With excellent new flagships from Apple, Google and Samsung all vying for your attention, plus dozens of high-quality options for those on a budget, choosing the right smartphone has never been more challenging. But we're here to help.
Editor's Note 11/10/2018: From AT&T to Project Fi, Black Friday is upon us and we're hand-picking the best cellphone plans and deals of 2018.
Our Smartphone Buying Guide covers everything you need to know before you buy, including operating system, screen size, camera, processor and price. We'll also tell you which carrier will provide the best service for your phone. Use this advice to make sure you get the very best handset for your needs and budget.
9 Quick Tips
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- iOS is easier to use; Android gives you more choice. If you're torn between iOS and Android, opt for an iPhone if you want something 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 choices and more affordable options.
- Don't pay more than you need to for a phone. While the iPhone 8, Galaxy S8 and premium Android phones start at around $700 and cost upward of $1,000, there are great cheap unlocked-phone options below $500 and even some solid choices for less than $300.
- Get the right size screen. Buy a phone with a screen smaller than 5.5 inches if one-hand use is important to you or if you have smaller hands. (See Best Small Phones for more.) Get a bigger-screen phone if you like to watch a lot of videos, play games or want to take advantage of the multiwindow mode in Android. Still, phone-makers are now making big-screen phones, such as the 5.8-inch Galaxy S8, that fit comfortably in one hand thanks to larger 18:9 aspect ratios.
- For a phone's display, color quality and brightness matter more than resolution. A 4K screen on a phone is nice to have but kind of overkill. Pay more attention to how bright the display is, so it will be easy to see outdoors, and how colorful the panel is (AMOLED panels are better than LCD in this regard). The very latest phones offer high dynamic range (HDR) for displaying even more colors.
- Ignore camera megapixels. Along with battery life, the camera has become the most important smartphone feature. Pay attention to specs such as aperture (lower numbers are better) and special features such as dual lenses and optical image stabilization. Ignore the megapixels. See the Best Camera Phones for our top picks.
- The processor matters less than it used to. Even midrange phones now offer good-enough performance for most users. But if you want the most power for games and augmented reality, buy an Android phone with a Snapdragon 835 processor. The A11 Bionic processor in the iPhone 8, 8 Plus and iPhone X is the fastest mobile chip yet.
- Don't settle for a smartphone that lasts less than 10 hours on a charge. See our list of the longest-running phones based on the Tom's Guide Battery Test (web surfing over 4G LTE) to find out which devices will get you through the day on a single charge. Even budget phones now boast long-lasting batteries.
- Get at least 32GB of storage. Phones with 16GB are a rip-off, even if they're budget models. Opt for 32GB if you can to store more games, photos and video. 64GB is the new standard for flagship phones. A microSD card slot is nice to have for expanding storage, but it's only available on certain Android phones.
- Verizon is the best wireless carrier for coverage and speed, but T-Mobile is the best overall value. MetroPCS is our top pick among discount carriers.
Price: How Much Should You Pay?
Now that wireless carriers no longer subsidize the cost of phones with two-year contracts, you wind up paying full price. And although providers try to ease the sting by breaking up the cost into monthly payments over two years, you could easily wind up paying anywhere from $650 to $1,000 for your next phone. We're not saying the smartphones aren't worth it, but there are compelling alternatives.
If you're looking to save some money and still get a very capable handset, take a good look at unlocked Android phones. The best of these models offer surprisingly good value, including solid performance, full-HD screens and long battery life. One such model is the Moto G5 Plus; it includes a sleek aluminum design, an octa-core CPU and a fingerprint sensor for $229.
Just keep in mind that many unlocked phones work only with GSM carriers, such as AT&T and T-Mobile, and not the CDMA-based networks of Sprint and Verizon. But there are an increasing number of unlocked handsets that work with all carriers. Be sure to check the specs to see which wireless bands the phone supports.
Operating System: Android or iOS?
Android dominates worldwide smartphone sales, 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 easier to customize with awesome launchers and widgets.
With the latest version of Android 8.0 Oreo, Google now offers faster performance, a picture-in-picture feature for having two apps open at once and Notification Dots to quickly see what's new.
However, when a new version of Android arrives, it can take several months (or longer) for the updated OS to hit your phone. There are two exceptions to this: Google's own Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL phones, which get security and software updates directly from Google. Otherwise, check to see if the phone maker has announced when (and if) it's planning to upgrade its devices to the latest version of Android.
All of the latest iPhones — including the iPhone 8, iPhone 8 Plus and iPhone X, as well as older handsets like the iPhone SE — run the latest version of Apple's operating system. iOS 11 offers several enhancements, including a more useful Control Center, editing of Live Photos, a real files app (finally) and a redesigned app store.
The biggest reasons to opt for an iOS device include its ease of use, access to OS updates as soon as they're available (unlike most Android phones) and ability to work seamlessly with Apple devices (such as the iPhone and the Mac). iOS is also more secure than Android.
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.
Although bigger screens are in vogue, you'll still find a wide variety of display sizes. And size is only part of the story, as narrower aspect ratios are making big-screen phones easier to use with one hand.
Small Screen (5 Inches or Smaller)
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, and the phone will fit easily into a pocket. Small phones such as the 4.7-inch iPhone 8 and 5-inch Google Pixel 2 are compact and powerful.
Medium Screen (5 to 5.5 Inches)
Phones in this size range are good for people who want a good balance between a design that's front-pocket friendly and an immersive entertainment experience. The 5.3-inch LG X power is a good example because of its long-lasting battery and bargain price, as is the aging but still solid Samsung Galaxy S7 (5.1 inches). The ZTE Axon M is a very interesting small phone because it's a 5.2-inch device that unfolds to give you two screens.
Large Screen/Phablet (5.5 Inches or Larger)
Smartphones with displays 5.5 inches or larger, such as the 5.5-inch iPhone 8 Plus and 6.2-inch Galaxy S8 Plus, are called phablets because they're nearly tablet-size. These phones are great for watching videos, reading e-books and running two apps side by side. Plus, smartphone-makers are figuring out ways to minimize bezels, so you can get a big screen in a fairly compact design, such as with the iPhone X and LG V30.
The size of the screen is only one consideration. Pay close attention to a smartphone's brightness, color quality and viewing angles.
First, make 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 we take with a light meter in our reviews to compare.)
How colorful a screen is another important consideration; phones with AMOLED screens, such as the Samsung Galaxy line and iPhone X, tend to offer richer hues than handsets with LCD screens, as well as deeper black levels and wider viewing angles. If you want the most colors possible in a phone, look for a model that supports HDR. This technology also enables superior contrast in movies and TV shows. Both Amazon and Netflix offer some HDR content.
For a phone's resolution, full HD (1920 x 1080 pixels) is the bare minimum we'd suggest. Most high-end phones these days offer quad-HD resolution, or 2560 x 1440 pixels. A handful of phones boast 4K resolution, such as the Xperia XZ Premium (3840 x 2160), but you're unlikely to notice the extra pixels.
Our smartphone reviews include valuable test results on brightness, color gamut and color accuracy, to help you make the most informed buying decision.
The definition of a good or bad smartphone design is highly subjective, but if you care about build quality and aesthetics, look for a metal or glass design, or a phone that offers both. There are some cheap handsets that have plastic bodies, but in general, we’d avoid them unless your top consideration is to save money. (One of the benefits of a glass back is that it enables the phone to provide wireless charging, but you should check to make sure that this feature is offered.)
If you're concerned about durability, make sure your phone is water-resistant. A typical spec you’ll see is IP67, which means that the phone should be able to survive being submerged in 3 feet (about 1 meter) of water for 30 minutes. In other words, you won’t have to worry about your phone being damaged if it gets wet.
A handful of phones, such as the Moto Z2 Force, go the extra mile by featuring a shatterproof glass display. But at the very least, you should shop for a phone that has a Gorilla Glass display, which should protect your device from short drops (though a protective case will help with that, too).
We've arrived at a point in smartphone evolution where the camera matters more than the processor, especially considering 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 only that stat. Instead, pay attention to image quality, aperture, speed and features.
For example, the iPhone 8 Plus and iPhone X impress with their dual cameras on the back, offering a true 2x optical zoom and Portrait Mode for blurring out the background (adding a bokeh effect). The iPhone X goes a step further with a TrueDepth camera on the front that enables Portraits.
MORE: Best Camera Phones
The Google Pixel 2 offers a Portrait Mode without dual cameras, as it leverages artificial intelligence and software to create the same effect with the rear and front cameras. But what impresses us even more is the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL's low-light performance. The phone's wide f/1.8 aperture (the lower the number, the wider the aperture), combined with Google's advanced HDR technology, outgunned the latest iPhones indoors.
When it comes to video, pay attention not just to the resolution but also the frame rate. 4K at 60 frames per second is considered cutting edge. But the stability of that footage is also key, so look for lenses that offer optical (and not digital) stabilization.
If possible, test the phone you plan to buy to make sure it captures images quickly enough; some midrange and lower-end phones suffer from lag. And if you plan to shoot a ton of photos and video, look for a handset with a microSD card slot.
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 cores or clock speed. It's better to look at the performance results in our reviews, such as Geekbench, which measures overall performance, as well as real-world tests we run.
Right now the fastest mobile chip (by far) is Apple's A11 Bionic processor, which is inside the iPhone X, iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus. For example, the A11 took only 42 seconds to edit a 4K video, compared with nearly 3 minutes for the Pixel 2 and more than 4 minutes for the Galaxy S8+.
Among Android phones, the Snapdragon 835 processor is the class-leading chip. It's the processor to get if you want the best possible virtual-reality and gaming performance, as well as better efficiency, which translates to longer battery life.
The Snapdragon 600 series powers midtier smartphones, such as the Moto G5 Plus. These processors offer good overall performance, but don't expect to play the most demanding games without lag, or to experience great VR.
Other CPU players include Huawei, whose octa-core Kirin processor provides advanced AI capabilities in the Mate 10 Pro. For instance, the camera is smart enough to recognize whether you're shooting flowers or food in real time and adjusts its settings on the fly.
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 midtier devices, 2GB is good and standard. But you'll often find 4GB on the latest flagships, and 6GB on ultrapremium phones like the Galaxy Note 8.
Some phones go as high as 8GB, such as the Razer Phone designed for gaming.
Given that some games can easily take up more than 1GB of storage — 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 premium handsets these days is 32GB. We recommend 64GB if you shoot a lot of photos and video, and 128GB if you like to record 4K video and download a ton of games.
A microSD card can help expand your storage. It's available on many Android phones, but Apple's phones don't offer this option.
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 10 hours of straight 4G LTE surfing to be very good.
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 battery with at least 3,000 mAh if you want the best chance at long battery life.
If you want to be able to juice your phone up in a hurry, check to see whether your phone offers fast wireless charging. For instance, Google says the Pixel 2 will give you 7 hours of power in just 15 minutes. If you're shopping for an Android phone, you might check that it supports Qualcomm Quick Charge 4.0 (or an earlier version of the standard).
The latest iPhones also offer fast charging, but they don't include a fast charger in the box. You need to invest in a separate USB-C power adapter (about $45) and a USB-C to Lightning Cable ($25), which is a bummer.
Removable batteries have fallen out of favor with most smartphone-makers, especially with more users demanding water resistance. But there are some benefits to this kind of design. 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 a new phone.
Other Key Features
With Apple finally embracing wireless charging with the iPhone 8, iPhone 8 Plus and iPhone X, a lot more attention is being paid to the feature. The idea is to place your device on a compatible wireless charging mat.
Qi is the predominant standard, and the Qi wireless chargers will work with the latest iPhones, Galaxy phones and other handsets that support wireless charging.
Fingerprint vs. Facial Recognition Security
A fingerprint sensor makes it fairly easy to unlock your phone without having to enter a password or PIN. Most of these devices are fairly fast but can get tripped up if you have sweat or crumbs on your fingers.
We would pay attention to the placement of the sensor when buying a phone. For instance, LG places its sensor in the middle on the back of its phones, while Samsung's sensor is awkwardly located next to the camera on the Galaxy S8 and the Note 8.
The iPhone’s Touch ID lets you buy items in the App Store and real-world goods via Apple Pay, while fingerprint sensors in Samsung phones can be used with the Samsung Pay service or Android Pay. Once reserved for higher-end phones, fingerprint sensors are now included in much more affordable phones like the Moto G5 Plus and ZTE Blade V8.
Thanks to Face ID in the iPhone X, and the face scanning and iris scanning in Samsung's devices, facial recognition is starting to gain momentum. We've found Face ID in particular to be reliable in bright sunlight and in the dark, but it's a bit slower than Touch ID.
Go Through a Carrier, or the 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 unlocked handset for hundreds of dollars less than a typical flagship phone from Apple or Google.
The Moto G5 Plus is a great example of an unlocked phone value, offering a metal design, 5.2-inch full-HD screen, fingerprint sensor and solid camera for $229. In comparison, the full price of the iPhone 8 or the Galaxy S8 is $700 or higher, 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 "multiband" capable, which means they work with CDMA providers such as Sprint and Verizon. The Moto G5 Plus is a good example, as is the Pixel 2.
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 vast majority of smartphone shoppers choose one of the "Big Four" carriers: AT&T, Sprint, Verizon or T-Mobile.
Of the three major contract carriers (AT&T, Verizon and Sprint), Verizon offers the broadest and fastest 4G LTE network. T-Mobile's performance has improved drastically over the past couple of years, even though some coverage holes remain. The provider came in second on our nationwide performance test. It generally offers more affordable pricing than Verizon and AT&T. AT&T and Sprint came in third and fourth, respectively, among the major carriers for performance.
The biggest trend to get shoppers to switch is offering unlimited plans, as all four major carriers now boast some sort of unlimited offering. Sprint offers the lowest-cost plan, at $60 per month. T-Mobile's plan is also priced aggressively, at $70. See our comparison of all of the best unlimited plans.
Smaller Discount Carriers
If you're willing to sacrifice some flexibility, smaller discount carriers — such as MetroPCS, Cricket, Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile — will keep you connected at a much more affordable price. For example, MetroPCS (which rides on T-Mobile's network and essentially matches the speed of its parent company's network) currently charges a very reasonable $50 for 5GB of data, and $50 for unlimited data (although with video streams capped at 480p resolution). That's $20 less than sister company T-Mobile.
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. While MetroPCS, Boost and Virgin matched the performance of their parent networks in our testing — Boost and Virgin are Sprint subsidiaries — Cricket's 4G speeds are notably slower than parent company AT&T's. And carriers reserve the right to deprioritize prepaid traffic if there's a lot of congestion on their network.
Credit: Tom's Guide