Bigger phones have the edge in our test, but what do you really need? Here’s what you should know about selecting a good model, finding the right plan and choosing a provider. We also check out the current trends and provide tips for getting the most out of your phone’s camera.
Snapshot: The Nokia 1 (TA-1047) is an Android phone with a 5 megapixel camera and a 480x854 screen. How does it rate?
Snapshot: The HTC 10 is an Android phone with a 12 megapixel camera and a 1440x2560 screen. How does it rate?
Snapshot: The Nokia 2 is an Android phone with a 8 megapixel camera and a 720x1280 screen. How does it rate?
Snapshot: The One Plus 3 (A3003) is an Android phone with a 16 megapixel camera and a 1080x1920 screen. How does it rate?
Snapshot: The Nokia 3 (16 GB) is an Android phone with a 8 megapixel camera and a 720x1280 screen. How does it rate?
Snapshot: The Nokia 3.1 is an Android phone with a 13 megapixel camera and a 720x1440 screen. How does it rate?
Snapshot: The Nokia 5, 16GB is an Android phone with a 13 megapixel camera and a 720x1280 screen. How does it rate?
Snapshot: The One Plus 5 (64GB) (A5000) is an Android phone with a 20 megapixel camera and a 1080x1920 screen. How does it rate?
Snapshot: The One Plus 5T is an Android phone with a 16 megapixel camera and a 1080x2160 screen. How does it rate?
Snapshot: The Nokia new 6.1 (2018) is an Android phone with a 16 megapixel camera and a 1080x1920 screen. How does it rate?
Snapshot: The OnePlus 6 (128GB) is an Android phone with a 16 megapixel camera and a 1080x2280 screen. How does it rate?
Snapshot: The OnePlus 6 (256GB) is an Android phone with a 16 megapixel camera and a 1080x2280 screen. How does it rate?
Snapshot: The OnePlus 6 (64GB) is an Android phone with a 16 megapixel camera and a 1080x2280 screen. How does it rate?
Snapshot: The Honor 7C is an Android phone with a 13 megapixel camera and a 720x1440 screen. How does it rate?
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Some people are just looking for a simple phone that won’t break the bank. So we’ve also calculated simplified scores to find out which phones are best at the basics.
When it comes to performance, larger phones have more useable screen real estate and can house bigger batteries for longer running times. Their larger screens show more detail in your photos and are easier to read and work on. However, this is balanced by the annoyances of a phone that isn’t easy to use with one hand or can fit in every pocket. But the big phone trend is here to stay; it’s now so prevalent that what used to be a regular-sized phone is now called “compact”.
Our table lists phones as large, medium or small. Phones with a surface area of 70cm² or less are small. Medium phones are between 70 and 90cm², and large phones are 90cm² or greater.
Our lab scores phones with big screens higher than smaller phones because the extra size allows you to do more. For example, the Samsung Note phones and iPhone Plus models allow you to multitask with more than one app on screen at a time. This type of extra functionality, along with bigger keyboards, makes them more versatile.
To see what we found in our test, become a paying Consumer member or log in at the top of the page.
Where a phone has been replaced by a newer model but is still scoring well we have listed it as “Worth Considering” rather than “Recommended”. Where a phone has been replaced by two newer models, we still list it but don’t give it either tag.
On the other hand, if you don’t want to spend more than a thousand dollars on a newly released model, take a look at last year’s model. The release of a new model is usually accompanied by a large price drop for its predecessor. These phones are still good! You get 90 percent of the features of the latest phone for 50-75 percent of the price.
Premium phones tend to enter the market at the $1200 mark. This is expensive for a product that’s potentially going to be superseded within a year. On the flipside, if you’re in the market for a high-end phone, you can get stuck in the loop of “I’ll wait for the next one”, because the next one will always be better.
Fingerprint sensors have become the new norm. The home or power button on many new phones contains a small sensor that uses your fingerprint in lieu of a password or PIN to unlock the phone, log in to secure apps, or make purchases. The Apple sensors are the fastest we’ve tried; so fast in fact that sometimes we accidentally unlocked the phone when all we wanted to do was turn the screen on to see the time.
Face scanning is the new way to unlock your phone and different phones do it in different ways. Some scan your image and recognise you due to facial features, such as the distance between your eyes; this version can sometimes to unlocked using a picture of your face. Some scan your irises, which are as secure to use as fingerprints. Both those types have trouble with low light, distance from the camera, and may require you to remove glasses. The last type projects a grid of infrared dots on to your face to create a 3D map that is unique to you. This version seems to work the best, without any of the previous issues.
Water resistance lets you use your phone in the rain or the shower, not worry about spilling drinks on it, and take underwater photos ... as long as you aren’t too far under water. A lot of leading brands now offer phones with this feature. They all have roughly the same waterproofness rating (IP68). Previously, it was claimed you could swim with these phones, but most makers have now backed off from those claims, hence calling them "water resistant" rather than “waterproof”.
Camera quality continues to improve. Even “regular-sized” modern phones have more room for larger image sensors, and have space for specialised LEDs for flash photography. Annoyingly, many phones still have cameras that project from the rear of the phone, making the devices wobble when placed on flat surfaces. An interesting trend is phones having 2 cameras (or more), with each performing a specific function in tandem to create better images.
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 skin smoothed out and eyes slightly enlarged. 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.
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”). I often use my phone’s assistant when cooking to set timers and do metric measurement conversions.
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 don’t work without internet access either.
If you plan on taking your devices out and about with you, it’s important they 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.
Battery: Smart phones are known for using a lot of battery power and will require charging much more often than non-smart phones. Battery life can be extended by turning off certain features like GPS and WiFi when not needed.
Ease of use: If you can, try out the phone in a store first to see how easy and intuitive it is to do what you want. The smaller the phone and bigger your fingers, the harder the touch screen is to use.
Reception: If you are going to use the phone in an area where there are weak signals, look closely at reception ratings (these are included in our test results). You could also ask friends or business colleagues with phones on various networks to see if they can get a signal at your house or work.
The reception of phones is affected by which way the phone is facing (towards a cell site), and whether the user's hand is covering the aerial. So if you're struggling to get a clear signal in a rural location, try turning the phone to face different directions, and make sure your hand doesn't cover the top of the back of the phone.
Portability: Bigger screens give you more usable real estate and make images look amazing, but the larger phones don’t fit comfortably in your pocket or in your bra. They’re also harder to use with one hand. We strongly recommend trying out these big phones before you buy one.
Cameras: Resolution and general lens/processing quality are improving, but are generally several steps behind dedicated digital cameras. Image quality is usually high enough for posting on the web or making small prints. (Remember the best camera is the one you have with you - which is usually your phone. And the newer smart phones can take some remarkable shots.)
Text input options: 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 Hadyn Green recommends 2 to try on both iOS and Android: Gboard by Google, and SwiftKey.
4G and LTE: 4G (fourth generation) or LTE (Long Term Evolution) is technology that allows for much faster data transmission than older 3G networks. All the big telcos have 4G networks across the country, though some areas are still only served by 3G. To access it you will need a 4G compatible phone. While the speeds can be much faster the data charges remain the same, so be aware of how much you are using.
Browsing: Most phones come pre-loaded with their own browser so your favourite sites may not look the same. Also many sites (such as Consumer.org.nz) are mobile-optimised so they'll look better on your phone.
Games: The higher connection speeds, large 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 the ones you’re interested in first – it could save you some money.
Connectivity: You may want to connect your phone to a Bluetooth speaker or other device. If so make sure the phone’s Bluetooth connections are the right ones (and not too old). The same is true when connecting to your home WiFi network.
Memory and storage: Memory is sometimes used to describe both RAM (used for processing) and storage (the space used to keep your stuff, like apps, photos and music). Generally, you want at least 1GB of RAM in your phone. When phones are described as having 16GB or 32GB this refers to storage. Extra storage capability comes in the form of external memory cards. Memory cards come in many sizes, usually between 4GB and 16GB. Additional cards can be bought from most electronics retailers.
While a fast connection is great, good old-fashioned customer service goes a long way too. Find out which mobile and internet providers had the most satisfied customers in our latest telco survey.
Total number surveyed: 4915
Of the big two, 85% of Apple owners were very satisfied, beating Samsung (72%). Samsung wins out in value for money though: 61% of Samsung owners thought their phone offered excellent value compared with 50% of Apple owners.
For more on mobile phone reliability, see our survey.
TradeMe usually has dozens of phones for sale, 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 goes wrong. Private sellers are not 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.
Light is your friend. Most phones’ cameras don’t work well in low light so make sure you have enough light to work with. The built-in flash can help – but it often makes your subjects look like startled possums. Instead try using another phone’s flash (or even a bright screen) as a torch to illuminate the scene. This is the simplest way of creating a great shot in low light.
Most high-end phones have several settings to play with, this includes settings usually seen on actual cameras, such as ISO. This makes taking macro shots, bokeh, or action shots possible. Don’t be afraid to change these settings and figure out how to use them.
Get to know your camera
Even if you commonly use the camera in your smartphone, find out what it can and can’t do. Learn about its advanced features and software settings, what sort of lighting it can cope with and so on. Many smartphone cameras will have several camera modes including panorama and HDR (High Dynamic Range), along with video.
Tap to focus
You know better than your smartphone what area of your shot you want to show clearly. Focus manually on an area by tapping the screen with your finger. Many phones let you press and hold to adjust both focus and exposure.
Get the light right
Are you shooting under indoor lighting or outdoors? There are many kinds of lighting, and even digital SLRs can struggle with getting correct exposure. That’s why professionals shoot in raw mode, to capture the most image data to allow for later exposure adjustment. Using HDR on a smartphone is the closest equivalent, but no replacement. Avoid backlit scenes, look for even lighting across your shot and use HDR for still scenes only to avoid blurring. Experiment with flash settings rather than just keeping it on auto.
Compose your shot
Frame your subject carefully and don’t crop too tightly while shooting. Allow a little room — you can crop later in software if needed. Only some smartphone cameras offer depth-of-field adjustment. Don’t always put your subject in the centre — being slightly off-centre can often be more interesting or dramatic.
Don’t take every shot from the same standing position. Vary your height, distance and angle to make things interesting. Keep moving and shooting to increase your chances of getting the best shot.
Add effects later
Whether on your smartphone camera or on your computer, there are plenty of programs that can add special effects to your shots to give them a special look, from mild to wild.
Keep it clean
Regardless of your camera, features or skills, you need to keep the lens clean. It’s easy for any camera to develop a dirty lens, but smartphones in particular are subject to lens smearing, dust and lint due to handling and pocket/purse storage. Keep a lens cloth handy to give it a good wipe before use.
Check out more of our tests, articles, news and surveys in our Technology section.