Tuesday 25 October 2016

A fancy phone or a budget mobile? It's your call

Mobile phones: a late adopters' guide

Published 23/10/2015 | 02:30

Adrian Weckler.
Adrian Weckler.

If there is one gadget we all own, it's a phone. And almost every year, we look to upgrade or buy a new one. But what's the best model? What issues do you need to know about mobile operators? And which kind of handset suits best for users with different needs? Adrian Weckler looks at the main issues involved with changing your phone and picks the best models for differing budgets

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Is there an overall best brand of phone?

These days, you either get an iPhone or an Android phone. If it's an iPhone, get one of the newer ones (iPhone 6 on), as it will last a solid three years with no real problems. If you're choosing an Android phone, the main brands are Samsung, Sony, HTC and, increasingly, Huawei. Samsung is the biggest of these brands, but not necessarily the best. (See 'The Magnificent Seven' panel for specific recommendations.)

I'm new to smartphones. Should I pick an Android phone or an iPhone? And what is the difference?

For total beginners, Android phones and iPhones look and feel fairly similar. They both have touchscreens, good cameras and roughly the same number of apps available. In general, iPhones are a little easier to get to grips with

than Android phones for people starting out. They also tend to last a little longer. But they're more expensive: there are no budget iPhones out there. By contrast, you can get decent Android phones for under €250.

Do I have to get the latest model? will the older model become obsolete in 12 months?

Very few phones you buy today will stop working or be obsolete within two years. With iPhones, though, it's usually best to stick to getting the current model or the one directly before. Apple has a habit of introducing new features that will only work on iPhones sold in the last three years.

Are there any really decent budget models?

Increasingly, yes. Brands like Huawei and Alcatel now have really good Android models available for under €300 unlocked. Even some ultra-budget phones shape up reasonably well, such as own-brand models like Vodafone's Smart Prime 6 (€100).

My daughter wants a smartphone but we don't want to buy her an iPhone. What's a phone that looks good but doesn't cost a fortune?

If your budget stretches to €300, look to Samsung's Galaxy A3. It's slim, has a good screen and takes nice photos. If you have less than €200, I'd opt for either Motorola's Moto G (€160 prepay) or HTC's pretty Desire 620 (€180 prepay).

What's the best phone to get for my ageing mother?

If your parent can handle a smartphone, any one of the recommendations above (or in 'The Magnificent Seven' panel) qualify. But if a smartphone would simply intimidate them (leading to non-use), look to options such as Doro's PhoneEasy models (€90 to €100 prepay with Vodafone and 3 Ireland). These are 'clamshell' phones with large buttons and extra-loud ringers. They also have colour screens and a basic camera to take and share photos, but they're not built for things like social media.

Which is the best phone for its camera?

The winner here changes at least twice a year. But three brands stand out: Sony, Samsung and Apple. Of these, the top models from Sony and Samsung are marginally the best cameraphones available right now, although the upcoming iPhone 6S camera should bring Apple level. The quality of a camera is one thing that is absolutely pegged to the amount you pay for the phone. In other words, the camera on any phone under €250 is adequate but not great. The camera on any phone that costs over €500 is generally very good.

Is it worth investing in the top model to replace my camera?

If you don't bring your camera around much, then yes. But this means spending €600 or more on a model like Sony's Xperia Z5 or Apple's iPhone 6S. Bear in mind that as good as these models are, they don't match standalone cameras for things like zooming, autofocus or low light photography. In other words, if getting great shots is really important, you're better off with a conventional camera.

I take a lot of photos of my kids. Which one allows most storage?

To have a reasonable amount of space for photos, you need at least 16GB of storage with your phone, although 32GB is preferable. Budget phones have poor storage (usually 8GB, which is often only enough for a few hundred photos) but often include an additional slot for a memory card, allowing you to store thousands more photos. Apple iPhones don't give you space for memory cards, so if you get one of the 16GB models, you should back them up (via iCloud or Google Photos or Flickr or Dropbox) fairly regularly.

I really liked the simple phones. Is it possible to still get them?

Yes. Although Nokia is now no longer in existence as a phone brand, there are a few others. For example, Samsung's Keystone 2 phone has buttons, a small screen and costs just €20 unlocked or on prepay. It's talk-and-text only: there's no camera, no internet and no 3G or 4G. As a result, you'll get two days' battery life off a single charge.

Does it matter what mobile operator I'm with?

Yes. Given that almost all operators offer lots of the main phone models, there are only really two issues: price and coverage. For price, it's a toss-up between 3 Ireland, Meteor, Tesco Mobile and the two new operators (iD and Virgin Mobile). But suffice to say that you'll get a lot (plenty of data, calls and texts) for €25 per month. For coverage, Vodafone arguably has the edge. Its 4G speeds are considerably faster and more advanced than its main rivals.

Are any of these new operators any good?

Both iD and Virgin Mobile use 3 Ireland's network and neither will have 4G until 2016. Having said that, both have some very competitive offers. If you're a UPC (now Virgin Media) customer already, you'll get a very cheap monthly deal on a sim-only basis (meaning they won't give you a phone). Meanwhile, iD lets you pick and choose the amount of calls, texts and data that you see fit - and you can chop and change this every month. It's a nice system.

Do Smartphones automatically mean bigger bills?

Not if you choose a plan with a proper data allowance, meaning at least 3GB per month (and preferably over 5GB). Aside from roaming fees abroad, most phone charges now are racked up by going over your allocated monthly data limit. This can easily happen: sometimes apps will continue to run in the background without you even knowing it, using up data.

Is battery life a problem with smartphones?

In general, yes. If you use your phone a lot, you might have to recharge it by teatime. Newer phones, like the iPhone 6 or Samsung S6, have decent batteries that normally last a solid day. Sony's Xperia Z series of phones probably have the best battery life of today's 'premium' level handsets.

Are there any catches to getting a 'free' phone or a 24-month contract?

The only thing to bear in mind is that getting a subsidised phone ('free' or 'just €99') with a contract is almost always more expensive than buying your phone outright and getting a sim card for the same service. For premium phones like the Samsung S6 or iPhone 6, the difference is up to €300.

I use my phone mainly for calls and texts with only occasional internet, Google or email use. What's the best phone for me?

You are one of the few categories for whom a Windows phone (such as Lumia, formerly branded as Nokia Lumia) would suit just fine. These phones are well built, have reasonable cameras and do the online basics well. They also generally cost less than similarly constructed Android models and are a fraction of the cost of an iPhone. The 4.5-inch Lumia 630 (€150) is a good example.

Some of these phones now are huge. Why would I get one?

Big phones (over five inches in diameter) are fantastic for viewing photos, videos and social media. They're also better for reading text for those with less-than-perfect eyesight. Finally, they generally have better battery performance because there's more space for a bigger battery. On the downside, one-handed use is much more difficult.

I travel a lot. Are there any phones made specially for that?

Yes. Some Android phones have 'dual sim' slots. This means that when you're abroad (such as in the US), you can stick a local sim card into the phone alongside your Irish one. This way, if you use it to check email or the internet, you don't rack up huge roaming fees. Examples include the excellent OnePlus 2 phone (€340).

I have all my music on my iPhone. What happens if I buy an Android phone?

If you're referring to iTunes music tracks, you can transfer them over. There are a couple of ways to do it, but they're mostly manual. One way is to plug your new Android phone into your PC or Mac. Then open your iTunes music folder (in your 'My Computer' folder, not in iTunes itself) and drag the songs over to the Android phone icon. If you're using a Mac, you'll probably need a free converter app like 'Android File Transfer'.

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