Ask LH: Which Smartphone Should I Buy?

Ask LH: Which Smartphone Should I Buy?

Dear Lifehacker, I’m still using a dumbphone — I love it because if it’s dropped/lost/cracked/whatever then ‘meh’. I love not having to react like my heart’s been cut out of my chest, as my friends do when their ‘precious’ is harmed or lost. But am I going to eventually be left behind if I don’t keep up? More bluntly: Will I become my parents?

Do I need to get on-board to prevent loss of on-going tech skills? I don’t want a big phone. The maximum likely size is about a Nokia Lumia 800. Is there anything coming out with the latest/greatest OS but which is still compact and can fit in my front jeans pocket? Thanks, Reluctant Upgrader

Old phones picture from Shutterstock

Dear RU,

You’re actually in a pretty enviable position right now: unlike the vast majority of phone users, you’ve yet to commit to a particular OS which means you’re free to go with any model that takes your fancy. In some ways, this will be the most important phone purchase you will ever make, as once you’ve amassed a bunch of apps it’s going to be a lot harder to migrate to another operating system.

Your first decision should therefore centre on what OS to invest in: there are really only three major players in today’s market: Apple’s iOS, Google’s Android and Microsoft’s Windows Phone (the company formerly known as RIM is still kicking along with its Blackberry devices but its glory days are long behind it).

Each of the above operating systems has its own specific strengths and weaknesses — Android provides lots of freedom to tinker around with how things work, iOS has great quality-control when it comes to apps and Windows Phone will be comfortably familiar if your a Windows PC user (particular if you’ve happened to upgrade to Windows 8).

But we’re just scratching the surface here. It really comes down to personal preference as to which OS is “best”. Our advice would be to head to your local phone or telco store and have a play around with a few models to see which feels the most intuitive and easy to get to grips with.

Setting aside OS choice, it sounds like you want a compact smartphone that isn’t horrendously expensive but is still capable of performing most major smartphone tasks. These days, smaller smartphones are becoming a rare commodity, even in the budget category. There are still a few options out there though — here’s our pick for each OS.

Windows Phone

A good, affordable model in the Windows Phone category is Nokia’s Lumia 520. It comes with a four-inch touchscreen display with a native resolution of 800×480 pixels, a 1GHz dual-core processor, 512MB RAM, and a decent five-megapixel camera. It also boasts the HERE suite of navigation apps.

You can snap one up for around $200. [clear]


The Galaxy S III Mini is a budget Android that comes with a four-inch Super AMOLED touchscreen (800×480 pixels), a 1GHz dual-core CPU, 1GB of RAM and a 5-megapixel camera. The OS is also upgradable to one of the latest versions of Android (v4.1 Jelly Bean).

It currently sells for around $250.



The iPhone 4 is a few generations old now, but it remains a highly capable smartphone that supports the latest version of iOS 6. It comes with a 3.5-inch retina display, a 1GHz processor, 512MB of RAM and a 5-megapixel camera.

With an RRP of $400, it’s a bit on the pricey side though.



The popularity of Blackberry is unquestionably on the wane but that doesn’t mean you should dismiss it out of hand: indeed, the addition of a QWERTY keyboard will probably suit you if you’re upgrading from a phone with physical buttons. One option worth a look is the BlackBerry Curve 9320: it features a 2.4-inch display, a single-core CPU, 512MB RAM, a 3MP camera and the aforementioned QWERTY keyboard.

It sells for around $200.
[clear] [clear]

Whatever phone you plump for, it’s usually a good idea to invest in some third-party casing that will protect against accidental drops (although this can be harder to find for budget offerings). If any readers have any phone suggestions of their own, please let RU know in the comments section below.



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  • just switched to a samsung S4 after a lifetime of iphones.. It’s waiting for me @ home.. Finally have decided that the S4/android has alot more to offer than apple can.. which is a shame, since Steve died they have never been as good as they were.

  • I would first say to the writer of the question that essentially you’ve not really missed out by not having a smart phone. And I would ask, what’s wrong with ur parents?

    I personally bought a Nokia n97 and loved it. I used it occasionally for work emails, and it has/had a great GPS – but remember, GPS uses 3G or 4G internet access so you do need to have an adequate plan in place. Having said that, GPS usage doesn’t seem to add up to a huge amount of internet usage in my experience, you might want to check that with someone more knowledgeable.

    I then upgraded to a Samsung Galaxy IIS and loved it, far far more than the Nokia. The difference is night and day. The Galaxy made the n97 seem like a dumb phone. The Samsung doesn’t do much more than the Nokia can do, but it does it far, far better.

    The Samsung is an Android phone, and I would recommend Android over the other OSs’ for a few reasons. Firstly, it’s great. It works really well and is intuitive to use. You don’t need much time at all to “learn” how to use Android, You don’t need to become an advanced user, or memorise menus etc – as we all had to do with Symbian and other dumbphones. I would say that there is a very small and pleasant learning curve, as there probably is with Apples’ OS, and maybe Windows, I don’t know. I would find it hard to say that the Windows phones are better because they’re easy to use, because the Android phones are pretty darn simple as they are.

    Secondly I would recommend Android because of the lower price points of Android phones (and tablets). You can now buy low end smart phones for under $100. My wife has a basic HTC that cost $1 when she signed with Red Bull Mobile for 1 year (pre-paid, unlimited, bargain, check it out). It’s a very good phone, Far better than the Nokia N97 that I paid nearly $1,000 for.

    You can buy a Samsung Galaxy IIS for around the $200 to $250 mark, and Galaxy IIIS for less than $400. Even the brand new Galaxy IVS is slipping in price, and there are some other great, great phones such as the waterproof Sony Xperia Z (I believe the Z). My wife bought the Sony after dropping her Galaxy IIIS in some water. Same as the IIIS but toilet proof. I would say that whatever you spend you will essentially get a great phone. Spend more and it will be better, but they’re all very good.

    When I first got my Galaxy IIS I was using it alot. Internet, Youtube, GPS, lots and lots of apps. As the excitement has worn off, so has my usage and now it is mainly used as a phone. I haven’t even been bothered to set up emails because although it will work really well I just don’t think I want that in my life.

    I would guess that the Apple OS is fundamentally equivalent to Android. It has some advantages, and some weaknesses – but they both do the same thing, they’ve both had multiple revisions, they both run on advanced and refined hardware etc etc. Like choosing between a Mercedes or BMW.

    I’m now due to purchase a new mobile and I’m thinking that I probably won’t bother. I don’t really want to spend $700 on a Galaxy IV when it’s only slightly better than the Galaxy III which can be had for $400 or so, and the Galaxy III isn’t that much better than the Galaxy II. The Galaxy II does everything I need, and I don’t need a larger screen. A larger screen might be nicer at times, and not nicer at other times.

    I’m interested in the Note II but again I question if I want the large screen, and until I own one and use it I won’t know the answer, and I don’t want to spend $500 to $700 to find out.

    Personally I think i’ll wait for another year or 2 and hope that there’s a compelling reason to buy a new phone as, as far as I can tell the low to mid level Androids are perfectly great as they are.

    • Nokia’s HERE Drive (and the other Nokia map apps) have downloadable maps (a few hundred MB each but they’re shared across the apps) which means your phone can operate as a satnav without having to hit a server for the map data.

      • The Galaxy series of Samsung phones also has Navigon which also doesnt require a data access to use. I’ve been using it on my Galaxy S1 for the last 3 years and it works fine with no data, just GPS. It comes free with the Galaxy S1 to the Galaxy S4. Just saying.

  • Personally the size of most phones isn’t really a big deal. I have a relatively big phone (a Galaxy Nexus) and have no problems fitting it into my front pocket.

    Therefore, taking size out of the equation I think the best value for money phone out there is the Nexus 4 for $349 via Google Play.

  • I think the best advice anyone can give concerning buying a smartphone for the first time is to play with each one that is available and which ever appeals to you, that is the one you should think about getting.

  • The most important advice out of that whole article was about getting a protective case and/or wallet. 2 of my mates took their new galaxy s4s back in to the store with cracked screens within the first week.
    In comparison, when I walk out the store with a new phone, I walk straight across the shopping centre to the little phone cover stalls you see in every shopping centre to have them fit a thicker screen protector, a soft third part case (so that if dropped it absorbs some of the impact) and a wallet for it. Running me up around $60-$70. But since my nokia n96 none of my smart phones have had a cracked screen.

  • Chris, why would you recommend the BlackBerry Curve 9320, when it runs a discontinued OS? Wikipedia is telling me it runs BBOS 7.1. I would think that only BB10 devices would be worth recommending.

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