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What to look for in a smart phone

Perhaps one thing that has driven many people to want to have a smart phone is Whatsapp. I hear a lot of people saying “i want a phone with Whatsapp”, as if Whatsapp is the only thing they will be using on that phone. Is it? In this article, we will explore what makes a smart phone and the features we should look for when buying one.

The choice of a smart phone is usually inspired by two things – budget and features. One person buys a phone because of its price and the other buys for its features. The later seems like the better way of buying, but hey, not everyone really needs all those features that come with smart phones.

One disadvantage about phones is that once you by it, there is nothing much you can do to it to improve its performance as compared to computers. Once you have it, you have to learn to live with it.

So when buying a phone for its features, what exactly are you supposed to consider as must have features, good to have features and standard features?


Depending on what exactly you want to use the phone for (business, just the everyday communication, social networking, gaming etc), perhaps the first thing people will look at is the size of the display.

Remember that we are now in the age of touch screen phones which therefore makes the size of the display very important. Generally, people will choose a phone with a big display that will fit comfortably in their palms.

It certainly is a good place to start because one thing about touch screens is that you do not want to pop your eyes while texting on a phone with a very small display and a tiny software keypad. A bigger display would be more comfortable.

However, bigger still has to be limited, a much bigger phone will make it difficult to hold the phone in one hand and still be able to use the phone with that same hand. Its quite annoying not being able to use your phone with one hand, so the size of your phone must be big enough for comfortable typing but small enough to fit into one hand.

In conclusion on display size, I would recommend anything between three and a half (3.5”) and five (5”) inches. If however you do a lot of typing on your phone, like its your job to type, then you might consider getting a tablet instead, or the “phablet”, a tablet with calling capability.

I will not say much about the display type (number of colors, LCD, AMOLED displays etc) because in most cases, the difference between display type is almost negligible when it comes to usability. I will just comment that some “unknown brand” phones have “tap screens” rather than touch screens because you really have to tap hard on the screen. So if you are buying one of those “unknown brand” phones, take some time to test how easy to use the touch screen is.

Primary Memory

In no particular order, the next thing to check is the memory, also known as RAM (Random Access Memory). Some people confuse this with storage capacity, also known as ROM (Read Only Memory). Both are important but the later only starts affecting performance when your phone storage begins to fill up.

Memory is a special type of temporary storage in your phone (computers too) that is used by running applications. You can think of it as your job, you only go there when you have to work, and you don't go to relax or chill out. So its the same with applications, they only go into RAM when they are running. 

Because of the limitations in the space available in RAM, only a couple of apps can run smoothly all at the same time. If your memory fills up, then it experiences some sort of stampede as apps begin to fight for space in memory. This is when you start to see your phone becoming unresponsive or slow to respond.

So what this means is that a phone with a smaller memory will be “freezing” more often as its memory will quickly fill up when you run a lot of apps on it. On the other hand, more memory means your phone's memory will not fill up easily and therefore you will not have that much of the unresponsive moments.

RAM is very important and you should always check this when buying a phone. Some people honestly have no other use for their phone other than calling and texting. However, if you use apps other than call, text and Whatsapp, then when looking at RAM, I recommend you start at 512MB going upwards. There is no need to set an upper limit, but in most cases, the best phones will have up to 2GB and 1GB will be a good average.

Storage Capacity

Still on the issue of “space”, I will also go right ahead into storage capacity, the space where your phone stores all its files. Sometimes storage capacity might not seem like a big issue since you can easily expand it with a memory card, but it seems Samsung, in particular, has decided to reduce the value of your expanded storage.

Storage, which may also be referred to as secondary memory is important for storing everything that your phone uses and all the files that you keep as well. Bigger storage obviously means you can store more files than with a smaller storage.

Storage is available as internal storage (built in ROM) and external storage ( usually micro SD cards aka memory cards). External storage matters a little because you can change it at any time but internal storage is permanent, you can not upgrade it.

With particular reference to Samsung phones, internal storage has become very important because it now determines the number of apps you can install on your phone. This is because recent or some Samsung phones do not allow you to install apps in external storage. Therefore, you better have lots of internal storage if you are into apps.

Not long back, we used to be content with 10MB of storage in our phones but now, even 1GB of space is not enough. Smart phones run on complex operating systems that require lots of space and so you will realize that sometimes your phone may need on average 600MB just for the operating system and if you have 1GB of internal storage, you will be left with less than 400MB for your files and apps.

If you are buying a Samsung phone in particular, I recommend you get one with at least 2GB of internal storage and if you are really into installing apps, start at 4GB. If the phone is capable of installing apps in external storage, then 2GB of internal storage is still a good place to start.

Processing Power

The last internal item that you don't see but should also consider is the processor, formally known as the Central Processing Unit (CPU). It is the heart of your smart phone and may be considered as the basis of the speed of your phone. In general, a slow phone may be attributed to a slow processor, although many other factors may be affecting the speed of the phone, especially the RAM.

Nowadays CPUs are measured in terms of their speed and number of cores (the number of processing units in one CPU). Most entry level smart phones will have singular cores, whereas midrange to high level phones will have dual to quad core processors.

We can think of the number of cores as the number of cylinders in a car engine. A six cylinder engine is more powerful than a four cylinder and a 12 cylinder is more powerful than a six cylinder. However, the speed of the processor is also important, the faster the processor, the better, and the more the number of cores, even much better.

Depending on what you use your phone for, you may not need to worry much about the processor because its usually good enough. However, if you are a gamer, then you need to really consider the speed and number of cores of your processor. You may actually be more interested in the GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) for the best graphics performance in your game or movie if you watch movies on your phone.

Always remember though that if you are into gaming, movies and all those other demanding apps, you should always consider your RAM first as it is the resource that quickly runs out compared to the processors. Nevertheless, a minimum of 1GHz CPU should do you good and either singular, dual or quad core will now depend on what you use your phone for.


The camera is probably one of the most interesting features on your phone. Because of the relative ease in access to multimedia communication technologies, now people communicate more with pictures therefore making the camera a must have unit in any phone.

Most people will just look at the camera and be satisfied just because its there. What exactly do we look for in a camera? Is it the resolution, the zoom, flash, low light shooting capabilities, number of cameras, video recording capabilities?

Perhaps one feature that most will look at is the resolution as it is the one that will be easy to find written on the box. Camera resolution is important, but may not be enough. A camera with a higher resolution will definitely take better photos given that all environmental factors are good.

However, even with a low resolution camera, you can still take good shots provided the lighting is good. The next point to check after resolution would be the camera's ability to deal with low light. No one lives in a photo studio, and probably more often than not, you use your camera in low light environments, usually inside buildings. Some phones will complement their camera with a flash light which is quite useful especially if you like taking photos in the dark :).

Now with “selfies” going viral on Facebook and Instagram, a phone with a front camera becomes a necessity. A front camera not only allows you to take self shot photos, “selfies”, but also makes it possible to do video calls, especially Skype video calls.

Our conclusion on cameras is that if you are into taking a lot of photos, you need a phone with a decent resolution camera, not necessarily high and we would say on average, a 5MP camera will do. A flash light will serve you well in low light and an additional front camera will save you the trouble when you are into selfies or when you do video calls.

We would also talk about video recording capabilities as well but if you are really into that, then we suggest you get the iPhone 5S or at least the Sony Xperia or the Galaxy S4. We also won't say much about zoom, but just that the more you zoom, the more you may lose on photo quality unless you are using the Galaxy S4 Zoom. If you really are into long distance shots, then get a digital camera for that.

Operating System

Before Android was born, no one really cared or new what operating system their phone was running on. I remember back in the days, we considered size, then tones, later on color display, camera, Bluetooth, music and so on until recently that we have a choice on what operating system to consider when buying a phone.

An operating system is a set of programs that make your phone work (otherwise its as good as a brick) and a platform that enables you to install and run other applications like the messaging applications, call applications, Whatsapp, to mention but a few. So when you hear someone say I have “bricked” my phone, it means the operating system is gone, dead or corrupt and therefore the phone is unusable.

The most popular operating systems are Android, Windows Phone, IOS and Blackberry RIM. There are a lot others but they are not worth mentioning anymore as there are slowly becoming obsolete. Android is available on most Samsung, Sony, HTC, Huwaei and a lot more other smart phones, hundreds of them, including the Zimbabwean brands, Gtel and Astro. Windows Phone is mostly on Nokia, IOS on iPhone and RIM for Blackberry.

Some people will buy Nokia because they have always known and follow Nokia almost religiously and others Samsung and the rest because they run on Android. Iphone is probably not because of the IOS but maybe because of the brand and its reputation.

However, when choosing a phone, its operating system is very important to consider because it determines what other features you will unlock from your phone. This mainly refers to the apps and services that are available for that particular operating system. By default, all the above mentioned systems will enable you to install Whatsapp, so if thats all you are into, you are fine with any.

In fact, all the above systems will provide most of the basic functionalities of the phone without any challenges, for example camera functionalities, call, messaging, emailing, phone books, text pads, music etc. The only problem you will have is when you are into all other kinds of apps, games especially.

Android for instance, will give you thousands of apps for free. The other systems will do the same, but, Android still is the one with the most free apps available. The other systems may sometimes not have other essential apps, even paid ones, which makes them a bit frustrating to have.

Besides what runs on what, the other factor to consider when choosing an operating system is the overall performance of the system. Its sad to say but Windows has always been known to “freeze” when faced with difficult or unresponsive programs. Other systems, like Android have a different way of handling unresponsive apps and will not “freeze” the whole phone when apps go wild.

The subject of operating systems may need a whole article of its own and therefore in conclusion, I would say choose the operating system that you feel comfortable with. One that has all the apps that you need and most importantly one that runs smoothly. Our choices may still be limited by the actual device that we are interested in, for example, you can't have Windows on iPhone, so at the end of the day, you choose between device and operating system.



There are a lot other items to consider, battery life, network support, Wi-Fi, FM Radio, etc but that would quickly fill up a book instead of an article. Nevertheless, these items should be considered as well, especially the battery life although generally smart phones do not have the best batteries, except for the iPhone.

Despite there being a lot to consider when buying a smart phone, the decision always comes back to how you use your phone and your wallet. If you are into apps, games and reputation, go high end, the iPhones, Galaxy S, HTC, Sony Xperia and other big screen “known brand” phones. Forget anything below $300 because all you will find there are mediocre entry level phones or fake phones.

However, if you are not really into fancy phones and apps, a minimum budget of $100 should give you a decent phone, no big screen though, but you will be able to get around just fine. Try avoiding anything less than that because you could find yourself in a very frustrating smart-phone experience. Also remember, any big screen phone below $200 is most likely fake and not worth it, avoid it!

About The Author

Rational Ear

Software Engineer at Zimall Online

@rational_ear - E-Commerce Consultant, Software Engineer and Entrepreneur. #PastPresident #Rotaractor #Rotarian #Rational

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