Our quick advise
- Don’t pay more than you need to. While the iPhone and premium Android phones start at around $650 and can easily run you $800 or more, 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 Nougat. Still, phone-makers are starting to focus on ways to make even big-screen phones, such as the 5.7-inch LG G6, fit comfortably in one hand.
- 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 is 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. 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 virtual reality, buy an Android phone with a Snapdragon 821 chip or the very latest Snapdragon 835 mobile platform. A Snapdragon 600 series chip is fine for midtier Android phones. The A10 processor in the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus is very speedy.
- Don’t settle for a smartphone with a battery capacity of less than 3,000 mAh. 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.
- Get at least 32GB of storage. Phones with 16GB are a rip-off, and thankfully, they’re becoming rarer among flagship phones, which generally start at 32GB of storage. If you plan to download lots of games or shoot 4K video, opt for 64GB or more. 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.
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, you could easily wind up paying anywhere from $650 to $800 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.
Operating System: Android, iOS or Other?
Android: 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.
iOS 10: All of the latest iPhones — including the iPhone 7, iPhone 7 Plus and iPhone SE— run the latest version of Apple’s operating system. iOS 10 offers several enhancements, including a more interactive and expressive Messages app, an improved Siri that plugs into more apps and a Home app that helps you control smart home gadgets.
Windows Phone: Windows Phone has never caught on, and Windows 10 Mobile is off to a very slow start. The most compelling features are Universal Windows apps and Continuum. Universal apps allow developers to create one app for Windows 10 on the desktop and mobile. Continuum enables you to run Windows 10 Mobile on the desktop with a compatible dock using phones such as the Acer Liquid Jade Primo. Still, app-makers continue to focus on iOS and Android, and this platform won’t get any attention until Microsoft unveils a possible Surface phone.
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 (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 7 and 5-inch Google Pixel are compact and powerful, and the 4.6-inch Xperia X Compact is a decent affordable option.
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).
Large Screen/Phablet (5.5 Inches or Larger)): Smartphones with displays larger than 5.5 inches, such as the 5.5-inch iPhone 7 Plus and 5.5-inch Google Pixel XL, have been 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 LG G6 and the Galaxy S8.
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 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. Very few phones boast 4K resolution, such as the Xperia XZ Premium (3840 x 2160), but you’re unlikely to notice the extra pixels.
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. If you’re concerned about durability, make sure your phone is water-resistant. A typical spec you’ll see is IP68, which means that the phone should be able to survive being submerged in 1 meter (about 3 feet) of water for 30 minutes. In other words, you won’t have to worry about your phone being damaged if it gets wet.
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. 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 clock speed. It’s better to look at the performance results different benchmarks, which measures overall performance. Among Qualcomm CPUs, the Snapdragon 835 processor is the class-leading chip, followed by the older Snapdragon 821. The 835 is the one 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. These processors offer good overall performance, but don’t expect to play the most demanding games without lag, or to experience VR.
Other CPU players include Huawei, whose octa-core Kirin processor provides plenty of pep in phones such as the big-screen Mate 9.
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. S
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.
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 9 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.
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