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 launching this spring. 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. 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 MetroPCS.
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 iteration of the list is, in my mind, a little weak in the $300 to $500 range, but so is the US phone market. Look at older phones for values there—products like the LG G6 and the Samsung Galaxy S8, which are still very good devices.
But 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
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, this year, northern California. After a few struggling years, its speeds really jumped up in our most recent tests, and they’ll get even better as the company turns on more “5G Evolution” markets throughout the year (5G Evolution isn’t 5G, but it’s faster 4G than AT&T previously had). AT&T owns DirecTV, so it has some pricing bundles if you’re also interested in satellite TV services.
Sprint has had a rocky few years. Its LTE network is improving quickly, but it’s still the worst-rated carrier by our readers because of several years of network troubles. That said, if you’re willing to bet on a rising star, Sprint has promotional service plans that can often be insanely cheap, especially if you’re switching from another carrier.
T-Mobile’s fortunes have changed radically in the past few years thanks to maverick CEO John Legere and his Uncarrier plan. It’s now the best rated of the “big four” carriers by our readers in the Readers’ Choice Awards. In our Fastest Mobile Networks tests, it is basically neck-and-neck with Verizon on speed and reliability. New low-band spectrum has radically expanded the carrier’s LTE network, so it can finally balance terrific speeds in cities with decent coverage in suburban areas. T-Mobile also has the best international roaming plan, including to Canada and Mexico.
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 our Fastest Mobile Networks winner last year. Verizon also has the largest 4G LTE network in the US.
US Cellular is only available in about half the country. It has a reputation for good customer
There is also a wild slew 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 winners of our Readers’ Choice awards this year were both virtual carriers: Consumer Cellular, which runs on AT&T’s network, and Google Fi, which combines Sprint, T-Mobile, and US Cellular.
AT&T owns Cricket; Sprint owns Boost and Virgin; T-Mobile owns MetroPCS
Do You Need a 5G Phone?
5G is coming. 5G might change everything—but not immediately. 5G is a much faster wireless system that will not work with current phones. In 2019, 5G rollouts will be limited and devices will be expensive, so I wouldn’t worry too much about waiting if you want to buy a phone this year.
The 5G networks and devices will get much more interesting, and more widespread, towards 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, or 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
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 3 are narrower than most other phones, giving them big screens that are easy to hold in one hand. The Galaxy Note 9 and iPhone XS Max, 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.
We have one voice phone on this list, the Doro 7050 for Consumer Cellular. The Kyocera Cadence LTE is good for Verizon. We hold out hopes for the Light Phone 2 and the Punkt MP02, neither of which are properly VoLTE certified yet but both of which are trying to get through the process.
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 (some feature phones come with app stores, but don’t be fooled, they exist primarily to sell you additional-cost services, ringtones, wallpapers, and basic games).
For voice quality, read our individual phone reviews. 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 Budget Phones
This story tends to be headlined by very expensive phones, but you can get a perfectly good smartphone for between $100 and $250 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 G6 Play is on Amazon for $189; 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 7. 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 7 are getting to the end of their fully supported lives. Don’t buy an older iPhone model.
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 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
There are also your monthly carrier fees. And this is where things
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.
Best Phones Featured in This Roundup:
Pros: Huge, awesome screen. Fastest processor available. Excellent camera. Long battery life.
Bottom Line: The iPhone XS Max is the best expression of Apple’s smartphone philosophy so far, with a giant, gorgeous screen connecting you to everything.
Pros: Compact. Fast performance. Beautiful OLED screen. Sharp front and rear camera with impressive low-light, zoom, and bokeh capabilities. Useful Google Assistant functionality. Highly optimized software with guaranteed updates.
Cons: No headphone jack or memory card slot.
Bottom Line: The Google Pixel 3 is the best small Android phone you can buy with the latest specs, impressive camera capabilities, and genuinely innovative AI features.
Pros: Big battery. Lots of storage. Excellent S Pen stylus. Class-leading processor and modem.
Cons: Expensive. Heavy.
Bottom Line: The Samsung Galaxy Note 9 is an attractive pen-enabled phablet with a fast processor, a terrific modem, and a huge battery.
Pros: Amazing screen color and clarity. Industry-leading processor and modem. Wide-angle camera. Headphone jack. Just the right size for most hands.
Cons: Low-light camera performance not as good as the Google Pixel 3. Fingerprint sensor could be more accurate.
Bottom Line: The Samsung Galaxy S10e has the best overall price, performance, and size for a flagship smartphone today.
Pros: Combines 3G and 4G for maximum voice coverage. HD voice calling. Great keypad. Very simple UI. Bold fonts. Inexpensive.
Cons: No contact or calendar syncing. Poor camera. Doesn’t take advantage of OS’s potential.
Bottom Line: The Doro 7050 for Consumer Cellular is a rare affordable-yet-future-proof LTE voice phone. Its capabilities are very basic, but it’ll stay connected for years to come.
Pros: Affordable. Support for all major US carriers. Solid specs and overall performance. Long battery life.
Cons: Average camera. Still uses micro USB.
Bottom Line: The Motorola Moto G6 Play is a more affordable take on the standard G6 that trades some power for battery life, striking an ideal balance of price and performance.
Pros: Amazing price for the power. Huge screen for the size. Fast, smooth software.
Cons: Camera doesn’t quite lead the pack. No headphone jack.
Bottom Line: The $549 OnePlus 6T is the best value for your Android smartphone dollar today.
Pros: Solid keyboard. Speed Key lets you quickly access apps and features. Excellent productivity and privacy software.
Cons: Keyboard lacks capacitive touch. Mediocre cameras.
Bottom Line: The BlackBerry Key2 LE is a productivity powerhouse that offers better value for your money than its pricier sibling.
Pros: Available in gorgeous colors. Super-fast processor. Bright screen.
Cons: Wireless performance isn’t up to par with XS models.
Bottom Line: The Apple iPhone XR is the fashion-forward model of this year’s iPhones, but it trades top-notch performance for a colorful design.
Pros: Affordable. Sturdy build. Decent overall performance. Removable battery.
Cons: Mediocre camera quality. Fingerprint sensor depends on carrier.
Bottom Line: The Moto E5 Play is an affordable no-frills smartphone that can provide all your basic calling, app, and web browsing needs.