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Now is the best time to buy a new iPhone, Galaxy S9, Note 9, Pixel 3

Sarah Tew/CNET

I spent August through November coaching everyone who asked not to buy a phone if they didn't have to. "Let's see what Apple/Google/One Plus brings," I said. "Wait for the deals," I added. But now the flagship phones for the year are fully reviews, and the Black Friday sales and other holiday promotions are starting in earnest. The perfect time to buy a new phone is now.

You'll find my best buying tips below to help you narrow down your choices. But also see our favorite phones of 2018, our best phones for holiday gifts, and the best Black Friday deals on iPhones, Galaxy phones, the Pixel 3, and LG and Moto phones. Black Friday deals cover the iPhone XS Max and Galaxy Note 9, through budget steals like the Moto G6, our favorite low-cost phone of 2018.

Read: Why phones are getting more expensive

When you are ready to get serious and plonk down the cash, know what you care about most. Is it battery life, the camera, making a statement to your colleagues and friends? How much are you willing to spent all-in -- including all your cases and dongles? Do you need to be on the cutting edge of features and performance, or is value more important? How long do you want to hold on to your phone: a year, or three? Can you afford to wait for a deal, or do you need to buy a new phone now?

For most people, price is the most important factor of all, and in general, cost lines up with 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.

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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. 

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.

There's a world of phones beyond the iPhone X and Galaxy Note 9.

Angela Lang/CNET

Here are our favorite phones right now at any price:

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

When Androids and iPhones sell each year

Right now we're nearing the end of the yearly cycle. After a busy summer, we transition into fall, when phone-makers tend to save their most impressive devices for the big holiday push. After that, things will quiet down until the first phones for 2019 see the light of day in January, February and March (for the CES and MWC trade shows).

Things change, but here's a sample cycle:

  • January: Midrange phones announced at CES show
  • February: Phones announced for all tiers (MWC show)
  • March, April sales: Samsung Galaxy S phone, LG G line, Huawei P family
  • May, June, July sales: OnePlus update, Motorola Moto
  • August, September sales: iPhone, Samsung Galaxy Note, Moto Z
  • October, November, December sales: Google Pixel line, LG V series, OnePlus update, Huawei Mate family (global)

HTC, BlackBerry and Nokia updates are more fluid. For example, the BlackBerry Key2 and HTC U12 Plus both arrived in June.

Top phone-buying tips:

    Dropping your phone is inevitable. A case will save you money and help preserve your phone's resale value.

    CNET
  • 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 and promo deals 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 or you may not get the best voice and data coverage.
  • 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

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Google's Android software updates come at different times to other phones and carriers.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

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. 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 9.0 Pie: This current OS will get you the most recent goodies, like better support for a screen notch if your phone has it and a unified gesture navigation. Some phones have already upgraded.
  • Android 8.0 Oreo:  including autofill in Chrome and shrinking a video to a small thumbnail you can move around while doing other things.
  • What about Android 7.0 Nougat?: This is acceptable for an entry-level device, but any older than this and you'll start to lose out on operational speed and extra features.

If you're buying an iPhone

  • iOS 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 -- here's everything you need to know about iOS 12 -- 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?

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The iPhone 8 looks puny compared to the iPhone 8 Plus, far right.

Sarah Tew/CNET

If you insist on a smartphone with a small screen (5 inches or under), you pretty much have two choices: the powerful, midprice Sony Xperia XZ2 Compact or the long-in-the-tooth iPhone SE, which does not appear to be getting an update. Otherwise, you'll need to scrounge up an older phone -- which I don't recommend -- or get used to something larger.

For screens 4.7 inches and larger:

  • Look for a minimum screen resolution of 1080p.
  • A 2,560x1,440-pixel 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.

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.

Remember these points:

  • More 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, 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.

Read: Epic camera showdown: iPhone X versus Galaxy S9 Plus, Huawei P20 Pro, Pixel 2

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 3,300mAh 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, but most high-end phones these days have eight cores.
  • For Qualcomm's processors, higher-numbered chips are the most recent. So the Snapdragon 845 is newer (and faster) than 630 and 425. The Snapdragon 710 brings higher-end features to midrange devices.
  • Phone-makers like Samsung and Huawei make their own chips in-house that they may use instead of or in conjunction with other chips. MediaTek is another brand often found in more affordable phones. Intel chips are expected to be much more widely used in future iPhones.

Bonus features

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Not every phone has cutting-edge tech like this in-screen fingerprint reader.

James Martin/CNET

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. The trend will pick up in 2019.
  • MicroSD storage on some Android phones.
  • Water-resistant, IP67 and higher is best.
  • Wireless charging is available on many Samsung Galaxy and LG phones, and the iPhone 7 and newer.
  • Stereo audio speakers or enhanced audio through headphones.
  • USB-C connector, the most recent standard for Android phones.
  • Headphone jack. This is on the endangered species list.
  • Removable battery. This feature is almost extinct.

What about budget phones?

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If your phone doesn't have a headphone jack, you'll need to buy a dongle.

Josh Miller/CNET

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 G6 most.

Other questions to ask yourself

  • Does 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 (e.g. Lightning-to-3.5mm, USB-C-to-3.5mm port) for this as well?
  • 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, Nov. 13, 2018, at 4 a.m.: Adds new updates.