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Should you really spend more on a premium smartphone?

Does cost equal quality on modern mobiles? We look at camera and call clarity, battery life, and overall performance to see what you get if you pay more

The cost of high-end smartphones is on the rise. Both Samsung and Apple smashed their premium pricing last year – with the latter releasing a £1,000 smartphone.

But do you really need to pay these eye-watering prices for a good mobile phone, or can mid-range, or even budget offerings deliver where it really matters?

We reviewed a wide range of smartphones in 2017, at prices ranging from the £50 Vodafone Smart E8 to the uber-expensive £1,000 iPhone X. Scores ranged from 32% to 87%, but the important question is, does spending more mean better quality?

We asked Which? readers what features matter to them most, and compared test results on key factors to see if price really makes a difference. And since we don’t take price into account in our ratings, you can rest assured our reviews leave you well placed to pick the perfect mobile phone.

Best Buy smartphones – long-lasting batteries and dazzling displays

Buying a smartphone – do you get what you pay for?

We surveyed over 900 Which? members to find out which features are most important when buying a new smartphone. A considerable 72% of respondents said battery life was key to making a buying decision, making it more important than price (52%), call quality (47%) and camera quality (34%).

Battery life

A smartphone with impressive battery life is a real treat, saving you from regular trips to a charging point and keeping you in the loop when you’re out and about.

It would be reasonable to expect that paying more for a smartphone will leave you with a better battery life, but is this really the case?

Our labs tests show that pricey smartphones can’t always topple cheaper models when it comes to battery life. Last year, models with a launch price over £600 ended up with an average battery life star rating of 3.9. Meanwhile, cheaper models in the £400-600 bracket finished with a more impressive rating of 4.5 stars – that means more screen time from affordable mid-range mobiles.

Why is this the case? High-end phones tend to have faster processors, bigger screens and fancier features – all of which can have a noticeable impact on battery life. If you want the very best you have to compromise – but if you’re happy with what could be perfectly adequate performance, you could benefit from a phone that lasts longer.

Verdict:  budget smartphones under £200 rarely outperform premium rivals for battery life. But Which? test results prove that the most expensive smartphones around don’t always ace our battery life tests.

See our guide to mobile phones with the best battery life for the top performers.

Camera quality

Smartphone brands are battling it out for the title of best mobile camera, and this year we expect to see the first triple-lens mobile go on sale.

But do you really need a top-end mobile phone to get a good camera?

The short answer is no, but our average review scores suggest that cameras on expensive smartphones are less likely to disappoint.

Megapixel count is no guarantee of quality when it comes to actual results, but other areas, especially when combined, can make a big difference.

Factors such as aperture and sensor determine how much light can enter the lens and how well that light is processed, and can result in better low light shots, depth of field effects, and overall, better photos.

Other features found more commonly on premium smartphones, such as dual cameras, allow for a range of interesting photo effects, and optical image stabilisation (OIS), can make a real difference to your photos.

As you can see from the chart above, paying upwards of £600 – the true premium end of the market, can really make a difference if snapping great photos is a priority. Phones here scored an impressive average of 4.3 stars for camera quality.

Beyond that though, smartphones in our £200-400 and £400-600 price brackets were matched for camera quality star rating – both scored 3.8 stars. That suggests that there’s little variation in average camera quality for smartphones costing between £200 and £600.

Verdict: If you want a good smartphone camera, spending more usually pays off. But our rigorous testing has also highlighted mobiles that break the mold – we’ve seen budget-priced options that still manage to take fantastic pictures.

Call clarity

If you’re regularly making calls at work or at home, buying a smartphone that leaves calls sounding muffled simply isn’t good enough. With that in mind, take a look at how the smartphones of 2017 performed for call clarity:

As you can see from our table above, a smartphone’s launch price doesn’t have much of an impact on call clarity. Smartphones under £200 scored a rather poor 2.6 stars on average, but £600+ smartphones weren’t that much better with a score of 3.1 stars.

Verdict: Expensive smartphones often beat budget models for call clarity, but there’s not much difference in score.

Overall performance

We’ve seen how important factors can vary regardless of how much you spend, but how about overall performance? You’d certainly expect high priced phones to do better on average than their mid-range of budget-priced cousins.

That certainly seems to be the case when you compare the average scores of all models we reviewed in 2017 at each price range. But you might be surprised by the fact that there’s not a lot in it – especially considering what could be a significant extra expense.

Generally speaking, it does look like you get more for your money with a premium phone, but do you get more where it matters, and could a mid-range model be more than enough? Browse all our smartphone reviews to make an informed decision before deciding on your next mobile phone.

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