Get smart about your smartphone: A cheatsheet for what phone to buy next

Struggling to find a phone that fits your needs and budget? We’ve done it for you.

ByVinay Aravind
Get smart about your smartphone: A cheatsheet for what phone to buy next
Shambhavi Thakur
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It’s very hard to decide which phone to buy right now because there’s a dazzling array of models, and the differences between them are a little confusing to work out, without spending a lot of time poring over spec-sheets. Since I already do that compulsively, let me try and make it a little bit easier for you by picking out a few models that are compelling, for different priorities and budgets.

Before I begin, I repeat my old disclaimer from when I recommended laptops. I haven’t personally reviewed these models. These recommendations are based on a combination of (1) the specs the devices offer, (2) other professional reviews of the model where available, and (3) the experience of people who’ve used it, where that information is available.

Also, as before, you could follow the recommendations here and still get a dodgy phone. I hope that doesn’t happen but if it does, I have to disclaim any responsibility for it. Remember to scrutinise and make full use of the returns policy.

Which iPhone should I buy?

I’m getting this question out of the way first because I am an Android user, and the decision here is much simpler because the pool of devices is so small. iPhones are luxury products and the cachet is as much of a reason to buy them as any other aspect. They’re by and large terrific devices with class-leading performance and cameras, if you don’t mind using iOS, don’t mind a less smooth 60Hz screen, and have the cash to spare.

The most tempting iPhone, especially if you’re coming from the cheaper Androids is the SE, because it costs “only” Rs 39,900. But I’d urge people to exercise caution here.

By all accounts, the battery life on this device is mediocre. Of course, if you don’t much care for battery life, and the small screen and big bezels don’t bother you, the device will serve you well for many years to come, with a blazing fast A13 processor (the rumoured benchmarks of the 2021 Android flagship chips to be released next month only just match the chip inside the SE) and very good camera.

If I had to buy an iPhone, I’d pick between the iPhone 11 that costs Rs 54,900 and the iPhone 12 that costs Rs 79,900. The A13-powered iPhone 11 continues to be a very capable phone a generation on, and apart from the LCD screen instead of AMOLED, there is no major compromise. The 12 is a formidable device; the only substantial thing it lacks compared to the pricier 12 Pro is the telephoto camera and that is anyway the weakest of Apple’s cameras.

The Pro and the Pro Max, costing well over a lakh, are wildly indulgent options that I don’t think justify their prices, despite their bleeding-edge capabilities. The 5.4” 12 Mini is a bit too tiny for my tastes and the battery life is borderline, but if you really want a tiny phone, that’s the one to get.

What’s a good phone under Rs 10,000?

This is the hardest choice to make. I had to go over a ton of options recently because I needed to buy a phone for my father and he insisted it not cost more than Rs 10,000. While this segment sees new model releases every few months, at this point in time, I can think of two devices I’d choose in this bracket. The first is the Redmi 9 Prime that squeezes in just under budget at Rs 9,999, with a capable Helio G80 processor, big battery and big screen, it ticks all the important boxes.

The other option worth looking at is the Realme Narzo 10A for Rs 8,999. Just like the Redmi 9 Prime, it features a good processor, big battery, and big screen, for a little less cash.

What’s a good phone under Rs 20,000?

The segment between Rs 10,000 and Rs 20,000 is probably the most crowded in the Indian smartphone market. A huge range of bafflingly similar models, making it really hard to pick out the best options. Of late, I have found one model that stands out a little bit from among the rabble.

And that is the Motorola One Fusion+. For Rs 17,499, it offers a Snapdragon 730G processor (the same as the Pixel 4a), 6 GB RAM, 128 GB of storage, a huge battery, and a near-stock Android experience. It’s a collection of specs and features that’s rare in this price range. The main downside is that it’s a rather substantial device and one-handed use will be cumbersome.

The Poco X3 for Rs 16,999 offers many of the same advantages and disadvantages, plus a smooth 120hz screen, but does not offer a near-stock Android experience. Personally, having seen the Poco F1 up close over the last couple of years, and the slight rollercoaster ride that their OS, called MIUI, has offered (and how ads have started to creep into the UI), I would pick the Motorola over this.

If your budget is a bit tighter, the Redmi Note 9 Pro/Poco M2 Pro (these are near identical devices) for Rs 13,999 would deliver excellent value. Just keep in mind the MIUI downsides I mentioned above.

What’s a good ‘budget flagship’ under Rs 30,000?

This is actually a great category of phones to shop in because there’s tremendous value to be had. They feature either one-step down chipsets like the Snapdragon 765G, or previous year’s flagship chipsets. After some consideration I am more inclined to go with the previous-year flagship models, because the one-step down chipsets offer 5G as the main attraction, and India is not going to see 5G for some years now.

The first device I’d look at is the Realme X3. With the Snapdragon 855+ chipset, 8 GB RAM, 120 Hz display, and a camera array that punches above its weight, it delivers terrific value for Rs 25,999. It’s worth remembering here that like Xiaomi/Poco, Realme also shows ads in their UI, but it’s a bit simpler to turn them off.

The Snapdragon 855-toting Redmi K20 Pro is also good value for Rs 26,999 (although it does drop to cheaper during sales). The most talked-about model in this range is the OnePlus Nord at Rs 24,999. It’s a very compelling device because it features OnePlus’s acclaimed and well-optimised OxygenOS and a 90 Hz screen but in terms of processing power and camera prowess, it slightly trails its cousin (they share a holding company), the Realme X3. Personally, I might still pick it just for the OS, but the choice is up to you.

What about the outright flagships?

Frankly, don’t buy an Android flagship now. The new crop of Android flagships should start rolling out in January. It’s close enough now that if you can afford to wait, you really should.

While the OnePlus 8T for Rs 42,999 offers class-leading performance, it’s also somewhat unexceptional and continues OnePlus’s tradition of underwhelming cameras (only bucked by the excellent but unwieldy OnePlus 8 Pro, which costs Rs 54,999). The Xiaomi Mi 10T delivers great value for Rs 35,999, but again the Mi 11 is around the corner.

If you really do want to burn an eye-watering amount of cash, why not buy the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2 for Rs 1,49,999 that opens out into a tablet? It’s a rare device that’s truly exciting at this point, even if it costs as much as a good second-hand car. Plus, the show-off value will be unbeatable.

Which is the phone to buy for great pictures?

While budget phones offer almost all the capabilities of the flagships, and sometimes even exceed them in aspects like battery life, the one area where they all falter is imaging. They are adequate, of course, but are demonstrably inferior to the really good camera phones. So, the options for great camera phones are very narrow, especially if you’re on a budget.

The cheapest top-tier camera phone is the Pixel 4a for Rs 31,999. By all accounts, this is a great device. It has a decidedly mid-tier Snapdragon 730G processor, but Google has optimised it well, and the camera takes fantastic pictures. Add to it the compact size and headphone jack and it’s a very enticing device at the price point. Unfortunately, Google has made a dog’s dinner of its supply chain, so getting hold of one is incredibly difficult more than a month after the model officially launched.

If you have the budget, both the Galaxy S20 for Rs 43,999 (at Reliance Digital) and the Galaxy S20 FE for Rs 49,999 are excellent options, with the S20 at that price edging out its “budget sibling” quite handily. They do feature Exynos processors which are not quite comparable to the Qualcomm flagships, but still deliver enough performance for most users. The iPhone SE also sports a very good camera (although lacking a night mode), but the poor battery life is a downer. The other iPhones all offer top-notch cameras, of course.

What if I want a small phone?

This is the most frustrating conundrum of all. In spite of the massive number of models available on the market, there are sadly only a small handful of devices available that can be used comfortably one-handed.

My pick of the lot would, once again, be the Pixel 4A. With its 5.8” display and edge-to-edge screen it offers a great balance of compactness and screen size. The Galaxy S20 with its 6.2” screen is also quite handy. The iPhone 12 Mini is truly minuscule at 5.4” but I would prefer the regular iPhone 12 with its 6.1” screen. The Rs 7,999 Samsung M01 is a rare budget Android that’s compact, but the specs are somewhat basic.

I hope you find these suggestions useful. If you know of models that are as good, or better than, the ones that I suggested for the price, do mention those in your comments, or tweet them out to us.

Contact the author on Twitter at @vinayaravind.

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