Monday, August 27, 2012

What to look for when buying an Android cellphone

Hello All

I am back after a prolonged holiday and some of the experiences during the 5 days provoked me to write this post.

I do a monthly round up of phones recommended to buy, and occasional one on which phones NOT to buy. All this begs a deeper, wider question: when out to get a cellphone, what should you look for? What is the bare minimum one should be able to accept and what are the compromises involved? My years of experience has enabled me to lay down certain criteria. Here goes.

1) Screen size

It's not so simple anymore. I think we can wholeheartedly agree that the iPhone's screen, once a benchmark for touch phones, looks hopelessly tiny today for media and web consumption. That said, iPhone's puny 3.5 inch job has something going for it that other phones have only last year begun to match: PPI, or pitch, or dots per inch. iPhone has a PPI of 325, which means that even on the tiny screen text is clearly visible. That means that you can read much smaller text on an iPhone. In 2010 the flagship screen size for Android phones was 4.3 inches; however, it had a resolution of 800x480 meaning that pixels were stretched far and wide, and the net effect for having a large screen was nullified, especially for text intensive tasks such as reading and web browsing.

2011 came and in November of that month Galaxy Nexus landed, changing the Android landscape for good. Firstly, it had Android 4.0 (now 4.1). Secondly it had a huge 4.7 inch screen in an elegant package, with a resolution of 1280x720, and a PPI of around 310. That means that for the first time, Android phones were beating iPhone at its own game with matching resolution and almost twice the screen size. (Do the math: 4.7 inches vs 3.5 inches is not a simple job of division but squaring that fraction). Web became much easier to process and books and magazines suddenly came to life.

However, even today, that screen size and resolution is not cheap. The cheapest HD screen as of this writing belongs to LG's Nitro HD and that costs 34k. So what are the alternatives?

Go small. Get a phone with 3.5 or 3.7 inch screen; the small screen size will mean that even at 800x480 pixels the PPI will be in the 275-290 region, rendering the text perfectly legible. Sony's Xperia U and Sola fall neatly into that bracket, not to mention HTC Desire S, One V, and Samsung Galaxy Ace and S Plus, to name a few.

You can go lower and cheaper, but then you are not really getting a good experience. At HVGA (480x320) and QVGA (240x320) resolution, there are a lot of options available, such as Samsung Galaxy Y, GIo, Duos and HTC Explorer; but you will have a painful web browsing experience on those thanks to low PPI and resulting pixellated text.

2) Software

It's a tragedy that we are 10 months into the launch of Android 4.0 (ICS) and yet companies have the gall to launch and keep phones on Android 2.3 (Gingerbread). Yes, GB is good for most users. It plays especially nice with the stupid custom skins such as Samsung's TouchWiz, and those from Sony  and Motorola. But ICS is in another league in terms of usability and sheer elegance. Anybody not giving ICS on a phone selling in 2012 is short changing their customers.

So go for ICS. HTC's 2012 lineup, with the exception of Explorer, has ICS. Sony's 2012 Xperia lineup has it, or at least has a confirmed upgrade. So what of Samsung, the world's biggest smartphone manufacturer? Why, they have exactly THREE phones running ICS - Galaxy S3, S2 and Note. Note (ahem) the flagship or near-flagship nature of these sets. It's a shame that out of the dozens Galaxy sets being sold by Samsung, only three has ICS.

But wait - there is something even better than ICS. Jelly Bean, Android 4.1, sets a new benchmark in terms of speed and smoothness, and even iPhone cannot match it in those criteria. So far, only two phones, both Nexus devices, are officially running JB; Samsung Nexus S and Galaxy Nexus.

3) Processor and RAM

A big deal is made out of dual- and quad-core processors these days. As per my experience, if the software is right, even a single core phone can fly. What it needs is RAM, not necessarily processor cores or speed.

Truth of the matter is, most Android phones these days ship with 512 MB of RAM. That is too little. Most Sony phones, even in 2012 and running ICS, sport similar RAM and therefore slow down to a crawl after few weeks of usage. At least HTC and Samsung give 768 or 1 GB of RAM to most of their sets. But situation is not idea. I believe in order to ensure a smooth experience, at least 1 GB of RAM is required; phones having that are numerous, such as Motorola Atrix, HTC One S and One X (but not One V), Samsung Galaxy S2, S3, Note and Nexus, LG's Optimus 4X and Nitro HD, Sony's Xperia S and P.

With 1 GB of RAM, you can make do with even 1 GHz single core processor, or dual core tops. Nobody really needs a quad core processor so I would suggest looking at options before paying the price premium.

4) Application Memory

Contrary to my earlier, rather extreme views on the matter, even 16 GB memory is enough for most users. So your phone should either have that built in (many do) or have a card slot. Done? Not exactly.

There is one more thing called 'Application memory' - something that is variously called "user memory" or "user accessible portion of ROM" or such. This is very crucial. Many phones, while having acres of memory, usually assign 320 MB or 512 MB for user's apps. The figure lowers down to 160 MB or even less than 100 for lower-tier phones.

Why does this matter? Android apps. They take a lot of space, and even if you shift them to memory card (a  not exactly easy or seamless process if you have dozens of apps), they leave their 'soul' behind in application memory. Therefore, install a few crucial apps and games, and 320 MBs are gone in no time.

Therefore I would suggest to ALWAYS, ALWAYS go for a phone that has at least 512 MB of application memory. This figure is not easily verifiable so I would suggest either check out, that phone's official web page or, the best option: check the phone out in a shop (don't ever buy a phone without thorough checking), go to Settings>Storage and check the figure there.

So which phones qualify? The best one in this regard is Galaxy Nexus, which doesn't assign any limit at all to app memory, meaning that essentially you have 12 GB of app memory (of course at the expense of other media). Phones like Samsung Galaxy S, Note, Nexus S, and HTC One S and One X, all sport decent space for apps. Sony phones curiously lag behind in this regard.

5) Camera

Truth is, if you are obsessed about cameras on your phone, you have come to the wrong place. I have long professed that if you pay a premium for the camera on your phone in order to have a 12 MP snapper, it is far, far cheaper to nab a point and shoot from Canon or Nikon at less than one third the price for infinitely superior photography. Phone cameras are destined to be just another convenience, not a defining feature. The basic criteria here is not megapixels but immediacy. For example, the Galaxy Nexus, my phone of choice, sports a rather poor 5 MP camera. But, it has zero shutter lag, meaning that the picture is snapped as soon as the button is touched. That, in my opinion, compensates for the less than ideal low light performance.

So forget about the camera. You just want good stills and HD video, and virtually any phone will give you that.

6) Battery

No matter what you do, you'd be lucky if your Android phone lasts one day on a single charge. In 2012, battery technology still belongs to 2008. So no need to fret about it - it's a lose-lose situation!

By the time you finish reading this (I hope), you must have realized that it's not easy to buy an Android phone. That is because of the sheer choice available. However, I have listed what I think are the criteria that REALLY matter, and if you are able to meet MOST (not all) of them I believe you will have a relatively trouble-free experience.

Of course, the one single phone that meets all of the above criteria is my beloved Galaxy Nexus. Go figure :-).


  1. Thanks Talha for such a nice blog post..I am completely new to android and smart phone world but i am looking to buy a new android phone and my nephew recommended me Samsung Galaxy S3. I haven't used Samsung Phones ever before. Should I buy it?

    HTC Desire S

    1. Hello Joan

      Many, many thanks for your feedback. Whew, that's a tough one. If you see my monthly buying guide right on this blog (titled "Which phone to buy right now" aka "shameless self promotion), I have often strongly recommended against S3. That is because in my humble opinion, Samsung Galaxy Nexus trounces it in terms of value for money and having the latest Android version (4.1). I even have a dedicated post on S3 - you might want to check that out.

      Make no mistake, S3 is an amazing phone and widely perceived to be the best phone in the world right now. You can't go wrong with it. It will also shortly get Android 4.1. However, when compared to the Galaxy Nexus, which essentially gives you the same screen size, it is quite a bit expensive.

      Galaxy Nexus has its own demerits: its camera is poorer and so is battery life. However, if you can compromise on the camera, are new to Android and want the best VERSION of Android, Galaxy Nexus is the way to go. I myself use a Galaxy Nexus.

      Depending on where you live, the S3 comes with either a quad core processor or a dual core processor - both are fastest on the market. However, hardware specs are not everything - with Android 4.1 Google have made it so smooth and fast, even a mid-range device will give amazing performance.

      Sincere thanks for the comment. I would GREATLY appreciate that if you find my blog useful, please refer it to other people since I want maximum page hits!

      Please feel free to revert to me in case of anything else you need to know.

  2. Cute baby there Talha.. Wow! I became your instant fan Talha with your very informative blog here. I am following a budget android phone which is ZTE V790 dual sim and i am planning to buy it coz of its superb specs( i think so). Now, I really do not know if the specs of it really speaks for itself. I am not sure if its all real! Would you mind giving me a full review of this budget android phone? Thank you so much and i am looking forward for it Ta;ha. Thanks..

  3. Hello estong, many thanks for viewing my blog. Unfortunately we don't get many ZTE devices here in Pakistan, however I will have a look at its specs and at least give you an opinion based on my experience. Watch this space!