How to Choose the Right Mobile Phone
Whether you’re looking for a big or small phone, entry-level or top-of-the-line, Android offers options for everyone. And unlike Apple’s rigid release cycle, Google’s hardware partners unleash a seemingly endless stream of new devices year-round. But therein lies the problem: With so many options out there, how do you settle on the right one? Lucky for you, we test and review nearly every smartphone available on all the major US carriers.
Keep in mind that while the reviews above may not show your carrier of choice, most of the phones here are available for, or compatible with, multiple US carriers. Read on for what to look for when buying, as well as our top picks for Android phones.
When to Buy a New Android Phone
As of this writing, we’re in the middle of a big Android phone release cycle, so you should know what’s coming soon. The small Samsung Galaxy S20 for Verizon, the Motorola Edge Plus, and possibly a new Google Pixel 4a are likely to arrive within the next month or so. Later this spring or summer, we’ll also see more affordable 5G phones around the $500 mark, although it isn’t entirely clear when the TCL 10 5G and the Samsung Galaxy S51 5G will appear on shelves.
The shimmery OnePlus 8
Right now, if you want 5G, you need Android. The first 5G iPhone won’t come out until this fall, leaving the 5G landscape up to Android phones. There are three different kinds of 5G currently in operation: low, middle, and high band. Of our picks here, the Samsung Galaxy S20+ can handle all of the different forms used by all of the US carriers, and there are special versions of the OnePlus 8 and the LG V60 for Verizon. Other phones have only the low and middle bands, which makes them good choices for Sprint and T-Mobile, but not as much for AT&T, and not at all for Verizon. You can find all of the 5G handsets currently on offer in our list of the The Best 5G Phones.
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As the year goes on, we’re likely to see more 5G phones divided between the low and mid bands, which are cheaper to build for, and the high band, which is more expensive but required by Verizon. So the 5G scene will remain confusing, which is a big part of why we’re recommending the Galaxy S20+ and the Verizon OnePlus 8, as they have everything possible right now.
This list has phones from $149 to over $1,000. In terms of even less expensive models, we used to recommend the Moto E series, but we weren’t thrilled with the latest models. One tip at the very low end: carrier-branded phones (which don’t mention the name of their manufacturer) often aren’t very good.
Most of the phones sold in the US cost $600 or more, because they’re sold on monthly payment plans that hide the cost over 24 or 30 months. But there’s also a thriving market, mostly prepaid, of phones costing $300 or less. Take a look at recent models in the Moto G series, phones by Nokia, or the ZTE models sold by prepaid carriers for decent quality at a low price.
OnePlus’ price jump this year has left a bit of a hole in the $500ish, flagship-like space in the US. That may be filled by phones like the Galaxy A51 5G and the TCL 10 5G later this year. For now, the base $699 OnePlus 8 is the least expensive flagship Android phone available.
What Size Phone Is Right for You?
There’s been a dramatic shift in Android phone shapes and sizes over the last few years. Many manufacturers have started to make their phones taller and narrower, resulting in one-hand-friendly models with improbably large screen sizes. We go into more detail on the new form factors in This Is How We Need to Measure Phone Screens Now.
You can find Android phones with stated screen sizes from 5.6 inches to well over 6-plus inches. With the new form factors, though, it’s very important to look at the width of the phone as well as the width of the screen. That’s how the biggest screen in our list, the 6.8-inch panel on the Samsung Galaxy Note 10+, doesn’t overwhelm.
Google’s Pixel lineup provides a pure, clean, and fast Android experience
Which Is the Best Android Version?
Not all Android is created equal. Device manufacturers like LG and Samsung have been applying their own visions to Android for some time now. If you want a pure Google experience, then you want to go for a Pixel device; they’re the developer models where Google makes sure to deploy upgrades first. Motorola and OnePlus also have very clean user interfaces, although they tend to add more invisible features to Android.
Android 10 (Q) is the most current version. It’s available for most of the phones on our list. The rest of the phones have 9.0 Pie. Don’t buy any phone with an earlier version, as the older the Android software version gets, the more likely it is to have serious security flaws. There are a lot of budget phones kicking around with Android 7 or even Android 6 or below, which you should absolutely avoid.
The Problem with Huawei
Huawei is the world’s second-biggest smartphone maker, and their products under the Huawei and Honor brands are often very high quality. But the US government has now essentially gone to war with Huawei, banning Google services from Huawei phones and banning Huawei phones from US shelves. We no longer recommend Huawei phones on our roundups, although we continue to review them to show other Americans what we’re missing.
Should You Buy Through a Carrier or Unlocked?
The US market is still dominated by carrier-sold phones, but buying your phone direct and unlocked gives you more freedom to switch carriers if you choose to do so.
Unlocked phones feature no carrier bloatware and no ongoing payment plan, so you can switch to another carrier or sell on eBay at will. It’s actually something you own. Every phone on this list can be bought direct, with no carrier involvement. But most people still buy their phones through carriers, which offer a single point for service and support, as well as monthly payment plans that dramatically lower the upfront prices of phones. Carriers also sometimes restrict Wi-Fi calling features to phones sold by their own stores.
Of the bunch shown here, most of them work on all the US 4G networks. The ZTE phone is an exclusive to Verizon’s prepaid arm, Visible.
With that in mind, choosing Android as your mobile operating system is only half the battle. If you’re still on the fence, check out our list of The Best Phones, regardless of OS.