Don’t believe anyone who tells you that there’s nothing new under the sun with smartphones. Yes, it’s a market that Apple and Samsung continue to dominate, but when devices like the latest iPhone or Galaxy S flagship keep raising the bar on what you can do with a handset, it’s hardly a case of same-old same old. Add to that some truly innovative products, like a long-lasting gaming phone and an upstart newcomer with a unique design, and there’s plenty to be excited about in the smartphone world.
Our Tom’s Guide Awards 2022 for our favorite phones over the last 12 months recognize some familiar devices, but also a few newcomers to our smartphone honors. And while we’ve got a repeat winner for best phone carrier, another wireless service is impressing with its unique way of pricing monthly plans.
Here are the phones and wireless carriers that caught our eye over the last 12 months. And check out all the winners of the Tom's Guide Awards 2022.
Best phone overall
Best phone overall: iPhone 13 Pro Max
Nothing in this world is perfect, but when we’re talking about the best phones, the iPhone 13 Pro Max comes awfully close. The jewel in Apple’s iPhone 13 lineup offers just about everything you could want in a smartphone, and while that $1,099 starting price is the most expensive of any Apple handset, you’d have to concede that Apple delivers plenty of value for that money. Start with the A15 Bionic chipset powering the device — it’s the fastest mobile silicon we’ve tested. Apple may not have been the first phone maker to add an adaptive refresh rate to the display of its handset, but it certainly did so elegantly. The iPhone 13 Pro Max can ramp up that refresh rate to 120Hz, while still lasting long enough on a charge to land on our best phone battery life list. And the iPhone 13 Pro Max’s cameras are second to none, as we’ll discuss momentarily. Throw in Apple’s flair for design, great software in iOS 15 and an extensive ecosystem of apps, and it’s hard to see how Apple tops the iPhone 13 Pro Max later this fall. Nevertheless, we can’t wait to see them try.
Best Android phone
Best Android phone: Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra
While it wasn't quite good enough to take the overall best phone crown, the Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra stands tallest in the Android phone world. Combining the quad-camera photography powers of last year's Galaxy S21 Ultra with the stylus-powered productivity of the now-dead Galaxy Note series, the S22 Ultra offers one of the most comprehensive smartphone experiences on the market right now. That's enhanced by an amazing 120Hz AMOLED display, zippy 45W charging and a design that sets it apart both from the cheaper Galaxy S22 phones but most other Android devices on the market right now. If you've got the money, Samsung will pay you back in one enormously versatile phone with the S22 Ultra.
Best phone under $500
Best phone under $500: Google Pixel 6a
Announced in May and now available for pre-order, Google's $449 Pixel 6a snuck in just under the wire for this year's awards, and we're glad it did. The latest Google budget phone takes the best elements of the Pixel 6 lineup — most notably, the Google-built Tensor chip that powers the phone and its machine learning-based features — and puts them in a less expensive device that still possesses the Pixel 6's unique look. And while we certainly appreciate smart features like live on-device translation and the photo-fixing Magic Eraser, it's the Pixel 6a's camera skills that make this phone the best budget device around.
Best phone under $300
Best phone under $300: OnePlus Nord N20 5G
In this day and age, even spending $500 on a phone can be a big ask. But OnePlus has a treat for people who either want or need to find a bargain for their next handset. The OnePlus Nord N20 5G delivers a phone that can take advantage of T-Mobile’s extensive 5G network for less than $300. For that price, you also get an attractive design that disguises just how much you paid for the N20, better than expected performance and extensive battery life. If you’re looking to save money on your next smartphone purchase, this is the device to get.
Best phone battery life
Best phone battery life: Asus ROG Phone 6 Pro
There’s a simple rule when it comes to long-lasting smartphones — build something that lasts longer than 15 hours on our demanding battery test, and you should get an award. That’s exactly what’s happening with the Asus ROG Phone 6 Pro, a gaming device that also happens to be a master of longevity. The ROG Phone 6 Pro rode its 6,000 mAh battery to a time of 15.5 hours on our battery test, in which phones surf the web continuously over cellular until they run out of juice. And that result came with the ROG Phone 6 Pro’s adaptive refresh rate turned on, with the screen’s refresh rate reaching 165Hz at times. Turn that off, and you can stretch battery life past 16 hours of continuous web surfing. That’s the best phone battery life we’ve seen on a device in about five years, and something gamers and general phone users alike can appreciate.
Best phone design
Best phone design: Nothing Phone (1)
Whatever else you think of the inaugural phone from Carl Pei’s Nothing company — it’s overhyped, it’s too reminiscent of the iPhone 12, it’s undeniably midrange — you can’t deny that it sports an unusual look. The transparent back and glyphs make the Nothing Phone (1) stand out in a world of “Me Too” handsets. And that uniqueness continues to the Nothing OS, which recreates the best of Android with a lot of visual flair on the surface. Maybe the first Nothing phone was overhyped in the greater scheme of things, but if the company keeps turning out handsets that look like this, it will go a long way toward distinguishing itself from the Android crowd.
Best camera phone
Best camera phone: iPhone 13 Pro Max
The battle for best camera phone usually comes down to the top phones from Apple and Google, and this year, it’s the iPhone 13 Pro Max that grabs the crown. Considering how ably the Tensor-powered Google Pixel 6 Pro captures and processes photos, that’s an impressive accomplishment, but Apple didn’t skimp on either the hardware or software when it comes to the iPhone 13 Pro Max’s cameras. A bigger main camera — at 1.9μm pixels, it’s the largest Apple’s used — and a wider aperture combine to let in more light for brighter, sharper pictures. The aperture on the ultrawide angle lens is bigger, too, and there’s a wider field of view to capture more details. The end result of all these hardware improvements are photos that stack up well against anything other top camera phones can muster. Apple added compelling new software features, too, like support for the ProRes video format and a new Cinematic mode that dynamically shifts the focus of a shot as you shoot video. Overall, it’s just an impressive combo of hardware and software that raises the bar for other camera phones.
Best gaming phone
Best gaming phone: Black Shark 5 Pro
Mobile gaming is a key part of the appeal of all smartphones, but for those who want to go all-in on playing Fortnite or other games on their phone, the Black Shark 5 Pro serves them as the best gaming phone. It excels on a basic level thanks to its huge battery, mighty processor and large, smooth display, but then also manages to provide decent cameras and software too that make sure you don't have to sacrifice the quality of all other features in the name of gaming. Plus, we really appreciate the phone's pop-out physical triggers on the side of the phone, which gives a more tactile feeling to playing games than simple taps.You'll get a similar level of gaming performance with other flagship phones, sure, but none are as well suited to the task of winning shoot-outs, races and more than the Black Shark.
Best phone carrier
Best phone carrier: T-Mobile
T-Mobile is a repeat winner for best phone carrier, despite Verizon’s stepped-up efforts to snatch away its rival’s crown. While we commend the launch of Verizon’s C-Band 5G coverage, bringing faster speeds to more areas, T-Mobile continues to enjoy the widest 5G reach and the best performance, according to third-party testing firms. T-Mobile also improved its low-cost Connect plans, not just by adding to data allotment of its $15/monthly plan but providing more options for customers watching their monthly expenses. The perks keep on coming, too — from Paramount Plus streaming added to Magenta unlimited plans (joining a year of Apple TV Plus and complementary Netflix) to savings on gas purchases this summer, T-Mobile offers plenty of benefits to take advantage of its service.
Most innovative phone carrier
Most innovative phone carrier: Mint
Regardless of how you feel about Ryan Reynolds the actor — some of us appreciate the charm, others are just one more snide quip away from hurling our Free Guy Blu-Ray into a canyon — you can’t fault him for what’s going on at Mint Mobile, the wireless carrier he owns and serves as the public face of. Mint already established its reputation as the low-cost leader among phone carriers. Mint charges ridiculously low monthly fees for surprisingly generous amounts of data (provided you pay your service up to a year in advance), and it piggybacks off T-Mobile’s network to deliver extensive coverage, including 5G. In the past year, it’s added low-cost family plans and several innovative promotions that have taken on the rising costs of… well, everything. Mint delivers such good value, it’s almost worth overlooking yet another tepid Ryan Reynolds-starring vehicle on Netflix. Almost.