Buying A New Smartphone? Here's What You Need To Know

It's flagship phone season, which means that many of you will be hitting your the market to see if you can pick up some new smartphone shiny! Here's everything you need to know before you buy.

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The Basics

Before you start on your quest to buy a shiny, new 4G smartphone, it's worth considering the basics that should underpin all tech purchases:

Know Your Budget

Setting a budget and sticking to it is paramount when it comes to tech buying, and it's especially important when it comes to getting a phone on a contract. 24 months is a long time to be stuck with one device, and if it's beyond your means, you'll either be stuck paying too much for something you don't need or something you can't afford. Do a bit of maths, find a figure you can comfortably afford per month and stick to it. Don't let yourself be duped by slick talking mobile salesfolk. At the end of the day, it's always you left holding the bag.

Decide What You Need Above What You Want

Make a list of features you know you can't live without in your smartphone. Need an ace camera? Make sure there's a note of it. Desperate for customisation options? Android's the one for you. Need a certain amount of battery life? Write that down, too. Don't get sucked into a certain device because it's shiny and neglect everything you need day-to-day.

Check Your Coverage

Having 4G support on your device sure is fun, but you need to check if you're in a 4G coverage area first. No good getting your new phone home and figuring out you can't kick back with the full benefits of 4G. You can search for your address on Telstra's 4G maps here and Optus' here. MVNOs like Virgin Mobile run on the Optus network, but if you want to be sure, it has coverage maps also. Vodafone also has 4G, and you can check out its coverage offerings right here.

Research Your Device

Once you have one or two devices in mind, hit your nearest search engine to see what people who own that device think about it. You might just find that it goes bang after a month with the device or it doesn't do something you hoped it actually did. You can read reviews that we and other tech sites write until the phone goes out of style, but we can't tell you what it's like to live with over an extended period of time like others can. Also, make sure you try before you buy. Even if it involves insisting that a salesperson powers up a phone for you to try before you sign on the dotted line.

Armed with that knowledge, let's get started...


Size Does Matter

We're living in the phablet age! Size does matter when it comes to viewing content, and you've never been better catered for if you're large of hand and large of pocket.

The Nexus 6 is probably your best choice for a big Android phone at the moment, starting at $869. It's a massive Nexus phone made by Motorola, with a giant 5.96-inch, 2560×1440 pixel, 493ppi AMOLED screen, and it's the flagship device for Google’s beautiful new Android 5.0 Lollipop operating system.

The Nexus 6 is Google’s first no-compromise flagship, with a speedy Snapdragon 805 brain, dual front-facing speakers, a 13MP camera with optical image stabilisation, and a price to match: a ridiculous $869 for the 32GB version. The 64GB variant is a full $929. The biggest Nexus. The best Nexus. The most expensive Nexus.

Nexus phones are the purest Android phones, so that’s reason enough. But the Nexus 6 poses a tough question for Android fans: Am I ready for a 6-inch phone? Google is betting the farm that you’re ready to take the plunge.

If perhaps you want to go even bigger than the Nexus 6, you can still rustle up a Sony Xperia Z Ultra from 2013 to tide you over.

The Sony Xperia Z Ultra is a 6.4-inch 1080×1920 (1080p) beast of a phone, packing a 342ppi into the display. You’ve also got TRILUMINOUS Display technology built-in for better colour saturation, an X-Reality for Mobile engine and an OptiContrast panel for deeper blacks. Coincidentally, that OptiContrast tech features the same algorithms, colour maths and software Sony uses in its 4K TVs, which are fabulous. Under the hood you’ll find a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 quad-core processor clocked at 2.2GHz, 2GB of RAM, 16GB of on-board storage, expandable up to 64GB via microSD, an 8-megapixel rear-facing camera and a 2-megapixel front-facer. It’s all kept alive by a massive 3000mAh battery crammed into a tiny 6.5mm thin body. It's a fantastic phone that really shouldn't be overlooked just because of its age here.

But big screens aren't just restricted to Android users these days. Oh, heavens no. Apple "went big" with its iPhone 6 Plus, and it's a truly fantastic device.

The iPhone 6 Plus is powered by the 1.4GHz dual core Apple A8 processor, which (according to Apple), consumes 25 per cent less battery while still cranking out more grunt.

You get a 5.5-inch Retina HD LED screen which packs in 1920×1080 pixels (that’s 401 pixels per inch). The screen is gorgeous, and it’s also super-bright and the contrast is off the chain. The screen glass (not the screen itself, mind) is edge-to-edge and curved beautifully, which encourages you to use nifty swipe gestures built into iOS 8.

The iPhone 6 Plus packs in an overhauled 8-megapixel camera sensor with better software in iOS 8 to control and customise image capture. The new camera is bursting with new features, including Optical Image Stabilisation, new auto-focus tech and great video features.

The new iPhone comes with iOS 8 as the operating system. iOS 8 is really trying to take advantage of this larger screen size by prompting you to go big with your fonts and icons on set-up, and educating you on how you can make things look bigger and better after you start using the device.

If you're a Windows Phone user, you're also very well catered for these days. Our pick of the litter is the frankly-excellent Lumia 1520.

It’s a 6-inch phablet with a beautiful 1080×1920 (1080p) screen with 367 pixels per inch, a 2.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor, 2GB of RAM, 32GB of internal storage, microSD compatibility (huzzah!) and a giant 3400mAh battery.

Of course, there are powerful small phones still in the market if big screens aren't your thing: check out the Xperia Z3 Compact or the LG G3 for big phone-grunt in a small package!

Know Your Flagships

Every manufacturer has their silver bullet: the phone they have charged all of their innovation into. These are the phones that all but guarantee a fantastic smartphone experience. Let's go through the flagships currently available or just about to come on sale (at the time of writing).

HTC One M9

HTC's offering for 2015 sees them sticking with a familiar design in the form of the HTC One M9.

Outright, the HTC One M9 will cost you $1099, and it lands on 24 March.

If that’s too steep for you, Telstra, Optus, Virgin and Vodafone will carry it subsidised on plans instead.

Telstra will sell the One M9 on its $70 Mobile Accelerate plan which includes $700 of calls, and MMS, unlimited SMS and 1.5GB of data. The device itself will cost you an extra $12 per month on a 24-month contract, making the total cost $82 per month.

Telstra will carry the Gunmetal Grey colour as an exclusive, and customers who pre-order via Telstra’s website will get a bonus Pair of Monster DNA on-ear headphones worth $229.

Vodafone is a few bucks cheaper for month, offering the One M9 on its $70 Red Plan, which includes infinite standard national calls and texts per month, 300 minutes of international calls per month, 3GB of data and bonuses like free six month subscriptions to either Spotify Premium, The Sydney Morning Herald or The Age. The phone will cost you an extra $10 per month on a 24-month contract, bringing the total per month cost up to $80.

Optus will carry the One M9 on its $80 My Plan Plus, which includes unlimited minutes of calls, unlimited standard national SMS and MMS and 5GB of data. The phone will cost you an extra $3 per month on a 24-month contract, meaning you’ll be paying $83 per month.

Virgin has the cheapest deal for the HTC One M9. It has the One M9 on its $60 plan includes $700 of calls, texts and MMS, as well as 2GB of included data. The phone will cost you an extra $13 per month, but that still only brings it to $73 per month on a 24-month contract.

So what’s the phone like? It looks just like the old one, for the most part. But HTC promises that it’s different underneath.

Under the hood you get the Qualcomm Snapdragon 810: an octa-core processor featuring a quad-core 2GHz processor and a quad-core 1.5GHz processor sandwiched together. You also get 3GB of RAM, 32GB of storage and an expandable slot that can take a 128GB card.

On top there’s a 5-inch, full HD 1080p screen and new BoomSound speakers which are certified by the folks at Dolby.

Ultrapixel was a great idea, but it has now moved to the front-facing camera rather than being the primary shooter as it was on the One M8. The old camera took a great shot, but doing any kind of zoom and crop on photos taken at a resolution of 4-megapixels was painful. Now you have a whopping 20-megapixels to use, which is great.

Whereas the last One had the looks but not the texture of a high-end device, the One M9 has both thanks to the stepped edges on the metal banding, dual texture finish and the brushed metal on the back. Not to mention the fact that your pride and joy will stay luxurious thanks to a scratch-proof coating that has been applied to the back cover. A lot of care has gone into this device.

But it’s not just form over function. HTC has opted for a powerful octa-core chip inside from Qualcomm, loads of RAM and even expandable storage: something Samsung doesn’t have this year, giving HTC the edge.

From a first look, Sense 7′s recommended apps pane looks a little complicated. People want the apps they choose on their home screen, rather than a machine choosing it for them. At least that’s how I use a phone. It is a learning app though that pushes new apps to you over time, so perhaps it will get better as you use it.

BlinkFeed’s newest upgrades to feed your mind with news, body with food recommendations from leading culinary apps and soul with friend updates is actually really great. I rolled my eyes when I heard it, but it basically just means BlinkFeed is getting better at connecting you with stuff you care about.

Samsung Galaxy S6

Tired of plastic phones? So is Samsung.

The Galaxy S6 is powered by an octa-core processor. That’s made up of a quad-core 2.1GHz processor and a quad-core 1.5Ghz processor sandwiched together to produce a stupid amount of power. That’s backed up by 3GB of RAM and a 2550mAh battery to keep it all going.

Other features include a 16-megapixel rear-facing camera — complete with Optical Image Stabilisation — a 5-megapixel front-facing camera, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, the same heart-rate monitor built into the flash unit from the Samsung Galaxy S5, a fingerprint scanner you no longer have to swipe your finger over and Android 5.0 Lollipop.

It’s packing a 5.1-inch Quad-HD Super AMOLED screen. That’s a screen resolution of 2560×1440, with 577 pixels per inch. Holy. Crap. That screen is also going to power a new Gear VR specifically designed for the S6. The new Gear VR for the S6 and S6 Edge will pack an improved design.

It’s still an Oculus-optimised affair, but this time with a more comfortable strap and better ventilation so the screen doesn’t fog up after long-term use.

It’s also 15 per cent smaller so it’s less strain on your neck when you wear it. The new Gear VR also features USB power so your battery won’t die while you’re playing or watching content.

Of course, with fun new additions on the Galaxy S6 come some subtractions that might get a few fans off-side. The S6 has an integrated battery, no back cover and no expandable microSD storage slot. On top of that, Samsung has backed away from USB 3.0 for its data and charging port, and replaced it with the same USB 2.0 port we used to have.

The first thing you notice about the Galaxy S6 is its incredible design. When Samsung was building the S6, it ran under the internal codename of “Project Zero”. Basically that means Samsung took a step back from everything it had already built and reset itself slightly for the new flagship S phone.

It listened to the complaints from users saying it’s too plasticky, and built the front and back cover out of strong, scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass 4. On the back cover, Samsung worked out a new way to treat the colour layer under the Gorilla Glass to give it an almost shimmering finish.

It comes in black, white and gold. Those three colours are common across the S6 and S6 Edge range, but there’s one especially pretty S6 exclusive colour, which is a beautiful crystal-like blue.

Galaxy S6 Edge

Samsung has not one, but two flagships in the market right now, and this one has the edge. Literally.

The Galaxy S6 Edge is a lot like the vanilla-flavoured Galaxy S6. Same processor, same screen, same drawbacks.

It’s packing a 5.1-inch Quad-HD Super AMOLED screen. That’s a screen resolution of 2560×1440, with 577 pixels per inch. It’s also stocked with an octa-core processor made up of a quad-core 2.1GHz processor and a quad-core 1.5Ghz processor sandwiched together to produce a stupid amount of power. That’s backed up by 3GB of RAM and a 2550mAh battery to keep it all going.

Other features include a 16-megapixel rear-facing camera — complete with Optical Image Stabilisation — a 5-megapixel front-facing camera, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, the same heart-rate monitor built into the flash unit from the Samsung Galaxy S5, a fingerprint scanner you no longer have to swipe your finger over and Android 5.0 Lollipop.

The S6 and the S6 Edge also have the same drawbacks: no removable battery, no expandable storage, no USB 3.0.

They also share another common trait: they’re both gorgeous.

The subtle curve on the Galaxy S6 Edge is really something to behold. Rather than drop straight off into a second screen like you get on the Note Edge, the S6 Edge has subtle curves on both sides of the device.

This also makes the device’s metal banding almost non-existent. It’s so comfortable to hold and you never feel like you’re about to accidentally access the screen.

Those curves are used for two things right now. On the one side you get the Information Display. It’s similar to the ticker on the Note Edge and gives you notifications, news and other relevant information.

The new features come from the other edge, known as the People Edge. On it you get five contacts, all colour-coded to a new person. It acts as a drawer you can quickly swipe open to select people to contact. On top of that, the People Edge can be used while the phone is facing down to notify you of new calls and SMS messages. When a contact gets in touch while the phone is facing down, it glows with a the subtle hue of the colour you chose for them. Based on that information, you know who’s calling and decide whether you want to answer it during a meeting.

Samsung says it will roll out more features onto the Edge screens as time goes on.

iPhone 6

The iPhone 6 is the smaller of the two iPhones. Unlike the larger iPhone 6 Plus, the screen measures 4.7 inches diagonally as opposed to a phablet-sized 5.5 inches.

It’s packing a 1.4GHz dual-core Apple A8 processor, with an updated M8 Motion Co-Processor. You get 1GB of RAM, an 1810mAh battery and an 8-megapixel iSight Camera with an overhauled sensor.

For those who want to go big, there's also the iPhone 6 Plus we covered above.

Sony Xperia Z3

The Xperia Z3 is the fourth movement in the reanimation of Sony. The magic is well-and-truly back at the company, and it shows with its latest generation of phones. The curious thing about the Z3 is that it isn't one phone. It's two. There's the Z3 and then the Z3 Compact on the market at the same time.

The crucial thing to realise with the Z3 and Z3 Compact is that they’re almost the same phone. Apart from different screen sizes and screen resolutions and battery capacities, the hardware is effectively identical and the software is similarly the same. You’re not getting a cut-down experience when and if you buy the smaller device.

This means that both phones are rated to the highest IP65 and IP68 levels of dust- and waterproofing, making them more accident-proof than competitors’ water resistant handsets. Both phones use a 20.7-megapixel 1/2.3-inch imaging sensor with a new 25mm Sony G lens, with a maximum sensitivity of ISO 12800 for faster capturing in low-light environments. Both phones are Sony’s first to support Hi-Res Audio, with onboard amplification and noise cancelling and audio upscaling that required a $300 breakout box on previous models. And, in a master stroke, both phones can play games remotely from your PS4.

In terms of crucial specs, the Xperia Z3 packs in an up-to-date Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 2.5GHz quad-core processor. It’s not using the Snapdragon 805 which is appearing in competitors’ superphones, but using a slightly older chipset means it’s cheaper and still supports the latest 4G mobile networks (Telstra’s new 700MHz band is, of course, included). 3GB of RAM joins the SoC CPU for generally competitive performance, and microSD cards of up to 128GB can boost the phone’s 16GB of internal memory.

The Z3′s 1080p 5.2-inch LCD screen is a TRILUMINOS one, using a blue LED backlight and larger red and green subpixels to dramatically boost the colour gamut and energy efficiency of the smartphone’s display, and X-Reality image processing for edge detection and detail refinement on images and video playback. I’ve loved Sony’s TRILUMINOS tech since it came to the BRAVIA TV line-up, and in the same way as the Z2′s screen you can genuinely see an improvement with especially saturated colours. All of that running power comes from a 3000mAh battery, which Sony says is good for a full two days of regular ‘active battery’ usage (in Sony’s internal testing). You can push that even further with improved Stamina Mode power-saving settings that should provide that little bit extra when you need it.

Just as importantly, the phone’s software has improved substantially. The big, big, big selling point of the Z3 (and the smaller Z3 Compact) is that it supports PS4 Remote Play, previously restricted to the PS Vita. If you have a PS4 — and plenty of people do — you can use your Xperia Z3 to play PlayStation 4 games via your console via your home Wi-Fi network, using the PS4′s DualShock 4 controller (and an optional phone mount for said controller). As long as you have a solid enough Wi-Fi network, you can use the new Z3 series phones as a miniature TV to play PS4, and the PlayStation app also functions as a second screen for watching gameplay, administrating your PSN account or buying and downloading new games.

What is most interesting about the Xperia Z3 Compact is that, like the Z1 Compact before it, it’s largely identical and otherwise comparable to the full-fat and full-size Z3. It doesn’t make any sacrifices in processing or graphics power, it doesn’t use cheaper materials, and while it is smaller it stands alongside the Z3 as a properly high-end smartphone.

Like the Z3, Sony’s new Z3 Compact comes in a range of colours, although they’re slightly muted compared to the glossy all-out yellow of the Z1 Compact. Where the Z3 uses metallic tones the Z3 Compact is pastel, with orange and aqua green joining the standard black and white. All the colours will be coming to Australia, although some carriers might get exclusives or first dibs on the brighter ones.

With a 4.6-inch display, the Z3 Compact has more screen real estate than the Z1 Compact’s 4.3 inches, but it is identically sized in height and width (127mm tall and 64.9mm across), although it’s significantly slimmer at 8.6mm versus the Z1C’s 9.5mm. That 4.6-inch screen is only a 1280×720 pixel one, but this is a necessary compromise in a smaller display and fewer pixels means better graphics performance and longer battery life. The screen itself is, of course, one of Sony’s awesome TRILUMINOS displays, which have a significantly wider colour gamut than competing LCDs.

The Z3 Compact’s battery is fractionally smaller than the Z3′s at 2600mAh, but the smaller size and less demanding visual hardware does promise a Sony-rated battery life of 1.5 days. Otherwise, there’s not too much that is novel about Sony’s Xperia Z3 Compact — and that’s a very good thing. It shares all its vital statistics with the larger Z3, and that means that it is almost unique in the world of mid-size and small smartphones in that it is perfectly suited to smaller hands, but doesn’t sacrifice outright power to get to that point. In a way, the Z3 Compact is even more impressive than its larger sibling.

LG G3


The LG G3 is the new superphone on the block from LG, packing a blistering quad-core, Snapdragon 801 processor clocked at 2.5GHz, 2GB of RAM and 16GB of internal storage (expandable up to 128GB via a MicroSD card).

The camera has been beefed up, with a new auto-focus module based on infrared that promises to square-up a shot for you within 0.276 seconds. Plus, the fact that it’s an infrared AF module means that, no matter what the light conditions are, it can do its job.

Most impressive of all is the new screen. It’s a 5.5-inch QHD panel, which means that it’s a packing a resolution of 2560×1440, and an insane 538 pixels per inch. That’s almost unheard of in a phone these days. I didn’t want to look away from the panel once I started playing 4k content.

The new screen is 0.3-inches larger than that of the LG G2, with the Korean manufacturer deciding that 5.5-inches is the sweet spot between an ordinary smartphone at 5.1-inches or less, and a phablet at 5.7-inches or more. Smart thinking in our minds.

Telstra will sell you the LG G3 for $7 extra per month on top of the $70 Telstra Mobile Accelerate Plan for 24 months. The plan includes $700 per month of calls and MMS, unlimited SMS and 1.5GB of included data.

Vodafone has the G3 for $0 on the $70 Red Plan for 24 months, which gets you infinite standard calls and text messages, 3GB of data and 300 standard international calls (made from Australia to other countries).

Optus, meanwhile, carries the G3 for an extra $5 on the $60 MyPlan for 24 months, inclusive of unlimited calls and texts and 2GB of data.

The outright price of the LG G3 at all three carriers fluctuates between $696 and $699 for those who want to save a few extra bucks.

Whereas the LG G2 was a brilliant piece of hardware let down by truly mediocre software, the LG G3 bounces back to create something that the manufacturer can truly be proud of.

Cheaper Is Sometimes Better

Remember that just because you're buying a phone, doesn't mean you need to spend mega-bucks to get it.

As we mentioned earlier, sometimes smaller and cheaper phones will do the same job that their larger counterparts will do. The Sony Z3 Compact and the Z3 for example were our Phones Of The Year in 2014, because they packed fantastic specs into smaller spaces, giving users more bang for buck. Those are both still flagship devices, but that doesn't necessarily mean that you'll get a bad phone if you buy something slightly lower down in a manufacturer's range.

The iPhone 5S is still on sale from Apple, and it's just as capable as it was when it came out just over a year ago. You'll still get the stunningly-good iOS 8 experience and all for less money than a flagship iPhone 6 or 6 Plus.

The same goes for Android devices: you can still pick up the Nexus 5 from some telcos for a steal compared to the super-sized Nexus 6, and I'd argue it's still one of the best Android phones ever made with a price to match.

In the same vein, the Samsung Galaxy Alpha is a terrific phone for far less money than you'll spend on the Galaxy S6 when it gets priced up for the Australian market.

Remember: more expensive doesn't always mean better. Stick to your budget and your list

4G And The Need For Speed

4G coverage isn't just a luxury reserved for the big telcos like Optus and Telstra these days. Smaller carriers like Vodafone, Amaysim, iiNet and Virgin Mobile all have 4G coverage in city and metro areas right now. Of course, that's always expanding and you should check their respective coverage maps to see if you're served.

Given that the two biggest telcos in Australia had a bit of a head start when it comes to 4G, they're now both rolling out faster networks thanks to big spectrum buys.

Telstra’s 700MHz allocation, which it purchased at auction (along with a significant chunk of 2500MHz) in May last year for $1.3 billion, is for two 20MHz segments of the frequency band — the majority of that frequency, and double the space of Optus’s two 10MHz segments. It’s in the APT700 band segment, which is becoming increasingly popular around the world — an important consideration for any telco considering adding new devices.

Being twice the bandwidth of Telstra’s existing 1800MHz and 900MHz allocations, you can reasonably expect theoretical and practical download speeds to double, or even more, when you’re using a 700MHz device. Telstra quotes 2Mbps to 75Mbps speeds for 4GX Category 4 devices — that’s the LG G3s, Samsung Galaxy S5s, Sony Xperia Z3s and iPhone 6s that are already out in Australia. The 700MHz portion of the spectrum was previously used for analog TV signals, so it’s good to see it going to very good use.

Telstra is also using its new spectrum to ramp up for 5G in 2020.

That’s ages away, but the good news is that you’ll be able to get theoretical maximum speeds of up to 450Mbps down by April this year. Here’s how it works.

Speaking at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in February, Telstra talked about what it would be working on in the next five years to get 5G ready for consumer use. Mainly, the strategy surrounds upgrading 4G to make it a 5G-like service by the time 2020 rolls around. You may remember Telstra did something similar in the lead-up to its 4G deployment by upgrading 3G and rolling out Next G.

We’ll start seeing the benefits of these upgrades by April this year, when Telstra switches on its LTE-Advanced network, complete with Category 9 capabilities in capital cities. LTE-A and Cat 9 bring with them theoretical maximum speeds of up to 450Mbps with a compatible device.

It works by meshing together three bands of spectrum using Carrier Aggregation to achieve those massive speeds. It builds on the existing 4GX and the compatible devices from Samsung, Netgear and Huawei to achieve even greater speed.

Telstra is working with Netgear to bring out a Wi-Fi hotspot around that time, with Category 9 capable device updates coming later on in the year.

Telstra will also roll out Voice Over LTE or VoLTE in April, before a full commercial roll-out later on in the year.

Optus is also currently working on its 4G spectrum allocation and we'll see more movement around that later in the year.


What's the most important thing for you when it comes to buying a new phone?

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