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A Crop of Shiny New Smartphones Has Arrived

Deciding when to upgrade and invest in a new phone just got more complicated

spinner image left the new apple fourteen pro smart phone right the new google pixel seven pro smart phone
Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg via Getty Images / THOMAS URBAIN/AFP via Getty Images

Vibrant displays, professional-grade cameras and other awe-inspiring display and performance features are attracting a lot of attention in the latest crop of top-tier smartphones.

Whether you’re a tech aficionado or not, you must admit that taking a decent photo has never been easier, phones have never been faster and you may at least be toying with buying something new. But as prices start at $599 and go way up from there, deciding which phone best suits your needs and lifestyle is key.

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The newest features for iPhones and Androids

Apple. Apple, which had about 55 percent of the mobile phone market in the U.S. in September, went all in on safety with its iPhone 14 series models that debuted that same month for $799 on up. The emergency SOS feature that lets you call for help via satellite when cellular and Wi-Fi are unavailable is a potential lifesaver.

So is the phone’s ability to detect a serious auto accident and automatically summon assistance if the driver or passengers are unresponsive, a feature that has been available on Google Pixel Android phones for a while. Of course, that feature is one you hope to never use, but it’s definitely a sign of the future. 

Apple also beefed up the processor in the pricey iPhone 14 Pro devices and replaced the oval-shaped “notch” cutout at the top of the display on other iPhones with a clever new way to showcase notifications, dubbed the Dynamic Island.

Google. Among the features that may draw people to Google’s new $599 Pixel 7 or $899 Pixel 7 Pro Android smartphones is an exclusive tool, coined Photo Unblur. It may not work perfectly every time, but it can automatically sharpen your blurriest photos as well as those you’ve taken with other devices.

For the visually impaired, another attractive Pixel feature is its new Guided Frame, which uses audible cues and vibrations to help you take a selfie.

If you call certain toll-free numbers with the Pixel, you may see wait times on the call button before you tap it. When you do place a call, transcribed menu options appear on the screen for various businesses before they’re spoken. For example, if you call Home Depot, you will see an option you can tap that says, “If you're calling about a major appliance, press 1.”

And Google added an opt-in cough and snore detection bedtime Pixel feature to help you better understand why you are or are not getting a good night’s sleep.

Samsung. People intrigued by unconventional hardware designs may want to look at a foldable Android phone. Budget permitting, they may be willing to splurge on the Galaxy Z Fold 4 that Samsung unveiled in August.

spinner image a person holds a Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 4 on display
Samsung's Galaxy Z Fold 4 smartphone unfolds into a tablet sized screen.
Jutharat Pinyodoonyachet/Bloomberg via Getty Images

In its unfurled position, the phone boasts a small-tablet-size 7.6-inch display, the largest screen available on a smartphone. The screen may simplify work if you need to multitask. When folded, it fits in your pocket.  

But the phone comes with a hefty price tag.. The Fold 4 costs around $1,800, about three times the price of Pixel 7 and double the price of some new iPhones. And iPhones are not known for being inexpensive.

Options to make smartphones more affordable

If you need a new phone but have a tight budget, you can reduce sticker shock by trading in an older handset or stretching out payments over 24 to 30 months. You can also seek excellent feature-rich smartphones at somewhat lower prices by considering models from reliable brands that include Motorola, OnePlus and TCL. Samsung also sells mid-tier models.

The first step in deciding what you can afford is to ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I really need a top-of-the-line smartphone?
  • What am I giving up without one?
  • Do I need to upgrade?

The answer depends on how you use your phone. If you use it only for calling and texting, you probably can spend less and still come away with something decent.

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If you lean on your smartphone to browse the web, listen to music, play games, read, take pictures and watch videos — and the model you already own checks all the boxes with no degradation in performance or battery — you have no compelling reason to upgrade.

“What you are essentially doing is stepping back in time by a few years,” says Roger Entner, a technology analyst with Recon Analytics in Boston. “For $500, you get a flagship phone from like three or four years ago. For $300, probably like five years ago.

“If that works for you, awesome. It’s still a good phone, the screen is nice, battery life is decent [and] the speed is fast. But you don’t have all the whiz bang.”   

More cameras, better pictures in dim light

You may want to upgrade because a new phone can take better photos in low light, thanks to advances in chip technology and artificial intelligence, says phone expert Sascha Segan. He recently joined chipmaker Qualcomm after years covering mobile devices for PC Magazine.

“If you have a 4- or 5- or 6-year-old phone, you might not be aware of how much better certain things are now,” he says. On older phones, “you may be really used to dim, blurry photos in anything but daylight. That problem has largely been solved.”

More expensive, premium phones bolster their cameras in other ways. You can intentionally blur the backgrounds of portrait shots to artistically keep the subject in focus, an effect known as bokeh.

The phones also allow you to capture high-quality optical zoom shots from far away and have multiple cameras positioned on the rear of the phone with telephoto, wide angle and zoom lenses. Their front or selfie cameras are first rate too.

People who take pictures with abandon have a lot of flexibility, including the way they edit photos on the devices.

“As someone who takes a lot of photos of my kid, I’ve gone with top-of-the-line phones because I want those photos to be as good as possible to be able to revisit my memories 50 years later,” Segan says. “But my 85-year-old-plus uncle just needed a phone to control his Google Home devices and call family. [He] was very happy with a $200 device.” 

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The Pixel 7 Pro has a 5x optical zoom and what Google markets as the Super Res Zoom feature, letting you zoom in at high quality from far away, up to 30x. It has 12 MP ultra-wide lens, 50 MP wide lens and 48 MP telephoto. 

In contrast, an iPhone 13 or 14 has a 5x digital zoom that is of lower quality than its 3x optical zoom. The step-up iPhone 14 Pros that start at $999 have a 3x optical zoom, separate 2x optical zoom out option and 6x optical range overall. The phone’s digital zoom goes up to 15x. These handsets have a 48 MP main camera on the rear, along with separate 12 MP telephoto and 12 MP ultra-wide cameras.

Samsung’s $1,200 Galaxy S22 Ultra has a pair of 10 MP telephoto cameras, along with a 12 MP ultra-wide camera and a 108 MP wide-angle camera.

“If one of your (goals), for instance, is to take photos and videos of your grandkid’s sports games, that 10x zoom on some of these phones is an absolute killer feature,” Segan says.

The devices aren’t just about photographing subjects from a distance. All these top phones let you capably capture extreme “macro” close-ups too.

5G will keep you connected into the future

The latest premium phones can tap into the speedier 5G networks that mobile carriers have been rolling out the past few years. But for all the marketing hype surrounding 5G networks, consumers may not experience the perceived benefits, at least at this stage. So 4G for now is just fine. 

“The movie doesn’t end sooner or with a better story or with a happy ending. You’re watching the same thing at the same resolution as the 5G phone,” Entner says.  

Still, there are other connectivity benefits associated with high-end phones. They can double as hot spots to provide wireless internet for your laptop or other devices when they can’t connect to broadband. And newer phones can access the latest frequency bands the carriers add every few years, which potentially improves the cellular experience.

The decision: Look at what you’ll use most

Less expensive models may be bulky and not as attractive as more svelte but far pricier alternatives. But big isn’t always cheap. Samsung’s uber-expensive foldable phones unfurl to about twice the size of a regular smartphone.

“Phones are fashion and your most personal computer,” Segan says. “You touch them 100 times a day. Everyone sees you use them. And just as you may pay $3,000 for a bespoke suit or $1,000 for an amazing pair of designer high heels, there are people who feel it’s worth paying $1,500 for a device held in your hand that looks like no other.”  

As you run down the features on any phone you’re thinking of buying, realistically consider how many of them you see yourself taking advantage of. After making that calculation, don’t lose sleep if you choose to sit out the top of the market for now.

 

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