Buying a new phone can be a complicated process, and that's especially true if you're looking at Android phones. There are just so many Android devices on the market, and such a wide variation in prices, that choosing just the right one can seem a little like a lottery. Lucky for you, we're here to help with our guide to everything you need to know about buying the right Android phone for you.
A smartphone is made up of a combination of specifications, or specs, for all kinds of things, from the amount of power it has to the size of the screen. Part of the trick of finding the right phone is finding the right combination of those specs for the right price. Below we're going to look at each of the main specs and tell you the average numbers that you should be looking for in order to get decent performance for the regular user. Be aware that high end users should look for higher specs than our minimums!
That's not to say that sacrifices can't be made. You might choose a phone with a camera that's worse than average in order to get a processor that's faster than average, for example. And that's your personal choice. There are, however, some specs that really shouldn't be compromised on, and we'll clearly tell you which these are.
What happens if you go below the average specs that we recommend? In some cases, nothing, such as in the camera example, where you'll just get lower quality pictures. In other cases, such as processor or RAM specs, you might find that your phone is slow, lags, or won't accept updates, or even won't run the apps you need. So it's best to do your research carefully before deciding on that phone!
The Engine: Processors and Chips
We'll begin with the heart of a modern smartphone: processors and chips. These seem like techie things, and they kind of are, but you don't need to understand the specifics of how they work. Just understand that the combination of the processor specs and the kind of chipset the phone has will affect performance. Faster chips and processors mean faster power, more responsiveness, and ability to run operating system upgrades and new apps.
On the processor side you should be looking for around a quad core 1.7 GHz processor. You can compromise this a little, going for a dual core 2.0 GHz processor, for example, and most phones at mid range or above are going to get far faster processors than these. But even on a budget phone you don't really want to go below 1.5 GHz of power, since your phone will be too slow to do what you need.
Chipsets are a different and more complicated issue and vary a lot. The majority of Androids will use a Snapdragon chipset, and if that's the case you're looking for a Snapdragon chip numbered at 400 or above, ideally above 600 to get good performance. For other kinds of chips you'll need to Google the manufacturer to find out more about their number system and choose a mid range chipset.
The Screen: Size, Resolution, and Material
A touch screen is obviously a key part of the smartphone experience, and you'll find three important screen specs in mobile descriptions.
The first is screen size. Displays vary in size from around 4.5 inches to larger than 6 inches on phablet (phone/tablet hybrid) devices. 6 inches is pretty big to put in your pocket, and too big to use with one hand, so keep that in mind! We recommend that you look at phones with screens between 5 and 5.5 inches in order to keep your mobile portable and yet still have enough room for typing and viewing properly.
Resolution numbers come next, and these dictate how clear and sharp your display will be, how good the picture quality is. Resolution numbers vary a lot, with around 720 x 1280 pixels being the minimum, all the way up to over 4000 pixels for serious Quad High Definition. We recommend looking for a minimum of 1080 x 1920 for a decent picture, but more is always better!
Finally, there's screen material. There are generally two common materials seen on displays: LCD and AMOLED. Either of these can make a great screen, so don't be too concerned. But do know that AMOLED screens tend to have slightly better colour reproduction, so if that's important then you might want to check out AMOLED only phones.
The Memory: Internal and RAM
Phones have two kinds of memory. The first of these is internal memory, the amount of space you have to store your games, music, apps, data, contacts and other stuff. On a modern smartphone you'll need a minimum of 16 GB of internal memory to get an up to date operating system, and more is better. Watch out for phones that come with a Micro SD Card slot though (most, though not all do), since this will let you add extra storage by buying a cheap SD card.
RAM is the memory that a phone reserves to use for day to day processes, and this affects how fast and responsive your phone is, as well as how good it is at multi tasking (or running multiple apps at the same time). Here you need an absolute minimum of 1 GB, but 2 GB would be better if possible. High end phones tend to get around 4 GB of RAM.
The Cameras: Rear and Front
Cameras are a tricky issue, since these specs are going to depend a lot on whether or not you take many pictures with your phone.
At the rear you should be getting a minimum of an 8 MP camera even on a budget phone to get your money's worth. For decent photos then look for around 12 MP or so. Dual rear cameras are the newest camera tech, so if you're big into your pictures then keep an eye out for these.
At the front camera specs tend to be much lower. There are still some budget phones that only offer VGA (very low quality) front cams, but if you take selfies or use video chat then you really should be looking for about 5 MP as the minimum. Again though, the front camera isn't a priority for everyone, so you might choose to disregard this spec altogether.
The Operating System: Which Android?
You're buying an Android phone, surely that's all you need to know when it comes to operating systems, right? Not really. There are multiple versions of Android, and it's important to know which one you're getting. Having the most up to date Android version (or the ability to download the most up to date version) will give you more security and stability. Plus, many apps won't be supported by older Android versions.
The newest version of Android is 8.0 Oreo. However, this is new enough that most phones don't come with it pre-installed, instead shipping with 7.0 Nougat. These phones will almost certainly get an update to 8.0 as soon as the manufacturer makes it available, so don't worry.
Phones that come with Android 6.0 Marshmallow installed (or 5.0 or even 4.0) probably won't be getting an upgrade to the newest 8.0 version. This isn't always true, and you can get more info by Googling the make and model of the phone and “Android 8.0 update planned.” As a general rule though, you should be looking for a phone that comes with Android 7.0 or 8.0 out of the box.
Connectivity: 3G, 4G, WiFi and Bluetooth
Connectivity is pretty standard at this point with nearly all phones coming with the same options. There are a couple of things that you should look out for though. Some budget phones don't come with 4G capability, which means slower mobile data, so that's something to watch for particularly if your phone contract contains 4G data and you're paying for it. Secondly, watch that Bluetooth version. You should be looking for a phone that has at least Bluetooth version 4 in order to get a decent connection to your hands free head set, speakers, or whatever.
And All the Extras…
Every phone has its selling points, and manufacturers throw in plenty of extras to entice you into buying. None of these are essentials, but for some people they can be deal breakers. It's up to you which of the common extras you look for in a mobile. The most common things that we're seeing right now are:
- Fingerprint Scanners: Either front or rear mounted, give you extra security, plus some digital wallet services require a fingerprint scanner
- VR Optimised: This allows you to use virtual reality accessories (a headset) with your phone in order to experience full immersion in videos or games
- AR Optimised: This allows you to make use of Augmented Reality apps that layer information over pictures. For example, one such app allows you to point your phone camera at the night sky and then names the stars it sees for you
- IP Ratings: If a phone has an IP rating it means that it's certified as water resistant. IP ratings do vary as to the depth of water a phone can stand as well as the amount of time it can be underwater. There is no such thing as a completely waterproof phone though, so do keep that in mind!
- USB-C Charger: The majority of phones use the older micro USB chargers, however some newer phones are switching to USB Type C chargers, which are reversible (you can plug them in in any direction) and give a faster charge time
- Wireless Charging: Phones that are capable of wireless charging can be charged by laying them on top of a charging pad rather than having to plug them in
How Much Should All This Cost?
Now we come to the most difficult of topics: money. There are a lot of phones around, and a lot of different price tags. The general rule here is to get the best specs you can for the budget you have in mind. Given that we've told you the average kind of specs you should be looking for though, how much should you expect to pay?
A phone that meets all the expectations above will probably cost you around £350 or so. If you're looking at something that's £500 or more, then look for specs that are far above what we've quoted. On the other hand, if you're looking at a budget phone for less than £250 expect to make a few compromises on the specs we've given you.
And that should be all you need to know to buy the right phone for you for the right price. Happy shopping!