12 Feb The Best Phones for 2021
Dial Up the Perfect Phone
For most of us, mobile phones are at the center 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.
We’re a smartphone-dominated nation, with 4G LTE networks serving data faster than many home internet connections, and 5G now starting to spread nationwide. Though we’re now down to three major wireless carriers, virtual carriers such as Google Fi, Ting, and US Mobile keep competition alive and push prices down. But some of our choices have constricted a bit: The smartphone 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.
Here at PCMag, we review almost every smartphone released on AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless, and many of their sub-brands such as Boost, Cricket, Metro, and Visible.
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 focused on the hottest, newest devices, but you can also find great value in slightly older phones, so be sure to shop around.
The Apple iPhone 12 mini is a star among 2020’s 5G phones.
This list might also not include our absolute latest reviews. Keep an eye on our full list of mobile phone reviews to see what’s new and hot.
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 smartphone 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.
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We have two major features to help you choose a carrier. For our Readers’ Choice Awards, PCMag readers tell us which carriers they prefer based on coverage, call quality, device selection, and other factors. And for our Fastest Mobile Networks feature, we sent drivers to 26 US cities to scope out which smartphone carriers have the best data coverage. Because each of the national carriers sells a wide variety of phones, choosing your service provider should be your first move. Here’s a quick rundown of what each one offers.
AT&T and Verizon split the wins in our 26 cities in 2020. AT&T has a very strong 4G network, but its 5G offering is basically meaningless. As we’ve seen many times, AT&T performed particularly well in the Carolinas and in parts of California and Texas. AT&T owns DirecTV, so it has some pricing bundles if you’re also interested in satellite TV services.
Verizon Wireless is famed for its top-notch network quality and good customer service. Its super-speedy millimeter-wave 5G network helped make it our Fastest Mobile Network this year, and its 4G network is also excellent. But its “nationwide” 5G network can be slower than 4G.
In late 2021, Verizon will likely turn on yet another form of 5G, called C-band; so far, only the iPhone 12 and Samsung Galaxy S21 series of phones support that technology.
T-Mobile absorbed Sprint in 2020. The “new T-Mobile” is in transition, incorporating Sprint’s network and airwaves to potentially offer a speedy mid-band 5G network in most major cities across the country. Over the fall, it became considerably faster as it expanded its mid-band “ultra capacity” network. T-Mobile is the only carrier right now for which you can buy a 5G phone and assume performance will get much better over the next six months.
US Cellular is only available in about half the country. It has a reputation for good customer service, but has been suffering recently in our surveys as readers have said its prices and LTE network quality don’t match up to some of the alternatives.
There are also plenty of virtual operators that use the big four 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. The winner of our Readers’ Choice award this year was a virtual carrier, Consumer Cellular, that runs on AT&T’s and T-Mobile’s networks.
AT&T owns Cricket, T-Mobile owns Metro by T-Mobile, Verizon owns Visible, and Google owns Google Fi. In September, Verizon said it intends to buy Tracfone, which has spin-off brands including Straight Talk, Family Mobile, and Net10. We spotlight some of our favorite virtual operators in our roundup of the best cheap phone plans.
Do You Need a 5G Phone?
5G arrived in 2019, and there are now many 5G phones available. But while 5G may change everything in the future, it’s not going to happen immediately. Currently, all three carriers rely on “nationwide” 5G systems which largely use 4G-sized channels at 4G speeds.
At the moment, our recommendation is that it isn’t worth purposefully seeking out a 5G phone. 5G will likely come to you, as almost all of the mid-range and higher-end phones coming out right now have 5G built in. If you are looking for a future-proof 5G phone, look for one that supports the new C-band, which will come into play next year. You can find more 5G recommendations on our list of the best 5G phones.
(One note: you may see a “5G E” icon on your existing AT&T phone. That isn’t 5G; it is a marketing ploy. Your phone is still running on 4G.)
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 any specific carrier. Usually, you can use them with AT&T or T-Mobile. But some popular unlocked phones work on all four major carriers. If you want the best flexibility, look for a recent Apple, Google Pixel, Samsung flagship, or a Motorola phone.
If you buy an unlocked phone, you’ll be able to move it freely between compatible carriers. Even if you don’t intend to ever change your carrier, unlocked phones are free of carrier bloatware and (with Android phones) often receive software and OS updates more quickly than the carrier versions do.
The Samsung Galaxy S20 FE is a top-notch 5G phone at a reasonable price.
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, smartphones 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 flames, let’s break it down as well as we can for those who aren’t so fully vested.
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There’s actually less diversity in smartphone platforms and designs than there was a few years ago. Right now, Android and iOS are the two top smartphone platforms, both in US sales and in the availability of third-party apps. 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 its open-source nature makes it a tweaker’s dream. But it also means fragmented third-party app compatibility, occasional bugs, carrier-installed bloatware 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 S21 and the iPhone 12 mini are narrower than most other phones, easy to hold in one hand and still boasting plenty of screen real estate. The Galaxy S21 Ultra, on the other hand, is gigantic, best for people who want a big window into their online world.
Strictly interested in Android? Head over to our best Android phones roundup. And if you want to document the world around you with your phone, we’ve rounded up the best camera phones too.
The Best Feature Phones
A good portion of the US population is 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. There are some killer deals for voice-only usage on virtual carriers such as TracFone and Consumer Cellular.
The Alcatel Go Flip 3 is one of our top picks for feature phones.
There’s a big problem with voice phones and current networks, though. Because all of our carriers are eliminating or reducing the quality of their 2G and 3G networks, voice phones must be verified by the carriers for 4G voice-over-LTE coverage to get good quality and connectivity in the future. Older voice phones don’t have that, and there aren’t many voice-over-LTE voice phones, period. It’s frustrating.
We have three good voice phones we recommend right now: the Sonim XP3, the Alcatel Go Flip 3, and the Kyocera DuraXV Extreme.
Unlike smartphones, 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 (the Alcatel Go Flip 3’s KaiOS has a small app store, but it has only a few dozen apps).
For voice quality, read our feature on how to make your cell phone calls sound better. 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. Another point to consider: Some phones have much louder speakerphones than others.
For more, see our picks for the best simple phones. We also have a roundup of the best phones for kids.
Want to Spend Less?
This story tends to be headlined by very expensive phones, but you can get a perfectly good smartphone for between $200 and $300 upfront.
We’re big fans of Motorola’s midrange phones. They’re unlocked and compatible with all US carriers, and they use a fast, clean version of the Android OS. The Moto G Power, available for $249, is our pick there.
In 2020, Apple released a new iPhone SE for $399. It’s not on this list because it was supplanted by the new iPhone 12 models, but it’s still an absolutely terrific device for the price. 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 8, as older phones will lose software support more quickly in years to come.
For more, see our list of the best cheap phones.
We update this story every time we review a new phone worth a spot on the list, so it changes often. Be sure to check back soon for our latest recommendations.