Everything you need to know about buying a new phone

A lot has changed in the phone-shopping world. Know what to look for before searching for a new one.

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Excellent news, everybody: Smartphones are so good these days, it's hard to make a truly terrible choice. But whether you plan to hold onto it for years or switch it when the next hotness comes along, you still want to make sure you're getting the right one for you.

Right now, our favorite phones are:

Looking for more options? Check out our current picks for best phones here.

Top tips:

Water-resistant phones are all the rage.

Josh Miller/CNET
  • Know what you care about most: Is it screen size, camera quality, battery life? This will help narrow down your choice.
  • Don't discount the midrange -- you can still get a great phone that does almost everything that a premium phone can do, for a fraction of the price.
  • Try to hold the phone in a store first -- you may love or hate the way it looks and feels in person.
  • Shop for sales: Look for deep discounts around major holidays. And find out your grace period in case you need a quick return or exchange.
  • 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.
  • 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.

What's most important to you: Size, price, OS or something else?

Aloysius Low/CNET

If you're buying an Android phone

Android has the better native maps app and assistant by far. It ties into the same Google services many people already use. Major updates are typically announced in May or June and often arrive first with Google's official Nexus or Pixel phone, but it's been less consistent lately.

Look for:

  • Android 7.0 or higher: This current OS will get you the most recent goodies, including a battery-saving feature called Doze on the Go.
  • Android 6.x: This is older but not a dealbreaker. Some phone manufacturers take longer to upgrade Android. Pricier and more popular phones are more likely to get the update.

If you're buying an iPhone

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The iPhone SE is small enough for pockets, but it's hardly future-proof.

Sarah Tew/CNET

iOS updates come right on time for almost every phone. iPhones seem to develop fewer weird ticks 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.

Keep in mind:

  • Older iPhones are cheaper, but run the risk of losing out on newer hardware-based features in future phones.
  • If you can, wait for 2017's 10th anniversary iPhone -- rumors are, it'll be a doozy or die trying.

Big phone or small screen?

If you insist on a phone with a small screen (under 4.5 inches), look at the iPhone SE or Sony Xperia X Compact. Otherwise, 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 1,080p.
  • A 2,560x1,440 resolution is even better, especially for 5.5-inch screens and larger.
  • If you plan to use a VR headset like Google Daydream, the higher the resolution, the better -- when the phone is inches from your face, pixel count matters.

Camera quality

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.

We love the Google Pixel's awesome camera for everyday shots.

Josh Miller/CNET


Remember that:

  • Higher megapixels don't always equal higher quality shots. A 12-megapixel camera might take better photos than a 16-megapixel camera.
  • 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, it's there to create an optional depth effect (also known as a background blur) or to give you a wide-angle option.
  • Optical image stabilization, or OIS, helps prevent 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.

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 mid-price 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 3,000-mAh 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 Snapdragon processors, higher-numbered chips are the most recent. So 821 is newer (and faster) than 617 and 400.

Bonus features

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The Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge have wireless charging built in.

James Martin/CNET
  • Fingerprint scanner -- usually on the back, power button or home button.
  • Micro-SD storage on some Android phones.
  • Water resistant, IP67 and higher is best.
  • Wireless charging, as available on the Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge.
  • Stereo audio speakers or enhanced audio through headphones.
  • USB-C connector, the new standard for Android phones.
  • Removable battery -- note that this feature is becoming rare.

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 G4 and Huawei Honor 5X most.

Other questions to ask yourself

  • If it has a USB-C port, do adapter dongles (for example USB-to-USB-C) come in the box, or will you need to buy one?
  • Does it have a standard 3.5mm headphone jack or will you need to buy an adapter dongle?
  • If the phone breaks, what will you have to do 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 as you do in installments? (It should be)
  • Will the warranty cover your needs or will you pay for an extended warranty?
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