Mobile Phones: Pay-as-you-go

Mobile Phones Buying Guide and Advice - PriceRunner UK
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Mobile Phones Buying Advice

Mobile Phone

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We're here to help you buy a new mobile phone. We've got advice and information about all the latest phones. We discuss the features and specifications you need to look for, and explain the difference between the technologies. Please note that this article talks about handsets only - if you are want to compare different networks, please use our pay-as-you-go comparison or monthly contract comparison

Most adults and almost every teenager has a mobile phone. They are truly ubiquitous. Yet their name belies the wide range of features they offer, which in turn can make them among the most confusing products to buy.

Whether you are buying your phone outright or getting it free or cheap as part of a package, you're still paying for the phone somehow, so it's worth making sure you spend wisely. To make it easier, we answer the questions you should ask yourself before you buy:

Click on any of these links to get some valuable advice, and tips on how you can use PriceRunner to find the perfect mobile phone.

Alternatively, go straight to any of these to read more:

What's my budget?

Whether you are buying a phone outright or getting one as part of a contract or pay-as-you-go deal, you still need to set your budget. The latest technologies rarely come free, so knowing how much you are willing to spend upfront will give you one way of narrowing down your choice.

Remember to consider any accessories that you might want or need. As standard you should get a phone and charger, and maybe a basic set of headphones, but often nothing other than this, so make sure you budget for all the accessories you need to use the features on the phone you are buying. Extras you might want to consider include:

  • Spare charger and/or a car charger
  • Spare or long life battery
  • Hands-free kit for the car, including a holder
  • Better headphones
  • Bluetooth (wireless) headset
  • Cables or Bluetooth adaptor to connect to your PC
  • Memory cards
  • Different cover
  • Carrying case
  • Desk stand

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My priority is keeping in touch – what should I look for?

Keeping in touch no longer means just being available to talk on the phone. You'll want to be able to send and receive text messages and perhaps check your email, and may even want to see the person you are talking to. Then you've got to consider whether it is important for you to be available all of the time.

Voice calls

Apple iPhone

It's easy to overlook the primary role of a mobile phone, and that's making and receiving phone calls. But if it doesn't do this well, you'll be tempted to replace it well before its natural life is up. The first thing to do is find out how easy it is to hear and be heard, which you can only do by testing a model yourself (ask to call a mobile number and a landline phone), or by getting recommendations or reading reviews, which you can do via PriceRunner. Will the maximum volume be loud enough in the noisiest environments you go to? With a small phone can you hear and be heard without moving the phone next to your head?

Then you need to look at how many contact numbers you can store as standard, and whether they are stored on the SIM card or in internal memory in the phone. Can you set up single number dialling for people you speak to most often?

If you want to take your phone calls to the next level, you could look for video calling which lets you see the person you are speaking to, although this would be a luxury feature for most people and you need to be using a high-speed connection to do so (see HSCSD, GPRS and EDGE, and 3G/UMTS/WCDMA later in this guide).

Text communications

The other main use of mobile phones is text messaging. This is where you need to really check the keyboard: is it easy for you to use, given the size of your fingers? Hands-on testing is the best way to check, or again read reviews and ask in the forums on PriceRunner. You may want to look for predictive texting options, where the phone guesses the word you are typing in, so that you can, for example, press the number 2 (abc) button once instead of quickly three times to get the letter c. Most phones include this now, but it tends to be a feature you either love or loathe, so make sure you can turn it off if you are in the latter group.

An extension to standard SMS (Short Message Service) texting is EMS (Enhanced Messaging Service). This lets you add special text formatting (like bold and italic) as well as icons, animations, sound effects and so on. MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service) takes this even further by letting you send images, audio and video.

Taking text messages further, you can get phones that will let you read and reply to your emails while you are out and about. Some also offer instant messaging (IM) functionality, so you can 'chat' using text in real-time with one or more contacts who are using their PCs or mobiles. You need the right combination of phone features, username and password from an online IM service and support from your phone operator to get this working.

Staying available

Whether you want to be in touch by voice or text, you need to consider a few aspects of your phone.


Mobile Phone Battery

First up is battery life. The specifications can show you two figures: the standby time, which is how long the battery should retain some charge when it isn't being used; and talk time, which is how long you could talk on a fully-charged battery before it runs out.

These figures are calculated by the manufacturers in ideal circumstances, so they can be useful to use when comparing phones but are not necessarily realistic for judging what you will actually get. Instead, try to read as many reviews as possible and get recommendations from friends. If battery life is an issue, invest in a spare charger to use at work and/or in the car, and consider having a spare battery that you can keep charged up or buy a long-life battery (though this will weigh more than the original). Look after your battery by always letting it run down as far as possible before recharging it, and occasionally letting it discharge completely.

On the road

With your battery sorted out, you then need to consider how you will make and take calls while you are travelling. With the law prohibiting you from using your phone while holding it when driving, the following features may be useful in addition to a car kit:

  • Bluetooth – short-range wireless connection that lets you use a headset without a cable and keep your hands on the wheel
  • Voice dialling – tell your phone the number to dial instead of having to type it in.

Wireless Bluetooth headsets are also useful when you are out and about as you can keep your mobile securely out of sight. If you use them to listen to music on your phone, this will cut out immediately if a call is received.

You should also consider which countries your phone can work in. You'll see phones listed that are dual-band, tri-band and quad-band, which all refer to the frequencies that they can make and receive calls on:

  • Dual band phones usually work on 900 and 1800MHz bands (used in Europe, Africa and Asia)
  • Tri band phones usually add the 1900MHz band (North America)
  • Quad band phones also work on 850MHz (also used in North America)

Clearly quad band phones offer you the best chance of staying available around the world, but don't worry about this if you don't travel beyond the UK or Europe.

In a meeting

If you want to stay in touch when you are in meetings (or in the cinema or theatre), look for a phone with a vibrate alert function. You might also want to look for 'Presence', which is a feature that lets others find out: where you are; your status; the capabilities of your phone at any time; and how you prefer to be contacted (for example that they should only send text messages as you are in a meeting). You usually need to subscribe to this as a service or make a one-off request to get the information.

Other features

Two other features you might want to look out for to keep you in touch as much as possible are UMA and push to talk.

UMA (Unlicensed Mobile Access) - is a technology that lets you use your wireless broadband Internet connection for mobile phone services. As broadband is a fast and reliable service, it makes sense to use this where possible, especially if you have any reception problems on your standard network at home or in the office. Your operator needs to support UMA and you need to have your wireless LAN and phone set up properly, but then the switchover to UMA is automatic whenever you are in range of the wireless connection. UMA can be used for anything you do with your phone, including voice calls, texting and email.

Push to talk - lets you use your phone as a walkie-talkie to speak to one or more people with similarly enabled phones. You'll find a dedicated button to push when you want to speak and then you need to let go to hear anyone else. This probably isn't for everyday use but may be useful in certain circumstances.

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My priorities are getting information and staying organised – what should I look for?

One of the reasons for buying a new mobile phone is to get extra features that may not be available on your old phone. Even the simplest will probably have a calendar and alarm functions, and let you record voice memos, but there’s a lot more you can look for. However, this is where the acronyms come thick and fast, so you may need to keep this guide handy as you check the specifications.

Connecting to the Internet and transferring data

You can use your phone to go online and check train times, buy tickets or do online banking. You can also use the data transfer features to synchronise your phone with your PC, for example.


One option is to use WAP, which presents simplified versions of web pages that can be viewed and used on even the smallest mobile phone screens. WAP pages are written in a language called WML (Wireless Markup Language) which in turn is based on XML (Extensible Markup Language). Not that the technology matters, but at least you know how these relate to your phone if you should see the acronyms anywhere.

Mobile Phone Battery


If you care about the speed at which you can download WAP pages or you want to surf 'proper' Internet pages, you need to look at the technology the phone employs to communicate. The first digital phones - referred to as 'second generation' because they superseded analogue phones - use GSM technology. Any data sent using a standard GSM phone uses a technology called CSD (Circuit Switched Data) which has a standard data transfer speed of 14.4 or 9.6Kbps, depending on the network being used. You pay for the time you are connected, so that you are penalised if the network is very busy and the data gets sent or received slowly.

HSCSD (High Speed CSD) offers an improvementover CSD in terms of speed, as it uses more channels at once to send the data, but at an increased cost. So if you want to send data, you should look for enhancements called GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) and EDGE (Enhanced Data rates for Global Evolution).

With GPRS your phone is always 'on' for data calls and can transmit data at higher speeds (typically 32 to 48Kbps), which makes Internet browsing – and other activities like email, messaging and so on – much better. And even though your phone is always active, you only pay for the data you transfer.

EDGE takes this further by using a different technology to give a theoretical maximum data transfer rate of 384Kbps, which is clearly much better for sending images and video. If you are using EDGE but move out of range of an EDGE-enabled transmitter, the phone should swap over to GPRS.

With both EDGE and GPRS you can find that the data transfer rate falls well below the maximum, especially at peak times, as voice calls usually take preference over data transfer.


The next step up is to change technology entirely and opt for a 3G phone. You may see references to UMTS (Universal Mobile Telephone System): this is one of the 3G technologies and it uses something called WCDMA (Wideband Code Division Multiple Access) as the radio standard for the link to the base stations. WCDMA allows faster data connections (starting at around 384Kbps but likely to increase eventually to the equivalent of fast Broadband) and you can transfer data at the same time as talking on the phone, which you can't do with GPRS or EDGE. Again you are billed just for the data you transfer, so you can stay 'online' all the time if you want.

As this is still an emerging technology, if you opt for a 3G phone you should look for a phone that will automatically switch over to GPRS or EDGE if you move out of a WCDMA reception area.


Technologies like GPRS, EDGE and WCDMA are great if you want to surf the internet, and they also offer a realistic solution if you want to use your phone as a modem for your laptop.


If you are planning to use your phone for browsing the web and checking your emails, you need to choose one with a good screen so that you can read it comfortably. The specifications will show you the size of the screen and its resolution, and you can use the filters on PriceRunner to narrow down your choice if you want a colour screen. The specifications will also show you how many colours it supports and whether it has a touchscreen and even handwriting recognition.


One more technology to look out for is Java. This is a programming language and a software platform, so it's used for writing and running applications on mobile phones. If a phone is Java-enabled you can download Java applications on to it, adding to its functionality just as you do when you install new applications on a computer.

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How do I choose a phone that will take good photos?

There's no doubt that having your phone double up as a handy-sized digital camera is a very attractive option. The majority of phones now include a camera, but you may not get something you actually want to use very often, as the image quality isn't always particularly good.


If you care about the camera in your new phone, you need to look for the best resolution you can afford, combined with a good lens and sensor. The resolution is a measure of the number of pixels the camera uses to record an image; if the camera's sensor has more pixels it can record more detail and so the image will be better quality. And this affects how large you can make the image without it looking grainy. Conversely, the higher the resolution, the larger the file size will be for each photo.

If all you want to do is send photos to other people to view on their phones, then any mobile phone camera will probably do. Beyond this, as a rough guide, a 1.3 megapixel resolution is OK for photos for websites and snaps up to around 6x4in; while you should look for a 2 or preferably 3 megapixel camera if you want to view the images on a monitor or get very good quality 6x4in photos or 8x10in prints. The extra resolution will give you the flexibility to crop images and still be able to get a good print.

Lens and sensor

The other common problem with cameras on mobile phones is the quality and sizes of the lens and the sensor. You won't get large lenses or sensors on small phones, so that will always be a limitation. However, some top-end phones now incorporate high-specification components, so check the reviews and look for well-known brand names (for example a Carl Zeiss lens should be reliably good).

If you do spend money on a phone with a good lens, keep it well protected, as phone lenses are usually exposed and can easily get scratched in your pocket or bag.


Some camera phones also have a camcorder function so that you can record moving images. They won't replace dedicated camcorders but can be nice to have on standby.

Storing and sending images

There's no point in buying a camera phone if you can't store many images on it. Get as much memory as you can afford and look for phones with external memory options so that you can swap memory cards if you need to.

To send (and receive) images you need a phone that is MMS-enabled. You can also use MMS to send video, voice and other audio clips, as well as text.

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How do I find a phone that will double up as a music player?

Many mobile phones can now be used as MP3 players and they often have a radio function too. Any calls should interrupt the music or radio broadcast.

The headphones supplied with phones aren't always very good, so you might want to budget for better ones. Unless you buy a phone with a standard headphone socket, though, you will be restricted to headphones from the same manufacturer.

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Do I care how my phone looks and sounds?

Some people undoubtedly buy a specific phone just because of how it looks. Try not to be swayed too much by this, though, as you do need to be able to use it easily too. If you have a low boredom threshold when it comes to phones or simply want to make a style statement, look for a phone with a range of interchangeable fascias.

The specifications can also show you whether the design is a flip-up style (like a clamshell) or you may prefer a sliding design. You can also see whether the aerial is integrated or protrudes, and what colour cases are available as standard.

Most phones have a variety of ringtones for you to choose from, or you can download them from the web for a fee. Polyphonic ringtones give a better sound.

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What else should I care about?


The screen on your phone is vitally important, along with the buttons. Some phones have no physical buttons but use a touchscreen instead with alphanumeric buttons that appear onscreen when appropriate. Whichever you are considering, make sure you are happy to use it, especially if you have large hands and fingers. See if you can try out a model running the software you will get with it, as different vendors sometimes tweak what's provided.


Most handhelds come with games pre-installed. You can usually download more if you have a Java-enabled phone but should check to see what's on offer. Playing games on your phone will use up your battery life quickly, so take this into account as you consider what accessories to buy.

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