Best smartphones in 2023 | CNN Underscored

Best smartphones in 2023 | CNN Underscored

Smartphones are at the center of our digital lives — they’re what we use to communicate with loved ones, handle important business, binge on TikToks and everything in between. And since you’ll likely use your phone more than any other gadget you own, picking the right one to last you through years of use is crucial.

But with new phones coming out seemingly every month, it can be hard to figure out which one is actually right for you. That’s why we’re always testing the latest flagships from the likes of Apple, Google, Samsung and more to make sure you get the best smartphone for your needs.

Best smartphone overall

The iPhone 15 is the best new iPhone for most people, especially if you’re coming from an iPhone 12 or older. With useful new camera tricks, the excellent Dynamic Island and all of the perks of USB-C, it’s a notable step up.

The iPhone 15 is a noteworthy if incremental upgrade, and Apple’s best basic iPhone in years. While it looks a whole lot like the iPhone 14 from a distance, its matte rear panel, contoured edges and lighter weight mean the new iPhone just feels better to hold — and it is far less prone to unsightly smudges. And while its color options of pink, yellow, green, blue and black are more subdued than the bold hues on last year’s model, they’re still a heck of a lot more fun than what the pricier iPhone 15 Pro offers.

The big news is that the iPhone 15 finally brings Apple’s smartphone into the USB-C era, meaning you can charge it up with the same cable you’re probably already using for your MacBook, iPad and your collection of non-Apple gadgets. You’ll probably still be doing some cable juggling if your AirPods or iPad are still on Lightning, but for the vast majority of people, the switch to USB-C is a net positive that should eventually eliminate the guesswork that can come with finding the right charger for your stuff.

One of the iPhone 15’s best new features is the Dynamic Island, which replaces the divisive camera notch up top in favor of a small, ovular module that can morph to show you important information at a glance. Start a timer, and it’ll persist in the Island at the top of your screen no matter what else you’re doing on your phone. Call an Uber, and you’ll see an ETA displayed up top even as you use other apps. Your mileage may vary, but the Dynamic Island is something I find legitimately useful every day, and is a feature I’m happy to see trickle down to the basic iPhones after being exclusive to last year’s 14 Pro lineup.

The iPhone 15 also has one of the more significant year-over-year camera improvements we’ve seen in a while from Apple, with a larger 48-megapixel sensor that captures more detail and “optical-quality” 2x zoom that we found to be a notable step up from the iPhone 14’s digital zoom. But the real selling point here happens in the software. The phone’s new Focus and Depth Control virtually eliminate the need to switch to Portrait mode — as long as you have a person, dog or cat prominently in frame, you just tap a little icon to activate that nice bokeh effect. You can even add or adjust this effect after the fact in the Photos app, whether you want to spruce up a non-Portrait photo or switch the subject from you to your dog.

Dynamic Island and fancy camera upgrades aside, you’re getting the same ol’ iPhone experience here — which isn’t a bad thing, for the most part. The iPhone 15 continues to be the fastest in its class, with an A16 Bionic processor that made everyday multitasking feel zippy and responsive while screaming past comparable Galaxy and Pixel phones on our benchmark tests (naturally, it fell only to the iPhone 15 Pro and its more muscular A17 Pro processor). Its battery typically lasted us a full day of mixed use with 20% to 30% to spare by the end of the night, though you’ll want to keep a charger handy if you’re gaming or filming video for long stretches. The only thing that doesn’t feel competitive is iPhone 15’s Super Retina XDR display, which still looks bright and colorful, but retains a 60Hz refresh rate that makes it feel a bit sluggish — especially considering that even budget Android phones have super silky 120Hz screens these days.

With its significantly upgraded camera, genuinely useful Dynamic Island and convenient USB-C port, the iPhone 15 is the best iPhone for the money. If you’re rocking an iPhone 12 or newer and you’re on a tight budget (or just don’t want to give up on or replace all of your Lightning cables and accessories), you’ll be fine holding out for at least another year. But for everyone else, this is the smartphone to get.

Best Android smartphone

The Galaxy S23 is the best overall Android phone for the money, offering great performance, excellent cameras and some of the best battery life we’ve tested on a phone.

Best budget smartphone

If you’re looking to spend less than $500, it doesn’t get better than the Google Pixel 7a. This slick phone has the same speedy Google Tensor processor as the more expensive Pixel 7, delivers all-day battery life and gets you a clean Android experience with no annoying bloatware.

Best foldable smartphone

The Galaxy Z Flip 5 is the best foldable phone for most people, offering good performance and cameras within a design that’s more pocket-friendly — and cooler — than your typical phone.


6.1 inches, 2556 x 1179 Super Retina XDR display

6.1 inches, 2340 x 1080 AMOLED

6.1 inches, 1080 x 2400 OLED

6.7 inches, 2640 x 1080 AMOLED (main display); 3.4 inches, 720 x 748 (cover screen)

Refresh rate






Apple A16 Bionic

Snapdragon 8 Gen 2

Google Tensor G2

Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 for Galaxy







128GB / 256GB / 512GB

128GB / 256GB


256GB / 512GB


48-megapixel main camera, 12-megapixel ultrawide (back); 12-megapixel TrueDepth camera (front)

50-megapixel wide, 12-megapixel ultrawide, 10-megapixel telephoto (back); 12-megapixel camera (front)

64-megapixel wide camera, 12-megapixel ultrawide (back); 13-megapixel camera (front)

12-megapixel wide, 12-megapixel ultrawide (back); 10-megapixel camera (front)

Size and weight

5.81 x 2.82 x 0.31 inches, 6.02 ounces

5.76 x 2.79 x 0.3 inches, 5.93 ounces

6 x 2.9 x 0.35 inches, 6.8 ounces

6.5 x 2.8 x 0.27 inches (unfolded), 3.3 x 2.8 x 0.67 inches (folded), 6.5 ounces


$799 from Apple

$800 from Samsung

$444 from Best Buy

$1,000 from Samsung

As you’d expect, when testing a smartphone, we physically switch over to that device for a period of time. It becomes our daily driver, with our SIM card inside, the apps we use and our contacts. That’s our real-world testing — using it for phone calls, texting with friends, capturing memories, playing games, chilling out with music, reading the news and taking in content.

Additionally, we pay close attention to four specific areas. When evaluating a phone’s build, we analyze and test the design. Does it feel good in the hand? Is it easy to hold, or is it a slippery mess? We also factor in what types of ports a phone has and, of course, check for a headphone jack. As phones have been getting larger and larger, size is taken into account.

Performance covers a lot — from the display to software and even connectivity, with more in between. To standardize the performance, we used benchmarks on each smartphone, and these are the same tests we run on devices in individual reviews. A proprietary battery test and Geekbench 5 are the callouts. With connectivity, we tested both cellular and Wi-Fi in a variety of situations.

With cameras, we tried to use them as you would. Capturing family at night and during the day, testing the all-important Portrait Modes and just general shooting. We shook our hands to test stabilization, tracked shutter times and saw how long it took to capture a photo.

Battery life was a category of its own to identify full run times, charging times and just how much use each phone could provide. The CNN Underscored battery test consists of a 4K video on a loop that runs until the device powers off. We ensure the brightness is set to 50% and turn off connectivity via airplane mode.

Like its cheaper counterpart, the iPhone 15 Pro is a subtle but fairly significant update. The new titanium shell is lighter and feels better to hold, it’s got thinner bezels for more immersive movie binging, and its A17 Pro processor screams through demanding tasks and lets you play console-quality games. Its cameras, while largely more of the same, offer better portrait shots and you get deeper optical zoom on the Pro Max model. There’s also the new Action button, which replaces the ring/silent switch in favor of a programmable clicker that can do everything from open your camera app to activate any iOS Shortcuts you have set up. The iPhone 15 Pro is a great phone if you’re a photo enthusiast or creative pro who needs the extra camera power,  or if you simply don’t mind splurging on the best iPhone available, but we think the iPhone 15 is a better value for the vast majority of people.

While the iPhone 15’s superior design, cameras and Dynamic Island pushed last year’s model out of our top spot, the iPhone 14 is still a good buy for folks who don’t feel like replacing all of their Lightning cables and accessories — or just want to save $100.

The Galaxy Z Fold 5 is an extremely strong runner-up for the title of best foldable phone, and if you’d rather have a smartphone/tablet hybrid over the more compact design of the Flip 5, Samsung’s bigger foldable is worth the splurge. It’s got a huge and vibrant 7.6-inch main display for on-the-go multitasking, great overall performance for productivity and big-screen gaming and S Pen support for quickly jotting down notes. Its cameras could benefit from an upgrade and its cover screen isn’t as intuitive as the Pixel Fold’s, but it’s still our favorite big-screen foldable overall.

The Motorola Razr+ is also a close contender to the Z Flip 5’s throne, and one of our favorite foldables we’ve tested yet. Like the Z Flip 5, the Razr+ has a huge cover screen that lets you use all of your critical apps without having to open the phone up (and get distracted by doomscrolling in the process), as well as longer battery life and a cleaner software experience. It’s a great Flip alternative if those features are important to you, but better cameras and performance give Samsung’s phone the edge.

Yet another strong debut in the foldable phone space, the Google Pixel Fold is a smartphone/tablet hybrid that competes directly with the Z Fold 5. It has an excellent front display that makes it feel like a regular ol’ smartphone when the device is folded up, in addition to the same clean software and excellent camera smarts you’ll find on a traditional Pixel handset. However, not all apps work well on the big screen just yet, and its screen has a much more visible crease than that of the Z Fold 5 when folded up.

If you’re on a slightly less-than-flagship budget — and are looking for something a little different — the Nothing Phone (2) is worth considering. Its transparent design (complete with dynamic lights on the back that react to things like notifications and volume control) is truly one of a kind, and you get great cameras and performance for a $600 phone. However, you’ll have to live without the robust customer support and carrier availability of the bigger phone brands, and the Pixel 7 and 7a give you a similarly great experience for an even lower price.

If you want all of the perks of the Galaxy S23 with even more outstanding cameras, a bigger screen and an included S Pen for taking notes, the S23 Ultra is well worth the splurge. However, considering this phone’s steep starting price, we think the regular Galaxy S23 is the best Android option for most people.

The OnePlus 11 is a good cheaper alternative to the Galaxy S23, and has even longer battery life and super-fast charging. However, the overall user experience isn’t as good as what you’ll get from Samsung and Google.

The Galaxy Z Fold 4 is a great big-screen foldable that can serve as your phone and tablet all in one. However, its high price makes it a niche luxury purchase, and we think most people are better off with the more compact and cheaper Z Flip 4.

Previously our best pick from Apple, the iPhone 13 had all most critical upgraded features from the iPhone 12: a better display, more processing power and new camera capabilities.

Our best budget iPhone pick, the iPhone SE delivers a whole lot for $429. You get the same powerful A15 Bionic processor found in the iPhone 13 series as well as 5G support and a pretty good camera for the price. If you’re married to the Apple ecosystem and on a budget, it’s a no-brainer. But for everyone else, we think the Pixel 6a’s superior cameras, design and battery life give it the edge.

If you have the money to spend and want an extra-large screen, an included stylus and the best camera on a Galaxy phone, the Galaxy S22 Ultra is a great option. However, we think the cheaper S22 and S22+ (which have the same fast processor and most of the same features) are the better pick for most people.

The OnePlus 10 Pro is a worthy alternative to the Galaxy S22 and Pixel 6 Pro, sporting a great display, an attractive design and especially fast charging speeds. However, its performance and cameras can’t quite keep up with our top picks.

As the smaller version of our overall pick, the iPhone 13 Mini merely shrinks the screen to 5.4 inches and packs a smaller battery inside. It still meets the same high performance marks and lasts a full day. If you want a smaller iPhone, this is the way to go. Unless you’re short on pocket space, we recommend the standard iPhone 13, as the extra screen real estate makes it more usable and the keyboard feels much less cramped.

At $200 more than the iPhone 13, the 13 Pro features an additional camera for close-ups and the ability to take macro shots, and it ups the refresh rate on the display to a standard 120Hz. If you’re really into photography, we think the jump is worth it for more details, colors and clarity in all shots captured on the device. Besides these improvements, it is identical to the iPhone 13, making Apple’s standard iPhone the better choice for most.

The iPhone 13 Pro Max is Apple’s largest phone with a 6.7-inch display. Like the 13 Pro, it features a high-refresh-rate display and a triple-camera system with LiDAR. If you’re using the phone as your primary camera, there’s a case to be made here especially for the improvements with clarity. And although it boasts the longest battery life among the new iPhones, unless you know you’d use the camera features, we’d still recommend the standard iPhone 13, as it performs just as well in everyday situations.

Although the iPhone 12 might seem outdated with all the newer models, it’s still a solid option. It boasts a dual-camera main system with a 6.1-inch OLED screen that impresses with vibrancy.

The iPhone 12 and 12 Mini are identical except for the screen size, and that’s really good news. With a 5.42-inch screen, the iPhone 12 Mini is the compact phone with no compromises. It has the same camera setup as the 12, and that means terrific photos no matter the shooting conditions. It runs iOS 14 just as well and really is a great choice for people with smaller hands.

Like the Pro iPhone models, the S21 Ultra aims to level up the experience with a larger screen, truly high-end aluminum build and six cameras. Performance in our testing was really on par with the S21 as a whole. Yes, the device has more RAM, but unless running large exports or using the device for video editing, the base RAM in the S21 is just fine. The other boosts are in the camera department. The dual telephoto lens, however, which allows for 10x optical zoom, was a game changer in our testing. We were able to capture images from afar with a stunning amount of clarity for a smartphone; it’s a distinct improvement on the 3X optical zoom, plus software processing on the regular S21. If you don’t need to get those long shots, though, the standard Galaxy S21 is cheaper and nearly as feature-filled.

Arriving nine months after the original S20, the Galaxy S20 Fan Edition got almost everything right. A $700 mash-up of Samsung technologies held together in a polycarbonate plastic build, it delivers a triple-camera setup on the back with support for Space Zoom. It can take good photos and capture smooth video, but it takes a little more work than our best overall pick. The 6.5-inch Super AMOLED display on the front delivers a 120 Hz refresh rate. We wish all phones, including the iPhone 12, offered the faster refresh rate. Ultimately, though, the iPhone 12 is just $100 more, and the Pixel 4a 5G is much cheaper.

There’s a lot to like about the Galaxy Z Flip 3, from a smoother hinge that makes opening and closing more seamless to a larger cover screen that is finally more functional than gimmick. You can now actively see notifications, control playback and even monitor activity all from the front screen. The main internal display is bigger than the S21’s (it is closer in size to Samsung’s larger S21+) with a 6.7-inch display that features a high refresh rate. And it’s powered by the same processor as the Galaxy S21 along with the same wide and ultrawide lenses. That said, we still don’t see a compelling argument for a folding phone yet, but if you’re sold on the folding future, we’d recommend this one for it’s S21-like feature set.

Samsung’s latest combination phone and tablet is really impressive — it’s also $1,799, which is a ton to pay for a phone. The software experience here is more desktop-like, with solutions for multitasking with any application, and the Z Fold 3 adds high-refresh-rate displays, a faster processor and a considerable improvement in the overall build. Opting for a Galaxy Z Fold 3 lets you do more with just one device, but there are some limitations with Android. There are also long-term durability concerns with a foldable. Unless you’re an early adopter, opt for a standard non-folding smartphone.

The Pixel Pro 7 has plenty of horsepower to help with your daily smartphone tasks with a great camera and software, but the battery life could perform better for the $899 price tag and the phone got abnormally hot when handling normal tasks.

The Google Pixel 7 is a great value Android phone, offering superb cameras and the best Android software experience you can get. However, for a new release, we wished the battery performed better and didn’t need to be recharged throughout the day.

The Pixel 5 was a high-end Pixel when it dropped in 2020. But it doesn’t really impress more than the Pixel 4a 5G — it has a slightly more refined design and supports reverse wireless charging. Unless you’re a Pixel die-hard who wants a fun color, the differences are minimal and the 4a 5G is the way to go.

The first Pixel of 2020 struck a really nice chord. It delivers a really solid experience with an OLED screen, a fingerprint sensor on the back and one camera lens on the back. It’s a great 4G LTE-capable phone for its price, but in 2023 we’re also focused on longevity, and for a little bit more the Pixel 4a 5G gets you a more future-proof device.

Compared to other mid-range phones, you won’t find a better display for the price, and the 2022 Motorola Edge has a stellar battery life to boot. If you’re looking for a premium screen with a speedy refresh rate for watching video, looking at social media or checking out your photos, the Motorola is a solid bet. However, we’ve seen more premium feeling builds and better cameras from phones in the same $500 price range.

Motorola’s reentry into the flagship space was a mixed one. The more expensive Edge+ is a Verizon exclusive, and that’s just no fun. The Motorola Edge is a modest flagship with a display that stretches to the very edge (get the name now?), literally spanning the right and left sides. It didn’t add much actual use cases, though. However, now that it’s price is dropping during sales, it’s a worthy option for those on a tight budget.

Our experience with the first generation of the Razr was nostalgia-fueled but ultimately not a good foldable experience. The second gen keeps the iconic design and a hinge that you can physically feel. But the fact that it feels more durable doesn’t get away from feeling the display fold and hearing it creak. We do like the larger display on the front over that of the tiny one on the Z Flip, though. And Motorola making it available unlocked, instead of locked to Verizon, is a great move.

OnePlus is known for providing flagship specs and features at a price that undercuts its competitors, and the OnePlus 8T is no different. It includes the latest Qualcomm processor, the Snapdragon 865, 5G connectivity, a big battery and four rear-facing cameras, including a macro lens for those photos where you need to get really close to your subject. All OnePlus phones are powered by Android and run OnePlus’ proprietary Oxygen OS on top of it. The 6.55-inch display even has a 120 Hz refresh rate, but ultimately the OnePlus 8T fell short from one of our top picks due to unreliable camera performance.

The OnePlus 8 Pro was released in early 2020 and remains in the OnePlus lineup as a higher-end option for OnePlus fans. It’s normally priced around $899, which is uncharted territory for a company known for its low-end prices on high-end phones. We reviewed the 8 Pro shortly after it launched and found it to be a fantastic Android phone, with a stellar display and strong performance with long-lasting battery life. The unlocked OnePlus 8 Pro lacks support for mmWave 5G networks, certain to be a drawback for some. The cameras are good but not on the same level as the iPhone 12, and at this price it needs to be as good or better to get a top pick.

Microsoft’s reentry into the smartphone space was a unique one. The Surface Duo doesn’t have a folding screen, but rather two separate screens that are connected by a stellar hinge. The design purposely doesn’t feature any screen on the front, and it’s meant to help you use your phone with intention. And while the hardware is good, the software experience left us wanting a lot more. Android as a whole isn’t ready for the two-screen revolution, and it was really buggy when it came to sending applications to the proper sides of the display. Still, we have high hopes for version two.

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