How to choose a smartphone

Need a phone? We'll help you find the one that's right for you

How to choose a cell phone
Julian Chokkattu / Digital Trends

You need a smartphone, and you need it now. Maybe it’s your first phone, maybe your contract is up for renewal, or maybe you just dropped the last one in the toilet. Fear not. There are a lot of good options out there and we’ve got a quick guide about how to choose a cell phone that’s right for you.

For a more in-depth look at what the smartphone market has to offer, take a look at our guides for the best smartphones, best Android phones, and best cheap smartphones.

Figure out what your needs are

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Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

There are a lot of different things to consider when you’re buying a new smartphone. Do you need a phone with a large screen? Maybe you prefer something that you can use one-handed? Are you looking for long battery life or the best camera phone you can find? Do you need a lot of storage for your music collection? Maybe you’re a frequent traveler and a dual-SIM phone would be useful?

Start by drafting a list of the most important features for you and use it to compare devices to ensure your new smartphone ticks all of your boxes.

Choose an operating system

iOS 11 review

There are really only two smartphone operating systems worth considering today: Android and iOS.

Both are easy to use and support a wide variety of apps and games. While you can change from Android to iOS, or from iPhone to Android, there is a learning curve. You’ll be most instantly at home on whatever platform you’re used to.

Android offers a wider choice of devices at different prices, it offers more customization options, and Google’s excellent suite of services and apps is built in. If you already use things like Google Maps, Gmail, and Google Docs, then Android will be the better choice for you. It also features the best virtual assistant — Google Assistant — which is growing more useful all the time.

Apple’s iOS offers a more uniform, accessible experience, it’s more secure, and the App Store experience and quality of apps is slightly better. If you already have a MacBook or an iPad, then an iPhone is probably going to make the most sense for you. You’ll also find an enormous choice of accessories for iPhones, something that can be limited for lesser-known Android devices.

For a more in-depth breakdown of the top two smartphone platforms check out our guide to Android vs. iOS, where we put them head-to-head in various categories.

Features you’ll want in your phone

Picking the right phone for you can be tough, and you can’t trust most employees at stores to know what they’re talking about or to steer you in the right direction. We recommend that you shop around and get a hands-on with the smartphone you fancy before buying. If you don’t know much about specs, try to bring along a knowledgeable friend if you have one, but if not, here are a few things you’ll want to think about.

samsung galaxy s9 review
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Design

If you want something you can use one-handed, then pick it up and try it out. A lot of phones nowadays are glass front and back, but that makes them fragile and prone to smudges, so they won’t suit everyone. Check that the fingerprint sensor position suits you as well — they’re generally being moved from the front to the back. The right design for you should look and feel good.

Nice screen

You’re going to spend many hours gazing at it, so make sure that your smartphone screen is a good size for you and that it boasts a high resolution. We recommend a minimum of Full HD, which will be 1920 x 1080 pixels, or perhaps 2160 x 1080 pixels if the phone has a modern 18:9 aspect ratio. Anything that’s 1080p or higher will be sharp enough. In terms of the underlying technology, OLED screens have better contrast, with deeper blacks than LCD screens, and we prefer them overall. Both Samsung’s Galaxy range and Apple’s iPhone X sport OLED screens, but you won’t find them at the budget end of the market.

Good performance

This will mainly be determined by two things: The processor and the RAM. The processor is the most important thing, and newer is generally better in terms of both speed and power efficiency. Apple’s A series chipset tends to outperform the competition. For an Android phone, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 845 is currently the cream of the crop. It’s debatable how much RAM you need in a smartphone, but we recommend looking for at least 4GB. This doesn’t apply to iPhones, however, because they deal with memory management differently and don’t require as much RAM. If in doubt, read reviews or play with your prospective smartphone in a store to test it.

Up-to-date OS

If you buy a new iPhone, then you’ll get the latest version of iOS on it, but this isn’t always the case with Android phones. Because the manufacturers often apply their own user interfaces on top of Android, it can take a while to get the latest updates, and you may not get future versions of Android upon their release — or maybe not at all, if the manufacturer decides not to update. Only stock Android phones from Google, such as the Pixel 2, are guaranteed to get immediate and consistent Android updates. The current version to look for is Android 8.0 Oreo, but Android P is just around the corner. Always try to get the latest version you can.

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A good camera

Smartphone cameras have come on in leaps and bounds over the last few years. The choice can be bewildering, but it’s important to note that good camera performance is about a lot more than just a high megapixel count. If you’re able to test the phone out for yourself, you certainly should, but you’ll also find useful information in reviews, and we do a lot of camera shootouts here at Digital Trends.

Bloatware

Be careful of bloatware or hobbled features, especially if you’re buying Android. Sometimes carriers block specific features or change defaults. Carriers and manufacturers also often add a lot of apps that are superfluous, and you may find that you can’t uninstall them.

Battery life

Removable batteries are rare nowadays, so you want to pick a phone that will be able to keep up with you. Check the consensus on battery life in reviews. The mAh rating will give you some indication, but the capacity is also impacted by the screen size, resolution, and software, so you need to look beyond the number.

Storage

The latest smartphones generally come with enough storage built in. When 16GB phones were common — and they had 10GB used up out of the box — you could run out of space alarmingly quickly. We recommend a minimum of 32GB, but 64GB is better. Much depends on how you use your phone. You’ll obviously need more space if you like to load your MP3 collection on there. Having a MicroSD card slot allows you to expand your storage space relatively cheaply, but Apple never includes MicroSD card slots, so this is something you’ll only find in some Android devices.

Durability

We mentioned the dangers of glass phones briefly, but if you buy a glass phone and you’re prone to dropping it, make sure you get a protective case. You should also get a phone with some water resistance. The top flagships tend to have IP67 or IP68 ratings nowadays, which means they can be submerged in water without damage. Even budget phones often come with some water resistance, but it’s worth checking.

Choose a wireless carrier

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It’s important to choose a carrier that offers good coverage in your area so you’ll have a strong signal. We recommend doing a little research at Open Signal where you’ll find comprehensive coverage maps for different areas and carriers. Simply enter your location and pick a carrier to see what the coverage is like where you live and work. If you want to be able to do data intensive things — like stream video or play multiplayer games — without Wi-Fi, then make sure that 4G coverage is good in your area.

The four main choices are Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint, but there are other carriers such as MetroPCS, Boost, Cricket, and Virgin that may be worth considering. If you plan to buy your smartphone from your carrier, along with your service, then you should also check that they offer a phone you want. We recommend buying an unlocked phone when possible because it will work out cheaper in the long run and give you the freedom to change carrier in future.

Assuming there isn’t much difference in coverage quality for your area, and you can get the phone you want on multiple carriers, you may want to refer to our next section before making a decision.

Pick a service plan

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Carriers will always try to sell you expensive plans, so it’s worth considering what you actually need. If you tend to be on Wi-Fi a lot, then you probably don’t need a lot of data. Minutes and texts tend to be very cheap, so it’s usually the amount of data that determines the monthly cost. We have a guide to data usage that will help you figure out how much you use and what you need.

Once you have an idea of the data, minutes, and texts you need, try using a comparison service like Wirefly to find the best deal quickly. It’s worth considering that the more products and services you take from a single carrier, the more of a discount you can expect, though you may have to ask for it.

There are a lot of different service plans out there, but competition is usually good for consumers — you just have to shop around for the best deal. We’ve done some of the legwork for you in trying to identify the best family plans, best unlimited data plans, and best cheap phone plans.

It’s also a good idea to try and negotiate a better deal every once in a while. If you find a better plan for the same money somewhere else, but you don’t really want to leave your current carrier, then call them up and ask them about it. You want to get put through to the retention department, as they often have the power to offer you discounts and other incentives to stay, but it’s important to stick to your guns and be prepared to leave if they won’t match or beat the deal you’ve found.

We hope these tips will help you get the right smartphone for you. Hit the comments if you have a question and we’ll do our best to answer it.

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