It’s been a crazy year for smartphones: we put 17 of the best smartphones on the market to the test
Reviews in this Group Test
After a slow start Android exploded, Nokia produced its first serious touchscreen smartphone, the iPhone received an update, and even Microsoft found time to give Windows Mobile a makeover.
Improving sales figures for smartphones, despite one of the worst recessions for many a decade, have encouraged more companies than ever before to get in on the act, and the result is a baffling array of options.
We’ve tested 17 phones and cherry-picked the best 12 for a full review, but there are many more on the market.
All this means, increasingly, that it takes something special to stand out. It’s no longer enough to produce the highest-resolution screen and couple that with the best selection of hardware. It’s no longer enough to produce a phone that’s simply highly capable.
Phone makers have to couple that with an intuitive user interface and a repository of applications and games that are simple and easy to download. They have to produce something that allows customers to keep in touch with their work and social life. And they have to produce something that lets people listen to their music, watch video and act as a competent satnav too.
When you think about it this is an awful lot to ask of any one device, so it’s all the more surprising that so many of the phones on test this month manage to make such a good stab of it.
We’ve been so impressed, in fact, that we’ve handed out not two, not three, but five awards. And the best bit is that the increase in competition means that not all of our favourites cost top dollar.
There can be only one phone that’s right for you, however; to find out which, read on.
It’s harder than ever to choose a smartphone, with so many different operating systems and handsets on the market. But the core requirements remain the same: a winning phone needs to marry quick performance with good battery life and a decent list of features to be worthy of consideration.
The first thing we look at is performance, and the key to this is how good it is at browsing the web – an activity every handset should be able to do well.
Critical to this isn’t just the processor, OS and your 3G signal strength, but also the phone’s browser, and the speed at which it can render pages. To test this we pitched each phone against the clock, timing how long it took to render the full, desktop version of the SMH homepage.
In each case we used Wi-Fi to eliminate data bottlenecks, employed the default browser and carried out the test three times, clearing the cache, cookies and history before each test. The figures in the graph above show the average of these results.
Meanwhile, to get an idea of how accurately the phones can reproduce web pages, we ran the Acid3 standards test (http://acid3.acidtests.org) too.
However, web browsing isn’t the only aspect of performance you need to be aware of.
It’s also important phones respond to commands issued to them promptly, which is especially critical for touchscreen models. Several here stutter when panning and zooming web pages, or scrolling up and down long lists, which can prove frustrating.
The final piece in the performance puzzle is general ease of use. It’s no good having the fastest phone if the OS is confusing to find your way around, fiddly to control, or the keyboard makes it very slow to text or write email on.
Each phone picks up points for ease of use, responsiveness, its Acid3 score, and measured browsing performance; and these contribute to the Performance rating at the foot of each review.
|Battery life and browser speed: Click on image for larger size|
With the advent of high-speed data, power-hungry screens and the spread of always-on email and social networking apps, the days of week-long battery life have gone. But you shouldn’t have to be a slave to the power socket – some phones are significantly better than others, as our results reveal.
Our tests are designed to give you an idea of how well each phone copes with the rigours of a day of hard use. We carry out a number of tasks and record the remaining battery capacity after 24 hours have elapsed.
First, we make a phone call. We place the phone next to a radio tuned to Talk radio, dial a nearby landline and leave for 30 minutes.
To simulate browsing activity, we download a 50MB podcast – then visit the Google homepage, and force the screen on for an hour. Next, we turn off the screen and play the podcast on loop for a further hour.
Finally, we leave the phone checking our test Google Mail account once every 30 minutes using the default email application. To ensure a steady stream of email, the account is sent a dummy email every 30 minutes.
Smartphones boast a truly mind-boggling array of capabilities these days, but the standard feature set seems to have levelled out recently. Even the lowliest of phones boasts GPS, Wi-Fi and high-speed 3G radios, so you don’t need to focus on those areas.
The things that really make a difference to your day-to-day enjoyment of a phone are the screen size and resolution, the effectiveness of the touchscreen technology and, to a lesser extent, its size and “pocketability”.
We award points for the above, and also for the range and quality of apps available – a key area for modern smartphones.
Value for Money
To calculate value for money, we find the best-value pay-monthly deal and work out the total cost of that deal over the 24 months of the contract.
Only contracts that include a data allowance are considered, and where there was no contract, we used the best data-enabled plan around: Vodafone’s 500MB $69 per month plan. Then, a weighted average of the other ratings is factored in to give an overall bang per buck score.
The Overall rating is a straight average of all the other scores.
|Feature Table: Click on image for larger size|