plus water jar

A well-built phone will most probably survive an accidental spillage.

But if you work (or play) outdoors or in dusty environments look out for the IP67 or IP68 certification.

It means the device can survive being immersed in water. So is a good choice if you're accident-prone.

Fingerprint security

iphone touch id

A fingerprint reader is usually embedded in a home button or a screen. Swipe your finger across it or press down and it'll recognise your unique fingerprint and unlock it.

As well as adding an extra layer of security, they're a great time-saving device. You'll find them on most top-end and mid-range phones, though some now favour facial recognition unlocking over a fingerprint scanner.

Headphone socket

iPhone 7 no headphone slot

Don’t assume all phones have a headphone socket.

Some manufacturers, such as Apple and HTC, don't use them. Hence you're forced to plug your headphones into the charging port with a special adaptor, which is easily lost.

It's either that, or shell out for a pair of wireless headphones, or ones that connect to whichever port the phone does have - usually USB-C (Android) or Lightning (iPhones).

The lesson? Check before you buy.

Apple vs Android

iphone to android switch

Apple produces amazingly well-designed and durable smartphones with a vast array of high quality of apps to choose from. But they're not cheap.

Google's Android software powers a range of phones from the likes of Samsung, HTC and Motorola. That means you get a lot of phones to choose from, with devices to suit all needs and budgets.

Transferring your digital life, apps and contacts from one to the other can be inconvenient and time-consuming. So unless you already have a good reason to switch your choice is conveniently narrowed down for you.

Like the sound of an iPhone? Take a look at what's on offer at iPhone deals page.

Think you'd prefer an Android phone? Here's our pick of the best Android phone deals.

Android phone brands

android nougat

Although lots of phones use Android software, that's not to say all Android phones are the same.

In fact, there's a world of difference between an Android phone from Samsung and one from Motorola. Or, say, one of the hundreds of wallet-friendly Android handsets from little-known foreign brands.

Here we take a look at each of the main Android phone manufacturers in turn, to give you an idea of their reputation. And what you can expect if you plump for one of their smartphones.

Samsung

Samsung Galaxy S10 5G hero

Samsung's top-of-the-range devices pack all the latest technology at a price point similar to Apple's.

A safe bet if you just want the best Android phones on offer.

We'd recommend you stick to the Galaxy S and Note series and avoid their cheap, mid-priced phones.

We've found they tend to make compromises on quality and specs while somewhat maintaining Samsung's premium price tag.

If you want to save money, it's smart to go for last year's Samsung top-of-the-range phone. That way you get the premium feel and attention to detail, but you won't pay a premium price.

Compare Samsung phone deals.

HTC

HTC U11 Matt Le Tiss screen hero size

HTC made the first-ever Android phone (the T-Mobile G1) and consistently creates durable devices that do the core things very well. And usually shun the gimmicks that other phone-makers favour.

As you'd expect, its flagshp U11 and U12 models aren't the best choice for anyone on a tight budget.

But they're excellent all-rounders, thanks to their well-designed user interfaces, excellent built quality and consistently good cameras.

Compare HTC phone deals.

LG

LGv50-hero2

In LG's quest to outdo rival Samsung in their domestic market and further afield, in recent years the other big Korean brand has attempted to bring a much needed dose of innovation to the smartphone market.

That's resulted in interesting-but-flawed LG G5, which was the first mainstream modular phone, and allowed you to slot in acccessories that radically changed its capabilities.

Much more successful was the G6, which featured a screen that was as long as it was wide, and was brilliant for multi-tasking. These were followed by the LG G7 and G8, which were much more consistent performers.

In general, LG phones are home to some of the best displays on the market - as you might anticipate from some leading developers of new display technology in the TV market - as well as best-in-class cameras and well thought out interfaces.

If you're sold on an LG phone, we'd recommend you don't buy at launch.

Better by far to wait a few months after their release as prices tend to drop quite quickly and you can grab a device with the latest tech at a reasonable price.

Compare LG phone deals.

Sony

Sony Xperia 5 screen resting-hero1

Although not quite as popular as they were a few years ago, Sony Xperia phones are solid handsets that integrate well with other Sony products and score highly for their screens and cameras.

That's largely due to Sony incorporating features from its Bravia TVs and dedicated digital cameras into its range of phones.

Its recent Xperia 1 experimented with a very tall design, and was generally very well received. But like the firm's other products, it doesn't come cheap.

Compare Sony phone deals.

Huawei

Huawei P10 angled

Huawei might not be as well known as some of its rivals, but it's carved out a reputation for phones that offer good specs at reasonable prices.

On the downside, its handsets sometimes feature less polished software than better known brands. And while there's nothing wrong with the look and feel of its phones, they don't really stand out.

The firm also recently fell out with Google, which saw the Android-maker not licence its software to one of Huawei's handsets. Which meant unfamiliar software, which could be confusing to newcomers.

Compare Huawei phone deals.

OnePlus

OnePlus 7T 33

OnePlus is a Chinese start-up that's made a real splash in a short time, having only entered the market with its first handset, the OnePlus One, in 2014.

It's now perhaps the best alternative to the high-street names.

The company's hallmarks include an exclusive version of Android, dubbed Oxygen OS, that offers more scope for you to customise the look, feel and layout of your phone.

Generally, OnePlus phones are cheaper than rivals but with comparable key features and a premium build quality.

Because they're typically up to a couple of hundred of pounds cheaper than rival top-end phones, many people choose to buy OnePlus handsets outright, then sign up for a keenly priced SIM-only deal.

Compare OnePlus phone deals.

Motorola

Motorola-Razr-Foldable-Flip-Phone

Once best known for its range of RAZR flip phones, Motorola now specialises in good-value handsets, the cheapest of which can be bought new for well under £200. It also relaunched the RAZR, complete with a foldable screen.

Most Motorola phones might not be the slickest on the market. But they're well constructed and easy to use.

And if you buy direct from Motorola, you can find some special offers and customisation offers.

As with OnePlus phones, it makes most financial sense to buy a Motorola outright. And then use our SIM only deals comparison tables to find a well priced SIM only deal.

Compare Motorola phone deals.

Wileyfox

wileyfox box

A UK brand that offers better-than-average handsets at rock-bottom prices. Don’t expect much on the screen or camera departments.

But if that doesn't bother you, they're a pretty good budget option.

Take a look at the Wileyfox Swift 2 Plus.

Honor

Honor 9X front

Honor is owned by Huawei and specialises in mid-range and budget phones that are generally very warmly received on tech sites.

Like OnePlus, its phones undercut the household names by a few hundred pounds or so and focus principally on core features, such as the camera and the screen.

Need some help choosing a tariff too? Head to our guide for all the help you need.

Category: Features
Tagged: smartphones
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