Smart Phone choices (updated Aug 2021)

Many may ask what has a smartphone to do with Amateur radio, well especially in connection with a SOTA activation, one relies on a phone to be able to self-spot and to be able to see which other activators are out with the chance of a summit to summit (S2S) contact.

Here are my guidelines, that I put together for another amateur and thought they may be useful to others (this is the status as of September 2017 and will no doubt quickly change as technology advances): (now with some updates in 2021)

Networks and packages

Firstly, you need to choose a network provider who gives good coverage in the area or areas that you wish to use the phone. There’s no point going to a company because it is the cheapest and then find that they only provide a cell network in the middle of large cities! It IS however worth looking at small companies that on-sell the major networks as you get to use the good network at a lower cost than if you had a pre-paid card directly with them.

UPDATE: with the removal of the 3G network in Germany and other countries, you will need a phone that supports at least 4G (aka LTE) or possibly even 5G (although 5G phones are still very expensive at the moment).

There are monthly contracts, some of which include phones my preference however is to buy a phone outright from the usual online suppliers and then get a PAYG (or pre-paid – the same thing) SIM card.

As we need Internet data you must – CHECK THE DETAILS! Some pre-paid card deals have some data included in your credit, most need you to go and buy a “data pack” from your telephone credit – this is OK AS LONG AS the data credit is not only for a set time – this can be a day, a week or a month. If you buy say 500MB and you haven’t used it up by the end of the period, you LOSE IT!

I have a phone with two SIM cards in it and I have two different approaches with my two networks;
With Vodafone Germany- I bought a 250MB data package and then whenever I add telephone credit to the card, I get the option of some free calls, free SMS or free data – I chose data as at the end of each month they transfer whatever data allowance I have over into the next month (note not all packages do this – READ THE SMALL PRINT).
With T-Mobile Germany (Deutsche Telekom), I don’t use their network for data very often and so what happens is that if I switch data to that SIM for an Internet connection I get an SMS from them saying that they have allocated 100MB of data allowance to me for the cost of 1 EURO but this is only available that day – which in most cases is all I need. Any data allowance remaining of the 100MB doesn’t get transferred to the next day, it is lost.

(Recently I have switched a monthly data package of 100MB (Telekom) and 400MB (Vodafone). The cost is €3.00 to €4.00 per month taken from the credit that you have on your cards. This avoids the “panic” buying of a short term data package when needed.

If you buy a smartphone with just one SIM card slot, you’ll need to buy whichever network provider gives the best coverage in your area or the area where you’ll need to use the phone the most. This could mean you have a limited choice on PAYG phone or phone and data packages.

Do not forget that there are “on-sellers” of the real network owners and they will often offer a better price than the main companies. Often though, they have no brick and mortar shops and only offer sales and support online, so you need to be happy that you know how to install activate and set up your SIM card if you go with these cheaper options. For a couple of years, no matter which seller you go with, at least in Germany, you have to prove your identity by showing a passport or an ID card of some kind. With the cheaper companies, this often has to be done over a video link. With the larger companies, it can normally be taken care of in their shops.

If you have the option, go with a phone (+SMS) PAYG card and add a data packet to it – that way you can buy a new data packet when you use up the first one. If you go with a combined phone and data PAYG option, you’ll most likely have to buy more data capacity when you don’t need it. You need to decide which option is best for you.

Again read and compare the options before going into the shop or ordering online (often ordering online is cheaper even with the big companies with the in-store support if you need it later).

When looking at a phone to buy, the following options will affect the price:

1. Operating system – Apple iPhones will be the most expensive and given that most Ham Radio apps are for Android I wouldn’t buy one.
Operating system version – older is cheaper – although most apps will run on Android 5 – I’d look to buy the latest version of Android, which I think is 11 at the moment.

2. Processor speed and cores – same applies here as on a PC, the faster the processor or the more cores a processor has, the faster and more expensive the phone will be. All current phones irrespective of what processor they have should be fine for what you want – so don’t worry about this point.

3. Screen resolution and size – again like PCs the better the resolution and the larger the screen, the more the phone will cost. I wouldn’t worry about the resolution but a 5.5 or 6″ (or larger) display is nice to have to be able to read text. Also, consider an anti-glare protective glass screen protector as you will probably want to read this in bright sunlight at some point.

4. Memory – both RAM and disk storage. This is IMPORTANT – although most phones can take an additional Micro-SD (aka TF) card, some apps will not run correctly from this extended disk storage. Some phones have only 4 or 8GB of internal disk storage and these can fill up quickly as the operating system and all of its files sit on the internal storage, 32GB internal storage is a minimum, some phones come with 64GB or more. RAM is less important and most phones come with 2GB or 3GB of RAM – go with the highest capacity option if it doesn’t cost too much more.

5. Communications capabilities:
All smartphones have WiFi built-in – most will have 802.11-ABC & N some of the newer models also have AC but beware LG who support 802.11n but only on 2.4GHz, not 5GHz – all will “fall back” to older standards (slower speeds, but still fast enough) – unless your Home router has 802.11-AC capabilities, don’t worry about which version of WiFi phone has – it’ll be fine.
Cell data connection. All smartphones are capable of 3G connectivity (as long as the cell network still supports it – many are being closed down to use their frequencies for 5G). Except for the really cheap phones, most phones now have 4G (aka LTE) 4G LTE is now the minimum and going to a 5G capable phone is about double the price at the moment.

SIMs – There are phones that take 1 SIM or 2 SIMs –  I prefer the ones with two SIM slots but that depends on which networks service your area. If there’s only one network, then you will be fine with a phone with just one SIM card slot. The difference in price is usually only a few pounds between a dual-SIM phone and a single SIM. SIM Cards are normally provided as full-size cards but are a “push-out” format where the full-size card becomes a mini, micro or nano-SIM card. A few phones still use the full size, but the trend is towards the very small nano size. Beware on the phone specification for a 2-SIM phone that one socket is not a combined socket for EITHER a second SIM card or a Micro-SD (aka TF) memory expansion card. Best is a phone that takes two SIM cards PLUS a TF/Micro-SD memory card.

6. GPS and navigation software – Some very cheap smartphones do not receive the satellite GPS signals and rely on the cell station and WiFi data to indicate your location. The majority of smartphones do however have a proper GPS receiver in them.
Navigation software. If you use the Google Maps navigation software, unless you take the time to download and create “offline maps” of the areas you need, as well as the GPS signal, it also needs a data connection – either WiFi or 4G when travelling – this will use your data volume up.

7. Protection – physical – The latest smartphones can be very thin and easy to drop, so I would recommend you get a case of some kind for the phone to protect it. I would always add a screen protector (ideally anti-glare and glass as mentioned above).
Protection – anti virus – there are some (free) anti-virus programs for smartphones (and some to buy). In the latest versions of Android though, The Google “Play Store” app has anti-spam/virus built in and as long as you don’t go loading a lot of unknown apps, not from the official store, you probably don’t need an extra anti-virus for your phone. If you do need one – I use McAfee but there are several free and paid options.

8. Compass – only some of the Smartphones have the compass chip in them, if this is something you want, make sure it’s in the specs. Some use the GPS for a pseudo-compass.

9. Bluetooth – all smartphones have Bluetooth, for use with headsets or to connect to car radio systems for hands-free operation within the car. If you intend to use either of these features, make sure the latest version of Bluetooth is supported. If you want to stream music from your phone to speakers or the TV (if they are so equipped) then again, make sure you chose a phone with the latest Bluetooth supported and these features are listed. In the case of “casting” the display and sound to a TV, you may have issues between the makes of TVs and phones, so if you need this feature ask about it before buying. Slowly all are moving to use the Google Home App to do the casting option but not all TVs are compatible with it.

10. Charging – Some expensive smartphones can be charged from a charging pad most charge via the micro-USB or USB-C port. Stay away from Smartphones with the charging pad option, they create horrible RFI !

11. Camera – all smartphones have two cameras built-in. One facing you for Skype and the like and one on the back for taking photos and videos. The more megapixels the camera has, the more expensive the phone will be normally. For the facing camera, 2MP is normally good enough but 5MP seems to be common. For the rear camera, 8MP or better should be what you are looking for (IMHO). Of course, photos from a phone are never going to be as good as from a camera with a proper lens, however, the best camera in the world is the one that you have with you when you want to take a shot or video.

I hope this advice is of help to those looking to buy a Smart Phone. As a guide, currently models with all the options above cost between 80 and 110 Euros on eBay. (this is still true in 2021).