The 9 Best Smartphones of 2021

Android or iOS, we've got the best of both

Our editors independently research, test, and recommend the best products; you can learn more about our review process here. We may receive commissions on purchases made from our chosen links.

The Rundown
The Samsung Galaxy S21 is one of the best smartphones you can buy today.
Best Overall (Apple):
Apple iPhone 12 at Apple
New to the iPhone this year is a great design, and 5G technology.
If you're someone who values zoom photography or videography, or even astrophotography, this is simply the best smartphone camera you can get.
The iPhone SE is mostly for people who don't want a gigantic phone and who still want a fingerprint sensor without giving up everything that makes the iPhone 11 great.
Best Value (Android):
Google Pixel 4a at Amazon
If you love pure Android and you're working with a budget, snap this up fast.
The OnePlus 9 Pro has a great design featuring a mirror finish on the back, an impressive screen with a 120Hz refresh rate, and crazy fast charging.
The "fan edition" of the phone cut back on some of the flash of the Galaxy S20, while still retaining the fundamentals.
It's rare that you can find flagship power in such a small package.
Google's Pixel 5 is Google's flagship phone which showcases what Android should be, according to the company that makes it.

The best smartphones come in both iOS and Android. Different people have different needs, but mostly what you're looking for is powerful enough to get through the day, a great camera, and a great screen. Both iOS and Android have a wide variety of options that can fill your needs, but there's a lot of variety out there. Some people want the best camera you can buy, others want something compact that easily fits into a pocket. 

Maybe you want a flagship phone that is the best of the best out there. You might be looking for something more moderately priced that is the right fit for budget and features. Most of the phones on this list have 5G, but some don't. Most of the phones on this list have multiple camera sensors, but some of them don't. We have a wide range of phones here that can fit your needs. Which phone will be best for you? Read on to find out.

Best overall: Samsung Galaxy S21

Samsung Galaxy S21
What We Like
  • Gorgeous 120 Hz screen

  • Flagship power

  • Great cameras

What We Don't Like
  • Battery life just OK

  • No MicroSD slot

  • Plastic back

The top of the line for the Samsung line of smartphones is the Galaxy S21 series, which comes in three flavors, the S21, the S21 Plus, and the S21 Ultra. We'll discuss the Ultra later on, but when it comes to the S21 or the S21 Plus, they're basically the same phone. One is just a little bigger than the other. Much of what we say about the S21 is true about the S21 Plus, so if you like what you read, but what something bigger, there you go.

The Samsung Galaxy S21 has a 6.2-inch FHD+ screen at 120Hz with great viewing angles which our reviewer Andrew calls, "utterly gorgeous," and bright and incredibly vibrant. The Snapdragon 888 processor is the top of the line from Qualcomm, which is about 9% faster than the previous generation of Samsung smartphones. The phone has 8GB of RAM and 128 or 256GB of storage which unfortunately is not expandable. 

On the camera front, Samsung still packs a great set of optics. There's a 12-megapixel main sensor, a 12-megapixel ultrawide sensor, and a 64-megapixel telephoto zoom lens at 3X. Andrew writes about the camera setup, "All three of the cameras pump out sharp, stellar shots. They are very adept at capturing excellent detail in ample lighting, but still capable of producing very good low-light results in most scenarios. Samsung has a tendency to punch up its photos, and that’s definitely true here: the vibrant results sometimes make photos look more appealing, but can occasionally look a bit unnatural or over-brightened." All told, the Samsung Galaxy S21 is one of the best smartphones you can buy today.

Screen Size: 6.2 inches | Resolution: 1080 x 2400 | Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 | Camera: 64MP/12MP/12MP rear and 10MP front | Battery: 4,000mAh

“It’s a speedy handset that feels super responsive with all demands, from apps and games to media and multitasking, and the smooth 120Hz display only aids in that swift sensation." Andrew Hayward, Product Tester

Best Overall (Apple): Apple iPhone 12

iPhone 12
What We Like
  • Great design

  • Very powerful

  • Full 5G support

  • Excellent cameras

What We Don't Like
  • Only a 60Hz screen

  • Only 4GB of RAM

  • No included power brick

On the Apple side, the iPhone 12 is the latest and greatest from Apple. Once again, we had to pick between the iPhone 12, and the iPhone 12 Pro. We went with the iPhone 12 because in our opinion it offers better value. The 12 Pro adds some additional RAM and camera features, like LIDAR. If you value optical zoom, the 12 Pro is a great choice, but we didn't feel it justified the extra expense. 

New to the iPhone this year is a great design and 5G technology. The iPhone's design is a throwback to the iPhone 4's squared-off design, and it looks really sharp in 2021. The A14 Bionic chip is a beast and on benchmarks scores even higher than the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888. The phone only carries 4GB of RAM which is far below standard in 2021, but it has little effect on performance so we can only ding that from a future-proofing perspective. We'd also like to see a charging brick in the box. iPhones have never had more than a 60Hz screen, but 90 and 120Hz are quickly becoming industry standards, even on mid-range phones.

The camera setup on the iPhone 12 includes a 12-megapixel sensor for both the main and the ultra-wide cameras. The colors are balanced on both sensors meaning you find very little color variation between the two cameras. Our reviewer writes, "loads of detail, well-judged colors, and effortless adaptability to all scenarios. Even night shots turn out well, maintaining a surprising amount of detail without looking washed out in the process of brightening up a dark moment."

Screen Size: 6.1 inches | Resolution: 2532x1170 | Processor: A14 Bionic | Camera: 12MP/12MP rear and 12MP front | Battery: 2,815mAh

"The iPhone 12 is Apple’s best sub-$1,000 smartphone in years, delivering a premium, polished handset that is packed with power and style alike." Andrew Hayward, Product Tester

Best Camera: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
What We Like
  • Outstanding Camera

  • Huge, amazing screen

  • Speedy performance

  • Great battery life

What We Don't Like
  • Expensive

  • No charger in the box

  • No microSD slot

The absolute top of the class for the Samsung Galaxy S21 line is the S21 Ultra, and the main difference between this phone and its siblings is in the 10X optical zoom periscope lens and gigantic screen and battery. You'll get the same performance you get with the Galaxy S21 we detailed above. The phone itself is huge, with a 6.8-inch screen and a 5,000 mAh battery. That gives you great battery life but also fills up every inch of your pants pocket. You will not want to ride roller coasters with this phone.

The phone is also quite expensive, starting at $1,199 MSRP which puts it just below folding phones in terms of price. Adding insult to injury, your $1,199 will not get you a charger in the box. That's upsetting when you're buying the $799 iPhone, but it's a borderline crime at the Ultra's price point. But those cameras are simply top-notch. 

There are four cameras on the back. You've got a 108MP main camera, a 12 MP Ultrawide, and two 10 MP optical zoom lenses at 3x and 10x. The main difference between the S21 and the S21 Ultra is the optical zoom lenses, and they are awesome. If you're someone who values zoom photography or videography, or even astrophotography, this is simply the best smartphone camera you can get.

Screen Size: 6.8 inches | Resolution: 3200x1440 | Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 | Camera: 108MP/10MP/10MP/12MP rear and 40MP front | Battery: 5,000mAh

“It might make the camera module look absurdly large, but the added 10x zoom option is incredibly cool.”Andrew Hayward, Product Tester

Best Value: Apple iPhone SE (2020)

THe iPhone SE is our pick for best value iOS.
What We Like
  • Great performance

  • Affordable

  • Good camera

  • Compact

What We Don't Like
  • Weak battery life

  • Dated design

  • No 5G

Leading the pack in the value phone space is the iPhone SE (2020). This is a tiny little powerhouse that carries the A13 Bionic processor from the iPhone 11. It was Apple's flagship processor at the time and it's surprising to come in such a small and affordable package. From a benchmark perspective, the A13 Bionic beats out even 2021 flagships like the Galaxy S21. The iPhone SE boasts all of the power of the iPhone 11 including the same RAM and storage options but has just a 4.7-inch display and TouchID-enabled home button. Apple also included a single 12MP camera which is as good as a single camera can be in this day and age.

Some call the design of the iPhone SE dated since it apes the iPhone 6. But the iPhone SE is mostly for people who don't want a gigantic phone and who still want a fingerprint sensor without giving up everything that makes the iPhone 11 great. For the most part, this is a mission accomplished. Apple had to leave 5G out of the phone, and wouldn't debut a 5G phone until six months later in the iPhone 12. 

The battery life is also not the greatest on this phone. The smaller battery has trouble making it through the day, but it does offer wireless charging which is a nice bonus not often seen in this form factor.

Screen Size: 4.7 inches | Resolution: 1334x750 | Processor: A13 Bionic | Camera: 12MP rear and 7MP front | Battery: 1,821mAh

Best Value (Android): Google Pixel 4a

The Pixel 4a is our pick for best value Android.
What We Like
  • Great camera

  • Solid performance

  • All-day battery

What We Don't Like
  • No 5G

  • Bland design

Google Pixel phones are well known for their camera proficiency including AI-enhanced photos and neat tricks like astrophotography. Moreover, Google Pixel phones are Google's best foot forward when it comes to how Android "should be." Google also sweetens the pot with periodic Feature Drops which add little extras like AI-powered call screening. The A-series of Pixels tend to be a little lighter in power, but beyond that, they give you a great Android experience.

The Google Pixel 4a is no exception. The Snapdragon 730G is a mid-range processor that's paired with 6GB of RAM. by itself it won't blow you away, but Android runs super smooth on the device and delivers all-day battery life and solid performance. As for the single camera, our reviewer Andrew writes, "the one camera here is so consistent that I’d take it over the multi-camera modules of much more expensive phones with underwhelming cameras."

The Pixel 4a isn't much to look at, and it leaves off 5G. Google released a sibling to this phone called the Pixel v4a 5G, which is larger and has a second camera, but also costs $150 more. We're not sure 5G is worth it just yet. For now, at under $350 the Pixel 4a is one of the best phones you can buy at that price point. If you love pure Android and you're working with a budget, snap this up fast.

Screen Size: 5.8 inches | Resolution: 1080 x 23400 | Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 730G | Camera: 12.2MP/12.2 rear and 8MP front | Battery: 3,140mAH

"The Pixel 4a is the best phone you can buy for less than $400, delivering enough power and capabilities for just about anyone." Andrew Hayward, Product Tester

What We Like
  • Excellent camera

  • 5G

  • Ultra-fast charging

  • QHD display with 120Hz refresh rate

What We Don't Like
  • Slippery

  • 5G not supported on all networks

OnePlus has had an interesting journey from a plucky little "flagship killer" startup to becoming a big name in the smartphone space. As a company, OnePlus has made great strides to create premium smartphones that can stand toe to toe with big names like Apple and Samsung. One way it's done that is by forming relationships with T-Mobile and Verizon in the US. As a result, the OnePlus 9 Pro works on both those carriers' 5G networks, but may not work on AT&T. It lacks certification from that carrier, so that's important to know.

You also get a very good camera. Oneplus has something of a reputation for less-than-great cameras. That's very much not the case with the OnePlus 9 Pro. This phone has a triple camera setup including a 3.3x optical zoom tuned by Hasselblad. It gives you great performance in all situations including low-light and Tilt-Shift which is designed to make distant subjects look like miniatures.

The OnePlus 9 Pro has a great design featuring a mirror finish on the back, an impressive screen with a 120Hz refresh rate, and crazy fast charging. Oneplus not only ships a charger in the box with its phones, but that charger is capable of reaching an astonishing 65W of charging which can charge your phone from zero to full in just 33 minutes. Further, the Wireless charger sold separately can charge your phone at 50W meaning you'll go from 1 to 70% in just 30 minutes. Those are outstanding charge times and can really save your bacon if your phone is running low prior to a night out on the town.

Screen Size: 6.7 inches | Resolution: 3216x1440 | Processor: Snapdragon 888 | Camera: 48MP/8MP/50MP/2MP rear and 16MP front | Battery: 4,500mAh

"The OnePlus 9 Pro (and the OnePlus 9) benefit from the new flagship camera system in partnership with Hasselblad, a big step up over the OnePlus 8 series." Yoona Wagener, Product Tester

Best 5G: Samsung Galaxy S20 FE 5G

What We Like
  • 120Hz screen

  • Great cameras

  • Speedy performance

  • Great battery

  • 5G

What We Don't Like
  • No mmWave 5G

  • Plastic build

  • Only 1080p

In late 2020, Samsung released the Samsung Galaxy S20 FE which seemed to be something of a concession and course correction all wrapped into one. The "fan edition" of the phone cut back on some of the flash of the Galaxy S20, while still retaining the fundamentals. Some describe the S20 FE as cutting all the right corners. For example, you only have a 1080p screen, but it's 120Hz. There's a plastic back on the phone, but it still has wireless charging. In short, if you're willing to accept a little compromise, you're getting a lot of phone.

You still have the Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 processor, 6/8GB of RAM, and 128/256GB of storage. The Galaxy S20 FE connects to 5G, but the unlocked versions don't connect to mmWave 5G. Overall that's a speedy phone. You also get pretty great battery life. Andrew, our reviewer wrote, "On a standard day, I’d typically wind up within spitting distance of a 50 percent charge by the time I hit the pillow."

As for the camera, Samsung reproduced its camera setup for the Galaxy S20, except instead of using a large 64MP sensor with a digital crop, the Galaxy S20 FE actually has an optical 3x sensor. According to Andrew, "Everyday snaps are pretty excellent across the board, with strong detail and vivid coloring, although Samsung’s aggressive processing can give photos an unrealistic sheen at times."

Screen Size: 6.5 inches | Resolution: 2400x1080 | Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 | Camera: 12MP/8MP/12MP rear and 32MP front | Battery: 4,500mAh

"With the same nearly-top-tier Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 processor found in the other Galaxy S20 models, you’ll have no shortage of power on hand in the S20 FE 5G." — Andrew Hayward, Product Tester

Best Compact: Apple iPhone 12 mini

iPhone 12 Mini
What We Like
  • Compact

  • Very powerful

  • Great display

  • 5G

  • Great cameras

What We Don't Like
  • Weaker battery life

  • 60Hz screen

  • No power brick

When Apple announced the iPhone 12 line, one phone that grabbed the most headlines was the iPhone 12 mini. Basically, the iPhone 12 Mini is the iPhone 12 but with a smaller screen and smaller battery. You get everything that's awesome about the iPhone 12 - the processor, the power, the RAM, and the cameras, but in a smaller package that comes with some pluses and minuses.

On the plus side, this is one of the best compact phones you can buy. The trend lately is that bigger phones are better. That's simply not the case here. If you prefer to use your phone one-handed and still want a great display (also at just 60Hz) and 5G connectivity, the iPhone 12 mini is a great choice. But it also comes with a battery that is tiny by modern standards. Typically iOS can run well with less power, but the 2,227 mAh battery struggles to make it through a day.

That being said, if you don't mind topping off throughout the day (though keep in mind Apple doesn't ship a charging brick in the box) then the iPhone mini might be a great choice for you. It's rare that you can find flagship power in such a small package.

Screen Size: 5.4 inches | Resolution: 2340x1080 | Processor: A14 Bionic | Camera: 12MP/12MP rear and12MP front | Battery: 2,227mAh

"This is the fastest chip available in any smartphone today by clear margins, expanding the lead that Apple has gradually grown with each new edition of its mobile system-on-a-chip in recent years."Andrew Hayward, Product Tester

What We Like
  • Awesome cameras

  • 5G

  • 90Hz screen

  • Great battery life

What We Don't Like
  • Expensive for what it is

  • Bland design

Google's Pixel 5 is Google's flagship phone which showcases what Android should be, according to the company that makes it. That doesn't always include top-of-the-line flagship specifications. The Snapdragon 765G on board is a solid performer, but not the best. The 8 GB of RAM is good but not the best. That makes for a confusing value proposition when Google asks for an MSRP of $699. 

But the Google Pixel 5 is still one of our favorite phones of 2020 because of how well Android runs on that hardware.  Our reviewer Andrew writes, "The Pixel 5 feels plenty responsive across the board, and the extra-smooth 90Hz refresh rate only maintains the sense that everything is perfectly snappy. It’s not surprising, since even the less-powerful Pixel 3a models were pretty swift; Google has done a great job of optimizing its Android OS for the hardware."

As for the camera setup, it's simply outstanding. According to Andrew, "between a 12-megapixel wide-angle and 16-megapixel ultra-wide camera on the back, you’ll consistently take great shots with minimal effort. The results typically are more natural-looking than you’ll see from Samsung’s flagship cameras, for example, which tend to provide an overly vibrant look that not everyone will be fond of. From nature to faces, pets, and places, the Pixel 5 is well-equipped to take sharp, detailed snaps in nearly any scenario."

Screen Size: 6.0 inches | Resolution: 2340x1080 | Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G | Camera: 12.2MP/16MP rear and 8MP front | Battery: 4,080mAh

“I recorded a maximum download speed of 1.6Gbps on Verizon’s 5G Ultra Wideband network. That’s the fastest speed I’ve seen anywhere on anything.” Andrew Hayward, Product Tester

Final Verdict

Overall the pick for best overall comes down to a preference. If you like Android, then the Samsung Galaxy S21 is our choice, otherwise, it's the iPhone 12. We give the overall nod to the S21 because of a more versatile camera setup, better display, and awesome better battery life.  The iPhone 12, and even the 12 Pro cameras don't quite measure up. All the same, the iPhone 12 is the best iOS value out there. It's fast, smooth, and has a great camera. You really can't go wrong with either of these choices.

About Our Trusted Experts

Jesse Hollington has been testing and reviewing smartphones and smartphone accessories for over a decade, and has used every smartphone and mobile platform from the early Palm, Symbian, and Windows CE days to the modern era of Apple iPhones and the entire gamut of Android-based phones from the Google Nexus One to the latest Samsung devices.

Andrew Hayward has been covering the latest tech since back in 2006 for a number of major media publications. His top specialty is smartphone and mobile accessories, meaning he was the perfect choice to review a big chunk of the phones on this roundup.

Ajay Kumar is a tech editor at Lifewire who's been covering mobile phones and consumer electronics for nearly a decade. He's been published in PCMag where he's reviewed hundreds of phones, tablets, and other devices. He's personally used several of the phones on this list.

Yoona Wagener has been writing for Lifewire since 2019, covering a wide range of consumer tech including phones, laptops, smart home devices, and more.

Adam Doud has been writing in the technology space for almost a decade. When he's not hosting the Benefit of the Doud podcast, he's playing with the latest phones, tablets, and laptops. When not working, he's a cyclist, geocacher, and spends as much time outside as he can.


Which smartphone has the best camera?

Top-tier smartphones all come with excellent cameras and usually feature multiple rear sensors. You typically get a primary sensor for regular shots, an ultrawide sensor for wide-angle shots, a depth sensor for bokeh, and a telephoto sensor for zoomed shots. This is true of top phones from Apple, Samsung, OnePlus, Google, and others. The Google Pixel lineup is particularly well known for its great software augmentation, allowing for improved low-light shots and post-processing. Both the latest iPhone and Samsung flagships have a great hardware array and AI-enhanced shooting. Take a look at our list of the best smartphone cameras for more details.

What is the best Android smartphone for overseas?

The Android phone market is extensive, with options ranging from the premium end to ultra-budget devices. In terms of pure hardware, the latest flagship from Samsung is typically the best Android phone on the market, though it does have plenty of rivals especially overseas where you'll see great options from Xiaomi, Realme, and even Huawei.

What is the best budget smartphone?

Just because you're on a tight budget doesn't mean you have to settle for less. There are plenty of mid-range and budget options available. While they won't have the latest and greatest processor, you can get plenty of new features like the edge-to-edge design, a sleek build, multiple rear cameras, and even 5G support. Samsung offers phones at many price points, while Nokia has a variety of mid-range options packaged in a stylish design. Motorola and LG both have great workhorses that come with a stylus or offer bigger batteries.

The Ultimate Smartphone Buying Guide

The humble telephone has come a long way over the years. Gone are the days when the phone was simply a way to call people. These days, smartphones are the hub of our digital lives, serving as a way to communicate with people, surf the Web, play games, pay bills, stay organized, and more.

When shopping for a smartphone, there are many factors to consider. First, you'll have to figure out which operating system you want that smartphone to run. And you’ll also want to consider other factors, including the amount of storage, screen size, battery life, and camera quality, to name a few. And so, because a smartphone is one of our most important possessions, it can sometimes be tough to pick out the right one. That, however, is why we’ve put together this guide—to help you find the perfect smartphone for your needs.

Smartphone Operating Systems

So if you decided you want a smartphone, you'll have to then consider which operating system you want to use. The operating system on a smartphone plays the same role as an operating system on a computer. It’s basically the software that you interact with on a daily basis. On an iPhone, the operating system is iOS, while on an Android phone, it’s Android. There are a few advantages and disadvantages to each operating system, which we’ll go over below.


Interested in an Android operating system? Android is the most popular smartphone operating system in the world, and for a number of reasons. For starters, unlike Apple, which only allows for iOS to be used on its iPhones, Google licenses out Android to other companies. That’s why the likes of Samsung, HTC, Huawei, and Google itself all use the Android operating system.

 Lifewire / Claire Cohen

If you’re a tried-and-true Google user, then Android is usually better at working with those apps and services. We’re not just talking about the Google search engine here—other operating systems make good use of that, too. Instead, we’re talking about the Google Play Music streaming service, Google Drive cloud storage, other Google devices like the Google Home smart speaker, and more. Now more than ever, choosing a smartphone operating system is about choosing an ecosystem, and if you go for an Android phone, it might be helpful to either already use Google’s services, or be willing to switch.

Android is also generally considered to be the operating system “that can do more" and has more features. That’s because of the nature of Android—the code for Android is available for developers who want it, and Google is far less closed off than Apple about that. If you’re a tinkerer, or you want to install apps from third-party sources, Android may be the way to go, though we recommend only downloading apps from the Google Play Store to ensure that your phones stay malware-free. The trade-off of being able to do more is that it’s slightly less easy to use than phones with iOS.

Last but not least is the fact that Android phones make use of Google’s work in machine learning and artificial intelligence. The result of that is that Google Assistant is more capable than some other digital assistants, and Android is better at predicting what you might want to do and when you might want to do it.

In the end, there are a few main reasons to go for an Android phone. They can be a little cheaper, they work better with Google’s apps and services, and they’re a little smarter.


Apple’s iOS may not be used by as many people around the world, but in the U.S. it’s actually the dominant smartphone operating system. There are plenty of reasons to go for an iPhone—the phone that runs iOS—over an Android device. The main ones, however, are that it’s built by Apple, and as such it’s both super easy to use, ultra-stylish, and plays nice with other Apple devices.

From the start, iOS guides you through getting used to your phone, and pretty much everything is where you would expect it to be. Settings are all in the settings app, apps are all lined up together, and so on.

Because of the fact that Apple controls every aspect of the development of an iPhone, they can generally last longer and feel faster in how they handle things like multitasking. That doesn’t necessarily mean that iOS phones perform truly better than Android phones—though they often do—it just means that iOS is better at working with the hardware to create a great user experience.

There’s also the fact that iPhones work better with other Apple devices. Safe to say, if you have a Mac computer or iPad, then an iPhone may be the way to go, as it makes it easy to sync things like photos, messages, e-mails, and more, all with Apple’s iCloud.

If you want a simple user interface, better Apple integration, and a phone that performs better for longer, then a phone with iOS is probably the way to go.

Other Features and Considerations

The operating system isn’t the only thing to consider when buying a smartphone, though if you’ve figured out which operating system you want, then you’ve done a lot of the work. You’ll also want to think about the hardware (processor, RAM, etc.) under the hood, the camera, screen size, battery capacity, and more. Only a few of these things are an issue when buying an iPhone (there are only a few iPhone models each year to choose from). But if you’re buying an Android phone, these things might all be something to consider.

 Lifewire / Jordan Provost


The processor is essentially the brain of a computer, or in this case, a phone. More powerful processors basically mean that your phone can “think” faster, meaning tasks are completed quicker, multitasking is zippier, and your phone will perform well for longer. Longevity is important here: A phone with a sub-par processor might be perfectly fine at handling the apps of today, but that may not be true of the apps being released in two years.

There are a few companies developing processors for smartphones. Apple develops its own processors in-house, but the likes of Qualcomm, MediaTek, Samsung, and more, all develop processors for Android phones. In the U.S., Qualcomm chips are most common, and in 2018, the flagship Qualcomm chip is the Snapdragon 845. The higher the number here, the better.

If you want more powerful processors, you’ll want processors with multiple “cores.” Traditional processors can only perform one task at a time, but a dual-core processor can process two, and a quad-core processor can process four.


Storage is perhaps the most important thing for most people to consider. The more storage you have on your phone, the more files, apps, photos, video, etc., that you can keep on there at a time. These days, it’s a little easier to get by with less storage if you use cloud storage like Apple Photos or Google Drive, but some things simply can’t work without being stored on your phone. We recommend getting a phone with at least 16GB of storage (for light users), though 32GB is going to be much better, and 64GB or more should be enough for heavy users.

Some phones also allow for external storage, usually through a MicroSD card slot. With this slot, you can buy a small card about the size of a SIM card, which can be used to store files on. MicroSD cards start at a low price for low-capacity ones and range up from there.


The camera has become one of the most important aspects of a phone. After all, when a phone has a great camera it means you can quickly capture a moment without having to carry around another camera.

There are a few things that make a great camera, but the most important is the software behind it. Two phones with identical camera specs can yield vastly different results, so, unfortunately, it’s near impossible to shop for a phone with a great camera by only looking at specs on paper.

Still, there are a few specs to consider. For starters, the resolution of the camera is important to many people. Resolution determines the number of pixels that make up a photo or video—and a higher number of pixels means the photo will look good on higher resolution displays. As displays continue to go up in resolution, that can be very important.

 Lifewire / Claire Cohen

You’ll also want to think about aperture, which is basically the size of the hole that light goes into before it reaches the camera sensor. The larger the hole, the more light that’s let in—which can be helpful for low-light situations. Aperture is expressed as an f-number—like, for example, f/2.0. Larger apertures, however, are represented by smaller numbers—which is confusing, but unfortunately the way it is.

We recommend looking at reviews for a phone to determine whether the camera is good or not. As mentioned, simple specs don’t mean a whole lot when it comes to camera quality, here are a few phone cameras we highly recommend.


RAM, or Random Access Memory, is another form of storage, but instead of using it to save files, its used by your system to save things that it might want to pull up quickly. Most commonly, open apps are saved in RAM so that when you close them and open them again, they can show up on the screen without having to completely load again.

Generally speaking, more RAM is better when buying a smartphone, but phones with more RAM also often cost more. For a mid-range phone, you’ll probably find phones in the 2GB of RAM range, but for most users, a device with 3GB or more is recommended.

Display Type

When it comes to phones, a screen isn’t just a screen. There are a few different types of displays, and they’re not all created equal.

The most common type of display type in mid-range and low-end phones is the LCD, or Liquid Crystal Display. LCDs are inexpensive to produce, which is why they’re used so often, but the trade-off is that they’re not the best at conserving battery life and they generally don’t produce the deepest blacks or brightest colors. There are two types of LCD’s though: TFT-LCDs, which are cheaper and the worst at color reproduction, and IPS-LCDs, which are a little better at color reproduction and wider viewing angles.

These days, high-end phones are doing away with LCDs in favor of OLED displays. Because OLED displays light up individual pixels rather than the display as a whole, it saves on battery life. On top of that, when black shows up on the screen, OLED displays simply don’t light it, meaning that blacks look deeper, and contrast ratios are higher. You might see “Super AMOLED” displays out there, which is basically Samsung branding for its OLED displays.

You’ll probably only notice the difference between LCD and OLED displays if you have a truly sharp eye, although you might find the battery improvements that come with OLED displays to be worth the extra cash.

Screen Size

Phone display sizes have gotten a whole lot bigger over the years, and that might be important to you. Smaller displays come in at four inches, while larger displays can range up to seven inches. Phone displays are likely to continue to get bigger, too. That’s because of the trend of edge-to-edge displays, which minimize the amount of space between the screen and the edge of the phone and make for phones with larger displays, but the same overall size.

If you like to watch videos, look at photos, or play a lot of games on your phone, you might want to consider buying one with a larger display size.

 Lifewire / Claire Cohen

Biometric Authentication

Gone are the days when you had to enter a PIN code to access your phone. These days, most smartphones have a fingerprint sensor built into them, ensuring you can get into your device quickly and easily, and at the touch of a sensor. Some higher-end phones also have other forms of biometric authentication, like iris scanning or facial recognition.

Many consider fingerprint sensing to be the easiest way to authenticate, especially depending on its placement. While some phones mount a fingerprint sensor on the front of the device, others have a sensor on the back, making it easy to quickly scan your fingerprint as you take your device out of your pocket.

These days, some phones also have facial recognition, which is both safer, and sometimes easier to use. All you have to do to authenticate yourself with facial recognition is look at your phone, which does present some difficulty if your phone is on your desk, for example.

Some other high-end phones also offer iris scanning, which presents its own advantages and disadvantages. The advantages are that iris scanning is highly secure and relatively easy to use, but the disadvantage is that iris scanners are expensive to make and implement.

We recommend a phone with at least a fingerprint scanner, though any other methods of authentication can be useful, too.

Battery Capacity

Not all batteries are the same size, and a smaller battery can have a serious impact on how long your phone lasts on a single charge. Battery capacity is measured in milliampere-hours, or mAh—where a higher number represents a larger capacity. Of course, it’s not always as simple as “larger batteries make your phone last longer.” A phone with a larger battery but an equally high-resolution display and power-hungry processor may not last as long as a phone with a smaller battery, lower-resolution display, and less intense processor.

Most phones that you come across should last at least a day of normal use on a single charge, but the fact remains that bigger batteries are helpful, and battery capacity is definitely something you should consider. We recommend getting a phone with at least a 2,500mAh capacity, though again, how long that lasts will depend on a lot of different factors.


While battery capacity is important enough, for many, how you charge up that battery is equally as important. Many devices simply charge through their charging port, and most low-end and mid-range phones don’t have any fancy fast-charging tech. Some phones, however, have ways to accelerate how fast their battery is charged, at least when coupled with the right charger. This fast-charging tech varies from company to company, but whenever present, it can be very helpful to have.

There’s another charging tech that can be helpful, and that’s wireless charging. Wireless charging has been around for some time now, and some Android manufacturers have been making use of it for years. Just recently, Apple introduced wireless charging on its phones, so the tech has quickly become a whole lot more popular. Wireless charging essentially allows you to charge your phone by popping it onto a charging mat or dock, without having to plug it in. It’s very convenient, but something largely reserved for high-end devices. If you are buying a high-end device, wireless charging is definitely something to consider.

 Lifewire / Claire Cohen


You’ll likely want your phone to be durable, and there are a few ways to make sure it is. The most common rating for durability is an “Ingress Protection” rating, which covers water-resistance and dust-proofing. Most phones that have an IP-rating have at least IP67, which means that a phone is dust-tight and can withstand being immersed in up to one meter of water for up to 30 minutes. A rating with numbers higher than that is always better.

Some phones also have military drop-test ratings, which means they’re tested to be able to withstand drops and bumps. Phones that have this aren’t common, but they should be able to withstand a whole lot more abuse than the standard phone. Most commonly, you’ll see the MIL-STD-810G standard, which means the phone has been tested to withstand a total of 26 drops on each face, edge, and corner. The standard is a little misleading because manufacturers can test with up to five samples, meaning each sample is only dropped five or six times, but it still means that the phone should withstand the odd drop perfectly fine.


As you can tell, there are quite a few things to consider when buying a new smartphone. You’ll then want to decide between Android or iOS. And of course, you still need to figure out a budget, and decide on the specifications that are most important to you (whether they be power-related, display-related, or otherwise). Find the best phone with those specs in your price range, and voila, you have yourself a new phone.

No matter what’s important to you, there’s almost certainly a smartphone that will be perfect for your needs. There are dozens of phones out there, after all, and more are being released every single week.

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