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Best phones in 2021: The top smartphones rated

best phones
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The best phones offer you every thing you could want from a smartphone. They deliver great cameras, the performance you need to multitask and enough battery life to last the whole day. And with strong options available at all price levels, you don't have to spend a lot to get something great. Whether you prefer iPhone or Android, there's an option for you.

When it comes to buying a new phone, some people may prefer to have the biggest display possible along with the most advanced specs. And others want a solid mid-range phone that delivers all the basics without feeling cheap. To help you pick the best smartphone for you, we test dozens of handsets in the lab and in the real world to bring you in-depth reviews and make recommendations you can trust.

Our best phones list has something for everyone, including great bargains under $500 and under $300. We've ranked all the top phones based on our testing. Here are the top smartphones right now.

What are the best phones?

Based on our testing, the new iPhone 12 Pro Max remains the best phone overall, as it delivers great cameras, a vivid 6.7-inch display, 5G connectivity and the fastest performance of any handset. While other iPhone 12 models impress, the Pro Max gives you the most screen real estate along with the longest battery life.

If you prefer Android, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is the best Android phone you can buy, thanks to its powerful cameras, long battery life, gorgeous dynamic 120Hz display and support for the S Pen. The OnePlus 9 Pro is another great option, offering faster charging and a lower price, but it has only 2 years of promised updates. 

Those on a budget or shopping for back-to-school deals on phones should look at the Google Pixel 4a, an incredible bargain at $349, though the Pixel 5a should be on the way soon. The Moto G Power is another good bargain, as it offers the best battery life on the market.

If you're looking to get a foldable phone, Samsung's Unpacked event is on August 11, at which the company is expected to announce the new Galaxy Z Fold 3 and Galaxy Z Flip 3. 

The best phones you can buy today

best phones: iphone 12 max

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1. iPhone 12 Pro Max

The best phone overall

Specifications
Display: 6.7-inch OLED (2778 x 1284)
CPU: A14 Bionic
RAM: 6GB
Storage / Expandable: 128GB, 256GB, 512GB / No
Rear camera: 12MP wide (ƒ/1.6), 12MP ultrawide (ƒ/2.4), 12MP telephoto (ƒ/2.2)
Front camera: 12MP (ƒ/2.2)
Weight: 8.03 ounces
Battery life (Hrs:Mins): 10:53(5G)
Reasons to buy
+Best-in-class cameras+Immersive 6.7-inch display+Superior performance
Reasons to avoid
-Charger sold separately-A bit heavy

The iPhone 12 Pro Max is one of the best phones you can buy and is that rare phone that is practically perfect, especially for those who prefer big screens. You get an immersive 6.7-inch OLED display, class-leading A14 Bionic performance and 5G capability. But the iPhone 12 Pro Max really stands out with its long battery life, as it lasted nearly 11 hours on our web surfing test. It’s the longest-lasting iPhone 12 model by far.

Like the regular iPhone 12 Pro, the iPhone 12 Pro Max packs three rear cameras, but it benefits from a larger main sensor that lets in more light. And you get a 2.5 telephoto zoom, compared to 2x for the regular Pro. The iPhone 12 Pro Max also delivers amazingly colorful video recording in Dolby Vision, complete with sensor-shift stabilization for steady footage. At $1,099, the iPhone 12 Pro Max isn’t cheap, but overall it’s the best phone we’ve tested.

Just keep in mind that the iPhone 13 is reportedly on the way in September, so you may want to wait to upgrade. 

Read our full iPhone 12 Pro Max review.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

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2. Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

Samsung's best phone

Specifications
Display: 6.8-inch OLED (3200x1400; 10-120Hz)
CPU: Snapdragon 888
RAM: 12GB, 16GB
Storage / Expandable: 128GB, 256GB, 512GB / No
Rear camera: 108MP wide (f/1.8), 12MP ultra wide (ƒ/2.2), 10MP telephoto (3x zoom, f/2.4), 10MP telephoto (10x zoom, f/4.9), laser AF sensor
Front camera: 40MP (ƒ/2.2)
Weight: 8.08 oz
Battery life (Hrs:Mins): 11:25
Reasons to buy
+Dynamic 6.8-inch AMOLED display+Dual telephoto lenses+S Pen support
Reasons to avoid
-No charger in box-Lacks microSD card slot

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is a superior big-screen phone, offering a dynamic 6.8-inch AMOLED display that scales from 10Hz to 120Hz for super smooth performance. But the killer feature is the dual telephoto cameras, with 3x and 10x optical zoom, and the ability to Space Zoom up to 100x with a new Zoom Lock feature. The overall camera quality is improved, too, with better-looking portraits and brighter shots with Night mode.

The S21 Ultra also excels at capturing video with a new Director’s View mode that lets you record using the front and back cameras at the same time. Other highlights include snappy performance from the Snapdragon 888 chip and extra-long battery life from the 5,000 mAh battery, as the S21 Ultra lasted nearly 11.5 hours on our web surfing test. The Galaxy S21 Ultra doesn’t include a charger in a box or a microSD card slot, but overall it’s the best Android phone you can buy. 

The Galaxy S21 Ultra won a highly recommended award.

Read our full Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review.

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3. OnePlus 9 Pro

A very good flagship value

Specifications
Display: 6.7-inch AMOLED (3168 x 1440; 1-120Hz)
CPU: Snapdragon 888
RAM: 8GB, 12GB
Storage / Expandable: 128GB, 256GB / No
Rear camera: 48MP wide (ƒ/1.8), 50MP ultrawide (ƒ/2.2), 8MP telephoto with 3x optical (ƒ/2.4), 2MP monochrome
Front camera: 16MP (ƒ/2.4)
Weight: 6.95 ounces
Battery life (Hrs:Mins): 10:40
Reasons to buy
+Beautiful 120Hz display+Crazy fast wired and wireless charging+Fantastic cameras
Reasons to avoid
-Morning Mist model is very slippery-Nightscape photos are inconsistent

The OnePlus 9 Pro features the best cameras ever included with a OnePlus phone. With help from camera specialist Hasselblad, the OnePlus 9 features an excellent array of lenses that capture color accurately and produce photos that rival what you get from leading camera phones, as you can see in our OnePlus 9 Pro camera face-off

There are other features beyond the cameras that make the OnePlus 9 Pro a great challenger to the Galaxy S21 Ultra. You get a display with a dynamically adjusting refresh rate, scaling between 1 and 120Hz. That helps with battery life, as the OnePlus 9 Pro lasted more than 10.5 hours on our battery test. OnePlus’ WarpCharge 65T technology means your phone can be fully charged in a little more than 30 minutes. Throw in a Snapdragon 888 processor and lots of RAM, and you have one of the best performing Android phones around. 

The OnePlus 9 Pro won a highly recommended award.

Read our full OnePlus 9 Pro review.

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iPhone 12 Pro review

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iPhone 12 Pro review

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iPhone 12 Pro review

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iPhone 12 Pro review

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iPhone 12 Pro review

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4. iPhone 12 Pro

Another top Apple phone

Specifications
Display: 6.1-inch OLED (2532x1170)
CPU: A14 Bionic
RAM: 6GB
Storage / Expandable: 128GB, 256GB, 512GB / No
Rear camera: 12MP wide (ƒ/1.6), 12MP ultrawide (ƒ/2.4), 12MP telephoto (ƒ/2.0)
Front camera: 12MP (ƒ/2.2)
Weight: 6.66 ounces
Battery life (Hrs:Mins): 9:06 (5G), 11:24 (LTE)
Reasons to buy
+Best-in-class cameras+A14 Bionic blows away Android phones+Tougher Ceramic Shield display+MagSafe charging is easy to use
Reasons to avoid
-No charger in box

The iPhone 12 Pro is the best phone you can buy because of everything Apple packs into its sleek new design. You get the most 5G bands in any phone along with the new A14 Bionic processor, which blows away all Android phones. But the real reason to pick up the iPhone 12 Pro is the cameras. The main sensor now lets in more light, and the Night Mode works on both the ultrawide camera and the front TrueDepth camera. You can take portraits at night, thank to the combination of the telephoto lens and LiDAR sensor.

Not only does the iPhone 12 Pro boast a gorgeous 6.1-inch OLED display, its protected by Ceramic Shield, which is designed to deliver 4x the protection in case of a drop. The flat edges look pretty sleek, too, even if they did into your hands a bit. The optional MagSafe charger makes wireless charging a breeze, thanks to the magnets built into the iPhone 12 Pro. But Apple doesn’t include any charger in the box. Although the iPhone 12 Pro’s battery life could be better over 5G, it’s the most complete phone for the money and the best camera phone yet.

Read our full iPhone 12 Pro review

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Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra size

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Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra

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Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra battery life

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5. Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra

The best Android phone for productivity

Specifications
Display: 6.9-inch AMOLED (3088x1440)
CPU: Snapdragon 865 Plus
RAM: 12GB
Storage / Expandable: 128GB, 256GB, 512GB / Yes
Rear camera: 108MP wide (ƒ/1.8); 12MP telephoto with 5x optical zoom (ƒ/3.0); 12MP ultrawide (ƒ/2.2)
Front camera: 10MP (ƒ/2.2)
Weight: 7.33 ounces
Battery life (Hrs:Mins): 10:15
Reasons to buy
+Dynamic 6.9-inch 120Hz display+Smoother S Pen performance +Powerful 50x zoom camera and laser autofocus+Very good battery life
Reasons to avoid
-Expensive

The Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is pricey at $1,299 but no other big-screen phone can do as much as this phablet. You get a gorgeous 6.9-inch OLED display with a dynamic 120Hz refresh rate, as well as lots of new S Pen upgrades, ranging from new air gestures to a smoother 9 ms response time. Plus, the Note 20 Ultra packs one of the most versatile camera setups ever, including a 108MP main sensor, a whopping 50x Space Zoom and a dedicated laser autofocus sensor to reduce blur.

The Note 20 Ultra is also a mini desktop PC and game console in disguise. With the improved DeX mode, you can beam photos, apps and more to a nearby TV, and with Xbox Game Pass you can stream more than 100 Xbox titles over the cloud. The Note 20 Ultra works well with your PC, too, as Link to Windows enables you to run Android apps on your laptop as well as get notifications, make calls and more. Add it all up and you have one of the best phones yet.

Read our full Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra review

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iPhone 12 review

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iPhone 12 review

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iPhone 12 review

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iPhone 12 review

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iPhone 12 review

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6. iPhone 12

The best iPhone for most people

Specifications
Display: 6.1-inch OLED (2532x1170)
CPU: A14 Bionic
RAM: 4GB
Storage / Expandable: 64GB, 128GB, 256GB / No
Rear camera: 12MP wide (ƒ/1.6), 12MP ultrawide (ƒ/2.4)
Front camera: 12MP (ƒ/2.2)
Weight: 5.78 ounces
Battery life (Hrs:Mins): 8:25 (5G), 10:23 (LTE)
Reasons to buy
+Attractive new design with MagSafe+Comprehensive 5G coverage+Incredible performance
Reasons to avoid
-Only 64GB of base storage-Digital zoom could still use work

The iPhone 12 takes much of what makes the iPhone 12 Pro great — the blistering-quick 5-nanometer A14 Bionic chip, same impressive 7-element main camera and 5G connectivity — and places it in a more affordable package. Not everyone may need the above-and-beyond material design and photo and video capturing capability of the iPhone 12 Pro, but the regular iPhone 12 is the best new iPhone all-around for most buyers.

Much of that has to do with how Apple improved the basics here. The iPhone 12 has a new OLED display that far outpaces the blurry, low-resolution LCD panel in last year’s iPhone 11. And the iPhone 12’s new design sports an elegant flat-edge motif and narrower bezels, further shaving down the handset’s footprint to maximize screen real estate. We also like Apple’s new MagSafe initiative, which unlocks new potential for accessories and makes for faster and more convenient wireless charging than iPhones of the past.

Of course, we wish Apple shipped a charging adapter in box with this phone, and increased base storage to 128GB. But those annoyances aside, the iPhone 12 is an all-around excellent device that delight any iPhone user.

Read our full iPhone 12 review

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Samsung Galaxy S21 review

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Samsung Galaxy S21 review

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Samsung Galaxy S21 review

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Samsung Galaxy S21 review

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7. Samsung Galaxy S21

A Samsung flagship for less than $800

Specifications
Display: 6.2-inch OLED (2400x1080; 48-120Hz)
CPU: Snapdragon 888
RAM: 8GB
Storage / Expandable: 128GB, 256GB / No
Rear camera: 12MP (ƒ/1.8) wide; 12MP (ƒ/2.2) ultrawide; 64MP (ƒ/2.0) telephoto with 3x optical zoom
Front camera: 10MP (ƒ/2.2)
Weight: 6.07 oz
Battery life (Hrs:Mins): 9:54
Reasons to buy
+Excellent dynamic 120Hz display+Powerful performance+Refined design
Reasons to avoid
-No charger or microSD card slot-Plastic back

If you’re looking for a flagship at an affordable price, the Samsung Galaxy S21 is one of the best phone options around. The S21 makes a great first impression with its sleek contour cut camera design, which blends the camera into the back of the device. And the cameras themselves impress, too, with improved portraits and a new Zoom Lock feature that lets you get better results up to 30x zoom.

The Galaxy S21 makes some trade-offs for its $799 price tag. You won’t find a charger in the box or a microSD card slot, and the back is plastic instead of glass. But this Samsung phone makes up for those shortcomings with strong performance from its Snapdragon 888 chip, a larger fingerprint sensor for easier unlocking and fun features like Single Take 2.0 for capturing photos and videos at once. 

Read our full Samsung Galaxy S21 review.

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Google Pixel 4a review

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Google Pixel 4a review

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Google Pixel 4a review

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Google Pixel 4a review

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Google Pixel 4a review

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8. Google Pixel 4a

The best cheap phone you can buy

Specifications
Display: 5.81-inch OLED (2340x1080)
CPU: Snapdragon 730G
RAM: 6GB
Storage / Expandable: 128GB / No
Rear camera: 12.2MP (ƒ/1.7)
Front camera: 8MP (ƒ/2.0)
Weight: 5.04 ounces
Battery life (Hrs:Mins): 8:55
Reasons to buy
+Best-in-class camera+Bright OLED display+128GB storage+Low price
Reasons to avoid
-Battery life could be better

What makes the Google Pixel 4a so special is that it offers almost everything you’d desire in a smartphone for just $349. And it’s remarkably compelling for that price.

Google’s midrange offering contains a gorgeous 5.8-inch OLED screen; solid power from a Snapdragon 730G chipset; clever software features like Call Screen and Google’s handy Recorder live transcription app; and, of course, that marvel of a 12-megapixel camera, which includes perks like Night Sight and Super Res Zoom.

The only area where the Pixel 4a lags behind the competition is with respect to battery life. Even with a power pack significantly bigger than the iPhone SE’s, it still doesn’t last quite as long on a charge. It also can’t match Apple’s $399 iPhone where performance is concerned. But in practically every other way, Google’s baby Pixel is a fantastically well-rounded handset that everyone who is looking for a cheap phone should consider, with the best photography for the money. A successor, the Pixel 5a, is reportedly coming in the first half of this year, so plan your upgrade accordingly. If you're looking at the next step up, the Pixel 4a 5G, check out our Pixel 4a vs. Pixel 4a 5G face-off.

Read our full Google Pixel 4a review

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Samsung Galaxy S20 FE review

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Samsung Galaxy S20 FE review display

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9. Samsung Galaxy S20 FE

The best Samsung bargain

Specifications
Display: 6.5-inch OLED (2400x1080)
CPU: Snapdragon 865
RAM: 6GB
Storage / Expandable: 128GB / Yes
Rear camera: Triple-lens: 12MP main (ƒ/1.8), 12MP ultrawide (ƒ/2.2), 8MP telephoto with 3x zoom (ƒ/2.4)
Front camera: 32MP (ƒ/2.2)
Weight: 6.7 ounces
Battery life (Hrs:Mins): 9:03
Reasons to buy
+Big 120Hz display+Affordable price+Solid performance
Reasons to avoid
-Battery life bit shorter than expected-Fast charger costs extra

You no longer have to pay $1,000 or more to get the best benefits of Samsung’s Galaxy S20 lineup. The $699 Samsung Galaxy S20 FE retains the best features of Samsung’s flagships, with only minor compromises, making this one of the best phones for the money. (That's especially true if you can get the S20 FE for a discount off its usual price now that the S21 models are available.)

The Galaxy S20 FE delivers a big 6.5-inch display with a smooth 120Hz refresh rate, 5G connectivity and a speedy Snapdragon 865 processor. We really like the triple camera system on this phone, which includes a powerful 3x optical zoom and impressive 30x space zoom. 

You’ll have to settle for a plastic back instead of glass and a slower charger than the regular Galaxy S20, but these trade-offs are worth it. This is the Galaxy S20 model to get if you want high-end features but not the high price of most other flagship phones.

Read our full Samsung Galaxy S20 FE review

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10. iPhone 11

An even better value at a lower price

Specifications
Display: 6.1-inch LCD (1792x828)
CPU: A13 Bionic
RAM: 4GB
Storage / Expandable: 64GB, 128GB, 256GB / No
Rear camera: 12MP wide (ƒ/1.8); 12MP ultrawide (ƒ/2.4) / 12MP
Front camera: 12MP (ƒ/2.2)
Weight: 6.84 ounces
Battery life (Hrs:Mins): 11:20
Reasons to buy
+Great photos, especially with Night Mode+Fast A13 Bionic CPU+Long battery life
Reasons to avoid
-Fast charger not included-Just 64GB of storage to start

For a very reasonable $699, the iPhone 11 offers amazingly good low-light photos via its Night Mode, and there’s a new ultra-wide lens that lets you fit in more subjects or scene with its 120-degree field of view. Selfies get a serious upgrade, too, with a 12-MP camera that automatically switches to a wider view when you turn the phone to landscape mode. 

The 6.1-inch LCD on the iPhone 11 isn’t OLED-great, like what you get from the newer iPhone 12, but it’s colorful and bright. A blazing A13 Bionic processor, long battery life and your choice of six colors solidify the iPhone 11 as a winner. It's also an even better deal now that the iPhone 12 is out, as Apple will continue to offer the iPhone 11 for $100 less than before, meaning it now starts at just $599.

Read our full iPhone 11 review

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Moto G Power (2021) review

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Moto G Power (2021)

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Moto G Power (2021) review

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Moto G Power (2021)

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11. Moto G Power (2021)

The phone with the best battery life

Specifications
Display: 6.6-inch LCD (1600x720)
CPU: Snapdragon 662
RAM: 3GB, 4GB
Storage / Expandable: 32GB, 64GB / No
Rear camera: 48MP main (ƒ/1.7); 2MP macro (ƒ/2.4); 2MP depth (ƒ/2.4)
Front camera: 8MP (ƒ/2.0)
Weight: 7.3 oz
Battery life (Hrs:Mins): 14:04
Reasons to buy
+All-day battery life+Low price including a sub-$200 model
Reasons to avoid
-Only one Android software update

When you want a long lasting phone, get one of Motorola’s Moto G Power models. That continues with the 2021 version of this budget phone, which rides its 5,000 mAh battery to 14-hour-plus result on our battery test. That places the Moto G Power (2021) near the top of our list for best phone battery life, alongside last year’s edition.

There’s more to the Moto G Power than just a big battery. The cameras are decent for a budget phone, even the macro lens. And Motorola now offers a cheaper version if you don’t mind living with less RAM and storage: the 3GB/32GB model costs $199, while the 4GB/64GB model has that familiar $249 price tag.

Read our full Moto G Power (2021) review.

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Best camera phone: iPhone SE 2020

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iPhone SE 2020 review

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iPhone SE 2020 review

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iPhone SE 2020 review

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12. iPhone SE

The cheapest iPhone you can buy

Specifications
Display: 4.7-inch LCD (1334x750)
CPU: A13 Bionic
RAM: 3GB
Storage/Expandable: 64GB, 128GB, 256GB / No
Rear camera: 12MP wide (ƒ/1.8)
Front camera: 7MP (ƒ/2.2)
Weight: 5.22 ounces
Battery life (Hrs:Mins): 9:18
Reasons to buy
+Affordable price+Fast A13 Bionic performance+Very good cameras
Reasons to avoid
-Big bezels-No Night mode

You don't have to spend big bucks to get your hands on an Apple phone. The iPhone SE brings just about everything you like about Apple's devices but at a lower $399 price. That's $300 less than the iPhone 12 mini.

You get an older, iPhone 8-inspired design with noticeable bezels around the LCD screen, but fans of compact phones will like the iPhone SE's small size and the fact that it's powered by an A13 Bionic processor — still capable of outperforming far more expensive Android devices. The single rear lens on the iPhone SE also delivers great photos, thanks in no small part to Apple's excellent computational photography.

Read our iPhone SE review.

How to choose the best smartphone for you

  • Android or iPhone? Android phones give you more choice in terms of price, size and innovative designs. However, iPhones offer speedier software updates, better games and apps and better security and privacy. See our iPhone vs Android face-off.
  • Unlocked or carrier? Most shoppers in the U.S. buy new phones through their wireless carrier. But an unlocked phone gives you the freedom to buy the device without any sort of contract and then bring it to the provider you want to use.
  • Screen size: If you're looking for a big phone, 6 inches and up is a good place to start. The biggest phones are 6.5 to 6.8 inches. If you want something you can easily use with one hand, go with one of the best small phones with a screen under 6 inches.
  • Cameras: Don't pay attention to the megapixel count. Instead, look at camera face-offs between phones to see the photo quality and look for special features like Night Mode to get better quality in low light. Also see our best camera phone roundup.
  • Battery life: Generally, phones with larger batteries (measured in mAh) offer the longest battery life, but that's not always the case. That's why we run our own battery test.

How we test smartphones

In order for a smartphone to make our best phone list, it needs to excel on several tests that we run on every handset. We perform some of these tests in our labs and some in the real world.

When it comes to performance, we rely on such synthetic benchmarks as Geekbench 5 and GFXBench to measure graphics performance. These tests allow us to compare performance across iPhones and Android devices. We also run a real-world video transcoding test on each phone using the Adobe Premiere Rush app and time the result.

To measure the quality of a phone's display, we perform lab tests to determine the brightness of the panel (in nits), as well as how colorful each screen is (DCI-P3 color gamut). In these cases, higher numbers are better. We also measure color accuracy of each panel with a Delta-E rating, where lower numbers are better and score of 0 is perfect.

One of the most important tests we run is the Tom's Guide battery test. We run a web surfing test over 5G or 4G at 150 nits of screen brightness until the battery gives out. In general, a phone that lasts 10 hours or more is good, and anything above 11 hours makes our list of the best phone battery life.

Last but not least, we take the best phones out in the field to take photos outdoors, indoors and at night in low light to see how they perform versus their closest competitors. We take shots of landscapes, food, portraits and more, and also allow you to be the judge with side-by-side comparisons in our reviews.

Mark Spoonauer

Mark Spoonauer is the global editor in chief of Tom's Guide and has covered technology for nearly 20 years. In addition to overseeing the direction of Tom's Guide, Mark specializes in covering all things mobile, having reviewed dozens of smartphones and other gadgets. He has spoken at key industry events and appears regularly on TV to discuss the latest trends. Mark was previously editor in chief of Laptop Mag, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc. Follow him on Twitter at @mspoonauer.