Smartphone buying guide. The image shows a lady browsing a laptop while sipping on coffee

The Ultimate Smartphone Buying Guide

Buying a new smartphone has become increasingly tedious due to the sheer number of options available in the market. So many technical specifications can be confusing for many. In this guide, we explore the various parameters you need to choose from before making your purchase.

1. Pocket-ability and handling

In most guides, this feature comes near the end of the list for some reason. If you are going to use a device all-day. You need to consider how comfortable it is to use. How much does it weigh? Will it fit in your pocket or does it stick out. I have owned a Samsung Galaxy Note Edge, I was a big fan of curved screens in the start, but given the sacrifices I had to make in terms of handling and usage, I swear by non-curved phones. One-handed usage becomes more complicated than it should be.

2. Prime use

Everyone has different usage patterns, some click a lot of pictures (selfies or otherwise), others want an immersive multimedia experience, then there are some people who just want the latest gadget to play with. If your major use of a smartphone is web browsing and answering emails, it’s better to buy a mid-range phone with a bigger battery. People who are looking to customize each and every aspect of their phone usually prefer a developer-friendly phone (Android).

3. Budget

While shelling out a lot of money can give you the best smartphone offering in the market. Not everyone is willing to spend a fortune on a new phone. Past few years have observed the emergence of highly capable mid-range devices that can perform day-to-day tasks just as well.

You can also buy last generation flagship phones and save a ton of cash. I recently bought the LG V20 which was launched alongside Samsung Galaxy S6 and Samsung Note 7, it’s a 2016 phone, that fills all my requirements. Even though the processor is older, I hardly see any performance drop in my daily usage. The best part, I bought it for less than half the launch price.

4. Model-specific problems

While people queue up in lines outside Apple stores. I usually advise against buying the latest and greatest smartphone at launch. Give it at least 6 months in the market, the user feedback allows you to make a well-informed decision. This also gives the device manufacturer time to remedy these hardware and software issues so that you can enjoy a problem-free device. This will also save you significant money as prices tend to drop fairly quickly.

For instance, Apple iPhone 4 was known for ‘Antenna gate’, Snapdragon 810 processor was notorious for overheating, Google Nexus 6 suffered from swollen batteries, Apple iPhone 6 was known for ‘Bend gate’ and Galaxy Note 7 had a faulty battery that exploded.

5. Aesthetic beauty vs durability

I prefer phones with a metal back as they are more durable. Metal will bend and scratch, while glass will chip and eventually shatter. You may have to give up wireless charging when opting for a metal back, though longevity is ensured. Also decide that which would you rather have, a water-resistant body or a removable battery.

6. Expandability

While some manufacturers do not allow you to expand storage, there are others that give you the option of using microSD cards. You can also find Dual sim phones with a hybrid slot, which allows you to choose between a second sim and a microSD card. The best option, in my opinion, is Dual sim phones with expandable storage. If the battery is removable, it’s an added bonus.

7. Battery life

What use would a fully-equipped device be if it runs out of power when you need it the most. Probably the most important feature in a smartphone is the battery life. While most phones can get you through the day. It depends on your usage patterns. Heavy users should look for battery capacity over 3000 mAh (Android devices).

Pro tip: lowering the brightness and switching off services that are not in use (Wifi, Bluetooth, Location) can result in extended battery life.

8.  Charging speed

Look for devices that offer fast/quick/ dash-charging. This feature allows you to charge up to 50% of the battery in half an hour, while a full charge takes a little more than an hour. This saves time each time you charge. Say you got home from work, you need to leave for a party, quick charging will fill your phone’s battery about halfway by the time you change and get ready.

9. Wireless charging

Wireless charging is still in its early stages. It is slower than regular charging and you need to buy a costly charging accessory for the same. The biggest downside of wireless charging is that when you pick your phone up to use, the charging stops. It is also said that this induction-based charging wears out the battery faster, which is one more reason to stay wired while charging.

10. Processor

You may wonder, why this comes so low on the list. After all, it’s all about the computing performance, right?

If you buy a high-end phone with a 2016 or 2017 processor. There will be at most 5-10% of a performance difference. I say this in terms of day-to-day use. If you buy a phone with Snapdragon 820 today. It will still be able to handle everything you throw at it. You can buy the latest and greatest, however, it won’t make a sizeable difference.

For instance: When I bought my Samsung Galaxy Note Edge back in September 2015, Snapdragon 810 was the latest processor, while this device used 805. There weren’t any major differences in performance, while the 810 was known for over-heating as well. This phone served me till the first week of 2018 without any slowdowns for more than two years.

On the other hand, processors which use a smaller manufacturing process (14nm vs 10 nm) benefit from less heat generation and better power efficiency. In the end, it’s for you to decide if you are willing to pay a premium price for these features.

11. RAM

More RAM allows you to multitask effectively, more apps can stay open without your device slowing down. If you like having multiple tabs open while browsing on your smartphone, having more RAM can help. There is no significant performance difference between DDR3 and DDR4 RAM so you can choose either.

While iPhones can do with lesser RAM without any noticeable slowdowns. Android devices need at least 2GB of RAM to run smoothly. There are devices in the market that offer up to 8 GB of RAM, I would recommend at least 3 GB of RAM for your next purchase to ensure seamless performance.

12. Camera

While megapixels define the size of the clicked photo, it’s not the only factor that ensures good quality. I am going to do a detailed article on camera soon, for now here is a quick rundown of features to look for.

Aperture – The amount of light that the camera sensor can allow. Generally, an aperture size smaller than f/2.0 is favorable. A smaller aperture will ensure better low-light performance.

BIS – Backlight Illuminated Sensor – This allows more light into the camera lens for brighter low-light photos.

OIS – Optical Image Stabilization – Remember those camera humps on smartphones that everyone loves to hate? OIS is the culprit behind them. This technology reduces blur and movement in your photos and videos to give smoother footage. A must-have feature.

EIS – Electronic Image Stabilization – Being software in nature rather than hardware. It is less effective and reliable.

Manual control/ Pro mode – It allows you to change the various parameters of your image and video. You can adjust the ISO, shutter speed, white balance, focus, and more to perfect your photo before clicking. While most people never use this feature, I recommend that you try them out, the results will surprise you.

Dual Cameras – At the time of writing this article, there are phones that are now offering up to 4 cameras, we still have time till we get to test them out, so I’ll talk only about dual-camera phones.

Various smartphone manufacturers have a different approach when it comes to Dual cameras. Some use an RGB + Mono sensor for capturing more details. Others employ Normal + Telephoto lens for enhanced zoom capabilities and Portrait mode. My favorite combination is from LG which uses a Normal + Wide-angle camera; this combination allows you to fit more people or landscape in the frame and also gives you a chance to get creative with your shots. The field of view from the wide-angle lens is awe-inspiring.

13. Smartphone Specific features

This varies widely from model to model. Here are some noteworthy features that enhance your smartphone experience.

(i) IR Blaster – This sensor allows you to use your phone as a remote. You can control virtually all your appliances and electronics ranging from TV, Set-top boxes, Air conditioners and more.

(ii) S pen – Exclusive to the Samsung Note series, this handy little pen lets you draw, navigate and quickly access features of your phone. I wish more manufacturers included this functionality.

(iii) Headphone jack – Being an audiophile, it’s a shame that the 3.5mm jack is no longer standard on phones. The people who want the best possible audio quality from their devices cannot expect it from wireless equipment. The freedom to go wire-free may be compelling, but it comes at a cost of audio quality.

You may be curious by now about the devices I have used in the past. I research and read about a smartphone extensively (and often obsessively) for a week or two before I make a decision.

Here is a chronological history of smartphones that I’ve used

Nokia 3410Nokia 6600Nokia N-Gage QD (3)- Motofone F3Moto Razr V3Nokia 6708Moto SLVR L7Nokia N91 Music EditionNokia 5800Nokia N81 – Blackberry Curve 8520 (2) – iPhone 1st GeniPhone 3G, iPhone 3GSiPhone 4iPhone 4SSamsung Galaxy GrandHTC HD2Samsung Galaxy S4Sony Xperia ZSony Xperia Z1Samsung Galaxy Note EdgeLG V20 (my daily driver)

Apple iPad 1st GeniPad 2iPad 3iPod touch 5th Gen

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