This guide was updated December 2019.
The smartphone has in a decade become the central device in our lives, serving up communications, entertainment, location-based services and a vast collection of apps to keep us occupied.
There also finally appears to be life outside of the traditional Apple-Samsung duopoly dominating the smartphone market. Chinese phone makers Huawei and Oppo are providing strong competition. Huawei is now the second most popular Android-based smartphone brand in the world behind Samsung. That’s despite being blocked from the US market and having restrictions placed on its use of the Android operating system, which in October derailed the launch of the Mate 30, Huawei’s flagship smartphone.
But it is a complex, rapidly evolving market, heavy on marketing hype.
Here is NOTED Tech’s five-point guide to what’s on the market, what to look out for and things to avoid when delving into the world of smartphones.
1. Decide what smartphone ecosystem you want to live in
The smartphone world is divided between two operating systems: Apple’s iOS, which powers the iPhone and iPad; and Android, the Google-developed software powering a vast range of smartphones from a multitude of handset makers.
The iOS operating system is renowned for its simplicity, ease of use, security and pleasing aesthetic. Apple’s less-is-more philosophy to software and user interface design can prove frustrating at times, but iOS delivers most of what you need, most of the time, and iOS 13, which was launched in September, has some great new features, including dark mode and a stunning new Photos app.
Android, on the other hand, is very much like Windows; flexible, fully-featured, available on a wide range of devices, cheap and relatively easy to use. But the complicated Android landscape includes handset makers adapting the software to suit their own needs, meaning there are numerous ‘flavours’ of Android that all look and act slightly differently.
The latest version, Android 10, is currently rolling out to compatible smartphones. It features improved privacy and digital wellbeing features and gesture navigation.
Software updates can take longer to come to your Android smartphone, as the numerous different phone makers release them at different times. In the Apple world, iOS updates arrive at the same time for everyone, making life much easier.
However, a trend towards offering native Android, the way Google intended it (see NOTED’s review of the Nokia 6.1 and Nokia 9 PureView) and which is available on its own Pixel phones, is encouraging better uniformity of experience in the Android camp.
Apple’s App Store doesn’t have the most apps available to download to the iPhone and iPad, (2 million vs Android’s 3.8 million) but it has a high level of quality control and security. App developers will often release new apps on the iPhone first. The Google Play store for Android users is teeming with apps, but quality can vary widely and apps have in the past been more prone to including malware and security flaws.
Most major entertainment services, productivity tools and games are developed for both iOS and Apple, so you won’t need to make big sacrifices when it comes to functionality.
Android and iOS offer quite different experiences overall. Ultimately, if you are moving to a smartphone for the first time or looking at switching, head into an electronics retailer and spend some time swiping through the devices, to get a feel for the layout and the user experience.
Bottom line: if you want simplicity and quality in a smartphone, are willing to pay a bit more for a good experience and love Apple’s world-leading hardware design, the iPhone is for you (see NOTED’s review of the latest iPhone, iPhone 11). For more flexibility, budget options and a better range of great devices, Android will serve you well.
2. Set your budget and stick to it
If you go shopping for a phone, the salespeople will try to up-sell you to the ‘hero’ models – those costing over $1,000, made of the shiniest quality materials, sporting the best cameras, screen resolution and with fancy extras like facial recognition and wireless charging.
The reality is that you don’t necessarily need all of that so you could be paying for redundant features. The important thing to do before setting foot in a shop is to decide what your upper spending limit will be.
There are effectively four categories of smartphone pricing today: entry-level $50-$399; mid-range $400-$799; what I’d call ‘premium’, $800-$1,399; and high-end, $1,400 and above.
Clearly, the difference between a Vodafone-branded Smart E9 at $99 and the iPhone 11 Pro at $1,899 is going to be dramatic. But if $99 is your budget, don’t be too downhearted. You’d be surprised how good the technology is even for low-priced phones these days. You can download most apps, play games, use GPS to track your location and play movies. The design polish won’t be there and you won’t have the responsiveness or screen and camera quality of a more powerful phone.
Where the phone buyer’s dilemma sets in, is in the mid to premium end of the market. A couple of hundred dollars can make the difference between a better camera, a faster processor or better battery life.
It's worth remembering that most smartphones are refreshed every year and features that were once the domain of high-end phones have become available to mid-range handsets as well. For instance, the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro have the same processor, memory and many of the same features, but the improved cameras, screen quality and overall design adds a $550 premium to the iPhone 11 Pro.
So weigh up the options carefully. Do you really need a telephoto lens? Avoid the temptation to pay a bit more for those alluring features – you’ll likely get them with your next upgrade at a price you can afford anyway.
Bottom line: Don’t blow your budget – keep one of the four price categories in mind and get the most features you can for the money. Remember that phone technology refreshes regularly and the latest hot feature at the high-end will soon be within your reach in a mid-range phone.
3. How much is a great photo worth to you?
These days, the key feature differentiating phones is the quality of the cameras. Boy, they’ve improved over the last couple of years, to the point where I can get better results with a smartphone than my stand-alone digital camera – and the phone easily fits in my pocket.
It used to be that megapixels were the measure of a camera – how much information the camera sensor captured in every shot. But we’ve moved beyond that as a measure of quality. Anything above 16 megapixels for the main camera is good these days. More important now is the characteristics of the camera sensors and whether you are being offered a single lens, a dual-camera set-up, such as on the iPhone 11 or triple camera set-up like the Huawei P30 Pro.
The aperture range (see this beginner’s guide to f-stop aperture range in smartphones) of the camera will determine how much light it can capture in different settings, which is the key to a great shot – a wider aperture range is beneficial. Artificial intelligence is also common in phones now, featuring tools to smooth out your photos, remove camera shake and red-eye, and adjust colour and contrast to give your photos a more professional look.
Check to see what photo settings the camera takes – portrait mode, for instance, should let you take close-ups with an artistic blur in the background. Night mode will serve you well in low-light conditions, so look for a camera with good night mode performance.
Many phones will detect what is in front of the camera, e.g. blue sky, sunset, and auto-adjust settings for you. Many cameras will now come with a “Time of Flight” (ToF) camera, really a laser sensor that detects the depth of field to improve photos and assist features like augmented reality. The ToF cameras are appearing in an increasing range of high-end phone cameras but are not yet a must-have feature.
Indeed, software and artificial intelligence are now the biggest differentiators separating some of these camera phones. The processing power of the phones allows for photos to be enhanced in real time, delivering just the right amount of background blur and darkening those clouds to make them look more dramatic. Apple, Huawei, Oppo and Samsung excel in their use of AI in phones.
In the Apple world, the newest iPhones have sensational cameras, with the new Night mode removing a limitation of the previous iPhones when compared to some of the leading Android phones. In the Android camp, the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S10+, Huawei P30 Pro and Oppo Reno 10x Zoom arguably outclass the iPhone. But you’ll need to pay more attention to comparing the features being touted because there are so many Android models to choose from.
Pay attention to video settings as well. The camera should be able to record 4K-quality video and preferably at 60fps (frames per second) or higher to let you take great slow-motion videos. Also, look for cameras that offer image stabilisation for smoother video. If you are looking to do a lot of video editing on your phone for uploading clips to Youtube and Instagram, the iPhone 11 Pro and video editing software make for a killer combination. Samsung generally provides the best video recording and editing functionality in the Android world.
Don’t be shy about going into a store and taking photos with the demonstration phones. Look for how well the colours are captured under different light conditions. If photos are your thing, also consider getting a smartphone with extra memory (minimum 128GB) or make sure the phone has a microSD card slot so you can boost your capacity for capturing photos at their highest quality setting.
Also, megapixels and resolution matter the most if you are viewing your photos on a large computer screen, or printing them out. If you are mainly looking at photos on your smartphone screen, you really only need an 8-megapixel camera, which is now entry-level in most cameras. Selfie cameras (front-facing) are usually smaller and lower-resolution, but many of them now produce excellent results for photos and videos, with cool extras such as the ability to turn a photo or video of yourself into a digital avatar. If you will be compulsively taking photos of yourself, look for a smartphone with a high-performing front-facing camera.
Bottom line: Getting a decent camera as part of the smartphone package will be a crucial factor for many phone users. Devote the bulk of your research to the camera and head into a store to take some sample photos so you are happy with the quality.
4. Are you a casual browser or a power user?
Here’s the crucial question: are you one of those people who just uses a phone for calls and texts, the odd email, website searching and ordering an Uber? Or are you on your phone for hours each day watching videos, instant messaging, gaming and flitting between your war chest of apps?
If you are in the former camp (up to two hours smartphone use a day), there’s not much point in going high-end unless you can really afford it. If you are in the latter (2-8 hours or more a day), investing in a device that will consume hours of your attention every day will be worth it.
So what are the features that will make the difference for the power users? They include display quality, screen size, processor performance, battery life and fast charging ability, storage capacity and accessibility features.
For the display, an AMOLED or retina display with high dynamic range will offer the best experience for watching Netflix or YouTube videos and seeing those Instagrams the way they were intended. That said, the difference between LCD and OLED displays on the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro respectively is all in the eye of the beholder. There really isn’t that much in it, unless you are watching a lot of videos on your phone. Either way, make sure it is a display that will deliver a bright, crisp image in sunlight. You also want a high-resolution screen, ideally Quad-HD or higher (here’s an explainer on smartphone displays).
When it comes to screen size, phones have been getting bigger, creeping up past the 6-inch mark. There are lots of different-sized models, but power users will appreciate the extra screen real estate, especially for multitasking and dual-screen use.
A powerful processor, such as the A13 Bionic powering the iPhone 11, or the Snapdragon 855 in the Samsung Galaxy S10+, will make a big difference for the power user. Booting and closing apps will be faster, video will load more quickly, games will run smoother and newer features like augmented reality will require good processor performance.
You’ll want to augment that processor with a decent amount of memory storage to accommodate your heavy multitasking – at least 64GB of RAM (which is standard with iPhones, but ideally 128GB as a minimum).
Battery life is a crucial factor – you need a phone that gets you through at least a day of moderate use – or at least 10 hours of solid use with the screen active. Batteries have got bigger along with phone dimensions, so a 3,800mAh-rated phone battery is now common and should get you comfortably between charges. Fast-charging is now a valuable feature of high-end and premium phones, enabling you to plug in for half an hour to recoup up to 60 per cent of your battery life.
If you are unlocking your phone dozens or hundreds of times a day, accessibility features such as facial recognition or a fingerprint scanner will be a big time-saver. Thankfully, these features are increasingly available in mid-market phones.
Finally, design is important. The signature curved glass edge of the Samsung Galaxy S10+ may seem like a gimmick to you, but the sleek wrap-around glass body of that handset feels great to hold. You want a phone that fits comfortably in your hand and isn’t going to slip through your fingers. If you’ve had accidents in the past, features like a shatter-proof screen and shock-absorbing case will be worth taking into account.
Bottom line: The more time you spend on your phone, the more you’ll appreciate those features that make for a better experience – screen quality, processor speed and battery life, among them. Sacrificing features and saving yourself some cash is a smart move for more casual users.
5. Look for sweeteners from the mobile phone companies
We only have three mobile phone carriers in this country, but Spark, Vodafone and 2Degrees compete aggressively for our business. That means, from time to time, there are great deals available that make it affordable for you to jump up a category when buying a new phone.
Cash discounts are common, as are phone bundles that throw in extra storage, a phone case or noise-cancelling headphones.
It is easy to change carriers and take your number with you, but the reality is that the biggest price incentives are designed to keep you loyal as a pre-paid or monthly account customer. As such, the data, calling and service plan on offer will determine what handset you get.
Rent-to-own deals offer access to the high-end phones with repayments up to 24 months which will suit some, taking the pain out of paying for a high-end phone up front. For high-end phone plans, some offers will dramatically discount the up-front cost of buying the phone. If you are on a contract plan, talk to your mobile provider about what they can offer you.
Some mobile phone plans offer sweeteners, such as free or discounted Spotify and Lightbox accounts with certain Spark phone plans, or Vodafone’s Social Pass, which allows unlimited data on certain social media apps. Often, a mobile plan will be cheaper if bundled with a fixed-line broadband account.
Buying direct from the carrier can net you a better deal, but be careful about buying a “locked” phone, which may see you unable to shift providers with that handset. If you are travelling regularly, you may want to look for a smartphone with dual-SIM capability, so you can keep you own SIM in the phone and pick up a local SIM when travelling to cut down on the costs of using data and making calls and text messages when travelling.
Retailers such as Harvey Norman and Noel Leeming regularly offer significant discounts on smartphones, so keep an eye out for their sales as well.
Bottom line: The mobile market is competitive so never pay full-price for a new phone, ask for discounts or extras and shop around. Your handset choice will often be linked to the mobile phone plans available to you and the services the phone company is offering. Look for the best bundle that delivers value in a plan as well as the hardware.
This article was updated December 2019.