Call charges, price plans and services are all very well and good but most people are still attracted to mobile phone networks because of a particular deal on a particular handset. Things have evened out a little since the iPhone hit six out of the seven UK operators this time around, but there's still plenty of exclusive handsets in the network stores and it's worth knowing who's more likely to have the goods when your contract is near an end and you're in a good position to ask for a hardware upgrade.
We looked at both the PAYG phones and pay monthly phones on offer at the time of writing on all the UK networks. We ignored colour variations and only considered the number of different models and the number of brands each network represented.
The table above shows our findings. What we then did was look at the quality of the handsets themselves and, after thorough judging, this was the way we lined them up. So, as far as the actual phones go, these are the best UK networks to be with.
1st - O2
Not only did O2 have the largest number of different models in stock but the company scored very highly in terms of variety of brand as well. All the top phones of the moment are available with perhaps the only omission the popular HTC Legend or even the Hero. On top of that, O2 is the only network still to feature the webOS Palm phones and is the first to stock the Dell Streak in the same way as it was the first to stock a certain Apple handset too.
You rather get the feeling that you can rely on this network to have the latest and greatest as well as an impressive selection of cheaper feature phones as well.
2nd - Vodafone
It seems to have taken a while for Vodafone to catch on that you need a little handset sex appeal to help get the flag of quality service noticed, but the arrival of the iPhone and a few others seems to have levelled the playing field once more.
All the top Android phones are represented with even an exclusive on the Nexus One, and the sheer number of feature phones make an excellent range for the the whole market to pick from. We could have done with an appearance from a BlackBerry Storm or a Palm phone but certainly a solid choice here that gives you some confidence for the future.
3rd - 3
Despite the relatively small number of models on offer, 3 has done an excellent job of picking the right ones to stock. There's only one BlackBerry phone on the books but it's the best one; not a world of Nokias but the E72, 6700 and X6 are all represented.
The Samsung section has probably been rather too well pruned, but that's made up for by the Skypephone and INQ exclusives that you'll only get from this network. They're not for everyone but both are uniquely useful handsets not to be sniffed at by the premium smartphones doing the rounds.
4th - T-Mobile
While not providing such a range of phones and brands as you might expect, T-Mobile has done an excellent job of axing the poxy ones or at least just keeping them in the PAYG section. There's a good selection of BlackBerrys, including the Storm 2, the HTC Desire and Wildfire, and a really well chosen small set of quality Samsung smartphones as well as the big players you'd want from Nokia and Sony Ericsson.
This lot might not be your first port of call if you're all about the hardware but you can remain nice and confident that the company won't be pushing rubbish on you when it's time to upgrade. After all, 18 months is a long time and, in case it's escaped your attention, 24 months is even longer.
5th - Orange
Orange might feel a little hard done by to have wound up in fifth with such a good turn out in terms of numbers. There's a good glut of feature phones in the store and, although most of the more significant smartphones are all present and correct, it would have been nice to see something that no one else has got. The Motorola DEXT being pushed cut price does not count.
6th - Virgin Mobile
Not stocking the iPhone would be a brave decision but it's probably about not being able to afford it rather then anything else. In truth, VM seems to be going for a different end of the market to that of Apple charges. Instead, it's largely about feature phones with the odd turn up like a BlackBerry or two and the HTC Desire as well.
Virgin Mobile isn't going to knock your socks off with handsets, but you can at least appreciate that they know a good one when they see it. The current run of V-Festival inspired limited editions phones is worth a commendable mention.
7th - Tesco Mobile
So, there's the iPhone and, um, yeah.
Vodafone UK is the smart choice for customers who want to make the most of smartphones, according to the latest pieces of research from YouGov.
YouGov’s Technology & Telecoms Consulting team’s latest survey, Smartphone, Mobile Internet, eXperience (SMIX), positionsVodafone UK as the top operator for mobile internet, coming top in 8 out of 10 areas and beating its rivals in the most important measure of quality – reliability during the day.