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Smartphones buying advice

Everything you need to know when buying a smartphone

The smartphone category as we now know it started in June 2007 with the launch of the first touchscreen smartphone. There had been stylus-clickable handsets before, but the iPhone spearheaded multitouch to empower the fingers and make sophisticated device-use a doddle. See also: Group test: what's the best smartphone?

Google redesigned Android and has since caught up with Apple in market share; and now Microsoft is eager to join the party, bailing out the troubled Nokia so it could make Windows Phone handsets.Take a look at out HTC One X review.

The iPhone is still the pacesetter for the complete smartphone experience, but in most pay-monthly contracts it commands a premium price over the competition. So if you’re looking for a cheaper option, what do you need to know? See also: Group test: what's the best Android phone?

All smartphones now have a touchscreen interface, able to respond to intuitive finger movements such as pinch-to-zoom and swipe gestures. Cheaper handsets were once fitted with resistive screens, but now most sport the more usable capacitive technology.

Smartphones buying advice

Processor

There’s only one relevant processor architecture in use: ARM chips from the Cortex-A series. These designs are licensed to many chip makers, integrated with graphics processors into a system-on-a-chip (SoC). They’re then rebranded as, for example, Qualcomm Snapdragon, nVidia Tegra, Samsung Exynos and Apple A5.

The processor clock speeds and number of cores give a rough idea of performance, but these are not reliable indicators to a phone’s subjective ‘speed’. More important is the integration of software to silicon, which is why an iPhone 3GS with its single-core 600MHz processor will feel much slicker than many recent Android phones, packing dual-core 1GHz and faster processors.

Google’s hardware partners are now fitting quad-core processors that allow Android phones to feel more responsive. Windows phones have lesser requirements, and in fact Windows Phone 7.5 doesn’t even support multicore processors.

Battery

Decent battery life is the key to making a smartphone work for you. To take away the uncertainty of making it through even one working day, demand at least two days’ usable battery life. Android phones often feature apps that try to extend battery life by switching off parts of the phone when not in use or abruptly dimming the screen, although they can somewhat hinder the phone’s usability.

The interface must be clear and simple to navigate. Android has come a long way since its inception, and now has an intuitive graphical interface. Microsoft has taken an even simpler interface with Windows Phone, which majors on oversized gaily coloured rectangles. It may have few apps available to download, but integration with social networks makes it attractive to some people.

Pricing

Consider the total cost of ownership (TCO) for any mobile phone.

This is the sum of the initial purchase price and the amount that you pay your mobile operator for calls, texts and data during the lifetime of the smartphone.

As with anything in life that headlines with the word ‘free’, be wary of contracts that offer to provide a free handset. A cash-free handset that contractually obliges you to pay, say, £35 a month for the next two years will have a TCO of £840.

Compare this to a SIM-only pay-monthly deal, which includes all airtime and data, from around £10 per month. You can couple this with a premium handset such as the £499 iPhone 4S to hit a two-year TCO of £739. Not only will you pay less, you find your choice of actual smartphone is much greater, and you’re no longer locked to the same network for years on end.

Pay-as-you-go (PAYG) deals let you acquire phone hardware at slightly subsidised prices, with the telco expecting you to line its pockets over the life of the handset through calls charged at 1990s-style premium rates – 25p per minute for landline calls is a common rate, and 12p for every text. These PAYG phones can often be used with a SIM-only contract after your first month’s top-up, but the handset may be locked to the network from which you bought it.

Beware of telco-installed crapware on subsidised handsets. Most networks build custom versions of the phone’s operating system, allowing them to put their choice of apps and features on the phone – not always to the benefit of the user. Examples are branded web browsers, and sponsored software such as eBay and Facebook. The best user experience and best value is typically found from unlocked SIM-free handsets, in conjunction with SIM-only voice/data plans.

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