For most of us, mobile phones are at the centre of our universe. The typical feature set of these palm-size marvels is astounding. It's your phone, your messaging device, your web browser, your camera, your music player, your GPS, and more. The phone you choose will affect your life in a multitude of ways. That's why we're here to help you pick exactly the right one.
Dial up the Perfect Phone
We're a smart phone-dominated nation, with 4G LTE networks serving data faster than many home internet connections, and 5G spreading across the country. Though we're now down to three major wireless carriers, virtual carriers such as Google Fi, US Mobile and Visible keep competition alive and push prices down. But some of our choices have constricted a bit: The smart phone OS marketplace is basically down to Apple's iOS and Google's Android, and it's hard to find a really good simple voice phone nowadays.
Rather than purely choosing the phones with the highest ratings here, we're trying to deliver a list of phones that are spread broadly across different price points. This list is generally focused on the hottest, newest devices, but you can also find great value in slightly older phones, so be sure to shop around. What should you be looking for when buying a cell phone? Here are some key points to consider.
Which Cell Phone Carrier Should You Choose?
Despite all the recent hardware and mobile software innovation, your wireless service provider remains your most important decision. No matter what device you buy, it's a doorstop unless you have solid wireless coverage. Maybe you have friends and family on the same carrier that you talk to for free, and you don't want that to change with your next phone. Maybe you're lusting after a certain device—say, an unlocked smart phone for international travel. And of course, you want to choose a carrier that offers fair prices, and provides the best coverage in your area.
These are all good reasons to put the carrier decision first. AT&T excelled in rural coverage in tests, with the best performance of the three carriers in areas away from cities. Verizon's millimetre-wave 5G is spectacular when you can find it, though it's still not widely available.
Both AT&T and Verizon are starting to show dramatic network improvements in central cities as they begin to turn on new C-band channels for their 5G networks. There are other virtual operators that use the big three networks but offer lower monthly rates, cheaper international calls, or other benefits. They're usually better for lighter users and most don't have family plans. AT&T owns Cricket, T-Mobile owns Metro by T-Mobile, Verizon owns Visible, and Google owns Google Fi. Verizon now also owns Net10, Page Plus, Simple Mobile, Straight Talk, Total Wireless, and TracFone, although it may sell off some of those brands.
Do You Need a 5G Phone?
5G arrived in 2019, and most new smart phones now support some form of it. But though 5G may change everything in the future, it's not going to happen immediately. So you don't need a newer phone to get the best out of the network you are with right now. Verizon Wireless is famed for its top-notch network quality. Otherwise, Verizon's "nationwide" 5G is only slightly faster than LTE and you don't need to concern yourself with it too much. You can find more 5G recommendations on our list of the best 5G phones.
Locked vs. Unlocked Phones
As carriers have moved to increasingly more confusing service and pricing plans, the value of unlocked phones has been rising accordingly. Unlocked phones are bought from a third-party store or directly from the manufacturer, and aren't tied to a specific carrier.
But some popular unlocked phones work on all major networks. For the most flexibility, look for a recent Apple iPhone, Google Pixel, Samsung flagship, or Motorola phone. In the past, unlocked phones typically worked on all the major carriers, but 5G phones are a different story.
What Is the Best Smartphone?
As more people become accustomed to instant email, web, music, and messaging access at all times of the day, regardless of where they are, smart phones have become almost indispensable.
That said, there's plenty of variety out there—not to mention devotees of specific OS platforms. Sometimes, a platform's user interface or app selection just speaks to you, and that's all there is to it. With that in mind, and at the risk of attracting some hate, let's break it down as well as we can for those who aren't so fully vested.
There's actually less diversity in smart phone platforms and designs than there was a few years ago with there being two major operating systems android vs iOS. The iPhone has the best app store and the best media features. But Apple's tightly controlled ecosystem can feel stifling to some, and iOS isn't easy to customize or modify. There's far more variety among Android handsets and Android's open-source nature makes it a tweaker's dream. But it also means fragmented third-party app compatibility, occasional bugs, and carrier-installed bloat ware you can't remove, and scattered, often sporadic OS updates.
Phones are available in a wide range of sizes and shapes, to fit various types of hands. Samsung's Galaxy S22 and Apple's iPhone 13 mini is narrower than most other phones, easy to hold in one hand, and still have plenty of screen real estate. The iPhone 13 Pro Max, on the other hand, is gigantic, best for people who want a big window into their online world and/or a large camera viewfinder.
The Best Feature Phones
A good portion of people are still using simpler phones, but there are surprisingly few current choices out there. There are still reasons to get a simple, less-expensive device: They're easier to use, and they charge much lower monthly fees because data isn't involved. The favourite voice phone right now is the Sunbeam F1, a simple phone that comes in three feature-restricted models.
If your budget is tight, the lowest-cost voice phone worth getting is the unlocked Nokia 225 4G. Unlike smart phones, feature phones are a matter of "what you see is what you get." They don't receive software upgrades or run thousands of additional apps. Wireless network coverage is always the biggest factor, but individual phones can vary in reception, earpiece quality, transmission quality through the microphone, and side-tone (the echo of your own voice that helps prevent you from yelling at the other person). A phone with middling to poor reception quality can be almost impossible to use in a marginal coverage area, while one with excellent reception can make the best of the little signal that's available.
What's the Best Time to Buy a New Phone?
The best time to buy a new phone is when you need one. If your phone took a dive in the pool or met its demise on the pavement, get whatever's available that best meets your needs.
But if you're watching your budget or riding the cutting edge, a little knowledge and planning can keep you from buying a phone that's about to be discounted or replaced with something newer and cooler. The pandemic and the global chipset shortage have upended the usual phone release cycles, and we're not sure if that's going to change back.
Based on 2020 and 2021, here's when we think some of the major flagship phones will appear in 2022. These are just guesses, though:
- Apple: iPhone 14 in September 2022
- Google: Pixels in October 2022
- OnePlus: March or April 2022 for the OnePlus 10 Pro in the US
- Samsung: New foldable phones in August 2022
Want to Spend Less?
This story tends to be headlined by very expensive phones, but you can get a perfectly good smart phone for under £230. The Samsung Galaxy A32 5G is the favoured budget phone right now.
For under £155, the 2022 Moto G Power is the current leader. In 2020, Apple released a new iPhone SE for about £300. If the SE interests you, try to hang on for the new iPhone SE launch in March. If you want an even less expensive iPhone, you can go with a used model, but we don't suggest buying anything below the iPhone XR, as older phones will lose software support more quickly in years to come.
What to do now?
Well in the meantime why not get screen protectors to save your phones from being replaced out of turn. See below for details.