If you were in the market for a powerful smartphone at a decent price this year, your lucky number was 699.
While phone makers continue to make premium flagship handsets that flirt with $1,000 prices as well as budget models that sacrifice features for a lower cost, a new class of phones emerged. These devices still offer first-rate features, but make trade-offs here and there to sell at a lower price than your typical flagship. And this year, that price invariably turned out to be $699.
Apple and Samsung, which jointly rule the smartphone world, both introduced $699 phones in the past year. So did Google, which was so taken with that number, it made $699 the cost of the year's flagship Pixel model. Upstarts like OnePlus and HMD Global's Nokia brand also offered $699 phones to compete with the big boys, while LG tried out a redesigned $699 device to revive its smartphone fortunes.
And you know what? All of these phones offered very good value for money. But which $699 phone was the best?
That kind of depends on what you want out of your phone. Like the best phones overall, each $699 phone boasts its own strengths and weaknesses, excelling in some areas, while coming up short against the competition in others.
Here's a closer at a half-dozen $699 smartphones that have come out in the past 12 months and how well they fare in some key categories.
Battle of the $699 smartphones: The contenders
Before we dive into the individual categories, let's take a quick look at the half-a-dozen phones going up against each other in this not-so-friendly competition.
The iPhone 12 mini may be the smallest entry in Apple's new iPhone 12 lineup, but you don't make too many compromises compared to the full-sized models. In fact, apart from the display size and the speed of MagSafe charging, there's not much difference between the mini and the 6.1-inch iPhone 12. Buy the iPhone 12 mini and you get a phone powered by Apple's best-in-class A14 Bionic processor plus a pair of top-performing rear cameras.
Read our full iPhone 12 mini review.
Google dialed back some of the processing power on the Pixel 5, opting for a Snapdragon 765G instead of a Snapdragon 865. That means other flagships outperform the Pixel 5, though it's right at home compared to many other $699 phones. Where the Pixel 5 stands out is its cameras, thanks to Google's expertise with software-powered computational photography that can produce some of the best shots we've seen from a smartphone.
Read our full Pixel 5 review.
LG's smartphones were having a hard time standing out from the crowd, so the phone maker took a different tack with the LG Velvet. The result is a stylish-looking phone with a design that suggests you paid more. Expect comparable performance to other Snapdragon 765G-powered phones, though the cameras leave a little something to be desired. Our LG Velvet vs. Samsung Galaxy S20 face-off looks at how this kind of phone compares to a higher-end flagship.
We're fudging a bit here, as the LG Velvet actually costs $599 at AT&T and $588 at T-Mobile; only the Verizon version costs $699, though that model works with Verizon's faster ultrawideband network.
Read our full LG Velvet review.
It's not the most catchy of names, but that 5G UW at the end of the Nokia 8 V's moniker tells you exactly what you need to know. It works on 5G — specifically with Verizon's super-fast Ultra Wideband 5G. (Though this phone is a Verizon-exclusive, there's also another version, the Nokia 8.3 5G, that's compatible with the low-band networks offered by AT&T and T-Mobile.) The Nokia 8 V's biggest asset is its 6.81-inch display (although the screen is a little dim for our tastes), while battery life was a major turn-off for us.
Read our full Nokia 8 V 5G UW review.
The oldest phone on this list — the OnePlus 8 came out in the spring time — this OnePlus phone also does a good job packing in premium features found in the more expensive OnePlus 8 Pro. While you won't get that phone's 120Hz refresh rate, the 6.55-inch AMOLED panel on the OnePlus 8 still refreshes at a fast 90Hz. You'll also get terrific battery life plus fast-charging from this $699 phone.
Read our full OnePlus 8 review.
The Galaxy S20 FE came out long after the rest of the S20 lineup, but Samsung's cheapest flagship proved to be worth the weight. While the Galaxy S20 FE is $300 cheaper than the S20, it offers many of the same features, including the Snapdragon 865 processor and an AMOLED screen with a 120Hz refresh rate. You also get a stellar triple camera array on the back in one of the best bargains in Samsung's lineup.
Read our full Galaxy S20 FE review.
The best $699 smartphone for performance
Getting a sub-$700 phone usually means making some soft of sacrifice when it comes to performance, but that's not something iPhone 12 mini owners have to worry about. Like the rest of the iPhone 12 lineup, the mini uses Apple's A14 Bionic processor, which is the fastest mobile chip we've tested. That allows the iPhone 12 mini to outperform phones that cost hundreds of dollars more.
Take our real-world where we convert a 4K clip to 1080p using the Adobe Premiere Rush app. The iPhone 12 mini completes the task in 27 seconds while the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra — a $1,299 phone with a Snapdragon 865 Plus system-on-chip — needs 1 minute and 16 seconds. Get the iPhone 12 mini if you want the best-performing smartphone at this price.
If, however, your Android-loving heart prevents you from going with an iPhone, both the OnePlus 8 and Galaxy S20 FE feature Snapdragon 865 chipsets. The OnePlus 8 outperformed the Galaxy S20 FE in our testing, thanks to all the RAM OnePlus packs into its phones.
The best $699 smartphone for cameras
Any camera phone face-off usually boils down to an Apple vs. Google toss-up, and that's the case here. For our $699 phones, we give the edge to the Pixel 5.
It's not that the iPhone 12 mini that much worse than Google's identically priced phone. In fact, the mini is one of the best camera phones available thanks to its strong performance in low light and the way Apple's phones handle portrait shots and selfies.
But Google and its computational photography offer the better experience, whether its the Super Res Zoom feature that allows you to zoom in even without a telephoto lens or the way Google's Night Sight feature delivers the best images when the lights are low. About the only knock we can give the Pixel 5 is that its great cameras are also available on the Pixel 4a 5G and that phone costs $200 less than anything on this list.
The best $699 smartphone for displays
One thing that's noteworthy about these $699 phones is that they all have pretty nice looking displays, though the Nokia 8 V's LCD panel can't match the other phones here for color and brightness. But three phones stand out in particular by offering faster refresh rates than what you get from typical smartphones.
Most phones feature screens that refresh at 60Hz. The Pixel 5 and OnePlus 8 opt for 90Hz refresh rates, which deliver smoother scrolling and more immersive gaming experiences than you'd get from standard handsets. However, the Galaxy S20 FE takes things one step further with a 120Hz refresh rate — the same speed you'll find in the more expensive S20 models. This is definitely the $699 phone to get if you want the best display possible for phones in this price range.
The best $699 smartphone for design
If this were an award show, the iPhone 12 mini would be straightening its bow tie and beginning its walk up to the podium to claim its prize. After all, Apple always wins top honors for design, right?
Well, not in this case. As slick as the iPhone 12 mini looks, shrinking down a 5.4-inch screen into a phone's that's actually smaller than iPhone SE, it's not the best looking handset in this particular bunch. That designation goes to the LG Velvet, which really took pains to rethink what a midrange phone should look like.
The 3D Arc Design on the LG Velvet gives the phone symmetrical front and rear edges, while its curved corners make the handset more grippable. One design touch that really impresses is the raindrop array of rear lenses on the back of the phone, where the cameras descend in size as you go from top to bottom. Contrast that with some of the bulging camera arrays you see these days, and you'll agree that the LG Velvet looks very easy on the eyes.
The best $699 smartphone for battery life and charging
There's no contest when it comes to the best phone battery life among our top-rated $699 phones. The OnePlus 8 lasted more than 11 hours on our battery test, which involves continuous surfing over a cellular connection until the phone runs out of power. That's an exceptional result, and it stands out even more when you consider that only one other phone on this list — the LG Velvet — outlasts the average smartphone. Other devices included here struggled to last as long as 9.5 hours on our test.
It's not just about which phone can last the longest, though. The OnePlus 8 also charges up quickly, thanks to the Warp Charge 30T technology developed by OnePlus for its phones. Use the 30-watt charger that comes with the OnePlus 8, and your drained phone can get up to a 68% charge after 30 minutes.
One caveat about the OnePlus 8 is that it doesn't support wireless charging, the way the iPhone 12 mini, Google Pixel 5 and Galaxy S20 FE do. But a long-lasting battery and a fast wireless charger carry a lot of weight in this comparison.
The best $699 smartphone for 5G
Apple made things simple with the iPhone 12 lineup. The company said it ran tests with more than 100 carriers in 30 different regions to ensure that its phones are compatible with the 5G networks that are out there. And that means when you buy a model like the iPhone 12 mini, you can be pretty sure it's going to work with whatever 5G your carrier of choice provides — certainly if you're getting 5G from one of the Big Three carriers in the U.S. Some $699 phones — such as the OnePlus 8 — lack support for Verizon's Ultra Wideband 5G.
If you do turn to Verizon for cellular service — and why not? It's one of the best phone carriers, and its 5G speeds are very fast where Ultra Wideband is available — consider the Nokia 8 V 5G UW. This Verizon exclusive is tailor-made for Verizon's super fast network, and it will work with the carrier's newly launch nationwide 5G coverage as well.