UPDATE : All this information remains relevant and helpful, but please note also our new article, written almost a year later, with additional and updated information, too.
Don’t dutifully go and buy a new Apple or Samsung phone for $650+ when there are phones with similar (or even better!) features available for $500 less.
Don’t be fooled by features that you’ll never use or by ‘differences’ that you’ll never notice. Focus only on what is relevant for you, and then dispassionately choose the phone that has what you need.
To help you in this endeavor, we’ve rated twenty of the most common good quality smartphones, and on 12 different features, plus also their typical price.
Increasingly wireless companies are offering phones at full price without locking you into a contract, rather than ‘subsidized’ (ie the price hidden within your monthly contract price) on a two year locked-in contract (some now even require a 30 month commitment), so the price issue is both more obvious and more important than before.
A non-subsidized phone is usually very much better value, particularly because the contract rates you pay with a subsidized phone typically stay the same, even after you have ‘paid off’ the included free/discounted phone, whereas if you buy a phone with payments spread over time, then when the phone is paid off, the payments stop. These days, fewer and fewer of us feel the need to be urgently rushing to upgrade our phones each time new models come out, adding further to the reasons why you should separate your phone purchase from your monthly service choice.
A third reason to buy a phone separately is that if you buy a phone separately, often it is sold to you ‘unlocked’ and so you can switch from any carrier to any other carrier, whenever you wish. If you buy a phone via a wireless company, even if you pay full price for it, they will generally sell the phone to you ‘locked’ to only work with their service. If you want to use ‘your’ phone with another wireless carrier, they may or may not agree to unlock the phone. That is of course ridiculously unfair, and all the more reason to be sure you are buying the right phone, from the right source, at the right price, and for sure not locked to only one carrier.
Our Three Picks for You
We’ve identified three of the twenty phones as currently (October 2016) being at ‘sweet spot’ points as between features and cost/value.
At the low end of the market, the BLU R1 HD is an astonishing value phone, priced at only $100 at Amazon. Note that the Motorola G4 Play can also be purchased by Amazon Prime members for $100, or if you are not a Prime member, you can sign up for Prime, get a $50 discount, buy the phone for $150 (which after the $50 discount means its net cost is $100) then immediately cancel your Prime membership at no cost or penalty.
About the only thing these two phones don’t have that an Apple iPhone 7, costing $650 does have, is a fingerprint sensor. On the other hand, these two phones do have a headphone jack, do have a Micro-SD card slot, and the Moto G4 Play also has a removable battery, and their 5″ screens are slightly larger than the iPhone 7, which has the smallest screen on the list at only 4.7″.
Why pay $650 when $100 gets you a comparable or possibly even better phone?
In the middle of the market, the Google Nexus 5X is bargain priced at only $200 if you also sign up for the Google Fi wireless service. You can cancel the Fi service after a month without penalty, and you might actually decide you like it and choose to stay on it, longer term.
The Nexus 5X has a 5.2″ screen, being a midpoint compromise between the two common sizes of 5″ and 5.5″. It has the same screen resolution as an iPhone 7+, and comparable other features, but also suffers from not supporting a Micro-SD drive, which means if you’re getting one of these phones, you probably should pay $250 for the larger 32GB storage capacity model rather than $200 for the 16GB model..
At the top of the market, forget about the crazily priced ($770 and higher) iPhone 7+, Pixel XL and Samsung Galaxy Note 7. Choose the Motorola G4 Plus, which gives you the same 5.5″ screen, same resolution as the iPhone 7+, all the options that are missing from the iPhone and Pixel phones, plus also a dual SIM capability too. And the cost for this phone, which is better in pretty much every relevant respect to the $770+ phones? A mere $250 on Amazon!
What is the Catch?
How is it that some phones are a quarter or less the price of other phones? What is being left out? What is the catch?
There sometimes are subtle differences, but if none of them have any meaning or value to you (and probably they don’t – see the sections below) then there is no catch whatsoever.
To explain by analogy, last weekend I bought a new jersey in preparation for the cooler winter weather. I could have gone to an upmarket clothing store and bought a ‘name brand’ jersey, probably costing $250 and possibly more. I ended up buying a lovely jersey – pure merino wool, just the cut and color and style I wanted, and even a name brand (Calvin Klein). And it cost me $20 (at Costco) – maybe one tenth the price of other name brand jerseys that had been distributed and sold through a full margin retail channel.
It is similar with electronics and clearly with cell phones. You’re simply contributing more towards Google’s and Apple’s massive profits when you buy their flagship phones.
So shop wisely and buy only the features and phone you need, realizing there is no direct link between price and performance. The only thing that is guaranteed to be different between the $150 phone and the $650 phone is the state of your bank balance.
Specific Features Rated
Size : As we say below, we almost left this out, because, for a given screen size, most phones are almost the exact size as other phones with the same screen size.
Screen Size : You’ll note that we don’t call out ‘good’ or ‘bad’ screen sizes in the attached chart. That’s because screen size requires you to compromise between the convenience of having a reasonably small phone size and the better visibility that is offered on a larger screen. It seems, overall, that more people prefer a 5″ sized screen, but those of us with the larger 5.5″ screens feel passionately about the benefits of the extra screen area thusly provided.
Try both sizes out in a store, and check how you would hold and where you would carry the larger phone – if it can be conveniently held, used, and carried, it is probably the better choice, particularly for those of us with increasing challenges when it comes to clearly reading tiny print!
Note that while larger screened phones need more battery power to drive the larger screen, the extra size of the phone usually allows for even more battery than required by the larger screen, so that in most cases, the larger screened phones have slightly longer battery life than the smaller screened phones.
Resolution : Just about all screens have excellent resolution that show little or no sign of graininess and the individual pixels. Of course, the larger the screen, the more pixels it can have and should have, and so we are suggesting that the 5″ screens should have at least 720×1280 pixels and ideally 1080×1920, and the 5.5″ screens should have at least 1080×1920 and ideally 1440×2560 pixels.
More pixels is invariably better than less.
Camera : This is another feature we almost left off. Cell phone type cameras these days are all uniformly ‘good enough’ for most casual type picture taking, while also being ‘not good enough’ for high-end enthusiast type picture taking or in ‘difficult’ conditions such as low-light or needing specific focal lengths or aperture settings or shutter speeds. In general terms, more pixels are somewhat better than fewer pixels, but over about 8MP, other considerations can come into play that surprisingly sometimes make more pixels worse rather than better. Don’t get hung up about the MP count.
One point though – if you take lots of selfies, then there is probably some appreciable difference between the 5MP and 8MP selfie or front camera options (ie 8MP is a bit better).
Micro-SD Card : This is close to an essential feature, and it speaks volumes about the arrogance of Apple and Google that both companies deliberately avoid allowing you to manage your own phone storage in an attempt to force you into their cloud storage services.
Dual SIM : If you travel internationally from time to time, a dual SIM phone that allows you to simultaneously have your home country wireless provider’s SIM and also a foreign SIM, both active in your phone at the same time, is a great convenience. You can have two phone numbers – your home phone number, the same as always, plus an in-country number too.
Connector : Apple insists you use a unique-only-to-Apple connector for chargers and data connections. All other companies use the international standard USB type connector. But the Micro-USB standard is now being replaced by a new USB-C type connector, and if you’re getting a new phone, it is preferable but not essential to get one with a new type of connector, to give it some more ‘future proofing’.
Headphone Socket : Another Apple arrogance measure, this time deciding to deprive you of the ability to connect regular headphones and headset/microphones to your phone and hoping you’ll instead pay ridiculously more than you need to and buy a set of their overpriced Bluetooth headphones. Unfortunately, Motorola’s latest phone is doing the same. We hope this isn’t the start of a new trend.
Fingerprint Sensor : This is a convenient way of unlocking your phone, and sometimes also used instead of needing passwords by apps on your phone too.
It isn’t just a gimmick, it can be quite practical and useful. We like the fact that it means you can unlock your phone while other people are watching, and not have them see your password. They can copy and use a password, but not your fingerprint!
Battery : The earlier outrage at batteries that couldn’t be removed/replaced/swapped has largely died down, so we don’t give a downcheck to fixed batteries, but we do give a mild upcheck to removable batteries.
How Much Storage Do You Need?
Something which is important that we don’t report on in the table are the internal storage capacities of the phones. Different people have different storage requirements, but if you get a phone with Micro-SD card capabilities, it becomes much less important. With a Micro-SD card (these days offering you up to 256GB of extra storage) you get to choose how much you store on the phone and how much you store on the card or cards.
The best way to work out how much storage you ‘need’ is to look at how much storage you have used on your present phone and adjust up from there, based on any additional uses you might wish to include on your new phone. On an Android phone, go to Settings and then to Storage & USB (the terms may vary slightly between phone models and OS versions) to find this. With iOS, go to Settings and then to General and then to Storage & iCloud Usage.
Most people will find that their maximum storage needs are with photos and video, and possibly with stored music, and maybe if you have a lot of GPS map data downloaded. But assuming you copy your photos to some other medium or to some type of cloud storage from time to time, there’s no need to have an enormous amount of space set aside for pictures (you can probably get 100 – 200 photos stored per GB of space you set aside for them).
As a quick rule of thumb, be cautious before settling for only 8GB of storage (but this is probably okay if you have a Micro-SD card too), 16GB is a typical minimum to be comfortable with, 32GB is enough for most people, and only if you want to have a lot of music of video and no Micro-SD card would you ever need to consider exceeding 64GB.
What We Don’t Compare
There are a dozen – probably two dozen or even more – other attributes of phones that can be measured and reported on. These may or may not be relevant or meaningful to you and your intended uses of the phone.
We’ve skipped what we feel to be generally unimportant features. For example, the CPU in the phone. Who cares? And how to compare the model 123 from CPU company ABC with the model 456 from company DEF? For a real true CPU comparison, there are many more things to consider than just the CPU processor speed, and most of these other parameters are never disclosed. Better not to bother – it is fair to say that all modern phones come with adequately fast CPUs.
We don’t report on phone weights. These days all phones are light, and probably it doesn’t matter at all if one phone weighs 5 ounces and another phone weighs 5.5 ounces. We nearly didn’t bother reporting phone dimensions either, because all phones with the same screen size are within a few tenths of an inch in external dimensions of each other.
We also don’t report on Bluetooth or GPS because all the phones include both features as standard.
We don’t report on what operating system the phones use, because they all use Android, except for the two Apple phones.
We don’t report on the types of apps the phone can run, because all Android phones can run 99% of all Android apps.
We don’t report on if the phones can work internationally because all phones support all four GSM frequency bands for voice calling, the same. As for international data, there is such a profusion of different types of data service, and almost 30 different frequency bands, as to make this difficult to summarise – even the very detailed Gsmarena.com website obscures that information but can be expanded on its listings to show it if needed.
When considering data service, don’t be blindsided into preferring a phone that can support data rates of (eg) up to 450 Mb/sec and feeling that is better than a phone that can support ‘only’ data rates of (eg) 45 Mb/sec. The chances are that you’ll never get data rates from the wireless carriers even as fast as 45 Mb/sec let alone 450 Mb/sec, and even at 4.5 Mb/sec, the data connection will still seem amazingly fast.
We don’t report on screen type, although it could be said that some screen types are slightly better than others in terms of color brightness and fidelity and saturation, they are all in the good to excellent category.
Battery life is something we’re also silent on, because we feel most phones have generally similar battery life and it is difficult to compare the battery life claims across different phone manufacturers, because they may make different assumptions about the testing parameters used to judge battery life.
If there is something else you absolutely need to know about before making a buying decision, there are several sources of information. Obviously you can go to the manufacturer websites, and these are probably the best sources of information. Alternatively you could go to one of the better review/comparison sites – our reigning favorite is gsmarena.com but others are almost as good.
NOTE : Please visit our updated article for an updated PDF with 2017 models and pricing.
When the price of phones were obscured, and many apparently were ‘free’ as part of simply renewing our wireless contract, the actual cost of the units wasn’t so important. But now that the prices are out there for us all to see, it becomes starkly apparent that while there are plenty of companies eager to sell you phones for $600 – $1000, there are plenty of phones available for $500 less with closely comparable and in some cases even better features.
See above for the three phones we feel to be the best buying choices at present.