The Best 5G Phone for You

Bree Fowler
·8 min read

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If you’re in the market for a new phone, this might be a good time to consider 5G. After years of buzz, we're getting our first real glimpse at what the new wireless technology can do.

It may not be widely available where you live, but the major carriers have been steadily expanding their 5G networks over the past year, slowly turning what once was spotty connectivity into something resembling national coverage.

The choice of 5G-compatible phones is wider now, too. Bare-bones models start as low as $500, with high-end models stretching beyond $1,000 because of cutting-edge cameras and OLED displays.

According to experts, 5G speeds—five times faster than 4G connections at peak performance—will eventually allow users to download a movie in just 5 seconds.

The technology will also pave the way for the instantaneous response times required to safely perform robotic surgery and operate self-driving cars that communicate with other vehicles and road infrastructure.

But before you crack open your wallet for a new 5G phone, make sure it includes the hardware required to operate on your carrier's 5G network, because not all 5G signals are the same.

As we witnessed firsthand in this early look at 5G technology, the high-frequency millimeter wave (mmWave) signals are much faster than those on 4G networks, but they don't travel as far as signals sent over the lower bands of 5G. They don't have much success penetrating walls, buses, and throngs of pedestrians, either.

Conversely, midband and lowband 5G frequencies are slower but more reliable.

In the end, you want a phone that works with the full range of 5G signals. Though most of the new phones on the market do, it's best to double-check before buying a model that's a year or two old.

Here’s a quick look at the 5G smartphones currently on the market.

Apple

iPhone 12, 12 Mini, 12 Pro, and 12 Pro Max
Pricing:
12 Mini (64GB) $700, 12 (64GB) $800, 12 Pro (128GB) $1,000, and 12 Pro Max (128GB) $1,100.

Carriers: AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, plus unlocked.

Test results: All four phones performed very well in our testing, though they didn't crack the top 10 in our smartphone ratings (available to members). They feature cameras that rank among the best on the market and super-sharp OLED displays. On the flip side, the phones lag other premium models when it comes to battery life, which pulls down their Overall Scores.

Samsung

Galaxy S21, S21+, and S21 Ultra 5G
Pricing: S21 $800, S21+ $1,000, and S21 Ultra $1,200, all 128GB.

Carriers: AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon, plus unlocked.

Test results: These phones—available for preorder now—go on sale Jan. 29. They offer new camera features and a purportedly faster processor. (We'll have more to say on that once we get them into our labs.) But, most notably, they're also a bit cheaper than their predecessors.

And with the super-premium S21 Ultra, you get a fourth rear camera: a 3x telephoto lens on top of the wide, ultra-wide, and 10x zoom cameras on last year’s model.

Just a heads up that the base-model S21 doesn’t include the hardware needed for super-fast millimeter wave 5G service, just the slower though arguably more reliable, low- and midband 5G signals. The other two models include hardware for all 5G signals.

Galaxy S20, S20+, and S20 Ultra 5G
Pricing: Varies, availability limited.

Carriers: AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon, plus unlocked.

Test results: The 2020 models still rank among our highest-rated smartphones. The basic S20 scores the highest, mainly because it survived our tough tumble testing. The other two options did not.

But as you'd expect, the S20+ and Ultra get higher marks for battery life and cameras. Though the S20 powered along for a very respectable 37 hours in our testing, the S20+ and S20 Ultra lasted 40 hours and 40.5 hours, respectively.

Galaxy Note20 and Note20 Ultra
Pricing: Note20 $1,000 and Note20 Ultra $1,300, both 128GB.

Carriers: AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon, plus unlocked.

Test results: These are two of the top models in our ratings. They feature slightly bigger and brighter displays, along with improved battery life, when compared with the 2019 versions.

In our testing, the Note20 lasted 34 hours on a single charge and the Note20 Ultra made it 36.5 hours. And the cameras on both are top-notch. The Note20 includes a 3x camera, and the Note20 Ultra sports a camera with a 5x lens.

Galaxy Z Fold2 5G and Z Flip 5G
Pricing: Z Fold2 5G $2,000 and Z Flip 5G $1,450, both 256GB.

Carriers: AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon, plus unlocked.

Test results: These are 5G-ready updates of Samsung’s foldable phones.

The Z Flip 5G performed a bit better than the original in our testing. The battery lasted 27.5 hours, an increase of a full 10 hours. But the cameras are still a weak point, particularly the rear setup, which received just a Good rating for still-image quality.

The Fold2 5G received Very Good ratings for both rear still-image and video quality. And the battery lasted a decent 29 hours.

Galaxy A71 5G, A51 5G, and S20 FE
Pricing: A51 $500, A71 $600, and S20 FE $700, all 128GB.

Carriers: AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon, plus unlocked.

Test results: They’re not super-premium models, but the A71 5G and S20 FE both scored fairly well in our labs. And though we haven’t tested the A51 5G, the 4G version of the phone received a Very Good overall rating from our testers.

The A71 5G and S20 FE boast top-of-the-line OLED displays, along with great battery life. The S20 FE made it 38 hours in our testing, and the A71 5G lasted an industry-leading 43 hours.

But the phones don't have the fancy camera setups you’d get with a premium model. The rear cameras on the FE received Very Good ratings, and those on the A71 were just Good.

Google

Pixel 4a (5G) and 5
Pricing:
Pixel 4a (5G) $500 and Pixel 5 $700, both 128GB.

Carriers: Verizon and unlocked.

Test results: The Pixel 5 would have scored significantly better in our testing had it survived our tumble test. But the phone's display was broken after the equivalent of just 50 drops.

That, combined with its decent but not spectacular battery life of 34 hours, dropped the phone to the middle of our rankings.

The lower-priced Pixel 4a (5G) just went on sale in the U.S., so we're still in the process of testing it.

How do the two phones compare with one another? Both boast OLED displays, along with wide and ultra-wide rear cameras.

But the Pixel 5 features a slightly larger battery and an aluminum and Gorilla Glass 6 construction. It’s also water- and dust-resistant, and capable of wireless charging. In comparison, the 4a (5G) is made of plastic and the older, less advanced Gorilla Glass 3.

OnePlus

OnePlus 8 and OnePlus 8 Pro
Pricing:
OnePlus 8 $800 and 8 Pro $900, both 128GB.

Carriers: T-Mobile and Verizon, plus unlocked.

Test results: The OnePlus 8 Pro is one of the highest-scoring phones in our ratings, receiving Excellent scores for both display and performance. But the camera test scores fell short of those for other top models. In particular, the rear camera received just a Good rating for video quality.

The lower-priced OnePlus 8 also performed well in our testing. In the battery life trials, it scored better than the 8 Pro despite its slightly smaller size, lasting 38 hours compared with the 8 Pro’s 34 hours.

LG

V60 ThinQ 5G
Pricing:
$950 (128GB).

Carriers: AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon, plus unlocked.

Test results: This smartphone has a 6.8-inch display, the ability to shoot video in 8K, and an optional attachable dual screen.

The rear cameras received Very Good ratings, and the battery lasted an industry-leading 45 hours in our testing.

Velvet 5G
Pricing: $600 (128GB).

Carriers: AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon.

Test results: It's not one of our top-rated models, but the Velvet is a decent 5G phone for the price.

You get a 6.8-inch OLED display, and the triple-camera setup on the back received Very Good ratings from our testers for still-image and video quality. The phone is both wireless-charge- and quick-charge-compatible, and the battery lasted an exceptional 40 hours in our testing.

Motorola

Edge
Pricing: $700 (256GB).

Carriers: Unlocked.

Test results: Our testers rated the Edge’s rear cameras Very Good for still-image and video quality. And the battery lasted a respectable 34 hours in our labs. But after 50 drops in our tumbler, the phone’s display no longer worked.

Verizon sells a similar model called the Motorola Edge+, which we haven’t tested. That phone costs about $1,000 and features a larger battery.

Sony

Xperia 1 II
Pricing:
$1,200 (256GB).

Carriers: Unlocked.

Test results: A premium-priced 5G phone from Sony? That's right, and it performed fairly well in our ratings.

It doesn’t rise to the level of Samsung’s top 5G phones, but the Xperia 1 II does rate Very Good overall. It has a great 6.5-inch OLED display and rear cameras that rate Very Good for still-image and video quality.