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.
Top 12 Smartphones
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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 prices and provides the best coverage in your area. These are all good reasons to put the carrier decision first.
Do You Need a 5G Phone?
5G is if officially here. And while 5G may change everything, it’s not going to happen 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 don’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, 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.
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.
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.
The Best Budget 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 $250; they’re great deals.