How to choose a smartphone by brand, carrier, or features

Maybe it’s time to upgrade your smartphone or you’re helping someone pick out their first one. With hundreds of options available, choosing a smartphone is overwhelming if you don’t know what you want. Even within a single brand or carrier, there are no shortage of choices.
We’re here to help you narrow down your choices by taking a closer look at everything from features to cost, so you can confidently buy the best phone for you.

For an in-depth look at what the current smartphone market has to offer, see our guides about the best smartphones, best Android phones, and best cheap smartphones.

Figure out which features you need

Various new smartphones

Start by drafting a list of the most critical features you need your smartphone to have. Use the list to compare devices, ensuring your new smartphone ticks all the boxes. There are many different aspects to consider when you’re buying a new smartphone. Do you need a phone with a large screen? Do you prefer one that you can use one-handed? Are you looking for long battery life or the best camera phone available? Do you need a lot of storage for your music collection? Maybe you’re a frequent traveler and need a dual-SIM phone.

Choose an operating system

There are only two smartphone operating systems worth considering: Android and iOS.

Both are easy to use and support a wide variety of apps and games. While you can change from Android to iOS, or from iPhone to Android, there are learning curves in both directions. For familiarity, try to stick to whatever platform you’re used to.

Android offers a wider choice of devices at different prices, more customization options, and Google’s excellent suite of services and apps built-in. If you already use Google Maps, Gmail, Google Docs, and Google Assistant, then Android may be the better choice for you, though you can download iOS versions of all of those tools from the App Store.

Apple’s iOS offers a more uniform, accessible experience, and operations are more secure. The App Store quality and the quality of iOS apps are slightly better than Android, too. If you already have a MacBook or an iPad, an iPhone is probably going to make the most sense for you. You’ll also find an enormous choice of accessories for iPhones, something that can be limited for lesser-known Android devices.

For a more in-depth breakdown of the top two smartphone platforms, check out our guide to Android vs. iOS, where we put them head-to-head in various categories.

Consider these specs

Picking the right phone for you can be tough, and you can’t trust most employees at stores to know what they’re talking about or to steer you in the right direction. We recommend that you shop around and get hands-on experiences with different smartphones before buying one. If you don’t know much about specs, bring along a knowledgeable friend or family member. Here are a few things to think about:

  • Design: If you want something you can use one-handed, then pick it up and try it out. A lot of phones these days have glass on the front and back, and that makes them fragile and prone to smudges. Check that the fingerprint sensor position suits you as well — on many phones, the sensor is now on the back rather than the front. The right design for you should look and feel good.
  • Screen: You’re going to spend many hours gazing at the screen, so make sure it’s a good size for you and that it has a high resolution. We recommend a minimum of full HD, which is 1920 x 1080 pixels, or perhaps 2160 x 1080 pixels if the phone has a modern 18:9 aspect ratio. Anything that’s 1080p or higher will be sharp enough. In terms of the underlying technology, OLED screens have better contrast, with deeper blacks than LCD screens, and we prefer them overall. Both Samsung’s Galaxy range and Apple’s iPhone X feature AMOLED screens, but you won’t find them at the budget end of the market.
  • Performance: This will be determined by two main things: The processor and the RAM. The processor is the more important consideration, and newer is generally better in terms of both speed and power efficiency. Apple’s A-series chipset tends to outperform the competition. For an Android phone, Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 is currently the cream of the crop. It’s debatable how much RAM you need in a smartphone, but we recommend looking for at least 4GB, at least for Android models. This doesn’t apply to iPhones, however, because they deal with memory management differently and don’t require as much RAM. If in doubt, read reviews or play with your prospective smartphone in a store to test it.
  • Operating system: If you buy a new iPhone, then you’ll get the latest version of iOS, but this isn’t always the case with Android phones. Because the manufacturers often apply their own user interfaces on top of Android, it can take a while to get the latest updates. You may not get future versions of Android upon their relea
    ses, or even at all if the manufacturer decides not to update. Only stock Android phones from Google, such as the Pixel 4, are guaranteed to get immediate and consistent Android updates. The current version to look for is Android 10. Always try to get the latest version you can.
  • Camera: Smartphone cameras have greatly improved over the last few years. The choice can be bewildering, but note that good camera performance is about a lot more than just a high megapixel count. If you’re able to test the phone out for yourself, you certainly should, but you’ll also find useful information in reviews. We do numerous camera shootouts here at Digital Trends.
  • Bloatware: Be aware of bloatware or hobbled features, especially with Android. Sometimes carriers block specific features or change defaults. Carriers and manufacturers often add a lot of superfluous apps, and you may not be able to uninstall them.
  • Battery life: Removable batteries are rare these days, so you want a phone that can keep up with you. Check the consensus on battery life in reviews. The mAh rating will give you some indication, but the capacity is also impacted by the screen size, resolution, and software, so you need to look beyond the number.
  • Storage: The latest smartphones generally come with enough storage built-in. When 16GB phones were common, which already had used up 10GB out of the box, you could run out of space alarmingly fast. We recommend a minimum of 32GB, but 64GB is better. Much depends on how you use your phone. You’ll obviously need more space if you like to load your MP3 collection. Having a microSD card slot allows you to expand your storage space relatively cheaply. However, Apple never includes microSD card slots, so this is something you’ll find only in some Android devices.
  • Durability: We briefly mentioned the drawbacks of glass phones, but if you buy a glass phone and you’re prone to dropping it, make sure to buy a protective case. You should also get a phone with some water-resistance. The top flagships tend to have IP67 or IP68 ratings nowadays, which means they can be submerged in water without damage. Even budget phones often come with some water-resistance, but it’s worth checking.

Choose a wireless carrier

It’s important to choose a carrier that offers good coverage in your area so you’ll have a strong signal. We recommend doing a little research at Open Signal, where you’ll find comprehensive coverage maps for different areas and carriers. Simply enter your location and pick a carrier to see what the coverage is like where you live and work. If you want to be able to do data-intensive things without Wi-Fi — like stream video or play multiplayer games — make sure that 4G coverage is good in your area.

The four main network choices are Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint, but there are other carriers, too, such as MetroPCS, Boost, Cricket, and Virgin, that may be worth considering. If you plan to buy your smartphone from your carrier along with your service, then you should also check that they offer the phone you want. We recommend buying an unlocked phone when possible because it will work out to be cheaper in the long run and give you the freedom to change carriers in the future.

Assuming there isn’t much difference in coverage quality for your area, and you can get the phone you want on multiple carriers, you may want to refer to our next section before making a decision.

Pick a service plan

Carriers will always try to sell you expensive plans, so it’s worth consideri
ng what you actually need. If you tend to be on Wi-Fi a lot, then you probably don’t need a lot of data. Minutes and texts tend to be very cheap, so it’s usually the data plan that determines the monthly cost. Our guide to data usage will help you figure out how much you use and need.

Once you have an idea of the data, minutes, and texts you need included in your plan, try using a comparison service like Wirefly to find the best deal quickly. Services such as Wirefly can compare both cell phone plans or the cell phones themselves. You’ll be able to narrow down your options by your preferences, such as how much data, minutes, and messages you’re willing to pay for. It’s worth considering that the more products and services you take from a single carrier, the more of a discount you can expect, though you may have to ask for it.

There are a lot of different service plans out there, but competition is usually good for consumers — you just have to shop around for the best deal. With access to the internet, choosing the perfect service plan is easier than ever. But we’ve also done some of the legwork for you in trying to identify the best family plans, best unlimited data plans, and best cheap phone plans.

It’s also a good idea to try to negotiate a better deal every once in a while. If you find a better plan for the same cost somewhere else, but you don’t want to leave your current carrier, call them up to discuss it. Ask to speak with the retention department, as they often have the power to offer you discounts and other incentives to stay. It’s important to stick to your guns and be prepared to leave their service if they won’t match or beat the deal you’ve found. When available, price matching, especially with service plans, is a great way to get all the features you want at a price you can afford.