Best smartphone for students: How to choose the best smartphone

Need a new smartphone for college or university? We explain what to look for and how to get the best smartphone for students.

Unless money is no object, iPhones are probably going to work out too expensive for many students. You could go for a refurbished or second-hand iPhone 4S or 5, but for even less money, you can pick up a budget Android smartphone.

You might choose to sign up for a contract and get the phone free, but the best value always comes from buying the smartphone outright (SIM free and unlocked) and then choosing a pay as you go tarrif.

Unlocked smartphones start at around £60, such as the Firefox phone, but the cheapest Androids - those that are worth buying - start at £80-90. Motorola's Moto E is a bargain at £90, but if you want a 4G handset, try the EE Kestrel for £99 (but bear in mind it will be locked to EE).

Android isn't the only sensible option at the budget end of the price range: Windows Phones are coming of age, and there are bargains to be had for cash-strapped students. You can buy a Nokia Lumia 520 for just £80 SIM free, or the newer Lumia 630 for £110. Neither supports 4G or has a front-facing camera, but the 630 comes with Windows Phone 8.1. Although the free update has been promised to all other Lumias running Windows Phone 8, owners are still waiting.

How to choose the best smartphone for students

If you want to go it alone and choose your own smartphone, the things to look for include the latest version of Android or Windows Phone: don't be fobbed off with old handsets running ancient versions which won't be updated to get new features that you'll see with new smartphones.

For Android, that's KitKat 4.4 and for Windows Phone, it's version 8.1. Soon, iOS will be updated to version 8, and all iPhones back to the 4S will get it for free.

The size and resolution of the screen isn't critical, but the more pixels the crisper everything will appear. Some people like big screens, while others prefer a smaller phone that fits easily into a pocket, so bigger isn't always better.

Motorola Moto E

Battery life is important, but most phones last a similar amount of time - between one and two days' of normal use. Plus, the proliferation of inexpensive USB batteries means that it's easy to top up your phone's level in your bag while you're not using it.

Performance is arguably more important as it's frustrating to use a sluggish smartphone. Simply looking for a quad-core processor rather than dual-core isn't enough, as it depends on the speed of those cores. As a general rule, phones with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 or 800 processor should be zippy enough, but check our reviews to make sure speed is up to scratch. We've even got a smartphone performance chart so you can find out how the latest models stack up.

There are other features to watch out for, too. For example, if you plan to use Bluetooth gadgets such as activity trackers, you need Bluetooth 4.0. With Android, even that isn't enough as apps have to be written for specific smartphones rather than Android in general. For this reason, it pays to have a popular model such as a Samsung Galaxy or Google Nexus.

NFC is non-essential, but one thing you will want is expandable storage. iPhone users quickly discovered that apps, games and videos use up the internal storage and there's no way to add more. Many Android smartphones have a microSD slot for cheaply adding capacity, and Windows Phones with memory card slots are beginning to appear too.

If your chosen smartphone doesn't have a slot, check how much storage is available to the user out of the box. Just because the specs state 16GB, it doesn't mean that is free storage for your files. We've seen smartphones with as much as 4GB used by the operating system and pre-installed apps.

See also: The best budget smartphones you can buy in the UK in 2014