For most of us, mobile phones are at the center of our universe. The typical feature set of these palm-size marvels is astounding. It’s your phone, your messaging device, your web browser, your camera, your music player, your GPS, and more. The phone you choose will affect your life in a multitude of ways. That’s why we’re here to help you pick exactly the right one.
Dial Up the Perfect Phone
We’re a smartphone-dominated nation, with 4G LTE networks serving data faster than many home internet connections, and 5G spreading across the country. Though we’re now down to three major wireless carriers, virtual carriers such as Google Fi, US Mobile, and Visible keep competition alive and push prices down. But some of our choices have constricted a bit: The smartphone OS marketplace is basically down to Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android, and it’s hard to find a really good simple voice phone nowadays.
Here at PCMag, we review almost every smartphone released on AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless, and many of their sub-brands such as Boost, Cricket, Metro, and Visible.
Rather than purely choosing the phones with the highest ratings here, we’re trying to deliver a list of phones that are spread broadly across different price points. This list is focused on the hottest, newest devices, but you can also find great value in slightly older phones, so be sure to shop around.
What should you be looking for when buying a cell phone? Here are some key points to consider.
Which Cell Phone Carrier Should You Choose?
Despite all the recent hardware and mobile software innovation, your wireless service provider remains your most important decision. No matter what device you buy, it’s a doorstop unless you have solid wireless coverage. Maybe you have friends and family on the same carrier that you talk to for free, and you don’t want that to change with your next phone. Maybe you’re lusting after a certain device—say, an unlocked smartphone for international travel. And of course, you want to choose a carrier that offers fair prices, and provides the best coverage in your area. These are all good reasons to put the carrier decision first.
Our Fastest Mobile Networks report recently came out, and the winner is T-Mobile. During the past year, T-Mobile has expanded its “ultra capacity” mid-band 5G network to 165 million Americans, and that network’s performance is head and shoulders above AT&T and Verizon where it’s available. You’ll need a 5G phone to take advantage of the new network, though, and it’s mostly available in major metro areas. AT&T excelled in rural coverage in our tests, with the best performance of the three carriers in areas away from cities and off the interstates. And Verizon’s millimeter-wave 5G is spectacular when you can find it, though it’s still not widely available.
We drove over 10,000 miles through urban and rural areas, testing all the way, so check the detailed results of our Fastest Mobile Networks tests to find the best provider for your area.
US Cellular is only available in about half the country. It has a reputation for good customer service, but has been suffering recently in our surveys as readers have said its prices and LTE network quality don’t match up to some of the alternatives.
There are also plenty of virtual operators that use the big three networks but offer lower monthly rates, cheaper international calls, or other benefits. They’re usually better for lighter users and most don’t have family plans.
AT&T owns Cricket, T-Mobile owns Metro by T-Mobile, Verizon owns Visible, and Google owns Google Fi. Last September, Verizon made a bid for Tracfone and its spin-off brands, but the acquisition is under scrutiny from the FCC. We spotlight some of our favorite virtual operators in our roundup of the best cheap phone plans.
Do You Need a 5G Phone?
5G arrived in 2019, and most new smartphones now support some form of it. But though 5G may change everything in the future, it’s not going to happen immediately. As a rule of thumb, if you’re on T-Mobile and you live in a city, a 5G phone is a good idea. If not, you can probably get away with 4G for another year or two.
As noted above, our Fastest Mobile Networks tests for 2021 showed huge gains by T-Mobile, mostly thanks to mid-band 5G in urban areas. If you’re a T-Mobile customer (or thinking of becoming one) in one of those areas, you’ll likely see huge improvement in network speeds when you upgrade from 4G to 5G. It’s well worth the investment in a new phone.
AT&T’s nationwide “5G” network is often slower than its 4G coverage, which is very fast. So you don’t need a newer phone to get the best out of AT&T right now.
Verizon Wireless is famed for its top-notch network quality. Its super-speedy millimeter-wave 5G network helped make it our Fastest Mobile Network in 2020, and its 4G network is also excellent. But its millimeter-wave 5G coverage continues to be limited to very small areas and is growing slowly. While the carrier works out the kinks with its “nationwide” 5G network, it’s only slightly faster than LTE. For now, if you’re on Verizon, a 4G phone is probably fine.
But that could change within a year. Verizon is quickly building out its C-band network, and says it will cover 100 million people in 46 metro areas by March 2022. AT&T is also investing heavily in C-band technology. C-band 5G should offer speeds that are significantly faster than AT&T and Verizon’s current nationwide 5G networks. If you need a new phone anyway, consider a 5G phone with C-band that will be able to take advantage of the new technology as soon as it’s rolled out in your area. You can find more 5G recommendations on our list of the best 5G phones.
(One note: you may see a “5G E” icon on your existing AT&T phone. That isn’t 5G; it is a marketing ploy. Your phone is still running on 4G.)
Locked vs. Unlocked Phones
As carriers have moved to increasingly more confusing service and pricing plans, the value of unlocked phones has been rising accordingly.
Unlocked phones are bought from a third-party store or directly from the manufacturer, and aren’t tied to a specific carrier. Usually, you can use them with AT&T or T-Mobile. But some popular unlocked phones work on all three major carriers. If you want the best flexibility, look for a recent Apple iPhone, Google Pixel, Samsung flagship, or Motorola phone.
In the past, unlocked phones typically worked on all the major carriers, but 5G phones are a different story. Apple, Google, and Samsung’s 5G phones will work on every US carrier, but many other brands either have limited band support or are only certified for specific carriers. AT&T customers should take extra caution before buying an unlocked 5G phone, since many phones that will theoretically work on its network have yet to be certified by the carrier.
What Is the Best Smartphone?
As more people become accustomed to instant email, web, music, and messaging access at all times of the day, regardless of where they are, smartphones have become almost indispensable. That said, there’s plenty of variety out there—not to mention devotees of specific OS platforms. Sometimes, a platform’s user interface or app selection just speaks to you, and that’s all there is to it. With that in mind, and at the risk of attracting flames, let’s break it down as well as we can for those who aren’t so fully vested.
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There’s actually less diversity in smartphone platforms and designs than there was a few years ago. Right now, Android and iOS are the two top smartphone platforms, both in US sales and in the availability of third-party apps. The iPhone has the best app store and the best media features. But Apple’s tightly controlled ecosystem can feel stifling to some, and iOS isn’t easy to customize or modify. There’s far more variety among Android handsets, and Android’s open-source nature makes it a tweaker’s dream. But it also means fragmented third-party app compatibility, occasional bugs, carrier-installed bloatware you can’t remove, and scattered, often sporadic OS updates.
Phones are available in a wide range of sizes and shapes, to fit various types of hands. Samsung’s Galaxy S21 and Apple’s iPhone 13 mini are narrower than most other phones, easy to hold in one hand, and still have plenty of screen real estate. The iPhone 13 Pro Max, on the other hand, is gigantic, best for people who want a big window into their online world and/or a large camera viewfinder.
Strictly interested in Android? Head over to our best Android phones roundup. Baffled by the variety of iPhones? Here’s how to decide which iPhone to buy. And if you want to document the world around you with your phone, we’ve rounded up the best camera phones too.
The Best Feature Phones
A good portion of the US population is still using simpler phones, but there are surprisingly few current choices out there. There are still reasons to get a simple, less-expensive device: They’re easier to use, and they charge much lower monthly fees because data isn’t involved. There are some killer deals for voice-only usage on virtual carriers such as TracFone and Consumer Cellular.
Our favorite voice phone right now is the Sunbeam F1, a simple phone that comes in three feature-restricted models. We also like the Sonim XP3 for AT&T, the Kyocera DuraXV Extreme for Verizon, and the Sonim XP3plus for T-Mobile. If your budget is tight, the lowest-cost voice phone worth getting is the unlocked $49.99 Nokia 225 4G.
Unlike smartphones, feature phones are a matter of “what you see is what you get.” They don’t receive software upgrades or run thousands of additional apps. For voice quality, read our feature on how to make your cell phone calls sound better. Wireless network coverage is always the biggest factor, but individual phones can vary in reception, earpiece quality, transmission quality through the microphone, and side-tone (the echo of your own voice that helps prevent you from yelling at the other person). A phone with middling to poor reception quality can be almost impossible to use in a marginal coverage area, while one with excellent reception can make the best of the little signal that’s available. Another point to consider: Some phones have much louder speakerphones than others.
What’s the Best Time to Buy a New Phone?
The best time to buy a new phone is when you need one. If your phone took a header in the pool or met its demise on the pavement, get whatever’s available that best meets your needs. But if you’re watching your budget or riding the cutting edge, a little knowledge and planning can keep you from buying a phone that’s about to be discounted or replaced with something newer and cooler.
The pandemic and the global chipset shortage have upended the usual phone release cycles, and we’re not sure if that’s going to change back. Based on 2020 and 2021, here’s when we think some of the major flagship phones will appear in 2021 and 2022. These are just guesses, though:
- Apple: iPhones in September 2022, iPhone SE in spring 2022 if at all
- Google: Pixels in October 2021
- OnePlus: March or April 2022 for the OnePlus 10
- Samsung: Galaxy S22 in February or March 2022, foldables in August 2022
Want to Spend Less?
This story tends to be headlined by very expensive phones, but you can get a perfectly good smartphone for under $300.
The latest lower-cost phones from OnePlus have really wowed us, but they’re only available on T-Mobile-based carriers. On AT&T and Verizon, the Samsung Galaxy A32 5G is probably your best buy at the moment.
In 2020, Apple released a new iPhone SE for $399. It’s not on this list because it was supplanted by the iPhone 13 models, but it’s still an absolutely terrific device for the price. If you want an even less expensive iPhone, you can go with a used model, but we don’t suggest buying anything below the iPhone XR, as older phones will lose software support more quickly in years to come. We go into detail in our explainer of which iPhone you should buy.
For more on getting phones for less, see our list of the best cheap phones.
Finally, we update this story every time we review a new phone worth a spot on the list, so it changes often. Be sure to check back soon for our latest recommendations.