I get asked about my phone opinions a lot. But the most important factor when you're ready to buy isn't what I like, it's what you care about most. Is it screen space, camera or something else entirely? At the end of the day, the choice typically comes down to price.
For the most part, a phone's cost lines up with its performance. Expensive handsets will have the "best" features, fastest processors and the most advanced cameras. You'll be able to do more on them, and brag to your friends.
Midrange devices are value plays that pack in pretty good features with a slight trade-off in speed, camera tools and nice-to-have extras that most people can live without. If you can happily spend your days without a curved screen or wireless charging, phones in this range will suit you fine.
Finally, low-cost phones are great options for people watching their budgets, first-time phone users and those looking for a secondary or backup device.
January and February are slow times for new handsets. We get some announcements in those months (around the CES and MWC trade shows), but the devices themselves only start hitting shelves in March and April. You do see new releases through summer, and a larger concentration of phone reveals as we head into September, October and November, the prime-time months for holiday sales.
- Know what you care about most: Is it screen size, camera quality, battery life? This will help narrow down your choices.
- Don't discount the midrange: You can get a great phone that does almost everything that a premium phone can do, for a fraction of the price.
- Shop the sales: Look for deep discounts around major holidays. And find out your grace period in case you need a quick return or exchange.
- Last year's phones are a great deal, too. Wait for this year's launch to get last year's phone for less.
- Hold the phone at a store first: You may love or hate the way it looks and feels in person.
- If you buy a global phone, make sure it works with your carrier bands first.
- Have you already bought a lot of iPhone apps and iTunes movies? Stick with iPhone if you still want access to them. Likewise, if you've invested in any Android-only software, you'll want to stay on that side of the fence. Otherwise, it's simple enough to switch platforms.
- Buy a case and glass screen protector: You'll protect your phone from costly damage, and will increase the phone's resale or trade-in value for when you're ready to move on.
Android has the better native maps app and assistant by far (known as Google Now or Google Voice Search). Another Android benefit: It ties into the same Google services many people already use.
Major updates are typically announced in May or June. A "pure" Google phone will be first in line for major OS updates, whereas phone manufacturers take longer to upgrade Android. Pricier and more popular phones are more likely to get the update.
- Android 8.0 Oreo or higher: This current OS will get you the most recent goodies, including autofill in Chrome and shrinking a video to a small thumbnail you can move around while doing other things.
- Android 7.0 Nougat: Last year's version is still going strong. Any older than this and you'll start to lose out on navigation speed and extra features.
For screens 4.7 inches and larger:
- Look for a minimum screen resolution of 1080p.
- A 2,560x1,440-pixel resolution is even better, especially for 5.5-inch screens and larger.
- Higher megapixels don't always equal higher quality shots. A 12-megapixel camera might take better photos than a 16-megapixel camera. The amount of light a camera can let in is crucial to good photos, as is the software that processes your pics.
- That said, phones with 8-megapixel rear cameras only appear on budget phones these days. Expect middling quality. If a phone has two rear cameras, the second camera is there to create an optional depth effect (also known as a background blur or bokeh effect), telephoto, a wide-angle option or more image detail (one lens is monochrome).
- Optical image stabilization, or OIS, diminishes blur from shaking hands. This is especially helpful when shooting indoors or in low-light. It won't help with blur caused by a moving subject, though. Most phone cameras come with HDR, self-timers, beauty mode and plenty of filters and effects.
Battery life and performance
Most phones from the middle price range and up can handle a basic day's worth of phone calls, email, gaming and music needs, though some internal tech is more refined than others. Some midprice phones even use the same chips as those with nosebleed prices.
- You'll need to charge most phones once a day, so plan accordingly -- stock up on an extra charger for your workplace or your bag.
- You'll typically get longer life from a 3,000mAh battery or above.
- Maps and music streaming suck down battery life faster than other activities. So does keeping brightness on full blast.
- An octa-core processor isn't always "better" than a quad-core
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