Mobile Phone Buying Guide
Choosing the right handset
Before you pick your phone, consider what you plan to use it for. There’s no point choosing the latest smartphone if you’re only going to call and text. If you are on the hunt for a high-end phone, remember to read the specifications to see how well it’s suited to your needs for things like photography, music, media, or gaming.
The operating system (OS) is the software that runs a smartphone. It defines how it works, the app store you have access to, and how it communicates with other devices. Each operating system allows you to customise your phone and personalise the layout so it appears how you want it to. Most phones use similar touch gestures and controls, so you’ll feel at ease whichever one you decide to choose.
If you already have a laptop or tablet, its OS can impact how easily the devices can be synced and work seamlessly together. Whether you’re a Windows or Mac user, each OS will have its own way of and limitations on interacting and synching with your phone.
When choosing an OS, you have two main options to consider, each with their own characteristics and advantages: Android is run by Google and is the most widespread operating system and iOS is exclusive to Apple iPhone.
Android is available across a variety of phones and brands, so you have more options when choosing the handset you want. Android phones are powerful, bright and clear. There are over a million apps available from Google Play, so you’re bound to find what you are looking for. If you own another Android device such as a tablet, you can instantly share your calendars, settings and apps, allowing them to work together seamlessly.
iOS is a stylish operating system that’s quick and easy to use. It works perfectly with other Apple devices, allowing you to easily share apps, music, photos and contacts between your iPhone, iPad, iMac or MacBook.
iOS can only be used on Apple products, so you’ll need to choose an iPhone. There are millions of apps available in the App Store, so you won’t run out of app options to choose from.
A mobile phone’s screen size determines its overall size and dimensions, and the quality of the image it displays. Phones come in an increasingly diverse range of screen sizes, so when choosing the right one, consider how and what you’ll use it for. If you want to stay entertained or need to do work whilst on the go, a big screen for watching movies, gaming, or viewing documents will suit you best. However, larger touchscreens mean bigger phones - these can be more difficult to use single-handedly or carry in your pocket.
The latest smartphones are usually equipped to handle a 4G connection, but some handsets may only connect to 3G. Find out whether a phone supports 3G and/or 4G in the specification section of the product page. Remember, 4G doesn’t cover the whole country - you’ll be more likely to pick up a stronger 4G signal in larger towns and cities, although 4G coverage continues to expand.
If you’re on a 4G connection, you can expect faster downloads, less buffering time when streaming, and faster webpage loading times.
Mobile phones come with a range of storage sizes. This refers to how much space there is to save content such as apps, games, photos and music. A smartphone’s operating system can consume around 4 GB of space, so if you order a 16 GB capacity phone, you may actually get around 12 GB of usable storage. However, there are many ways to keep your handset content to minimum, including using music streaming services, cloud storage or microSD cards (be sure to check the product specifications to verify if the phone has one).
The processor is the ‘brain’ that runs your smartphone: a larger processor means a smoother user experience and less lag. If you’re only planning to use Facebook and Twitter you probably won’t need a large processor, but if you like to download blockbuster games or multitask between apps, consider higher processing speeds. Processor size can be easily determined by number of cores (how many computer parts it has) - demanding users may prefer an octa-core processor or larger, while a dual or quad-core processor may suit casual users.
It’s a common myth that more megapixels means a better camera. Megapixels relate to the resolution of the picture, which means the level of detail and how large it can be reproduced without losing quality. For everyday use, such as holiday pictures and social media uploads, 5-8 megapixels is usually enough. More megapixels can capture extra detail and suit making large copies, but it’s better to read about individual camera features rather than relying on megapixels alone.
Smartphones come in a range of sizes, and larger ones are better for watching YouTube or Netflix. Grab a ‘phablet’ (which bridge the gap between phones and tablets) if you want something a little larger than average. A large screen is about 5” in diameter, and above 5.5” is considered phablet territory. It’s also worth looking at the screen quality, as HD or 4K displays offer a much sharper picture.
SIM free phones
A SIM free phone is a simple option which provides you with a handset and nothing else.
SIM free mobile phone means you’re buying nothing but the handset. There’s no contract, no SIM card and the phone is not locked to any particular network.
SIM free phones give you flexibility. You can buy the handset you want, when you want it. With no contract to sign, you’re not tied into a long commitment when you purchase the phone. You can upgrade it whenever you like, so you can always have the latest tech. SIM-free phones come completely unlocked, allowing you to choose the network and SIM card you prefer.
Pay monthly tariff options
Choosing the right tariff is important, as this determines how much you’ll be paying per month as well as your allowances. Tariffs vary in price depending on whether you choose a handset tariff, or if you just want a SIM-only tariff to use for your existing phone.
- Handset tariffs – Many tariffs are available with a phone at no charge, or at a reduced upfront cost. The value of the handset is built into your line rental, so you’ll pay it off slowly over your monthly bills. Contracts with a handset generally run for 24 months.
- SIM-only tariffs – Since you’re not paying for the cost of a handset, SIM-only tariffs generally offer a lower monthly price and/or more allowances in your bundle. You can also choose a shorter commitment, with monthly rolling or 12-month contracts available.
Certain tariffs have an upfront cost, which acts as payment towards the value of your handset. If you want a lower monthly line rental, you can choose a tariff with an upfront cost and pay off part of your handset at the start of your contract.
Mobile coverage varies from network to network. If you want to check coverage in your area (including 4G coverage), it’s a good idea to use a network’s coverage checker, which can usually be found on their website. If you’re a regular commuter, don’t forget to check coverage both at home and away. There are various perks available from network to network, with rewards such a priority concert tickets, discounted entertainment services, or free London WiFi on offer.
Your monthly call allowances are valid to standard UK landlines and other UK mobile providers only. Similarly, text bundles are valid only to other UK providers. You’ll generally incur bill charges if you stray outside of this, such as making calls or texts to international providers, premium-rate services, or sending picture messages. When in doubt, contact your network first. Out-of-bundle charges will vary from network to network.
Data is consumed by surfing the web, running apps, and using maps/sat nav (amongst other things). A casual user may consume up to 1 GB per month, but those who spend a lot of time online may wish to look at tariffs with 2 to 3 GB of data. If you plan to regularly stream and download content, then 4 to 5 GB or higher would be best. Remember that smartphones also have WiFi settings, and you can preserve your monthly data by using WiFi where available and only downloading content when connected to WiFi.
No, as not all phones are 4G compatible. If you want to use 4G, make sure you’re also ordering a phone that supports a 4G connection.
If a website is 2 MB in size, then it will use 2 MB of your allowance whether you downloaded it on 3G or 4G. However, when your content is loading faster, you may find yourself surfing through more websites in the same amount of time, which would use up your data allowance faster.
Yes, certain handset tariffs do come with a free gift included in the monthly cost.
New vs. upgrade pay monthly contracts
It’s important to understand the difference between new and upgrade contracts, and when each option is appropriate for you.
You can order a new contract, which comes with a new number. Alternatively, you can continue with an existing number on the same network, which is called an upgrade contract. Either option is available as either a SIM only contract or with a handset included.
- New Contract – Choose this option if this is your first contract, or if you want to move to a different network. If you do decide to change networks, you have the option to transfer your existing number across, which is called 'porting'.
- Upgrade – If you want to stay with your current network and continue with your present number, then select an upgrade contract. You’ll receive a new SIM card (regardless of whether you’ve ordered it SIM-only or with a handset), and your existing number will then continue seamlessly into your new contract.
To port your number, just call your current provider and request a PAC (Personal Authorisation Code). This can only be requested if your current number is out of contract, and it will subsequently end your existing connection. When your new order arrives, give the PAC to your new network and allow 3 to 5 days for the port to be completed.
If you’re currently with EE, Vodafone, or iD Mobile and want to keep the same number on the same network, you’ll need to choose an upgrade. If you’re with O2, you can choose between an upgrade and new O2 contract, and still keep your number. Just call and ask O2 to migrate your existing O2 number forward.
This isn’t always the case. You can of course order a better phone, keeping in mind that the cost of your line rental is linked to the value of the handset you choose. This gives you the option to recalibrate your monthly payments based on your current needs.
Yes, whether you order a new contract or an upgrade, you’ll get a new SIM card to use. New contract SIM cards will be active and ready to use once delivered. Upgrade SIM cards may take a short while for your connection to swap over.
If you’re ordering a new contract, this will be subject to a credit check. If you’re ordering an upgrade, a credit check is not performed. Credit checks are performed by the networks themselves.