Guide to comparing smartphone handsets
Where once smartphones were the domain of business execs and gadget geeks, a huge variety of models - at a great variety of price points - have flooded the market in the past few years.
There are now smartphones to suit every style and budget, so we're here to help you through a sea of jargon to make sure you get the handset that is right for you (if you're confused by any of the terms used here, please visit our smartphone glossary).
What follows is a breakdown of each of the main characteristics you may consider when choosing your smartphone: remember that each handset also has its own dedicated review and specification table available when you click on its picture.
Also, we will not be talking about deals in this guide: for more on prices, data limits etc, please see our guide to smartphone deals.
A lot of people like to stick with a tried and tested handset supplier and if you're new to the smartphone arena, the good news is you're probably in luck - all the popular handset manufacturers have thrown their hats into the smartphone arena.
If you're not already aligned with a particular brand, here are a few pointers:
- For business: BlackBerrys are still very popular as business phones, but now face stiff competition from iPhone and Android which both offer a huge range of apps and excellent connectivity. All handle email and attachments well, although BlackBerry still has the edge on security.
- For pleasure: If watching video clips, surfing the net and taking pics is more your thing, the big mobile handset makers all offer smartphones that fit the bill. HTC and Samsung are leaders in this field, with touchscreen and UI technology at least on a par with Apple. Nokia, Sony and LG all also make great multimedia smartphones, alongside the likes of Acer and Motorola.
Smartphone operating systems (OS)
Where with mobiles it used to be an easy choice between manufacturers, the advent of 'open source' operating systems (which many manufacturers can use) has somewhat blurred the boundaries.
You may be a HTC man or a Samsung girl, but are you a HTC Windows man, or a HTC Android one? You can now see the same operating system working on the handsets of a variety of manufacturers.
In some cases, it's simple: Apple and BlackBerry each have their own OS that you will only find in their smartphones. If you like those manufacturers, your choice should still be relatively simple.
The rest commonly use two open source operating systems:
- Android: This operating system was developed with Google's backing, and because it is freely available is now the single most popular smartphone OS in the world. There's a vast number of smartphones available to suit all budgets.
- Windows Phone: While Android, BlackBerry and Apple's operating systems look very similar, Microsoft's OS has taken a very different stylistic route. It has divided users, but is certainly worth checking out.
There are no right or wrong answers here - it really comes down to what you're comfortable with. We suggest you ask your friends, family and colleagues to show you around their phones, or pop into a store to get a demo - then buy online for a better deal!
More and more the now classic Apple full-faced touchscreen is the factor of choice for smartphones. You can find a bit of variety, but the large screen (so good for the internet and video) is definitely in the ascendency right now. That said, here are some terms other terms you may come up against.
- Candybar, flip or slide: The vast majority of smartphones are candybars. You'll either have a large touchscreen with an on-screen QWERTY (such as the iPhone), or a smaller screen with an actual QWERTY keyboard below (the BlackBerry Bold). Sliders have a thinner, deeper design that still incorporates a slide out keyboard. Flip handsets also incorporate a traditional keypad, but fold open on a more traditional hinge.
- Touchscreen or keypad: While the great touchscreens on the latest iPhone and Galaxy S models are a joy to behold visually, the on-screen QWERTY keyboard can be a bit of a pain to use. The flip side is a smaller screen with a 'proper' QWERTY with actual keys. This really comes down to priorities again: many will trade the real keypad for the chance for a nice big screen for games, the internet and TV, but if you're going to be typing a lot of texts, documents and emails, that novelty may get old fast!
- Overall size and weight: Finally, you may want to consider size and weight. Some new smartphones have touchscreens larger than four inches, but will that feel comfortable in your palm? And if you talk on the phone a lot, you'd be surprised how quickly a heavy handset will start to weigh down on you and feel uncomfortable.
Each of the handsets has a 'specification and features' list on its page. Size and weight speak for themselves, while the 'mobile internet' section' shows whether this handset has 3G and Wi-Fi capabilities. For more information, see our connectivity guide. Highlights of the 'features' section include:
- Talktime and standby: These numbers are becoming a little redundant now, as it tends to be data and app use that hammers a battery. That said you at least get a basis to start from that gives you an idea of the battery's clout.
- Touchscreen and QWERTY: These are discussed above.
- Camera and video: You'd be hard pushed to find a smartphone that doesn't have at least basic camera and video functionality now. Some are of course better than others, but we'd certainly suggest getting a dedicated device if you want to take top photos or clips. Quite simply, no smartphone has the space for really good lenses.
- GPS and Bluetooth: Its rare smartphones don't tick these boxes now, but be careful. Most people will want some sat nav capabilities (via GPS), while Bluetooth is often used for hands-free technology such as wireless headsets.
- Music and bandwidths: Finally, we're not aware of a smartphone that isn't also an MP3 music player, but not all have an FM radio - you'll also find that out here.
While these specs can give you a steer towards certain handsets, you should also read each phone's review for further details. For example, a camera may be five-megapixel, but does it have a flash and autofocus?
Thanks for the memory
If you want to make your phone work hard, you'll want to know a bit about its processor. Then, if you want to use it as an MP3 player and a way to catch up on your favourite TV shows, memory could also be an issue.
You should find these details in the phone's review. If a processor is smaller than 1GHz it may be a little slow and struggle with running multiple applications at once. If you want a top-of-the-range experience, you'll be looking for a 2GHz dual-core processor - something you would've been impressed with in a PC not so long ago!
Perhaps more important is storage memory, or RAM. Some smartphones, such as the iPhone, will have a large built-in storage capacity, while others will rely on microSD slots for small removable memory cards.
In both cases, you could be able to pack your phone with 32GB of memory of more, enough for more than 40 films or a mass of music and other files. Anything less than 8GB of total memory and you may want to review whether it will be enough to meet your needs. But even 8GB can pack in a few thousands songs (depending on the quality).