How to Choose the Right Mobile Phone
From Selfies to Portraits
Your phone is the camera you always carry. And if you haven’t upgraded it in a few years, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how much phone camera performance (particularly low-light image quality) has improved. In fact, we’ve pretty much reached the point that you can leave your old point-and-shoot at home as long as you’ve got a good camera phone in your pocket.
But not all phone cameras are created equal. We put every phone we review through a rigorous series of camera evaluations in our test lab to determine which are the best shooters on the market. We’ve gathered the top camera phones here. Not only will you not have to worry about carrying a separate camera if you’ve got one of these in your pocket, but each is also a stellar smartphone in its own right.
One aspect we’re finding frustrating right now, though, is that many of the best cameras are now on smartphones that aren’t available in the US. There’s intense camera innovation going on from manufacturers like Huawei, Oppo, and Xiaomi, but for various reasons they don’t sell phones in the US and their phones don’t work very well on our networks.
In the US, the usual suspects of Apple, Google, and Samsung have the best cameras. We tried to throw a few less expensive phones into the mix here, notably the Google Pixel 3a and the ZTE Blade, which have excellent cameras for their price ranges.
The most important factor in any photo isn’t the camera—it’s the photographer, as I’ve found out to my dismay for years. No matter what phone you have, following our camera expert Jim Fisher’s tips and tricks for camera phone photos can make your images better.
The Samsung Galaxy S20+ has regular, wide-angle, and zoom cameras
Trends and Accessories
A few years ago we saw the trend of phones with lots of lenses blossom, and it’s still in full bloom. Many phones now have a standard lens, a magnifying “zoom” lens, and a wide-angle lens. A more exotic infrared time-of-flight sensor helps judge depth for bokeh and augmented reality apps. Less successful lenses/sensors we’ve seen on the back include color filters (you can do this very well in software) and macro lenses (just not very good, so far). Google has been able to resist this trend somewhat by using smart software for a better digital zoom than other providers.
This comparison shot shows the typical difference between cameras
Super-high-megapixel camera phones are becoming more popular, but largely outside the US. Here in the US, the only widely available 108-megapixel camera phone is the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra, which we don’t recommend because of its ongoing focus problems. The advantage of very high megapixels is that you can zoom and crop images after the fact, or do lossless digital zooming in your camera app without having to use an extra magnifying lens. The disadvantage is that the individual pixels can sometimes be very small, creating problems for color capture or low-light photography.
Super zoom goes along with both of those previous trends. Phones are now combining zoomed-in high-megapixel images, optical zoom lenses, and software to give you 30x, 50x, or in the case of the Galaxy S20 Ultra, 100x zoom. In general, anything much higher than 10x shows heavy digital zoom artifacting. But a good 10x zoom, as you get on the Galaxy S20+, is still a big step forward from what we used to have.
Super-zoom, like 30x on this Galaxy S20+, is a new trend
Large sensors are separate from high megapixels. A bigger sensor means a phone can capture more light; it’s better all around in terms of color, detail, and low-light performance. The downside is that big sensors tend to have a very short plane of focus, so it can be harder to get a whole scene in focus when some items are close to the lens. The latest Galaxy S20 Ultra and OnePlus 8 Pro phones have larger sensors than others.
The most advanced night modes now combine several frames over time to brighten up pictures. They appear to have long, multi-second exposures, but they use AI software to reduce blur by aligning the various images together. (You still don’t want to use them for moving subjects.) Google’s Pixel phones, Apple’s iPhones, and Huawei phones have the best night modes.
Bring all of that together with a good pro mode. A good camera phone will have a mode that lets you manually tweak virtual exposure, aperture, and the focus point to get exactly the shot you want.
Why do so many photographers rely on iPhones? The availability of third-party camera apps plays a big role. While there are third-party camera apps available for Android, apps used by professionals still tend to come out first and be more quickly updated on iOS. We have a special guide to how to take better pictures with your iPhone.
How About Video?
In the era of TikTok and Instagram Stories, video is more important than ever. Here are some features to look for.
Optical image stabilization is always better than electronic or digital image stabilization, creating less jittery videos. Many high-end phones now use both, giving a sort of “Steadicam” effect.
While 1080p video is still good enough for most people, higher-end phones can now record in 4K, and we’re starting to see the first 8K recording phones. 8K requires a massive amount of storage—about 600MB per minute—and right now, its primary use is if you’re editing videos on a PC after the fact and want to be able to crop and zoom. If that baffles you, see our tips for how to get your images off your phone.
Slow motion can make for some exciting effects; while most phones can now capture up to 240fps (1/8 speed), some can go up to 960fps (1/32 speed). Keep an eye on how long a phone can capture slow-mo for, though, because it can be tricky to grab a scene if you only have 0.2 seconds of recording time. Many phones also have other video tricks like time lapse, hyperlapse, and video bokeh.
Do You Need a Standalone Camera?
For the ultimate in image quality, the best possible low-light performance, or killer optical zoom, you’ll still want a dedicated SLR or mirrorless camera. Our list of the Best Digital Cameras is a great place to start. And be sure to check out our Beyond-Basic Photography Tips.
If you don’t need to take professional shots, however, a top smartphone camera will suit you just fine, and you can’t go wrong with any of our picks here.
Google Pixel 3a
Pros: Best-in-class camera.
Gorgeous OLED display.
Excellent battery life.
Cons: Not waterproof.
No microSD slot.
Bottom Line: Google’s well-rounded Pixel 3a is quite simply the best Android phone you can buy for $399.
Google Pixel 4
Pros: Attractive design. 90Hz display.Solid battery life. Excellent cameras. Live Caption and Recorder are excellent accessibility additions.
Cons: Not enough storage options.
Bottom Line: The Google Pixel 4 offers powerful hardware, innovative software that actually makes your life easier, and the best cameras you’ll find on a smartphone.
Samsung Galaxy S20+
Pros: Best 5G of any phone available today. Fast. Solid camera. Attractive design.
Cons: Expensive. In-display fingerprint sensor can be a bit picky. No headphone jack.
Bottom Line: The Samsung Galaxy S20+ is pricey, but it’s the first phone that’s a solid investment in the 5G future.
Apple iPhone 11
Pros: Reasonable price.
New wide-angle camera option.
Fastest processor available.
Cons: No big increases in wireless performance.
Next year’s iPhone will likely mark a major change.
Bottom Line: The iPhone 11 offers solid camera performance and power to spare for a relatively reasonable price.
It isn’t exciting, but it’s a good replacement for older iPhones.
Apple iPhone 11 Pro
Pros: Three cameras for great flexibility.
New Night mode for low-light photos.
Excellent LTE options, including dual SIM.
Long battery life.
Next year’s iPhone will probably bring much bigger changes.
Bottom Line: The pricey iPhone 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max bring more cameras, longer battery life, and better LTE capabilities to Apple’s flagship phone line.
OnePlus 8 Pro
Pros: Best display on any smartphone today
Very good camera
High-speed wireless charging
Cons: 5G on T-Mobile only
Night mode still a bit behind competitors
Bottom Line: The OnePlus 8 Pro has a gorgeous display, fast wireless charging, and excellent cameras—we just wish it had better network support.
Samsung Galaxy S20
Pros: Well-sized for one-handed use.
Gorgeous 120Hz screen.
8K video recording.
Most affordable Galaxy S20 model.
Cons: Lacks high-band 5G.
Shorter battery life than other S20 (and S10) models.
Bottom Line: The Samsung Galaxy S20 is the most manageable of the S20 lineup in terms of size and price, but it may get left behind with future 5G upgrades.
Xiaomi Mi 10 Pro 5G
Pros: Top-of-the-line camera
Excellent audio quality
Cons: MIUI software layer has ads
No IP rating
Bottom Line: The Xiaomi Mi 10 Pro goes toe-to-toe with the best Android phones on the market, though it’s sadly not a practical option for US users.
ZTE Blade 10 Prime
Pros: Excellent display. Good performance for the price. Nearly stock version of Android 9.
Cons: Not water resistant. Unlikely to get update to Android 10.
Bottom Line: The ZTE Blade 10 Prime for Visible offers a gorgeous display, snappy performance, and a smooth software experience for under $200.
Huawei P40 Pro
Pros: Gorgeous screen
Impressive camera night mode
Cons: Not available in North America
Light on storage and memory for a flagship phone
Some camera exposure and color balance quirks
No Google apps or Play Store
Bottom Line: The Huawei P40 Pro 5G is an impressive smartphone with a fantastic screen, but you won’t find it in the US anytime soon.
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