How to buy a smartphone

Leisure outlet, work tool, personal planner - a mobile today is much more than a vessel of communication, and it's important to make sure you get a model and payment plan that suits your needs and doesn't leave you in financial ruin.

The smartphone market is more competitive than ever, and yet there is a striking lack of product diversity. Standard specifications are largely the same across the big brands, save for a few exclusive features which tend towards the gimmicky (the iPhone's 3D Touch, Samsung's curved screen, for example). It really boils down to whether you favour iOS or Android.

By popular consensus, Apple's latest operating system, iOS 9, is rather prone to bugs, but don't let you put this off: teething probems are the norm for newly released mobile software and most of them are usually rectified within a couple of updates.

Android is undoubtedly the less fashionable operating system, but users who make the switch generally have few complaints to register: the interface is slightly on the plain side, but it's simple and, for the most part, smooth. For a while it had a slightly more functional outlook than than iOS, but - with the addition of the power-saving option in version 9 - there is little to set the two apart besides the ability to support Apple-exclusive apps.

If you've grown tired of paying through the nose for a top-of-the-range handset, there are a few alternatives beginning to emerge. Upstart British firm Wileyfox offer a range of basic models which are probably closer to the major smartphones of two or three generations than those released in the last year, but at less than £200 represent decent value for money.


The most popular smartphone brands

With new models disappointingly bereft of new features, it is also worth considering an older handset (Apple are - for now - still releasing operating systems compatible with the 4s, though they may not run quite as smoothly). This reduces your upfront fees, but also means you run the risk of missing out on the enticing start-up offers reserved for buyers of the latest releases.

By the same token, newer smartphone releases have the advantage of not being tied to one particular network - which saves you from the headache (and considerable expenditure) of having to lift built-in SIM restrictions. This also makes for an easier transition, as anyone who has spent hours moving contact details from one phone to another can attest to.

Today, many users favour long-term contracts, but the best packages usually demand a two-year commitment from their customers, which means you don't have the option of switching network providers if you find a better deal, or cutting back costs in the event that you experience financial problems.

Pay-as-you-go (PAYG) can still be viable but only if you use your phone infrequently: topping up once a week just isn't going to work when the premium rate for a text message is upwards of 12p - a huge amount when compared to the monthly allowances permitted in contract deals.

The third option, a SIM-only contract, lies somewhere in the middle. The start-up costs are generally higher, as two-year contracts often have no upfront costs attached, ostensibly giving you a "free" model (albeit with a bumper monthly fee). On the other hand, they afford you that little extra flexibility without leaving you completely at the mercy of the premium PAYG rate (you can buy 500 or 1000 monthly texts in bulk, for instance).

In general, online retailers offer better value than stores - particularly if you are going for a pricey contract deal, where comparably generous cashback perks are unlikely to be found on the high street. It pays to look around, but remember: your payment plan has to work in the long-term as well as the short.

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