Your smartphone is right up there with your wallet in importance — in fact, it can sometimes double as your wallet. As phones have added more features, they've become an indispensable companion, helping you stay on top of email and social updates, take and share photos and videos, play music and games, and do a whole lot more. So we probably don't have to tell you that choosing the right phone is a big deal.
Our smartphone-buying guide covers everything you need to know before you buy, ranging from the operating system and the screen size to the camera and the carrier. Use this advice to make sure you get the very best handset for your needs and budget. Deciding between Apple's and Samsung's latest flagships? Check out our iPhone 6s vs Galaxy S7 face-off.
- Opt for an iPhone if you want a phone that's easy to use and gets both the hottest apps first and the timeliest software updates.
- Android is better if you want more hardware choice and more control over the user experience. You can also find great Android deals under $300.
- Get a phone with a 5-inch screen or smaller if one-hand use is important. (See Best Small Phones for more.) Get a bigger screen if you like to watch a lot of video and play games.
- The camera has become the most important smartphone feature. Pay attention to specs like pixel size (in microns, bigger is better) and aperture (lower numbers are better) and ignore the megapixels. See our Best Camera Phones for our top picks.
- If you want the most speed for games and multitasking, buy an Android phone with the latest Snapdragon 820 processor and 4GB of RAM. The A9 chip in the iPhone 6s and the 6s Plus is also very speedy. A Snapdragon 615 chip is fine for mid-tier Android phones.
- Don’t settle for a smartphone with less than a 3,000 mAh battery if endurance is really important. And see our list of the longest-running phones based on the Tom's Guide Battery Test (web surfing over 4G LTE).
- 16GB phones are a rip-off unless you’re going to store most of your photos and files in the cloud. Get 32GB or more of storage if you plan to download lots of games or shoot 4K video.
- Verizon is the best wireless carrier for coverage and speed but T-Mobile is the best overall value. MetroPCS is our top pick for discount carriers.
Operating Sytem: Android, iOS or other?
Android dominates worldwide sales of smartphones, and for good reason. You'll find many more choices than iOS when it comes to design, display size, specs, capabilities and price. Plus, Android is an open OS, which means it's easy to customize awesome launchers and widgets, while giving you a choice of keyboards and more.
The Nexus 6P, powered by Android Marshmallow, waits for your touch. Credit: Jeremy LipsSome Android phone makers, such as Samsung and LG, trick out the software with additional enhancements, such as more-robust multitasking and easier access to settings.
With the latest version of Android 6.0 Marshmallow, the OS offers Google Now on Tap, with an assistant so smart it answers questions based on what's already on your screen. There's also Android Pay for making mobile payments, and better power management for longer battery life. However, when a new version of Android arrives, it can take several months for the updated OS to hit your phone.
All of the latest iPhones, including the iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus and the iPhone SE, run the latest version of Apple's operating system. iOS 9 offers all sorts of enhancements. For example, Siri offers proactive suggestions to save you time, and the Notes app is a lot more robust. The Maps app finally offers transit directions, too, but Apple's News app isn't that exciting.
Small and powerful, the iPhone SE runs iOS 9.3. Credit: Jeremy Lips The biggest reasons to opt for an iOS device include its ease of use, access to OS updates from day one (unlike Android) and ability to work seamlessly with Apple devices (such as the iPhone and the Mac).
Apple's App Store tends to get the hottest apps and games before Android, partly because developers have an easier time targeting a smaller set of devices that have similar specs. By the same token, iPhones enjoy the broadest array of accessories, because there's less variation in design from one model to the next.
Windows Phone has never caught on, and Windows 10 Mobile is off to a slow start. The most compelling features are universal apps and Continuum. Universal apps allow developers to create one app for Windows 10 on the desktop and mobile, which should grow Microsoft’s anemic selection in the Windows Store. Continuum enables you to run Windows 10 Mobile on the desktop with a compatible dock using such phones as the Lumia 950.
The Nokia Lumia 950 smartphone runs Windows 10. Credit: Mike Prospero Although Microsoft is trying to bring more partners into the fold, such as the HP Elite X3, the platform probably won't get the shot in the arm it needs until Microsoft unveils a Surface phone.
BlackBerry is showing some signs of life with its Android-powered BlackBerry Priv, which pairs Google's OS and app store with a slide-out keyboard. The built-in security is quite strong, but this phone is pricey. BlackBerry says it will release more affordable Android models later this year.
Although bigger screens are in vogue, you'll still find a wide variety of display sizes. And size is only part of the story.
Small Screen (Less Than 4.5 Inches)
The main reason to buy a small-screen smartphone is for its compact design. You won't have to stretch your thumb to reach anything. This size range is falling out of favor as more and more people gravitate toward larger canvases for media consumption and gaming, but small phones like the iPhone SE and the Sony Xperia Z5 Compact are both powerful and affordable.
Medium Screen (4.5 to 5.4 Inches)
This has become the smartphone sweet spot, with such devices as the iPhone 6s (4.7 inches), the HTC 10 (5.2 inches), the Galaxy S7 (5.1 inches) and the LG G5 (5.3 inches) in this size range. Most phones in this category are fairly comfortable to use with one hand, depending on the button placement.
The HTC 10's display is a mid-sized 5.2 inches. Credit: Jeremy Lips
Large Screen/Phablet (5.5 Inches or More)
Smartphones with displays larger than 5.5 inches, such as the 5.5-inch iPhone 6s Plus and the 5.7-inch Galaxy Note 5, are often called phablets because they are tablet-like in size. These are more likely to be used as two-handed devices, but there are lots of people who prefer larger displays for watching videos, reading eBooks and running two apps side by side, as you can on the Galaxy line.
The size of the screen is only one consideration. Pay close attention to a smartphone's resolution, brightness, color quality and viewing angles.
The sharpest displays have quad-HD resolution, or 2,560 x 1,440 pixels, including the Galaxy S7 and the HTC 10. However, a full-HD panel with 1,920 x 1,080 pixels (1080p) — such as those on the iPhone 6s Plus — shows plenty of detail. Screens with 1,280 x 720 pixels (720p), typically found on budget phones, can result in lost detail in text or movies.
A 2560 x 1440-pixel display makes the S7 Edge's screen beautiful and bold. Credit: Samuel C. RutherfordMake sure that the smartphone you're shopping for has a panel that's bright enough for you to be able to read it outdoors in direct sunlight. (See the nit measurements in our reviews to compare.) Having wide viewing angles is important, too, because you'll want to be able to share what's on your screen with others and play games without the screen washing out when you tilt the device.
Our smartphone reviews include valuable test results on brightness, color gamut and color accuracy, to help you make the most informed buying decision.
Defining a good or bad smartphone design is highly subjective, but if you care about build quality and aesthetics, look for a unibody design, which you'll find on the iPhone 6s and the HTC 10. The Galaxy S7's glass-and-metal design is particularly attractive, especially the S7 Edge with its dual curved display.
A feat of fun design, the LG G5's base can be replaced with several accessories. Credit: Jeremy Lips.People who prefer a smartphone with a removable battery should opt for a device such as the LG G5. This innovative design also allows you to add other modules to increase functionality, such as a camera grip with physical controls and an extended battery.
If you're looking for a more personal design, check out the Moto X Pure Edition, which you can customize online with all sorts of colors and finishes, including wood.
We've now arrived at a point in smartphone evolution where the camera matters more than the processor, especially since most people use their phones as their primary shooters. More and more smartphones boast cameras with at least 12 megapixels, but don't go by numbers alone. Instead, pay attention to image quality, aperture, pixel size, speed and features.
The Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 Edge currently offer the best cameras on any phone. Their dual-pixel cameras offer lightning-quick autofocus and take great pictures in low light, thanks to the wide f/1.7 aperture (lower numbers are better). By contrast, the 12-megapixel iSight cameras on the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus have an aperture of f/2.2.
Look at photo samples from Tom's Guide in our reviews and camera face-offs before you buy.
MORE: Best Camera Phones
As far as camera features, look for optical image stabilization to reduce blur and improve low-light performance. The iPhone 6s Plus has it, but not the regular iPhone 6s. The Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge both have it. The HTC 10 is the first smartphone to offer optical image stabilization on the front camera, which results in better-looking selfies.
One smartphone camera trend to watch is dual rear cameras. The LG G5, for example, uses one lens for wide-angle shots, which makes it a great choice for taking landscape photos. The Huawei P9's dual Leica cameras perform a different trick, with one capturing picture information in monochrome and the other in color, resulting in a single sensor with a pixel-size equivalent of 1.76 microns. That's much bigger than the Galaxy S7's 1.4 microns.
A good processor inside a phone should translate to faster open times for apps, smoother gameplay and quicker photo editing, but you don't have to pay attention to clock speed. It's better to look at the performance results in our reviews, such as Geekbench, which measures overall performance.
Among Qualcomm CPUs, the Snapdragon 820 processor is the class-leading chip, offering twice the overall performance and efficiency versus the Snapdragon 810. This results in more speed but also longer battery life. You'll also get 40 percent faster graphics and speedier camera performance, along with better upload and download speeds over LTE.
Apple's 64-bit, 20-nanometer A9 chip delivers smooth performance on the iPhone 6s and the iPhone 6s Plus, enabling console-quality gaming (via Metal graphics). The A9 offers up to 70 percent faster overall performance than the A8 chip and up to a whopping 90 percent improvement in graphics might.
The Snapdragon 600 series powers mid-tier smartphones, such as the Huawei Honor 5x, offering good overall performance, but don't expect to play the most demanding games without a bit of lag. The 400 series is for low-tier or entry-level handsets. Other CPU players include MediaTek, whose chips are often found on low- to mid-tier handsets.
Here's an easy way to look at smartphones' RAM, which is critical for multitasking. Try to avoid handsets with just 1GB of system memory. On mid-tier devices, 2GB is good and standard. But you'll find 4GB on the latest flagships, including the Galaxy S7 and the HTC 10. The exception is Apple, which uses 2GB of RAM in the iPhone 6s and the iPhone 6s Plus, though the lesser amount doesn't seem to impact performance.
Given that some games can easily take up more than 1GB — not to mention how many high-res photos and videos smartphone owners are capturing — we highly recommend opting for as much internal storage as possible. The minimum on most handsets, like the iPhone 6, is 16GB, but more phones (such as the Galaxy S7) are coming standard with 32GB. We recommend 32GB or more.
A microSD card can help expand your storage. It's available on phones such as the Galaxy S7, the LG G5 and the HTC 10. You can pick up a 128GB microSD for as little as $40.
Many factors — including the screen size, processor and operating system — determine how long a smartphone lasts on a charge. However, shoppers looking for the longest endurance possible should check out our list of battery life champs. We consider any phone that lasts longer than 8 hours of straight 4G LTE surfing to be acceptable, but greater than 9 hours is better.
Battery capacity is a spec that can help determine a phone's potential staying power, but it's not as reliable as our test results. Nevertheless, look for a phone with at least a 3,000 mAh battery if you want the best chance at long battery life. The Galaxy S7 has a 3,000 mAh pack, but the 3,600 mAh Galaxy S7 Edge lasts longer. The LG G5 comes with only a 2,800 mAh battery, but you can augment it with an even bigger battery in the optional camera grip module, which has its own 1,200 mAh power source.
Removable batteries have fallen out of favor with most smartphone makers. But there are some benefits to this kind of design, found on the LG G5. Once your existing battery stops holding a charge for as long as it did when it was fresh, you can just swap in a new one without having to pay for a replacement service or new phone.
The LG G5 and its removable battery. Credit: Jeremy LipsThird-party vendors, such as Mugen Power, make high-capacity replacement batteries that offer more endurance than the originals. Also, if you carry a spare battery, you'll be able to swap in a new one to keep your phone going longer.
Other Key Features
With myriad competing standards and a lack of direction from both smartphone makers and the carriers, wireless charging is more of a nice-to-have feature than a must-have at this stage. The idea is to place your device, such as the Galaxy S7, on a compatible wireless charging mat. But HTC and LG skipped the feature on their latest flagships, partly because their phones offer quick wired charging. While it may be convenient, wireless charging likely won't take off until the technology is built into everything from cars to furniture — or if Apple decides to adopt it.
Popularized by the iPhone's Touch ID sensor, fingerprint security on smartphones makes it easier to unlock your device. You can also use Touch ID to buy items in the App Store and real-world goods via Apple Pay. The sensor in the iPhone 6 was a bit sluggish, but the iPhone 6s' fingerprint reader is faster.
The Galaxy S7's sensor can be used with the Samsung Pay service or Android Pay. Both HTC and LG offer fingerprint readers, too. Some mid-tier phones lack this feature, but it's not really a deal-breaker.
Go Through Carrier, or Unlocked Route?
One of the biggest trends in smartphones is the rise of affordable, unlocked phones. Instead of going through your carrier to get a device, you can buy a well-equipped handset for hundreds less than a typical flagship phone like the iPhone 6 or the Galaxy S6 and still get a great experience.
The Huawei Honor 5x is a great example, offering a big and bright full-HD, 5.5-inch display in a metal design, with a solid 13-MP camera, all for $199. That's compared to $649 for the full price of the iPhone 6s and $779 for the Galaxy S7 Edge, although wireless carriers offer equipment installment plans that let you spread out the cost using monthly payments.
The unlocked route isn't for everyone. You'll still need to sign up for service through a wireless provider and get a SIM Card for your unlocked phone, once you've determined which networks that unlocked phone supports. Most unlocked phones not purchased through the carriers themselves tend to work with AT&T and T-Mobile, but some are "multi-band" capable, which means they work with CDMA providers like Sprint and Verizon. The Nexus 5X and Nexus 6P are good examples.
To stay competitive and answer the unlocked threat, wireless carriers are becoming more flexible with their plans, offering off-contract options and new ways to upgrade your device more often.
"The Big Four"
The vast majority of smartphone shoppers choose one of the "Big Four" carriers: AT&T, Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile.
Of the three major contract carriers (AT&T, Verizon and Sprint), Verizon offers the broadest 4G LTE network, with a significant performance boost called XLTE. This upgrade doubled the LTE bandwidth and delivered faster peak speeds in various cities. AT&T is typically behind Verizon in LTE speed but claims that it offers the strongest LTE signal.
T-Mobile's performance has drastically improved over the past couple of years, even though some coverage holes remain. In fact, the provider came in second on our nationwide performance test. It generally offers more affordable pricing than Verizon and AT&T, along with such perks as Binge On (which lets you watch premium video like Netflix and stream music without it counting against your plan) and international data usage that doesn't cost extra.
Sprint has been a distant last in terms of 4G footprint. Its LTE service offers fast speeds in some markets, but we've seen inconsistent results in various locations. However, Sprint is being the most aggressive when it comes to deals, promising to cut the bills of AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless in half.
Smaller Discount Carriers
If you’re willing to sacrifice some speed versus the big boys, smaller discount carriers like MetroPCS, Cricket, Boost Mobile and Cricket will keep you connected at a much more affordable price. For example, MetroPCS (which rides on T-Mobile's network) currently charges a very reasonable $40 for 3GB of data, versus $45 for Verizon.
Other discount providers charge even less. Virgin Mobile, for example, starts at just $30 per month for unlimited data, though just 500MB of that is high speed. The carrier rides on Sprint's nationwide network, as does Boost Mobile.
Jonathan Weiss / Shutterstock.comCricket, which uses AT&T's network, charges $35 monthly for 2.5GB of LTE data and unlimited voice and text, and costs $45 for 5GB. (That's with the auto-pay option.) Power users will like the $55 Pro Plan, which includes 10GB.
Other than slower speeds, the disadvantages of going with a smaller prepaid carrier include a more limited selection of smartphones (in most cases) and paying full price for the handset.