We Help You Find Your Ideal Smartphone (Part 1)

2/8/2013 3:52:54 PM

Picking the right phone is straightforward either when money is no object, or when $200 is a huge outlay. But in between those two extremes, decisions are tricky. We’re here to help you find your handset partner

HAVING TROUBLE CHOOSING a phone? You’re not alone. If you look at the reviews we’ve published over the last year alone, we’ve offered advice on more than 40 phones, but right now in New Zealand, more than devices are offered by 2degrees, Telecom and Vodafone. Rather than try to publish 50 phone reviews here, we’ve discussed some of the ways you might want to use your phone and which phones best suit those uses. Whether your passion is photography, art, music, tinkering with your phone or just being connected to your friends, we’ve looked at what phones are good at, and which phones are good at them.

Don’t worry, we’ve also reviewed them. Each of the 40 phones we’ve considered has a full review on our website; you’ll find the links in our table of features on page 60. That’s also where you should turn if you just want specs, prices and ratings.

What to look for

Screen size

The size of a smartphone screen influences, usually, the size of the keyboard that it can provide. You can get around the limitations of a tiny phone screen a little by using a T9 keyboard rather than QWERTY, or by using an alternative text-entry app. Swipe, which is built into the Vodafone Smart II and Motorola Defy XT, lets you draw your way through a word, dragging your finger from one letter to the next, simplifying the hunt and peck pain of thumb-typing. On the other end of the scale, a 5-inch screen, such as the one in the Samsung Galaxy Note, is almost too big. You may look a little silly holding it up to your ear, but it does make for easy reading. A phone with a 3.5-4.5-inch screen should be comfortable for viewing and typing. Along with the size of the screen, consider the resolution.

the Vodafone Smart II

The Vodafone Smart II

Screen resolution

For budget phones in particular, the screen resolution is vital to the overall enjoy ability of a smartphone. We suggest checking out the screen in store before you buy text, in particular, can be difficult to read at low resolutions on lower-quality screens. Check text messaging, email and web to see how readable things are. Overall resolution is measured in pixel density – the number of pixels per inch of screen (PPI). The higher the density, the smoother and crisper the screen should look.


We measure responsiveness in several ways. We look at how fast can you complete a specific task such as reading a specific folder of your email, how quickly you can move between home screens, how quickly you can access settings and apps, and how fast web access is over 3G. A number of factors are involved, including the processor type and speed, the amount of RAM and the 3G capabilities, but you may be surprised to learn that responsiveness doesn’t directly reflect any of those stats. While we haven’t included specific measures of responsiveness in our table, the Speed category, lists the most responsive phones we’ve tested.


In a budget smartphone under $400, storage is at a premium, but most phones have the option of adding extra storage up to 32GB via microSD card. Phones costing more than $400 will almost certainly have more than 2GB onboard storage.

Most apps take up somewhere between 1MB and 30MB of space, but it varies a lot. Facebook for Android takes up 29MB whilst the iOS version takes around 10MB, for example. Some apps are much larger: the game Monsters Ate My Condo on Android takes 58MB and Google Maps takes a beefy 130MB. Consider that some phones we looked at this year have only 120MB of onboard storage!

Check before you buy whether the phone has a microSD card included at purchase

Check before you buy whether the phone has a microSD card included at purchase

Songs take 5-10MB of space at medium quality, and TV or movies take between 200MB and 1.2GB, depending on the quality and length of the video. Books and magazines take between 1MB and 500MB, depending on the length of the book and number of photos included.

The OS itself also takes up space on a Samsung Galaxy S III with 16GB capacity, 11.35GB is available for apps, downloads, photos, music and other add on. On my personal Android phone, there are 75 apps, including the preinstalled apps, which combined use 1.16GB.

Check before you buy whether the phone has a microSD card included at purchase, as well as how much storage is on the phone itself.

Battery life

It’s hard to assess battery life based only on the battery capacity of a phone. Other things that affect the battery life include the phone’s processor, its OS – memory management has a huge effect on phone battery life differences and its other specifications such as RAM and GPU.

Since it’s a very difficult task to assess the specifications and OS when you’re standing in the store, the battery capacity is a decent starting point. Battery capacity is measured in milliamp hours – mAh. A higher mAh rating is better than a lower one, but because the phone’s display is the biggest consumer of power, if you find two phones with the same battery capacity you can figure out which one will have longer battery life by looking at its size and resolution.

We’d recommend looking for a large capacity battery, a modern OS (such as Android 4.0) and a good rating in our reviews online. Also worth mentioning is that the single biggest effect on battery life is you: the way you use your phone can mean the difference between half a day of battery life and five days.

Smartphone processors

There are five main models of processor, and all bar Intel’s are based on chip architecture designed by UK company ARM. ARM doesn’t actually make chips, it just designs them.

The two main designs in use are the Cortex-A8 and Cortex-A9, both of which use Arm v7 architecture. Sounds confusing? Don’t worry, the only thing that’s useful to know is that A8 mostly powers single processor phones, and A9 mostly multiprocessor phones.

What is confusing is that the speed of a processor is no real indication of a phone’s performance, all by itself. Instead, phones mostly use a System on Chip (SoC) design, which means that the graphics chip, processor, RAM and ROM Work together. Each type has its own strengths and weaknesses. The Nvidia Tegra is strong in 3D display and video and the Samsung Exynos has strength in raw computational power, for example. The Qualcomm Snapdragon and Apple A processor are the other two widely used processor types right now. Intel has just released Medfield-based processors which we’ll see more of throughout 2013.

The Nvidia Tegra is strong in 3D display and video

The Nvidia Tegra is strong in 3D display and video

We’re almost at the point where it makes sense to assess the SoC, as well as the phones that are built from them, especially since each manufacturer uses ARM instructions to build its processors, and then layers on its own preferences and specializations. Each SoC is different, in other words.

The good news is that this means smartphones should get more distinct over the next couple of years, especially in terms of how they function as tiny PCs.

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