When it comes to smartphone shopping, Australians are spoiled for choice. There are loads of top products out there, but how do you pick something that’s right for you?
In the next few months and by mid-year, the smartphone world will likely be a very different place.
All the major players on Android will have something new ready for us (and you) to inspect and play with, and you can expect a new flagship Samsung, Sony, HTC, and LG, as well as some cool things from budget players like Huawei and ZTE. We may see some brand new experiments from the Windows Phone players, and it’s even possible Apple will reveal a new iPhone or two when it presents at its Worldwide Developers Conference.
But outside of specs and features, the gist of a phone will still be the same, and beyond the ads and branding, you will be — just like you do when you purchase a camera — buying into a system.
Currently, there are four main systems out there which we call “platforms,” and each comes with its own list of positives and negatives. Ultimately, though, you’re finding a platform that matches you and your lifestyle.
For instance, will you be able to find the app you want on your new phone? Do you even need or wants apps to begin with?
Do you want a platform that’s easy to use, or do you prefer total control over your phone and want to change the keyboard and interface when you want to?
These are all questions a modern smartphone owner can ask themselves, and with four main choices for mobile operating systems out in the world, the answers may not be as simple as you think they are.
Apple iOS (iPhone)
Still considered by many to be the king of smartphones, Apple’s iOS is the platform many recognise as being the best and most stable out there.
Developed originally as a fork of the Mac OS operating system for desktops and laptops, iOS has evolved into a product in and of itself, and now even inspires the evolution of the operating system it came from.
In iOS, you’ll find softened square icons called “squircles” and a constantly flowing menu, which you can scroll through by swiping left to right. Each app appears as an icon, and apps can be stored in folders to make things more organised, if you so choose.
All the core functions of a phone are here, though, and you’ll find a dial pad, contacts, messaging, and the ability to do email, web surfing, and tons of apps, and we mean tons.
Graphics, games, photo tools, apps for writing, apps for getting fit, and apps for pretty much any activity you can think of.
Music apps are also very common, and not just in playing music from Apple’s iPod heritage, but also making music, thanks to the amount of sound software available on the platform.
In fact, while Apple has the most fleshed out application ecosystem out there — and pretty much every app comes out on iOS first — it also has one of the most diverse range of hardware accessory platforms too, with docks and add-ons galore, including Bluetooth pens, speaker docks, MIDI keyboards, DJ gear, blood pressure monitors, bathroom scales, golf swing analysers, gaming pads, remote control toys, and lightbulbs for your home, among other things.
Cars will even connect up easily with Apple’s iPhone in the near future, thanks to Apple’s “CarPlay” concept being used by nearly every car manufacturer in the world.
Compatibility already exists for most wearable devices, and since iOS is one of the most used operating systems in the world, you’ll be hard pressed to find device makers not supporting Apple iOS.
That said, iOS isn’t perfect, and you’ll find things aren’t as customisable on iOS as they are on other platforms, as Apple likes to keep things locked down unless you decide to void your warranty and go down the path of jailbreaking.
Unlike Android, keyboards can’t be switched out and replaced with gesture-based typing, with the home screen and menu control also entirely controlled by Apple. You can download other web browsers, but Apple hasn’t yet made it possible for you to select them as a default, with Safari stuck as that option at the present time.
Battery issues also seem to be something that plague older Apple phones at this time, as the most recent upgrade to iOS 7 seems to be shooting the battery life of pre-iPhone 5S devices in the foot.
Despite these battery woes, many people are still satisfied and happy with what the iPhone brings to the table, and given that Apple is the company that every other manufacturer is essentially trying to beat, iOS is one platform that won’t be going away any time soon.
Apple iPhone 5S
Price: Starting from $869
The best iPhone you can buy until the iPhone 6 rolls around later this year, the 5S takes last year’s aluminium body and provides some minor improvements, upgrading the chip inside, adding a motion-sensing chip, improving the camera marginally, and adding a fingerprint reader.
If you have an iPhone 5, it’s probably not worth upgrading, but if you want an iPhone, this is the one to go for.
Apple iPhone 5C
Price: Starting from $739
Little more than the iPhone 5 in a plastic case, it’s hard to recommend this model despite it being in our “recommendations” section of this article. Rather, we’ve put it here since it’s one of only three official iPhone models currently available.
Few things separate the 5C from the 5, which is no longer available. In fact, the 5C is thicker than the 5, made from a cheaper material, and has a marginally improved set of cameras. Unless the price is ridiculously better, it would be hard to find a compelling reason to choose the 5C over the 5S.
Apple iPhone 4S
The last of the “old” iPhones available, the 4S has the older 3.5 inch display, shorter than the 4 inch model that now comes on the 5-based phones. You still get an 8 megapixel camera, decent set of hardware specs, and support for 3G, while the dock connector provided is Apple’s older iPhone dock, which technically has more accessories for it.
The 4S is still a great phone, though iOS 7 may not provide the best battery life on this handset. Also worth noting is the lack of 4G LTE, which only arrived on the iPhone 5 and higher.
Little is known about Apple’s upcoming iPhone, but there’s plenty of speculation about it.
Suggestions of a bigger screen to better compete with the larger screened offerings from other manufacturers is the most likely of the possibilities, but there’s always more, with a better camera likely, support (finally) for the wireless Near-Field Communication (NFC) technology, and even the distinct possibility for new display technologies that reduce the screen bezel or are even transparent.
Google Android (Samsung, Sony, LG, HTC, etc)
While seen by many as the number two, Google’s Android is the most used mobile operating system on the planet, activated on over a billion devices, and with 1.5 million Android devices activated daily.
Like iOS, Android relies on menus of icons to get around, but unlike iOS, the system isn’t based on one screen. Rather, there are home screens where you can add animated and constantly updating mini programs called “widgets,” designed to show you information in short bursts without loading the full application.
All the regular things that normally come with a phone are here, that said, including phone dial pad, messaging, emails, web browsers, and much more, but Google has made Android to be as customisable as humanly possible, and if you don’t like something about the look of your phone, you can generally change it very quickly.
Hate the way your home screen looks and feels? Grab a home screen replacement. You can make any Android phone look like an iPhone, a Windows Phone, the way Google wanted Android to look in the first place, or just customise until your heart’s content.
Wish the keyboard would be faster? Download a new one. Don’t like the lock screen? Replace it. Think the SMS app or phone dial screen could both look better? Fix it with a new app. Tired of the stock internet browser that came with your phone? Change it.
Android has what is easily the most configurable setup of any mobile operating system out there, and depending on how playful or artistic you are, the sky is literally the limit.
One of the downsides of this, though, is that Android can be seen as being more complicated for the casual user. Depending on the phone you buy, it certainly can be, but every manufacturer tends to have a different overlay in place to make Android look and feel different, which for many people improves the experience considerably.
Outside of the phone look and feel, though, you’ll find just as well a fleshed out app ecosystem as with iOS, though apps do generally arrive on Apple’s ecosystem first, with Android second.
That said, numerous games and apps are available on each, and Google has certainly invested heavily to make its own online services represented in application form for Android, with offline pieces of software for office replacement in Google Drive, music playback and cloud-based music services in Play Music, and the photo editing app Snapseed, to name but a few.
As for phone selection, there are more devices running Android than any other platform out there, with screen sizes ranging from 1.25 inches in smartwatches all the way up to 7 and 8 inch big phones. Most phones tend to sit between 3 and 6 inches, but Android tends to be the operating system found on most smartphones in the world, and you’ll even find a lot of experimentation from manufacturers here.
The tablet-sized phone we all call “phablets” started life as an Android experiment, and there have even been some crazy concepts with Android running on them, such as a phone with a tiny projector inside, phones with 3D screens, a version of the Sony PlayStation Portable that ran Android as a phone and had optical joysticks inside, dual-screen Android phones, and an Android mobile handset running on electronic ink technology.
Also of note is that Android has more in the “budget” smartphone space than any other operating system, and you can find inexpensive touchscreen phones for as little as $49 in Australia, with devices compatible with 4G starting at around $100.
Samsung Galaxy S4
One of the more popular phones of 2013, Samsung’s fourth-generation Galaxy flagship boasted high-end specs, 4G downloads, upgradeable memory, and even the tech to replace your TV remote. A plastic casing didn’t put the handset as high up as the HTC One for us, but it’s still an excellent phone across the board.
Sony Xperia Z1
Stylish and well spec’d, the Z1 is one of the more impressive smartphones you can buy, and even carries water and dust resistance, before Samsung thought it would be cool to add to its upcoming Galaxy S5. High speed 4G connectivity is offered here, too, as is a 20 megapixel camera.
One of the few Android smartphones not made from plastic, the HTC One was considered one of the benchmark phones in 2013, providing an easy to use interface to Android, and matching it with a camera that worked in low-light, loud front-facing speakers, and a body made of metal.
We’re coming up to the year mark now, and so it’s getting on and a new model is expected, but as far as phones go, HTC’s One certainly made an impact.
Samsung Galaxy Note 3
The most successful phablet out today, the Note 3 packs in some impressive features, including the lightning fast chip used in the Sony Z1 and LG G2, support for shooting 4K videos, and Samsung’s S-Pen which can literally replace pen and paper with your smartphone. How’s that for convergence?
LG’s top dog at the moment, the G2 brings best in show performance, matching it with one of the most customisable Android overlays out of the box, and support for 24-bit audio for those who love sound.
The G2 also takes advantage of one of the more unusual control schemes out there, moving the buttons to the back, which might grab you more than the regular place of the side, where all other phones have the physical buttons.
There’s plenty of movement in the “coming soon” section of Android world, with the Samsung Galaxy S5 on the verge of release, with the Sony Xperia Z2 likely to follow in the coming weeks, at least one new flagship HTC model, and a few more products from the other companies, including Huawei, ZTE, LG, and even Nokia.
Windows Phone (Nokia Lumia)
Currently occupying the third tier, Microsoft’s Windows Phone takes the style of Windows 8 and applies it to a phone, bringing multiple sizes of tiles to a smaller screen, with each square or rectangle able to be updated in real-time, just like the widgets of Android.
Everything you’d expect on a phone is here — dialling, messaging, web browsing, social networking, emails, etc — and because Microsoft owns the ecosystem, you’ll find compatibility for some of Microsoft’s bigger applications, such as its Office suite, which is built into every Windows Phone. If you’re editing or checking a lot of documents, spreadsheets, or PowerPoint presentations, this makes the platform ideal.
Surprising no one more than us, Windows Phone has been growing on us lately, especially as we get more and more used to the Windows 8 interface on our desktop computers.
On the computer side of things, it’s a reasonable departure from what previous versions of Windows have been like, so we totally understand why people are frustrated by Microsoft’s latest computer operating system.
But on the mobile side of things, the simplicity of a tile-based menu that you can easily control the design of, followed by the one other main menu of apps, help to make Windows Phone 8 very easy to get your head around.
In that way, the simplicity of menus makes Windows Phone almost as easy as Apple’s iOS, making it well suited for people a little daunted by Android’s complexity.
Nokia helps improve things with a dedicated camera button which, when held down, automatically activates the camera app on whichever device you’re using.
There are problems with Microsoft’s Windows Phone operating system, that said, and we’re not impressed by the operating system’s inability to let you select a default web browser, or change out the keyboard.
Other things appear to be locked down, and wearable devices, as an example, can’t run their drivers in the background, spelling trouble for future accessories which may or may not be compatible with the platform until Microsoft lets developers play around.
The application ecosystem is also much weaker than what it is for either Google Android or Apple’s iOS. It’s nowhere near as bad as it used to be, and owners of Windows Phone-based devices can at least find apps for Instagram and Twitter, as well as the obligatory copy of Angry Birds, but there are still quite a few pieces of software missing in action.
For instance, you won’t find Google Play Music here, nor will you find dedicated official apps for Google Drive or Google Mail. An official app for Dropbox is also lost here, and if there are kids who want to play games on their phone, Windows Phone 8 doesn’t seem to be the platform for them, despite Microsoft’s deep connection with Xbox Live accounts.
Battery life, though, is one thing that Windows Phone seems to pack in, and every phone we’ve tested so far running WP8 seems to net a day without any problems, while others score as high as two and three days.
Nokia Lumia 1020
One of the more creative experiments for Nokia, the Lumia 1020 is one part smartphone and one part camera, taking advantage of a 40 megapixel camera that crops as it zooms. The image quality on offer rivals many a compact, and Nokia has paired this up with similar specs to its other 2013 flagship models, like the Lumia 925, except in a solid plastic body.
Nokia Lumia 1520
The first tablet-sized phone for Nokia, the Lumia 1520 also manages to be the brand’s best phone yet, providing updated specs, an excellent 6 inch Full HD screen supporting an extra column of Windows tiles, 4G LTE connectivity, and a camera that doesn’t quite live up to the 40 megapixel of the Lumia 1020, but still boasts a fair amount of power with 20 megapixels of PureView tech.
Nokia Lumia 1320
Announced at the same time as its first phablet, Nokia’s second phablet is a budget price model, taking some of the hardware from older flagships but sticking it under a 6 inch screen running High Definition, as opposed to the Full HD of the 1520. The camera needs work, but the battery life is impressive, churning out days of support. Plural. With an “s.”
Nokia Lumia 520
Price: Starting from $179
Nokia doesn’t have a lot in the “cheap” end of the spectrum, but the Lumia 520 definitely fits that bill, providing Windows Phone on the cheap, with a retail price of under $200, and street prices of much less. The experience isn’t the best you’ll find, and the camera isn’t great, but if you like colourful cases and the look of Windows Phone more than a budget Android could ever pull, it might be worth looking at the 520.
With Microsoft owning Nokia, you’ll more than likely see more Windows Phones out of one of the oldest phone manufacturers in the world.
Already, we’ve seen some impressive phones from Nokia, and the PureView camera technology which replaces optical zoom with digital zoom cropping has really worked in the company’s favour, encouraging people to switch to have a better than “decent” camera in their smartphone.
There’s still work to be done, that said, and the ecosystem could do with some more improvement, but it’s unlikely Microsoft will give up on Windows Phone any time soon.
Originally built for businesses, BlackBerry isn’t quite what it used to be.
At one point in time, the platform stood above all, providing practically instant email for people who needed it 24/7, with hardware keyboards if needed, and an instant messaging service that could connect BlackBerry users to each other quickly and easily across its network.
But during the rise of Apple’s iPhone-led smartphone revolution, and with Google pushing Android harder and harder into so many areas, BlackBerry’s evolution almost became stunted, though the company has made strides to return in recent years.
As such, BlackBerry can do all the things every other smartphone can do, and there’s still a push for strong email in the platform.
The operating system used is a little different from its competitors, though, with a reliance on gestures more than anything else. Few physical buttons are found unless there’s a physical keyboard on the phone, and you’re generally swiping left, right, and vertically to get the phone to work for you.
As far as the app ecosystem goes, BlackBerry isn’t as strong as Android or Apple’s iOS, though with some trickery, you can get Android apps running on BlackBerry devices.
A return to relevance, the Z10 was the first phone to bring BlackBerry from near death and back to the world of the living, providing new technology, a fresh look, and a simplicity that many could get behind.
BlackBerry also revealed a bigger improved version later in 2013, which we didn’t get to see, but was released as the Z30 ($699), a device sporting the look and feel of the Z10, except for people who like a larger device.
Built for the people who still love hardware keyboards, the Q10 is BlackBerry’s attempt at keeping both a touchscreen and a proper keyboard in a modern phone. BlackBerry’s most recent operating system is here, and if you’re a fast keyboard user, you’ll likely prefer this than the stock standard touchscreen typing experience offered.
BlackBerry isn’t quite pulling the numbers like it once did, but the company still has some fight left in it.
We’re not sure how long BlackBerry will end up sticking around, but it’s lasted longer than most expected, and there’s always a possibility it will be bought out by someone else, such as Samsung, Sony, or even Lenovo.
It might sound strange, but we still have the odd dumb phone lying around, with the big three telcos in this country all sporting at least one button-based phone in their selection meant for people who just need the basics.
There are far, far less than there used to be, and if you want something with less of an emphasis on web browsing, social networking, and taking plenty of pictures with high resolution cameras, you can be catered for, though the pickings are pretty slim.
Devices like the Samsung E3300/3309 or “Manhattan” can still be found, bringing with it 3G speeds, a low resolution VGA camera, and a simple candy-bar design, with still a degree of support for social networking.
Telstra has a few to speak of, built for the bare basic of phone calls with FM radio added in for good measure, while Doro (above) specialises in button-based phones for seniors.
Nokia has three or four button phones still left in Australia, too, with most providers selling either the 301 or 208, candy-bar shaped handsets sporting a bit of smart functionality, support for 3G, camera, music, and even some GPS support.
Outside of these, though, there aren’t many choices for button-based devices, and if you need one in the next few years, your selection with only get smaller.