Jump to a section:
- Apple or Android
- Screen size
- Screen quality
- Memory (RAM & Storage)
- Network (4G vs 5G)
- Battery & charging
- Durability, water & dust resistance
- Security features
Smartphones sure are popular – you’ve (probably) got one, your friends have one, your mum probably has one too – you may even be reading this on your phone right now. But when it’s time for an upgrade, how do you know which one is right for you - there are heaps of models to choose from, so there should be something for everyone, right?
The popularity has made possible a truly massive range of mobile phones available today, and with so many different models, in various sizes with a bunch of neat features, there is something to suit everyone.
This smartphone buying guide aims to assist you on your hunt for your next (or first) great phone, it explains the important features to consider while quickly explaining the new techie terms you're likely to see while you're shopping.
Choose an Operating System (OS)
The operating system is the software that runs on your phone – and this pretty much comes down to an Apple iPhone VS Android Smartphone - with the operating systems named Google Android and Apple iOS.
Google’s Android is the world’s most popular smartphone software, running on phones from Samsung, OnePlus, Xiaomi, and heaps more. With millions of apps available on the Google Play Store, you can get everything you need at a price that fits your budget. Android phones all tend to look a bit different because the manufacturers all offer their own tweaks and unique features. That means you have heaps to choose from - whether you’re after a big phone, a small phone, a cheap phone, or a premium flagship phone, there’s an Android for you.
Android Phones can be completely customised. If you want your phone to look unique, you can replace almost anything with a third-party alternative from the Play Store. You can add widgets to your home screen for quick access to information, change the icons, or swap out the entire home screen for something new. Or if you liked a feature on your last phone that your new phone doesn’t have, there’ll usually be a way around it. Alternatively, if that all sounds like too much work, you can just use your Android phone as it comes out of the box.
Because Android is powered by Google, Android phones offer robust integration with all of Google’s services like Gmail, YouTube, Chrome, Chromecast, Google Search, Docs, Drive, and more.
The latest and priciest models will be running the latest versions of Android and come with the most features, while older and cheaper phones may not - it pays to check which features matter most to you before deciding on a phone.
Apple iPhones need little introduction as these smartphones are extremely popular! They’re a great choice for first-time smartphone owners too.
The latest iPhones run the latest version of Apple’s operating system, known as iOS. iOS is well known for straightforward, intuitive design, which incorporates powerful features like the iMessage messaging system and pressure-sensitive “3D Touch” screens. Apple’s App Store, having been around since 2008, has a massive range of apps available to users, all curated by Apple to ensure a high standard of quality.
A major advantage of iOS is its integration with other Apple products like Mac computers and Apple TV. Owing to the iPhone’s ongoing popularity, Google and Microsoft make their services readily available for iPhones, so you don’t have to be deeply invested in everything Apple to make good use of the phone itself. iPhones also benefit from the broadest array of accessories, as there is often small variations from model to model.
Choose Your Screen Size
Deciding on a screen size is completely up to you and will depend on your needs, your preferences, or both. In general, there are three sizes to choose from, small (less than 5.5”) medium (5.5-6.4”) and large (6.5” or more). Do you prefer a pocketable phone that’s great for calling, a massive phone that’s great for multimedia, or somewhere in-between?
If you’re looking for a phone with a smaller, more compact design, one where you won’t need to stretch your thumb under any circumstances, a small screen phone is a good one to go for. Fewer customers are going for smaller screens as more people gravitate toward larger canvases for media consumption and gaming, but if small if what you’re after there’s still a sizable range of small-screen smartphones. Smaller phones are more pocketable and a little more comfortable for taking and making phone calls. Also a device that can be operated with a single hand. Shop all Small Smartphones
The medium screen size is a popular choice among many smartphone users, with the standard models of iPhone and Galaxy S falling into the medium screen size category. Most phones this size are comfortable to use one handed, depending on button placement, and easier to type on with two thumbs than their smaller counterparts. They’re pocketable, yet their screen size still works well for web browsing and media consumption. Shop all Medium Smartphones
These larger phones are referred to by many as ‘phablets’, due to them being tablet-like in size. Popular big phone lines include the iPhone Plus models, OnePlus, Galaxy Notes, and Huawei Mates, and tend to be used two-handed. Their bigger displays make them ideal for the more ‘computery’ tasks we perform day to day - watching videos, playing games, browsing the web, editing documents, social media, and more. Large phones also tend to have larger batteries for the weekend warriors out there. Shop all Large Smartphones and if you're up for it, shop all Massive Smartphones
Size and Weight
The overall footprint of a smartphone is primarily determined by its screen size. Recently, brands like Apple, Samsung and Xiaomi have moved to strip away the ‘bezels’, or space around the screen, to maximise the available screen real estate while keeping the overall footprint manageable.
When it comes to weight, generally the screen size will be a good indication of what to expect. Smaller screens generally use less power, allowing for a smaller battery to provide as much battery life at their larger versions, so, if portability is a priority for you, you may want to consider a smartphone with a smaller screen, as this will generally bring down the total weight also.
Paying attention to the screen resolution, underlying display technology, brightness, colour quality and viewing angles is a very important aspect when looking to buy a smartphone. After all, we look at the phone’s screen every day!
HD: HD, or High Definition, refers to a display of 720p resolution, or 1280 vertical pixels x 720 horizontal pixels. This is a fine resolution on smaller screens, but you’ll be able to see pixels and jagged lines on larger screens.
Full HD: Full HD refers to 1920 vertical pixels x 1080 horizontal pixels, or “1080p”. This is great on most screen sizes and for most use-cases – text will be crisp, high resolution video and photos will look great, and battery life will not be heavily impacted.
Quad HD: Quad HD is 2560 x 1440, AKA 1440p. A standard in high-end, more premium devices, Quad HD is super-sharp and suited to larger screens. It is also an ideal resolution for mobile virtual reality headsets, such as Samsung’s Gear VR.
4K and the future: Phones keep on getting better, and resolutions keep on getting higher. The world’s first 4K (3840 x 2160) smartphone was the Sony Xperia Z5 Premium in 2015, and it was followed up by the Sony Xperia XZ Premium in 2017. This ultra-high resolution does take a toll on processing power and battery life, but is completely unmatched for clarity.
The resolution isn’t the only important factor in choosing a sharp display. The bigger a screen is, the higher the resolution required to keep it on par with smaller screens. Consider a 4.7” HD screen vs. a 6” HD screen – on the smaller display, the pixels will be closer together and harder to see. On the flip side, a super high resolution on a smaller screen may be hard to tell apart from lower resolutions. Pixel density is measure in Pixels Per Inch, or PPI. For example, a common screen setup is Full HD over a 5.5” display area. This offers a PPI of 401, meaning there are 401 pixels for every square inch of the screen. If you want a larger screen that’s just as sharp, you’ll need to go for a phone with higher resolution to get the same PPI.
The two major competing display technologies in smartphones today are IPS LCD and AMOLED. LCD displays are the kind you’ll find in most laptops, monitors, and televisions. They have a layer of liquid crystal sandwiched between thin sheets of glass, with a backlight behind them to provide luminance. AMOLED displays, meanwhile, light up each individual pixel rather than having a backlight. This means AMOLED displays can save power by turning pixels off in order to display black images, giving them fantastic contrast. There are pros and cons to each technology – AMOLED displays will usually have brighter, more saturated colours, and wider viewing angles. However, they have a shorter overall lifespan than LCD displays. Samsung’s Galaxy S range is well known for AMOLED displays. Which display type you prefer is completely up to you.
If you edit photos and videos on your smartphone, colour calibration will be important – it really helps to know that the people you share your great photo with will be seeing the same picture you are! iPhones are well known for their great colour accuracy out of the box. Other brands, such as Samsung and OnePlus, offer an “sRGB” colour mode so you can choose between vibrant, saturated colours or a calibrated, accurate display.
Refresh Rate (Hz)
A higher refresh rate makes for a smoother experience when using your phone, a high Hz display is capable of displaying more frames per second. Because there are more frames, it reduces the gap between individual frames, and you can see and feel the difference in most day to day use cases. A mobile phone with a high refresh rate at 120hz, for example, is twice that of a normal computer monitor, so your phone will feel more responsive as it smoothly reacts to your commands.
The way your smartphone looks is, for some people, the most important deciding factor one which phone they buy. The materials your phone is made from affect how it will feel in your hand, as well as its durability. High-end models tend to be made from glass or metal, with entry-level models made from plastic. Increasingly, it’s possible to get a premium metal design without breaking the bank, as seen with OnePlus, Xiaomi, and Oppo.
Most mid-range to high-end phones now have embedded batteries, which should only be replaced by a qualified technician at an authorised service centre.
Many different cases and accessories are also available for a range of different models of smartphones, which allow you to give your phone a personal spin.
These days, the camera on a smartphone is among the most important features, so much so that it matters more than the processing power for many users. Most user’s smartphones are their primary cameras. Due to this, many smartphones boast cameras with high-resolution sensors, stabilised imaging, and great low-light shots. The camera remains the biggest point of difference between entry-level to mid-range smartphones and their premium, high-end counterparts.
Megapixels aren’t the only indication of camera quality, it’s good to also assess the images produced, the aperture (camera opening) speed, the stabilisation, focus, and features. iPhones will usually have lower resolution sensors than competing Android models, yet still produce excellent pictures. Don’t just look at the megapixels - look for reviews with sample images to see if you like the results.
In terms of camera features, optical image stabilisation is one to look for. This reduces blur from shaky hands and improves low-light performance. Some smartphones come with a wide range of manual camera settings for power users, such as white balance, manual focus, exposure and ISO.
Most mid to high-end smartphones (and some of the low-end!) now feature multiple cameras on the back. These vary in implementation and are often designed to give quite different results. These extra cameras can offer lots of benefits, funky extra wide angles, macro photography, enhanced zoom and portrait pictures, and many more are just some of the features smartphone manufacturers have been able to add thanks to those extra cameras on the back.
If you’re a selfie-lover or regularly make video calls to friends and family, look for a high-quality front-facing camera too.
A good processor provides faster open times for apps, higher frame rates in games, quicker photo editing, and smoother web browsing. Buying a phone with the latest processor means you’ll get better performance year-on-year than the previous generation while consuming even less power.
Three important factors come into play when comparing mobile processors:
Number of cores: While the debate rages on about whether fewer, faster cores are better than more, slower cores, more cores do mean better multitasking. The cores are often divided into “performance” and “power-saving” clusters, with the high-performance cores kicking in when you need it, and the power-saving cores handling the regular tasks.
Clock speed: The higher a processor is ‘clocked’ at, the more operations it can perform in a shorter period of time. Faster, premium processors will be well over 2GHz.
Core type: Not all cores are created equal! A fast set of four cores will outperform a slow set of eight cores. Some brands, such as Apple and Samsung opt to build their own mobile processors rather than use off-the-shelf designs from processor manufacturers like Mediatek or Qualcomm’s Snapdragon series. Apple have been a market leader in this space for some time, while Samsung is the best of the bunch for premium Android performance. Qualcomm’s high-end Snapdragon 800 series is also a benchmark of premium performance. Another factor to consider is power consumption - If you want to find a happy medium between a snappy phone and long battery life, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 600 series is a great choice.
RAM in a smartphone is just as critical to multi-tasking as it is with a PC, and the types of apps you can easily switch between. Entry-level smartphones will usually have 1GB or less of RAM available, which is enough for calling and texting, but won’t cut it for heavy gaming, constant web browsing, or demanding social media applications. Some phones, such as the ASUS ROG Phone 5S, now have 18GB of RAM! And, much like our PC and Laptops have, we can expect that number to grow as newer models get released.
Games and high-resolution photos and videos can easily take up more than 1GB, so when it comes to internal storage, the best bet is to go for as much as possible. On many mid-range handsets, the minimum amount is 16GB, however, more and more smartphones are including 128GB as standard. 512GB and 1TB options are available at the high-end.
Micro SD card slots are available in select models which can help expand your storage, in particular by storing media - although it’s not a good idea to use these for application storage as internal memory is of a much higher quality than that used for Micro SD cards. iPhones do not support MicroSD cards, so if you’re set on an Apple smartphone it’s best to bear in mind how many GBs of storage your phone will support.
There is a balance to be found between local and cloud storage as well. Services like Spotify, Google Photos, and OneDrive mean you don’t need to carry all your music, photos, or documents locally on your phone. However, you will need mobile data coverage and a suitable mobile data plan to make the most of cloud storage.
Which is right for you will depend on how often you travel and how much you’re willing to spend. Check out the full range of Micro SD cards, they are available in various sizes to suit. One of the best bits about phones with MicroSD slots is how easy it is to upgrade, so even if you run out of space while away on holiday you can just pop in another memory card, and then continue snapping great holiday pics right away.
4G vs 5G
The fifth-generation (5G) of mobile networking is already available in some parts on the country, and with it comes even faster data speeds.
As with all wireless data the actual speed you get still dependant on a bunch of conditions, like which network you’re connected to at the time, what path the data is taking to get to you, how busy the online traffic is, and so on.
It's important to know that 4G is already very fast, and while 5G is certianly faster, actual usage of the higher speed gets a little more complicated due to the different technologies that are used to send the data signal, online traffic at the time and the geographical coverage for these signals.
That aside for now and looking at the potential maximum speeds we can see the differences offered by each.
4G: 150Mbps / 4G LTE-A: 1Gbps
That's the theoretical maximum, perfect world type conditions/speeds that we are unlikely to get in the real world - but it sure shows the speed! Going back to a more realistic figure to compare with, looking at Netflix recommendations for streaming speeds, they want 25Mbps for 4K quality - and 4G can usually achieve that.
Battery and Charging
Many different factors contribute to how long a smartphone battery will last. Some include: display brightness, screen size, processor and operating system – but most of all, the size of the battery itself. In general, a phone which lasts longer than 8 hours of straight 5G surfing is considered to be satisfactory with greater than 8.5 hours being even better. It would be ideal to look for battery capacity of 3,000mAh or more. Larger phones usually have accordingly larger batteries – look for 5,000mAh+ in newer large models.
More and more phones are arriving on the market with fast charging capabilities. This can counter a smaller overall battery capacity by juicing your phone up quickly. Fast charging can be found in models from Samsung, Apple, Oppo, and more – although you will usually need specialised chargers for each brand.
If you need even more longevity, consider a portable power bank to stay charged on the go - and if you use your phone for navigation, picking up a car charger is all but essential. Grabbing both will make weekend road trips a breeze.
A wireless charger is becoming less and less of a luxury feature, they can be incredibly convenient and are becoming very affordable. Rather than plugging your phone in to charge, simply place it on a wireless charging pad – that’s it.
Durability, Water & Dust Resistance
Durability has become increasingly important for smartphones, having these features not only to allow us to take our phones with us on more adventures forgoing the need for additional, bulky protective cases.
Waterproof VS Water Resistant
Water-resistance has become a key feature, and some smartphones can now even survive a dunk - actually being able to become fully submerged in liquid. There are usually conditions to this kind of usage, port covers and disabling of the touch screen functionality, but with the right setup it often does allow for the use of your phone as a sound system while enjoying the pool on a hot summers day, or catching up on podcasts during the morning shower/bathroom routine.
Even if your phone doesn't have these water-friendly features built-in, case brands such as Lifeproof have a range of cases that can add these abilities - so cross-checking on if these cases will fit the phone you're thinking of buying could narrow the list significantly should this be an important feature for you.
Rugged, Drop Proof, Dust Proof
Some phones offer a superior level of rugged protection that cannot be matched by a mainstream device in a case, designed specifically so you can use it with confidence without the stress or fear of breakage from everyday drops and mishaps.
Smartphones with features like these undergo extensive testing and often have specific certifications to highlight their exceptionally high level of endurance. If these features are important to you CAT smartphones are a great brand that specialises in this kind of technology.
GPS & Navigation
Smartphones have become a popular navigation device thanks to an excellent APP known as Google Maps. It offers satellite imagery, aerial photography, street maps, 360° interactive panoramic views of streets, real-time traffic conditions, and route planning for travelling by foot, car, bicycle and air, or public transportation.
This feature allows us to quickly access the device by simply looking at it, with software and sensors being used to identify distinctive features of the user. Looking at the iPhone specifically, this is made possible with a combination of an infrared emitter and TrueDepth sensor to paint 30,000 points of infrared light on and around your face.
Iris scanning is another way to secure and access your smartphone by looking at it. Much like the facial recognition above, sensors are used to capture the uniqueness of your eyes which is then stored in the device like a password allowing you to unlock by looking. Iris recognition is said to be extremely accurate, with zero false results in 2 million test simulations although the implementation of this technology in smartphones is still quite new. Certainly, one to watch though!
The fingerprint security feature has become extremely popular since the iPhone’s Touch ID sensor launched with the iPhone 5s. This feature enables a faster, easier and more secure way to unlock your device. Touch ID can also be used to purchase items in the App Store. Previously exclusive to high-end handsets, quality fingerprint scanners can now be found on entry-level and mid-range phones as well.
Fingerprint scanners mean you can keep your phone secure with a PIN or password without needing to enter it every time you pick the phone up. While they aren’t the be-all end-all of mobile security, they are convenient and much better than leaving your phone unlocked 24/7.
We hope this guide helps narrow down the many choices available and we'll continue to update it as more features become available, check out all the latest smartphones today, and happy shopping!