When it comes to buying a new phone, it’s easy to get lost in all the marketing hype and specs. While the specifications of the phone are important, there may be some other features that are overlooked when it comes to the daily usage of the phone.
This buying guide will offer some tips, both specs and feature-related, for you to consider before you make your next phone purchase. These tips are in no particular order of importance. Let’s get started.
This is the one thing on your phone that you will see and interact with multiple times a day. So this is one area to pay particular attention to when choosing a phone. If you have smaller hands, or if you find yourself mostly using your phone with one hand, you should consider a smaller sized screen. Most flagship phones today seem to be aiming for larger screen sizes since most people are watching more video on their phones and multitasking a lot as well. If you like using split-screen app functionality, a large screen makes a world of difference.
Keep in mind that a larger screen size will affect your battery life, more on that below.
Screen Panel Type
Cellphone screens can be made of different types of panels. Popular panels include OLED, LCD, AMOLED, SUPER AMOLED, IPS, TFT, etc.
What does this mean for you? Well, if you find yourself using your phone outdoors in bright or direct sunlight often, consider a phone with an LCD display since these are backlit panels that usually do well in those situations.
The advantage of OLED or AMOLED screens is that they usually use less power when compared to an LCD screen of a similar size. OLED and AMOLED screens are also usually thinner, produce greater contrast when displaying black.
Some phones have an “always on” display that allows you to see notifications on a small area of the screen without unlocking your entire phone. If you like this feature, you should pick a phone with an OLED or AMOLED display since the power draw from your battery will be quite minimal when this feature is used.
Phone screens can come in different resolutions such as HD, Full HD, QHD, UHD, 4K, etc. You may also see these terms represented numerically in the following format (1280 x 780, 1920 x 1080, 2560 x 1440, etc.). The higher the numbers, the clearer and sharper the display due to a higher number of pixels making comprising the screen. Some phone manufacturers refer to this as PPI (pixels per inch), or pixel density. For example, the Sony Xperia XZ Premium has one of the highest pixel density of around 807 pixels. For comparison, the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra has a pixel density of around 511 pixels. The iPhone 11 Pro Max has a pixel density of around 458 pixels.
How is this relevant to you? If you watch a lot of 4K content, then having a screen with a high resolution will ensure you have the best viewing experience. Some phones allow you to record video in 4K resolution, but when you review that footage on your phone, you may not be seeing 4K quality due to a lower resolution screen.
This is a specification that most tech enthusiasts will look at closely, but if you are using your phone for general activities such as browsing, checking email, taking the occasional photo, then it is likely something that you do not need to worry about much. You can visit your local store and compare the displays of different phones to see if you can notice a difference.
Screen Material Type
If you like to use your phone without a case or a screen protector, or if all of your phones tend to get scratched by keys or other items, this is one area to pay attention to. Aim to find a phone that uses Gorilla Glass 5 or 6 for the front, which is resistant to light scratches or keys in your pocket in most cases. Some phones may feature Gorilla Glass on both the front and back of the phone.
Screen Refresh Rate
One relatively new phone specification that is being highlighted often in 2020 is the refresh rate of the screen. The refresh rate is how often the screen refreshes itself per second. The higher the number, the smoother that the images are displayed on the screen. For reference, most standard desktop, laptop, and TV screens have a refresh rate of 60 Hz to 120 Hz.
For cellphones or mobile phones, the refresh rates also follow a similar range. You can expect to find 90 Hz and 120 Hz refresh rates on flagship phones. So do you need a high refresh rate on your phone? The answer is probably no for most casual users. If you find yourself doing a lot of intensive mobile gaming, then a high refresh rate can make games look smoother, more fluid, and with less blurring (ghosting of the images). However, a higher refresh rate means that your battery will be drained faster. Some phones allow you to set your preferred refresh rate, but ask yourself if it is worth it to buy a phone with a high refresh rate if you will not be using it at its full potential.
Processor & RAM
PROCESSOR / CPU / CHIPSET
At the time of writing this blog, the current high-end phone chip is the Snapdragon 865 processor. However, many users are still served well with processors below this spec, such as the 835 chipset for example.
RAM / MEMORY
RAM (Random Access Memory) is different from the storage or space on your phone. Having lots of RAM allows you to multitask by having more Apps open on your phone before you start to notice sluggish or slow performance. A phone with 4 GB of RAM is a good place to start, but as Apps become more sophisticated in their abilities, or you start to use more features on your phone, such as recording 4K video, more RAM is necessary. Some phones come with RAM capacities of up to 16 GB. While RAM also comes in different speeds, for the purposes of this buying guide, I am only focusing on the capacity of the RAM.
Most phones in circulation right now can provide 4G connection speeds and lower. However, the 5G standard is the next specification that will slowly become the norm, so buying a 5G capable phone will help to future-proof your phone when more phone carriers offer 5G speeds.
Another area to pay attention to is the network bands that your phone can work with. If you do not travel much, this is nothing to worry about. However, if you have an unlocked phone that you want to use in another country, or if you buy an unlocked phone from overseas to use in your home country, ensure that the network bands are supported. For example, a phone sold in the UK or in Asia may operate using different network bands compared to a phone sold in North America. Look for phones marketed as “World Phones” or “GSM Phone,” which means that the phone follows the Global System for Mobile communication standards.
Camera & Video Capability
Phones are shipping with more and more cameras now. An entry-level phone will have two cameras, a front-facing camera for selfies, and one camera in the back to take high-quality photos and video. However, higher-end phones now have multiple lenses at the back of the phone to cover telephoto (zoom) photos, wide-angle photos, macro photos, etc.
Think about most of the photos and videos you take. If you have gotten along with a single camera and lens setup on the back, chances are you won’t be using all the additional lens on higher-end models. However, if you struggle to capture photos of all our friends, or have a hard time showing all of the room or a beautiful landscape, then choosing a phone with a wide-angle lens at the back would benefit you.
Video taking capabilities have jumped recently with some phones. 1080p High Definition recording is no longer the standard that most phone manufacturers aim for now. Newer phones can shoot in 2K, 4K and even 8K. These newer video resolutions take up way more room on your phone or microSD card, so remember to choose a model with more storage if you will be taking advantage of these video features.
When looking for a phone, any phone with around 20 megapixels is more than enough for the average user. However, phones are available with up to 108 megapixels, such as the Xiaomi Mi 10 Pro.
How long your battery life lasts for is largely tied to your phone’s screen first, then to other hardware features of your phone. Having a phone with a large screen size means that more battery life is required to power the larger screen. In addition to the screen size, a phone with a higher resolution and faster refresh rate will also cause battery drain.
Let’s not forget about all the other features you may use on your phone, such as Bluetooth, NFC (near field communication for tap and pay), location (GPS), WIFI, etc. To power all of these functions, you should choose a phone with ample battery capacity for your individual needs. For example, some users may only set the brightness of their phone at 50%, or may never use NFC, while others may like it at 100% brightness if they are frequently outdoors and viewing their screen in direct sunlight. Most phones come with a battery capacity of around 3000 mAh (milliamp Hour), which is adequate for many casual users. However, higher-end or flagship phones can ship with 5000 mAh batteries, such as the LG V60, Moto G7. The Samsung M series of phones, such as the M31, comes with a whopping 6000 mAh battery!
Don’t just focus on the mAh size, though, as an end-all. If you choose a smaller phone and screen size, you can still be served with a 3000 mAh or lower battery capacity depending on your usage habits.
Storage Space & Expansion
Phones come with built-in internal storage of between 32 GB to 64 GB on popular models. Some higher-tier models come with 128 GB and 256 GB. You also have the option to add additional storage to some phones by inserting a microSD card. For example, you can save money by buying a 64GB model phone, then inserting a 64 GB microSD card to have a total of 128 GB of storage. Sometimes it works out cheaper to insert a microSD card for additional storage if you don’t care about the other additional features that some higher storage model of phones provide.
Keep in mind that most phones only accept one microSD card, and some phones may not recognize all capacities of SD cards. For example, your phone may not recognize a microSD card that is over 128 GB or 256 GB.
If you are a light phone user, 64 GB may be adequate for most of your frequently used apps and taking photos. If you like to have many apps, songs, movies and photos on your phone, get a 128 GB, 256 GB or 512 GB model. You can still add more storage later if needed, provided that your phone allows it.
Dual SIM Functionality
If you find yourself traveling internationally frequently and want to take advantage of the local country’s network, you can buy a phone with dual SIM functionality, which allows you to pick which SIM card you will use. This is usually a cheaper option than using Data Roaming when in another country.
Security & Unlocking Features
Consider how many times you will unlock and lock your phone during a day, and it can quickly add up to 100 times or more. It’s essential to choose a phone with security unlocking features that suit your usage style. Some phones allow you to unlock them using your fingerprints by touching a fingerprint button located on the side or back of the screen. Newer phones allow you to unlock them using your fingerprint directly on the surface of the screen (usually a small area at the bottom of the screen).
Another way that phones can unlock is by using facial recognition, which uses the front-facing camera on your phone to unlock it automatically.
Depending on how heavily you use your phone, this is something you may be doing once a day or multiple times a day. All phones allow you to plug in a charging cable for wired charging, usually USB-C for newer Android phones and Lightning cables for iPhones. However, some phones allow rapid, quick or fast charging features, which enable you to charge your phone up to 50% battery in as little as 20 or 30 minutes. Some phones even allow you to charge to 100% from an almost dead battery to under an hour easily. Keep in mind that some phones may require you to buy the fast charging or rapid charging accessory separately. Phones generally charge between 2.5 Watts to 4.5 Watts. However, fast or rapid chargers can do it as 10W to 40W, or even more.
If you don’t like dealing with plugging and unplugging cables, then you should look for a phone with wireless charging capabilities. These types of phones allow you to place the back of your phone down on a charging pad or charging dock, which charges your phone without needing to use a cable. Keep in mind that wireless chargers are not as fast as wired or cabled charging, so they are best used when you are not in a rush or useful for charging your phone overnight. Wireless charging pads and docks are usually not included with your phone, so this is an accessory you would have to buy separately as well.
Water & Dust Resistance Rating
Another feature to be mindful of is the phone’s water and dust resistance rating. Most flagship phones come with an IP67 or IP68 rating, which means that a device can be submerged in water for 1m to 1½ meters. The rating also makes the phone resistant to dust. One way that a phone can maintain these types of ratings is to remove the option to replace the battery by removing the back case like in some older phones. As well, many phones now remove the 3.5 mm headphone jack to help with the rating. That doesn’t mean that you cannot find a phone with an IP67 or IP68 rating with a headphone jack as well. LG’s V60 still includes a 3.5mm headphone jack while maintaining an IP68 rating. If your phone is rarely exposed to water, then this is not something that you have to worry about too much.
Speaker & Audio Quality
This may not be a big deal for users who always have headphones or earphones on hand. However, some users like to have telephone calls using the phone’s loudspeaker or like to listen to music or watch shows on their phones using the loudspeaker. Testing the phone’s loudspeaker ability is a must if you will be using it in these conditions. Some phones have a weak audio output, and it may be difficult to hear the audio in crowded and busy areas like a food court.
Some users may not have Bluetooth functionality in their car and rely on the phone’s loudspeaker to notify them of incoming calls, text to voice features, GPS navigation prompts, etc. Ensuring your phone has a higher audio output to hear it above your car radio or conversations with passengers. If you cannot test the phone out in the store, looking at the dB (decibel) output levels is what you should look for (higher is better).
For those of us who like a thin wallet or purse, choosing a phone with NFC (Near Field Communication) capabilities lets you tap your phone to pay for purchases similar to contactless credit cards. With the spotlight on COVID-19 and the importance of limiting touching surfaces, this is a great feature to take advantage of. Plus, if you ever forget your wallet at home, you can always use your phone as a secondary payment method!
Well, this was one pretty lengthy blog post, but it covers most of the areas to pay attention to when buying a new phone. Of course, all of these areas may not apply to you. However, if you would like to learn more about one particular topic, stay tuned, because more topics are coming that cover these areas indepth.
Good luck, and have phone shopping for your new phone. Feel free to ask me any questions you have during your shopping process.