If you've taken the time to figure out how much you want to spend on your contract, the next step will be to figure out what phone you want - if you hadn't already got that in mind of course. There's loads of numbers, technical terms and scientific madness that gets thrown at you by manufacturers and phone salespeople, and that can leave many of us confused about exactly why they would want or even need a particular phone. While we can't give answers for all types of phone we will try to dispel myths and point out what sort of things you should look for. I hope that by the end of this article you realise "bigger is not always better". But it is nicer.
What technology you do and don't need on your mobile phone.
This article is long! Use the following links to jump right to whatever interests you, (or just read the whole thing because it's mildly comical and very informative).
Screen size is important if you're going to use your phone for certain tasks like regular web browsing, eBook reading and game playing. "Just get a Kindle / Tablet / PS Vita!" I hear you scream. Ah but no, I can't wage war between bird and pig on an Amazon Kindle, nor can I make a phone call from my Google Nexus 10, but on a phone with a huge screen I can do ALL the things! One consideration to make about screen size (and ultimately the "PPI" figure) is that the bigger those numbers get, the more life they'll sap from the battery. The display is by far the biggest battery hog of the entire device so rest assured if you're buying a huge phone you'd better be around a USB slot or wall plug twice a day.
For: People who use their phone for everything. It's the center of their multitasking life, and the fact you have to hold it with two hands is not a problem because you don't have a separate MP3 player, eBook reader and tablet to faff about with.
Against: People who use their phone for the purpose the name suggests - a phone. People with small hands, you'll find it uncomfortable to use anything bigger than 4 inches.
Wrap it up: The bigger a screen, the bigger the overall tech inside the phone. If you want a behemoth device that could power a space station, it'll be the one with the big screen. If you want a phone that'll send and receive texts and make phone calls, 3.5" - 4" is your best bet. Less than that and your stubby thumbs will make texting a less than pleasant experience.
PPI (Pixels Per Inch
"PPI" is not important. End of.
For: People who hold their phone so close to their face that they risk becoming one with the device. Fanboys. Anyone born after VHS stopped being a 'thing'.
Against: Everyone and everything. Retina and PPI are the single most annoying marketing ploys in smartphone history. Also, certain types of screen technology halve certain pixel colours (those red, green and blue bits that make up an image), meaning the PPI figure you see means nothing and you're just buying into a mathematical lie.
Wrap it up: Read our article about the retina myth and laugh in the face of any puny salesperson who tries to tell you that you need more PPI's with your CPU's.
Picture quality means a lot to some people nowadays. Personally, having a decent camera on my mobile phone is something I actively look for because i'm not one for carrying my camera around every single day. Something you should care less about is how many megapixels a camera has. Why? Because you'll probably never use the true full quality image still image - at some point it'll get compressed, usually when you upload it to Facebook or pretty much anywhere on the internet. Many cameras take pictures that are bigger than your PC/Laptop screen can display properly anyway, so you'll only ever find massive megapixels useful when you want to zoom and crop into a certain point of an image without losing quality.
What you should be looking for in regards to a mobile phone camera is how well it works in the day, night, in motion (walking, in a car) and for the newer specialist types, optical zoom. Night shots tend to be horrendous with most cameras although the Galaxy S III and iPhone 5 do hold their own in this respect. One thing to understand is that the current capabilities of mobile phone camera means you will never be able to replace a proper camera.
For: People who want to capture random little moments in life without carrying an additional camera. Google your choice of phone for a camera review first, and dedicate the time to see how it does in sunlight and dark settings.
Against: Don't pay more if you're never going to use it. Don't be taken in by megapixels. a 14 megapixel picture taken in a nightclub or dimly lit castle grounds with a camera sensor that gets scared of the dark is essentially a great big image of uselessness and broken dreams.
Wrap it up: If you like taking pictures of breakfast, adding a 1940's filter and uploading them to Instagram, these numbers don't concern you. If the word "macro" doesn't make you think of cut-price booze, the symbol 'f' doesn't make you think of Facebook, and you know "HDR mode" is an oxymoron, you'd better get researching that phone for a decent camera alternative.
The battery contributes so much to your phone, from how long it'll last between Facebook updates right up to how physically thick your phone is. You probably won't see information about your battery unless you look in the technical specifications online, but it goes without saying that screen size, web connectivity (3G, 4G, WiFi), the speed and quantity of CPU's and other factors all require a big enough battery to power them. There's normally a handy guide about how long your phone will stay in standby for, or how many minutes you can talk on it between battery charges - and that's pretty useful information for a phone, but we can guarantee you won't get "200 hours" if you use your phone to catch up on iPlayer or chill out to some music on the bus for a bit.
For: People who understand that a phone that's more powerful than their office desktop PC needs a battery to fuel it. Check the talk time stats, bigger numbers mean more time playing Grand Theft Auto Vice City too.
Against: A 2100mAh battery would make your iPhone millimetres thicker than it is, and a little heavier too. If you're only going to make a few phone calls and send a few texts, don't worry yourself too much about talk time and just make sure standby will see you through a few days.
Wrap it up: Manufacturers tend to have their heads screwed on here so there's not much thought you have to put into this part of your phone, but some words of advice: regularly charge your phone to keep it topped up, don't let it discharge completely over and over, and don't do whatever this family did with their Blackberry Curve 9320. If you phone has auto brightness or other power saving settings, use them if you know you're nowhere near a charge point for a while.
Internal memory is the memory card inside of your phone. This contributes directly to how many pictures, mp3's, videos and applications you can store. First and foremost: you will NEVER be able to use 16GB, 32GB or 64GB. You will instantly lose some of those gigabytes to your phone as it uses some of the space for itself. Don't buy a 16GB model if you've got 13GB of mp3's (unless it has an expandable memory slot). HTC and Apple annoy me here because you can only buy a phone with one size of internal memory and you have no option to expand on that. Alternatively you can buy the cheapest Samsung Galaxy S3 with 16GB of internal memory, THEN throw another 64GB at it if you wanted to.
For: More memory means you are less at risk of running out of space whenever you want to upload a new favourite album or use that full HD camera to film your cat as it chases a laser pointer.
Against: If you've got a few music files, might take a few pictures and might even download a few free apps, get the lowest memory capacity that you can. For future-proofing, buy a phone with an expandable memory card slot and you're good to go for years to come.
Wrap it up: The best option is blatantly a phone that takes external memory cards, giving you the option to be a cheapskate to your network and then go off and find a cracking deal on a microSD card on eBay or Amazon. For anyone who doesn't care, go ahead and buy the smallest memory capacity available, but don't cry when your podcasts leave you with no room for family photos.
CPU quantity and speed has been another favourite marketing ploy. It seems anything you can attach big numbers to will be manipulated in some way so people can make big bucks out of it. The iPhone 5 has two CPU cores, and the Samsung Galaxy S III has five CPU cores. FIVE! What happened when some boffins benchmarked the iPhone 5 against the Samsung Galaxy S III? The iPhone lost by a trickle. All benefit to Apple, their processor and the operating system were literally made for each other. Now, you'll know I love Samsung, and their fifth core does have a very good purpose, but many application developers are not making their applications with multi-core CPU's in mind, so you're sometimes unable to see the benefit of your powerhouse when you stray into the wild world of downloaded apps and games.
For: Gamers or hackers. 'Hackers' being those people who find a way to use their phone for purposes it was not originally intended, like hosting entire websites off it, using it as a media hub, or installing a modified operating system like CyanogenMod. Also, if you simply must have the fastest experience ever, you might as well jump on the bandwagon. It's a nice bandwagon to be on when all the wheels are in use.
Against: If you want a quick google search between phone calls and texts, the speed and quantity of the processor are numbers you can forget about.
Wrap it up: A quad core 1.5GHz phone that only marginally beats a dual core 1.3GHz phone should be all the reason you need to ignore the numbers. Just go with what's right for you. Samsung's fifth core allows the phone to use hardly any battery when the screen is off, meaning it actually serves a decent purpose, but to be honest, you don't really need more than a dual core phone - as long as those cores and the supporting software know how to work well together.
RAM is the lightning quick memory that the operating system uses. More RAM generally means a quicker phone and less crashes - it's not just the CPU that makes things speedy. At the moment, 1GB is the comfort zone, and 2GB should be with us early 2013. 2GB is a number I feel will really help high end smartphones to stand out, as the user experience should become absolutely flawless, give or take some rogue apps. For Joe and Jane Bloggs, RAM is a number you shouldn't care about unless you want a phone with future proofing. RAM is also a defining factor in software updates. If you want the newest version of Android or iOS, you'd better have a top spec phone or you're going to be left behind.
For: If you want your phone to last throughout the two year contract with minimal signs of lag, head for the 1GB mark. It's also fantastic for gaming and should stop any Flash content getting narky with you.
Against: Another number you shouldn't care about unless you actually use your phone for intensive activities.
Wrap it up: Although Google said it wouldn't be possible, hackers have found ways to get their latest operating systems on phones with 512MB RAM (that's half of 1GB). The numbers don't mean too much, but I can't see the experience being overly pleasant after a few weeks of regular use. Big RAM is necessary but it's not something to lose sleep over.
>Here's an infographic of some of the stats we were looking at to base this article on:
Loads of numbers, a salespersons dream! All of the numbers are quite simliar too, not massive differences really, but these phones are all top spec and use the best(ish) of what's available in their own little worlds. There's good and bad points about them all, but generally they work well and will keep you happy during that 24 month contract.
So there you have it. I hope this has helped you decide what is and isn't important in your smartphone life, and we'll be back in part 3 with a great article on mobile phone insurance.
If you haven't read it yet, check out Part 1 - Prices for the best way to figure out what contract you want.