Mobile phone buying guide

Considering buying a new mobile? Our handy guide will tell you everything you need to know to make a well-informed decision.

Mobile phones, eh? Once the brick-sized preserve of city-slicking business types, every Tom, Dick and Harry has one nowadays, and there are more different models knocking around than ever before. Choosing which phone is the one for you can really do your nut in, so we've put together a comprehensive buying guide for your delectation. Without further ado, let's get into it.

Entry-level phones

When buying a mobile phone, there are many things to consider. First of all, you've got to ask yourself what's most important to you in a phone. Are you just looking for a simple handset with which to make calls and send the odd text message, without access to the Internet? If so, there are a number of cheap and simple pay as you go phones available from the major networks or from your local supermarket. Typically, these are priced between £10 and £60.

These phones come in a range of different designs. For example, the Nokia 1616  (right) has a candy-bar layout with the screen at the top and the keypad at the bottom. The Sony Ericsson Spiro , however, uses a slider mechanism, so you push the screen upwards to reveal the keypad hiding behind it. The Doro PhoneEasy 409gsm  has a flip design, with a hinge in the middle, so you can flip the handset open to reveal the screen and keypad.

Generally these budget pay as you go phones have pretty basic features. But, because of this, they usually offer long battery life, so you can use them for a few days before you need to charge them up again. They're also relatively easy to use for just making calls and sending texts. The downside is that they often only offer very basic Internet features and usually also have very poor cameras that take low-resolution, blurry photos

Feature phones

The next step up the ladder from an entry-level phone is a mid-range handset, often referred to as a 'feature phone'. Feature phones generally cost between £60 and £120 and include a limited Web browser. They may only support slower GPRS Internet speeds, rather than the faster 3G that you get on smart phones. Most do support email and include a decent music player. Often they'll have some built-in apps for social networking, so you can check Facebook or post tweets through your Twitter account.

The camera quality of feature phones is often decent. Even cheaper models like the Sony Ericsson Cedar offer 2-megapixel cameras, which are capable of taking shots suitable for uploading to social-networking sites.

The majority of feature phones still rely on direction pads for menu navigation, but an increasing number now use touchscreens, including the T-Mobile Vairy Touch II , Samsung Tocco Icon  (right) and Alcatel OT-980 . Such touchscreens are often of the resistive variety, though, so they aren't as sensitive to finger presses as the capacitive displays you usually find on smart phones.

Smart phones

When you start to spend around £100 or more, you're into smart-phone territory. There's been a big increase recently in the number of Android smart phones available for just over the £100 mark. These include the Orange Stockholm , Vodafone Smart and Samsung Galaxy Fit . Handsets such as these have good Web features and allow you to install apps so that you can add functionality to your phone. You'll also find some BlackBerry and Symbian-powered Nokia handsets available at around this price point.

Smart phones of this price tend to have fairly small, low-resolution screens, though, so they're not great for watching movies or viewing photos. Their processors aren't hugely powerful, either. This can mean some apps won't run well on the handset, and you may lose out on being able to play Flash video in the browser. The build quality and camera are also unlikely to be as impressive as those of more expensive smart phones.

As you move up to the £200 to £300 mark, you'll start to find smart phones with faster processors, better cameras and larger, high-resolution screens. Among them are the likes of the HTC 7 Mozart , which runs Windows Phone 7, Nokia's Symbian-based X7 , the Blackberry Curve range, and a whole heap of Android devices.

Premium phones, such as the iPhone 4 and Samsung Galaxy S2  (right), command significantly higher price tags. SIM-free they typically cost up to £500, but they offer the very best features that you can get on a mobile today. These include extremely fast processors, cameras that can cope with HD video recording, and super-high-resolution screens.

Focus on your top features

When it comes to choosing your phone, pick the top two or three features you can't live without, and focus on finding a handset that offers them. Otherwise, you'll be faced with a dazzling array of choice.

If you love to take photos and surf the Web on your handset, look for a phone that has a good lens and a top browser. Or, if poor battery life is a bugbear, consider a phone with a smaller screen and a slower processor to keep the power drainage in check.

Don't be swept up in the hype, either. A new top-of-the-range phone may have all the latest bells and whistles, but do you really have room in your life for a 5-inch screen, a Facebook button and glasses-free 3D? Don't be afraid to say 'no' to features you'll never use.

We recommend looking for ease of use, speed and a good app store, which will make your phone more flexible, so it can become exactly what you need. 

Try before you buy

Many mobile phone stores don't display working samples, due to the existence of thieving scum, but that doesn't mean you can't try before you buy. Ask to see the actual phone you're interested in if you have specific features you want to check out before you commit.

If you buy a device online or over the phone, you have additional rights. For instance, you have the right to a cooling-off period of seven days, during which you're allowed to cancel your contract. If something's not right, you don't have to live with it for the next two years.

Getting your mobile phone

There are three main ways to buy a mobile phone in the UK. Many people get their phone on a contract, as part of which the handset is usually free or heavily subsidised by the network operator. The contract means they have to pay a set fee every month.

Alternatively, you can choose to purchase a phone on a pay as you go deal. You tend to have to pay the full cost of the phone up front, and then buy top-ups to use the operator's network. These top-ups include a set number of call minutes, text messages or megabytes of data downloads.

Finally, some people purchase their phone outright as a SIM-free device. This means it's not tied into a network, and the user is free to put any operator's SIM in the phone.

The biggest decision for many people will be whether to opt for a pay as you go deal or sign up for a contract. Both options have plus and minus points, so let's look at them in more detail.

Contract deals

On a contract, you enter into an agreement with a mobile operator to pay a fixed amount every month over the duration of the contract, which usually lasts between 12 and 24 months.  In return, you get a fixed amount of call minutes, text messages and data allowance that you can use each month.

You also usually get either a free handset or a substantial discount on the full cost of a phone. As a rough guide, if you spend over £10 per month on mobile calls, data and text, then you'll get better value from a contract than a pay as you go deal.

That said, there are a number of things to be aware of when choosing a contract. For example, mobile-phone companies want to retain their customers for as long as possible, so often they offer incentives for you to sign up to longer contracts.

Typically, you can save between £5 and £10 per month by opting for an 18-month or 24-month contract, rather than a shorter 12-month contract. But 24 months is a long time in the world of mobile phones and prices can change rapidly, so what seemed like a great deal at the start of your contract can look very overpriced towards the end of it.

Also, the price of your contract won't just depend on the number of minutes, texts and megabytes of data included in your monthly allowance. It'll also be greatly influenced by the handset that you choose as part of the deal.

There's a big difference between the price of an entry-level feature phone and a top-end handset like the iPhone 4 or Samsung Galaxy S2. The former will cost around £60, while the latter two are nearer the £500 mark. As a result, if you opt for a higher-end phone, you can expect to pay a higher monthly fee or receive a less generous calls and text package for your money.

Remember that you can also contribute towards the cost of your phone in a one-off payment in exchange for a lower monthly bill. In fact, you will usually end up paying far more for a free phone over the course of a 24-month contract than you would if you paid more cash up front and went for a lower monthly bill.

If your budget is tight, you may need to lower your expectations as to which handset you can get for free with your contract. Probably the best way to approach the issue is to first decide roughly how much you want to spend per month, and then shop around to find the best compromise between the quality of the handset and the call and data allowance included in the contract. 

Whether you're upgrading or joining a new network, you can often get a better deal, with more minutes or texts, just by asking. So get some snacks and ring up prepared to do battle. If you have a good offer from a network but it doesn't have the phone you want, try to get another network that does stock your desired phone to match the offer.

If you can't be bothered to waste time negotiating, try using an online comparison service such as BillMonitor to trawl through the myriad deals available. BillMonitor can even analyse your existing online bills and recommend the best deals for you.

SIM-only deals

If you're happy with your current mobile phone and are about to come to the end of your contract, it might be worth investigating SIM-only deals.

Pretty much all standard contracts include costs associated with subsidising the price of your new handset. Essentially, it's like paying off a loan, except the loan costs are bundled into your monthly contract fee.

If you opt for a SIM-only deal, you're essentially stripping out this loan cost, as you'll be using your existing handset or choosing to buy a SIM-free phone yourself, rather than using one that your operator provides.

Note that buying a SIM-free phone and then signing up to a SIM-only deal will often prove cheaper in the long term than signing up to a contract.

All the major networks now offer SIM-only deals, with prices starting as low as £10 per month. If you're willing to keep your existing mobile, SIM-only deals can be a great way to cut down on your mobile-phone bills, especially as many of these deals only tie you in for one month. Note, though, that the best rates are usually offered on 12-month contracts.

Pay as you go deals

If you don't use your mobile all that often, or just want to be able to tightly regulate how much you're spending, then opting for a pay as you go deal may be the best choice for you.

On pay as you go, you usually buy your phone up front and then purchase call minutes in set blocks, usually referred to as 'top-ups'. Essentially, you pay for calls before you make them by putting money into your mobile phone account. Once you reach the limit of your account, you can't make any more calls or send any more text messages until you top up the account again.

You can buy top-ups from a range of places, including local shops and cash machines. Alternatively, you can buy them online or over the phone from your operator.

Call charges and data bundles are usually more expensive for pay as you go users than they are for those with contracts, so, if you spend more than £10 per month, you're likely to be better off opting for a contract deal.

Smart phone operating systems

Here's a quick run-down of the main operating systems currently doing the rounds.

iOS

iOS is the software that Apple uses on the iPhone, as well as the iPad and iPod touch . When it was introduced on the original iPhone, iOS was revolutionary, as it was designed from the ground up to be driven via finger presses, rather than the styluses that were commonly used to navigate around previous smart phones.

What really sets iOS apart from the crowd is the intuitive design of its user interface. Most people can simply pick up an iPhone and start using it, without having to refer to a manual.

Apple has added numerous features to iOS over the years, including multitasking support -- so you can run more than one application at a time -- and cut and paste features for text editing. The iPhone's App Store has also been a huge success, offering thousands of applications to download, ranging from games to recipe apps.

iOS is still the gold standard for mobile operating systems. But the iPhone is a premium product and the latest version of the handset costs more than £500 SIM-free.

Android

Android is Google's mobile operating system. Although Google created the software, it's offered for free to mobile phone manufacturers, and now many of the big names, including HTC, Motorola, Samsung and LG, produce smart phones that use Android.

Android handsets actually now outsell the iPhone. This is partly because there are simply more Android models on the market, but it's also because many of them are considerably cheaper than the iPhone. Prices typically start at around £100 on pay as you go.

Like iOS, Android has an intuitive touchscreen interface and offers advanced features, such as multitasking and live widgets, which you can place on the home screen. The software also provides access to the Android Market, from which you can buy and download apps. While the Market isn't yet as jam-packed as Apple's App Store, it isn't that far behind either.

BlackBerry OS

RIM's BlackBerry OS is only available on the company's BlackBerry range of smart phones. One of the key features of the OS is the way it handles push email. Basically, this means that new messages are pushed out to the phone as soon as they arrive in the user's inbox, rather than waiting for the inbox to refresh itself.

Push email has made BlackBerry phones hugely popular among business users, but cheaper models, such as those in the Curve range, have also started appearing on pay as you go deals aimed at consumers. These cheaper phones, combined with the Messenger app, which allows people to send instant messages for free to other BlackBerry handsets, has made the BlackBerry line popular among rioters  youngsters.

The BlackBerry OS wasn't originally designed for touch input. Despite being upgraded to support touch in the last few years, BlackBerry devices still aren't as intuitive as Android or iOS devices. Nevertheless, a completely new version of the OS is in the works, based on the finger-friendly software of the BlackBerry PlayBook tablet. Phones running this OS are expected to arrive in 2012.

Windows Phone 7


Microsoft has been tinkering around with smart phones since way back in 2001, when it introduced Pocket PC. But, although Pocket PC and its later incarnation, Windows Mobile, were packed with features, they were also clunky and difficult to use.

Finally, after the release of Windows Mobile 6.5, Microsoft decided to change tack and create a completely new mobile OS that would be better able to compete with iOS and Android. Windows Phone 7 debuted to surprisingly warm reviews in 2010, but has struggled to gain much market share, despite companies such as HTC, Samsung and LG producing Windows Phone devices.

The software may still have a bright future ahead of it, though. Nokia and Microsoft have signed a deal that will see Nokia start using the operating system on its smart phones towards the tail end of this year . Nokia is waiting for the new release of the OS, code-named Mango , before releasing its own Windows Phone 7 mobiles.

Symbian
Symbian was jointly created by a number of mobile-phone companies, including Nokia and Sony Ericsson. The other backers gradually pulled out, though, leaving Nokia with overall control of the OS. It's found on a range of Nokia devices, including the popular N series phones.

Symbian was originally developed for use with a stylus. Despite tweaks over the years to make it more finger-friendly, it's not as intuitive as newer operating systems, such as iOS and Android. Recently, Nokia has decided to phase out development of Symbian as it switches to Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 platform.

Bada
Bada is an operating system that Samsung developed for use on its touchscreen mobile phones. First appearing on the Samsung Wave , it looks similar to iOS, Android and Windows Phone 7 but doesn't offer the same degree of functionality. Samsung reportedly plans to  make the software open source  in the near future, so that other companies can use Bada on their devices.

Ask your friends

Our reviews can tell you everything about a phone, from its appearance to its battery life, but we can't come to the pub with you to chat about your new device. That's why it can be a good idea to get a phone that uses the same OS as some of your friends' blowers.

That way, you can swap tips and app recommendations, as well as play games together across the same platforms. Plus, your chums are more likely to have the right charger handy if you have a battery emergency.

Keep your number

If you're moving between networks, you no longer have to switch telephone numbers. Since 2003, the telecoms regulator, Ofcom, has stipulated that all mobile users are entitled to take their number with them when they change networks.

To move your phone number from one network to another, you simply need to call up your existing operator and ask for your Port Authorisation Code, or PAC number for short. You then give this PAC code to the operator that you're switching to and your number will be transferred across to your new network.

Tags:
Phones
About the author

Niall has been writing about technology for over 10 years, working for the UK's most prestigious newspapers, magazines and websites in the process. What he doesn't know about TVs and laptops isn't worth worrying about. It's a little known fact that if you stacked all the TVs and laptops he has ever reviewed on top of each other, the pile would reach all the way to the moon and back four times.

 

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