Group Test: Smartphones

Group Test: Smartphones

The arrival of Microsoft’s new platform has turned the smartphone war into a three-way fight between iOS, Android and Windows Phone 8. We put 10 of the latest handsets through our toughest ever benchmarks to determine which smartphone reigns supreme.

Buyer's Guide
It’s an exciting time in the smartphone world. There are more smartphones to choose from than ever, and quality is rising all the time. But it isn’t only about new handsets: the quality of mobile software is rising too. Since our last smartphones Labs, iOS and Android have improved steadily, and Microsoft has completely revamped its Windows Phone OS.

They’ve all done a superb job and, for the first time, we’re able to say that we’d be happy using a handset running iOS, Android or Windows Phone 8, and it’s worth considering all of these platforms if your contract is up for renewal.

The increasing quality of software on offer means that, whichever OS you choose, it’s worth considering the small details.

Polycarbonate builds are proving more popular, and they give handsets such as the HTC One X and Nokia Lumia 920 a robust feel and a keen sense of style, but this often means expandable storage is omitted and batteries are sealed. As games are often a 1GB download, storage is key – and it’s reassuring to know that batteries can be replaced if their performance declines.

As smartphone cameras top out at 8 megapixels, you can no longer differentiate phones by resolution. There’s still plenty of innovation, with the Nokia Lumia 920 at the forefront with optical image stabilisation, and others introducing burst modes and integrated panorama options.

4G or not 4G?
So what about the next big thing – 4G? Both Telstra and Optus have growing 4G networks, and the range of phones available is growing constantly.

Most phones don’t have 4G; some have special 4G or “LTE” variants. All iPhone 5s and Lumia 920s have 4G, but you’ll have to find the correct version of a Samsung Galaxy S III, Note II or Huawei Ascend P1 handset. 

At the moment the underlying hardware in a lot of 4G handsets differs from that in the 3G or NextG versions. This is due to battery drain and supply of the chips themselves. For example, you won’t find Nvidia’s Tegra 3 inside 4G phones at the moment because the company doesn’t have a 4G modem chip. Those companies that do make 4G modems  bundle them with CPUs, making it infeasible for phone manufacturers to go with other brands of CPU. This will change as more companies unveil 4G modem solutions  through 2013.

How we Test
We’ve put this month’s selection of smartphones through our toughest ever benchmarks.

Battery life
In our 24-hour test we download a podcast, play it through headphones for an hour, then display a bright-white screen for an hour and then make a 30-minute phone call.

GLBenchmark’s Egypt demo measures battery life when running intensive 3D graphics, and we’ve run its 60fps demo with the screen at 50% and 100% brightness on every phone supported.

Performance
We’ve used Quadrant, Geekbench and GLBenchmark to test overall and 3D performance, and AnTuTu is used to evaluate the processor, GPU, RAM and I/O. Vellamo evaluates HTML5 speed.
Some tests run on multiple platforms. GLBenchmark and Geekbench run on iOS, and SunSpider runs on every device.

Hands-on testing
These battery and performance results are combined with our subjective appreciation of the responsiveness and smoothness of each phone, both in its operating system and when running apps and games. We also explore the software, taking care to test the various proprietary additions made by each manufacturer.

Camera quality contributes to performance scores, as does screen quality. We measure all of our screens using a colorimeter, and evaluate build quality, physical features and design too.

Value for money
The Value for Money score takes into account both SIM-free prices and the total contract cost at the time of writing. We combine this with the other ratings to obtain a score out of six.

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