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Smartphone buyer's guide
The first question to tackle is which platform to buy into. Now that BlackBerry left the phone game, and Windows Phone is winding down, your choice comes down to Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android.
iOS means iPhones, and you probably already know whether or not you want an iPhone. They’re great devices, with a wealth of apps and games on offer, but they're not exactly cheap – although the $549 iPhone SE is pretty affordable compared to most flagship phones. That said, for anyone looking to buy a high-end handset, Apple's iPhones deserve a place on the shortlist.
If you don’t want an iPhone, then Android handsets are available in a number of shapes, sizes and prices. Most phones use Android now and – and these days it offers a good balance of apps, games and general performance.
One downside with Android is that you’re not guaranteed of getting the latest version when buying a new phone. In fact, budget phones often come with an older version. In some cases, the phone manufacturer will upgrade the OS later, but that’s very hit-or-miss.
Google’s OS constantly improving, so it’s well worth checking that the phone has the latest version (currently Android 8.0 or “Oreo”) or else that there’s at least a scheduled timeframe for an upgrade.
What size phone is best?
Once you’ve made your choice of platform, you need to pick a size. In part this will be determined by how much you want to spend, but as long as you’re willing to fork out more than $300, there's quite a range available to you.
Most of mid-range or high-end phones are quite large these days – and 5.5in screens are now commonplace. If you’re not used to a bigger phone, we recommend trying one out in a shop before buying. Most people can generally get accustomed to phones up to 5in in screen size, but anything larger may a bit of a struggle for people with smaller hands.
That said, Samsung and LG have changed the game to some extent, by adding height, rather than width to the screen size, and reducing the surrounding bezels of their latest flagship phones. This ensures they remain easy to hold in one hand. The Samsung Galaxy S8, for example, has a stunning 5.8in display yet it’s only 3g heavier than the S7.
On the other hand, smaller phones like the 4in iPhone SE still have their benefits – they’re more lightweight and ‘pocketable’, and the smaller screens don’t drain the battery as quickly.
For any phones of 5in or larger, we recommend a 1080p screen, which will get you sharp images. Many manufacturers are squeezing Quad HD screens with 1,440 x 2,560 pixels into their larger-screened phones, and some are beginning to move into the realms of 4K – but despite the hype, you'll likely struggle to tell the difference between 1080p and Quad HD at these sorts of screen sizes.
Processor, RAM and storage
You need to look beyond the face value of phone specs when looking at a smartphone’s processor too. A great many phones are “quad-core” these days, even ones that cost well under $300. A closer look is needed to find out how powerful they really are.
The most common processor type in current phones are Qualcomm’s Snapdragon models, and they come in several families. There are the Snapdragon 800, 600, 400 and 200 models.
Generally speaking, the larger the number, the more powerful the chip in question – the Snapdragon 200 is the low-end chip, while the 400 and 600 series cover the budget to mid-range, and the 800 is reserved for the high-end devices.
For less-hardcore users, the only real sacrifices are seen in opting for a true low-end processor, as mid-range chipsets such as the Snapdragon 400 and 600 are capable of doing just about anything Android has to offer. You might lose out for gaming performance and overall slickness, but you're still going to get a usable phone.
There are other processor families too, notably Apple’s A-series, Samsung’s Exynos processors and Huawei’s Kirin chips. The latest versions of these chips – Apple’s A11, the Exynos 8895 and Kirin 960 – are all excellent performers.
RAM can be just as important as the processor. This is the memory that keeps the operating system running smoothly, and a lack of it is the most common cause of lag – particularly with Android. We recommend phones with at least 2GB of RAM. Some phones still use 1GB, but it’s not generally enough to keep a phone running smoothly. In most cases, the more RAM, the better.
Similarly, you can never have too much built-in storage – it comes down to how much you’re willing to pay. That said, most Android phones have an advantage over the iPhone in that they offer expandable storage via a microSD slot.
The one other bit of hardware that’s important to consider is the camera. If you’re looking at a phone costing $500 or more, you’re almost guaranteed a reasonably good camera, but if you’re a budget buyer then you'll find there are compromises with most models.
Low-end phones often leave out the front camera and the flash. Some don’t even have autofocus. If a phone leaves out any such features, it cuts hugely into the photographic flexibility of a smartphone.
At the higher end of the scale, look out for optical image stabilisation. This moves the lens and/or sensor to compensate for the effect of shaky hands. It allows the phone to use longer exposures, enabling more light onto the sensor, which leads to cleaner, less noisy photos when shooting in low light.
Another thing that will help you capture better photographs in difficult conditions is a larger aperture. This is the ‘F-number’ you'll see on the spec sheet; the lower the number, the better.
It's also worth looking out for advanced, secondary-focus systems. Samsung, Apple and LG all use phase-detect systems that allow faster, more accurate focusing than most phones, which rely on contrast detect autofocus.
Features and budget
Beyond the rear camera, there are several features that are worth looking for. There’s the selfie camera too, of course, as well as water resistance (look for an IP67 rating or higher), NFC connectivity (for contactless payments with Apple Pay or Android Pay), fast (battery) charging technology, and software extras such as intelligent assistants.
Finally, there’s the price. Decent smartphones start at around $300, but if you can extend it to $400 you can get a good one like the Motorola Moto G5S Plus.
There’s a very good case for phones in the ‘sweet spot’ between $500 and $900 outright. These mid-range phones offer most of the benefits of a high-end handset, while being affordable enough to buy outright and enjoy a lower-priced monthly BYO plan. Alternatively, these are the phones you’ll typically get on sub-$50 per month contract.
If you want a no-compromise phone, however, you’ll have to pay $1,000 or more outright – or at least $60 per month for a contract.
This feature includes content from the best smartphones of 2017 article that originally appeared at alphr.com.