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Which? Guide to buying a smartphone

What is a smartphone?

Smartphones are really mini computers and just like your home computer they have their own operating system, a powerful processor and a large internal memory – they can do far more than simply make calls and send texts.

Most of the new phones you’ll see are smartphones though you can still buy a few very basic models if you just want a cheap phone for calling your friends.

Pay-as-you-go (PAYG) and Sim-free prices for the latest smartphones can be very high but you can usually get a free phone by signing up to a monthly contract.

Read the full Which? phone reviews to find out which smartphones are Best Buys.

What can I do with a smartphone?

Smartphones let you browse the web, take photos, find your way using GPS, check emails, listen to music, watch videos – pretty much anything you can think of.

And, thanks to 'app stores', where you can download software to add functionality, the possibilities are nearly endless.

What can’t I do on a smartphone?

While you can do most things on a smartphone that doesn’t mean it’s time to throw out your other tech devices.

Their relatively small screens (most are less than five inches from corner to corner) mean that you’ll get a far better experience watching movies on your computer or TV. And they don’t have enough memory or processor power to handle more complex tasks or advanced games, can’t access full computer programs and usually lack keyboards – so they’re not suited to work tasks.

What should I look for in a smartphone?

Screen size - Phones with 3.5 to 4.5-inch screens are easy to use in one hand but aren’t as good for viewing web pages or watching videos. A new breed of larger phones with 5 to 6-inch screens are almost like tablets but a little cumbersome as phones.

Memory - Storage space dictates how many apps, photos, music files, and so on, you can fit on your phone. Cheaper smartphones may come with 2GB (around 450 MP3s) to 8GB of internal storage, while more expensive ones come with 16GB, 32GB or even 64GB. If you’re a heavy user of music and video, consider a smartphone with a memory card slot.

Powerful processor - A fast processor makes a phone more responsive and work faster, and enables it to run several apps at once, such as displaying an email while showing your position on a map. The best smartphones have dual or even quad-core processors with speeds of 1GHz or more for superfast performance.

How much does a good smartphone cost?

Most smartphones are bought on a contract so the device itself is often ‘free’ – instead you pay for it (and your inclusive minutes, texts and data) every month over the course of your contract.

However if you were to buy a smartphone outright, with a Sim-free deal such as you’ll find on Amazon, you could face a very steep bill. The cheapest version of Apple’s iPhone 5 (16GB) costs £529 while the 64GB model costs £699. PAYG prices are a bit cheaper.

The good news is that you can now get a decent mid-range smartphone for less than £200 on PAYG. These don’t offer the same processor power or screen resolution as premium models and can’t access the superfast 4G network. But they handle the essentials well and give you access to the major apps.

Apple vs Android vs Windows vs BlackBerry

Apple - The best known smartphone brand. Apple’s iPhone models include the iPhone 4, the iPhone 4S and the iPhone 5. A new model, the iPhone 5S, is expected to launch in September 2013.

iPhone pros: iPhone – cons:
  • Simple to use – iPhones are easy to use and information and apps will also be synced across your other Apple devices, such as iPad.
  • Great apps – The best and biggest app store with about 900,000 downloadable apps.
  • Secure - Apple approves all its apps to prevent viruses and security problems. Its free ‘Find My iPhone’ service can track your iPhone if it gets stolen.
  • Up to date – Software updates are made available to all compatible devices as soon as they’re ready.
  • Expensive – iPhones come with a premium price tag.
  • Not customisable – There aren’t many options to personalise your phone.
  • No memory card slot - Once it’s full, you’ll have to delete photos, apps and songs to make room.

Android smartphones Google’s Android is the most widely used operating system. Unlike Apple’s iOS and BlackBerry’s operating system, Android is available on lots of phones from different companies and at a wide range of prices.

Android – pros: Android – cons:
  • Choice – There are plenty of Android smartphones.
  • Large displays – Displays are often 4.7 or 5 inches, making them ideal for watching videos.
  • Personal – Android is highly customisable.
  • Irregular updates - New software versions can take months to reach all the phones in the Android range and may not work on some.
  • Unwanted apps – Many Android phones have apps, known as ‘bloatware’, preinstalled, which you can’t usually remove.
  • Unregulated app store - The Play Store has 700,000 apps but, as anyone can add them, some are poor quality and there have been reports that some contain viruses.

Windows smartphones Microsoft’s Windows Phone operating system looks quite di-fferent to other operating systems. It organises tasks into ‘hubs’ – pages that hold related information.

A few manufacturers use Windows Phone and there’s a wide range of phones (some for less than £100), making it an alternative to Android if you don’t want to spend much.

Windows smartphones - pros: Windows smartphones – cons:
  • Integrated - Windows Phone is designed to be used with other Microsoft services. It also lets you save things automatically using Microsoft’s online SkyDrive storage.
  • Live tiles – On-screen tiles deliver automatic updates on what’s happening in your world, from the number of emails in your inbox to the latest weather forecast.
  • Limited app choice – Windows smartphones have access to fewer apps (150,000) than rival devices and many big names are lacking, such as YouTube

BlackBerry smartphones - Long famed for its business phones, BlackBerry launched a new operating system in 2013 - BB10. There’s no back or home button. Instead, many of the touchscreen controls are gesture-based, meaning that you navigate by swiping the screen.

BlackBerry - pros: BlackBerry – cons:
  • Distinctive - BB10 is a break from the norm and has many unique features (though it’s only available on a few new phones).
  • Qwerty keyboards – Most older BlackBerrys (and the new Q10 and Q5) have physical keyboards, which many people prefer.
  • Small app store - BlackBerry World has more apps (205,000) than Windows Phone Store but still lacks many big names.
  • Limited phone choice – The new OS is only available on the Z10, Q10 and Q5. Older models with the previous OS are on sale but can’t be updated.

To find out which smartphones survive our gruelling tests to become Best Buys, read our latest reviews.