There are plenty of great smartphones on the market, many of them at lower prices than ever before. But for every good deal at your local Best Buy or carrier store, there are plenty of bad deals, too. In fact, there are some smartphones that we’d flat-out refuse to purchase under most circumstances. Read on to learn about the five kinds of smartphones that you should avoid when shopping for a new phone.
1. Smartphones running old versions of Android
Finding out that an Android device you’re considering runs an old version of the operating system may not sound like a deal breaker. But an outdated OS should actually make you pause and reconsider your purchase. Why is that? Because running the latest version of the operating system is the only way to ensure that you’re protected against the vulnerabilities that researchers have identified and Google has issued a patch to fix. If you buy a new phone that’s behind from the start, the gap between your software and the newest version is only going to get bigger over the years that you own that phone (and trust it with all kinds of personal data and communications).
Android’s security may be better than all of the headlines about vulnerabilities and warnings about malware would have you believe, but it’s still true that smartphone manufacturers and wireless carriers alike need to take their customers’ security more seriously. That means issuing timely software updates to all of the Android phones that they’ve made or sold, something that nobody is really doing well. In most cases, we wouldn’t recommend buying a smartphone that’s several major Android releases behind, especially if there’s no clear timeline for the manufacturer and wireless carrier to update the software. After a certain point, even Google gives up on offering security updates for older versions of Android after a while.
2. Flagship phones that are due for an update soon
Whether you’re shopping for an Android smartphone or an iPhone, we’d always recommend evaluating a brand’s flagship lineup to see whether you really want (or need) the newest phone, or if you’ll be happy with an older, less expensive model. But the key there is timing. It’s never a good idea to buy a flagship phone right before a new version is due to be released. That’s because when a new version of a flagship phone is released, your options suddenly change. Consider the question of when it’s the best time to buy a new iPhone, and you’ll quickly realize that there are some benefits to thinking thoroughly about when you should buy a phone that’s updated each year.
When you know that a new flagship model is on its way, you have some new questions to answer. Do you want to spend the same amount of money that you were willing to spend on last year’s model, and instead get the new model and its headline-grabbing new features? Or, in the case of a more incremental update, do you want to opt for last year’s model, which will probably be less expensive than it was just a week or two before the new model’s introduction? Either way, it’s usually in your best interest to do quite a bit of research on a new smartphone. If in the process of researching a phone, you learn that a new one is just a few weeks or a couple of months away, you’d probably do well to bide your time and wait to see what changes with the new version.
3. Phones with expensive, but unproven, features
Anytime a smartphone manufacturer debuts a new and unproven feature at a sky-high price, you should be skeptical. While there’s often no reason to think that something won’t work, there are plenty of reasons to think that a feature will turn out to be unnecessary, gimmicky, or problematic for compatibility. (The modular design of the LG G5, anyone?) Before a feature — particularly one that requires a pricy phone or expensive add-ons — is proven, it’s a good idea to approach it with skepticism and wait before spending your hard-earned dollars. Consider the first smartphones with NFC capability. For a few years, an NFC chip was simply an expensive feature to add, one that didn’t offer much value until mobile wallets were introduced and retailers began enabling NFC transactions.
Another big unknown with new features is how other manufacturers and software developers will respond. A great example is the 3D Touch pressure-sensitive touchscreen that Apple introduced with the iPhone 6s. While we were excited about the potential of the Force Touch screen on the Apple Watch and the 3D Touch screen on the iPhone 6s, the feature hasn’t turned out to be the breakthrough that we’d hoped — in no small part because both Apple and third-party developers have implemented it only in limited ways and limited places. In fact, some people think that 3D Touch will “wither and die” since there are some new Apple devices and even native iOS apps that don’t support the feature.
4. Non-S-model iPhones
This is less of a hard-and-fast rule than some of the others on the list, but when possible, we’d avoid buying iPhones that aren’t S-year models. (S-models, for the record, are upgraded versions of the previous year’s iPhone, and typically feature internal updates to the camera, processor, and battery without the dramatic redesigns of newly-numbered versions.) So why would we opt for an S-year model instead of a new, major release? For the same reason that millions of Apple fans opt for S-models: the phone you ultimately get if you wait for the S-year is better than the initial release.
That means that while the iPhone 6 and 7 are the models that Apple uses to introduce new features and tech, the S model that follows the next year will refine those technologies and make important internal upgrades that helps everything run better. The iPhone 6s, for instance, added a new Taptic Engine, 3D Touch, an upgraded processor, twice as much RAM as the iPhone 6, and significantly upgraded rear-facing and front-facing cameras. And game-changing features like Siri were introduced in iOS releases that coincided with the debut of an S model. While an S model might not bring an external redesign, it’s often the best choice if you want a significant upgrade and exciting new features.
5. Low-end Android devices from major brands
One class of Android devices we always recommend avoiding are low-end phones from big-name brands. Don’t get us wrong: we have no problem with low-end or mid-range smartphones that don’t have the latest components or features. But when you shop for an inexpensive device from a well-known brand, you’re usually going to get a lot less for your money than you would if you branched out from the brands you’d usually consider. Many low-end smartphones from popular brands are overpriced for their underwhelming specifications, and you’re more likely to find a great budget-friendly device from a smaller brand that specializes in affordable smartphones.
For instance, takes Samsung’s budget-friendly lineup. As recently as 2015, Samsung introduced phones with just 512MB of RAM and without 3G capability — specifications that are far lower than what you should be looking for even in an inexpensive smartphone. Many big-name manufacturers introduced phones with little usable memory, and prices that are much higher than those of comparable phones from brands that fewer people are aware of. And many major brands continue to offer phones with outdated specs, even there are newer and more sophisticated options available from other companies at the same price point. The point is that even if you’re shopping for a cheap phone, there are a few key specs that you should research and be choosy about. A rough guide? Look for a device with at least 8GB of storage, at least 2GB of RAM, a display resolution of at least 720p, and a processor with at least two cores.