Not so long ago, buying a new Android phone was easy. Every new generation of devices brought tangible improvements over the last, so anything you bought would be an upgrade over your last model.
That’s less true now. Smartphone tech developments have plateaued. The performance improvements from one generation to the next are smaller than ever, and it’s actually quite hard to buy a bad phone at any price point.
What should you be considering out for when shopping for your next phone? Which specs do you need to know about and which can you ignore? Let’s take a look at everything your next Android phone needs to have.
1. A Fast Processor
The processor is a good place to start, even if it is no longer the main component you’ll look at on new phones. The processor isn’t just about cores and clock speed, it’s part of a full system on a chip that dictates what other features a phone can have, from LTE speeds and supported frequency bands to the resolution of the camera and the amount of RAM.
Thanks to the dominance of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon processors, it’s easy to know what you’re getting.
Each processor has a three-digit name: the first digit is the series, the second is the generation (a higher number means a newer or more powerful model), the third is an iteration of that generation (e.g. the 836 is a tweaked version of the 835). There are four series of Snapdragon:
- 800: The most powerful series, aimed at high-end or flagship phones. Important for the fastest performance, high-end gaming, and high frame rate video.
- 600: The mass market series, used in mid-range handsets. Provides good all-round performance and battery life, and supports high-end features like 2K displays and 4K video.
- 400: Entry-level processor used in lower mid-range devices. Latest versions support Quick Charge 3.0 and can shoot video in up to 1080p.
- 200: Budget series for the cheapest smartphones. Supports LTE, 8MP cameras, and NFC.
This really helps to simplify your buying decision. The difference between the four processor series are the difference between a $600, $400, $200, and $100 smartphone. There are exceptions, of course — the OnePlus 5 allies a Snapdragon 835 with a mid-range price — but by and large, what you’ll get is dictated by how much you want to spend.
There are other options. Most notable are Samsung’s own Exynos processors that the company uses in some of its phones in some markets. Benchmark tests of the Exynos and Snapdragon versions of the Galaxy S8 put the Qualcomm model marginally ahead, although the differences were modest overall.
The other common chips you might encounter are from MediaTek. These are a cheaper alternative to the Qualcomm options, and they’re usually found in budget devices from lesser-known manufacturers.
2. At Least 4GB of RAM
The amount of RAM you get on a phone varies considerably. It ranges from 1GB on some entry-level devices to up to a massive 8GB on the OnePlus 5.
But how much do you need? And does more always mean better?
Android manages memory very efficiently. It’s one of the reasons you don’t need to use task killers. For this reason, most individual apps will run perfectly well on devices with an apparently low amount of RAM.
Where more RAM helps is in multitasking. On a phone with 2GB of RAM, it isn’t possible to keep many apps in memory once you’ve exited them. With more RAM, more apps can remain in the background. It makes your phone feel a lot faster because apps don’t have to be loaded from scratch every time you open them.
As such, 1GB is nearly unusable. 2GB on an entry-level phone is fine for basic use. 3GB is much better for multitasking and will ensure that all of your most frequently used apps will remain loaded in memory for instant access. 4GB, now the standard on flagships like the Galaxy S8 and Essential Phone, should give you perfect multitasking performance, even when playing larger games.
And what of the 6GB on the Galaxy Note 8 or the 8GB on the OnePlus 5? As our review of the OnePlus 5 explains: “That’s massive overkill for a phone, but it also future-proofs the device thoroughly.”
You may not need 8GB right now, but it ensures your phone will continue running smoothly for another several years.
3. At Least 32GB of Storage
When deciding how much storage you need you should ask two questions:
- Does your chosen phone have an SD card slot?
- Do you have an unlimited data plan?
If the answer to either is Yes, you can you get away with less storage than you think. MicroSD card storage is a lot cheaper than internal storage, and it comes in higher capacities too. The difference between a Moto G5+ with 32GB and 64GB is $70 — but a 32GB Micro SD card costs around $15, and the phone itself supports cards up to 128GB.
Android works better with external storage than it used to as well. Apps can be installed to it easily, and apps like streaming services can also save their data there.
If you’ve got a generous, or unlimited data plan, you can use cloud services in place of internal storage. Streaming apps like Spotify and Netflix ensure you don’t need to store media content locally, while Google Photos does a great job of saving you space by uploading your photos and videos and automatically deleting the local version.
But, you should still be wary of phones with tiny amounts of internal storage, especially if they don’t have a MicroSD card slot. 8GB will drive you nuts as you constantly try to delete things so you have room to take a photo. 16GB will be frustrating, but usable. 32GB is really the bare-minimum now, and should give you a bit of breathing room. 64GB is ideal, and 128GB is fantastic.
4. A Beautiful Display
As the single most-used feature on any phone, the display is undeniably important. But the truth is, almost every phone has a good — if not great — screen nowadays. Even a $99 device like the Moto E4 packs in a 720p display. Move up to the $150 range and you’re getting the full 1080p HD experience.
On most flagship phones, you’re getting 2K (like the Galaxy S8) or 4K (Sony Xperia XZ Premium).
There will be difference in brightness, color rendition, viewing angles, and so on — but in terms of basic specs, HD is now available to everyone.
For screen technology, the choice is between LCD and AMOLED displays. The latter tends to have deeper blacks and richer colors, and it’s essential if you want to use a virtual reality system with your phone. They’ve also been traditionally limited to flagship devices, while improvements in LCD displays mean that the differences are getting smaller all the time.
On current phones, the display is more about what surrounds it. The presence, or lack, of bezels is what separates most high-end devices from everything else.
A quick way to judge this is to compare the screen-to-body ratio of devices. The Galaxy S8, with its Infinity Display, is 83.6 percent screen. The LG G6 is 78 percent screen. The Google Pixel is 69 percent and the iPhone 7 is a lowly 65.6 percent.
It doesn’t take too long for new tech to filter down to the more affordable devices. There are already plenty of bezel-less devices from various lesser-known Chinese brands, and it won’t be long before the big names get there too.
5. Good Battery Life
When it comes to battery life, you might automatically assume that it’s all about capacity. To an extent, that’s true. The Lenovo P2 is currently the standout device for battery life, with the company claiming its 5100mAh cell can deliver three days of use on a single charge. The other phones with the best battery life have similarly high capacities.
Batteries like this are the exception, though. 3300mAh is around the minimum size expected for a flagship claiming a full day’s use.
But this is only a guide, and there are too many other factors that can influence battery performance to draw any conclusions off it. The power efficiency of the processor is one. Another is how well optimized the software is another. And there are many ways you can improve Android’s battery life yourself.
6. A High-Quality Camera
The camera is one of the most important features on any phone. They cannot be judged by specs alone, but we can get a few clues as to how they may perform.
You can ignore the number of megapixels and instead check two other specs that may be more telling of the kind of quality you’ll get:
- Aperture: This controls the amount of light that the lens lets in. A smaller number (like the f1.6 on the LG V30) is always better, especially for low-light photography.
- Sensor size: This affects light collection and pixel size and, therefore, image quality in all conditions. Sensor size isn’t always specified, but a larger sensor is always better.
Dual cameras are a big thing in many of the latest flagships. The configuration is normally one wide-angle lens and one telephoto lens. This enables you to zoom in and out better and also to play with depth-of-field effects. Huawei has taken a different route in devices like the P10. It combines color and monochrome cameras to produce cleaner, noise-free images.
That isn’t to say that dual cameras are necessary. Some of the best Android camera phones still only use a single, high-quality imaging module.
7. Good Connectivity and Other Things
As well as the headline specs, there are several other things you should look out for on modern phones.
- USB-C: More powerful, easier to use, and more future-proof than the old microUSB standard. Can also be used for audio on devices where the headphone jack has been removed.
- Headphone jack: When a phone has no 3.5mm headphone jack, you either need the inconvenience of a USB-C dongle, or you need to get yourself some Bluetooth headphones.
- Fingerprint scanner: Now becoming available on entry-level phones, a fingerprint scanner is essential for protecting both your phone and the data stored on it.
- NFC: If you want to use Android Pay, you will need a phone with built-in Near-Field Communication.
- Water resistance: A prerequisite on most flagship devices and quality mid-rangers. Water resistance may not mean you can go swimming with your phone, but you can drop it in the sink or use it in the rain without fear.
Your Next Phone?
The performance, capabilities, design, and build quality of smartphones are better than they’ve ever been. As long as you know what you’re looking out for, you’ll be able to find your perfect Android phone, no matter what price point you’re shopping at.
What will your next phone be? Which specs are most important to you? Camera? Battery life? Share your thoughts and recommendations in the comments below.