We fully test every phone we can get our hands on here at Digital Trends, and after conducting hundreds of reviews, we’re confident in recommending whether a particular phone is a good buy for you.
After much debate and soul searching, we landed on the
as our top pick for the best phone available right now. Though one phone doesn’t fit everyone’s needs, so we have plenty of other great picks depending on what you’re looking for. Android fans will love the
, and those looking to save money, or get a smaller phone, have lots of choices as well. Here’s why the iPhone 11 Pro ultimately triumphed, and our picks for other smartphone categories.
Best smartphones at a glance
- Best overall smartphone: Apple iPhone 11 Pro
- Best Android phone: Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra
- Best smartphone camera: Apple iPhone 11 Pro
- Best battery life: Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max
- Best value smartphone: OnePlus 8 Pro
- Best small smartphone: Google Pixel 4a
- Best foldable smartphone: Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2 5G
Best overall smartphone:
Why you should buy this: You get a beautiful screen, a versatile camera, and all-day battery life in a premium package.
Who it’s for: Anyone who wants the best all-around phone available.
Why we picked the iPhone 11 Pro:
Apple has built on the elegant, reassuringly expensive design of its flagship range with a raft of refinements, making the iPhone 11 Pro the complete package. With an awesome screen, versatile camera, and strong battery life, the 11 Pro is all about perfecting the core smartphone experience without the need for superfluous extras.
The iPhone 11 Pro is a touch heavier and thicker than its predecessor, but it’s a change you’ll be quick to accept in return for the improved battery life. It’s the same mix of stainless steel and glass, and the 5.8-inch screen size means that it fits perfectly in most palms. The back is now frosted to discourage unsightly fingerprints and smudges. Apple has dubbed the screen “Super Retina XDR,” but all you need to know is that it’s sharp and extremely bright. Colors are vivid and HDR content takes full advantage of this excellent display’s capabilities.
Apple’s A13 Bionic chip is lightning fast. It offers a 20% bump on last year’s processor and beats out every other phone we’ve tested so far in terms of raw power. The iPhone 11 Pro runs iOS 14, the exact same super-capable operating system as the forthcoming iPhone 12 series.
Most manufacturers have stepped up their photography game in recent years and Apple was falling behind, but it has reclaimed top spot with the 11 Pro. The main camera features three lenses, arranged in a controversial square module at the top left on the back. There’s a standard 12-megapixel wide-angle lens with an f/1.8 aperture, a 12-megapixel telephoto lens with an f/2.0 aperture, and a 12-megapixel ultra-wide-angle lens with an f/2.4 aperture. This camera is equipped for every situation, whether you’re snapping friends in a nightclub, capturing a beautiful landscape, or zooming in on some action from afar. Apple’s portrait mode is wonderful, you can fit more in with the 120-degree field of view that the new ultra-wide-angle lens offers, and there’s a night mode that performs amazingly well in low light conditions. On the front, the 11 Pro sports a 12-megapixel lens for selfies.
Battery life is another strength, with the iPhone 11 Pro easily seeing you through an average day with something left in the tank. There’s also 18W wired charging with a proper fast charger in the box, and you always have the option of charging, albeit more slowly, via wireless charging pads. The iPhone 11 Pro also has an IP68 rating, so water is nothing to worry about.
This recommendation obviously comes with a massive caveat: The iPhone 12 Pro will be unveiled on October 13. Unfortunately the new phone won’t be on sale for a while, so if you need a phone now you have to stick with the 11 Pro. But we heavily recommend just waiting to get an iPhone 12 Pro if at all possible — we’ll have a complete evaluation of it very soon.
If the price tag of the iPhone 11 Pro is too high, then you may consider the
as a very good alternative that comes in $300 cheaper. You’ll enjoy the same excellent performance, all-day battery life, and a great dual-lens camera. It lacks the telephoto lens of the 11 Pro, and the design and screen are nowhere near as good, but you’ll only notice that if you put them side by side. For most people, the iPhone 11 is probably the right pick from Apple’s lineup.
Once again, a caveat: The iPhone 12 will be unveiled s0on, as well as the iPhone 12 Mini. Chances are you’ll be more interested in one of those phones instead, if you’re at all able to wait.
Best Android phone:
Why you should buy this: It’s the best of the best, with a huge and beautiful screen, good software, tons of features, and a great multi-lens camera. Plus, an S Pen stylus.
Who it’s for: Anyone who wants a single phone that can handle productivity, gaming, video, and every bit of day-to-day use, all with strong battery life.
Why we picked the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra:
The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra lives up to its name and the legacy of Note phones. It’s the biggest in the series yet, and certainly an “ultra” phone, with a massive 6.9-inch AMOLED screen and seriously heavy 208 gram weight. But get past the overall size, and you’ve got one of the most powerful and capable phones available today.
It has Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 865 Plus chipset and a whopping 12GB of RAM, plus a sizable 4,500mAh battery that can last a full day of very hard use — plus, it has 5G connectivity for the future. The S Pen stylus defines the Note, and it’s better than ever with a low 9-millisecond response time and uses that go beyond just drawing — this is a productivity tool, too.
The oversized camera module on the back has a great 108-megapixel main camera, plus a 12MP optical zoom camera, and an extra 12MP ultra-wide camera — plus a new laser focusing system that fixes the Galaxy S20 Ultra’s issues. It can take 5X optical zoom photos with no detail loss, and reach out from there. Plus it handles 8K video and has lots of fun shooting modes like Single Take mode. The camera is one of Samsung’s best yet.
All of this comes before you see any additional features, like a wireless DeX mode that links your phone to a TV or monitor for a desktop-like experience, to the absolutely stunning display, and wireless reverse charging. On top of the standard features of a great hardware build quality, water resistance, wireless charging, and so much more.
Downsides? Size aside, the in-display fingerprint sensor isn’t great … but that’s about it. The
is expensive though and you’ll pay at least $1,299 to own one, but you really are getting the best Android phone available right now. Want an alternative?
is worth looking at, particularly if you don’t need the S Pen, but you get more for your money with the Note 20 Ultra.
Our full Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra review
Runner-up: Google Pixel 5
The Pixel range continues to be the only Android option that can fully compete with Apple’s iPhone in several key areas, including security, timely software updates, and software design. But it goes further with meaningful artificial intelligence features anyone can appreciate. Google manages the Android operating system, and so with the Pixel series, it’s able to optimize the hardware and the software — similar to what Apple does with the iPhone. That approach, plus a simple “less is more” philosophy, makes the phone a joy to use. It has the best software experience on a phone, and it performs fluidly. The Google Pixel 5’s spotlight feature is its dual-lens camera, which is one of the best around.
Best camera phone:
Why you should buy this: It has the best smartphone camera you can buy.
Who it’s for: Anyone who wants the best smartphone camera.
Why we picked the Apple iPhone 11 Pro:
We have already told you about the iPhone 11 Pro, and the 11 Pro Max has the same excellent triple-lens camera. The combination of a 12-megapixel wide-angle lens with an f/1.8 aperture, a 12-megapixel telephoto lens with an f/2.0 aperture, and a 12-megapixel ultra-wide-angle lens with an f/2.4 aperture gives you everything you need to create amazing photographs wherever you happen to be.
Slight improvements to an already excellent portrait mode and a smart Super HDR function that combines multiple shots for best results are welcome, but the new ultra-wide-angle lens with its 120-degree field of view is the most fun new addition, enabling you to fit in more of the backdrop when snapping people or to capture previously impossible views.
Apple has also taken time to develop a night mode and the results are predictably excellent — you can take photos with very limited light and, provided you hold still for longer exposures, the results are generally breathtaking. Most of us primarily love to take photos of people and few other phones can come close to the wonderful portrait shots that the iPhone 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max offer. The 12-megapixel front-facing camera allows for selfie portraits that are every bit as good.
While the intuitive camera app may lack some in-depth access to features that photographers may want to tinker with, it serves fantastically well for people who just want to snap the best shot possible without having to think too much about it.
We also have to highlight the video recording chops of these devices. The stabilization surpasses the other top phones, so if you want smooth 4K footage at 60 frames-per-second, you should buy the
. You’ll get the same camera suite and capabilities whichever model you go for.
Once again, there’s a massive caveat here because the iPhone 12 Pro will be here very soon. And as soon as we have a chance to review it, we’re certain it’ll be an upgrade over the 11 Pro’s camera. Wait, if you can.
Runner-up: Google Pixel 5
Google has announced the Pixel 5, but like the iPhone 12 Pro it isn’t quite available yet. But likewise, there’s no expectation that it’d be anything but a full upgrade in camera capabilities from its predecessor
. The Pixel 4 has an exceptional camera, even by late 2020 standards, and it’s only getting better in the Pixel 5 with further software refinements and the addition of a secondary ultra-wide lens. Google’s camera processing delivers colorful, yet balanced, photos in every scenario, and there’s a good chance it’ll give the iPhone 12 Pro a run for its money … for hundreds of dollars less.
Best battery life:
Why you should buy this: There are no real weaknesses here, but plenty of highlights, including long battery life.
Who it’s for: People who need a phone that can last beyond a day.
Why we picked the Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max:
Everything that makes the iPhone 11 Pro our top pick applies to the 11 Pro Max. It’s fast, fluid, and has an excellent camera suite. The only real difference is that it packs in a 6.5-inch screen and it’s a lot bigger and heavier. The size does mean that it won’t suit everyone, but if you’re seeking a device that can last through a busy day and into the next without having to be plugged in, this is it.
Although the iPhone 11 Pro Max did well in our video streaming test, with a time of 10 hours 39 minutes, it was actually beaten by the Note 10 Plus and the smaller iPhone 11 Pro. However, we’ve found that it generally outlasts the other two in real-world performance. Most people use their phones for a mix of different activities and in that scenario, the 11 Pro Max has stellar battery life.
Even after the busiest of days, we were able to leave the
unplugged overnight and wait until we got to the office the next day to charge it. Speaking of which, you get a reasonably fast 18W charger in the box with it, though it lags behind the faster charging offered by some Samsung and Huawei phones. There’s also support for wireless charging.
It’s time for another caveat: Apple’s iPhone 12 Pro Max will march further with battery life, with a larger capacity battery and more efficient processor. Once we’ve had time to review the 12 Pro Max, it’ll likely take over this spot.
You can check out our roundup of other smartphones with the best battery life for alternatives.
Why you should buy this: You get the luxurious feel and look of a flagship, with power to match, for less.
Who it’s for: Anyone seeking a gorgeous, powerful, customizable, Android phone.
Why we picked the OnePlus 8 Pro:
OnePlus has been turning out affordable phones with near-flagship specs for years now and the OnePlus 8 Pro is its best release so far, but the price continues to creep up, making it more flagship than flagship killer. The OnePlus 8 Pro costs from $900, and while that’s still a lot of money, it continues to represent excellent value. Why? Because it equals or betters the tech found in phones like the Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus, which costs from $1,200.
There’s a truly stunning 6.78-inch AMOLED screen with a 3168 x 1440 resolution, and a buttery smooth 120Hz refresh rate. It’s bright, with deep blacks, and accurate colors. It also supports HDR10+, and comes very close to matching the latest Apple or Samsung displays on quality. There’s a tiny hole-punch selfie camera in the top corner, plus cool features like a 240Hz touch sampling rate, and motion smoothing for video.
You’ll find plenty of power here with a Snapdragon 865 Plus processor and 12GB of RAM. Overall, this is one of the fastest phones we’ve ever tested. It runs Android 10 with Oxygen OS on top, which is packed with handy customization options and tons of optimizations, and also remains uncluttered, fast, and very easy to learn. It’s one of our favorite versions of Android.
OnePlus has also worked hard to improve the camera, which has been a weak link for it in the past. The OnePlus 8 Pro has a quad-lens setup comprising a new Sony IMX689 48-megapixel sensor, a 48-megapixel ultra-wide lens, and an 8-megapixel telephoto lens offering 3x optical zoom. The final sensor is an unusual Color Filter sensor to give your photos a very different look. Love it or hate it, you won’t be able to deny it’s something other phones can’t do.
The 4,510mAh battery is more than enough for a very busy day, and the Warp Charge 30T fast charging system can charge it from zero to full in an hour. OnePlus has also added fast wireless charging to the
, a first for the brand, along with an IP68 water resistance rating too. Compare all this to other top Android phones, and you’ll see why the OnePlus 8 Pro is such great value, even if it’s more expensive than any OnePlus phone before it. Why not the regular OnePlus 8? While the smaller 6.55-inch phone is still really good, it doesn’t have the same camera or screen, and fails to represent such good value without a compelling killer feature.
Best small smartphone:
Why you should buy this: Google’s approach to smartphones fits perfectly with a small, simple, and price-friendly phone.
Who it’s for: Those who are done stretching their hands (and pockets) to use huge modern smartphones.
Why we picked the Google Pixel 4a:
It’s near-impossible to find a truly small phone today, as phones at all price points just get bigger and bigger. But the Pixel 4a is properly small, one of the smallest phones you can get today, with a 5.8-inch display surrounded by small bezels.
Beyond just its size, the Pixel 4a has so much going for it. Google’s simple and helpful software runs very well on this lower-end hardware, and doubles up on the value with strong battery life for the size of the phone. Yes the screen is rather average, and the specs will feel a little tired in a couple years, but that comes with the territory.
You also get Google’s legendary camera, even in this small and inexpensive device, with a 12-megapixel sensor that can capture photos that rival phones that cost three times as much. There’s no secondary camera, and the selfie camera is just above average, but frankly we’re just picking nits — this is the best camera in the price bracket.
Better yet, you get all of this for an incredible price: The
. So not only will you stop stretching your hands, you won’t have to stretch your wallet to get it.
Best foldable smartphone:
Why you should buy this: Foldables are the future of smartphones, and the Galaxy Z Fold 2 5G is the best of the bunch.
Who it’s for: If you have a big budget for a phone purchase and want to stand out from the crowd, this is a phone to consider.
Why we picked the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2 5G:
Foldables haven’t cemented themselves in the conversation as the best overall phones, particularly at the current prices, but it’s undeniable that folding screens have a big place in the future of smartphones. The Galaxy Z Fold 2 5G is a perfect example of why.
You get a relatively normal-looking smartphone shape when it’s closed, with an external screen you can use for basic tasks, and then it opens up to a huge mini-tablet screen on demand. No exposed hinge or bezels to deal with, just an expansive screen where you can use multiple apps, or expand your content for comfortable reading. And when you’re done, it folds up and is protected from damage.
And because it’s a high-end Samsung phone, you get a generally good experience beyond the fold. Strong cameras, good battery life, great software, and exceptional build quality — just like you’d expect for the money. The problem is, it’s still too expensive to recommend to most people: The
Research and buying tips
- What is an unlocked smartphone?
- Can smartphones get viruses?
- What should I do with my old smartphone?
- How long should a smartphone last?
- Do phones cause cancer?
- How do prepaid phones work?
- Which OS is best for you?
What is an unlocked smartphone?
A locked smartphone is tied to a specific carrier’s network, so if your phone is locked to Verizon, for example, you can only use it with a Verizon SIM and service plan. An unlocked smartphone can be used on any network. If you’ve paid in full for your phone, then it should be free to unlock. We have a guide that will show you how to unlock a phone on every carrier. You can also buy some great unlocked phones that will work with any carrier straight out of the box.
Can smartphones get viruses?
While it is possible to get viruses on iPhones or Android phones, what most people mean when they say “virus” is malware. Technically, the term virus means software that infects a host, inserting itself into an existing program, and then spreads that infection by self-replicating. They are a very small percentage of malware and extremely rare on smartphones, but malware isn’t. You should definitely think about how to protect your smartphone from hackers because a little common sense can save you from having to work out how to remove malware from your phone.
What should I do with my old smartphone?
The most obvious thing to do with your old smartphone is to pass it on to someone else. If you want to gift it, then make sure to wipe it first; we have guides on how to wipe your Android phone and how to factory reset an iPhone. You may also want to turn that old phone into cash, in which case you’ll want to read up on how to sell your smartphone. You may decide to keep it as a spare in case your new smartphone breaks, but you could also repurpose it with the right apps. It’s better to pass it on to someone who can use it or find another use for it than let it languish in a drawer. If you can’t think of a good way to reuse your smartphone then consider donating it or recycling it.
How long should a smartphone last?
Realistically, you should expect to get two to three years out of your smartphone. You can extend the life of any smartphone by taking proper care of it and it’s always worth shopping for good protective cases. There are also loads of good waterproof phones to choose from nowadays. The problem with many Android phones is that the manufacturers and carriers are slow to push out software updates, so the software can become dated and even insecure over time. Buy a phone from Apple or Google and you won’t have that problem.
Do phones cause cancer?
The question of whether cell phone radiation is dangerous is still hotly contested in some quarters. It is technically classified as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” but that puts it in the same category as coffee, gasoline, and nickel. There have been many studies, but we still lack any scientific evidence to provide a definite answer to the question one way or the other. Most official bodies, including the Federal Communications Commission, Center for Disease Control, and National Cancer Institute agree there’s no proven link right now, but also acknowledge that we need more research.
How do prepaid phones work?
Prepaid cell phones work just like any other phone, but they come without a monthly contract or long-term commitment. You usually pay for service in advance. When you buy a prepaid phone they tend to come with a fixed number of minutes, text messages, and possibly a fixed amount of mobile data. This removes the chance of any overage charges. When you run out, you simply top up by buying more minutes, texts, and data in chunks.
Which operating system is best for you?
This is where things get personal. Picking a smartphone operating system is a huge deal. You’re buying into an entire ecosystem of apps and compatible products when you choose between Android and iOS.
Apple’s iOS is beautiful, simple, and easy to use, and the App Store offers the best app selection imaginable. Every aspect of iOS is curated by Apple, and it shows. Android is more open and it has fewer rules, which means more customization options, but it also means that manufacturers and app makers can willfully ignore Google’s Material design language and do whatever they want, sometimes rendering Android unrecognizable and cluttered. Android is gorgeous, as seen on Google’s Pixel 4 and 4 XL, but you don’t always see it like that.
Since Apple is the only company that makes iPhones, it also has complete control over software updates. As such, iPhone owners always get the most recent and best iOS experience possible. Android users don’t have that luxury. Unless you own a Pixel device — and very few Android users do — you may have to wait months to get software updates.
Software updates contain security fixes, which keep your phone safe from malware, viruses, and hackers. Android is the most heavily targeted mobile operating system, because it’s far and away the largest, so this is something you have to keep in mind when considering phones from companies that have a less-than-stellar track record of releasing updates.
In contrast, Apple can patch security flaws and send the updated software to all iPhone users immediately. Since most users update their software when prompted, most iOS users are protected from these very real threats. Apple’s iOS also offers full encryption with no compromises.
How we test
A phone is so much more than its spec sheet. Your entire life is stored on it, from your photos and contacts to your music and your favorite apps. For that reason, we take great care when we review phones to recommend only the absolute best out there.
We use each phone we review as our daily driver for an extended period to test out all the features. We do benchmarks, play games, take photos, plunge them in water, and use them until their batteries expire. Then we charge ’em up and do it all over again. We test devices like real people use devices. We’re not in some stuffy lab performing obscure tests. We’re running around the cities we live in using these phones just like you use your phones. Then we think about each phone in comparison with its competitors to come to a decision: Should you buy this phone or something else? If the answer is “something else,” we tell you what to buy instead.
Smartphone innovation has peaked, and the number of radical new features that come out each year is shrinking. As such, when you’re buying a phone, you’re buying a device that will be with you 24/7 for several years. It’s a big choice, and things like apps, a product ecosystem, customer support, and security should be important factors in your buying decision.