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What should you keep in mind when buying a smartphone or tablet?

Since it’s a device that will be at your side for a long time, it’s best to give it the consideration it deserves.

ITS THAT TIME of year again, where a deluge of smartphones is released in time for the Christmas season.

It’s also a popular time for people to upgrade devices, with the holidays offering an excuse to upgrade from an old device to a shiny new one.

But you shouldn’t just plump for the latest iPhone. The good thing is there is more choice than ever in both devices and providers, and a little bit of research will bring you a long way.

The basics

As with all things, there are a couple of questions you should ask yourself if you’re getting a new phone for yourself or someone else.

- What type of phone do you already have? Do you want to change because your phone is on its last legs or for other reasons?
- How comfortable are you using a larger phone (5.5-inches+)? Do you want something more convenient to carry around or will you appreciate a larger screen?
- What platform are you most comfortable using? iOS, Android, Windows Phone? How willing are you to switch platforms?

KillBiller’s Shane Lynn recommends taking a look at your device first before you change it. The smaller improvements in new models mean a high-end phone from two years ago can still hold up against the best of them.

“A phone that’s two years old now isn’t that much worse than a brand new device that came out two months ago,” says Lynn. “Really think about whether it’s worth forking out for a really expensive device and committing to a 24-month contract”.

Germany IFA Tech Fair Source: Michael Sohn/Press Association Images

Specs

This applies more to Android devices than iOS, since there are so few iPhone models out there, but even so, you shouldn’t get too bogged down with how powerful or fast a device is. The only reasons are if you want it to last for more than a few years or you regularly play graphically-demanding 3D games.

If you really want to look into the nitty-gritty of specs, here are the main ones.

CPU – The speed of a CPU determines how fast and efficient it is at running tasks and processing data on your phone. Most modern phones now have quad-core processors, sometimes two, in the one device. A good mid-range device would have a clock speed (gHz or frequency) of at least around 1.5GHz and above.

RAM – This is how well it can handle multiple tasks; RAM saved temporary files so that certain apps and services can run without slowdown. 1GB is the bare minimum while 2GB is the standard for most devices, but if you’re able to go higher and can afford it, then go for it.

Storage – If you want to save numerous apps, files, music and photos/videos, you should consider this. Some devices come with micro-SD slots which can save photos/videos (and act as expandable storage with Android Marshmallow phones).

Camera – While megapixels is usually the first thing mentioned, focusing on that alone is not recommended. There are many other factors that contribute to a good camera, like optical lens, image stabiliser and other features, but the majority of mid- to high-range devices have decent-to-great cameras. Budget devices and tablets tend not to.

Battery: The bigger it is, the more power it can hold. A bigger battery might not necessarily mean a longer-lasting battery life (and similar with smaller batteries) as it’s dependent on the hardware it’s powering.

South Korea LG Electronics New Phone The camera may seem like a big deal but don't get too distracted by terms like Megapixels. Source: Lee Jin-man/Press Association Images

Unlocked or not?

There are two ways to buy a smartphone. Either pay for one through a mobile network or buy directly from the manufacturer.

How well the second would work depends on a number of factors.

- Can you get it with a network provider or is it only available through the manufacturer?
- What is your current plan? Will it allow you to move to a better plan (SIM-only or prepay)?
- Can you afford to pay a full fee up front?

The biggest benefit with unlocked phones is any SIM card will work with it. If you have a cheaper plan and are happy with it, then buying an unlocked phone for the same price can allow you to continue that plan without having to increase your monthly bill.

Yet that depends on the type of phone and deal you get, and it’s worth looking at the alternatives first before you part with your cash.

Which platform?

Just like the smartphone you will choose, the platform you use is something you should consider. Different platforms have different strengths and weaknesses and knowing what they are is a good idea before you buy.

iOS

The basis for all smartphone OS, iOS is still going strong despite a few hiccups with updates. Usually first with new apps and the gradual addition of extra features like Proactive and 3D Touch means it learns new tricks without changing its core.

Pros
- Simple interface and easy to understand.
- Updates are consistent across the board, which is good for security.
- Usually the first platform to get new apps.

Cons
- iPhones are very expensive.
- iOS interface is rigid to use in comparison to other products.
- Apple’s main apps can be hit and miss.

Apple retains coolest brand Source: Yui Mok/Press Association Images

Android

Google’s OS has come a long way since its introduction. The latest addition Marshmallow adds some features that take advantage of Google’s proficiency with data like Now on Tap and Doze, and its versatility and range of customisation has earned it many fans.

However, it has taken some serious hits this year with bugs like Stagefright emerging, and issues like fragmentation doesn’t help.

Pros
- Vast range of devices on offer, can now buy more devices with good specs on the cheap.
- Greater range of customisation and freedom using the platform.
- More flexibility means you can jump between apps and actions very quickly.

Cons
- Massive fragmentation between devices, meaning newer versions of Android take a while to arrive, if they arrive at all. Also leaves certain devices open to security issues when they aren’t eligible for updates.
- Different interpretations of Android mean you could have a different interface for different phones.
- Not as accessible as iOS and usually second in line for new apps.

Google Androids Next Tricks Source: Jeff Chiu/Press Association Images

Windows Phone

It’s probably fair to say that Windows Phone is in limbo at the moment. Windows 10 for phones will arrive next month but during the wait, Windows Phone 8.1 users are left starving for new apps and services.

Microsoft itself is prioritising its services on iOS and Android, meaning it’s a bit of a gamble if you’re jumping from iOS or Android, especially since Microsoft is focusing more on those platforms.

Pros 
- Simple to use interface, similar to iOS.
- Live widgets are handy for quick info.
- Continuum on Windows 10 could be useful for turning screens into PCs

Cons
- Smaller range of apps in comparison to iOS and Android.
- Fewer devices being released for it. Lumia 950 and 950 XL the only major ones coming up.

Microsoft The Lumia 950 and XL were announced in October, but Microsoft has been shifting its attention to other platforms. Source: Richard Drew/Press Association Images

What about tablets?

Their popularity may have diminished somewhat in recent years, but tablets have become more than just an oversized smartphone. Most of the above will apply but the likes of Chrome OS and Windows 10 are turning them into hybrid devices, compatible with Bluetooth keyboards and other peripherals.

Since tablets aren’t really something you will be carrying around with you, it’s better to think about how exactly you’re going to use it. You could use it for productivity, and purchase a keyboard for it, but what about media like YouTube or Netflix or reading news/ebooks?

Some are moving towards more work-orientated purposes like the iPad Pro or Microsoft’s Surface range, but you should consider how much you’re likely going to use it if you already have a smartphone and/or laptop.

Apple unveils new products The iPad Pro is Apple's latest attempt to boost its tablet business, but it's considerably more expensive than current models. Source: Martyn Land/PA Images

Read: What you should consider before purchasing a laptop? >

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About the author:

Quinton O'Reilly

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