How to buy the best smartphone for your needs

Need a new mobile? Tips to help you pick the best.

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Before buying your next smartphone, it's important to do your research to find the best option for you. A fair amount of technology goes into them and there's a lot to consider these days.

Should I buy a phone outright or through a plan?

Do you buy your smartphone upfront, or get your mobile on a plan and pay it off over time? The answer is - it depends on what you want to buy. Check out both options, and decide what's right for you.

  • Paying upfront may end up saving you quite a lot of money in the long run so if you can afford it, it's definitely worth considering.
  • But if paying upfront isn't an option, there are plenty of post-paid phone plan options available.
  • If you go for the phone plan option, the amount you end up paying will vary depending on the individual contract and how you use your phone.

Smartphone operating systems

The phone's operating system (OS) is the thing that'll turn the phone (and possibly you) on or off. There are three options to choose from:

Apple iPhone OS (iOS)

If you already have, or plan to buy, other devices made by Apple such as an iPad tablet, Macbook laptop or Mac desktop, then an iPhone using iOS would be a good choice.

  • If you like dependable sameness with no surprises and solid compatibility with a good range of devices, then you should consider an iPhone using iOS, although you do pay a premium price. 
  • The operating system for the Apple laptop and desktop computing devices have been evolving into a similar a look and feel to the iPhone so you should be comfortable moving from one device to another without having to relearn anything.
  • If you're considering buying the Apple Watch, then you need an iPhone, as the Apple Watch won't work with any other smartphone.

Google Android 

Google Android is an open platform which means any company can develop apps for smart devices that use the Android operating system. You can find it everywhere, from smartwatches to TVs to fridges to cars.

  • If you like to customise your mobile experience and want to work with the latest tech devices as soon as they come out, then an Android-based smartphone is your best bet.
  • However, the open nature of this operating system also means there isn't the same 'sameness' in the look and feel compared Apple's closed iOS environment.
  • The latest Android smartphones are made by companies that introduce their own look and feel elements. So you may be a fan of LG or Huawei mobiles and not so keen on Samsung or Oppo mobiles, even though all of these models operate on the same operating system.

Windows Phone OS (end of life)

CHOICE can't recommend a Windows Phone as it just isn't getting the support from app developers, even though you may be able to find a handset.

What if I use the internet on my phone?

If you find yourself reaching for the phone instead of your laptop to check the latest CHOICE reviews, then you need a good web browser on your smartphone. If you do a lot of browsing, watch a fair amount of YouTube videos or want to edit your photos before sharing them online, then screen size (over 5 inches) and resolution (at least HD) will be important factors for your phone too.

Reception and coverage

Getting a network signal remains the crucial factor in daily use of a smartphone, although more and more of us are taking advantage of hotspots and Wi-Fi areas to communicate via social networking. But if you still use your smartphone for making phone calls, or you want to go online away from a Wi-Fi hotspot, you need good reception.

  • 4G, also known as, LTE (Long Term Evolution) is a wireless standard to get faster online performance from your mobile phone.
  • 4G coverage is improving and will in time be working with 5G networks which deliver even more bandwidth.
  • Major carriers like Vodafone, Optus and Telstra, will deliver stronger performance over a wider area over the next few years.

Before buying your next smartphone, make sure it's optimised for your mobile network. To make the situation very clear when buying your phone, confirm with the salesperson that the phone supports 850MHz if you're with Telstra or 900MHz if you're with Optus or Vodafone.

Smartphone camera quality

Picture and video capture quality is not just determined by your smartphone's resolution, but also the ability to deliver a good image in different lighting situations. 

  • If you use your phone as a camera, you may want to look for a model with a dedicated camera button rather than having to hunt through the menu system to capture the perfect selfie.
  • An LED flash can be very useful too when you're taking a photo with a mobile, especially when the available light isn't very good. 
  • And if you look for a phone with a front-facing camera, this lets you use your phone for video calls as well. It also makes selfie-snapping considerably easier. Check out the selfie camera score which focuses on the performance of the front lens embedded in the screen rather than the main camera.

Battery life

All smartphones users find the inability to use a smartphone for any more than a day or so frustrating. However, it's important to remember that the increased functionality of a smartphone with a large screen demands more power than a simple talk and text mobile.

  • Check out the capacity of the battery for the phone you're interested in and compare it to another mobile with a similarly sized display.
  • Generally, the higher capacity will deliver longer battery life.

Other features to look for in a smartphone

  • Wideband Adaptive Multi-Rate (WB-AMR): Also known as HD Voice, this is a speech technology introduced to help improve mobile sound quality by allowing a greater frequency of audio to be extracted, making it clearer and reducing background noise in the process. You may not get the benefit if you're calling someone without this feature though, or across networks that don't offer support for WB-AMR.
  • Near Field Communication (NFC):This is a set of standards for smartphones that establishes radio communication when they're near one another or touching. This comes in handy with cashless transactions, and you can expect to see more mobiles supporting this technology when Apple decide to join the rest of the world and introduce NFC in its iPhone line and not just for tap and pay.
  • Tethering: If you want to use your mobile phone as a Wi-Fi or Bluetooth modem, or if you have WLAN tethering, you can enjoy the same benefits as a personal hotspot, where you can share your internet connection with other devices like other mobiles or laptop computers. It's a handy feature if you've a large data allocation and you're away from your normal home network connection.
  • QWERTY keyboard: This may be available as a virtual keyboard showing up on most smartphone touchscreens, or an extended keypad or slide-out mini keyboard, which can be useful for heavy texters or social media users. A physical keyboard is now extremely rare.
  • Flight mode: This is a very handy feature that turns off all the phone and network aspects of your mobile, turning the device into a music or video player so you don't need to turn it off during a flight. Most modern smartphones have this feature.
  • GPS: While most smartphones provide support for online map services like Google Maps, a dedicated GPS chip using an offline navigation application allows you to use your phone to find out exactly where you are without having to use your mobile phone network. The GPS score is calculated using the included software only. If you own an Apple iPhone or Android phone already, you can go to their online store and buy a car GPS app.
  • Headphone connection type: A phone with a 2.5mm or 3.5mm jack will let you use a standard set of headphones to listen to music, while a proprietary connection forces you to use special headphones that are often pricey and of dicey quality. Some of the latest iPhone and Android smartphones no longer provide a 3.5mm headphone jack; arguing that you should use a wireless headphone. Models such as the iPhone 8 and 7 as well as the latest Google Pixel mobiles force you to either go wireless or use a finicky dongle to plug in your favourite pair of cans.
  • Memory card: Mobiles with memory card slots have the option of expanded memory to store photos, videos and music. Check to see the exact type of memory you'll need, as there are quite a few different options.

How much does a smartphone cost?

Bought without a plan, smartphones range in price from $100 to over $2000.

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A suggestion for the reviews
Posted31 January 2019
The Samsung Galaxy J5 Pro is stocked in many major retailers, and I would be so impressed if it was included in your phone reviews one day.
4of 5voted this as helpful.
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Hearing aid compatibility and disability access omitted from guide
Posted22 September 2018
Hearing aid compatibility was included in the review of simple mobile phones "for seniors", but not all people with a hearing loss want only a basic phone whatever their age.

Texting options like drag rather than tap (on 'keys' to type) are good for people with tremor, and other features are worth mentioning that make a phone usable or not.
Reviewing aspects relevant to people with various disabilities has been a feature of Choice articles in the past. It would be good to see this included always.
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Reception comparison missing
Posted31 May 2018
Choice should be testing the sensitivity of the phone signal receiver in the phone and its radiated power because they are rating the phone not the coverage signal strength of the telco. There are still many farmers with very poor mobile coverage.
If it is the variation in the coverage area, then an unlocked phone can have it's SIM card changed to the network with the strongest signal.
I would also like to point out that since 2014 there has been a new lower frequency (700 MHz) band which will cover larger areas and is less affected by obstructions. Most new phones will tune this band.
Last time Choice measured phone coverage they used farmers who live in a remote area which contains a single phone tower and flat surrounding land. The then drove away from the tower in and measured the distance to the tower using GPS when the calls dropped out. If this is done again, broadband speed tests should also be used as the speed drops as the signal in the air deteriorates.
This is a legitimate test provided all phone cover the same path at approximately the same time.
Response from CHOICEBy DenisDigital Home13 June 2018
We have added a reception test result in this update, but the score is not included in the overall performance as it was carried out in lab conditions. The figures you see indicate how well the phone performed when levels of interference are introduced at different 3G network bands however we haven't used the 700MHz band and will consider this for future tests.
When we carry out real world tests on a selection of the more popular smart and simple phones, we will assess the 4G performance as well if they support the band.
5of 5voted this as helpful.
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The reason why FM radio is not in some mobile phones
Posted31 May 2018
Your comparison table gives the following reason "Some smartphones still support FM radio when you use the headphone as an antenna, but this is becoming less common as more users move to apps to get their music and news. "
An examination of the table shows that none of the iphones or Google phones are able to receive radio. This is to protect the profits these companies. If you listen to FM radio you won't buy their music from iTunes or Google play. In addition the telcos have a lot to gain by coercing the phone manufacturers to leave out radio, because to listen to the radio using an app the user has to pay data charges to the telco.
In addition the battery stays charged for a lot longer using the FM radio rather than the app. This is because when the app is used the phone has to keep transmitting so that the telco knows to which phone tower to send the data.
A major disadvantage of leaving out radio is that in times of bush fires the use of the app to find out where the fire is by many people overloads the phone towers thus preventing genuine requests of assistance. In addition, mobile phone towers and their power lines are likely to be burnt down, because they are on the top of hills where the fire goes.
The USA's National Association of Broadcasters has been pressuring the phone manufacturers and the Federal Communications Commission to make FM radio compulsory there.
Response from CHOICEBy DenisDigital Home13 June 2018
All very good points and the ability to use FM can be very handy when you don't have a large data plan. The only suggestion for why companies leave it out would be to save some space in a crowded case with GPS, WiFI, mobile network antennas.
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Warranty Repair for water Damage in Water Resistant Phone?
Posted27 March 2018
Customer avatar
What can you do if Samsung take your water resistant S8 phone for a repair within standard warranty period and they report back that it will cost $200 because it has water damage.
My phone has never been submerged, never been used in the rain and if it had shouldn't it be covered as it is clearly advertised as being safe to use in these conditions?
I am currently negotiating with them but would like some advice on what rights I have.
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Oppo R9s missing from Smartphone buying guide
Posted5 August 2017
Customer avatar
I recently purchased an Oppo R9s to replace my iPhone 6. I have been pleased by the specifications and performance of this phone at half the price of an equivalent iPhone or Samsung.
The Oppo R9s is not listed in your review and I wondered why it was not included.
This phone is sold through major stores and mobile phone companies and has received favourable reviews elsewhere.
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Reception comparison missing
Posted7 June 2017
Customer avatar
fromParkes NSW
I'll join the others and ask where is the phone reception comparison?
Seems odd that previous questions on this are not answered. I joined choice for the predominant reason of getting comparison data on mobile phone performance and reception, but i can't find anything worthwhile on reception and call performance. Is Choice missing the primary purpose of a mobile phone - which is to make/receive calls?
Response from CHOICEBy DenisHome Digital20 June 2017
Why don't we publish reception testing for the main smartphone test? I hear you ask. That's a good question. It’s a bit of a long story so here goes...
It was a question like this in 2006 that led to our first NextG test (in partnership with Kondinin's Farming Ahead magazine) which became very popular for nearly 10 years.
People wanted to know specifically how their phone performed on the Telstra network because when you left the city confines, that's all you could depend on for reception. Particularly in the areas that were replacing the networks previously covered by CDMA networks.
While I believe Telstra still has the edge on coverage (that extra 0.05% of population can mean millions of square km) this is less of an issue with an expanded Optus and Vodafone network. Ultimately it became prohibitively expensive to test every year on any more than a dozen or so mobiles and CHOICE made the decision to continue our main batch testing of smartphones in partnership with our other consumer organisation partners Consumer Reports (US) Which (UK) and Consumer (NZ) with the combined research labs called International Consumer Research and Testing (ICRT).
This shared testing means we contribute to a combined test allowing us to test more mobiles, more often. Reception testing for ICRT (smartphone batch testing) is on the 2100MHz 3G band and a selection of GSM bands. The major bands for Australia are 900MHz (Optus, many other OEM carriers such as Amaysim and recently Vodafone moving over to 900MHz) and 850MHz (Telstra and other OEMs such as Aldi) .
Which UK and Consumer Reports (US) hasn't published the reception results for its smartphones for several years, we only dropped it in the last two years.
The consensus over the past couple of generations of smartphone releases was that the issue of reception performance is more to do with the network chosen, not the actual device. So the real test that should be carried out would be Telstra/Vodafone/Optus rather than the iPhone, Galaxy, Xperia. If we were to test on the 900MHz band and we published the results for a Samsung S7 and you happen to have a Samsung S7 on the Telstra network that you felt didn't perform well, would that be because of the network or the phone and would it deliver a different result if you ditched your Telstra SIM and put in an Optus SIM.
I hope this clarifies some of the questions.
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Do you have any reviews of Samsung Note phones?
Posted3 June 2017
Customer avatar
I can't find any reference to reviews of Samsung Note phones. Are there any?
Response from CHOICEBy DenisHome Digital20 June 2017
Hi we did review the Note 7 (it did perform very well) but we removed this model following the issue with batteries and it was pulled from the market. We do include reviews of the Note 4 and 5 (Samsung didn't release a Note 6) if you scroll down the features area on the left side of the product page there is a releated tab that reveals the discontinued items.
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