How to find the perfect mobile phone for your needs.
Your mobile phone is probably the most important device you own, so we’re here to make sure you choose the right one.
What do you really need in a phone? Some people need a giant screen, a huge processor and as many hi-res cameras as possible. Others just need something basic that can send messages and make calls. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle, so which one is best for you?
When you’re deciding what phone to buy, there are three questions you need to ask yourself. These will narrow down the field dramatically.
Apple and Android are essentially the two options when it comes to phones. What are you currently using, and do you want to change?
If you do change between Apple (iOS) and Android, you’ll have to re-download, and possibly repurchase, any apps you had. Whether you’re sticking with the same system or changing, both operating systems have a process for copying all your data, such as photos, from an old phone to a new one. It does take a little while but it’s easier than the manual transfer option.
In terms of the device itself, ask yourself what you hate about your current phone. Does it take bad photos? Is it always running out of space? Once you know this, you’ll know what to focus on when looking for a new one.
If you’re someone who only needs a phone with the most basic functions or someone who needs every spec to be the highest possible, things are pretty straightforward. It’s the users in between who have to be to be a bit more selective about which phone they pick.
We recommend looking at phones that are slightly higher specced than you think you might need. This helps future-proof your new purchase and it’s also likely that you’ll start using your phone differently if the device is capable. For example, a phone with a better camera might mean you start taking more photos.
Storage space is a big issue for most users. While 64GB is a decent amount for a low-to-average user, if you take a lot of photos you might need more than that. Even apps can take up a lot of room. Luckily, music-streaming services, like Spotify, mean you might not need room for music files.
Are you going to be using it out in the elements? If so, you may want to look at waterproof phones or even ruggedised phones that can survive being dropped (or worse).
If you do a lot of note taking or drawing, look for a model that comes with a stylus pen, like the Samsung Note series.
Will you be using it with other devices in your house, like laptops? If you have an Apple computer, for example, you may lean towards getting an iPhone as they work better together, rather than an Android.
Are you going to connect the phone to another device, such as headphones? If so, are you going to go for wireless options, or will you need a phone that has a physically compatible plug?
Do you want a case for it? If so, check you can actually get one for the phone you want before buying it.
You also need to think about the network you’ll be using, and specifically whether or not you need 5G. The new technology allows for much faster download speeds, though for most users these speeds aren’t necessary.
There are two parts to deciding what phone to get. First, the phone itself – you need to consider everything from size to battery to camera. Then you need to think about where you’re going to get the phone from. Will it be on a plan and, if so, which telco should you go with?
We list phones as large, medium or small – phones with a surface area of 70cm² or less are small; medium are between 70 and 90cm²; and large phones are 90cm² or greater. While they may be cumbersome to hold and won’t fit in your pocket or bra anymore, bigger phones have the edge in our tests.
If you can, go into a store and try the phone...see how difficult it is to stretch your thumb across the screen.
When it comes to performance, larger phones can house more tech, including bigger batteries for longer running times. However, this is countered by the annoyances of a phone that isn’t easy to use with one hand. That said, the big phone trend is here to stay; in fact it’s now so prevalent that what used to be a regular-sized phone is now called “compact”.
Our lab scores phones with big screens higher because their extra size allows you to do more. For example, larger screens make it easier to multitask, with more than one app on screen at a time. Big screens also show more detail in your photos and are easier to read and work on. This extra functionality, along with bigger keyboards, makes them more versatile.
If you can, go into a store and try the phone. Hold it in your hand (if they let you, put it in your pocket), try the keyboard, see how difficult it is to stretch your thumb across the screen.
Battery technology has come on in leaps and bounds. Even heavy users should be able to get through the day on a single full charge. However, there are things that will kill your phone’s battery life faster, such as GPS, WiFi, running apps in the background, or even having the screen on.
Because of this, manufacturers have developed battery-monitoring software that can change how your phone works in order to minimise usage. However, some of these programs, notably on some Android phones, are very aggressive. These over-active systems can turn off apps you want running, such as alarms. To avoid this happening, go into your phone’s settings and fine-tune them or turn them off.
Many phones support wireless charging. Wireless charging pads sit on a flat surface and charge your phone through induction. It’s an easy way to recharge without fiddling about with cables. Nearly all use a standard called Qi, which means one charger will work across various brands.
Though resolution and general lens/processing quality improve every year, they’re generally several steps behind dedicated cameras. That said, the image quality is easily high enough for posting to the web or making prints.
The current trend is multiple cameras on the back of the phone. Each camera usually has a different focal length or different sensors (such as dedicated RGB or monochrome). While this may seem like a gimmick, our results show that more cameras do create better photos.
Telephoto lenses need a long focal length (the distance from the lens to the sensor). To get one of these into a phone, manufacturers use a “periscope lens”, which turns the light 90° and uses the width of the phone rather than the depth.
While most camera improvements have happened in the rear camera, front-facing cameras have been upgraded for those all-important selfies. Photo-processing software has also been updated, so when you snap a photo of yourself you may notice your is skin smoothed out, face is slimmed up, and eyes slightly enlarged. This can have mixed results so best play around with the setting to see what you like. Some phones detect faces in shots and adjust the zoom accordingly (so if you have three friends in a selfie, the shot automatically widens to accommodate them).
Annoyingly, many phones still have cameras that stick out from the back of the phone, making the devices wobble when placed on flat surfaces.
If you’re going to use the phone in an area with weak signal strength, look closely at the Calling scores included in our test results (reception is the major component of the calling score). You could also ask friends or colleagues with phones on various networks to see if they can get a signal at your house or work.
Bigger phones have room for bigger aerials, so get slightly better reception.
4G (fourth generation) or LTE (Long Term Evolution) mobile technology has been around for many years now, and allows for much faster data transmission than older 3G networks. However, 3G is available in more areas. The next tech is 5G and these networks will be rolled out over the next few years. Until then don’t buy a phone with 5G as its main selling point.
Memory is used to describe both RAM (used for processing) and storage (the space used to keep your stuff, like apps, photos and music). The higher the RAM, the faster your phone will run.
When phones are described as having 16GB or 32GB, this refers to storage. Some phones offer extra storage capability with a slot for external memory cards. Memory cards come in many sizes, but the phones usually top out at a given amount (for example, the phone may only be able to take memory cards up to 256GB).
Water resistance is a feature for many new phones with most having an IP68 rating (see below for more info). Previously, the manufacturers claimed you could swim with these phones, but most makers have now backed off from those claims and now call their devices "water resistant" rather than “waterproof”.
If you plan on taking your device out and about with you, it’s important it can withstand the elements. Ingress Protection (IP) ratings indicate how resistant a device is to water and solids (dust/dirt).
IP ratings have two numbers. The first relates to solids, such as dust, and has a maximum rating of 6. The second relates to water and goes as high as 8. An X rating means it hasn’t been assessed for that type of protection.
See here for more on IP ratings and the different levels of protection.
Many high-end phones have done away with the headphone jack. Instead they use the USB-C connector that’s also used for power. This may seem like a small detail, but it can affect how you use the phone and accessories, such as headphones. Depending on the cable supplied with the phone, you may no longer be able to connect it to your computer.
Assistants like Siri (iOS), Google Assistant (all systems), and Bixby (Samsung) are in every phone and are listening for your commands. These programs help by doing basic searches (“What’s the capital of Turkey?”), taking dictation (“send a text to Brian”), and running basic tasks (“Play me some music by Lorde”). You can also use the phone’s assistant to set timers, useful when cooking, and do metric measurement conversions.
However, they can also get in the way. Siri and Bixby have a habit of popping up when they aren’t wanted, and Siri is famous for not responding when called. They also don’t work without internet access.
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Mobile phones can be bought directly from the telco or manufacturer’s websites or from various licensed retailers. Shop around – deals are often available.
You can find lots of phones on TradeMe, most of which are offered by individuals or parallel importers. If you buy from this source, consider what sort of help you would get if something went wrong. Private sellers aren’t covered by the Consumer Guarantees Act, and although the law does apply to commercial sellers, if they’re not at a physical address near you it may be hard to get the law enforced or get a broken phone repaired.
Some companies offer more than the regular after-sale care. Huawei has an app called Hi-Care for dealing with faults. Both Huawei and Oppo have both previously offered free replacements of broken screens with newly purchased phones (something not covered by the Consumer Guarantees Act), so if you’re accident-prone it’s a good idea to look for these types of deals.
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All smart phones offer full QWERTY touch screen keyboards. Annoyingly, many default keyboards are awful, with poor layouts or confusing functions. However, there are superior alternatives you can download. Our tech writer recommends Gboard (by Google) and SwiftKey.
Your phone will come with a bunch of standard apps. Beyond the basics, such as text messages and camera, you’ll likely find apps for note-taking, flashlight and health tracking. Some you’ll use, others you’ll replace with better third party apps.
Getting email on your phone is useful, but the standard mail apps vary in quality. Your best option is downloading the app associated with your mail account (Gmail, for example) or a good generic app, such as Outlook.
Most phones come pre-loaded with their own browser, but (with the exception of Safari on Apple) they’re generally bad. It’s a good idea to use the mobile version of whichever browser you use on your computer, as it will link your accounts across and remember browsing history. Many sites (such as Consumer.org.nz) are mobile-optimised so they'll look nice on your phone.
The higher connection speeds, larger screens and improved memory of modern phones are all the things you need to play increasingly impressive-looking games. However, game quality varies from title to title. If you’re interested in playing games on your phone, try searching the internet for reviews of the ones you’re interested in– it could save you money.
Despite improvements in construction and materials, phones break with alarming regularity – especially screens. Having a case, even one that just comes up around the edge of the phone, can stop a lot of potential breakages. Huawei and Oppo include a case with their phones.
Your phone is a mess. There are apps you never use sitting on the main screen and apps you use all the time tucked away in random places. Removing unused apps will free up space and computing power, while optimising your home screens will make your life easier.
It’s also surprisingly filthy – when was the last time you cleaned it? You know it’s true and you know you should do something about it – but where to start?
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