So you’re thinking of buying a smartphone, but trying to compare the latest Samsung to the newest HTC is proving trickier than expected with all the stats and terminology tied to them. Thanks to the average demands of the modern smartphone, most handsets utilise more sensors and general hardware than the Apollo 11 space mission had at its disposal. As such we’re going to break down some of the key terminology tied to choosing a smartphone so you have a better idea of what to look out for and what to avoid.
Knowing which smartphone to buy isn’t easy and there’s no single definitive answer. Different users require different functionality. The key things worth considering are elements like design, cost and special features, indeed some handsets are stronger in some areas than others or a lower overall feature set can mean a more affordable all-round package. So what features do you need?
Central processing units or processors are the brain of any smartphone. Since 2012, the most powerful handsets have been able to support quad-core processors. Two elements to note that affect the performance of a processor are the number of cores (single-core, dual-core, quad-core etc.) and clock speed; which is measured in MHz (megahertz) or GHz (gigahertz).
The higher the number of cores and the higher the clock speed, the more powerful (and faster) the smartphone will likely be to use. As a rule of thumb, the more expensive the handset, the more processing power it will likely have. As an example the LG Nexus 4 - Google’s latest Android smartphone, features a 1.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro quad-core processor and retails for around £380, whilst the Samsung Galaxy Ace - one of the best-selling budget smartphones of the past year, features an 800MHz single-core processor and retails for around £120 but offers far less in the way of performance.
Random Access Memory or just memory isn’t for storage in this instance; it’s dedicated space for the CPU and some other select components to make use of when carrying out tasks. The more demanding the task, the more RAM is likely to be used and the faster a task can be carried out. A phone with a powerful processor but a small amount of RAM might struggle to perform smoothly or maintain long drawn out processes well, like running a graphically demanding app.
As with CPUs, the more expensive the handset, the more RAM is likely to be on offer. Like storage, RAM is measured in GB (gigabytes). With the rate of change in modern smartphones, handsets with at least 1GB of RAM and up will likely point towards the smoothest user experiences going into 2013.
Part of what makes a smartphone a smartphone is its ability to connect to various devices and services simultaneously. Your average smartphone should offer WiFi - for accessing the internet wirelessly over a local network, Bluetooth - for sending files and connecting to compatible headsets and hands-free sets wirelessly (note: the higher the version number, the newer and better the Bluetooth technology on offer: Bluetooth 4.0 is one of the newest standards), microUSB - for charging and file transfers via a compatible USB cable and 3G/HSPA+ connectivity - for fast web browsing and online services over a mobile network.
There are other features that have started to emerge which are also worth considering if you have specific needs. As well as 3G/HSPA+ mobile data speeds, countries like the UK now support 4G (LTE) which is said to be up to five times faster than that of 3G, meaning web pages will load faster, videos will take less time to buffer and accessing your favourite social networks will be smoother than ever. NFC or Near Field Communication is a method of sending files or connecting to Bluetooth device simply by being in close proximity to one another.
Displays are an important component to consider when choosing any phone as they’ll be the key method in which you interact with your device. Display size, display resolution and display technology are all elements to consider. The bigger the screen, the higher the resolution needs to be otherwise images and text will be difficult to view and detail will get lost. The tail-end of 2012 has played host to some of the first Full HD (1080p) smartphone displays in commercial use, but anything from WVGA (800 pixels tall by 480 pixels wide) will likely provide a decent viewing experience on a display size of up to 4-inches.
The other aspect we mentioned is display technology: there are two popular types of display available in an array of variations. LCDs (Liquid Crystal Displays) are known for being both brighter and offering more vivid imagery and colour reproduction, but at the same time usually drain the battery faster than displays which are AMOLED (active-matrix organic light-emitting diode) based. AMOLEDs are susceptible to having a noticeable blue hue on whites (although this is less of an issue with modern displays) but still offer wonderfully sharp, colourful images, whilst consuming less power than an LCD. They’re also not usually quite as bright.
A popular example of a phone with an LCD panel is the Apple iPhone 5, which utilises a 4-inch Retina display with a resolution of 640x1136, resulting in 326 pixels per inch. Meanwhile a prime example of an AMOLED display is the screen on offer with the Samsung Galaxy S3. The S3 utilises a 4.8-inch HD (720x1280) Super AMOLED screen with a pixel density of 306ppi.
Different to RAM, storage memory is measured in MB (megabytes) or GB (gigabytes) and is the amount of space dedicated to storing content either pre-installed or downloaded onto the phone. With the file types and sizes today, it makes sense to choose a handset with at least 4GB of user-accessible onboard memory. Some phones also allow for removable memory such as a microSD card, which can store music, pictures, movies and various other files types and be slotted in or out of the phone via a dedicated slot, much like a USB memory drive on a computer.
Some manufacturers also let you buy or rent cloud storage, which is storage that doesn’t actually exist physically on the phone, but instead is stored somewhere remotely. Apple’s popular iCloud service is an example of this, with users being allocated 5GB of free cloud storage with the option to rent additional space for a yearly subscription cost (an extra 10GB of space costs £14 a year).
Smartphone cameras are extremely varied and the results of two phones with the same resolution cameras can differ wildly. Resolution, which is measured in MPs or megapixels is one element of the mobile photography experience. Smartphones can now typically shoot video and you know you’re looking at a more powerful device if it can shoot video at a resolution of 720p HD or higher. When looking at video, frame rate is also important, with 30fps (frames per second) and up being considered high quality.
One of the biggest leaps forward in camera technology within mobile phones occurred earlier in 2012, with Nokia producing the 808 PureView: a smartphone with 41-megapixel digital camera but as was mentioned earlier, pure resolution isn’t everything. If a good camera in a smartphone is a must, then it’s really a case of reading reviews, looking at comparisons and where possible, trying the cameras out for yourself to see which results best suit your style of photography.
The last crucial element of deciding on any smartphone is battery capacity (its size) and battery life. A larger more powerful handset will typically require a larger battery due to the bigger screen and the more powerful hardware likely lurking under the hood. Size is no true indicator however as smaller handsets can feature bigger batteries for better battery life. Expect a good smartphone to last at least a day of general use on a single charge without struggling.
Battery capacity is measured in mAh (milliamp hours) with the aforementioned LG Nexus 4 with its quad-core processor and 4.7-inch screen making use of a 2100mAh battery , whilst the smaller, older, less powerful Samsung Galaxy Ace only requires a 1350mAh battery. Aspects such as hardware and use (the type of tasks and the length of tasks) affect battery life. A quad-core smartphone shouldn’t really settle for anything under 2000mAh.
Check out our 'What's inside your smartphone?' guide for more information.