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What's a megapixel? Common mobile and smartphone buzzwords defined

A Zoomer gasps in delight at her smartphone, because she's reading a mobile phone glossary.

Ever find yourself reading a potential mobile phone plan and thinking, “What the heck is a Mbps? Postpaid what? Data roaming who?"

No worries! We’re here to translate all the technobabble. Here’s a handy glossary of terms and industry buzzwords you need to know when comparing mobile phones, providers, and plans.

Mobile phones glossary

Collage of a smartphone with a speech bubble that says

Let’s start with a general list of terms you’ll need to know when comparing mobile phones in store or online.

Firstly, what’s the difference between a mobile phone, cell phone, and smartphone? These days, the words are usually used somewhat interchangeably, but there are a few differences in meaning. 

A mobile or cell phone (sometimes even called a dumbphone) is a device you can use to call and text other phones. This is the most basic and generic version of such a device. A smartphone, on the other hand, usually has extra and more advanced functionalities, like WiFi/internet connection, a touch screen, mobile applications, and a better camera.

Read on below for some of the most common features included in a mobile or smartphone.

SIM card: A ‘subscriber identity module’, or SIM card, is a small computer chip that can be inserted into any modern mobile phone. SIM cards contain information about user identity, location, phone number, network, personal security keys, contact lists, and stored text messages. SIM cards enable mobile users to access this data and the features that come with them.

eSIM: Short of electronic SIM card, and eSIM is the digital version of the insertable chip and usually contains all the same information. Most new smartphones these days support eSIMs, so that users changing their mobile phone plans only need to do so electronically, rather than inserting a hard chip into their phone..

Bluetooth: Bluetooth is a short-range wireless technology that uses radio waves to allow devices to talk to each other, i.e. connecting wireless headphones to a phone to listen to music. (Fun fact, the software was named after a Viking!)

Operating system (OS): A phone’s operating system is the software supporting all its basic computer functions. This includes everything from aesthetics to user interface to managing applications. The two main operating systems for smartphones these days are iOS (from Apple) and Android (Samsung and Google Pixel, etc).

Application (app): A mobile application is a software program designed to run on a mobile phone, tablet, or watch. They can include anything from productivity assistance (email and calendars) to games or social media. 

SMS: An acronym for “short message service”, SMS is the basic protocol behind sending quick text messages between mobile phones. This is different from more internet based messaging services, like Facebook’s Messenger or Apple’s iMessage.

IP Rating: Short for Ingress Protection, this classification system gives you a rough idea how dusts or water resistant a mobile phone might be. Most high end phones are rated IP67 or IP68, which gives them a basic level of hardiness (for instance, if you accidentally drop your IP68 phone in the sink, it'll probably be okay, provided you fish it out quickly and it has no other structural damage). To learn more, read our waterproof phones guide.

Network and provider terms glossary

A young woman grins at a group of smartphones being held out to her by disembodied hands.

Here’s another list of words you’re likely to find listed on a potential mobile phone plan. 

3G/4G/5G network: These are the generations (‘g’s) of the mobile coverage network infrastructure used to allow phones to call, send texts, access data, etc. 3G and 4G network access are the most commonplace for phones these days, but 5G is in its rollout phase and offers improved, faster connectivity for compatible phones. For more information, check out our comprehensive guide to 5G in Australia.

Data: Mobile data is internet content delivered to mobile devices, like smartphones and tablets, via a wireless cellular connection. Data allows you to access the internet when you’re not on WiFi, so you can dream, download, and share. Data on mobile plans is often listed as a certain GB allowance at certain speeds. (You can compare mobile data plans using our comparison tool).

Mbps: Short for “Megabits per second”, this metric describes the speed of your mobile device’s internet connection (either through data, ethernet, or broadband like NBN). Generally speaking, providers should offer at least 12 Mbps for reasonable internet speeds, while 25 Mbps or higher is considered best for heavy internet users who need fast upload/download speeds.

Latency: Network latency measures the time it takes for your mobile device to send a signal and get a response (such as from a cell tower). Longer latency means a longer delay between when your phone makes a request and when the request is received. Shorter latency enables quick-response reactions and is one of the useful features offered by 5G networks, and could be especially good for gamers or live-streamers.

Download: To receive data from a remote system, like a server, application, or a website, on your mobile device. (Example: downloading a mobile application from a website to your home screen).

Upload: To send data to a remote system, like a server or a website, from your mobile device. (Example: uploading images from your phone’s camera roll to social media, like Instagram or Facebook).

Postpaid plan: A postpaid mobile plan just means that you pay the bill for your plan’s features on a monthly basis after you’ve used them. 

Prepaid plan: A prepaid mobile plan allows you to pay for a certain fixed amount of features, like calls, messages, and data, upfront.

SIM-only plan: A SIM-only plan pays for features included on your plan’s SIM card without purchasing a new phone. For instance, if you already own an iPhone, taking out a SIM-only plan would give you access to mobile calls, texts, and data for your existing iPhone.

Data-only plan: A data-only plan means that you only pay for cellular data for your mobile device (like a tablet), as opposed to paying for calls/text messages. 

Trade in: Some providers let you exchange your old phone for credit towards your bill, called 'trading in'. Check out our guide for details on how to do this with Telstra, Optus, and Vodafone.

Trade up: As opposed to a trade in, a trade up is exchanging your old phone for credit towards a new handset. Think of it like levelling up your phone game.

Telco: Short for “telecommunications”, this is just another term/shorthand for mobile provider.

Porting: “Porting” is the act of transferring your existing mobile phone number from one provider to another. Read our guide on porting your number for more details.

Unlocking your SIM: When your SIM is unlocked, it means that your phone can support SIM cards (either hard or electronic) from different providers. If your SIM is locked, it means you can only use SIM services from your specific mobile provider.

International (data) roaming: If you’re travelling overseas and using data, you’re said to be “roaming”. Mobile phone plans will usually have specific conditions/allowances for service usage overseas. Check out our international calling guide for more information.

No lock-in contract: A phone contract is an agreement between the customer and provider that contains information about billing and so forth over an agreed period of time. These days, most mobile providers offer “no lock-in contracts”, which means that you can change/cancel your mobile phone plan when it suits you without ‘breaking’ your contract.

MVNO: Short for 'mobile virtual network operator', these are the smaller carriers who piggyback off the three main cellular networks in Australia (Telstra, Optus, and Vodafone). They tend to offer (mostly!) the same service for far cheaper prices than the big three. Read our MVNO guide for more info.

Camera phone features glossary

Close up of a triple lens iPhone camera.
Photo by the Regist on Unsplash.

One of the amazing perks of most mobile phones these days is the powerful camera quality. Here’s a brief list of terms to know for phone cameras.

(We’ve also written up a quick guide on how to find the best camera phone using some of the definitions below).

Lens: A phone camera lens is a small device that controls how much light is let into the camera sensor. These days, many smartphones offer “dual” or “triple” lenses, since having multiple lenses diversifies and enhances the kinds of photos you can take with your phone.

Megapixel: A megapixel is the unit of visual data contained in images. Higher quality or resolution images will tend to have more information involved, and thus more megapixels. As a rule of thumb, 2-3 megapixels is decent, 4-5 megapixels will give you printable standard photos, and anything over 8-12 megapixels is great quality.

HDR: HDR stands for “high dynamic range”, and is a function included in most smartphone cameras that controls the difference between dark and bright parts of a photograph.  Increasing the dynamic range of a photograph will avoid burning out parts of the picture to white or black and improve the overall image quality.

Autofocus: Autofocus is an AI function in most camera phones that allows the camera to automatically enhance focus on certain parts of the image with or without input from the user. 

720p, 1080p resolution: These numbers get tossed around a lot when describing image quality, and they’re shorthands for the pixel dimensions of videos/images. A video with 720p (standard definition, or SD) is decent quality, while 1080p (high definition, or HD) will get you good quality.

Use our comparison tool to browse mobile phone plans.

Evlin DuBose
Evlin DuBose
Senior Money Writer

Evlin, RG146 Generic Knowledge certified and a UTS Communications graduate, is a leading voice in finance news. As Mozo's go-to writer for RBA and interest rates, her work regularly features in Google's Top Stories and major publications like