Mobile phone buying guide

Buying a mobile phone is more than a matter of picking the most feature-rich or slickest-looking device — your usage and lifestyle are going to help you decide which is the right plan and handset for you.

Mobile phone buying guide

Buying a mobile phone is more than a matter of picking the most feature-rich or slickest-looking device — your usage and lifestyle are going to help you decide which is the right plan and handset for you.

As one of the most heavily saturated mobile phone markets in the world, Australia has a lot going for it when it comes to choice in mobiles. Carriers have invested heavily in new 3G networks to promote business use of wireless broadband services, while also encouraging consumers to get on board with services like instant messaging, video-conferencing, interactive games and other services you're likely to pay for.

With new SIM cards available at grocery store checkouts and all sorts of mobiles available for free, you're certainly not struggling for options when choosing your next phone. Before you dive in and sign a contract, however, it's worth doing a bit of research to make sure you end up with a phone — and a mobile service — that fit your requirements and your budget.

Technology freedom

Australia's love affair with GSM (Global System for Mobiles) — which was the country's first digital mobile network technology — continues unabated, despite past incursions from competitors promoting CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access).

While the longer range of Telstra's CDMA network had successfully kept most regional areas wired since it was introduced in 1999, its days were numbered. The launch of Telstra's faster Next G network in October 2006 preceded a total CDMA shutdown in 2008. The Next G network makes use of WCDMA technology and offers faster data transmission, though sacrifices range to some extent.

With technology issues out of the way, your biggest choice is whether or not you go for a full 3G service or not. Fortunately, buying into 3G technology doesn't require the compromise in coverage and features that it used to. Today's 3G phones — and there are a lot of them in the market — typically offer fall-back to GSM.

This means you can always get a dial tone even if you've strayed outside of the capital cities and regional centres where 3G signals are strongest; Telstra, Hutchison's 3, Optus and Vodafone offer seamless 3G-GSM roaming across most of the country and the world.

Getting on the plan

The services and technologies on offer may be largely similar across carriers, but their prices most definitely aren't. For up-to-date comparisons and the best deals across the carriers check out our guide to phones and pricing.

To contract or not to contract?
Each carrier offers a range of contract-based usage plans that vary in terms of the price per 30 seconds of calling, cost for overseas calls, and value of included calls. Contractual, post-paid accounts are convenient for many people because they combine all charges onto a single bill, don't run the risk of dropping calls due to inadequate prepaid balance, and can be set up for automatic payment. Capped-plan contracts also offer potentially lower-cost calling and texting in return for a minimum monthly commitment.

If you have an ABN (Australian Business Number), contracts also give you access to a range of extra features that have been designed for large businesses that typically have a number of people working from the field. For example, carriers can combine multiple mobiles onto a single account, and share bundled monthly usage allowances between those phones. Many plans offer free calling and SMS between mobiles on a single business plan, or free calls back to a single nominated office number.

Prepaid services also offer many redeeming qualities. Because they're time-limited, large prepaid top-ups can actually offer more calling for your buck than post-paid accounts; the catch, of course, is that your money disappears after several months whether you've used it or not. If you choose the prepaid path, you really need to mean it in order to get your money's worth.

The problem with prepaid accounts, of course, is that they usually require you to have your own phone — although some carriers now offer inexpensive phone-and-prepaid bundles that suit particular low-end users. Nonetheless, prepaid accounts are fantastic for people who want to control their spending (or their child's), worry that a lost or stolen mobile could let someone rack up thousands in phone bills, or just don't want to feel bound to a particular carrier if they find a better deal elsewhere and want to switch.

Examine your usage
If you've previously had a mobile service, the easiest way to pick the best new plan for you is to pull out your bills and look at your past usage patterns. Consider the following:

  • Do you typically call more during the day, or does your heavy late-night calling mean you may benefit from lower off-peak rates at nights and on weekends?

  • Do you use up the included call value more months than not? If so, consider a more expensive plan, which will reward you in the long term with lower rates and more contractual flexibility.

  • Did your previous plan include data charges? If you're a heavy data user, you'll want to carefully compare data charges to make sure you don't get onto a plan that will cost you an arm and a leg.

  • How do your SMS habits rate? Heavy texters may find value in prepaid bundles that include a huge number of SMS messages, which aren't expensive individually but can really add up through heavy and regular use.

Note that while most plans can be changed as your usage changes, carriers won't allow you to downgrade to a plan worth less than the one on which you signed up. So, while you may get a lower calling rate by jumping into a more expensive plan, higher minimum calling commitments mean you could well end up paying more in the long run if you don't use up your monthly allowance.

If you want a particularly cool or expensive phone, a contract can get it for you at a lower cost. Since your phone shop can factor in the depreciation of your phone over the contract's life, push the retailer to give you a better outright price on the phone you want by committing to a contract. Most retailers will also amortise the discounted cost of the phone across your contract's interest free, giving you access to cutting-edge technology now and letting you pay for it later.

If you've never had a phone before, it's going to be hard to know exactly what usage suits you best. Think twice before committing to a contract with high monthly obligations — especially those that the carriers spruik along with AU$0 phones. Although you may get the phone you want for less, once 24 months of contract fees are factored in it could cost you far more than just buying the phone outright and signing up for a cheaper plan.

If you're on a tight budget, consider buying a cheap phone and prepaid bundle, then turn on its built-in call meter and use your phone normally for a month or two. It might cost you AU$100 extra and force you to wait for a little longer but — if you keep good records — you can save many hundreds of dollars down the track by going into the right contract for your needs.

Do you need data?
For many years, accessing data services on most mobiles meant coping with GPRS (General Packet Radio Service), that clunky and painfully-slow 2G technology that lets GSM phones act like internet-connected computers. These days most new phones in Australia access 3G services, bringing faster speeds and a more satisfying internet experience to mobile handsets.

If you don't use data services and you honestly can't see that changing, don't sweat this part of the selection process. For everyone else, however, make sure you know how much potential plans' data charges are — and what the carriers can do to help manage them. If you use email a lot, the appeal of a predictable charging model, including flat-fee data access, is one of the many things that should make you consider a Research In Motion BlackBerry; these popular smartphones are available with flat-rate usage bundles that takes most of the sting out of downloading data in the field.

Even in the 3G world, data was initially expensive — but that has changed recently with the launch of bundled services that do away with per-megabyte pricing and allow access to a range of services at a flat rate per month.

The introduction of Apple's iPhone in 2008 ushered in carrier contract plans with data allowances included alongside calling and messaging services, and this style of plan has now been extended to recent smartphone releases, like the HTC Magic and the Nokia N97. If you're shopping for a high-end smartphone make sure your carrier offers a plan that included a data allowance of at least 200-500MB per month.

Choosing your phone

By the time you know what network and plan features you want, you will probably have a pretty good idea of the phone you want to use to access it. In fact, if you're like most people you may well have chosen the phone based on looks or other gut-feel factors. Just be sure, if you need anything more than basic texting and phone calls, that it meets all your needs.

Fortunately, most suburban shopping centres are packed with enough mobile phone shops — representing all the major networks — that you can test out a gaggle of potential phones in one healthy afternoon or late-night shopping stroll.

Comparison shopping
During your hands-on experimentation, you need to consider a range of factors.

There are, of course, aesthetic issues such as the colour, design, bling factor and external features of the phone; no matter what most people say, they're unlikely to choose a phone they don't find attractive in some way. Just make sure your dream phone isn't all style and no substance; even the best-looking phone can quickly become mobile non grata if it is aggravating to use.

Features are a major consideration, particularly given the wealth of phones and differentiated phone families now available on the market. Although it's hard to be exhaustive about features, you'll want to consider whether models offer capabilities such as:

  • An easy-to-use address book with SIM integration
  • Synchronisation with desktop contacts and calendar (and, in some cases, email)
  • MP3, WMA and AAC music support
  • Bluetooth wireless capability (with support for A2DP, aka Stereo Bluetooth, if you plan to use it for listening to music)
  • One-button switching between vibrate and normal modes
  • A large, legible screen
  • Quick response when moving through menus and selecting options
  • A smooth interface with easy-to-navigate menus
  • Dedicated music-playing buttons, if you're planning to use the phone extensively for listening to music
  • Wi-Fi support for web browsing and voice over IP calling
  • Video playback
  • The ability to view and edit common office documents
  • A good, loud ringer that can be heard in noisy environments
  • The ability to easily download and manage music files and ringtones
  • FM radio
  • Handsfree speakerphone
  • Push to talk, which is popular in some business circles but unnecessary for most users
  • Voice dialling, if you spend loads of time in the car or with your hands otherwise occupied
  • Easy switching between landscape and portrait display modes for editing and web browsing
  • Good camera resolution and lens quality; if you plan on doing lots of video-conferencing, also consider a unit with dual video-conferencing and photographic lenses

Form factor
Every phone offers some combination of these and other features, and in every case you need to evaluate the total package to decide what trade-offs you face. One easy way to whittle down your choices is to decide which form factor you prefer:

Candybar: your stock-standard phone, with numeric keypad on the bottom and screen on the top. Usually sturdy and reliable, but often sacrifices screen size to provide its all-in-one functionality.

Clamshell: a perennial favourite for those tired of the candybar design, clamshell phones are smaller to carry and quick to answer. Some have good-sized screens, although many are slightly feature-impaired due to the space limitations of the design.

Slider: a compromise between clamshell's compactness and candybar's utility, slider phones typically offer larger screens and enough buttons to access key features, with a full keypad available only when needed.

Touchscreen: touchscreens used to be a component reserved for serious business phones, but Apple's iPhone has single-handedly created a whirlwind of interest around phones in this form factor. Handsets sans buttons are in high demand, with the refinement in the technology making them more responsive and easier to use.

QWERTY: if any one factor will shape the next step in man's evolution, it will be mobile email, which has proven to be positively punishing on far too many thumbs. Thankfully, many phones have improved on 12-key texting by offering miniature QWERTY keyboards that make composing emails and SMSes much faster and easier. These phones, however, are wider than other designs and may sacrifice screen real estate for keyboard space.

Swivel: reflecting the growing sophistication of phones as tools for photographers and videographers, new models such as Nokia's N90 and N93 offer swing-out LCD screens that emulate conventional video cameras.

Let your personality do the talking
It's often said that people look like their pets. Some say the same is true of mobile phone owners who, it is argued, give clues to their personalities based on the chunks of silicon they prefer. And while you may not want to consider yourself a stereotype, it's important to be realistic about your personality and what you want from your phone.

All those features may sound cool, but you don't want them to get in the way of basic functions like talking and texting. Ditto surfing the net, which is a whole different exercise on a phone than at your desk. Many customers will even want to dumb down their selections when, for example, buying a phone for children or technophobic parents.


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