Manufacturers need ways to distinguish their phones from the competition. There used to be a time where all that you needed to pay attention to was screen quality, camera, processor power and what OS it came running on.
Now that every flagship phone is a veritable powerhouse, has at worst a pretty darn good camera, and 1080p isn’t even the best resolution around; manufactures are turning to more-unique features.
Some of these are great, some are not, and some you might find fun at first but stop using within a couple of months. There’s no point paying for features that you don’t use, so here’s a list of some of the better features you should be paying attention to.
Water resistance of varying degrees is becoming more commonplace. This means anything from random splash protection to full submersion for over an hour. “Splash protection” is probably not something you should fuss yourself over. It generally means you don’t need to worry about your phone getting a little bit of rain on it. You might even get away with spilling your drink right over it, but that’s not guaranteed.
Once you get in to the IP ratings it’s a little different. IPX5, IPX7 and IPX8 are the common ones here. The “X” is usually substituted for another number that signifies protection from dust ingress, you can generally ignore this part of the rating.
The second number is where the business is at. 5 means protection against water jets like a tap, but not a full-fledged garden hose. 7 means full submersion in up to 1 metre of water for up to 30 minutes. 8 means full immersion in anywhere up to 3 metres for a continuous period of time, or for an amount of time over 30 minutes that has been specified by the manufacturer.
It should be noted that for your phone to be water tight all the port plugs must be in place. If they come loose, or break off, your phone is just as likely to brick itself as any other.
A lot of companies are claiming quick-charging abilities on phones, anywhere up to a 75% charge in half an hour. These claims are usually a little exaggerated, but not much. You can get hours-worth of charge in a fraction of the time it usually takes.
Now for the kicker: quick-charging requires you to use the wall-adapter that comes with the phone. Charging from your friend’s one will still give you juice, but at a normal rate. Charging from USB is still painfully slow.
Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it. Wireless charging is awesome. Plopping your phone down on a stand or little mat instead of bothering to plug it in makes a surprising difference. Granted, wireless charges are rarely included, and they’re not cheap on their own. Be ready to fork out a little extra if you want to take advantage of this feature.
IR blaster (TV remote)
Having an infra-red blaster, turning your phone in to a universal remote of sorts, sounds gimmicky but it’s not. If you ever use a TV this comes in handy. It’s almost never as good as your dedicated remote, but it’s better than getting up to find it once you’re already comfy.
Different phones offer a different range of compatible products. Some let you control anything from DVD players to air conditioners, others restrict themselves to set top boxes and TVs.
It’s not the kind of feature that you should really be putting too much weight behind, but it’ll come in handy at least a couple of times a week. Plus you can mess with TVs in bars if you’re that way inclined, but don’t be that person.
Phones with big battery life are great, phones that can make it a full two days easily are down-right awesome. Definitely check out the battery life of a phone before you commit.
Do this by reading reviews and visiting forums. Sometimes a phone will be flagged by its maker as having awesome battery power, but in reality it’s a one-day-wonder. Conversely, we’ve reviewed phones that lasted two or more days, but were flagged as standard charge-holders.
This isn’t one that’s generally advertised as a winning feature, but it’s an important one. MicroSD slots let you expand your phone’s storage anywhere up to 128GB, depending on the phone.
It’s not as good as internal storage – there are limitations on what you can keep on your microSD. Some apps and services will only work with your on-board storage. Still, for music, photos and a whole bunch of games and apps microSD is a cheap way to bulk out your hard drive.
Just make sure you get a fast one. If you go with a 40Mb/s card you’re going to slow down your shiny new phone something terrible. Aim for at least around 85/90Mb/s. Even if that means you have to cut back on the size of the card you’re looking at it’s worth it. Speed before storage almost every time, especially if you’ve bought yourself a flagship phone.
NFC isn't a big deal anymore. It's been around for ages on Android, and most Windows Phones ship with it, too. It stands for Near Field Communication, and it's the thing that makes all of that "bump" technology go. Bump phones to swap data, bump your phone to a speaker and pair it via Bluetooth.
It doesn't sound like it would be very useful, but if you really throw yourself in to it you'll quickly find a variety of uses for it. Take NFC tags, for example. For about 50c each you can buy little stickers that you can apply to your desk or a wall or anywhere, then program them to launch certain apps, or even adjust settings on your phone.
The iPhone 6 and 6 Plus can be a source of confusion here. Both technically have NFC, but they only use them for the Apple Pay system, which isn't even available in every region yet. You also won't get it on every Android or Windows Phone device out there. If it's important to you, check the specs online.
Things to be wary of
In-built apps: most apps that are built so firmly in to a user interface (UI) that they cannot be deleted are to be viewed with caution. They may sound kind of cool, but they’re going to slow down your experience whether you use them or not.
Physical features you won’t use: things like heart-rate monitors sound like a funky idea. After all, why not have them? Easy. It costs money to develop that technology, money that is made back through the end cost of the device. Try not to pay for features you don’t want or need.
High MP cameras: more megapixels doesn’t automatically mean better image quality. Check reviews and camera tests to get a better idea of how a phone handles photos. The 8MP camera on the iPhone 6 Plus is well ahead of the 16MP one on the Samsung Galaxy S5 (which is still a pretty good camera). Lens systems, imaging software and shutter speed are all just as, if not more-important, than having a big number before that ‘MP’.