What SHOULD you look for when buying a phone?

When buying a new phone, there are so many names and figures thrown out which often confuse and make purchasing choices unnecessarily difficult. But what actually matters, and to what extent?

To find what you’re interested in quickly, press “Ctrl” and “F” on laptops and computers to allow you to search for the relevant section, because this is a long one!

  • Display: This is the screen which dominates all modern smartphones. There are many many different types of displays used which to the average user, make very little actual difference (In my humble opinion)
    • Curved: Quite a few phones brag about their curved displays, and honestly, they’re mostly a looks thing. There are some arguments which state having a curved screen is better for ergonomics as it means there are no hard edges, but it’s an unnecessary extra. Nice to have but not something to panic over.
    • Size: The vast majority of modern phones will have a 5 inch screen, this is entirely a subjective thing and users should choose based upon what they like.
    • IPS: As far as screens go, this is the screen type I look for. IPS screens provide good colour reproduction and better viewing angles (so the image doesn’t become distorted from the sides like old PC monitors) and just make a phone nicer to use. Not a deal breaker if not present but something I really like.

 

  • Camera: For some people this is a really important feature, and others, not so much. Phones will come with a front facing and backward facing camera and so users need to have a rough idea of what they want. Camera’s are a very complicated component, and as such the best way to get an accurate represntation if it’s important to you is via online reviews.
    • Megapixels: In general terms, the higher the megapixel count of the camera, the better the quality of the photos which will be taken. Or that was the case, but nowadays, cameras are of such good quality, it makes very little difference. Here is a good tech insider article for more information
    • Low Light: Something which does matter in certain circumstances however is the low light performance of a phone’s camera. Unfortunately it is very difficult to gauge this via numbers.
    • Dual: In theory, dual camera’s are an excellent idea, improving image quality and light capture. However, in my experience, there hasn’t been a single great implementation of this system leading to lackluster results and I’d choose to avoid them in future. Sadly.

 

  • Battery Life: A huge deal breaker for a great number of people, but honestly the numbers thrown about by manufacturers are pretty meaningless. The time a phone battery will last is entirely reliant on how much the consumer uses the device. On top of this every battery will be ever so slightly different and the battery will degrade over time. These days needing to charge a phone nightly is an unavoidable chore.
    • Quick Charge: When you’re using a device heavily (curse you Pokémon Go) there are going to be times when you need to charge a device quickly. In these situations, Quick Charge is a godsend. As the name suggests, your phone will charge quicker. If affordable, this is a feature I’d always hunt for.
    • Wireless Charging: Another very self-explanatory name! You can charge the phone from a pad rather than plugging in a cable, in theory saving time
    • Charging Port: This is what you plug in to power your shiny new tech. The new up and coming type is the USB type C port. Faster than the previous mainstream ports and reversible (no fumbling about, you can plug it in either way up!), if you can get a Type C, it’s worth doing. Apple has it’s own Lightning port which offers many of the same benefits

 

  • Storage: Essentially the memory of the device and again a feature heavily reliant on what the user wants from their device. The more photos you want to take, apps you want to download or music you want to listen to, the more you will need.
    • Internal: This is the baked in memory on the phone which is measured in Gigabytes (GB). One of the issues with internal storage is that this is also used to store the software running on the phone and so the actual usable memory will be far less than stated on the box. Bummer. For this reason I consider anything less than 32GB just not enough for a phone to survive several years of usage, unless it allows for…
    • Expandable: Many  (Android) phones allow for users to install their own extra memory (Generally MicroSD cards although a new standard of UFS card is looking like it might emerge due to higher speeds), and this is a key feature. As far as I’m concerned, this is a critical specification to look for to allow the phone to grow with the user’s needs.

Note: As far as I’m concerned, 16GB phones without expandable memory are just unacceptable (Yes I’m calling you out Apple). Users will quickly run out of memory and users need to avoid these.

 

  • Processor: This is the brain of the device that sits and does the maths which powers Angry Birds for you. Incredibly complicated little things, for all but power users, this generally won’t impact you.
    • No. of Cores: Bigger number is better and will generally give you better performance. There’s more to it than that, but for beginners, that will do. Higher end phones will be octa-core while low and mid-tier phones will be quad core.
    • GPU: This stands for Graphics Processing Unit and is where the images are generated that are displayed on the screen. High end phones will have a separate one and manufacturers will brag about it. Generally speaking, if it has one, you’re looking towards the high end of the market

 

  • RAM: If the Storage is the long term memory of the device, the RAM is the short term memory which allows the device to multi-task, and believe me, phones multi-task a lot.
    • More is best: Another case of more is better. Measured using the same metric as long-term storage anywhere between 1GB at the low end and 8GB at the extreme top end, a good number to aim for is generally on the 1.5 to 3GB mark to give users a good level of performance without breaking the bank

 

  • Audio: As a music lover, I appreciate a good audio setup from my phone, and there are a few features which are important to look for. If music isn’t something you’re concerned about, feel free to skip this section!
    • Front facing speakers: I miss the days when HTC used to have dual front-facing speakers on every phone. Front facing speakers mean that the speakers are aimed towards the user, providing a better sound experience
    • Dual Speakers: Stereo is better than Mono, and this manifests itself as dual speakers versus a single speaker which tends to give a rather disappointing sound. Not a deal breaker for most people but a big enough deal to make an audiophile sad

 

  • Operating System: This is the software which runs the entire device and manages everything on the phone
    • Android: The biggest operating system outside of Apple’s iOS, there are many different versions available which all go by different names. Android Nougat is due to launch any day now but most phone’s will run Android Marshmallow.  This won’t affect non-power users a massive amount but generally speaking the newer the version the more features Google will add to the system
      • Overlays: These are the things phone manufacturers use on top of Android to make things look and work the way they want them to. Personally I find the Samsung theme a tad clunky and comes with too much bloatware (Software I don’t want) while the HTC theme appeals to me more. It’s not free from bloatware but it’s more manageable. This is a highly subjective topic however and your mileage will vary. The only way to guarentee a life free of theme’s from the outset is to purchase one of Google’s Nexus devices which run stock Android only
    • iOS: Runs solely on Apple devices, this system is attractive and simple to use, however it is very restrictive and doesn’t allow much customisation. Has a habit of slowing devices down after every software update, seemingly pushing people running older devices into purchasing newer devices, and hence why I avoid Apple.
    • Windows: Don’t. Not enough users to get developers to pay attention to it, developers don’t pay it enough attention to make it good. A sad cycle. Avoid.

Ta-Da! As I’ve said throughout, these are all opinions and what I would recommend but above all I’d recommend looking up reviews before purchasing a device. Happy hunting!

The Current State of the Mobile Phone Industry

Technology is something that is a part of everyone’s lives. From the smartphone in our pockets to the laptop I’m writing this blog on, it’s everywhere. Worryingly though, the majority of consumers are overwhelmed by the vast choice they have and the different numbers companies use to obfuscate device specifics.

Just recently, one of my friends and my girlfriend have both been in the market for a new phone, and bearing in mind both my interest and my area of study (Computing), I offered to help. So I plunged headfirst into the phone market and started researching.

My first thought was I missed the days when monstrosities like the Nokia NGage were a thing.

1920px-nokia-ngage-ll
By Evan-Amos – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33692791

Bloody hideous, a flawed concept from the start and the beginning of the end for Nokia, but so very different from everything else.Different form factors such as flip and sliding phones ruled, and it was easy to just point and pick a phone on which you thought would be the most comfortable. No such luck anymore in a world where smartphones are externally very similar.

So how then, does the average consumer differentiate between the myriad of similar looking devices? The next step is to look at the specifications of the internal hardware of the phone and we need to look at the software it is running, in short we need to get really picky. This in itself is complicated by product names and minute differences in microprocessor architecture, for example, without looking, do you know which is better out of the MediaTek helio P10 or the Exynos 8?

The whole system is designed to be a mess. The entire complicated system allows retailers to pretty much say whatever they want to customers, who have to then trust that they’ve got their best interests at heart and when commission is involved that is by no means certain. It’s no wonder then that consumers flock to the iPhone platform. It’s a name that they know, and many trust. I shall save my opinions on Apple for a separate blog as they are numerous and not flattering.

So, what’s the solution? Well a potential solution in the works is coming out of Google.

project_ara_scattered_parts
Source

Project Ara sees consumers buying a frame, and then features that matter to them. Care about a camera? You can buy a good camera module, or if you don’t, you don’t have to have a camera at all. The theme is choice. They have several fancy product videos which show the system off well. There are however, some issues:

  • It’s not available yet
  • Google need to have good support from third party manufacturers to get a good range of modules, else the ecosystem will fail
  • There is real potential for this system to be very pricey

Despite these issues, Project Ara has real potential to shake up the phone industry massively.

So without waiting for new systems or trawling the internet for years, what advice can I give? Honestly nothing beats going into a shop and holding the phones. Find ones that feel nice in the hand as this is incredibly important in a device people will be holding onto for years. Once a few have been found to be agreeable, heading online and looking up reviews is a way to ensure there are no glaring issues present. Review sites such as techradar are perfect for ensuring devices aren’t a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Or just buy an iPhone and be done with it as the sale of their Billionth device summarises current market trends perfectly.