When you’re shopping for a new smartphone, you’ll need to make all kinds of decisions. You’ll have to think about your budget and priorities, and you’ll have to choose an operating system. You’ll have to narrow down your choices to a few smartphone makers to decide which one is right for you, too. There are tons of great options out there. Finding the right fit for you typically requires a lot of research and some smart thinking about what you actually need out of your device.
We’ve already talked about the fact that there are plenty of features you don’t really need on a smartphone. (Think cameras with sky-high numbers of megapixels, or flashy but unnecessary features. Or, features that are more about branding than functionality. Or even things like extra buttons, a super-sized screen, wireless charging, or a QHD screen.) But what about the features that you do need in your next smartphone? Where’s the checklist for those?
We’ve got you covered when it comes to this. Read on to check out our top picks of must-have smartphone features. Some of these may be negotiable, particularly if you really only need your phone for calls, texts, and emails. But if you enjoy taking photos or using demanding apps on your phone, these are the specs and features you’re going to want to look for. Make sure that your next smartphone has these features.
1. A great camera
There’s no reason to buy a smartphone with a low-performing camera in 2016. Most high-end phones have such impressive specs when it comes to things like the screen, processor, RAM, and storage that it’s difficult for smartphone manufacturers to differentiate their phones on performance alone, so many have turned their attention to equipping their devices with excellent cameras. There’s no reason to go overboard when it comes to things like megapixels (somewhere around 12MP is usually more than enough). But pay attention to how reviewers say a phone’s camera performs. Don’t buy a phone with poor low-light photography capabilities, and look for one with useful features like a fast lens, optical image stabilization, and a camera app that enables you to manually control an image’s exposure.
2. A screen sized to make the phone comfortable (and portable)
There’s no hard and fast rule about which screen size you should look for in your next smartphone. Personal preference is as big of a factor in that decision as any. But if you need some guidance, it’s generally a good idea to look for a phone with a screen somewhere between four and five inches. A phone in that range will usually be pretty easy to use with one hand, and to fit in your pocket. A bigger phone may be right for you if don’t have great vision and if you watch a lot of movies or TV shows on your phone. Unsure of how large you’re comfortable with? Go into a store and get a feel for a few different phones, and try using each in just one hand.
3. Screen resolution of at least 1080p and pixel density of around 300ppi
Some high-end phones feature screens with a QHD resolution (which means 2,560 x 1,440 pixels). But such high resolutions really aren’t necessary smartphone features, since research from Phone Arena shows that a person with 20/20 vision is able to identify individual pixels on a 5-inch 1080p phone at 7.8 inches from their eyes, and at 6.44 inches on a 5.5-inch QHD device. That means that unless you’re holding your phone uncomfortably close to your face, you won’t notice the difference between a 1080p screen and a QHD screen.
So what screen resolution do you need? CNET reports that several pundits put the ideal pixel density at 300 pixels per inch for people with 20/20 vision, and notes that differences between 1080p displays and 4K units are pretty difficult to spot. Unless you’re certain that you’re going to be using your new device in a phone-powered virtual reality system frequently, you probably don’t need anything more than a 1080p display. (You may even be able to get away with a 720p screen if you want a lower price tag and better battery life.)
4. Good battery life
There’s no one-size-fits-all guideline for the battery capacity you should look for in your next smartphone. Factors like the screen type, screen size, resolution, processor, RAM, software, and other components will play a role in how long a battery lasts. So simply looking at how big the battery is won’t always be the best indication of how long that battery is going to last. When you read reviews of the smartphones you’re considering, pay attention to how long the reviewers say the battery lasted.
You should also think about how your usage will affect your phone’s battery life. If you only check your messages a couple of times a day, and just scroll through a news app for a few minutes each morning or evening, you probably don’t need a phone with the best battery life on the market. But if you use (and love) battery-intensive apps, or are constantly messaging with friends, a battery that can get you through the day will be an important feature to look for. Don’t forget this one when you’re shopping, as everything that’s great about the phone you buy is only great when it’s powered on.
5. At least 2GB of RAM
The amount of RAM — or random access memory — you’ll get in a phone is going to depend not only on the price point of that phone, but also on whether that phone is being marketed toward power users or more casual smartphone owners. The amount of RAM with which a phone is equipped is an important indicator of its performance (and the associated numbers are easier to remember than the names of processors). RAM holds the data that your phone is using at any given time, and having more RAM helps a device multitask smoothly and quickly.
As Trusted Reviews reports, the inclusion of limited RAM is what leads to the slow performance of many low-end Android phones. You should search for a phone to have a minimum of 2GB of RAM when you’re looking at your options, and you’ll quickly notice that there are plenty of high-end phones that offer much more in the RAM department. You probably don’t need 6GB of RAM, an amount that’s appearing on many pricy flagships. But if you’re a big app user or mobile gamer, you should pay attention to the amount of RAM you’re getting (and check out how reviewers say the phone performs).
6. A fingerprint or iris scanner
Passwords and passcodes are a notoriously imperfect solution for smartphone security. That’s because, in the interest of making our phones easy to unlock dozens of times a day, we all pick short and insecure passcodes. Enter biometric authentication. When you choose a smartphone that features a sensor like a fingerprint or iris scanner, you don’t have to enter a passcode. And if you lose your phone, you don’t have to worry that the thief will be able to guess your passcode and access your app data or photos.
7. An NFC chip for mobile payments
High-end devices all feature NFC support, which has become a must-have feature in the last few years thanks to the growing popularity of mobile payments systems like Apple Pay, Android Pay, and Samsung Pay. Apple Pay, in particular, is making mobile payments a much more popular topic of conversation at retail stores around the U.S. If you want to see what it’s like to leave your wallet at home and pay with your phone, you’re going to need a device with an NFC chip. You may not be super excited about mobile payments now. But if you plan to keep your phone for a year or two or longer, it’s a great idea to make sure you keep your options open.
8. Software that’s up to date (and likely to be updated)
Maybe you’ve found a phone that has everything you need as far as hardware. But don’t forget to figure out whether each phone on your shortlist has the software features you need. It’s important to make sure that the phones you’re considering have an up-to-date operating system, which is important not only to get the latest features, but also to ensure the security of your device.
Apple’s iPhones are easy to keep up to date, but Android phones are less so. It typically takes a few months for manufacturers to launch phones that run the latest version of Android, and some phone manufacturers are better than others at providing fast Android updates. Some people think that having the latest version of their operating system is more important than others do. But you should always do your research, and keep in mind that it’s ideal to have the latest version of your chosen operating system.