What to look for when buying a new phone or tablet

January 8, 2013
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android smartphone shopping

You’ve decided it’s time to spend some of your hard-earned cash on a sexy new Android smartphone or tablet. The snag is that you have thousands of options and you’re not sure how to narrow the search down. It’s worth spending a little time thinking about your expectations before you charge into the minefield that is the modern electronics marketplace. Salespeople in stores often have an agenda to push certain devices, those too-good-to-be-true offers online might just be too good to be true.

If you’re not sure what you should be looking for we can help. Let’s cut through the jargon, explain the relevance of certain specs, and find you the Android of your dreams.

The first rule

Before you even start looking at devices take the time to work out what you want from your new purchase. Will you be mostly browsing the web, taking notes, or watching movies? Do you just need a basic phone for calls and checking emails? Are you going to be playing a lot of games? How important is battery life to you? If you’re feeling organized then make a list of must-have features. It will help you to hone in on the right device for you and reject unnecessary extras that could add to that bottom line.

The screen

It’s the first thing you’ll notice about any new smartphone or tablet and you’ll be spending hours staring at it over the next few months so it’s important. Size isn’t everything, but an extra half-inch can make a big difference.

The first thing you need to consider with a new tablet or smartphone is how big you want to go with the display. Tablets are mostly around the highly portable, almost pocket-sized 7-inch range, or up at the 10-inch range. For watching movies around the house a 10-inch tablet will be best. If you need something for note taking on the go then the portability of a 7-inch tablet is going to suit you. With phones you should try getting a hands-on first. A bigger screen is great for typing, browsing the web, and watching video, but it may mean you can’t operate your mobile one-handed.

amoled display shootout

When you’ve settled on a size the important number to consider is the resolution. Simply put it is a count of the pixels in the horizontal and vertical so the higher the resolution, the sharper the picture quality. Sometimes you’ll see the resolution compared to the size of the display to generate a ppi number, which stands for pixels per inch (the higher the number, the sharper the picture). This is especially important if you want to do a lot of reading, you’ll really notice the benefit of a higher ppi with text. If you also like the idea of watching true HD movies then the resolution needs to be at least 1920×1080 pixels.

Various technologies are employed for smartphone and tablet screens and you’ll find color reproduction and brightness levels vary. Some devices are particularly bad for direct sunlight glare. Try to find a good online comparison of your candidates to make sure you get the best display possible.

The innards

A specs list can be off putting for some people and if you’re not sure which numbers really matter it doesn’t help you to make a decision. There are basically three numbers to think about, the processor speed, the amount of RAM, and the amount of storage.

Processor

Choosing a processor is complicated by the advent of dual-core and quad-core offerings. It’s no longer a simple case of choosing the highest clock speed, which is generally a figure in GHz. Truth be told the manufacturer is also very important if you’re dead set on getting the best possible performance. Multicore processors are supposed to be more efficient because they can divide the task, assigning a piece to each core. In theory the task is completed faster and it uses less battery power, in practice that’s not always the case because not all apps and games are optimized for quad-core processors.

In general you shouldn’t buy a device that doesn’t at least have a dual-core processor and the higher the clock speed in GHz, the faster it will be to navigate around and load apps; however, it will also drain the battery faster. If you aren’t going to use the raw power at your fingertips then it’s not really worth paying extra for. If you want to do a lot of gaming then more cores and a higher speed is best, otherwise try not to get too hung up on it, a decent dual-core processor will be enough for most casual users.

RAM

Random Access Memory is a place to store data. The more RAM you have the more data it can store. It loads things much faster than your permanent storage. Over time it will learn which apps you use the most and keep them ready to load so that you can get into them faster. In simple terms the more RAM you have the faster certain system features and apps will load. You’ll want at least 512MB of RAM, but 1GB or more is better.

Storage

This is where you’ll store all of your files – everything from emails to photos to songs to videos. The more storage you have, the more you can fit on your phone or tablet. Manufacturers really tend to sting you for storage. This is why a microSD card slot is so important to many people. It’s always cheaper to get an 8GB microSD card than pay for an extra 8GB of internal storage (although the built-in storage might perform a little better).

To give you a rough idea, you might fit 8 to 12 movies in 8GB, or around 2,000 songs – it depends on the quality. Always look for the small print on storage. The specs may tell you that a tablet has 8GB of storage, but it won’t take into account the operating system which actually leaves you with 6GB free. Remember you can take advantage of cloud storage. You can use services like Google Drive and DropBox to dramatically increase your storage for free.

Connectivity

The big question here for smartphones is about data networks. Do you need 4G LTE support? Is 3G enough? Much depends on where you are. You could pay out for a 4G LTE smartphone and end up with 3G anyway because there’s no good coverage in your area. It’s worth checking first, although in general, 4G LTE will future-proof your phone to some extent.

Verizon-4G-LTE-coverage-maps

You do also have to consider the cost and limitations of data on your contract. If you don’t frequently access the web to surf or stream video when you are out of the reach of Wi-Fi then 4G isn’t going to be important for you. It does allow you to download faster, but be careful if you’re on metered data or you could just end up with a big overage charge.

For tablet owners a cellular network connection seems like overkill. You can load up on content when you’re in Wi-Fi zones. If you need to be able to access the web everywhere then you’ll need data network support and a plan, but be aware that it’s going to add a lot to the overall cost.

Every device should come with Wi-Fi support. You ideally want support for as many Wi-Fi networks as possible. The latest standards are faster and different standards use different frequencies. If you have 802.11a/b/g/n then you’ll be fine. Some devices, like the Kindle Fire HD boast dual-band, dual-antennas which offer faster downloads. You’re more likely to be limited by your Internet connection speed than your Wi-Fi standard.

If you want to use Bluetooth accessories then you should check for Bluetooth support – it’s pretty standard. If you spend big on a new Bluetooth headset or something, and it supports the latest version, then make sure your tablet or smartphone also supports Bluetooth 4 to get the full benefit.

Ports

The vast majority, if not all, Android smartphones are going to have a standard microUSB port for charging and syncing data with your computer or laptop. Tablets will have a USB port. You will also find a standard 3.5mm audio jack for headphones.

If you want to be able plug your device into your HDTV, then you need to make sure it has HDMI out. That way you can just plug it in and watch photo slideshows or video footage. There are ways around this and many devices support DLNA for wireless streaming, so it shouldn’t be a deal-breaker for most people.

Camera

If a camera is important to you then you’ll want to check out the specs on offer. Generally speaking a higher megapixel count is good, but for the best camera you need to check out some online comparisons because real world results with cameras that have the same megapixel count can vary wildly. You only really need a front-facing camera if you intend to use Skype or something for video calls.

Other features

There are many other potential features to consider. This is just an introduction for newbie shoppers. When you narrow your choices down a bit read some reviews or comparisons online – you’ll find plenty right here at Android Authority. You should also always try to get a hands-on with the device you’re going to buy. Go to a store and take a look, but don’t feel like you have to buy it there, once you find the one you like go home and search for the cheapest online price before you pull the trigger.

If you’re an experienced Android device shopper and you want to leave a tip then post a comment. If you’re still seeking your perfect smartphone or tablet and you have questions then fire away and we’ll do our best to help.

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