Top smartphones for any user and any budget
The odds are good that you, or someone in your family, has a smartphone. The latest data from the Pew Research Center puts smartphone ownership at 65 percent of adult Americans, up from 35 percent just four years ago. It's no wonder, then, that manufacturers have ramped up the assembly lines to churn out lots and lots of smartphones.
Go onto any of the plethora of online forums dedicated to smartphones and you'll find "spirited discussions" over the benefits and foibles of one phone over another. While people can be passionate about their preferences, no one smartphone is ideal for every situation and user. Features, user interfaces, size, weight, price and more can make or break the user experience. It also matters what you need your smartphone for: Do you want a flagship model for life online 24/7, or a low-cost device for making calls and occasionally checking emails?
Virtually all smartphones currently available run one of four operating systems:
Apple and the original iPhone are, in many ways, what's responsible for the current popularity of smartphones. The iPhone set the world on fire when introduced in 2007. Its icon-based user interface (UI) was intuitive and easy to use, and remains so to this day. Refreshes to its operating system (the iPhone is currently on iOS 8, with iOS 9 set for release in the fall of 2015) have brought new features and innovations, such as the Siri voice-activated personal assistant, without compromising or even changing very much the iPhone's well-liked and familiar functionality. Having the software and hardware designed to work together from the start, and only with each other, helps assure seamless operation.
But the rock-solid iPhone experience has its price. Apple iOS is a fairly locked down operating system (OS) with limited options for customization. Apps and other content come exclusively from iTunes -- you even need iTunes to add your own content to your phone. Similarly, you can't peek behind the curtain to access files (including music, photos, videos, documents, etc.), directly, only through their associated apps. On the plus side, the iTunes app store is huge -- and hugely popular; as of July 2015, the iTunes app library hosted 1.5 million titles according to data provided by Statista.com. In June 2015, Apple announced that it had exceeded 100 billion app downloads in the seven years since the iTunes app store launched. If you want an iPhone, a last generation iPhone 5c can be bought at retail for around $300 and prices go up from there to $950 for an iPhone 6 plus with 128 GB of storage.
Android phones are offered by a number of smartphone makers, as opposed to just Apple for iOS. Therefore, while it might come as a surprise that Android phones have a bigger share of the market than Apple, it shouldn't -- and in fact, it's not even close. About 14.8 percent of the smartphone marketplace goes to the iPhone, while the many, many available Android phones make up 81.5 percent, according to research conducted by IDC.
But saying that a phone runs Android is only part of the picture. Unlike iOS, Android is an open-sourced operating system, and manufacturers are free to develop their own "flavors" of Android to offer or remove features to make their devices unique -- and most take full advantage of that -- for better or worse.
Most new Android phones run the latest version of the operating system, code named Lollipop, though some older phones, and even some new budget smartphones, run the last generation version, called Kit-Kat. A new generation of the OS, just called Android M for now, is under development and is expected to be released for some (but not all) phones sometime in late 2015. There's also an active community of enthusiasts that have created their own "ROMs," custom versions of Android that alter the user interface and allow access to features and functions that the manufacturer or carrier may have changed or removed.
Google Play is the primary source for Android apps, and it's grown in size over the years to the point where it is now slightly larger than iTunes, per Statista.com, with 1.6 million apps as of July 2015. In addition, there are third party app stores where additional content can be obtained. Those include the Amazon Appstore, which hosted 400,000 apps as of July 2015, though many of those apps are also available via Google Play.
Android phones are available at a wide variety of price points and performance levels. Basic models can be had for less than $100. The trade-off is that these lag in performance, display quality, features, design and durability compared to premium flagship phones like the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge, which can top $900. However, those basic phones are perfectly fine for everyday use in making calls, texting, reading emails, browsing the Internet, taking casual snapshots, finding your way home via GPS, casual gaming and more.
Windows phones continue to struggle to gain a foothold (Windows phones make up under 3 percent of the market according to the IDC research), and Microsoft's venture into mobile-phone hardware has not gone well. The upside is familiarity for laptop and desktop Windows users, but you can achieve that without a Windows phone. Apps to access Microsoft applications such as Office are available for both iOS and Android phones. Speaking of apps, the Microsoft app store continues to trail its iOS and Android competitors by a wide margin, with 340,000 apps as of July 2015. While you won't find a high-end phone that runs Windows, a few mid-grade and budget phones with good performance and build quality surface in reviews. Examples include the Microsoft Lumia 640 XL LTE (Est. $250). At CNET, Nic Healey writes "It's no flagship, but the Microsoft Lumia 640 XL LTE offers a solid big-screen experience at a budget price point that's hard to beat."
Blackberry phones are still around, and the company even introduced a new model this year. While some full touchscreen models are available, Blackberry users largely select these phones for their superior mechanical keyboard, which is a lot easier to use for creating texts, emails and other documents than the virtual keyboards found on other smartphones. Experts say that Blackberry devices fall short in carrying out other tasks, however. The native Blackberry app library is very limited, just 130,000 apps as of July 2015, and, while the current Blackberry operating system runs Android apps, you can't get those from the official Google Play Store, only from third-party app stores like the Amazon Appstore. In addition, the physical keyboard on most Blackberry phones, such as the new Blackberry Classic (Est. $350), squeezes down the screen size -- the Blackberry Classic's display is only 3.5-inches. Reviews for the Blackberry Classic aren't terrible, but the consensus is that while Blackberry fans will be pleased, the phone offers few reasons for non-Blackberry users to consider it.
In the past, it was common to quote phone prices as the subsidized price at a particular carrier in exchange for agreeing to a two-year contract with stiff early termination penalties -- and many reviewers still do that. However, changes in carrier practices -- including the discouragement and/or discontinuation of subsidized phones -- has exposed the true cost of the devices.
In many cases, subsidized phones are not even an option any longer. For example, if you are a T-Mobile subscriber, your only option is to buy the phone at full retail or with the full retail spread out over two years. In early August 2015, Verizon announced that it, too, will be eliminating subsidized phones. Prepaid subscribers can also usually only buy their phones at full retail or on a payment plan. Meanwhile Sprint offers plans where you can lease instead of buy the phone outright -- the monthly costs are lower, but there's a minimum term and the lease payments continue on until you return the phone or pay a lease buyout fee. Early upgrade programs available from some carriers, which forgive some payments if you purchase a new phone, muddy the waters even more.
We look into all of these myriad plans and offerings in our reports on cell phone plans and prepaid cell phone plans. But for the purposes of this report, and so that we are comparing apples to apples (or is it Apples to Samsungs?), all prices quoted here are the full retail price of the device, without a carrier subsidy.
Finding the best smartphones
To find the best smartphones, editors consider factors such as performance, features (including the quality of the camera), reliability and value. We look at feedback from top experts, such as CNET, PCMag.com, and many more. We also look at user reviews posted at top retailers, such as Amazon.com and BestBuy.com, as well as at major carriers. The result is our selections of the Best Reviewed smartphones for every user, and every budget.
Elsewhere in this report:
Best Android Smartphones | Best iPhones | Best Cheap Smartphones | Cellphones for Kids and Seniors | Buying Guide | Our Sources