Buying smartphones made simple - what you need (and what you don't)

Buying a smartphone can be an overload of mystifying numbers such as screen resolutions and processor speeds. Our guide explains what you need (and what you don't).

Buying a smartphone can be an overload of mystifying numbers such as screen resolutions and processor speeds - delivered in terms such as 1.4GHz and 1136x640.

Our guide explains what you need (and what you don't) - modern mobiles pack more power and functionality than the Apollo 11 space mission, so it can often be easy to pay for functions you don't need.

Is a dual-core processor essential? Does screen resolution really matter? How about internal and expandable memory options?

Think about what you use your phone for - if you just like to talk, more than surf the net, opting for less power will likely bring down the price without compromising your enjoyment and use.










Screen
The window to everything you do on your phone, the screen is the crucial first element. Think about size, resolution and display technology.

The bigger the screen, the better your experience will be surfing the web, watching video and checking photos. But the bigger the display, the better the resolution needs to be or you could end up with pixelated pictures and tough to read text. The end of 2012 saw the first Full HD 1080p phones unveiled with the likes of the ZTE Grand S and the HTC J Butterfly, but any four-inch screen with an 800x480 pixel WVGA resolution will be good enough.

There are also two types of display technology widely available – battery-sapping LCD which offers the best colour reproduction and brightness, and less power draining AMOLED, which also offers improved black colour on screen.

Best examples to compare the two come with the two most respected phones currently available. The Apple iPhone 5 offers a 4-inch LCD Retina display with 1136x640 resolution and 326 pixels per inch, while the Samsung Galaxy S3 offers a 4.8-inch Super AMOLED display with 1280x720 resolution and 306 pixels per inch.










Cameras
Digital cameras are as common on phones as screens, but with a huge variety of megapixel ratings. While some mobiles go all the way up to double figures (the Nokia 808 PureView offers 41 megapixels, more than most cameras), a 5-megapixel camera is more than good enough to shoot pics for printing, posting online and adding to the family album.

Look too for features such as autofocus, flash, face recognition, aperture ratings and optical image stabilisers (particularly handy for shooting in low light). Most offer video recording too, with Full HD 1080p now commonplace. Panorama picture taking is also widely available, with the phone automatically stitching shots together to create one seamless wide-angle image.

Consider too a front facing camera if you like to Skype chat. While these don’t need to be anywhere near the resolution of the primary camera, anything around the 1.3Mp mark with a decent 30 frames per second (fps) video rating will be good enough for video chat.










Processor
The processor (or CPU) is a phone’s brain, with top end smartphones featuring quad-core processors and super high clock speeds (measured in MHz and GHz) that make them powerful and fast.

For basic day-to-day use opt for a minimum processor speed of 800MHz or preferably go for a single or dual core processor - the latter will more than suffice for the majority of people. If you love multiple apps, gaming and big media files then quad core may be your best bet.

As with everything though, more power means more money – for example the HTC One X+ features a quad core 1.7GHz CPU for around £400 while the Samsung Galaxy Ace features a single core 800MHz CPU for around £120.


Storage
The capacity available to store stuff on your phone is measured in MB and GB, and is typically internal or available via an expandable SD card slot. Although many manufacturers now offer cloud based storage too, with your content available over the air without actually living on your phone.

For modern needs, look for a minimum of 4GB storage, which will allow for some extra capacity beyond that used up by the phone’s essential functions. Make sure you check how much memory is actually usable - some phones quote 16GB, but only 10GB is available to use.

Capacity obviously varies according to file size but as a rough guide, 1GB will allow for around 170 MP3s and 500 photos.


Connectivity

The primary point of a mobile phone is to be connected, and there are myriad ways to do so. Every phone has network connectivity (allowing you to make calls and send texts), which mostly now includes 3G for a faster connection and the ability to send and receive larger files.

Just emerged (and thus still very expensive) is 4G (LTE) connectivity, which is up to five times faster than 3G and worth considering as a future proofing option if you’ll hang on to your new phone for a while. WiFi is of course commonplace and an essential money saving option for getting online over your home network or public hotspots.

Then there’s device-to-device connectivity such as Bluetooth, recently upgraded to version 4.0 for fast wireless connection, and NFC, or Near Field Communication, which is a quick and easy way to send files simply by having two devices near each other.


The battery
A simple but crucial element, your phone’s battery life can be key in deciding which to go for. Typically a modern smartphone’s battery will last around one day with moderate to heavy use, but the more powerful the phone the bigger the battery needs to be to power it.

A quad core mobile really needs at least a 2000mAh (milliamp hours) battery to power the big CPU and large bright screen, while a less powerful single or dual core will suffice with something around 1300mAh.

Operating system
There are four major operating systems that make up 90 per cent of the mobile market – Android, iOS, BlackBerry and Windows Phone. While they all offer similar functionality, they deliver it in entirely different ways and the only real way to find out which you prefer is to try them out. So don’t be afraid to visit a phone shop, ask for one of each and have a play.