There are a lot of great smartphone options available at any given moment, so it can be a challenge to sort through them all if you’re trying to choose the absolute best one. The stakes here can’t be understated: your phone is the most important gadget in your life, and you’ll probably be living with the one you buy for at least a year, if not two or three.
Most of the time, the best phone stands out from the pack in all the areas that matter: performance, value, camera, and support. And most of the time, that’s usually the most expensive phone on the market. But as it turns out, you don’t have to buy the priciest phone to get the best experience.
This guide focuses on the best phones on the market, regardless of price. If you’re looking for something on a smaller budget, please check out our guide to budget smartphones.
There are many new iPhones to choose from this year, each with different characteristics and prices. The one that most people should buy is the iPhone 12, which starts at around $830 for a 64GB model.
The 12 has the same overall design, the same processor, the same wireless charging, the same Face ID system, the same 5G support, the same front camera, and the same main and wide-angle rear cameras as the pricier 12 Pro, but for hundreds of dollars less. On top of all that, it comes in five different colors, one more than you can choose from in the Pro models.
Compared to the iPhone 12 mini, the iPhone 12 has a noticeably roomier display and a bigger battery — two things that are important to many people. At 6.1 inches, it’s big enough to make watching video and reading text comfortable and engaging, but isn’t so big that it’s terribly hard to use in one hand or fit in your pocket. Battery life is also very good — you can reliably expect this phone to last all day without needing to charge up before bed.
The 12 gives up the telephoto camera that’s available on the 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max, but that’s something most people won’t miss. The iPhone 12’s camera system is the best you can get in this price range and is excellent at most anything you’d use it for. It also has the ability to shoot Dolby Vision HDR video for brighter and more dynamic video.
Since the 12 has Apple’s latest smartphone processor, the A14 Bionic, it has extremely fast performance and fluid animations. It also has a sleeker, more modern design than the previous iPhone 11 or iPhone XR, which feel frumpy in comparison.
The base iPhone 12 comes with 64GB of storage, but as usual with an iPhone, it’s not expandable, so we recommend buying the 128GB model for only $50 more.
In all, the iPhone 12 is an easy choice for most people: it offers top-level performance, design, and camera features, while providing reliable battery life for less money than other options on the market.
If you’re looking for an Android phone, the one that we recommend for most people is Samsung’s Galaxy S20 and S20 Plus. Even though these models came out way back in March 2020, they still balance performance, features, design, and build quality better than anything else you can get right now.
The S20 devices have excellent performance and great battery life. They have 120Hz displays that make every interaction as smooth as it can be. They also support 5G networks, just like any other flagship phone this year.
Both models have standard, ultrawide, and telephoto cameras on the rear, which provide a lot of flexibility when you’re composing photos. They may not be quite as good as the cameras you can get on an iPhone 12 or 12 Pro Max, but they are still very good and most people will find they take excellent photos and video.
Samsung actually has another model in the S20 line that’s larger and more expensive than the S20 or S20 Plus: the S20 Ultra. We don’t recommend it: its camera system looks more advanced on a spec sheet but is less reliable and not as enjoyable to use and we don’t think it’s worth the extra $400 you’ll pay for it.
Choosing between the S20 and S20 Plus comes down to basically one thing: do you want an oversized screen or not? The S20 has a large 6.2-inch screen; the S20 Plus has an enormous 6.7-inch screen. The latter will definitely be harder to use in one hand and might not slip into your pocket as easily, but the screen is gorgeous to look at.
Perhaps the best part of the S20 models is that you can get them for a good price, now that they’ve been on the market for more than six months. At launch, the S20 was about $1,000, while the S20 Plus was $1,200, both for 128GB models. But now you can regularly find the S20 in the $700 to $800 range, with the S20 Plus typically $200 more. At those prices, you can’t find a better Android phone.
Rumors are pointing to Samsung releasing a new S21 model line as soon as January 2021. That can mean two things: if you are only looking for the latest and greatest, you might want to wait. But it could also mean we’ll see even more significant discounts on the S20 line than we already have.
The midrange phone market (models priced between $500 and $700) has exploded this year, but the one that stands out from the pack is Samsung’s Galaxy S20 FE. The reason is because it barely feels like a midrange phone; with just a couple of tweaks, this could easily pass for a premium flagship.
Like the other S20 models, the FE has a 120Hz display that makes every touch, scroll, or interaction feel smooth. It also has a top-tier Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 processor — you’re not giving up anything in terms of performance here.
Its camera system has the familiar wide, ultrawide, and telephoto setup, with all three cameras having 12-megapixel sensors. In good light, they all take reliably good phones; where you’ll notice a difference between this and more expensive phones is when it starts to get dark. But Samsung’s night mode does work surprisingly well and helps out quite a bit.
The biggest thing that separates the S20 FE from the other S20 models is its materials: instead of a glass back, it has a cheaper plastic one. It still feels well-made and sturdy, though, and once you put a case on it you won’t even notice it.
At its regular price of $700, the S20 FE is an excellent performing phone with a good value. But like most Samsung phones, you often can get it with a significant discount, making it an even more impressive value.
There’s really only one reason to buy an iPhone 12 mini, but it’s an important one: if you want a phone that’s easier to use in one hand or put into a small pocket. The iPhone 12 mini is the only small phone on the market with top-tier features and specs — you don’t have to compromise in performance, build quality, or cameras with this one.
Though it’s much smaller in size than the other iPhones released this year, the mini’s 5.4-inch screen is still big enough for text messaging, email, web browsing, apps, video, and games, and if you’re coming from an iPhone 6 / 7 / 8, it will feel quite spacious. But it’s still small enough that most adults, even those with small hands, will be able to reach all of it with their thumb. You won’t need a PopSocket on this one.
Otherwise, the mini is the same phone as the iPhone 12: it has the same design, processor, cameras, 5G support, and build quality as the larger model. It’s just smaller and has a smaller price tag, at about $100 less.
If you’re looking for the best phone to go from morning to night with heavy use and last through it all, Samsung’s top-of-the-line Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is the one to get. It has a massive 4,500mAh battery that keeps its enormous 6.9-inch screen going as long as you need it to.
The Note 20 Ultra is also a high-end phone in every other respect. Its giant screen supports a 120Hz refresh rate for smooth interactions; its triple rear camera system is one of the most advanced you can get; and the Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 Plus processor and 12GB of RAM allow it to perform without a hiccup. In addition, it supports Samsung’s S Pen for stylus input, allowing you to write or doodle on the screen with a pen instead of your finger. The Note 20 Ultra is a productivity powerhouse.
There are other phones on the market with equally as big or even bigger batteries than the Note 20 Ultra, but they aren’t as premium or feature rich and they require you to make noticeable compromises elsewhere.
The iPhone 12 Pro Max has the best camera system you can currently get on a smartphone. Its three rear cameras — standard wide, ultrawide, and telephoto — combine with Apple’s image processing to produce stunning images, even in poor lighting. If camera quality is your most important factor when buying a phone, the 12 Pro Max is where you should be spending your money.
The big difference between the 12 Pro Max and the other iPhone 12 models is found in its main camera sensor. The 12 Pro Max has a physically larger camera sensor that allows it to gather more light and produce better quality images when in dark or challenging lighting conditions. In addition, the 12 Pro Max has an improved image stabilization system that helps keep your images sharp as light levels drop.
But unless camera quality is all you care about, the 12 Pro Max isn’t the best iPhone for most people. It’s enormous and the squared sides make it feel even bigger than its spec sheet implies. Most people will be happier with the smaller but still large-screened iPhone 12.
The budget phone (under $500) that strikes the right balance of camera, build quality, speed, battery life, software, and longevity for most people is the Apple iPhone SE 2020. Specifically, we recommend upgrading to the model with 128GB of storage for $449, which is $50 over the base price but well worth it long term.
The iPhone SE follows a very tried-and-true formula. It has the same body and 4.7-inch LCD screen that Apple has been using since the iPhone 6. That puts the display on the smaller end of screen sizes today and also means the phone’s bezels are bigger than anything else sold on the market.
But in exchange for that very familiar phone body, you get a lot of value. The best thing about the iPhone SE is its processor, Apple’s A13 Bionic. That matters not just because of speed, but because it also means the phone will have a much longer lifetime in your pocket.
Apple consistently supports its phones for four or more years with software updates. (That’s in opposition to Android, where getting software updates on anything but the Pixel is still a struggle.) So Apple’s choice of a fast processor means that in a few years the iPhone SE will still feel snappy and still be supported with iOS updates.
The iPhone SE has just one camera on the back and just one selfie camera on the front, 12 megapixels and 7 megapixels, respectively. Neither is great by 2020 standards, but both are significantly better than what Apple shipped in older iPhones. It’s also fairly good by the standards of sub-$500 phones, though the Google Pixel 4A continues to win this category by a knockout. You will get a lot of camera features on the iPhone SE, including portrait and HDR, but unfortunately there is no night mode.
If you’re on a budget and prefer Android, then the Google Pixel 4A is the obvious choice. It doesn’t have the largest screen or the fastest processor, but it does have a clean version of Android that’s guaranteed to get software updates for at least three years. It only comes in one version: black with 128GB of storage for $349.
The Pixel 4A’s main claim to fame is its camera, which can go head-to-head with smartphones that cost $1,500 or more. That’s because Google does so much of the image processing in software — the sensor itself is actually quite old and not very special. It means that the Pixel 4A can take night photos, do astrophotography, and has a passable portrait mode. It can’t hang with the iPhone SE for video but beats it for photos every time.
The rest of the Pixel 4A’s specs are good but not great. It has a 5.8-inch screen, just enough RAM to keep apps from closing in the background, and a headphone jack. There’s no wireless charging, no fancy face unlock, and the body is made out of plastic instead of something more premium like glass. The Pixel 4A doesn’t even offer any IP water resistance ratings (but a splash of water is probably fine).
But for all that, the Pixel 4A is probably the safest bet if you want to get an Android phone for less than $500. You’ll get better software support and a better camera for $350. Not a bad deal.
Folding phones have been around for less than two years and have already seen their share of controversies. But if you are interested in buying one and are willing to pay the hefty price required, there’s really only one model worth considering: Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold 2.
The Fold 2 is Samsung’s second-generation folding phone. Its main premise is this: it is sized like a normal smartphone that fits in your pocket, but it unfolds to reveal a tablet-sized 7.6-inch display on the inside. That inside screen makes everything from reading books, to browsing the web, to watching video, to playing games more enjoyable and immersive. When you’re done using it, just fold it back up and stick it in your pocket just like any other phone.
That flexibility is unmatched by any other phone you can buy right now, but it doesn’t come without a significant list of compromises. The Fold 2 is twice as thick when closed compared to normal phones, and its outside screen is much smaller than you’re used to. It is also delicate — there’s no rated dust or water resistance and its inner screen is more likely to get damaged if you poke it too hard.
But the biggest compromise is its cost: at $2,000, the Fold 2 is literally twice as expensive as other high-end phones. You’re paying a lot for the ability to fold a tablet screen in half.
If you’re willing to put up with those compromises for an experience that’s unlike anything else though, the Fold 2 delivers.