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 on-the-go 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. 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. 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 every smartphone released on AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless, and many of their sub-brands such as Boost, Cricket, MetroPCS, and Virgin. These ten are our top picks across all of the smartphones available in the US today. But what should you be looking for when buying a cell phone? Here are some key points to consider:
First, Choose a Carrier
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.
We have two major features to help you choose a carrier. For our Readers' Choice Awards, PCMag readers told us which carrier they prefer based on coverage, call quality, device selection, and other factors. And for our Fastest Mobile Networks feature, we sent drivers to 30 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 boasts nationwide coverage and a terrific selection of phones, particularly for texting. Its LTE coverage is second only to Verizon, and it finds the most appeal among suburban and rural users with poor Sprint or T-Mobile coverage. AT&T owns DirecTV, so it has some pricing bundles if you're also interested in satellite TV services.
Sprint has had a rocky few years. Its LTE network is improving quickly, but it's still the worst-rated carrier by our readers because of several years of network troubles. That said, if you're willing to bet on a rising star, Sprint has promotional service plans that can often be insanely cheap, especially if you're switching from another carrier.
T-Mobile's fortunes have changed radically in the past few years thanks to maverick CEO John Legere and his Uncarrier plan. New low-band spectrum has radically expanded its LTE network, so it can finally balance terrific speeds in cities with decent coverage in suburban areas. T-Mobile also has the best international roaming plan, including to Canada and Mexico.
Verizon Wireless is famed for its top-notch network quality and good customer service. Its prices can be higher than the competition, but its combination of very reliable coverage and good speeds made Verizon our Fastest Mobile Networks winner last year. Verizon also has the largest 4G LTE network in the US.
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 is also a wild slew of virtual operators who 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 top four carriers in our Readers' Choice poll last year were all virtual: Consumer Cellular on AT&T, Republic Wireless on Sprint, and Straight Talk and MetroPCS on T-Mobile.
AT&T owns Cricket; Sprint owns Boost and Virgin; T-Mobile owns MetroPCS; and Google owns Google Fi, which combines the Sprint and T-Mobile networks. Tracfone is another prominent virtual carrier, with spinoff brands like Straight Talk, Family Mobile, and Net10, all of which have their own plans. We spotlight some of our favorites in The Best Cheap Cell Phone Plans You've Never Heard Of. And if you're looking for a phone on one of the major carriers, we've rounded up our favorites on AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon.
Locked or Unlocked?
As carriers have moved to steadily more confusing service and pricing plans, the value of unlocked phones has been steadily increasing.
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 there are a few popular unlocked phones—most notably the Google Nexus series, the Moto X, and the iPhone 6 and 6s—that work just fine on all the national and prepaid carriers.
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.
If you want to spend a total of $100-300 for your phone, opening yourself up to unlocked phones gives you some high-quality choices that aren't in carrier lineups. Blu Products sells several Android models in that price range, and we expect to see more from Huawei's Honor line in the future.
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.
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 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.
If Android or iOS don't speak to you, there's Microsoft's Windows Phone, but we can't recommend it much at the moment. Windows Phone in isolation has a gorgeous, easy-to-use design, and a really neat new feature in Continuum, that lets you use your phone with a keyboard and big screen like it was a PC. But Windows Phone's US market share is in the low single digits, and both carriers and third-party application developers show very little enthusiasm about it now, making us concerned that it will lack support for important apps, services, and networks in the future.
In terms of form factor, it's difficult to find a smartphone that isn't a solid black slab any more. The one major standout maintaining a physical QWERTY keyboard is the Android-powered BlackBerry Priv, although there are a few older keyboarded phones still kicking around bargain bins. We don't recommend those, as they typically run obsolete versions of Android with no upgrade potential.
Also worth keeping in mind is size. As more and more phones cross the 5-inch mark into phablet territory, you might want to visit your local electronics store to get a feel for the phone of your choice to see if it's right for you.
A good portion of the US population is still using simpler phones, but there are surprisingly few current choices out there. Verizon appears to offer nine, for instance, but that's deceptive, as some of those are several years old. 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.
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 (some feature phones come with app stores, but don't be fooled, they exist primarily to sell you additional-cost services, ringtones, wallpapers, and basic games). If you're big on text messaging, you want a phone with a hardware QWERTY keyboard, plus an unlimited texting plan. If you've got a small child, a camera is probably important. If you want to ditch your old iPod, keep an eye out for good media features.
For voice quality, read our individual phone reviews. 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. A few have buggy Bluetooth stacks that make pairing with headsets and in-car hands-free stereos a pain.
All About Pricing
Cell phone pricing is more confusing than ever. Some carriers still have the old-school, binding two-year contracts where you pay a higher monthly rate in exchange for a discounted phone. But there also now payment plans where you pay the full retail cost of your phone, but pay less on your service plan; fast-upgrade and leasing plans where you pay a monthly fee and trade in your phone for a new one every year; as well as more carriers just selling phones for their retail price upfront.
Which one you choose depends on how long you intend to keep your phone and what you want to do with it after you're done with it. If you intend to upgrade frequently, you'll get the most financial advantage by buying phones up front and reselling them on eBay when you're done with them, but that takes effort. Traditional two-year plans make sense if you stick with the plan of getting a new phone every two years, and you're OK with the long-term commitment. T-Mobile and Verizon don't offer two-year contracts any more; you either pay up front, or pay the same amount for your phone over 24 months. A few unlocked phone makers, such as Apple and Huawei, also offer leasing and installment plans just like the carriers do.
There are also your monthly carrier fees. And this is where things gets tricky, as the carriers make it exceedingly difficult to figure out how much you'll actually pay per month. Verizon and AT&T plans tend to cost the most, but those two carriers have the best voice and data coverage in the nation. Sprint and T-Mobile offer considerable savings, especially on unlimited voice, data, and texting plans, but don't have quite the same level of network coverage.
To get the best price, it pays to check a carrier's site before hitting a retail store outlet; often you can do better online, especially with instant rebates, and buying online is also more convenient. We've also built a handy tool for comparing some of the most prominent plans; you'll find the tool and more tips in our article on How to Save Money on Your Cell Phone Plan.
To see our most recent reviews, check out our Cell Phones Product Guide. And those strictly interested in Android should head over to our Best Android Smartphones roundup.
To find the 10 best smartphones you can get today, check out the list below.