Aside from a devastating lack of potential conversation topics at dinner parties, the biggest problem with writing about technology is that people always ask me what phone they should buy. In recent times, that’s narrowed down to what Android phone they should buy.
The biggest factor when choosing an Android phone is price. I’d put them into three rough tiers: budget phones under £150; mainstream phones costing up to £400; and premium phones, which gallop all the way up to the Pixel at £719.
You should instinctively know how much you’re prepared to pay for a phone, so either jump to your preferred band below or keep on reading for the specs that matter. There are some jokes. Not good ones.
How much storage do I need on an Android phone?
While you can skimp on storage and opt for an 8GB phone, I’d only do this as a last resort. Yes, if the phone has a microSD slot available then you can boost this massively, but you may well hit problems later on: certain apps only wanting to install direct to the device’s storage, or an update that needs so much free space.
My personal minimum would be 16GB, but certainly be aware that you’ll be wanting to buy a microSD card at some point to keep photos, podcasts, music and videos on. (I recommend the PC Pro podcast, which has zero to do with the fact that I host it.)
If your preferred phone doesn’t have a card slot, then buy the absolute maximum you can afford. You won’t regret it, whereas you will regret having to empty out folders every couple of weeks just so you can record a one-minute video.
Which version of Android should I choose?
It’s best to buy a phone that’s no more than one generation behind Google’s release schedule. Right now it’s on Android 7 (called Nougat, in that annoying hipster fashion that Google has), so if you’re being offered a phone with Android 5 then be cautious. Actually, more than that: unless it’s stupidly cheap, don’t buy it.
Note that almost all the manufacturers add their own “skin” to Android, which will integrate things such as their preferred clock app and perhaps tweak the look of the OS. Thankfully, these skins are far less annoying and invasive than they used to be, so you shouldn’t find them too frustrating.
Personally, I bought a Nexus 6P last year because I wanted to make sure I was always going to get the latest updates; manufacturers often take months to update their skins, and while there are likely to be few must-have features in any updated version of Android, it’s a shame to be behind the curve.
Do I recommend you buy a Google-made phone right now? Sadly not, because Google has decided to dump its great-value Nexus phones and offer only ridiculously expensive Pixels. Thanks Google.
How much RAM do I need?
1GB is best avoided; 2GB is okay; 3GB of RAM is good; any more than 3GB should be plenty. Next.
How fast should my processor be?
The safest guide to the speed of your phone (and thus its longevity and sell-on value) is how it performs in the industry benchmarks. For now, that’s Geekbench 4 for the processor and GFXbench for the gaming chip. You can see how your chosen phone performs in the official Geekbench 4 page, but review sites – think Expert Reviews, Alphr, Trusted Reviews, TechRadar – will always benchmark phones.
Also look out for scores in games or 3D benchmarks. This is a measure of the graphics chip inside your phone, the speed of which is usually sacrificed in phones under £300. Does it matter? Unless you play lots of graphically intense games then I’d argue not (Candy Crush and its ilk are designed to play on pretty much very smartphone).
What screen size – and resolution – do I need?
Tastes differ, as do hand sizes, but 5in to 5.5in screen is the current sweet spot for most people. Some people like a larger screen, but try this out in the flesh before buying. 5 to 5.5in is a popular size because web pages and videos are large enough to view easily, but it’s not so large that you can’t use the phone single-handed (unless you have Trump-sized hands). It also means that images look super-sharp at 1,920 x 1,080 resolutions.
That’s worth noting because even good-value phones offer that resolution now. Most people don’t need any higher than this, unless they’re going to be using their phone in VR headsets such as the Samsung Gear VR. Personally, I wouldn’t want a phone with a resolution lower than 1,920 x 1,080 – the image gets fuzzy – but if your budget is tight then you can drop down to 1,280 x 720 without hating yourself.
Finally, a word on screen technologies. Most good phones use IPS technology (it stands for in-plane switching, but that’s not important right now), which offer perfectly good colours. Others, including Samsung’s premium phones, use AMOLED or Super AMOLED screens, and these offer punchier, more vibrant colours. Both are great, so don’t get suckered into worrying about this too much.
Best budget Android smartphones under £150
Here’s what you don’t get for under £150: a super-fast processor; a top-quality, high-resolution screen; an ace camera; bombproof build quality; any sense of glamour when you take the phone out of your pocket.
But that doesn’t mean you need to settle for a bad phone. Choose wisely, and you can pick a phone that performs perfectly well for the next two years.
My top choice (and you can trust me on this; I recommended it to my Mum and she’s delighted with it) is the Moto G4. Shop around by all means, but right now I’d go for the £139 offer from johnlewis.com. Its biggest advantage over similarly priced phones is its camera, but it’s also pretty fast and has a lovely screen for the price.
The G4 has now been “upgraded” to the Moto G5, but while the chassis is much more stylish there’s no other reason to choose it. They score similarly in benchmarks, but the screen isn’t quite as vibrant and the camera is also a minor upgrade according to Jonathan Bray at Expert Reviews (and when it comes to phones, Jon knows what he’s talking about).
If you can’t find the G4, or don’t like its looks, the Samsung Galaxy J5 is a fine alternative. Reasons to like it? Great screen, albeit with a 1,280 x 720 resolution. Nice design. Decent camera. Reasons not to like it? Still on Android 5 and unlikely to get an update to Android 6. Plus, rumours of a 2017 update abound.
Want to pay less than £100? The lowest I’d go is £70 for the Vodafone Smart Prime 7. As its name rather gives away, it’s tied to Vodafone, and note it’s a pay-as-you-go contract only, but it’s a great first smartphone and a solid choice for children.
Best mainstream Android smartphones – £150 to £400
There is so much choice in this range that it’s close to crazy. But all the following are good phones. Click through to read the full reviews on Alphr and Expert Reviews – both are great sites for phone reviews in particular. If that sounds like way too much effort, I’ve included a very brief summary of each one below:
My personal favourite mid-range phone is the Honor 6X, because it doesn’t have a real weakness despite its lowly price. I love its slim, premium design; the screen is more than good enough, as is its battery life; and it has a party trick of a dual lens rear camera. A £225 bargain.
Then there’s the Lenovo Moto Z Play. If you’re fed up of charging your phone, this should be your top choice. It has staggering battery life – it should last for two days – and a 5.5in AMOLED (so, super-punchy) display. It also has some snap-on accessories, including a bigger-still battery. If all that sounds good, but you prize sleekness over battery life, consider its slim sister, the Moto Z.
OnePlus is seen as the upstart on the Android block, producing premium phones for a mid-range price. The OnePlus 3T is stretching our mid-range definition at £399, but if you’re willing to spend that much then you get an excellent camera, long-lasting battery and a nice-looking phone.
Best premium Android smartphones – £400 to infinity
As time goes on I’m less and less sold on a phone that costs more than a laptop, but there are still reasons to spend a little more. For one, the camera is likely to be among the very best you can buy in a phone – possibly good enough to convince you to put your compact camera on eBay.
You’ll also get a top-end processor and graphics chip. For me, these are nice-to-haves rather than essentials, because every app (beyond hardcore games) is designed to run smoothly on modest Android hardware. Web browsing is likely to be a little snappier, but I can’t see it making much difference to your life.
The quality of the screen and chassis are the final factors, as these not only dictate how much you’ll enjoy holding the phone but also how impressed your friends are when they see it. You could also argue that a higher-resolution screen (2,560 x 1,440 or higher is the norm) opens up the world of virtual reality, but come on, how often are you likely to indulge in that?
Anyway, if you are sold on a premium phone (I won’t judge you) then you should be happy with the brilliant Samsung Galaxy S8. There are many more (the LG G6, HTC 10, Huawei P10) but none has the wow-factor to lift them above Samsung’s flagship. Why? In the main because of its stupendous display that covers very nearly the whole of the front chassis. It does look spectacular in the flesh. Add in an excellent camera and brilliant battery life, and you can see why it’s already won so many awards.
Incidentally, it’s also worth considering the S7 that the S8 replaces. This remains a great phone and tempting deals should be available.
Finally, there’s the Google Pixel. There are two versions of the Pixel: the plain one for £599, and the larger Pixel XL for £719. They’re both great phones, and have the obvious benefit of being produced by Google – that means you’ll get Android updates as soon as they’re released. Both also include excellent cameras. Some people rave about the design, but there’s nothing ground-breaking here. Personally, I’d hold on for the rumoured Pixel 2 devices.