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 77 percent of adult Americans, up from 35 percent in 2011. 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?
While Windows and Blackberry smartphones are available, most current, well-regarded smartphones run either the iOS (Apple) or Android operating system.
Apple's iPhone set the world on fire when introduced in 2007, and is largely responsible for the current popularity of smartphones. Its icon-based user interface (UI) was intuitive and easy to use, and remains so to this day. Refreshes to its operating system have brought new features and innovations 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 January 2017, the iTunes app library hosted 2.2 million titles according to data provided by Statista.com.
Android phones are offered by a number of smartphone makers, as opposed to just Apple for iOS. 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 many take full advantage of that -- for better or worse.
Many new Android phones run the latest version of the operating system, code named Nougat, though some older phones, and even some new budget smartphones, run previous generation versions, such as Marshmallow, Lollipop and Kit-Kat. 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 larger than iTunes, per Statista.com, with 2.6 million apps as of December 2016. In addition, there are third party app stores where additional content can be obtained. Those include the Amazon Appstore, which hosted 600,000 apps as of April 2016, though many of those apps are also available via Google Play.
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. Whether you opt for a traditional or prepaid plan, the options are to pay the full retail price up front, or subscribe to a device payment plan that spreads out the cost over a set period of months 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. Also, if your phone is your primary source for music, you might want to check out our suggestions for the best wireless speakers, which we cover in their own report.
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 evaluate 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.
Regardless of which expert you ask, or which group of users you survey, three smartphones invariably bubble up to the top of the list of the very best you can buy. These phones have three things in common: They are exceedingly sophisticated, exceedingly powerful and, alas, exceedingly expensive. However, if getting the ultimate smartphone experience is tops on your list, one of these devices will be the one you want.
Edging the pack, but by only a touch, is the Apple iPhone 7 Plus (Est. $770 and up). It's bigger and pricier than the regular Apple iPhone 7 (Est. $700 and up), but experts say that the larger screen (5.5 versus 5 inches); increased RAM (from 2 GB to 3 GB) for better performance; longer-lasting battery; and a second 12 MP (megapixel) rear camera (which features a telephoto lens and a 2x optical zoom) make it worth its premium. In naming it an Editors' Choice, PCMag.com says that "the iPhone 7 Plus offers enough benefits and improvements to make it worth your while."
The two rear cameras add versatility to your shots, and can allow for special effects, such as blurred background photos that approach, but don't quite equal, similar effects that you can get in a DSLR (digital SLR) camera, which are covered in their own report. CNET is impressed enough with camera performance to name it "the photographer's phone," with Scott Stein adding that "The iPhone 7 Plus is one of the best point-and-shoot cameras ever -- and it's a great phone, too."
Speaking of which, benchmark testing reveals that the iPhone 7 Plus is one powerful device. "Apple says that the four-core A10 Fusion processor is the most powerful chip ever in a smartphone, and our test results back that up," says Tom's Guide, which names it an Editors' Choice.
There are other pluses … and some minuses. On the plus side, the phone now meets IP67 certification, which means it can be dunked into shallow water for up to a half hour with no ill effects. No more horror stories about phones dropped into toilets or sinks, it appears, and experts have been busy dunking and plunking their test iPhone 7's and have verified that it, indeed, is now water resistant -- though, as PCMag.com notes, taking it for a swim is still a no-no. The base version now ships with a more appropriate 32 GB of storage rather than 16 GB as was the previous norm. You can opt for versions with 128 or 256 GB of memory instead, but each jump will add an additional $100 to the price. There is no microSD card slot, so that avenue isn't open to those that want to expand storage after purchase. In addition to the rear camera(s), the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus have a 7 MP front camera as well.
The display on the 7 Plus is judged to be better than on previous-generation iPhones, and Apple claims that it is 25 percent brighter and displays colors more accurately. Whether or not that's visible in real-world use is subject to a split decision among reviewers. What's not a split decision is that regardless, the screen, though still very nice, lacks some of the punch found on the AMOLED displays used by some of the iPhone's closest Android competitors. The most controversial decision Apple has made in regards to the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 plus is the elimination of the audio jack. Apple does include a Lightning to 3.5 mm audio jack adapter in the box, as well as a set of earbuds with a Lightning connector, which helps eliminate some, but not all, of the annoyance in the eyes of some users and experts. Bluetooth is the other option (and we cover Bluetooth headsets in their own report), but feedback at PCMag.com and elsewhere indicates that the iPhone 7s plays best with Apple-sourced Bluetooth headphones, such as the Apple AirPods (Est. $160).
If you don't want a large phone, or don't care for the price tag of the 7 Plus, there are a few iPhone alternatives worth considering. As noted, experts mostly point to the iPhone 7 Plus as a better option than the standard iPhone 7 as Apple seems to have reserved its most significant hardware improvements for that device. Still, the iPhone 7 offers some advantages of its own, including the aforementioned water resistance. You don't get the twin rear shooters of the iPhone 7 Plus, but reviews indicate that the camera is a notable improvement over the already well-regarded one in last year's iPhone 6s.
Speaking of which, the iPhone 6s (Est. $600 and up) remains available. While the iPhone 7 is an improvement over that phone, a lot of experts wonder if it's enough of an improvement to be worth upgrading to unless you actually need a new device. Given that the 6s got very strong reviews when first introduced, those considering a standard iPhone 7 should probably give the older but still capable device a look as well to see if it is enough phone to meet their needs. In addition, the iPhone 6s has one important plus -- it still has a standard headphone jack.
If the iPhone 6s is still too pricy for your budget, check out our discussion of mid-range smartphones (below) for information on the cheapest iPhone yet.
On the Android side of things, our pick as the top flagship phone is the HTC-made Google Pixel (Est. $650 and up) . Two versions are available, the standard 5-inch Pixel, and the 5.5-inch Google Pixel XL (Est. $770 and up). While there are substantial differences between the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 plus, other than a higher resolution AMOLED display for the Pixel XL (1,440 x 2,560 versus 1,080 x 1,920) and slightly better battery life (thanks to the bigger phone's bigger battery), the devices are functionally identical, so opt for the screen size that best fits your needs and/or budget.
The Pixel is marketed as a Verizon exclusive, but that's really just marketing. Every Pixel sold by an authorized dealer in the U.S. is sold unlocked and can be used on any postpaid or prepaid wireless carrier that allows you to bring your own phone, and it's the only current production phone that will work on Google's Project Fi service, named the Best Reviewed monthly prepaid plan in our report on prepaid cell phone plans. In addition to Verizon, the phones are available direct from Google and at BestBuy.com.
As is the case with the iPhone 7 plus, all experts either love or very much like the Pixel. It's an Editor's Choice selection at PCMag.com and Tom's Guide, and enjoys good ratings by virtually every reviewer we deem credible. "The Google Pixel remains our favorite phone, bar none -- unless you're looking for a bigger screen, in which case we'd recommend its big brother, the Pixel XL," says CNET. It's the runner-up best phone at TheVerge.com, trailing the iPhone 7 largely because it doesn't have the same water resistance as Apple's device, but still draws tons of praise. "It's the best Android phone ever made, and the closest thing to an "it just works" experience you can get in Google's world," the editors say.
One of the major pluses is that the Pixel runs a "pure" version of Android, without the heavy customizations that most makers add to their phones to make them unique, but that also can get in the way of both usability and performance. In benchmark testing, it scores similarly to other Android flagship phones, though those are, in turn, beat by the benchmark performance of the iPhone 7. Does that matter? Not really, opines CNET, which says "And when it comes to regular people and how we use our phones every day, the differences in these benchmarks aren't very discernable in real life. Any of these flagship phones should be fast enough to satisfy most of your mobile needs."
The 12.3 MP camera on the Pixel is superb; so good in fact that it rivals that of the iPhone 7 Plus, at least when it comes to standard photos, edging out the iPhone 7 Plus in terms of color, background detail and low light performance in particular in CNET's head to head comparison. It lacks the second rear camera and telephoto lens of the Plus, however. Selfie shooters will find a very capable 8 MP front camera as well.
Apple is known for its quality support, but Google looks to be fully engaged on that front as well. The phone includes 24/7 live support that lets you text questions or ask for a call from Google tech support. PCMag.com tests this feature and is impressed. "Support quality varied from person to person, but all were eager to assist and one even followed up by email and offered a return merchandise authorization to make sure our issue was resolved." The Pixel is also the first phone to have Google Assistant built-in; Google Assistant is the company's answer to Apple's Siri, and reviewers say that it works well now, and should only get better over time.
Reviewers don't find a ton of negatives, outside of price. It lacks the water resistance of the iPhone 7, so if you drop it in a toilet, you are probably sunk. Like the iPhone 7, memory isn't expandable; 32 GB is standard, and an upgrade to 128 GB is a $100 surcharge in either version.
The third flagship phone that rates tops in most experts' eyes is the Samsung Galaxy S7 (Est. $570). Reviews are as glowing as those for Google Pixel and Apple iPhone 7 Plus. This 5.1-inch phone is also available in an upsized. 5.5-inch version as the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge (Est. $670). Aside from the larger screen, the key difference is a screen that wraps around the edges of the phone to reach to its back. The look is stunning, and the feature is more functional than in past versions, says PCMag.com, which names the Edge an Editors' Choice.
Performance is right up there with the Pixel, and like the iPhone 7 Plus, it's water resistant. In fact, it carries an IP68 rating, which means that while the iPhone 7 Plus can withstand being submerged in one meter of water for 30 minutes, the Galaxy S7 can withstand depths of up to 1.5 meters for the same amount of time. The phone ships with 32 GB of storage, but unlike either the iPhone or the Pixel, it can accept a microSD card for storing videos, photos and other space-hogging files. Both versions of the S7 sport AMOLED screens with 2560 x 1440 (quad HD) resolution, and reviewers say that they are a pleasure to look at. The 12 MP rear camera is very capable, and capable of lots of tricks, such as blurred background Portrait shots, though, like the Pixel, it's still less versatile than the twin shooters on the iPhone 7 Plus. At 5 MP, the front camera is lower resolution than those on its two chief rivals, though selfie-shooters should still be happy enough with it.
There's one other thing to note about the S7s; they are about to be obsolete. Samsung is set to unveil its next generation Galaxy S8 at the end of March 2017, with the device(s) expected to go on sale sometime in April. Rumors abound at press time, though there are few confirmable facts. Still, speculation is that this is expected to be one very impressive phone.
What this means is that if you are in the market for a Galaxy phone, the best advice is to wait. If you are the type that demands the best of the best, the new phone will almost certainly be an upgrade of the current model, and if patterns hold, the pricing should be similar. And if the Samsung Galaxy S7 is more than good enough for your needs, prices should drop after the new devices launch, and it should remain on the market for quite some time. As an example, the Galaxy S6 (Est. $450) can still be purchased at retail nearly a year after it was replaced by the S7.
Not everyone has the need, or the budget, to opt for one of the Apple or Android flagship phones profiled above. The good news is that there are several solid mid-range phones that provide many of the pluses of flagship phones without their most significant downside -- a high price tag.
Among mid-range devices, we found some terrific feedback for the OnePlus 3T (Est. $440). It's an Editor's Choice at Tom's Guide as the smartphone with the "best bang for your buck." It's an Editors' Choice pick at CNET as well, which names it "The best midprice phone" and "the new standout in its category." TheVerge.com chimes in by adding "The OnePlus 3T is the best smartphone value you can buy."
The 3T is a modest upgrade of the now discontinued OnePlus 3, which was also regarded as an exceptional value. Some reviewers grouse that the modest improvements -- a faster processor, better front camera and improved battery life -- aren't worth the 10 percent bump up in price compared to its predecessor, but even the most-curmudgeonly of those admit that the 3T is still a pretty good buy.
Performance is exceptional at this price point. It proves to be faster than the Samsung Galaxy S7 in benchmark testing by CNET, and just as fast as the Google Pixel, which uses the same Snapdragon 821 processor. It's also got a well-regarded 5.5-inch AMOLED display with a resolution of 1,920x1,080. It ships with 64 GB of storage, and an upgrade to 128 GB is available as a $40 upgrade. There's no memory-card slot, so there's no way to increase storage post-purchase.
The 3T features front and rear 16 MP cameras. Experts say the cameras are generally solid, though the rear camera is step below what you'll find on flagship phones like the Pixel, Galaxy 7 and iPhone 7 Plus. Low light performance is a particular shortcoming, according to reviews.
Like most Android phone makers, OnePlus has its own user interface, called OxygenOS; it's not as clean as the pure Android experience you'll get on the Pixel, but it's not very heavy handed, with PCMag.com saying that it's a "lightweight skin with a look that should be immediately familiar [to] Nexus users." Originally issued with Android Marshmallow, it now has been updated to run under Nougat.
There are a couple of minuses. Though available elsewhere, the best pricing is direct from the manufacturer, OnePlus. The other is that while the flagship phones profiled above ship with radios for all U.S. carriers, the OnePlus 3T only supports GSM carriers in the U.S. (AT&T and T-Mobile, plus other carriers that use those networks). There is no support for Verizon, Sprint or other CDMA networks.
The ZTE Axon 7 (Est. $395) is another mid-priced Android alternative. It's a little cheaper than the OnePlus 3T and largely similar, but with different pluses and minuses. Some reviewers, such as PCMag.com, which names it an Editors' Choice, like it better than the 3T, while others, such as CNET, like it less. All agree it's a competent performer, on a par with the 3T, and even flagship phones.
It ships with 64 GB of storage, and there's a microSD card slot so that users can expand storage if desired. It features a 5.5-inch 2,560-by-1,440 AMOLED display. The 20 MP rear camera and 8 MP front camera are solid, but don't overly impress even the phone's biggest fans; "Camera performance is good, but it didn't blow me away," PCMag.com says.
On the downside, the phone is physically heavy compared to many competitors, CNET notes. It also sports a fairly intrusive user interface, called MiFavor, which changes the look and functionality of some basic features, such as the app icons and lock screen, and that includes animations that can slow down the works somewhat. CNET reports that the phone includes an option to switch out of MiFavor interface to an alternate "pseudo-stock" interface that comes somewhat close to replicating that of pure Android. Like the 3T, the Axon 7 will only work on AT&T, T-Mobile and other GSM carriers that use their networks, such as MetroPCS and Cricket.
Finally, iPhone fans looking for a mid-priced alternative have the Apple iPhone SE (Est. $400 and up). Apple's cheapest ever iPhone, it lacks the size and the cutting edge tech of the other phones in its price range, let alone that of flagship phones. What it doesn't lack is the ability to deliver the full iPhone experience. As CNET notes, the SE "Packs nearly every worthwhile feature (processor, great camera, Apple Pay, always-on Siri) from iPhone 6S into a smaller, more affordable 4-inch phone." Yes, that means accepting a phone that is built on technology that was cutting edge in 2015, but that doesn't mean that it's completely -- or even mostly -- outdated.
Reviews are solid all around, highlighted by an Editors' Choice selection by PCMag.com. It's an especially good choice for those that prefer the more pocketable 4-inch form factor. Benchmark testing indicates that the A9 processor lags what you can expect in newer phones, but reviewers say it is still more than responsive enough to handle virtually anything an iPhone user is likely to throw at it. The 12 MP rear camera is well liked and performs well, but, again, expect better performance from the iPhone 7 Plus or the Android flagship phones highlighted in this report. There's also a 1.2 MP front camera for Apple Facetime or selfie shooting. And unlike the iPhone 7 or iPhone 7 Plus, you'll find a standard audio jack.
Value is excellent for an iPhone, though with an important caveat. The phone ships with only 16 GB of non-expandable memory -- too little, most experts say. An upgrade to 64 GB is available, and adds around $50 to the base price. It's available unlocked, or for use on any of the four major carriers.
For those that want a competent smartphone at a hard to beat price, the Motorola Moto G4 (Est. $130 and up) belongs at the top of your shopping list. The best value is as an Amazon.com exclusive for Prime members only, and you'll need to accept some not-that-obtrusive lock screen ads as part of the deal. But even at its everyday pricing, the value is rock solid.
Reviewers are mostly impressed with the Moto G4. It's an Editors' Choice at CNET, and draws positive feedback from other reviewers including PCMag.com and TechRadar.com. There is one caveat, however. Motorola announced a successor model, the Moto G5, at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in late February. However, at present, the G5 is not scheduled for sale in the U.S., so the G4 should be with us for a while.
In terms of performance, the G4 lags behind the flagship and mid-range smartphones profiled above. It's fine for typical use, reviewers say, but if you do intensive gaming on your phone, the G4 isn't an appropriate choice. The base model ships with 16 GB of storage, but that can be expanded via a microSD card. A step up version with 32 GB of built-in storage adds $20 to the price.
You won't find an AMOLED display, but the 5.5-inch, 1,920-by-1,080 screen is generally described as bright and crisp. Battery life is solid as well. The cameras are unremarkable, but the 13 MP rear shooter and the 5 MP front one are largely deemed as solid for capturing quick images on the fly. The user interface isn't stock Android, but is pretty close to it, with a minimum of customization and relatively little of the extra software, called bloatware, that other makers load up on cheaper phones. The phone is said to be splash resistant but is not truly waterproof to any degree. That means that while it will survive some rain drops with no ill effects, any dip into water will likely spell curtains for the device. Unlike many cheaper smartphones, which are limited to GSM network providers only, the G4 is sold unlocked and can be activated on virtually every U.S. carrier.
Motorola also offers a step up version, the Motorola G4 Plus (Est. $230 and up). It adds a fingerprint sensor, a somewhat more robust 16 MP rear camera, and more powerful step up options: Up to 64 GB of built-in memory plus 4 GB of RAM vs 2 GB in the G4 and base G4 Plus. Some experts think the upgrades are worth the extra cost, some don't. Regardless, while the G5 won't be sold in the U.S., the G5 Plus is slated for release here in the spring of 2017. The newer camera will sport a spiffier, metal case, upgraded specifications and a slightly smaller, 5.2-inch display. Pricing will be similar to the G4 Plus.
If less than $200 is too much for a competent smartphone, how about less than $100 -- or less than $50 if you are an Amazon Prime subscriber? The Blu R1 HD (Est. $50 and up) won't blow off anyone's socks when it comes to features and performance, and the best pricing requires you to accept lock screen ads and offers, but it outstrips anything else near this price making it a good choice as a backup phone, an emergency phone, a kids or seniors phone or any other light-duty usage.
To be blunt, in absolute terms, the R1 HD is not a terrific phone. CNET says that "This phone's best feature is its price." The 5-inch screen is low resolution (1,280 x 720), the cameras (8 MP rear, 5 MP front) are described as only "passable," and the software is a bit buggy, something that's echoed in some user reviews. However raw performance is actually fairly solid, surpassing that of the G4 in CNETs test. There are dual SIM slots, a plus for international travelers or others who regularly need to rely on more than one network for service. However, it is only compatible with GSM networks (AT&T, T-Mobile, etc.) in the U.S.
As CNET notes, the killer feature is its pricing, and that's enough for PCMag.com to name it an Editors' Choice. "The Blu R1 HD is an unlocked Android phone with a good balance of performance for the price, making it a fantastic value for Amazon Prime users and regular customers alike," says Ajay Kumar. The base version includes only a paltry 8 GB of memory and 1 GB of RAM, but storage is expandable via a microSD card. A step up version with 16 GB of built in storage and 2 GB of RAM adds $10 to the price, and is probably a better choice for anyone that's not on the tightest of budgets.
To say that there are a lot of credible expert reviews of smartphones would be an understatement as they are thoroughly covered by many technology sites, such as CNET, Tom's Guide, PCMag.com, TechRadar.com, TheVerge.com and many, many … many more. We also looked at other expert roundups, primarily at ConsumerReports.org, and also the many consumer magazines and newspapers that report on smartphones on an occasional basis. Finally, we looked at user reviews at sites such as Amazon.com and BestBuy.com, as well as feedback posted on the websites of all the major carriers in the U.S.