Monday 5 December 2016

Business user’s guide to buying a smartphone

Published 28/05/2015 | 02:30

Apple iPhone 6
Apple iPhone 6
Huawei Ascend G7
Sony Xperia Z3
Samsung S6
Samsung Galaxy Note 4

So you want to buy a new smartphone for work? Beyond all the hype and marketing, what really are the best phones to get? Which is best for battery life?

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Which has the best screen? Which fits in best with your office life? And which one might you actually enjoy using? Adrian Weckler looks at what matters and chooses the best phones

Best battery life

Best: Huawei Ascend Mate 7

Next best: iPhone 6 Plus

Also decent: Samsung Galaxy Note 4

Nothing ruins the experience of a smartphone like poor battery life. You can have all the fancy features you want: if your phone dies by mid-afternoon, you’ll curse it.

In general, bigger phones have longer battery life. Because even though their screens take more juice to power, the extra room they provide for bigger batteries more than compensates. For example, the best battery life I’ve experienced is with Huawei’s six-inch Ascend Mate 7. (However, because of its size, this is a niche device.) Apple’s 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus also stands out, beating its sibling iPhone 6 by some margin in my experience.

The big phone / big battery rule isn’t universal: Google’s six-inch Nexus 6 has a battery that’s 25pc smaller than Huawei’s phablet. The result is battery life that is merely decent.

Samsung’s Galaxy Note 4 is the next best Android phone for battery life. However, it arguably should do better than its 3,220mAH battery suggests. In my experience, it drains quicker than rivals such as the iPhone 6 Plus, despite having a bigger battery than Apple’s device. This is probably down to the gazillion things that the Note 4 has going on under the hood. It still lasts a day, though.

 If you want to measure battery life yourself, the metric to look for is the battery’s milliamp hours (mAh). In a five-inch phone, anything under 1,700mAh is weak and will leave you stranded by teatime. Anything over 2,000mAh is decent and should last you through the day.

Most office-friendly

Best: iPhone 6 Plus

Next best: Microsoft Lumia 930

Also decent: Samsung S6

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Irish companies’ IT support departments have now largely switched over to iPhones as their device of choice. That means that if you’re using a phone supplied by work and set up to work with the company’s specialist software, it’s probably going to have to be an iPhone. If you can get one, go for the superb iPhone 6 Plus (but not the entry-level 16GB version as this doesn’t have enough storage to keep everyday stuff on it).

The emerging iPhone hegemony suits middle-aged executives (and IT support staff), who are still getting over the demise of BlackBerry, just fine. But it means that there is little room for Android handsets, except for those companies who have more liberal ‘bring your own device’ policies.

There is one exception to Apple’s workplace domination: Windows Phones. Among large corporates and several governmental and semi-state companies, Microsoft (formerly Nokia) Lumia devices have been mandated as the smartphone of choice. Microsoft phones can be ‘managed’ centrally and volume deals are at play here, so it’s a way for companies to save money. Here, the five-inch Lumia 930 is probably your best bet.

And BlackBerry? The former king of boardroom phones has literally disappeared from our workplaces. No Irish operator continues to offer BlackBerry as a mainstream option.

Storage leader

Best: iPhone 6, iPhone 6 Plus

Next best: Samsung S6

Storage within a phone is still very important to a business phone. Even in an age of cloud storage, of Google Docs and Microsoft Office Online, a phone’s own storage is quicker and more convenient for a whole host of functions. And it’s crucial to have for system upgrades, app extensions and other day-to-day requirements.

16GB was once enough for the ordinary user but it’s not anymore: 32GB or more is what you should be aiming for. Many new high-end phones (Samsung S6 and Note 4, HTC One M9) give this as standard. Some (Sony’s Xperia Z3, which opts for 16GB as standard) do not.

It’s a mixed bag with the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. On one hand, the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus are the only devices that give you a 128GB option which, even at an extra (cheeky) €100, is great flexibility for someone who truly uses the phone as a laptop replacement (which is possible on a big screen phone). On the other hand, its entry-level configuration is 16GB which is simply not enough and could leave you in a bind when you go to upgrade the operating system.

Incidentally, while a memory card slot is useful for storing things like photos, it is not effective for other forms of storage, such as apps or system storage.

Screen quality

Best: Samsung Galaxy Note 4

Next best: iPhone 6 Plus

Also decent: HTC One M9, Sony Xperia Z3

Remember when you scoffed at five-inch screens on phones as being ‘too big’? By now, most business folk have come to realise that large-screen devices (‘phablets’) simply make more effective business tools.

It’s not just that they make emails or office software easier to browse and operate, or that they give you much better battery lives. It’s the extra flexibility. For example, bigger models (iPhone 6 Plus, Galaxy Note 4, Nexus 6) can now sometimes be used as substitute laptops with a wireless Bluetooth keyboard.

Most new phones now have excellent, bright, vibrant screens that are easy to view even in bright outdoors conditions. But overall, it’s hard to beat the screen of Samsung’s Galaxy Note 4.

It is the only large-screen ‘phablet’ with very high resolution: 515 pixels-per-inch. It’s super sharp and the difference is apparent. The iPhone 6 Plus, while not as sharp, is also excellent.

Nicest design/style

Best: iPhone 6

Next best: Samsung S6, below

Also decent: HTC One M9, Sony Xperia Z3

Leaving aside engines, features and ecosystems, the look and feel of a phone has a big impact on whether we take to it. Samsung, for example, has ditched the plastic on its latest flagship S6 and S6 Edge models and it’s already paying off: the S6 is now one of the nicest-looking phones on the market. HTC also has fine pedigree in design, although its One M9 is almost identical in look and feel to its last two versions. And Sony is also worth a mention. Its 5.2-inch Xperia Z3 handset looks and feels great.

Here, the big phablets generally come second best. Although devices such as Apple’s iPhone 6 Plus are sleek, there’s no getting around the slight awkwardness of holding them. I’m phablets’ biggest fan and I admit I struggle to use them one-handed.

Finally, there are some great-looking devices that you might miss. Microsoft’s Lumia smartphones, which don’t get much of a look in for most people because of an app-shy Windows Phone ecosystem, are generally superbly crafted, a legacy of their Nokia heritage.

Camera choice

Best: Panasonic CM1

Next best: Sony Xperia Z3

Also decent: Samsung Galaxy Note 4, Microsoft Lumia 930

Is a camera relevant when considering a phone for strictly business reasons? For most people, perhaps not. Even entry-level phones now have reasonable 8-megapixel cameras on them.

For those who need to feed back images for official purposes, however, there is still a noticeable difference between a chirpy €200 handset and a €700 powerhouse. There are lots and lots of good cameras on phones, now.

Both iPhone 6 models have excellent lenses that, although not quite at the top of their categories, produce great snaps (the larger iPhone 6 also lets you film in slow motion, which is an addictive gimmick).

It’s very tight at the top, but I still rate Sony’s 20-megapixel Xperia Z3 as the best overall camera lens in the mass-market smartphone market.

It has basically taken the sensor from its standard compact cameras and stuffed it into the body of the slim handset. The results are really great.

I say Sony is the best in the ‘mass market’, because Panasonic has recently released a high-end Android phone with an astonishing one-inch sensor in it. This easily beats all others, but you’ll have to hunt hard to find one (none of the operators here sell it with the usual models).

Samsung’s high-end phones generally have excellent cameras, as do Microsoft’s (Nokia’s).

Price to value ratio

Best: Huawei Ascend G7

Next best: iPhone 5C

Also decent: Microsoft Lumia 535

So what’s the best value business phone? If you were to go merely by features and specifications, you could easily shell out €800 or more for the device. (Apple’s iPhone 6 Plus 128GB model costs €1,000 if bought as a standalone handset.) Taking everything into consideration, it’s very hard to beat Huawei’s new Ascend G7. It’s a really good 5.5-inch Android phone with a great screen, plenty of power and a decent battery. And it costs €280. That’s a third of the price of a similarly-sized iPhone 6 Plus.

Even this, though, pales compared to the bargain that is Microsoft’s Lumia 535. At €100 for a completely usable 5-inch office-friendly smartphone, there’s not much to touch it if you’re on a serious budget. As for the iPhone, there are no thing as a cut-price Apple device.

 But the iPhone 5C comes closest, at €400. For this you’ll get a phone that skimps on storage memory (it has just 8GB) but which works as a perfectly good iPhone, albeit one with a smallish four-inch screen.

Overall verdict

Best business phone: iPhone 6 Plus (from €799 sim-free, from free on 24-month contract with operators)

Taking all factors into account, it’s hard to look past the iPhone as the best current business smartphone. Before Apple increased the screen size of its handsets, Samsung had the edge. Its 5.7-inch Galaxy Note 4, in particular, was a more practical business device than the small 4-inch iPhone 5 models. But all is changed now thanks to the new 4.7-inch and 5.5-inch displays of the latest iPhones.

It’s not just the screens, either: iPhones have become the go-to devices for most enterprise software development, so that you have a better chance of staying near the front with one. And Apple’s iOS ecosystem still has a lead when it comes to work-based apps. For these reasons, and Apple’s perceived user-friendly status (which isn’t as pronounced as it once was over Android), your office and your IT support department will probably support these devices better over others.

And it is the larger iPhone 6 Plus that takes the ultimate crown. Its battery life is around 15pc better than the standard iPhone 6 and it can be used more effectively for email and other productivity purposes.

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