Forget the hype, forget the marketing pitches. Forget the guy in the telco store telling you this phone will change your life. Forget it all, because this is how you buy a phone, and you can make the decision mostly by your lonesome.
I’ve been a reviewer for seven years now, and in that time have looked at lots of phones, so many that I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had to move on from great messages people have sent me, and so many that Google’s list of connected devices on my account surpasses the range of phones in your local Telstra store.
In that time, I’ve learned a lot about what makes a good phone.
It’s not just a screen, an operating system, some hardware, and some pretty looks. No, there’s much more that makes a phone great, even brilliant, and while it’s hard to get something terrible these days, it’s often harder to know what you’re purchasing, and to know what you want.
Phones are a massive part of what we spend money on these days, especially in Australia, where the world sees us as a great place to test products on.
We’re small — our population fits neatly into Los Angeles, even though our land mass approaches the whole of the USA — and yet we spend big, buying smartphones, computers, headphones, cameras, TVs, video game consoles, and home appliances by the plenty.
We love tech, we really do, and phones make up a big part of that.
So it should come as no surprise that people often call us up and ask one question more than anything else: what phone should I buy?
I get it in emails and in phone calls. I get in when people see the phones I’m using on buses and at get togethers, parties, and shindigs.
Valens Quinn — our TV guy on Seven’s “Sunrise” and Ten’s “The Project” — gets it too, as does the original GadgetGuy, Peter Blasina, who says it’s a common question called in when he appears on radio.
“What phone should I buy?” people ask after seeing the cacophony of posters, billboards, TV commercials, bus skins, and web advertisements. Product marketing is everywhere you go, and it has one purpose: to
help tell you to buy a product, in this case, a phone.
But how do you buy a phone?
Don’t believe the hype, forget the spiel
When the iPhone 6 came out a couple of weeks ago, I received a phone call from a friend.
“Should I buy the iPhone 6?” they asked.
I’d had the phone for a few days, and some of my tests had already been performed, so I was firming up my conclusions about the product ahead of the written review, and so I said “it’s a nice phone, and it’s a good iPhone, but there’s so much out there, I’d look around and see what fits best.”
“I think I’ll get the iPhone,” they said immediately after, and ended the call shortly after.
That’s the thing about questions: when you ask specific ones, there’s a likelihood you already have the answer you want, but you’re just looking for someone to agree with you.
It didn’t matter in that phone call that I thought the person should try more products. They had already been incensed by the marketing pitches, the ads, the hype, the spiel, the lines around the Apple store, and the fact that the initial reviews were all overwhelmingly positive.
Before even going into an Apple, Telstra, Optus, Virgin, or Vodafone store, they knew without a doubt that they wanted the iPhone 6, and asking for my opinion was just something to put their mind at ease. My answer wasn’t entirely relevant, or even needed.
But when you buy a phone, you shouldn’t be asking if you should get X or if I think you should get Y.
You should be asking what fits your hand, what feels good in between your digits, what sits comfortably in your pocket and looks nice in your handbag, and what feels and looks good when you hold it to the side of your face.
And pending the release of some uber-cool augmented reality system, there is only one place where you can start your search for a phone.
Go in store and find three
You can start that search in a store.
Pick a phone store, pick any phone store, because there are hundreds of the things, and are now likely outnumbering pubs in this great nation of ours.
When you pick a store for research, it doesn’t really matter which store you go to. While some phones will only be released with some carriers, most phones will work on another network, and so if you buy a phone that only Optus sells and you end up staying on Telstra or moving to Vodafone, there’s a likelihood that you can buy it outright and use it anyway.
This doesn’t always work perfectly, mind you, and extra features — such as APT700MHz for inside calling on Telstra or Voice-over-LTE (VoLTE) which isn’t available locally yet — may not be included or working. In Australia, many of the technologies are the same or similar, so as long as you buy locally or compatibly, you should be fine.
So pick a store, any store, and go inside, and find three phones.
Find three phones that match you, three phones that say “I want to pick this up every time I make a phone call and every time I make a text.”
Find three phones that scream you, that look comfortable to hold, that are fashionable for your sense of fashion, and that you won’t want to drop the moment you pick them up.
Find three phones because there are so many phones out there, narrowing it to one product seems rather silly.
And when you find them, don’t think about operating system or hardware specs. Don’t even think about price, because you can deal with that one later.
Think about the simple and most obvious thing that few people tend to think of: how it feels in your hand.
How a phone feels is one of the most important things to consider when you’re buying a phone, and is one that is often overlooked in exchange for “will it run Instagram” and “can I get Angry Birds” for it.
The answer is yes for both of those, for pretty much every major mobile operating system.
Seriously, pick up the phone and plonk it in those nice hands of yours.
Feel its weight, its design, let the curves or lack of curves weave their way between your fingers and into the arch of your hand, the flesh of your palm.
Let your fingers cup it from each side and hold it up to your face. Work out where the microphone and speaker is and decide if it works for you.
Is it slippery? Is it stable? Could you hold it to your ear and feel like you’re using a phone, or is it a touch too mechanical in design for your digits?
That feeling is insanely important, and it’s different for every person. It really is.
There are also so many sizes and prices points.
You have the 3 to 4 inch sizes, which is the small and budget area.
Then there’s 4 to 4.7 inches, which is the slightly compact or “normal” phone size, perpetuated by small devices like the Sony Z3 Compact, HTC One Mini 2, and the Apple iPhone 6.
After that, there’s the 5 to 5.5 inch size, which is the normal flagship area for most people, including the Samsung Galaxy S5, HTC One M8, Sony Xperia Z3, and LG G3.
And then there are those phablets, with sizes ranging from 5.5 inches to 6 inches, and even higher, and while not everyone likes them, we see so many Samsung Galaxy Note devices, we’re not surprised Apple finally bit the bullet and dove in.
All of these sizes change the hardware, and they change batteries too.
But they also change how they work in your pocket and carrying luggage, so if you can — in store — ask the shop attendant if you can walk around with a dummy phone.
If they have some, great, because you can see roughly what the phone will do to your pants when you walk around with it inside, or when you sit, or when you reach into your handbag and go looking for the handset.
These are important factors, and reviewers tend to destroy clothes testing these new devices, so why should you?
Once you’ve found three phones you like, don’t feel like you have to make a commitment to purchasing that very moment. That’s what shop people want you to do.
There’s something so powerful about the instant satisfaction consumers get from retail therapy, but you should be smart about a phone you’re likely going to have to use for a year or two, so now it’s time to move onto the next phase, because those deals will be there when you get back, and they might even be better.
Research, research, research
With three phones in mind, it’s time to do some research.
You can go home and use your computer, or you can go to a café and research on your current phone, just make sure you do some research, because it is the reason companies like GadgetGuy do what we do: to arm you with information that you can use to help you make a decision.
To find out about a phone, you merely have to type the phone’s name and the word “review” into Google. If you can switch to Google Australia or add the country “Australia” to your search, even better, not just because it gives Aussie reviewers a fighting chance, but because there are differences between overseas and Australian phones.
Sometimes, the differences are hardware, with different processors and memory sizes or even a completely removed feature in an operating system, and other times the differences come from how the telecommunication networks are made to work in Australia versus the rest of the world.
This isn’t the same in every product category, mind you.
A camera reviewed here is the same as a camera reviewed in America, England, or anywhere else, and that’s much the same for a computer or a pair of headphones.
But a phone has operational differences, thanks to slight deviations in some of that communications technology, so look for Aussie reviews, and if you can’t find enough, look for the international ones too, as they’ll give you feelings about the hardware and software side of things as well.
When you’ve found reviews, read them, and either on paper or in your head, make a list of pros and cons about each. With this information, you’ll start to work out which you like the look of, which you don’t, and ultimately, what product will serve you best.
You’re never going to find the perfect phone, though. That’s something you need to know.
Sure, we’ve given some handsets five stars before, but no product is perfect. It just doesn’t exist. We’re getting closer, we really are, but every phone has its quirks, and every operating system has its flaws.
Here are some things we love and hate about the major operating systems out there today:
Apple iOS: I love how many games come out for the iPhone, but it really gets to me when I see that I can’t change the way the icons are placed on the iPhone without jailbreaking. If it’s my iPhone, surely I should get to decide how it looks, not Apple.
Google Android: I love how much customisation there is on the Android operating system — homescreen, keyboard, icons, lockscreen — but the volume notches bother me, and there just doesn’t seem to be a setting between loud and not so loud. I want more volume points native to the operating system.
Microsoft Windows Phone: I adore the 30 points of volume Windows Phone pulls off, and as an audio fanatic, I feel this gives me the most amount of control, but the app store for Windows Phone is just a waste with few games made by actual publishers — not as many well made apps, either — and a whole bunch of fakes that Microsoft should really clamp down on.
There are even things about our favourite products that we find from extended use that bug us, and even though we loved all of these phones, they’re not perfect because:
Apple iPhone 6: A nice phone, albeit a slippery one, but the included NFC is a wasted opportunity because it could have been used to pair audio products more easily.
HTC One M8: This phone feels beautiful, and the battery and DotView cover are both equally awesome, but sorry HTC, 4 megapixel is not enough, and no one will use these special image effects. We didn’t past the review.
Sony Xperia Z2: Great phone, but why was the Bluetooth so weak? I can barely use my wireless headphones for three seconds without having them cut out.
Samsung Galaxy S5: It has more marketing than any other phone next to the iPhone, and yet it doesn’t have a battery that can get through a day. It has an ultra low power saving mode that can deliver 24 hours on virtually no battery provided you do nothing, but use all the features and you barely get a day. Why, Samsung, why?!
Nokia Lumia 930: Beautiful design, great feeling, and yet no microSD. It’s basically a 5 inch version of Nokia’s best phone yet, the Lumia 1320, and yet there’s no microSD. Why was this even a question? The cheap Nokia phones have microSD, so this one should, too.
As you can see, even the amazing phones have problems, so you’re never going to find something that ticks every single box in every sort of way, so don’t worry if you find faults here and there through your check list.
Ultimately, you’re trying to find something that ticks enough of the boxes for you that you can see yourself owning it for the next year, at least, possibly two.
When that’s done, you can start looking at plans, outright costs, and so on, working out what precisely how much you want to spend, but the hard part is picking a phone that works best for you, and once you’re done with this, it won’t be long until you’re walking with it, talking with it, and enjoying all that time with it.