Phones may get slightly new designs and features in 2018, but you’ll wind up buying them the same way you always have: either through your carrier — the method of choice for almost 90 percent of US buyers — or through an online or big-box retailer. A small number of you even buy them online directly from the phone maker.
I get asked about my phone opinions a lot. But the most important factor when you’re ready to buy isn’t what I like, it’s what you care about most. Is it screen space, camera or something else entirely? At the end of the day, the choice typically comes down to price.
For the most part, a phone’s cost lines up with its performance. Expensive handsets will have the “best” features, fastest processors and the most advanced cameras. You’ll be able to do more on them, and brag to your friends.
Midrange devices are value plays that pack in pretty good features with a slight trade-off in speed, camera tools and nice-to-have extras that most people can live without. If you can happily spend your days without a curved screen or wireless charging, phones in this range will suit you fine.
Finally, low-cost phones are great options for people watching their budgets, first-time phone users and those looking for a secondary or backup device.
Now Playing:Watch this: Best tips for buying a new phone
Luckily, mobile tech has gotten so good, even budget buys can get you usable photos and satisfying performance. After all, they run on the same Android or iOS backbone as the more expensive models. These phones will fly through the basics, and maybe add a perk or two along the way.
Here are our favorite phones right now at any price:
High-end: Samsung Galaxy Note 8, iPhone X, iPhone 8 Plus, Galaxy S8, Google Pixel 2, Pixel 2 XL, LG V30, Huawei Mate 10 ProMidrange: OnePlus 5T, Motorola Moto X4, Huawei Honor 7XBudget: Motorola Moto G5 Plus, Moto E4
Looking for more options? Check out our current picks for best phones here.
New phones to look for in 2018
January and February are slow times for new handsets. We get some announcements in those months (around the CES and MWC trade shows), but the devices themselves only start hitting shelves in March and April. You do see new releases through summer, and a larger concentration of phone reveals as we head into September, October and November, the prime-time months for holiday sales.
Things change, but here’s a sample cycle:
Jan.: Midrange phones announced at CES show
Feb.: Phones announced for all tiers (MWC show)
March, April sales: Samsung Galaxy S phone, LG G line, Huawei P family, Motorola Moto
May, June, July sales: OnePlus update, iPhone SE
Aug., Sept. sales: iPhone, Samsung Galaxy Note, Moto Z Force
Oct., Nov., Dec. sales: Google Pixel line, LG V series, OnePlus update, Huawei Mate family (global)
HTC, BlackBerry and Nokia updates are more fluid.
Top tips:Know what you care about most: Is it screen size, camera quality, battery life? This will help narrow down your choices.
Don’t discount the midrange:You can get a great phone that does almost everything that a premium phone can do, for a fraction of the price.
Shop the sales: Look for deep discounts around major holidays. And find out your grace period in case you need a quick return or exchange.
Last year’s phones are a great deal, too. Wait for this year’s launch to get last year’s phone for less.
Hold the phone at a store first: You may love or hate the way it looks and feels in person.
If you buy a global phone, make sure it works with your carrier bands first.
Have you already bought a lot of iPhone apps and iTunes movies? Stick with iPhone if you still want access to them. Likewise, if you’ve invested in any Android-only software, you’ll want to stay on that side of the fence. Otherwise, it’s simple enough to switch platforms.
Buy a case and glass screen protector: You’ll protect your phone from costly damage, and will increase the phone’s resale or trade-in value for when you’re ready to move on.
Learn how to recycle your phone for cash.
If you’re buying an Android phone
Android has the better native maps app and assistant by far (known as Google Now or Google Voice Search). Another Android benefit: It ties into the same Google services many people already use.
Major updates are typically announced in May or June. A “pure” Google phone will be first in line for major OS updates, whereas phone manufacturers take longer to upgrade Android. Pricier and more popular phones are more likely to get the update.
Look for:Android 8.0 Oreo or higher: This current OS will get you the most recent goodies, including autofill in Chrome and shrinking a video to a small thumbnail you can move around while doing other things.
Android 7.0 Nougat: Last year’s version is still going strong. Any older than this and you’ll start to lose out on navigation speed and extra features.
If you’re buying an iPhoneiOS updates come right on time for almost every phone. iPhones seem to develop fewer weird tics over time and they play better with other Apple products, like Macs. Apple usually announces the latest major iOS version in June, and releases it in September.
Older iPhones are cheaper, but run the risk of losing out on newer hardware-based features in future phones.
Big phone or small screen?
If you insist on a phone with a small screen (under 4.5 inches), you pretty much have a choices of one: the iPhone SE. Otherwise, you’ll need to scrounge up an older phone, like 2016’s Sony Xperia Compact or get used to anything from 4.7 to 6 inches (or even larger).
For screens 4.7 inches and larger:Look for a minimum screen resolution of 1080p.
A 2,560×1,440 resolution is even better, especially for 5.5-inch screens and larger.
If you plan to use a VR headset like the Gear VR or the PlayStation VR, the higher the resolution, the better — when the phone is inches from your face, pixel count matters.
If you don’t follow camera tech, a list of sensor brands and f-stops won’t make much sense when trying to determine if your photos will be any good.
Remember:Higher megapixels don’t always equal higher quality shots. A 12-megapixel camera might take better photos than a 16-megapixel camera. The amount of light a camera can let in is crucial to good photos, as is the software that processes your pics.
That said, phones with 8-megapixel rear cameras only appear on budget phones these days. Expect middling quality. If a phone has two rear cameras, the second camera is there to create an optional depth effect (also known as a background blur or bokeh effect), telephoto, a wide-angle option or more image detail (one lens is monochrome).
Optical image stabilization, or OIS, diminishes blur from shaking hands. This is especially helpful when shooting indoors or in low-light. It won’t help with blur caused by a moving subject, though. Most phone cameras come with HDR, self-timers, beauty mode and plenty of filters and effects.
iPhone X and Galaxy Note 8: Similar cameras, different results
Battery life and performance
Most phones from the middle price range and up can handle a basic day’s worth of phone calls, email, gaming and music needs, though some internal tech is more refined than others. Some midprice phones even use the same chips as those with nosebleed prices.
In general:You’ll need to charge most phones once a day, so plan accordingly — stock up on an extra charger for your workplace or your bag.
You’ll typically get longer life from a 3,000mAh battery or above.
Maps and music streaming suck down battery life faster than other activities. So does keeping brightness on full blast.
An octa-core processor isn’t always “better” than a quad-core chipset.
For Qualcomm’s processors, higher-numbered chips are the most recent. So the Snapdragon 845 is newer (and faster) than 630 and 425.
Are these day-to-day extras nice-to-haves or need-to-haves for you?
Fingerprint scanner — usually on the back, power button or home button. 2018 showed us the first in-screen reader, and it was awesome.
MicroSD storage on some Android phones.
Water-resistant, IP67 and higher is best.
Wireless charging is available on many Samsung Galaxy and Note phones, the iPhone 7s and newer.
Stereo audio speakers or enhanced audio through headphones.
USB-C connector, the most recent standard for Android phones.
Headphone jack — is on the endangered species list.
Removable battery — this feature is almost extinct.
What about budget phones?
When a low price is the most important thing about a phone, you’re guaranteed to make some compromises. But there are still some great budget phones that give you more for their price than others. Right now, we like the Motorola Moto G5 Plus most, but we’re looking forward to 2018’s refresh.
Other questions to ask yourselfDoes it have a USB-C port, are adapter dongles (for example USB to USB-C) included, or will you need to buy one?
Does it have a headphone jack or will you need to buy an adapter dongle?
If the phone breaks, what are the steps to fix it?
Does the phone support Wi-Fi calling?
Is it locked to a carrier or can you add a SIM card for any network? Do you lose any features either way?
Can you travel with it internationally by simply swapping the SIM card?
Is it the same price if you pay in full or in installments? (It should be.)
Will the warranty cover your needs or will you pay for an extended warranty?
Read next: Best phones you can buy right now.
First published Nov. 23, 2016, 5 a.m. PT.
Update, Jan. 31, 2018 at 4:00 a.m.: Adds new updates.
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