A series of uninformed questions as I try to buy a smartphone
November 24, 2018 2:42 PM   Subscribe

I'm trying to buy a smartphone without having to spend two weeks getting up to speed on the latest deals and features. Advice? Want to tell me what to buy?

What I want my phone to do (in order of priority): take good photos, make/receive calls, get me places with maps, read news sites for hours, video chat with family. That's about it. I do use my phone for just about everything that most people pull out a laptop for. And I'm expecting a baby so that's going to increase.

I do like a deal. I bought my last phone used off Craigslist for the (then) last year's Galaxy for $300. That's my speed. Then again, I could swing one of the $35/mo for 2 year payment plans, so I could probably pick up just about anything.

My last phones were: iPhone (2009ish), Droid (2011?), Galaxy (broke by dropping in about a minute), and most recently the second hand Galaxy S5 (which i have had since .... 2013? 2014?). My phone screen is starting to flicker and sometimes not turn on right away, and the photos it takes are terrible, so I'm ready for a new one.

My phone's photos are terrible. Does some sort of software update degrade photos over time? My husband and I bought phones in the same year (him an iphone), and at the time I was convinced they took similar photos, but after about a year, I began borrowing his phone to take pictures I cared about. That this happened with both the Droid and Galaxy has me feeling resigned to buying an iPhone despite the higher cost to get better photos. I'd prefer to stay with androids; feel like I "get" androids more because I've always been a "PC person," but probably this is just stupid. I like the better privacy on iphones (or is that marketing? I mean, i still will use Gmail and Google maps, so it's not like I get to really have secrets, right?).

I drop my phone on average probably twice a week, which I know isn't good, but I don't see it changing, with a toddler and a baby on the way. The Droid was a total tank that survived that kind of dropping without a case. After my first Galaxy cracked immediately, I put my current Galaxy in the most protective case I can buy, and that's worked fine. (Could the case be why my photos suck?)

Oh, and I've recently gotten concerned about phone radiation or whatever it is, so if there's a difference in which phones are worse or are easier to put in cases or whatever, that'd make a difference.

I'm really out of the loop and don't know the difference between the iphoneX vs XR vs 8 vs 8 plus etc etc, much less how to compare iPhone to a Pixel or Galaxy, so all advice is appreciated.
posted by slidell to Computers & Internet (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Are you on Verizon? They're running deals on both the Pixel 3s and the Samsung Galaxy S9s. Even if you're on another carrier I'm sure there are deals on those right now. You will be happy with either camera, they're both great. Get yourself a good case (ideally one that has edges that go above the screen) and a tempered glass screen protector.
posted by pyro979 at 3:03 PM on November 24, 2018

Pricing for phones is not transparent if you are looking to buy through your carrier. This makes it hard to shop around on price. Changing carriers can get you deals, but it’s annoying so no shame if you go with a price you’re willing to pay and not the best possible deal.

I can only speak to iPhones as this is what I bought recently. The carriers in Canada are running promos on the 8 plus and the XR. These are the only two viable candidates for purchase on the subsidized market. They’re both good phones, almost a wash in terms of specs. 8 plus has the physical home button, no notch on top (so all viewable space is a square), and is larger to hold in your hand. The XR has larger viewable screen space and more colour choices. I got the XR, I like it.

When I went from galaxy S4 to iPhone 6s a few generations back, I noticed a huge upgrade in camera quality. You don’t need to go to iPhone to achieve this. The advances in camera quality are both hardware and software in nature. The effects and processing advantages are made possible by faster chips and more memory in newer phones. Lenses will change as well - iPhone now has options for shorter focal length for better low light performance. While I am not familiar with the specs, the galaxy s9 must have made similar improvements.

Moving from android to iPhone takes some doing in terms of apps, accounts, etc. Depending on how much space you take on the phone you might need to pay for iCloud backup. Do not underestimate the time it takes to migrate. You might be better off sticking with Android/google ecosystem if you want to avoid downtime. Since I went iPhone, I don’t want to go back because restoring from iCloud backup to get a new device going is so nice.
posted by crazycanuck at 3:35 PM on November 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the advice so far. I'm on Verizon and thinking I'll stick with it.

Also, I did look into the EMF issue and think that the best solution is probably just to get a case that blocks it so that probably doesn't matter to the phone purchase.
posted by slidell at 3:45 PM on November 24, 2018

Samsung is currently on the S9 so you should be able to get a new S8 for a good price. I don't know if this is true but I've heard that they put most of their advancement efforts into the even number models, whereas the odd ones are more for refining details. In any case I went from an S6 to an S8 recently and I seem to have similar usage habits to you and I've been completely happy with them. Don't know anything about radiation concerns though, sorry.
posted by mannequito at 3:49 PM on November 24, 2018 [2 favorites]

I've got a Pixel, I got it through a great deal with Verizon just about a year ago (so I imagine it's similar to the ones they're running now.) My pictures are drop dead gorgeous. I drop my phone about as often as you do, and ordered a custom-printed case through Google. It is so pretty and compact I never take it off, and it still looks unscratched. I vote for the Pixel!
posted by pretentious illiterate at 3:58 PM on November 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

These days, at a certain price point, all the cameras are good - now it's the software and the AI that is a differentiator. I have heard the Google Pixel takes great photos because the software figures out how to configure your photos for you. Even though the LG G7 ThinQ has a better camera, supposedly the Google Pixel 2 will still take better photos. (I have been researching this because I am considering switching to Google Fi, which only works with certain phones.) I've heard that the Pixels take the best photos, better than the Galaxy or iPhone lines and based on the photo comparisons I've seen, I think that's true, or it's at least very close.

Also, I think Verizon is way overpriced. You could consider switching to something like Boost Mobile or Google Fi, which should run you about $35 per month, depending. The savings might be worth it if Verizon isn't giving you any sort of phone discounts.
posted by AppleTurnover at 4:28 PM on November 24, 2018

You mention video chat. While there are video chat apps on android (Google Duo, Facebook Messenger, etc.), Apple’s FaceTime is the best - and I’m a happy Android/Pixel 2/Project Fi user. However, it only goes iDevice to iDevice. So, if your family and circle of contacts are using iPhones, I’d get one. IPhone 8’s or X’s are available on CL for $400-500. For the rest of it, android phones are fine. I would suggest the Pixel or a Samsung. Last year’s models are all over CL, Swappa, etc. around $400.

As far as Verizon, if that’s your only real option due to coverage in your area, check out RedPocket (MVNO which runs on Verizon’s network with plans from $7-20 per month). I got my SIL hooked up with this and it’s good.
posted by sudogeek at 5:06 PM on November 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

..think that the best solution is probably just to get a case that blocks EMF

Thats probably the wrong thing to do
posted by Lanark at 6:17 PM on November 24, 2018 [2 favorites]

My Pixel 2's camera satisfies my super picky college-photo-major-in-all-but-name demands. However, video chat is clunky and I don't use it and my older family members all have iphones and are locked into the FaceTime system (for now) and if that was important to me I probably would have landed on an older iphone and an actual DSLR camera.
posted by Mizu at 6:26 PM on November 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

I have an Asus Zenfone 3 Zoom and I love it. The battery lasts days. The camera is excellent. I bought it unlocked on Amazon for under $300. Do yourself a favor and check it out.
posted by irisclara at 6:47 PM on November 24, 2018

Re: FaceTime. My family is a mix of iPhones and Android phones and we use WhatsApp. The video calling feature works fine. Everyone I know at least has WhatsApp because it's the easiest way to text when traveling abroad or in situation where you only have WiFi but no cell service.
posted by AppleTurnover at 10:06 PM on November 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

If many people in your family use FaceTime it will be easiest to get an iPhone. The camera is great. Frankly I resent Apple for getting me enmeshed in their system when the phone longetivity keeps getting worse and worse but they are extremely simple and obvious to figure out and tick all your boxes (except radiation which I know nothing about). I also use an Android phone and find it much more complicated despite also being a PC person.
posted by stoneandstar at 9:53 AM on November 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks. I'm now leaning toward some generation of Pixel, except I'm having trouble getting over the whole "Google''s whole business model is to sell your data to others" thing. If anyone has thought that through and come to peace with it (or figured out how to minimize it on a Google phone), I'd be interested to hear it.
posted by slidell at 9:58 AM on November 25, 2018

Response by poster: Also, I want to thank everyone, even those not recommending the pixel. It's really helpful to think everything through, which your comments are making possible.
posted by slidell at 10:01 AM on November 25, 2018

Does some sort of software update degrade photos over time?

A lot of the degradation in photo quality over time is caused by the lens wearing off. Any time you place the phone on a surface, a pocket or a bag there's a risk of ever so slightly scratching the lens (and/or coating), and over time that builds up, making photos blurrier.
posted by lmfsilva at 10:08 AM on November 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

i still will use Gmail and Google maps, so it's not like I get to really have secrets, right?

The Google privacy policy is actually pretty good, they collect and use your personal data but they don't just hand the raw data over to advertisers, Google run the advertising network themselves.
One of the big differences/advantages of Apple is that compared to Android they are less willing to spill your location and other personal data to every app you install. So it really depends what other apps you intend to use.

Then beyond the planned leakage of data, theres the unplanned security vulnerabilities and how quickly they get patched - Apple is a clear winner there.
posted by Lanark at 10:30 AM on November 25, 2018 [2 favorites]

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