The Best Smartphone
Ready for a new phone? If you’re here, the answer is probably yes. But which one deserves the next two years of your life?
If there’s one thing that’s certain, it’s that everyone’s smartphone needs are different. But after three weeks of hardcore research, I determined which features are most important to the average consumer. I tested 13 different phones, consulted with industry professionals, pored over online reviews, and investigated consumer comments — and the results were unanimous: Apple’s iPhone 6 is the number-one smartphone you can buy.
Sure, the iPhone 6 might be the overall best device around, but that doesn’t mean it’s for absolutely everyone. Some people prefer Android devices, and others might want a larger display — either way, keep on reading to see our top recommendations for folks on a budget, photography lovers, and more.
How we chose the best smartphone
I started my quest for the best smartphone with a lot of reading. I spent nearly 40 hours investigating more than 60 reviews and buyer’s guides from nine online tech publications I’ve grown to trust through years of experience working at Engadget. I also pored over customer reviews from top retailers, spoke with industry professionals from AT&T, and conducted a few polls on Facebook.
Over the course of my research, I identified the most popular smartphone features and use cases by diving into consumer comments, worldwide cellphone industry stats, and by interviewing smartphone users of all ages. I learned that regardless of occupation or income level, more than half of all U.S. mobile phone owners A) make room in their budget for a smartphone and B) use it for more than two hours each day. Why? Smartphones are the pocketable hardware behind almost all the internet-based services folks use on a daily basis. They’re also one of the most universal pieces of technology in the world – NBA players and blue-collar workers both use the iPhone 6.
Since almost every popular app or service (or an acceptable alternative) is available on all major platforms, smartphone buyers are mostly concerned with the following five things:
- A stellar camera
- Performance and dependability
- Long battery life
- Price (on-contract)
Based on those findings, I narrowed my initial selection of 27 phones down to the 13 most qualified contenders. Afterward, I popped in my personal SIM (some required using a call-forwarding service) and used each one exclusively for a day, texting, browsing the web, and making no less than five calls. During much of that time, I carried all of them with me everywhere I went (including a Jessie J concert) and took a crazy amount of pictures. Needless to say, I got quite a few “did you steal those?” stares. Anyhow, the important part is that after all that research, I reached a conclusion: Apple’s iPhone 6 is the best overall smartphone you can get.
Other smartphones to consider
The best unlocked smartphone
- For $300, no other phone comes close to what the OnePlus One offers – Engadget
- 64GB version costs just $350
- 7.5/10 CNET Editor's Choice Rating
Folks buy unlocked phones for two main reasons: to escape the reigns of a two-year contract, and to save money. (Head to the end of this article for an explanation of unlocked phones.) At just $300, the (16GB) OnePlus One offers the most smartphone for your buck, period. No other device in this price range can compete with its smooth performance, cheap storage (the 64GB model costs only $50 more), 13MP camera, and on-screen gestures – double-tapping the display wakes the device, and it’s the most useful smartphone feature I’ve ever enjoyed. Its 5.5-inch IPS display has incredibly natural colors, and Engadget says it’s even easier on the eyes than Samsung’s Galaxy S5. Additionally, it’s one of the most comfortable phones I’ve ever held.
Another advantage to the OnePlus One is that almost every aspect of the phone can be tweaked and customized to your liking, thanks to CyanogenMod firmware. However, its Android-based operating system is young (and undergoing change), meaning it’s more bug-prone than other handsets – for instance, I have to restart mine several times a week to overcome a recurring Wi-Fi connectivity issue. But considering how affordable it is, the worst thing about the One might be its somewhat limited availability. Fortunately, invites are no longer required to buy the thing, though there is a small (and rather odd) catch: Without an invitation, you can only make orders on Tuesdays.
The best waterproof phone
Sony Xperia Z3
- The Sony Xperia Z3 is Sony's most formidable to date with a formidable display and promising features that easily give Android competition a run for their money – CNET
- Incredible battery life
- 88/100 Engadget Product Score
Waterproof phones generally come at the cost of a low-res display, poor camera, and bulky build (take the Kyocera Brigadier, for example), but most people don’t want to make that compromise. Luckily, the Sony Xperia Z3 is a waterproof smartphone that offers top-notch performance and an elegant design. There’s also Samsung’s Galaxy S5 Active, but out of the two, the Z3 has the highest Ingress Protection ratings (IP55 and IP68), meaning it isn’t just water resistant; it’s ready for underwater photography in the Caribbean. Speaking of photography, the Xperia Z3’s 20.7-megapixel rear-facing camera didn’t perform as well as the Galaxy S5 Active in low light. But, in well-lit situations, I was able to capture stunning photos and 4K video – once you master its auto-brightness nuances and somewhat complicated settings menu, that is.
What about build and performance? Engadget’s James Trew says the Z3 has “epic battery life,” which translates into about three days’ worth of use. CNET says its premium feel is hard to beat, and The Verge calls it a top-tier phone with a unique look and speedy performance. All in all, the Xperia Z3 is a true flagship device that doesn’t require a $70 LifeProof case to survive a dip in the sink.
Best cheap smartphone
Motorola Moto G
- If what you really want is just a basic smartphone, this is absolutely the one to get – PC World
- Runs near-stock Android
- Costs only $179 unlocked
Depending on your contract status, you might be eligible for an iPhone 6 at $200 down. Just remember: You’ll end up paying more than the full $649 over the next 24 months in the form of monthly payments. If you can’t justify spending that kind of money on a phone (subsidized or not), and don’t want to participate in a year-long program such as AT&T Next, The Verge, Engadget, and CNET all agree that the second-generation Motorola Moto G is the number-one budget handset available. It costs $180 off-contract, has a serviceable camera, and its battery survives a full day of active use – all of which are exceptional features given its price range. And after using it for an entire day, I was genuinely impressed with the overall performance.
Unfortunately, there are a couple of drawbacks: The Moto G has only 8GB of storage and doesn’t support LTE. So if you can’t live without the latest and greatest network speeds and plenty of room for photos, consider the $99 Nokia Lumia 635. It isn’t quite as speedy as the Moto G, but that’s easily forgiven considering its cheaper price, LTE capability, and MicroSD card support (up to 128GB!). Want an even cheaper option? The $30 Lumia 520 is about as low as you can go without hitting feature phone bedrock.
The best large-screen phone
Samsung Galaxy Note 4
- The Galaxy Note 4 is the best large phone on the market – even better than the iPhone 6 Plus – Engadget
- Best phablet-specific features
- 4.8-star Best Buy user rating
Steve Jobs famously said that no one would buy a big phone. Obviously, he was wrong. If you’re part of the swiftly growing fanbase for larger, more productive smartphones, the Galaxy Note 4 is the best device you can buy (and maybe fit in your back pocket). It has a stellar 13MP camera, a premium build, plenty of horsepower, and the most gorgeous display on the market. Top-shelf specs aside, though, it’s the only “phablet” designed with power users in mind. Take the built-in S Pen, for example: I didn’t handwrite as many notes as I imagined I would, but it’s far too useful to be considered a gimmick. The writing experience is incredibly natural, and Evernote users will enjoy the integration with Samsung’s S Note software.
Now, about that elephant in the room… Why didn’t I pick the 6 Plus, LG G3, or Nexus 6, you ask? To answer in true socratic form, what’s the point of a humongous phone if it doesn’t make use of the extra landscape? You’ll get much more productive power out of the Note 4 (as well as a fingerprint reader, IR Blaster, blood oxygen and UV sensor) for the same on-contract price as the 6 Plus.
The best pocket-size phone
Sony Xperia Z3 Compact
- If you are looking for a feature-packed phone that looks fantastic and performs brilliantly, then you'll be very pleased with the Xperia Z3 Compact – TechRadar
- Exceptional battery life and waterproof build
- 8/10 CNET Editor's Choice Rating
Most of the time, a smaller phone means weaker specs. Not so with the Sony Xperia Z3 Compact. With the exception of its smaller 4.6-inch display and battery, it’s essentially a spec-for-spec recreation of the Xperia Z3 – and yes, that includes the 20.7MP rear-facing camera and 4K video capabilities. I honestly wasn’t able to notice a single difference in performance between the two, and believe me, I tried. The Galaxy Alpha and HTC One Remix are two other options in the small phone category, and while they’re both sleek-looking, they don’t offer the same overall performance, camera quality, and battery life as the Z3 Compact.
The best camera phone
Apple iPhone 6 Plus
- The best smartphone camera I've ever used – The Verge
- Killer video and photo chops
- 9/10 CNET Editor's Choice Rating
When it comes to mobile photography, you can’t judge a smartphone by its megapixels alone. Both the hardware and software must be considered, and that makes choosing the best camera phone somewhat tricky. In terms of overall top performance, the iPhone 6 Plus reigns supreme. The reason? To quote The Verge, it “goes from 0 to a good picture faster than anything else.” There are plenty of other handsets with more than eight megapixels, but between the phone’s incredible optical image stabilization software (which is unique to the 6 Plus), effortless operation, and top-notch video chops, it’s the most talented of the bunch. No one wants to deal with laggy autofocus when their child blows out the candles on his first birthday cake. Low light, sunlight, bumpy car ride – doesn’t matter. The 6 Plus is going to perform regardless of the conditions.
Now, in terms of raw specs, the LG G3, Note 4 and Xperia Z3 are all top contenders, with the Note 4 pulling slightly ahead (again, this is a really tough category). The Xperia Z3’s 20.7-megapixel shooter performs extremely well, but only in well-lit circumstances. The Note 4 actually takes a more crisp and naturally colored photo than the iPhone 6 Plus, but I had to suffer through a variety of jitters and blurry photos to get there. Finally, the LG G3 is pretty similar to its Samsung counterparts on paper, but is worth mentioning because of its laser autofocus feature, which, according to Digital Trends, is noticeably quicker than the competition.
The Best Android smartphone
Motorola Moto X
- The 2014 Moto X is a huge step forward from last year's model, and it's finally equipped to compete with a sea of strong competitors – Engadget
- Motorola's additional software features that are thoroughly useful
- 8.3/10 CNET Editor's Choice Rating
Contrary to what you might expect, this section isn’t about determining the most popular non-iPhone; it’s about which phone offers the best Android 5.0 Lollipop experience. And as much as I like Google’s own Nexus 6, its six-inch display is too large for most people. Instead, let me introduce you to the second-generation Moto X with a 5.2-inch screen. It’s snappy, well-built, runs near-stock Android, and includes several unique software features (like Active Notifications and Moto Voice) that give it a leg up on the competition. The Verge calls it “the best Android smartphone ever made,” and I’m inclined to agree.
Now, Android Lollipop aside, you can’t go wrong with the Galaxy S5, LG G3, or HTC One M8. Looking for the most bang for your buck? The GS5 has the best display around, a fingerprint reader and health sensors, a water-resistant build, and a solid camera. The G3 isn’t as feature-rich as the GS5, but reviews across the internet commend its laser-equipped camera, premium feel, and speedy performance. Finally, if you’re a sucker for design, you’ll appreciate that the HTC One M8 is as prestigious-looking as it is powerful.
A full review of the best smartphone
When people buy a Moto X, they settle for an average camera and less-than-decent battery life. When folks buy a Galaxy S5, they settle for a plastic build and a somewhat finicky user interface. When folks buy the iPhone 6, they settle for… no widgets; no multi-window mode for multitasking; no waterproof build; no gazillion-hour battery life; no 1080p display. See where I’m going with this? No phone is perfect, but the iPhone 6’s drawbacks are insignificant compared to other smartphones. The Verge hit the nail on the head in saying it’s “the phone most people should buy, the one that checks all of the boxes.” It’s exceptionally well-rounded, and that’s why it’s the best.
There's no one right choice for everyone. So what makes the iPhone 6 the best? Performance, usability and camera refinements, coupled with a safe, powerful operating system that now lets the iPhone's big collection of apps do more.
Let’s talk hardware. The first and most notable improvement over previous models is the 6’s 4.7-inch display. Apple listened to its customers, and gave them what they wanted. If you have any experience using previous iPhones, you’re thumbs and eyes will immediately appreciate the extra landscape – browsing the web on the 6 is a much more pleasant experience than on the 5s. And thanks to iOS 8, all controls, settings, and features remain incredibly simple and intuitive.
Despite being a lightweight device, the 6 feels like a thoroughly premium phone. Its brushed aluminum frame is sturdy, beautiful, and it sits well in the hand. What about performance? There are several phones that beat the iPhone 6 on paper, but they don’t feel as fast or smooth as Apple’s handset. Trust me, I tested a lot of phones, and none performed as reliably – the TouchID fingerprint reader doesn’t miss a beat (unless you’re doing it wrong), apps and games run flawlessly, and using the camera is effortless. Speaking of the camera, its video chops (slo-mo at 240 fps and 1080p HD at 60 fps) are undeniably impressive. Another feature worth mentioning is Apple Pay. The iPhone 6 is the first of its kind to include NFC, and that’s a big deal. Mobile payment options are growing, and iPhone users want in.
I’m a power user. My phone(s) lives in my back pocket, and I use it to sign, edit, upload and download documents. Sometimes, I even take photos of documents – and don’t get me started on email, apps, and the rest. For folks like me, the least impressive aspect of iPhone 6 is its battery life. I was able to get a full day’s worth of intermediate use, and The Verge claims slightly better results in its review. In Engadget’s video playback tests, however, the 6 actually scored slightly lower than the iPhone 5s, at 10 hours and 19 minutes. That leads us to the million dollar question: Is average battery life a deal-breaker? Not for most people, especially since many of us charge our devices in the car, buy external batteries, and lay claim to open sockets whenever possible.
The iPhone 6 is my 3rd iPhone and I wouldn't even consider switching to an Android. The simplicity, the ease of use, and design are all things Apple nails in their phones. The quality is unmatched in my opinion.
How do the rest of the world’s smartphone users feel about the iPhone 6? Obviously, it’s quite popular – despite the premium price tag, a record-breaking 74.5 million iPhones (to be clear, that number reflects more than iPhone 6 sales specifically, but still…) have been sold since the 6 debuted, overtaking Android sales for the first time since 2012. Out of more than 3,000 customer reviews from Best Buy and Amazon.com, it averages 4.7 stars. Finally, CNET, Engadget, The Verge and WSJ all agree that the 6 outshines all previous iPhones and takes the cake for the best all-around smartphone on the market.
As we mentioned in our tablet guide, another advantage to owning an Apple device is access to Apple Stores, and, more specifically, the people within them. Apple’s retail locations stand apart from competitors’ thanks to the “Geniuses” that are there to assist you with any questions you have, for as long as you need, at no charge. A member of our staff witnessed a blind patron spend hours with an Apple Store employee who helped her with various accessibility options. That sort of amenity is a rare treasure in a world where customer service often means navigating endless phone trees.
Who is it best for?
The iPhone 6 is best for folks who:
- are new to mobile technology
- don't want to spend time learning the ins and outs of various Android devices
- love their iPhone 5 or 5s, but want a larger screen
- already have an iPad, MacBook, and/or Apple TV
- are heavily invested in iTunes
- only really care about email, browsing the web, and taking great photos
Who should think twice?
Smartphone “power users” – Apple’s iOS 8 is extremely simple to use and the controls are intuitive. The downside to that is a lack of customization options that power users have grown accustomed to on Android devices. If you can’t live without widgets, the ability to view multiple application windows at once, and PC-type file management tools, the iPhone 6 isn’t for you.
Those who are invested in Android or Windows Phone – If you plan on converting to the iPhone, consider how much money you’ve already spent on apps for your Android or Windows Phones. Are you willing to buy them again for iOS 8?
Those who need lots of storage – Like most Apple products, extra storage comes at a higher price than with competitors. If you really need more than 64GB of space, consider buying a phone with a micro SD port instead of paying an extra $100 for the 64GB iPhone 6.
The runners up for the best smartphone
In the end, there can only be one “number-one,” but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider other options. Here are a few of the next-best smartphones, along with explanations for why they didn’t make the cut.
Samsung Galaxy S5 – The Galaxy S5 is blisteringly fast, has an incredible display, and takes killer photos. In the end, though, its plastic build, TouchWiz UI, and niche health features make it a tough sell compared to the more premium iPhone 6. If I were handing out a second place ribbon, it would go to the Galaxy S5.
Motorola Moto X (2014) – The Moto X is a solid phone, especially given its $400 off-contract price (compared to the $649 iPhone 6). However, it fails to deliver in one important area: mobile photography.
HTC One (M8) – HTC’s One M8 is the only phone that could best the iPhone 6 in a fashion contest. Unfortunately, though, its combined performance and camera quality aren’t quite on par with its Apple-made competitor.
Sony Xperia Z3 – The Xperia Z3 is a flagship smartphone that doesn’t need a case to survive a dip in the pool. Regardless of its affinity for water, though, its overall performance isn’t as smooth as the iPhone 6’s. What about the Z3’s 20.7-megapixel camera? It requires much more light than the 6 to make a good photo, and its software can be frustratingly inconsistent.
OnePlus One – Out of all the iPhone 6’s competition, the $300 OnePlus One is the most phone for the money. But $300 can only go so far, and in terms of overall performance, the One can easily be described as a diluted version of Apple’s handset.
What makes a good smartphone?
The 9 most important features
- Camera(s) – Smartphone photography is huge. Point-and-shoot camera sales have been declining for years, and selfies are at an all-time high – just think of how many different lens-equipped cases have been produced for the iPhone alone. No top-tier phone should have anything less than a 8MP rear-facing camera and a 5MP selfie cam.
- Battery life – Here's the thing about battery life: There are many different methods of testing, and that makes it hard to translate claims like “10-hour video playback" and “11-hour Wi-Fi browsing" into real life. But, when it all boils down, any great phone should offer two full days of average use (email, YouTube, games, texts, and calls).
- Size – Phablets are still growing in popularity, but that doesn't mean a 6-inch screen is the new golden standard. The top smartphone should have at least a 4.7-inch display to maximize mobile productivity. In the end, though, this is the one feature that ultimately depends upon user preference.
- Display resolution – No top phone should have anything less than a full HD (1920 x 1080p) display. High pixel density and accurate color representation are musts. It also should respond well to wide viewing angles and include some sort of anti-glare or anti-reflective coating. IPS and Super AMOLED technologies are the current gold standard for mobile displays.
- Readability in sunlight – Phones travel outdoors more than any other mobile device. We use them to take photos of sunsets, post selfies in the rain, and find our way to the nearest Gigi's Cupcakes. That said, top-notch smartphone displays should remain bright, vibrant and easily readable regardless of the lighting outside.
- Storage options – Smartphones wear multiple hats, and that makes internal storage a precious commodity. The best phone should have at least a 32GB capacity or MicroSD slot.
- Durability – Three out of four smartphone users end up buying a case for their device, but that doesn't mean manufacturers are allowed to skimp on high-quality build materials. The “best overall" phone should have at least a Gorilla Glass 3 or sapphire display, and a metal chassis is preferable. In addition, the outer casing should hold up well against minor drops or a pocket full of keys, and it definitely shouldn't bend (#bendgate).
- Speedy internals – Touchscreen interfacing tasks should rarely (if ever) cause jittering, standstills, or other funky behavior. Apps should launch as soon as you touch them, and hardware controls (volume rockers, physical, and capacitive buttons) shouldn't ever lag, stick, or rattle.
- Call Quality – Cellular radio technology is rarely a problem in today's smartphones, but sometimes earpiece and mic design can impede the quality of your call. No one wants to constantly adjust how a phone lays against their cheek to participate in a conversation.
- NFC – Mobile payment options like Apple Pay and Google Wallet make shopping incredibly easy — and arguably more secure. Any top phone from 2015 forward should be equipped with NFC, the technology that enables transactions on your phone.
- MicroSD slot – I'm sure there are a few technically good reasons for manufacturers to excludeMicroSD card slots, but I can't think of any. Top phones should support external storage, period.
- Fingerprint reader – These aren't necessary by any means, but are nice to have, especially for security purposes.
- IR Blaster – You'll lose the remote more than your phone. Plus, it works well with TV companion apps like DishWorld
- Fitness sensors – Heart rate and blood oxygen sensors are admittedly cool, but super niche outside of dedicated wearables.
- Stylus – So far, the Note 4 is your only real option.
Choosing the right smartphone for you
Buying your smartphone
Five years ago, software and services were the deciding factors in buying your phone. Nowadays, no matter which OS you choose, most of your favorite apps and services will be there. That’s why choosing the right phone is about determining which hardware features you need to utilize the services you love. Windows Phone, Android and iOS each have their pros and cons, but 90 percent of everything you’ll do on a smartphone can be accomplished on any of the three. So, if you’re stuck between OSes, your number one concern should be how much you’ve already invested in your current ecosystem.
With the exception of the fingerprint reader and IR Blaster, most extra “goodies” have a specific niche. Take time to evaluate what you’re paying for in a phone, and whether you can live without it. If you’re not obsessed with the latest and greatest speeds, the Galaxy S4 might be a wiser choice than the more expensive, health sensor-equipped GS5. Unless money is no object, realistically consider which software and hardware features you’ll use on a daily basis, and find a phone that delivers.
Pro tip – Most companies, for whatever reason, do a poor job differentiating their devices for buyers. Exhibit A: The first and second generation Moto X are both called the “Moto X.” In addition, some phones have different names in different countries. Why does that matter, you ask? Because you may find yourself ordering an unlocked HTC One mini 2 instead of the US-compatible HTC One Remix. Finally, to make matters even worse, some carriers have their own iterations of popular devices. Exhibit B: The Galaxy S5 Sport is only available at Sprint, and has slight software improvements over the original Galaxy S5. All that’s to say don’t fear asking carrier reps for help, and be prudent when making a purchase!
Pricing: What's your budget?
Unless you buy an unlocked phone (if that term is new to you, keep on reading), you’ll end up paying more than a smartphone is actually worth. Exactly how much more depends on the carrier and length of the contract. Adding $20 to $30 a month with plans such as AT&T Next and Verizon EDGE can seem daunting, but they won’t cost you as much in the long run. Make sure to weigh your options carefully, and always consider the full price of each phone. Below, you’ll find links to each major US carrier and MVNO’s pricing tools that will help you get started.
What are unlocked phones?
To put it simply, unlocked smartphones are purchased at full price (unless they’re used) and aren’t “locked” to a specific carrier. That means you can insert any active GSM SIM card and boom, you’ve got a working phone. If “GSM” and “SIM card” are foreign terms to you, Engadget has a much more detailed explanation on the subject.
Speaking of foreign, it’s worth mentioning that you’ll need an unlocked phone if you travel overseas and hope to use a SIM that’s local to the nation you’re visiting. Jetsetters should place a higher-than-average value on having an unlocked phone; even if it costs more up front, you’ll save a bundle by buying local SIMs as you go as opposed to roaming on your home network.
Best Smartphone: Summed Up
These days, smartphones aren't just a luxury; they're the digital extension of people's lives. And in that same respect, they're as unique as the fingerprints of their users. It's important to make sure you choose wisely – two years is a long time to be stuck with an unfulfilling device. So, to paraphrase The Verge, make sure you won't regret your next contract.
The iPhone 6 is the best smartphone for the most people, but don't let that keep you from shopping around. Head to your nearest Best Buy and take some for a spin. No matter your lifestyle, there are plenty of options available.
Have any questions about smartphones or mobile operating systems? Is there certain device you think I've overlooked? Leave your feedback and questions in the comments below. I'd love to hear your thoughts!
Our favorite smartphone reviews from around the web
The Verge – If you're looking for a more in-depth review of the iPhone 6, The Verge has you covered. Here you'll find much more detailed information about specs, photos, and more.
Best Buy – Want more insight from real people like you? Each smartphone on BestBuy.com has hundreds (sometimes thousands) of customer ratings and reviews.
CNET – With CNET's smartphone review tool, you can search for devices based on price, brand, Editors' Choice ratings, and more. Plus, you'll find a full review for each phone, written by some of the most qualified folks in tech.