With our increasing mobility and addiction to information, smartphones — our powerful pocket computers that help us create, locate, communicate, and vegetate — have become an indispensable part of modern life. Our reliance on these wireless wonders will only increase as they become increasingly intelligent, filtering our data and predicting precisely when we’ll need it most, even performing actions on our behalf, eventually. This is why it is so important to pick the phone that best serves you — at least until the roles are reversed.
In the time since our last update, we've been busy evaluating new SoCs and CPU architectures. Our preview of Qualcomm's new Snapdragon 820 SoC discussed the company's focus on heterogeneous computing and how this influenced the design of its first custom 64-bit CPU, Kryo. Our performance tests showed an emphasis on floating-point performance and sequential memory bandwidth. The 820's new Adreno 530 GPU is also a beast, setting new records in nearly every graphics test.
Next, we plunged into the architecture of ARM's Cortex-A72 CPU, which replaces the Cortex-A57 as its flagship 64-bit processor. While an evolution of its previous design, ARM made a number of tweaks to improve performance and, more importantly, reduce power consumption. We got our first look at the A72 as well as ARM's Mali-T880 GPU in HiSilicon's Kirin 950 SoC that makes its debut in the Huawei Mate 8 smartphone. Our initial impression was positive, and it will help make 2016 an exciting year for mobile SoCs.
All of this testing and analysis (and CES) has kept us pretty busy lately, but we've been working on product reviews too. Our "long-term evaluation" of the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus is complete, culminating in a new flagship phone recommendation. Apple has vastly improved the iPhone's user experience by increasing RAM to 2GB and adding its new 3D Touch feature.
Before choosing a smartphone, of course, you have to pick an ecosystem to play in, whether it's Apple's, Google's or Microsoft's. This choice is highly personal and depends on what you do with your phone and what criteria are important to you. Our picks focus on hardware and user experience and leave this bigger choice up to you.
Smartphone Best Picks
MORE: How We Test Smartphones
MORE: Apple iPhone 6 & 6 Plus Review
MORE: Google Nexus 6 Review
MORE: All Smartphone Content
There are many factors to consider when choosing a smartphone: size, performance, features, software, price. Our comprehensive reviews give you the knowledge and data to make informed decisions, but if you do not have the time to read our smartphone novellas, or feel overwhelmed by all the charts and numbers, we also give you a shortcut. Every month, we publish our top picks in several different categories and tell you what makes these particular phones stand out.
While we could categorize phones based on ecosystem (Apple, Google, Microsoft) or screen size, we decided to differentiate based on price, with one exception. Our recommendations cover three different price tiers: Low-End (less than $200), Mid-Range ($200 - $500), and Flagship (more than $500). We also include a separate Phablet category for phones that make the best use of their larger screens.
To gain a better understanding of how we evaluate display, audio, camera, system, gaming, and battery performance, please read How We Test Smartphones And Tablets.
About Our Recommendations
- We only recommend smartphones we’ve actually tested.
- We only review phones for sale in the North American market.
- Our recommendations are based on data that we’ve collected and our own subjective experiences. We recognize that our readers are diverse, however, with different needs, preferences, and opinions, so our best picks may not be the best for you.
- The list is based on full retail U.S. prices from online retailers. We do not list carrier subsidized prices, because it’s not fair to phones that are only offered unlocked at full price (Also, why should we have to sign a two-year contract just to buy a computer?).
- The prices are for new phones only, not used or open-box.
- Prices and availability change on a daily basis, but the embedded green links provide real-time pricing.
Best Low-End Smartphone
Best Mid-Range Smartphone
Best Flagship Smartphone
Alternate Flagship Pick