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.
This list might also not include our absolute latest reviews. Keep an eye on our full list of mobile phone reviews to see what’s new and hot.
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.
We’re in a weird moment right now. All of the carriers are winning “fastest” or “best” awards based on different testing methodologies. They’re making broad claims about coverage that often aren’t borne out by users on the ground. We will do our annual drive tests this summer to help you make your decision, but until then, rely on the word of your friends and family regarding the best network near you.
AT&T has a very fast 4G network, and a nationwide “5G” network with similar performance to 4G. In our tests, AT&T has historically been strong in the southeast of the US, upstate New York and northern New England, and Texas. AT&T appears to be slower and less aggressive at rolling out 5G improvements than the other two carriers are, but that hasn’t hurt its reliable 4G performance in much of the country.
Verizon Wireless is famed for its top-notch network quality and good customer service. Its super-speedy millimeter-wave 5G network helped make it our Fastest Mobile Network last year, and its 4G network is also excellent. But its “nationwide” 5G network can be slower than 4G. Verizon is fixing that issue with new airwaves called the C-band. By March 2022, it says it will cover 100 million people in 46 metro areas with C-band 5G, which will be considerably faster than its current nationwide 5G. The iPhone 12 series and the Samsung Galaxy S21 series both support the technology, and more C-band phones will come out throughout 2021.
T-Mobile absorbed Sprint in 2020. The “new T-Mobile” is in transition, incorporating Sprint’s network and airwaves to potentially offer a speedy mid-band 5G network in most major cities across the country. Over the fall of 2020, it became considerably faster as it expanded its mid-band Ultra Capacity network.
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 5G. But though 5G may change everything in the future, it’s not going to happen immediately. Currently, all three carriers rely on “nationwide” 5G systems that largely use 4G-sized channels at 4G-like speeds. We’ll have a detailed picture of the current state of 5G when the 2021 edition of our Fastest Mobile Networks feature comes out in August.
If you are looking for a future-proof 5G phone, look for one that supports the new C-band, which will come into play on AT&T and Verizon in late 2021 and beyond. 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 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 the iPhone 12 mini are narrower than most other phones, easy to hold in one hand and still boasting plenty of screen real estate. The Galaxy S21 Ultra, on the other hand, is gigantic, best for people who want a big window into their online world.
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 Nokia 6300 4G 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.
Rumors and announcements of the year’s forthcoming phones start appearing in January and February, ahead of Mobile World Congress in early spring. There are dozens of new phones announced at or around MWC, often including flagships such as Motorola’s G series and Samsung’s Galaxy S series. Nokia and TCL usually have launch events around MWC as well, but it can take a few months before the phones are available in the US. Some other phones may never make it to the US at all, so make sure you’re not hanging your hopes on a phone you won’t be able to get.
If you’re dying for Samsung’s next-generation foldable, look for launches at Samsung Unpacked in August. That’s what happened with the Galaxy Z Fold 2 in 2019, and what we’re expecting with the Z Fold 3 and the Z Flip 3 this year.
Apple diehards should hold off until September. Although Covid-19 delayed the iPhone 12 announcement by a month in 2020, Apple typically announces its newest iPhones at its September Special Event.
October is a pretty safe bet for Google Pixel fans. Again with the exception of 2020, the tech giant has historically announced its Pixel flagships in October. Pixel a-series announcements are harder to guess, but Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman says we can expect to the see the Pixel 5a in August.
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 up front.
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 new iPhone 12 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.
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.