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 now starting to spread nationwide. Although we’re now down to three major wireless carriers, virtual carriers like Google Fi, Ting, and US Mobile keep competition alive and push prices down. 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, T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless, and many of their sub-brands such as Boost, Cricket, Metro, and Visible.
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 list is focused on the hottest, newest devices, but you can also find great value in slightly older phones, so be sure to shop around.
Also note that, as of this writing, the Google Pixel 4a 5G and Pixel 5, the LG Wing, the OnePlus 8T, and new iPhones are all about to hit the market, but haven’t made it into our hands yet. Some or all of those may be terrific phones, but we can’t include them in this roundup until we’ve reviewed them. Keep an eye on our full list of mobile phone reviews to see our latest judgements.
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 sent drivers to 26 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 and Verizon split the wins in our 26 cities this year. AT&T has a very strong 4G network, but its 5G offering is basically meaningless. As we’ve seen many times, AT&T performed particularly well in the Carolinas and in parts of California and Texas. AT&T owns DirecTV, so it has some pricing bundles if you’re also interested in satellite TV services.
T-Mobile absorbed Sprint this year; Sprint no longer exists. The “new T-Mobile” is in transition, absorbing Sprint’s network and airwaves to potentially offer a speedy mid-band 5G network in most major cities across the country. This summer and fall, there have been some growing pains, and our Fastest Mobile Networks tests showed that it wasn’t quite keeping up with the competition. T-Mobile is the only carrier right now where you can buy a 5G phone and assume performance will get much better in 2021, though. While AT&T and Verizon will need new airwaves to improve their 5G performance, which means new phones, T-Mobile is improving performance in a way compatible with existing 5G phones.
Verizon Wireless is famed for its top-notch network quality and good customer service. Its super-speedy millimeter-wave 5G network helped make it our Fastest Mobile Network this year, and its 4G network is also excellent. But its 5G network is hard to find, because it uses a very short-range technology.
US Cellular is only available in about half the country. It has a reputation for good customer service, but has been suffering recently in our surveys as readers have said its prices and LTE network quality don’t match up to some of the alternatives.
There are also plenty 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 winner of our Readers’ Choice award this year was a virtual carrier, Consumer Cellular, which runs on AT&T’s and T-Mobile’s networks.
AT&T owns Cricket; T-Mobile owns Metro by T-Mobile; Verizon owns Visible; and Google owns Google Fi. In September, Verizon said it intends to buy Tracfone, which has spin-off brands like Straight Talk, Family Mobile, and Net10. We spotlight some of our favorite virtual operators in The Best Cheap Phone Plans.
Do You Need a 5G Phone?
5G arrived in 2019, and there are now many 5G phones available. But while 5G may change everything in the future, it’s not going to happen immediately. Our tests of 5G so far have shown limited coverage and inconsistent speeds. We continue to track the build-outs on our Race to 5G page.
At the moment, our recommendation is that it isn’t worth purposefully seeking out a 5G phone. 5G will likely come to you, as almost all of the mid-range and higher-end phones coming out right now have 5G built in. Especially on AT&T and Verizon, though, if you can save some money by getting a 4G device, don’t worry that you’re missing out on too much.
You can find more 5G recommendations on our list of The Best 5G Phones.
(One note: you may see a “5G E” icon on your existing AT&T phone. That isn’t 5G; it is a marketing ploy. Your phone is still running on 4G.)
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, 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.
See How We Test Phones
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 scattered, often sporadic OS updates.
Phones are available in a wide range of sizes and shapes, to fit various types of hands. Samsung’s Galaxy S10e is narrower than most other phones, giving them big screens that are easy to hold in one hand. The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra and the iPhone 11 Pro Max, on the other hand, are gigantic, for people who want big windows into their online world.
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 (the Alcatel Go Flip 3’s KaiOS has a small app store, but it has dozens, not thousands, of apps).
For voice quality, read our feature on How To Make Your Cell Phone Calls Sound Better. 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.
Want to Spend Less?
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 midrange phones. They’re unlocked and compatible with all US carriers, and they use a fast, clean version of the Android OS. The Moto G Power, available for $249, is our pick there.
Apple just released a new iPhone SE for $399. It’s not only the least expensive iPhone, it’s our favorite iPhone right now. If you want an even less expensive iPhone, you can go with a used model, but we don’t suggest buying anything below the iPhone 8, as older phones will lose software support more quickly in years to come.
For more, see our list of The Best Cheap Phones.
We update this story every time we a review new phone worth a spot on the list, so it changes often. Be sure to check back soon for our latest recommendations.