Beginner's guide to mobiles and smart phones

When it comes to choosing a mobile phone, there's a huge range of options out there.

This guide aims to demystify some of the jargon and help you make an informed choice. Many stores have demonstration phones, so make sure you try before you buy to find the phone that best suits your needs.

Jargon busting

Let's start by explaining some common terms used by mobile phone networks and retailers to describe product features.

  • Dual band, tri band and quad band GSM: The operating frequency a phone operates on. Dual band phones work in the UK and Europe. Tri band devices work in the US, UK and Europe. Quad band devices operate in almost any territory where there is a mobile network.
  • Processor speed: The speed a phone processes information, measured in Gigahertz (Ghz). Most phones range from 1-1.5 Ghz.
  • RAM or Random Access Memory: The working memory of a phone (rather than storage memory) measured in megabytes (MB).
  • Storage: The amount of space a phone has for storage of data, measured in gigabytes (GB). Most smartphones range from 8-16 GB of storage.
  • Contrast ratio: The screen's ability to display colour contrast.
  • Wi-Fi: A phone's capability to access wireless internet via a public Wi-Fi network.
  • Multitasking: A phone's ability to run several tasks at once.
  • Single core, dual core and quad core: The number of units a device has for processing information. Dual core is faster than single core when it comes to graphics and multi-tasking. Quad core devices are faster again and are good for playing sophisticated games.

What to look for

If you are blind or partially sighted, certain features may make a phone easier to use.

Keypad buttons

Although many phones are now touch-screen, button based models are still worth considering. Look out for large, well-spaced, raised buttons, with good contrast and clear print or illumination. A tactile marker on the number 5 can also be helpful.


A phone with a large display will be easier to use if you have low vision. Almost all displays are colour, with adjustable brightness, contrast and font size. AMOLED, Super AMOLED, Clear Black and Retina are four display types you might hear referred to. These are very bright, with high resolution and contrast, making colours intense and blacks very dark, and are therefore easier to see.

Dialling and memory

Speed dial is where a frequently used telephone number is programmed into a phone, so the user can dial it with one or two button presses. With voice dialling, the phone recognises a name when you speak it, and then automatically rings the number from your contact list.


Smartphones are getting bigger in terms of screen size, but thinner overall. It's worth finding a phone that isn't too small to hold or find inside your bag. Most phones tend to have screen sizes of around 2.2 inches, and smartphones range from 3.5-4.8 inches.


Phones come in different shapes, for example:

  • Candy bar: rectangular
  • Clamshell: two halves, hinged in the centre, that flip shut to protect the keypad and screen
  • Slider: where the keyboard slides out from behind the screen

A flip cover phone that opens to answer and closes to hang up is perhaps the easiest design for people with sight loss. Some phones have an 'any key answer' capability, and some have an obvious answer/hang-up button with a sound signal.

Mobile networks

Popular mobile networks in the UK include Orange, T-Mobile, Vodafone, O2, Three and Tesco Mobile. Each network offers a range of different packages of call minutes, texts and mobile internet. It's a competitive market, so shop around. Most deals are based on two year contracts, but other durations are available.

Your phone will either come free with your contract, or you'll have to purchase it upfront and pay for your contract separately. You can opt to use prepaid card payments or to receive a bill, which should be provided in the accessible format of your choice.

Locked and unlocked phones

Most mobile operators supply locked handsets, meaning you can only use them with their network. Always ask if the handset you are purchasing is locked or unlocked. Carphone Warehouse is unique as a retailer in that all of its handsets are sold unlocked.

Accessible mobile phones

There are a number of accessible mobile phones on the market from top of the range smart phones to simple handsets. We give an overview of these on our accessible mobile phones page.

Still need help?

We hope that our range of beginner's guides gave you the information you needed to get started with confidence. If you've read the guides and still need some help, you could try the following:

  • You can order a copy of this guide in large print, audio CD or braille by calling our Helpline on 0303 123 9999.
  • Check out some other support resources we've gathered.
  • If you've recently bought a mobile phone, but you're having difficulty using it, call RNIB's Technology Support Squad. We have a team of over 600 volunteers across the UK who can visit you at home to help you set up and use technology, from TVs and computers through to mobile phones and eBook readers. Call our Helpline on 0303 123 9999 to find out more or request a free volunteer.