What to look for in an Android phone
While most smartphones might look pretty much the same, buying one is a very personal experience. We all have unique needs, a unique budget, and personal preferences. You might need to access secure corporate email and documents with a phone that works on lots of networks around the world. Or you might spend all your time chronicling your life on Snapchat. That said, there are major features of all smartphones that you should compare before making a purchase decision.
Display: A good display has a high-resolution, retina-style display (1920x1080 for smaller phones, 2650x1440 for larger phones), so even fine text is crisp and legible. Nearly every premium phone has moved to a 18:9 aspect ratio, bringing more height to the display while making it easier to hold, and OLED for better color accuracy and deeper blacks. A high contrast ratio and maximum brightness will make it easier to see in bright sunlight.
Camera: Smartphone vendors like to tout a camera’s megapixels or portrait abilities, but a second lens and wide aperture (low f-stop number such f/2.0 and as low as f/1.5 on high-end phones) get you only so far. The particulars of the sensor, image processing chip, and camera software have a huge impact on the photo- and video-taking experience.
You want a camera that launches quickly, focuses in an instant, and has no lag between hitting the shutter button and taking the photo. A great phone camera is one with great processing, that can produce shots with accurate colors and little noise in lots of different environments. If you take selfies, pay particular attention to the quality of the front-facing camera. Finally, we love manual camera controls, and reward phones that offer lots of fine-tuning options.
Processor and memory: Nearly every modern phone is “fast enough” for common tasks like web browsing and social media, and nearly every premium phone uses the same processor: the newest Snapdragon 800 Series chip. But unless you plan to use your phone for more taxing activities like 3D gaming, VR, or video editing, you don’t always need a super-high-end processor and tons of RAM. Still, don’t settle for less than 2GB of RAM and a Qualcomm Snapdragon 600-series processor or better.
Battery: Every time a new poll is taken about what users want out of their next smartphone, “better battery life” is at the top of the list. The capacity of a smartphone battery is measured in milliamp-hours (mAh), and ranges from just under 3,000 mAh to around 4,000 mAh. As a rule of thumb, more mAh is better. But phones with bigger, brighter displays and more powerful processors drain the battery more quickly, so a smaller and less expensive phone with a 2,500 mAh battery might actually last longer than a high-end phone with a 3,300mAh one. AI and battery-saving modes are helping phones last longer and longer. You shouldn’t settle for one that doesn’t get you through a full day without needing to run for a outlet.
Size and weight: Some people love big phones. Some love smaller phones. Some want a lightweight phone that disappears in the pocket, while others need to feel some heft. It’s a matter of personal preference. With shrinking bezels and changing ratios, even 6-inch phones can be held comfortably in most hands. Before you decide, head to your local carrier or electronics store and try on a few different models for size.
Software and bloatware: If you want a phone that runs pure Android with no embellishments, you need to buy a Pixel phone or an Android One phone. Anything else you buy is going to have a custom build of Android—and that could be good or bad (or both at once).
Phone makers change the Android interface and icons to varying degree, and add features and software of their own. Sometimes this stuff is useful, sometimes it isn’t. Pre-installed apps that can’t be removed (usually called “bloatware”) can slow down your phone or, at the very least, take up valuable storage space. And if you buy a phone from a carrier instead of an unlocked carrier-neutral model, you’ll probably find a bunch of carrier apps you may not want. Know what you’re getting into before you buy.
Updates are also a concern. Pixel phones get the latest version of Android and security patches on day one, but most other phones take weeks to deliver patches and months to push out updates, if they get them at all. That’s true of premium phones such as the Galaxy S8 and budget phones alike. So consider that when committing to a new phone.
How we test Android phones
First and foremost, we spend at least several days with the phone under review, treating it as if it were our one and only. No number of lab tests or benchmarks will tell you as much about a phone as living with it for awhile. We’re concerned with real-world performance, stability, interface usability, camera quality, and whether proprietary features are useful or cumbersome. We use social media, check email, play games, take photos and videos in a variety of conditions, navigate around town, and do all the things most people do with their phones.
Of course, we also run extensive benchmarks: 3DMark (both Ice Storm Unlimited and Sling Shot), PCMark, GFXBench, AnTuTu, Geekbench, and Vellamo. We run all our tests with the phone set up the way it would be out of the box, without disabling any pre-installed apps or services. We do, however, make efforts to ensure benchmarks are not interrupted by notifications, and that background downloads aren’t taking place. We may not report results from all of these tests (real-world everyday performance is far more important than benchmarks), but we do share the most interesting results.
Before running each benchmark, we make sure the phone is charged to 100 percent, plugged in, and left to cool off. Phones can sometimes run slower as their batteries get low, and charging the phone can make it hot and cause the SoC to slow down. So we do our best to make sure every test starts with the phone topped off and at room temperature.
When we run battery benchmarks (PCMark and Geekbench), we calibrate the display to 200 nits and disable all auto-brightness and screen-dimming features. Display brightness plays a major role in draining your battery, and we want to create a level playing field. Of course, we also keep a close eye on how long the battery lasts in our everyday use, including screen-on time, standby time, and even how fast the battery charges with the included charger.
But most importantly, we use them. When we get in a new Android phone, it becomes the reviewer's daily driver, so we load it with apps, streaming services, and documents to get an accurate representation of how it will perform under light, medium, and heavy loads. Benchmarks are nice, but they can be gamed, and there's no better way to judge a new phone than to put it through the paces of a normal routine.
Android phone reviews
Is there a phone you’re interested in, but don’t see it recommended as one of our top picks? That’s fine—different users have different needs and preferences. Maybe another model is the best one for you. Take a look at our latest top reviews to see what else is out there.