The Ultimate Cell Phone Buying Guide

Team iPhone or Team Android? We'll help you decide

The humble telephone has come a long way over the years. Gone are the days when the phone was simply a way to call people. These days, the phone is the hub of our digital lives, serving as a way to communicate with people, surf the Web, play games, pay bills, stay organized, and more.

Because a cell phone is one of our most important possessions, it can sometimes be tough to pick out the right one. That, however, is why we’ve put together this guide — to help you find the perfect cell phone for your needs. And there are a few different types to consider, so let's take a look.

Types of Cell Phones: Basic or Smartphone?

When buying a new cell phone, you’ll want to decide if you want a smartphone or a feature (basic) phone. If you do opt to go for a smartphone, you’ll then have to figure out which operating system you want that smartphone to run. And you’ll also want to consider other factors, including the amount of storage, screen size, battery life, and camera quality, to name a few. Feature phones, on the other hand, are a little bit easier to wrap your head around since they're pretty simplistic, but let's delve into the two different kinds of cell phones below, so you can have a better understanding.

Feature phones: Sometimes Simple is Better

The feature phone may be jokingly called the “dumb phone,” but a great feature phone still has a lot to offer — and may be the way to go for many people. Unlike smartphones, feature phones are generally built with only a few purposes in mind: calling and texting. Sure, some can do other things, too, but if all you want your phone to do is make calls and text people, then the feature phone may be the way to go.

Feature phone
Lifewire

Feature phones are also generally smaller and more portable than smartphones and often have a physical keyboard, though it’s usually a numeric keyboard.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that feature phones don’t have Web-browsing features at all. In fact, on the contrary, these days many of them do, but it’s certainly not as advanced as browsing on a smartphone.

Next up is the fact that feature phones are often more durable than smartphones. Smartphones have a heavy emphasis on design, and while they may look pretty, the fact is that they’re built largely with glass that can shatter with one simple drop. Feature phones, on the other hand, are often built with plastic, and have a much smaller screen, making for less area to crack if the phone is dropped.

Really, the main advantages to feature phones is that they’re inexpensive and basic. They’re also pretty easy to use, although smartphone manufacturers have gone out of their way in recent years to make smartphones pretty easy to use, too.

Smartphones: E-Mail, Browse the Web, Use Apps & More

There are dozens of advantages to using a smartphone over a feature phone, but they all boil down to one thing: Smartphones can simply do more. A lot more. Sure, they can text and make calls just like any other phone, but they can also run apps, browse the Web, manage e-mails, and come with a bigger screen, which makes them great for watching videos and looking pictures. Last but not least, they have a decent camera, and smartphone manufacturers are pouring cash into making the cameras even better, too.

There are a few downsides to smartphones. For starters, they’re bigger than feature phones, meaning that they take up extra room in your pocket or bag, and can feel a little bulky at times. On top of that, smartphones usually cost more, especially if you’re buying a high-end phone or an iPhone. There are inexpensive smartphones out there, though, and some even cost less than $100 these days, so don’t let cost be the only deciding factor between going for a smartphone or a feature phone.

Really, we recommend a smartphone to most users out there. They may be bigger and more expensive, but ultimately the fact that they can do so much more makes them well and truly worth those downsides. If you’re not adamantly against the larger size and don’t specifically want fewer features, then a smartphone is probably the way to go.

Smartphone Operating Systems: Team iPhone or Android?

So if you decided you want a smartphone, you'll have to then consider which operating system you want to use. The operating system on a smartphone plays the same role as an operating system on a computer. It’s basically the software that you interact with on a daily basis. On an iPhone, the operating system is iOS, while on an Android phone, it’s Android. There are a few advantages and disadvantages to each operating system, which we’ll go over below.

Android: Ideal for Google Loyalists

Interested in an Android operating system? Android is the most popular smartphone operating system in the world, and for a number of reasons. For starters, unlike Apple, which only allows for iOS to be used on its iPhones, Google licenses out Android to other companies. That’s why the likes of Samsung, HTC, Huawei, and Google itself all use the Android operating system.

If you’re a tried-and-true Google user, then Android is usually better at working with those apps and services. We’re not just talking about the Google search engine here — other operating systems make good use of that, too. Instead, we’re talking about the Google Play Music streaming service, Google Drive cloud storage, other Google devices like the Google Home smart speaker, and more. Now more than ever, choosing a smartphone operating system is about choosing an ecosystem, and if you go for an Android phone, it might be helpful to either already use Google’s services, or be willing to switch.

Android is also generally considered to be the operating system “that can do more" and has more features. That’s because of the nature of Android — the code for Android is available for developers who want it, and Google is far less closed off than Apple about that. If you’re a tinkerer, or you want to install apps from third-party sources, Android may be the way to go — through we recommend only downloading apps from the Google Play Store to ensure that your phones stay malware-free. The trade-off of being able to do more is that it’s slightly less easy to use than phones with iOS.

Last but not least is the fact that Android phones make use of Google’s work in machine learning and artificial intelligence. The result of that is that Google Assistant is more capable than some other digital assistants, and Android is better at predicting what you might want to do and when you might want to do it.

In the end, there are a few main reasons to go for an Android phone. They can be a little cheaper, they work better with Google’s apps and services, and they’re a little smarter.

iOS: Apple Users

Apple’s iOS may not be used by as many people around the world, but in the U.S. it’s actually the dominant smartphone operating system. There are plenty of reasons to go for an iPhone — the phone that runs iOS — over an Android device. The main ones, however, are that it’s built by Apple, and as such it’s both super easy to use, ultra-stylish, and plays nice with other Apple devices.

From the start, iOS guides you through getting used to your phone, and pretty much everything is where you would expect it to be. Settings are all in the settings app, apps are all lined up together, and so on.

Because of the fact that Apple controls every aspect of the development of an iPhone, they can generally last longer and feel faster in how they handle things like multitasking. That doesn’t necessarily mean that iOS phones perform truly better than Android phones — though they often do — it just means that iOS is better at working with the hardware to create a great user experience.

There’s also the fact that iPhones work better with other Apple devices. Safe to say, if you have a Mac computer or iPad, then an iPhone may be the way to go, as it makes it easy to sync things like photos, messages, e-mails, and more, all with Apple’s iCloud.

If you want a simple user interface, better Apple integration, and a phone that performs better for longer, then a phone with iOS is probably the way to go.

Other Features And Considerations: What's Important to You?

The operating system isn’t the only thing to consider when buying a smartphone — though if you’ve figured out which operating system you want, then you’ve done a lot of the work. You’ll also want to think about the hardware (processor, RAM, etc.) under the hood, the camera, screen size, battery capacity, and more. Only a few of these things are an issue when buying an iPhone (there are only a few iPhone models each year to choose from). But if you’re buying an Android phone, these things might all be something to consider.

Processor: How Fast Do You Want Your Phone to Be?

The processor is essentially the brain of a computer, or in this case, a phone. More powerful processors basically mean that your phone can “think” faster, meaning tasks are completed quicker, multitasking is zippier, and your phone will perform well for longer. Longevity is important here: A phone with a sub-par processor might be perfectly fine at handling the apps of today, but that may not be true of the apps being released in two years.

There are a few companies developing processors for smartphones. Apple develops its own processors in-house, but the likes of Qualcomm, MediaTek, Samsung, and more, all develop processors for Android phones. In the U.S., Qualcomm chips are most common, and in 2018, the flagship Qualcomm chip is the Snapdragon 845. The higher the number here, the better.

If you want more powerful processors, you’ll want processors with multiple “cores.” Traditional processors can only perform one task at a time, but a dual-core processor can process two, and a quad-core processor can process four.

Storage: Keep Your Pictures, Videos, Files & More on Your Phone

Storage is perhaps the most important thing for most people to consider. The more storage you have on your phone, the more files, apps, photos, video, etc., that you can keep on there at a time. These days, it’s a little easier to get by with less storage if you use cloud storage like Apple Photos or Google Drive, but some things simply can’t work without being stored on your phone. We recommend getting a phone with at least 16GB of storage (for light users), though 32GB is going to be much better, and 64GB or more should be enough for heavy users.

Some phones also allow for external storage, usually through a MicroSD card slot. With this slot, you can buy a small card about the size of a SIM card, which can be used to store files on. MicroSD cards start at around $10 for low-capacity ones and range up from there.

Camera: Consider Pixels & Aperture

The camera has become one of the most important aspects of a phone. After all, when a phone has a great camera it means you can quickly capture a moment without having to carry around another camera.

There are a few things that make a great camera, but the most important is the software behind it. Two phones with identical camera specs can yield vastly different results, so, unfortunately, it’s near impossible to shop for a phone with a great camera by only looking at specs on paper.

Still, there are a few specs to consider. For starters, the resolution of the camera is important to many people. Resolution determines the number of pixels that make up a photo or video — and a higher number of pixels means the photo will look good on higher resolution displays. As displays continue to go up in resolution, that can be very important.

You’ll also want to think about aperture, which is basically the size of the hole that light goes into before it reaches the camera sensor. The larger the hole, the more light that’s let in — which can be helpful for low-light situations. Aperture is expressed as an f-number — like, for example, f/2.0. Larger apertures, however, are represented by smaller numbers —which is confusing, but unfortunately the way it is.

We recommend looking at reviews for a phone to determine whether the camera is good or not. As mentioned, simple specs don’t mean a whole lot when it comes to camera quality, here are a few phone cameras we highly recommend.

RAM: The More, The Better

RAM, or Random Access Memory, is another form of storage, but instead of using it to save files, its used by your system to save things that it might want to pull up quickly. Most commonly, open apps are saved in RAM so that when you close them and open them again, they can show up on the screen without having to completely load again.

Generally speaking, more RAM is better when buying a smartphone, but phones with more RAM also often cost more. For a mid-range phone, you’ll probably find phones in the 2GB of RAM range, but for most users, a device with 3GB or more is recommended.

Display Type: LCD or OLED?

When it comes to phones, a screen isn’t just a screen. There are a few different types of displays, and they’re not all created equal.

The most common type of display type in mid-range and low-end phones is the LCD, or Liquid Crystal Display. LCDs are inexpensive to produce, which is why they’re used so often, but the trade-off is that they’re not the best at conserving battery life and they generally don’t produce the deepest blacks or brightest colors. There are two types of LCD’s though: TFT-LCDs, which are cheaper and the worst at color reproduction, and IPS-LCDs, which are a little better at color reproduction and wider viewing angles.

These days, high-end phones are doing away with LCDs in favor of OLED displays. Because OLED displays light up individual pixels rather than the display as a whole, it saves on battery life. On top of that, when black shows up on the screen, OLED displays simply don’t light it, meaning that blacks look deeper, and contrast ratios are higher. You might see “Super AMOLED” displays out there, which is basically Samsung branding for its OLED displays.

You’ll probably only notice the difference between LCD and OLED displays if you have a truly sharp eye, although you might find the battery improvements that come with OLED displays to be worth the extra cash.

Screen Size: Big or Small?

Phone display sizes have gotten a whole lot bigger over the years, and that might be important to you. Smaller displays come in at four inches, while larger displays can range up to seven inches. Phone displays are likely to continue to get bigger, too. That’s because of the trend of edge-to-edge displays, which minimize the amount of space between the screen and the edge of the phone and make for phones with larger displays, but the same overall size.

If you like to watch videos, look at photos, or play a lot of games on your phone, you might want to consider buying one with a larger display size.

Biometric Authentication: Fingerprint or Facial Recognition?

Gone are the days when you had to enter a PIN code to access your phone. These days, most smartphones have a fingerprint sensor built into them, ensuring you can get into your device quickly and easily, and at the touch of a sensor. Some higher-end phones also have other forms of biometric authentication, like iris scanning or facial recognition.

Many consider fingerprint sensing to be the easiest way to authenticate, especially depending on its placement. While some phones mount a fingerprint sensor on the front of the device, others have a sensor on the back, making it easy to quickly scan your fingerprint as you take your device out of your pocket.

These days, some phones also have facial recognition, which is both safer, and sometimes easier to use. All you have to do to authenticate yourself with a facial recognition is look at your phone, which does present some difficulty if your phone is on your desk, for example.

Some other high-end phones also offer iris scanning, which presents its own advantages and disadvantages. The advantages are that iris scanning is highly secure and relatively easy to use, but the disadvantage is that iris scanners are expensive to make and implement.

We recommend a phone with at least a fingerprint scanner, though any other methods of authentication can be useful, too.

Battery Capacity: How Long Can The Phone Hold a Charge?

Not all batteries are the same size, and a smaller battery can have a serious impact on how long your phone lasts on a single charge. Battery capacity is measured in milliampere hours, or mAh — where a higher number represents a larger capacity. Of course, it’s not always as simple as “larger batteries make your phone last longer.” A phone with a larger battery but an equally high-resolution display and power-hungry processor may not last as long as a phone with a smaller battery, lower-resolution display, and less intense processor.

Most phones that you come across should last at least a day of normal use on a single charge, but the fact remains that bigger batteries are helpful, and battery capacity is definitely something you should consider. We recommend getting a phone with at least a 2,500mAh capacity — though again, how long that lasts will depend on a lot of different factors.

Charging: Wireless Charging & Fast Charging Capabilities?

While battery capacity is important enough, for many, how you charge up that battery is equally as important. Many devices simply charge through their charging port, and most low-end and mid-range phones don’t have any fancy fast-charging tech. Some phones, however, have ways to accelerate how fast their battery is charged, at least when coupled with the right charger. This fast-charging tech varies from company to company, but whenever present, it can be very helpful to have.

There’s another charging tech that can be helpful, and that’s wireless charging. Wireless charging has been around for some time now, and some Android manufacturers have been making use of it for years. Just recently, Apple introduced wireless charging on its phones, so the tech has quickly become a whole lot more popular. Wireless charging essentially allows you to charge your phone by popping it onto a charging mat or dock, without having to plug it in. It’s very convenient, but something largely reserved for high-end devices. If you are buying a high-end device, wireless charging is definitely something to consider.

Durability: Waterproof & Drop Tested

You’ll likely want your phone to be durable, and there are a few ways to make sure it is. The most common rating for durability is an “Ingress Protection” rating, which covers water-resistance and dust-proofing. Most phones that have an IP-rating have at least IP67, which means that a phone is dust-tight and can withstand being immersed in up to one meter of water for up to 30 minutes. A rating with numbers higher than that is always battery.

Some phones also have military drop-test ratings, which means they’re testing to be able to withstand drops and bumps. Phones that have this aren’t common, but they should be able to withstand a whole lot more abuse than the standard phone. Most commonly, you’ll see the MIL-STD-810G standard, which means the phone has been tested to withstand a total of 26 drops on each face, edge, and corner. The standard is a little misleading because manufacturers can test with up to five samples, meaning each sample is only dropped five or six times, but it still means that the phone should withstand the odd drop perfectly fine.

Conclusion: A Quick Recap

As you can tell, there are quite a few things to consider when buying a new phone, whether you’re looking for a smartphone or a feature phone. If you go the feature route, your options are a bit easier to whittle down, but if you opt for a smartphone, you’ll then want to decide between Android or iOS. And of course, you still need to figure out a budget, and decide on the specifications that are most important to you (whether they be power-related, display-related, or otherwise). Find the best phone with those specs in your price range, and voila, you have yourself a new phone.

No matter what’s important to you, there’s almost certainly a phone that will be perfect for your needs. There are dozens of phones out there, after all, and more are being released every single week.

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