How to Choose the Right Mobile Phone
Dial Up the Perfect Phone
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.
We’re a smartphone-dominated nation, with 4G LTE networks beating many home internet connections in terms of speed, and 5G now starting to spread nationwide. We have more good wireless carrier options than we’ve had in years, thanks to vigorous competition between the four major carriers and smaller virtual carriers like Google Fi, Ting, and US Mobile. 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, Sprint, T-Mobile, 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—products like the LG G7 ThinQ and the Samsung Galaxy S9, which are still very good.
Apple’s iPhone SE
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 have two major features to help you choose a carrier. For our Readers’ Choice Awards, PCMag readers tell us which carriers they prefer based on coverage, call quality, device selection, and other factors. And for our Fastest Mobile Networks feature, we send drivers to 30 US cities to scope out which smartphone carriers have the best data coverage. Because each of the national carriers sells a wide variety of phones, choosing your service provider should be your first move. Here’s a quick rundown of what each one offers:
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*Deals are selected by our partner, TechBargains
AT&T’s strongest areas of the country are the Midwest, Southeast, Texas, and northern California. The latest phones are better able to take advantage of AT&T’s spectrum, so it’s our current Fastest Mobile Network—but only if you’re using a recent, top-of-the-line device. AT&T owns DirecTV, so it has some pricing bundles if you’re also interested in satellite TV services.
The Samsung Galaxy S20+
Sprint and T-Mobile are merging into the “New T-Mobile.” This will shift Sprint customers primarily over to T-Mobile’s 4G network, and use much of Sprint’s capacity for 5G. That means if you see a great deal on Sprint right now, grab it. That carrier doesn’t have a great reputation for network quality, but T-Mobile has been improving nationwide by leaps and bounds, and all of the phones the two companies sell right now will work on the merged network.
Verizon Wireless is famed for its top-notch network quality and good customer service. Its prices can be higher than the competition, but its combination of very reliable coverage and good speeds made Verizon a Fastest Mobile Networks winner five years running. It lost the nationwide position in 2019, but still won many cities.
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 four 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. The winner of our Readers’ Choice award this year was a virtual carrier, Consumer Cellular, which runs on AT&T’s and T-Mobile’s networks.
AT&T owns Cricket; T-Mobile owns Metro by T-Mobile; Verizon owns Visible; and Google owns Google Fi. Tracfone is another prominent virtual carrier, with spin-off brands like Straight Talk, Family Mobile, and Net10, all of which have their own plans. We spotlight some of our favorites in The Best Cheap Phone Plans.
Do You Need a 5G Phone?
5G arrived in 2019, and there are now several 5G phones available. But while 5G may change everything in the future, it’s not going to happen immediately. Our tests of 5G so far have shown limited coverage and inconsistent speeds. We continue to track the build-outs on our Race to 5G page.
In general, AT&T’s “nationwide” low-band 5G hasn’t shown much of a difference in performance over 4G, Verizon’s speedy 5G coverage is extremely limited, and while New T-Mobile is going to spin up some exciting citywide 5G later this year, it’ll probably take until the fall to see major changes (especially with how things are becoming delayed by COVID-19 lockdowns).
The first 5G phones which we enthusiastically recommend are the Samsung Galaxy S20+ and the OnePlus 8. 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 is not 5G; it is a marketing ploy. Your phone is still running on 4G.)
Right now, 5G phones are generally quite expensive and don’t always work with all of the technologies carriers are turning on. Throughout the year, we’re going to see this situation improve. We’re looking forward to new 5G phones from Samsung, Motorola, and Alcatel in the upcoming months.
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 any specific carrier. Usually, you can use them with AT&T or T-Mobile. But some popular unlocked phones work on all four major carriers. If you want the best flexibility, look for a recent Apple, Google Pixel, Samsung flagship, or a Motorola phone.
If you buy an unlocked phone, you’ll be able to move it freely between compatible carriers. But even if you don’t intend to ever change your carrier, unlocked phones are free of carrier bloatware and (with Android phones) often receive software and OS updates more quickly than the carrier versions do.
The shimmery OnePlus 8, available unlocked or from carriers
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. That makes sense, though; 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.
See How We Test Phones
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 its 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 S10e and the Google Pixel 4 are narrower than most other phones, giving them big screens that are easy to hold in one hand. The Galaxy Note 10+ and the iPhone 11 Pro Max, on the other hand, are gigantic, for people who want big windows into their online world.
Strictly interested in Android? Head over to our Best Android Phones roundup. And if you want to document the world around you with your phone, we’ve rounded up the Best Camera Phones too.
The Alcatel Go Flip 3
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 like TracFone and Consumer Cellular.
There’s a big problem with voice phones and current networks, though. Because all of our carriers are eliminating or reducing the quality of their 2G and 3G networks, voice phones must be verified by the carriers for 4G voice-over-LTE coverage to get good quality and connectivity in the future. Older voice phones don’t have that, and there aren’t many voice-over-LTE voice phones, period. It’s frustrating.
We have three good voice phones we recommend right now: the Sonim XP3, and the Alcatel Go Flip 3, and the Kyocera DuraXV Extreme..
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 (the Alcatel Go Flip 3’s KaiOS has a small app store, but it has dozens, not thousands, of 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.
For more, see our picks for The Best Simple Phones. We also have a roundup of The Best Phones for Kids.
The Best Cheap Phones
This story tends to be headlined by very expensive phones, but you can get a perfectly good smartphone for between $200 and $300 upfront.
We’re big fans of Motorola’s midrange phones. They’re unlocked and compatible with all US carriers, and they use a fast, clean version of the Android OS. The Moto G Power, available for $249, is our pick there.
Apple just released a new iPhone SE for $399. It’s not only the least expensive iPhone, it’s our favorite iPhone right now. 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 8, as older phones will lose software support more quickly in years to come.
We update this story every time we a review new phone worth a spot on the list, so it changes often. Be sure to check back soon for our latest recommendations.