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 flagship for the Samsung Galaxy series of phones, and indeed for most of Android itself, is the Samsung Galaxy S21.
Best Overall (Apple):
Apple iPhone 12 at Apple
For the value, this is the best iPhone you can buy.
If you're someone who values the ability to zoom in from far away - parents, travel bloggers, astrophotographers, this is simply the best camera setup you can get on a phone.
Basically if you want a powerful Apple phone and a fingerprint sensor in a very small package, this is best phone that meets all those criteria.
Best Value (Android):
Google Pixel 4a at Amazon
If you love pure Android and you're working with a budget, snap this up fast.
OnePlus has graduated from flagship killer to actually being a flagship.
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.
If you want a reliable camera that you can whip out of your pocket and grab a good snap every time, this is your phone.

Finding the best smartphones you can buy is not easy. A smartphone is such an intimately personal choice, there are a ton of factors to take into consideration when thinking about a purchase. You're first going to want to pick between iOS and Android. iOS tends to be more simple in how it works, plus it comes with a whole ecosystem of devices that all work together in phenomenal ways. Android's main strength comes with its diversity. Regardless of your interests or focuses, there's an Android for you. If you want a bigger battery, an amazing camera, or an awesome screen, Android has an offering for you.

Budget is a huge consideration as well, and both iOS and Android have offerings that can fit your budget. Maybe you want the cream of the crop in a flagship. Maybe you're looking for something more moderately priced. Most, but not all phones can connect to 5G. Most, but not all phones in this list have multiple camera sensors. Our experts have examined offerings up and down the list of specifications and we've come up with our favorites. Read on for our recommendations!

Best overall: Samsung Galaxy S21

Samsung Galaxy S21
What We Like
  • 120Hz screen is gorgeous

  • Powerful

  • Cameras are great

What We Don't Like
  • Just OK battery life

  • No MicroSD

  • Plastic backplate

The flagship for the Samsung Galaxy series of phones, and indeed for most of Android itself, is the Samsung Galaxy S21. The Galaxy S21 comes in three different versions - the Galaxy S21, the Galaxy S21 Plus, and the Galaxy S21 Ultra. We'll discuss the Galaxy Ultra later, which leaves us with the Galaxy S21 and S21 Plus. They're both very similar with the Plus version carrying a larger screen, larger battery, and larger price tag. Most of what we'll say about the Galaxy S21 rings true for the S21 Plus, so if you like what you see here but want something a bit bigger, the S21 Plus (View on Amazon) is your pick.

The Samsung Galaxy S21 comes with a 6.2-inch FHD+ screen with a 120Hz refresh rate. It has great viewing angles and is what our reviewer Andrew calls "utterly gorgeous". It's bright and vibrant, everything you'd expect from a Samsung display. The processor is top-of-the-line Qualcomm Snapdragon 888, boasting a 9% speed improvement over the last generation of Samsung phones. The S21 also has 8GB of RAM and 128 or 256GB of storage which is not expandable via a microSD card.

The S21 has three cameras including a 12-megapixel main sensor, 12-megapixel ultrawide sensor, and 64 megapixel 3x lossless zoom lens. Andrew writes, "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." Put all that together and this isn't just the best Android phone you can buy today, but it's arguably the best smartphone overall.

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
  • Beautiful

  • Powerful

  • First 5G iPhone

  • Amazing cameras

What We Don't Like
  • 60Hz screen

  • Only 4GB of RAM

  • No included power brick

The iPhone 12 is the latest phone from Apple and of course, it's the best it has ever made. Once again we had to choose between the iPhone 12 and the iPhone 12 Pro. We went with the iPhone 12 because in our opinion it offers the best value. With the iPhone 12 Pro, you get some additional RAM, a 2X optical zoom camera, and additional camera features like Lidar. Those are nice, but we're not convinced they're worth extra money. That being said, the iPhone 12 Pro (View on Amazon) is a really great phone.

What comes new to the iPhone 12 is a squared-off design, reminiscent of the iPhone 4, plus 5G connectivity. The A14 Bionic chip is an absolute beast. We tested it in benchmarks where it scored higher than Qualcomm's latest Snapdragon 888. The phone only has 4GB of RAM, which is far below standard for 2021, but it doesn't affect the day-to-day performance of the phone. We really only bring that up in case you have future proofing concerns. Other shortcomings include a lack of charging brick in the box. Apple claims this is for environmental reasons, so we'll give them a reluctant pass. The screen on the iPhone also only has a 60Hz refresh rate which is quickly becoming substandard. 

The iPhone 12 has a dual-camera setup including a 12-megapixel main sensor and a 12-megapixel ultrawide sensor. There is very little color deviation between the two sensors, which means you'll get the same colors with either sensor. Andrew, our reviewer writes that you'll get, "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."

Overall, for the value, this is the best iPhone you can buy. You can also check out the iPhone 12 Mini below if you want something more svelte, or the iPhone 12 Pro we mentioned earlier for a little more camera power.

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
  • Unparalleled camera

  • Huge, 120Hz screen

  • Blazing performance

  • Excellent battery life

What We Don't Like
  • Pricey

  • No charger in the box

  • No microSD

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra really earns its name by being the absolute top of the class in every way, but especially in photography. In addition to the 108MP main camera, and 12 MP ultrawide, this phone carries dual optical zoom sensors at 3X and 10X. The photos you can get with this phone are simply incredible. If you're someone who values the ability to zoom in from far away - parents, travel bloggers, astrophotographers, this is simply the best camera setup you can get on a phone.

As for the rest of the phone, you get the top of the line in every respect. You'll get the Snapdragon 888, 12GB of RAM, and up to 512GB of storage. Add to that you get a 5,000 mAh battery, 6.8-inch screen with a WQHD resolution, and 120Hz variable refresh rate. Of course, all that means is the phone is huge and fills up every inch of your pants pocket.

The phone is also very pricey with a $1,199 MSRP. Adding insult to injury, this phone ships without a charging brick. That's upsetting when you're buying a $799 iPhone, but it's borderline criminal at $1,199. But if you want the very best camera on the very best phone, that comes at a premium to be sure. This phone earns the name Ultra in every possible way.

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

  • Inexpensive

  • Good camera

  • Small, compact

What We Don't Like
  • Battery life is weak

  • Design is dated

  • No 5G

In early 2020, Apple wanted to offer most of what made the iPhone 11 great, but at a substantially lower price. The iPhone SE (2020) was the result. This little phone comes in a compact package but still carries the A13 bionic processor. From a benchmark perspective, the A13 beats out even 2021 flagship phones like the Galaxy S21. The iPhone SE also has the same RAM and storage options, but it's all behind a diminutive 4.7-inch screen and Touch-ID enabled home button. The phone has a single 12MP camera which is about as good as a single camera can be on a phone.

The phone mimic's the iPhone 6 in terms of design, so some consider it dated. But the iPhone SE is more for people who want a powerful phone, but don't want to carry a phone which is big enough to land small planes. Apple did leave out 5G connectivity and indeed wouldn't debut a 5G iPhone for another 6 months after the iPhone SE came out. The battery life is also not great on this phone. The battery compromise that had to be made to get the phone this small also means the phone has trouble getting through a day. Bu the phone does offer wireless charging which is another nice bonus. 

Basically, if you want a powerful Apple phone and a fingerprint in a very small package, this is the best phone that meets all those criteria.

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
  • Solid camera

  • Great performance

  • Good battery

What We Don't Like
  • 5G missing

  • Boring design

Pixel phones are phones that are made by Google, which also makes Android. One area where Google Pixel phones have consistently stood out is in photography. Google uses the Pixel as a showcase for what Android can be. Add to that, Google typically treats its own phones to perks like feature drops and updates earlier than just about any other Android phone. The A-series of Pixels tend to have a little less power and be a little less pretty, but otherwise, give you an amazing Android experience.

The Google Pixel 4a delivers a quality Android experience, powered by the Snapdragon 730G mid-range processor along with 6GB of RAM. Those specifications aren't awesome on their own, but Android runs very smoothly on them and delivers a great experience, along with all-day battery life. The phone has a single camera that our reviewer Andrew describes as "so consistent that I’d take it over the multi-camera modules of much more expensive phones with underwhelming cameras."

If you're looking for a beautiful phone, look elsewhere. This phone is very plain looking. Plus, the Pixel 4a leaves off 5G. Google has another phone, the Pixel 4a 5G (View on Amazon) which can access 5G networks, as its name implies, but that's not the one we're recommending here. For now, the Pixel 4a sits under $350 and it's 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

Best Design: OnePlus 9 Pro

OnePlus 9 Pro
What We Like
  • Very good camera

  • 5G

  • Charges crazy fast

  • QHD display with 120Hz refresh rate

What We Don't Like
  • Slippery

  • 5G not supported on all networks

OnePlus began its journey into the smartphone space as the "flagship killer" by promoting phones with really great specifications for a very low price. These days, OnePlus has graduated from flagship killer to actually being a flagship. OnePlus's latest offering, the OnePlus 9 Pro, is the best phone OnePlus has ever made and it shows in many ways. OnePlus's latest flagship brings high specifications, very good cameras, and 5G on two of America's three 5G networks. AT&T doesn't support the OnePlus 9Pro on its 5G network, but Verizon and T-Mobile do.

OnePlus has had a reputation up until now of delivering great specs, but with consistently substandard cameras. That's no longer the case as the OnePlus 9 Pro delivers a very good camera experience as well. The phone has a triple camera setup including a 3.3x optical zoom. All of the cameras are tuned by Hasselblad which gives you good performance in most lighting conditions.

One area where the OnePlus 9 particularly excels is in the area of charging. OnePlus not only ships a charging brick in the box but that charging brick delivers an astonishing 65W of charging, bringing your phone from zero to full in just 33 minutes. A wireless charger sold separately can charge your phone from 1% to 70% in just 30 minutes. These amazing charge times can save your day if you need to top off quickly before heading out for the evening, or if you forget to plug in your phone overnight and need some juice before heading to work.

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

The Samsung Galaxy S20 FE is something of a compromise and course correction all in one. The "fan edition" of the Galaxy S20 cuts back on a lot of the extras of its flagship siblings while still providing an excellent core of functionality. You get a 1080p screen with a 120Hz refresh rate. The phone has a plastic back, but it still has wireless charging. In short, if you're willing to accept a little compromise, you're otherwise getting a whole lot of phone.

You still get the Snapdragon 865 processor, 6 or 8 GB of RAM, and 128 or 256GB of storage. You get 5G, but not mmWave 5G. Overall, this is a speedy phone with a really good 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 setup, you get the same cameras found on the Samsung Galaxy S20 except instead of a cropped 64GB cropped sensor, you get a 3x optical zoom. 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 launched the iPhone 12, many reviewers leaned toward the iPhone 12 mini. The iPhone 12 mini has everything the iPhone 12 has but comes in a smaller package with a smaller battery. Everything else is the same including the processor, RAM, storage, and cameras. 

On the plus side, this makes this one of the most powerful compact phones you can buy. You get the powerful A14 bionic processor and great cameras, plus 5G connectivity. But the trade-off is that the battery is tiny by most modern standards and it can struggle to make it through a full day on a single charge. iOS usually runs well on a smaller battery, but in the case of the iPhone 12 Mini, the battery might be a little too small.

Of course, if you don't mind charging up a bit during the day, or while you're at work, that's not a problem at all. The iPhone 12 Mini has flagship power in a tiny package that slips easily into your pocket or your bag.

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

Best Google: Google Pixel 5a 5G

What We Like
  • Amazing cameras

  • 5G

  • Great battery life

What We Don't Like
  • 60Hz refresh rate

  • Cheap plastic build

Google built its Pixel phones to showcase the best of Android, at least according to Google. The Google Pixel 5a is a sort of combination of last year's Pixel 5 and Pixel 4a 5G. Put those phones together and you get the Pixel 5a, which is the best Google experience you can buy at the moment, at least until the Pixel 6 comes out this fall. After that, the Pixel 5a will still be a great budget option, with 5G which places it more of a premium than the Pixel 4a above. 

In his review of the Pixel 5, our reviewer Andrew wrote, "The Pixel 5 feels plenty responsive across the board...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." The Pixel 5a runs the same version of Android on the same processor and it's just as smooth. What's more, the Pixel 5a comes in at $250 less than the Pixel 5, with only some small compromises. Gone is the 90Hz refresh rate, in favor of an increasingly less common 60Hz. Plus, the polycarbonate body of the Pixel 5a won't win any awards, and like the Pixel 4a, it only comes in black.

The Pixel 5a uses the exact same camera setup as the Pixel 5, about which Andrew wrote, "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." The camera on this phone is really good, though a bit dated. But if you want a reliable camera that you can whip out of your pocket and grab a good snap every time, this is your phone.

Screen Size: 6.34 inches | Resolution: 2400x1080 | Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G | Camera: 12.2MP/16MP rear and 8MP front | Battery: 4,680mAh

“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.

FAQs

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.

Android

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.

Smartphone
 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.

iOS

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.

Smartphone
 Lifewire / Jordan Provost

Processor

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

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.

Camera

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.

Smartphone
 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

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.

Smartphone
 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.

Charging

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.

Smartphone
 Lifewire / Claire Cohen

Durability

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.

Conclusion

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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