The Australian TV ratings organisation, Oztam, recently released a report that showed something very interesting. They’ve found out that more and more people, especially in younger age groups, are now watching nearly as much television on mobile devices as they do on an actual TV. It’s pretty easy to guess why, too. Rather than having to be home at a certain time and sitting glued to the couch watching the latest episodes of their favourite shows, a lot of people realised pretty quickly that their smartphone might be the answer.
With live streaming and catch-up apps available for every free-to-air network, and Foxtel providing free live streaming to mobiles for each and every one of its customers, the platform is already there to make the once-humble mobile phone a powerhouse portable TV that you can watch on the train, at the beach, over lunch, anywhere.
So what sort of viewing experience can you expect from a phone? Well, not surprisingly, it depends on the model of the phone you choose. Pretty much any smartphone running iOS or Android can stream video fairly effortlessly, but that doesn’t mean that it’s going to be a joy to watch a show on it. When you’re used to big screen TVs of 55 inches and up, squinting at a tiny phone screen can be a pain – especially if the screen’s not doing a great job of displaying the picture.
So what are the things you should be looking for when you’re shopping around for your next smartphone? What will make your portable viewing experience effortless, rather than something you have to endure? Let’s take a look at the key things to look for, then we’ll go hunting for some current-generation phones that fit the bill.
Finding a Streaming-Friendly Phone
It probably goes without saying that you’d want the phone screen to be as big as possible – without being so big that it makes the device hard to handle when you use it as a phone. Modern edge-to-edge screens help a lot with this, packing a serious amount of screen space into every spare millimetre of the phone’s body.
The screen’s aspect ratio is a measurement of how wide it is (when viewed horizontally) compared to how tall. It’s an important number because everything that’s made for television today is designed to fit the aspect ratio of your TV at home – 16:9. Every iPhone from the iPhone 5 onwards has a 16:9 display, and most brand-name Android phones do as well (though LG and Samsung’s newest models push the width further, to around 18:9). If you’re using an old or budget phone, though, the screen could be in the old 4:3 ratio, which means those dreaded black bars are going to appear at the top and bottom of everything you watch. Those super-wide displays from LG and Samsung, meanwhile, have hit the cinema-like 2:1 ratio commonly seen on Netflix shows. If it’s regular TV you want to watch, 16:9 is perfect.
This is less of an issue for streaming live TV or watching catch-up in Australia, since none of our networks do either in full high definition just yet (Nine comes close, though). But it’s inevitably heading to a point where they’d do exactly that, and you want to pick a phone that can handle it (not to mention getting the best picture on HD movies and TV shows you buy on your phone). You might be surprised to learn that even the recent iPhone 8 can’t display full HD video even with its screen clocking in at just over a HD-lite 720p (the “full” in “full HD” was coined for 1080p displays). The plus-sized iPhones can do 1080p, though, as can the iPhone X. LG and Samsung’s mighty screens, meanwhile, push things further to 1440p (known as “Quad HD”). You won’t get 4K on a mobile phone just yet, but it’s surely coming!
When you’re streaming TV shows on your phone in public, you’ll likely be wearing headphones – that is, if you’re considerate of other people. But those times when you want to just jump into bed, grab the phone and catch up on some TV, you’ll probably be using the phone’s inbuilt speaker(s). Depending on the phone, that could end up being a decently listenable experience or it could sound like having someone shouting at you down a megaphone attached to a supply of helium. Phone speakers have been getting better and better in general – compare, for example, the sound quality leap even from the iPhone 5 to the iPhone 6 – but it’s only recently, as streaming video has become more popular on mobile devices, that companies have started taking the sound a bit more seriously. Some phones now have stereo speakers built in specifically designed for when you’re viewing video on the device – like Google’s Pixel 2. However, unless you’re buying a top-end phone, you should be prepared for something a little less full-sounding than your average TV. Speakers aren’t the afterthought they once were, but they’re not high on the priority list for most phone manufacturers either.
It pretty much goes without saying that when it comes to phone apps, you’ll want a phone that runs iOS or Android (don’t be tempted by that discounted Windows Phone!) if you want to be able to use the full range of what’s available. All current iPhones can run the latest version of iOS so you’ll have no worries there, but Android’s a bit more complicated with some ultra-budget Android-powered smartphones running a version of that operating system that’s years out of date. The last thing you want is to go to run a streaming app only to be told it won’t work on your version of Android. Then again, if you’re after a phone with great screen and sound, you’re probably buying something that’s running the latest anyway.
The single thing in your phone that’s the most hungry for power is the screen – and when you’re streaming TV, the screen is always on and chewing through your available battery life. Most phone manufacturers will provide a rough estimate in the phone’s specs for how long you can watch video on a full charge. Good new is that those numbers are getting nice and high these days, especially on the “plus” sized phones, which have more room to cram in a beefier battery. If you’re planning on watching a lot of TV on your phone, consider one of the plus-sized phones as a possibility – though do try them out as actual phones as well. Some of those get called “phablets” for a reason – they’re so big they’re almost a tablet rather than a phone!
Best Hardware Deals for Streaming TV
So which are the best smartphones to enjoy streaming TV on, while still being all-round great phones? Well, you’ve got a lot to choose from at a wide range of price points, but the best of the best are the ones that push the boundaries a bit to deliver a great visual experience while being fast and capable enough to stream video. They’re not cheap. But then again, given the tech inside them, that’s not at all surprising. Here’s our four picks for the ones to aim for, with less bank-breaking alternatives for each to help ease that sticker shock!
Google Pixel 2 XL
Google set out to design the ultimate audio-visual powerhouse of a phone with the Pixel 2, and it certainly delivers that in spades. With a gorgeous 6 inch OLED display that packs an 18:9 screen into the phone’s minimalist glass and aluminium body, it’s perhaps the ideal way to watch TV on the go, complete with stereo speakers that actually sound really good. And being a Google product, it comes heavily integrated with all of the usual Google services that work together seamlessly – from unlimited cloud photo storage to the famous Google Assistant. At $1399, it’s not the biggest wallet destroyer out there. But if you do want the same feature set but with a smaller yet full HD screen, $1079 is a bit easier to justify!
Apple iPhone X
Apple’s first trip into the world of the edge-to-edge OLED display is a stunning achievement, even though much of what it does has been commonplace on competitors’ phones for a while. Done the Apple way, it makes for a great experience, from the Face-tracking phone unlock system to the stunning screen – tuned and calibrated to exacting standards, it seems to make anything you view on it looks better. It’s the calibre of a high-end OLED TV screen, really. The infamous “notch” at the top of the screen might seem a little weird, but it doesn’t affect video playback at all. Its $1579 price tag makes it the most expensive smartphone you can buy right now, but it’s well worth it if you can get one on a plan to ease the pain. An alternative is the iPhone 6s Plus – still available from Apple but now only $849 brand new, with a nice big full HD screen for all your TV. It’s even got a headphone socket!
Samsung Galaxy S9
Not yet released at the time of writing, but Samsung’s latest effort to outdo both itself and Apple looks like a stunner. They’re going straight for the TV and movie watchers with the Samsung Galaxy S9 – 18.5:9 ultra-widescreen OLED display (with Samsung’s distinctive curved edges), stereo speakers with Dolby Atmos sound, expandable memory, face-tracking unlocking (sounds familiar!) and much more. At $1199, it’s priced to beat Google at their own game and if it turns out to be as good as it looks on paper, it probably will. Alternatively, you can pick up the also-excellent Galaxy S8 for $999 or the venerable S7 for $799, both superb phones for mobile viewing.
LG V30 Plus
Sporting a 6” OLED screen and extremely good speakers – as well as high quality audio through its increasingly desirable headphone socket – LG’s top smartphone is also the most affordable of all the high-end models out there, retailing at $999 and often available for less. LG is the company that makes the OLED screens for many other manufacturers, too (including Google), so they’re ahead of the curve when it comes to screen technology. This fully-featured phone’s well worth considering before you punish the credit card with some of its pricier competitors. It’s also available in pink (LG calls it “Raspberry Rose”)!
Which to Choose?
Buying a higher-end smartphone is no small investment – and while these phones are absolutely superb for watching streaming TV (a.k.a. getting your Netflix series binge on!) no matter where you are, there’s a lot of things that are subjective. These include how the screen looks to you, how loud and clear the sound from the speakers is, how the phone feels to hold, how many of the other features are things that you really want on a smartphone.
Make sure to head to a store that has display models available for you to play with, so you can get a first-hand impression of how the phone works for you. You’re going to be spending a lot of your time with it, after all – not just streaming TV, but also taking photos, sending emails and texts, browsing social media and, yes, making calls!