Finding the ideal smartphone that best suits your needs isn't always easy. There are many criteria to consider before making your choice. Don't panic! High Tech Review gives you the keys to choosing the right smartphone.
Not a week goes by without a smartphone brand launching a new reference on the market. It's a device that you carry with you most of the time, and that you'll use every day for a little while. Choosing a smartphone is therefore neither simple nor trivial.
DEFINE ITS NEEDS AND CRITERIA
First of all, here are the first pieces of advice we could give you:
Start by asking yourself the right questions: what is the maximum price I want to put in my phone? What is the maximum screen size I want? What is the maximum size of the shell? What will my smartphone be used for: watching videos? Use social networks and connect to the Internet? Work? Playing games? These are really the first mandatory questions to ask and only then can you start targeting devices and get interested in their technical specifications.
Feel free to put a certain price in your phone. This does not mean that you have to put the highest price. If for you, the smartphone is an important and indispensable element in your life, set yourself a budget of at least 250 or 300 dollars. Mid-range smartphones between 200 and 500 dollars are of excellent quality and can easily last two to three years. And if you want a good phone before a trendy one, take a look at the top-of-the-line smartphones from the previous year. Their price has often been halved in 12 months!
Choosing a smartphone can therefore be a long quest. This guide, like all our other guides, is updated very regularly with a selection of our favourite smartphones. We also have guides for every budget (for $200, $300, or even $400), or for specific criteria (the best in photos for example). It goes without saying, but we only add to our buying guides smartphones that we have tested ourselves and can recommend. We explain how we test and rate smartphones in a dedicated article.
THE SCREEN: LCD OR OLED? HD OR 4K ? HDR ?
In brief: Prefer OLED rather than LCD screens, with a good colour spectrum displayed (if possible DCI-P3 or Adobe RGB) and with a resolution of at least 350 pixels per inch. Reading the smartphone test is the only way to check the color accuracy, the calibration of the screen.
The screen is one of the most important elements to consider when buying a phone, as it is the screen that will provide the most comfort. And to make the right choice, it's not just a matter of checking the number of pixels.
THE TYPE OF SLAB
When choosing a smartphone, perhaps the most important feature when looking at the screen is the slab technology used. There are two major technologies competing, LCD (mostly IPS LCD) on the one hand and OLED on the other (POLED, AMOLED, etc.). More recent OLED technologies have long been reserved for the high-end market.
The advantage of OLED is that the screen can display perfect blacks, and therefore infinite contrast, because the backlighting is managed individually per pixel. All other things being equal, OLED should therefore prevail on an LCD screen when making a choice. Fortunately, the horrible TN technology has now disappeared from the market.
COLORS DISPLAYED: SRGB, DCI-P3, ADOBE RGB
A criterion often put forward by the marks is the color spectrum displayed, also called gamut. The wider the gamut of a screen, the more colours it can display. In order, we will prefer Adobe RGB or DCI-P3 screens rather than a simple sRGB screen.
Be careful, however, displaying colors does not necessarily mean that the screen displays them correctly, and this is where calibration takes on its full importance. Unfortunately, to find out whether a monitor is correctly calibrated, there is no other choice than to read tests of the device. It is impossible to guess this from a product data sheet.
DEFINITION AND RESOLUTION
The definition of a screen is an important element (the famous HD, Full HD, QHD or 4K), but it is not everything. You may encounter a "+" next to the definition (Full HD+, HD+), it's usually the same definition, but with a few more pixels to adapt to a different screen format (19:9 instead of 16:9 for example).
The definition is absolute, and does not take into account the size of the screen, which is important when it comes to the number of pixels displayed. Then comes into play the notion of resolution, or pixel density. It is calculated according to the size of the screen, and is expressed in pixels per inch (dpi). The 350 pixel per inch bar is a good step to reach for a comfortable screen to read.
Look for any mention of anti-scratch treatment, which will significantly increase the life of your device. The most common one, Corning's Gorilla Glass, is very effective. The screen may also benefit from an oleophobic treatment against fingerprints, but this detail is rarely mentioned on the technical data sheets of the appliances.
THE DESIGN: NOTCH, PLASTIC AND METAL
In brief: Try to get to grips with the smartphone in the store before you buy. Check if the smartphone is certified as water and dust resistant and prefer smartphones without mechanical cameras.
We're not going to tell you, the appreciation of a phone's design is mostly subjective. The widespread use of borderless displays has forced manufacturers to find new ways to integrate the camera in the front panel: drilled screen, notch or mechanical camera. It is up to you to decide, but note that any additional mechanism is a potential source of subsequent failure.
There are several objective points regarding design: is the smartphone made of plastic or metal? With or without a 3.5 mm jack port? Is it certified as water and dust resistant?
At the top end of the range, smartphones with a metal or glass back are preferred, as these materials are considered more noble than plastic. Glass generally allows better wireless data transmission and compatibility with the wireless load. If your budget is particularly limited, really try to take the phone in hand, it's on these ranges that you can most easily encounter inconveniences: squeaky shell or poorly integrated screen glass. If it is not possible to take the phone in hand, you will again have to rely on the various tests.
WHICH OPERATING SYSTEM TO CHOOSE FOR A SMARTPHONE?
The smartphone market is divided between two operating systems: Google's Android or Apple's iOS. This is the software installed on the smartphone on which its functionality, performance, data security, and more simply, the application store depend.
Android and iOS are both stable and mature solutions, the new versions don't revolutionize much anymore and only make a few improvements each year. The differences between the two environments are not as marked as they used to be: multitasking, notification, the essentials are there. Of course iOS is still the ideal choice if you already have Apple devices, whereas Android is more to be preferred in a Google or Microsoft (Windows) ecosystem.
In brief: The choice between Android and iOS is not so important anymore, and the decision is more about the interfaces, which are different for each brand. If you already have a smartphone and you like its interface, you might want to keep the same manufacturer.
If you are interested in an Android smartphone, you must then pay attention to the interface used by the manufacturer. Smartphone brands like to customize the Android experience to better fit their image, we're talking about Samsung OneUI, MIUI from Xiaomi or ColorOS at Oppo and Realme or EMUI at Huawei and Honor. Some manufacturers are choosing to keep the default Android interface, this is the case of Google, but also Motorola, or Nokia.
Also remember to check the Android version. The best is of course to be on the latest version, Android 10, and to have the latest security updates installed. These updates are offered monthly by Google, but can be deployed by the manufacturer at its own pace depending on the smartphone model.
SOC, PROCESSOR, RAM AND IA: SNAPDRAGON, KIRIN, MEDIATEK
In brief: The SoC determines the performance of your smartphone. Qualcomm's Snapdragon 400 or 200 chips are too slow to perform, so you should avoid using Qualcomm's Snapdragon 400 or 200 chips. A smartphone with at least 3 or 4 GB of RAM is a must.
The SoC, System on Chip, is the central component that will determine the power and performance of your smartphone. It is actually a chip that includes both the processor (CPU), but also the graphics chip (GPU), and many other things: the modem, sensors, GPS, ISP for photography and so on. It's quite difficult to find your way around, especially since shops and operators don't always give all the necessary details on the product sheet.
Two manufacturers are known to offer their SoCs to smartphone brands: Qualcomm, with the Snapdragon, and MediaTek. Some brands directly use their own SoC, such as Huawei (Kirin), Samsung (Exynos) and Apple.
This processor consists of one or more cores, each based on an architecture, and with a given maximum frequency. These are the three mandatory criteria that allow the power of a processor to be gauged on paper. The architecture is particularly important: a high-end SoC with four cores clocked at 1.2 GHz can be much more powerful than an eight-core processor clocked at 1.5 GHz.
Qualcomm divides its processors into four categories: Snapdragon 4xx, Snapdragon 6xx, Snapdragon 7xx and Snapdragon 8xx, which roughly correspond to the entry-level (4xx), mid-range (6xx, 7xx) and high-end (8xx) processors. Forget about the Snapdragon 4xx, they don't offer enough performance to make a smartphone enjoyable to use.
MediaTek SoCs are typically found on entry-level and mid-range smartphones. The problem with MediaTek is that it does not have as clear and orderly a classification as Qualcomm. So it's often very difficult to know which processor you're dealing with and whether it's an entry-level or mid-range processor. There is no secret to verify their power, you have to consult tests and technical data sheets. Some of MediaTek's SoCs are very convincing and sometimes more powerful than Qualcomm's.
Beyond a certain point, the difference in power between SoCs will only have an influence in games, or for photo processing. The rest of the usage (web phone and video streaming) is pleasant on most SoCs. Caution is especially advised on entry-level and mid-range smartphones. On FrAndroid, for example, we always take the time to run a few games and benchmarks on the phones we test to evaluate their power and compare them to devices in the same price range.
Finally, on the subject of RAM, we'll be categorical: on Android, don't buy a smartphone with less than 3 GB of RAM, it's the union minimum to run the OS and applications properly. Below this limit, the experience will be strongly degraded in our opinion.
From 6 GB and above, use becomes comfortable and guarantees that you will have no problems keeping a large number of applications in the background if the manufacturer's optimizations do not cut them out unnecessarily. Note that this criterion is not very important at Apple, which generally guarantees a good functioning of its smartphones and does not even specify the RAM capacity of the iPhone.
CAMERA: THE NUMBER OF SENSORS IS NOT EVERYTHING
In brief: The camera is the most difficult item to evaluate without reading a test. The number of cameras in the back, or megapixels, is not everything. The first thing to check is the consistency between the sensor size, the lens aperture, the different cameras chosen, and the photo processing configured by the manufacturer.
The camera, or rather the cameras built into our smartphones have become the number one criteria for many users. It is also one of the most complex criteria today, as the market offers so many different things.
THE NUMBER OF SENSORS
Today, the majority of smartphones offer at least two cameras on the back. This is an interesting development in more ways than one, but manufacturers have adopted different strategies. Indeed, there are several types of cameras that can be combined on the back of a phone:
- Wide-angle: this is usually the main camera used by the smartphone.
- Ultra wide-angle: as its name suggests, it allows you to capture a larger scene, making it ideal for landscapes, but also for getting more information when combined with the phone's other sensors.
- Telephoto lens: on a smartphone, it allows you to zoom in without any loss of quality on the photo, unlike a digital zoom which consists of simply stretching a piece of an image.
- The macro lens: it allows you to better photograph a subject just a few centimetres away from the camera. It is particularly useful for capturing details, or very small objects.
- Depth sensor: this is an additional sensor to assist the smartphone by giving it additional information. In reality, its addition is rarely convincing and above all allows the manufacturer to add a line on the product sheet.
The usefulness of these additional devices will necessarily depend on the intended use of the smartphone.
MEGAPIXELS AND SENSOR SIZE
As with a traditional camera, there are many data that matter. If it is mentioned, the size of the sensor will have to be taken into account. The bigger the sensor, the better. You can be picky and check the size of the photosites (the bigger they are, the more they will be able to capture information such as light).
After the sensor, let's move on to the optics and more specifically to the lens aperture. This is the number formulated as "f/1.7" or "f/2". Keep in mind that the smaller this number is, the wider the lens is and therefore the better it will be to give the illusion of depth of field and capture a lot of light.
STABILIZATION, NIGHT MODE, ETC.
Some manufacturers refer to their "OIS" system, Optical Image Stabilization. This is mechanical rather than software-based, allowing you to reduce the effect of blur when you move and therefore capture more light in low light without having a blurred picture. If you take a lot of pictures with your phone, or if you film, it is a must.
Finally, we have not mentioned it: all the points raised in this section can be applied to the front camera. Check the size of the sensor, the quality of the optics, but also the presence of a second camera.
STORAGE: HOW MUCH GO DO YOU NEED IN A SMARTPHONE?
In brief: Take at least 64 GB, if possible marked "UFS", and check whether the smartphone offers a microSD drive, which will expand the storage space afterwards.
Smartphone storage is becoming a little less important with the widespread availability of online photo backup services, and streaming music and video, which means less demand on the precious GB of your smartphone. On the other hand, there's nothing more frustrating than ending up with full storage on a smartphone you love, so plan ahead.
First check whether the smartphone has a microSD port. This makes it easy to expand storage at a low cost, and can give a device a second life. The presence of a microSD port makes it less difficult to use the device's storage space.
More concretely, in 2020, a smartphone must offer at least 64 GB of storage. Of course, the more storage, the better. When it comes to storage performance, such as how quickly applications can be installed, for example, it depends on the technology used. First on the market is the aging eMMC, a low-performance storage that must make way for the much faster UFS (UFS 2.1 or UFS 3.0) memory.
BATTERY: AUTONOMY AND QUICK CHARGE
For the battery, two parameters must be taken into account: its capacity, which will largely determine the autonomy of the smartphone, and its recharging speed.
In brief: Choose a battery of at least 3500 mAh and a smartphone equipped with a USB-C port compatible with fast charging. The supplied charger should deliver at least 10 to 15 W.
The battery capacity, expressed in mAh, is what makes it possible to evaluate the autonomy of the smartphone, according to its consumption. The battery alone is not enough to become the phone's autonomy: the consumption of the screen, the SoC or more simply the manufacturer's software optimizations must be taken into account.
It is estimated that a smartphone should have a battery of at least 3500 mAh. The higher the capacity, the better it will be for the autonomy of the smartphone, but it also means a greater weight and thickness and a recharging time that can be longer.
The charging speed of the smartphone is another point to take into account. The user experience of a smartphone with an average battery life can be saved if it only takes a few minutes to recover valuable hours of battery life. This speed depends on the compatibility of the smartphone with fast charging standards, but also on the power of the charger supplied with the smartphone. A 10 to 15W charger is the minimum to offer fast charging on a smartphone.
DETAILS TO REMEMBER
Finally, here are a few details to pay attention to.
SIM cards and 4G/4G+/5G compatibility :
The smartphone can integrate several SIM card readers, which is convenient for having two different phone numbers, or for switching between two mobile networks of two different operators. Check if the smartphone supports dual active service (DSDA) so that it can switch from one SIM card to the other, even during a call.
You should also check whether the smartphone is compatible with the 4G frequencies used by your operator. This is the case for the vast majority of smartphones sold in France, without going through a market place, but it is an important element to check for importation.
SAR or Specific Absorption Rate: we will not explain in detail what SAR is. The important thing to remember is that the higher the SAR, the more harmful it is to your health. In France, the maximum SAR allowed by law is 2 W/kg, which is supposed to be benign.
After-sales service: not all manufacturers' after-sales services are the same. Indeed, the vast majority of manufacturers now prefer to subcontract after-sales service. Telephone support varies greatly from one manufacturer to another: surcharged numbers, long waiting times and other forms to be filled in can change completely.