How to Choose the Right Mobile Phone
Your Next Upgrade
Now that you’ve chosen AT&T as your carrier, it’s time to pick a phone. Choices are broader than ever, as AT&T has largely gotten rid of phone subsidies. Most people still buy their phones from their carrier, with the help of monthly payment plans or fast-upgrade plans like AT&T Next. But there’s no overall cost penalty to buying an unlocked phone anymore, and AT&T supports more unlocked devices than any other US carrier. That puts a lot of choices at your fingertips, so we’re here to help narrow them down.
Last year, for the first time in five years, AT&T won our Fastest Mobile Network award. We drove through 30 major US metro areas and found that overall, AT&T was the fastest choice. The carrier has been aggressively upgrading its LTE network, a process it calls 5G Evolution or “5GE,” although it isn’t 5G.
You need a phone produced in 2019 or later to take advantage of a lot of this new speed and capacity, though. Ideally, the phone should support 4×4 MIMO antennas and 256 QAM encoding. Of the smartphones above, all but the Pixel 3a, the iPhone 11 and the Moto G Power have these features. Our feature on Why You Need a Faster Phone explains what a difference 4×4 MIMO makes.
See How We Test Phones
AT&T’s strength has always been its globally compatible GSM network. That has let the carrier nab many exclusive phones over the years, from the first iPhone to various Windows phones. You can pretty much always assume that the latest hot, buzzy device will be available on AT&T, though more and more, you may not be buying it from AT&T.
Our list right now has smartphones ranging from $100 to $1,200. As you can see, you don’t have to pay a grand for a great smartphone, especially if you’re willing to pay upfront. The Google Pixels aren’t sold directly by AT&T on monthly payment plans, but they all work great on AT&T’s network.
Remember, our list of the best unlocked phones all work on AT&T.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 10+ is great for creative types
The Best 5G Phone for AT&T
Right now, the Samsung Galaxy S20+ is the best 5G phone for AT&T’s growing network, but there’s a reason to wait until next year if you aren’t near a high-band “5G+” area.
AT&T uses two forms of 5G right now. If your phone says “5GE,” it’s actually on 4G. Low-band “5G” uses a tiny slice of set-aside, former 4G airwaves for 5G, and doesn’t make an appreciable difference in performance. AT&T’s high-speed “5G+” is available in small parts of 35 cities and has dramatic speeds up to 1Gbps, but it can be hard to find.
The Galaxy S20+ can handle both of these forms of 5G. Next year, though, AT&T will start to turn over more of its 4G airwaves to 5G, and to best handle that transition, phones will need the upcoming Qualcomm X60 modem chipset. Phones with the X60 won’t come out until early 2021.
So for now, if you want to experience AT&T 5G, go for the S20+, but don’t fear you’re missing out on too much if you don’t get one. For more, see our list of the best 5G phones right now.
The Best Flip Phone for AT&T
If you’re interested in a flip or voice phone, you should be buying one that supports voice over AT&T’s 4G network, as the carrier is no longer investing in improving 3G service. There are two good choices now: the Sonim XP3 and the Alcatel Go Flip 3. The Sonim is rugged and has a long warranty, which help make up for its relatively high price. The less expensive Alcatel has limited smartphone features, such as WhatsApp and Twitter access, in a flip phone form factor.
If you need more help buying a cell phone, check out our cell phone product guide for the most recent reviews. While you’re at it, take a look at our lists for the best phones on Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon. And head over to our Readers’ Choice awards for 2020’s top mobile carriers.