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How to buy a smartphone

01 Feb 11

With some of them in the price range of a notebook computer, buying a smartphone is a big commitment, so it’s important that you get it right. NetGuide Is here to help! We’ve outlined some of the key considerations when buying a smartphone to ensure that you’re not stuck with a lemon.


Identifying your requirements will go a long way in helping you determine which smartphone is right for you. Do you simply need something that allows you to receive email while you’re on the go? Or do you need a device capable of more comprehensive web-browsing? Would you like to watch movies and film clips on your device while you’re in the airport waiting lounge? Would you like to play games on your smartphone?

Once you’ve got a list of requirements, you can match it up against the specifications and the features of any phones in question. These considerations should help in the initial stages of deciding on form factor, display size, memory requirements and more. Plus, if a low-end device ticks most of the boxes on your list, then you could potentially save yourself hundreds of dollars and still end up with a phone that does what you need it to do.


Quite a lot, actually. In fact, it’s possibly the single biggest consideration when choosing your device. Your smartphone could have all the bells and whistles in the world, but that matters little if the interface that drives your device also drives you crazy. There are a range of operating systems (OS) available for current smartphones, with the most common being Apple’s iOS (used on all iPhone devices), Google’s Android (available on a raft of phones from various manufacturers), BlackBerry OS (again, exclusive to BlackBerry devices) and the recently released Windows Phone 7. Each operating system has its own pros and cons, and it always ultimately comes down to personal preference. But in order to help you out, we’ve provided a brief overview of the four main operating systems.

iOS – exclusive to Apple iPhone (latest version: 4.2.1)

If there’s any one smartphone OS that casual consumers are familiar with, chances are it’s the one used to power the ever-popular iPhone. There’s a reason behind its overwhelming success, though, and that’s the extremely minimal and intuitive interface that’s been designed with ease of use in mind. There are very few menus to navigate, and mostly it’s just a case of touching exactly what you’d like to access. iOS also offers comprehensive media support, although it is tied to the use of iTunes on your associated computer – no exceptions. The number of apps on Apple’s store is unrivalled, and owing to Apple’s stringent quality control process, there’s little-to-no chance of downloading anything malicious. Of course, it also means that some very creative, niche apps that are popular in other app marketplaces don’t make the grade. iOS also offers a rather limited version of multitasking (or the ability to run more than one app simultaneously): it’s useful, but it simply doesn’t compete with the level of multitasking afforded to users on, say, high-end Android devices. Finally, there’s still no support for the popular Adobe Flash multimedia platform, so you won’t get the complete Web-browsing experience. Overall, the iOS experience is a very pleasant one, although it’s perhaps a bit more ‘closed’ than some of its competitors.

Google Android – various handsets (latest version: 2.2. aka Froyo)

Android is similar to Apple’s OS in many ways, but many slightly more technical users prefer the added freedom that Android presents. While it’s similar to iOS in many ways, it allows a considerable degree of customisation, and it enjoys the benefit of tight integration with Google apps. Speaking of apps, the thousands available on the Android Marketplace are not as heavily scrutinised and moderated as other app stores, which is both good and bad: good because it means that many more decidedly niche apps (that are potentially very useful!) are available; bad because it results in a proliferation of dodgy and even potentially harmful apps.
Perhaps the biggest problem with Android, though, is the inconsistency of the experience. The version of Android on one phone is highly likely to be quite different from that on another (especially owing to the tendency of some manufacturers to ‘customise’ the OS for their handsets). Also, over-the-air updates to the latest versions of Android are at the whim of the mobile carriers, and if there aren’t enough handsets sold in the country to justify it (hint: highly likely in New Zealand), you could well be stuck with an outdated version of the OS for the rest of your phone’s life. And because there is no universal hardware standard for Android phones, many apps are simply not compatible with certain handsets.

Windows Phone 7 – limited handsets in New Zealand (latest version: 7.0.7338.0)

The recently launched mobile phone platform from Microsoft is clearly aimed at the consumer market (unlike its previous entry, Windows Mobile, which targeted enterprise or business users). It’s taken a few cues from Apple’s iOS in terms of usability while implementing its own slick, streamlined, tile-based interface. Windows Phone 7 also makes clever use of your Facebook account: drawing information from your profile (such as your contacts’ photographs, phone numbers, email addresses, etc. where available), Windows Phone 7 facilitates a comprehensive and easy-to-use means of communicating with contacts in a variety of ways. There’s also full Xbox LIVE integration, which means you can administer your Xbox 360 profile, message your friends, and even play games that contribute to your Gamerscore. Microsoft has also enforced strict hardware requirements for all handsets running the platform, which results in a consistent experience while affording the user a number of hardware options. However, this is limited just to two handsets in New Zealand at the time of writing, only one of which is available to the general public.
Also, much like Apple’s iOS, Windows Phone 7 is a safe albeit closed experience. No Windows Phone 7 handsets support external storage currently, with the highest capacity phone available in New Zealand sporting a mere 8GB. And as a relatively new platform, the number of apps doesn’t compare to its competitors, although the library is growing rapidly.

BlackBerry – exclusive to BlackBerry handsets (latest version: 6.0)

The big advantage afforded to the BlackBerry OS is its comprehensive native support for corporate email (Microsoft Exchange, Lotus Domino, Novell GroupWise), so naturally it’s rather popular with business users. However, there are some features that are also rather popular with consumers, such as BlackBerry Messenger: a service that allows you to send instant messages to other BlackBerry devices anywhere in the world free of charge (using a nominal amount of 3G data). It’s an attractive and real-time alternative to texting if your family or friends are also decked out with BlackBerrys. The OS also allows full multitasking, so you won’t have to shut down or disable one application in order to run another one at the same time. The interface, though, is driven by trackpads and trackballs, so it is rather menu-heavy and it feels like a step backwards when compared to the other touchscreen-driven interfaces on the market. This also translates to the apps, which are (arguably) not as pleasant as their touchscreen counterparts. And the quality of the available games just does not compare.
There are plenty, especially seeing as the many different hardware options (ie: the physical phone) are directly linked to the ‘requirements’ of your smartphone. For instance, if you’re planning on using your phone for email purposes, you’ll need to consider text input; more specifically, whether you’d like a full-QWERTY keypad, a virtual, touchscreen keypad, or a combination of both. Not only will your decision likely affect the size, bulk and form factor of your phone, but if you’re going to spend a lot of time with text input, it’s important you choose a method you’re comfortable with. Another important consideration is memory: some handsets (such as the iPhone and HTC 7 Trophy) do not support external SD memory cards, so you’re absolutely limited to the onboard memory of such phones. If you plan to fill your smartphone to the brim with media (videos, images, music and apps), it pays to make sure your phone has enough memory to accommodate it all! If you don’t want a sluggish experience, you’ll also want to pick up a phone with a fast processor. Essentially, you’ll notice it in the lengthy wait times when activating or switching between apps if your phone’s processor is lacking, and it can be frustrating. Most of the high-end smartphones in the current market sport a processor in the region of 1GHz, which is pretty damn fast – but if you’re not going to demand a lot from your phone, then a lesser processor should do the trick while saving you some serious money. Finally, your phone’s display is super important; not just in terms of the size, but the nature. When it comes to touchscreens, there’s a big difference between ‘resistive’ and ‘capacitive’ displays. Capacitive displays (such as those used by the iPhone) can only be used by the finger, but they boast arguably more responsiveness than resistive displays, which allow the use of a stylus or other objects. Some displays also support ‘multi-touch’, which allows the use of more than one finger for advanced control gestures (eg: ‘pinching’ to zoom in on an image).
There are so many different options and configurations, both in terms of OS and hardware, and unfortunately there’s no real way to completely settle on one without testing out a range of them. In fact, we encourage you to check out your friends’ phones where possible in order to ascertain which OS gels with you the most, and which hardware features suit you. Try to identify what you like about certain phones and what you dislike; perhaps there’s a lesser-known handset out there that features most of what you like about the more popular phones while doing away with the things that you can personally do without. Unfortunately, it seems that there’s no silver-bullet solution when it comes to smartphones, so it’s all about identifying the device with the best cross-section of your requirements.