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 just beginning to launch in select cities. 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 and Visible. 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, and Metro.
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. The 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 S8, which are still very good devices.
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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:
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 Fastest Mobile Network for 2019—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.
Sprint and T-Mobile are in the middle of a contentious merger right now, which will probably go through, although we’re not sure when. If and when it goes through, that will result in Sprint and T-Mobile customers being able to use each other’s networks. Sprint’s network has gotten better recently, but it’s still in fourth place in our Fastest Mobile Networks tests, with less 4G reach than other carriers. All the phones Sprint and T-Mobile sell right now will work on a merged network, but older ones may not.
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 this year, 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; Sprint owns Boost and Virgin; T-Mobile owns Metro by T-Mobile; Verizon owns Visible; and Google owns Google Fi. Tracfone is another prominent virtual carrier, with spinoff 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 Cell Phone Plans You’ve Never Heard Of.
Do You Need a 5G Phone?
5G arrived in April, 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, inconsistent speeds, and devices that frequently overheat. We’re definitely in the “public beta” phase of this new technology, so we don’t heavily recommend any 5G phones yet. We continue to track the buildouts on our Race to 5G page.
(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.)
The 5G networks and devices will get much more interesting, and more widespread, toward the end of 2020. The real differentiating coverage and speeds will initially be in large cities. If you consider yourself an early adopter, you live in a large city, and you want the ultimate in connectivity, you should assume you’ll probably want a 5G phone next year. By 2021, the 5G situation will be even better.
That could affect your 2019 purchase if your budget is limited. Instead of buying a super-expensive, $1,000-plus phone on a three-year payment plan, you should buy a somewhat less expensive phone on a two-year payment plan, or even a one-year quick-upgrade plan. That’s one reason we recommend the Samsung Galaxy S10e over the more expensive S10+.
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.
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.
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.
In terms of form factor, it’s difficult to find a smartphone that isn’t a solid black slab anymore. The best phone with a physical keyboard is the BlackBerry Key2 LE. It’s a good device, and worth choosing if the physical keyboard is important to you, but fewer and fewer people seem to consider that a key feature with time.
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+, the iPhone 11 Pro Max, and the OnePlus 7 Pro,on the other hand, are gigantic, for people who want big windows into their online world.
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.
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.
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 low-end and midrange phones. They’re unlocked and compatible with all US carriers, and they use a fast, clean version of the Android OS. The Moto E series is available from carriers for under $100, and the Moto G7 Power is available online for around $200; they’re great deals.
Because of the current trade war between the US and China, the low-cost market has been hollowed out a bit recently. We used to recommend several phones from Honor, Huawei, and ZTE, but their future in the US is still in doubt. For the moment, look primarily at lower-end Motorola and LG phones if you’re trying to save money.
The least expensive iPhone we currently recommend is the $449 iPhone 8. Apple tends to program its operating systems so that once a model is about three years old, it can no longer handle some of the latest features. That means iPhone models older than the 8 are getting to the end of their fully supported lives. Don’t buy an older iPhone model, including the iPhone SE.
The Best Cell Phone Plan Pricing
Cell phone pricing is more confusing than ever. Some carriers still have the old-school, binding two-year contracts where you pay a higher monthly rate in exchange for a discounted phone. But there are also now payment plans where you pay the full retail cost of your phone, but pay less on your service plan; fast-upgrade and leasing plans where you pay a monthly fee and trade in your phone for a new one every year; as well as more carriers just selling phones for their retail price upfront.
Which one you choose depends on how long you intend to keep your phone and what you want to do with it after you’re done with it. If you intend to upgrade frequently, you’ll get the most financial advantage by buying phones upfront and reselling them on eBay when you’re done with them, but that takes effort. Traditional two-year deals make sense if you stick with the plan of getting a new phone every two years and you’re OK with the long-term commitment. T-Mobile and Verizon don’t offer two-year contracts anymore; you either pay upfront, or pay in installments over 24 months. Apple offers leasing and installment plans just like the carriers do.
There are also your monthly carrier fees. And this is where things gets tricky, as the carriers make it exceedingly difficult to figure out how much you’ll actually pay per month. T-Mobile now includes fees in its base advertised plan prices, and we hope other carriers will follow. AT&T and Verizon plans tend to cost the most, but those two carriers have the best voice and data coverage in the nation. Sprint and T-Mobile offer considerable savings, especially on unlimited voice, data, and texting plans.
To see our most recent reviews, check out our Cell Phones Product Guide. 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.