Best Smartphone Buying Guide: Welcome to What Hi-Fi?'s round-up of the best phones you can buy in 2022.
A smartphone has many uses but, for us, it's about great music and video. So, right here are the very best phones with incredible screens and amazing audio circuitry. HDR-compatibility, super-high pixel counts and next-generation panel technologies can make for an awesome display that will have you enjoying your commute so much that you'll be taking a longer route on purpose.
Just as crucially, some phones simply sound better than others and it's important to know which they are so that you can spend your hard earned on a mobile that's going to make your portable music life the best it can possibly be.
We know you can do a whole heap of things with even the best cheap phones nowadays, but for our reviews we focus first and foremost on sound quality and picture performance. So, while we thoroughly test a phone's battery, camera, usability, design and features, we will give extra weight to handsets that deliver great audio and video.
No matter if you're an Android or iOS loyalist, whether you're eyeing up a flagship phone such as the iPhone 13, Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra, or Sony Xperia 1 IV, or more affordable options such as the iPhone 12 Mini or OnePlus 10 Pro, we've got you covered with the very best smartphones on the market.
How to choose the best smartphone for you
Picking the right smartphone that suits your needs best is harder than it sounds, and may in fact be a trickier task than picking the best TV or headphones. You use your smartphone every day, and for many of us it houses all the integral things we need to keep our day running smoothly. This is where the essentials come into play: a good battery life, a design that's comfortable to hold, and a screen that's not too big and not too small.
Many of us also acquire our smartphones through a contract, most commonly these run for 24 months, so you need to plan ahead. Will the phone you choose have a powerful enough processor and enough RAM to last for two years? Which software platform do you want, Apple's iOS that's exclusive to iPhones, or Google's Android platform that's used by the likes of Samsung, Sony and OnePlus? And does the phone have enough features to keep you going for that time, such as a versatile camera or micro SD card support to expand the memory.
However, if you're after the highest quality AV performance (as we are), then that's where things become more black and white. You'll want an OLED screen for inky blacks and vibrant colours, with a 18:9 or 21:9 aspect ratio and minimal bezels, ideal for watching content uninterrupted and as the the filmmaker indented. As standard, many phones come with either a 1080p or 1440p. or in some cases a 4K display on the highest-end models. As smartphone displays are much smaller than TVs and even tablets, they are often very pixel dense, meaning that the highest resolution isn't always paramount so don't be put off if your handset doesn't feature the highest spec screen.
Audio is equally important, and the audio landscape specifically on mobile phones has changed greatly in the last few years. Many now feature a stereo speaker setup that combines a loudspeaker and earpiece to create an often impressively loud and spacious sound. However what modern smartphones giveth, they must also taketh away as is the case with the 3.5mm headphone jack, which is an endangered beast on modern devices.
With all of these key factors in mind, many see it a daunting task to pick a new phone, dreading the day their contract is up; but fear not, we have some of our approved picks below to help you make your decision...
The Sony Xperia Mk IV continues the brand’s reinvigorated take on the smartphone, providing the tools to both create and consume content that verges on professional level. But with the daunting task of outshining its predecessors, both of which received five stars and a smartphone Product of the Year Award from us, has Sony done enough to keep the momentum going?
While it may look strikingly similar to the previous generations, the IV makes meaningful, if not mind blowing improvements on the Sony Xperia 1 III. Upgraded internals and features ensure smooth day-to-day use, and most importantly an awesome AV experience.
While it may not be the most inspirational generation jump we’ve ever seen, it's still a phone that ticks all the boxes to make it an ideal companion for small screen AV use. The Xperia 1 IV is an excellent enthusiast choice for those looking to squeeze the best AV and music listening performance out of their smartphone.
Read the full Sony Xperia 1 IV review
Another iPhone, another five-star review, there's nothing too surprising in that.
The iPhone 13 looks and feels very similar to its predecessor. Build quality is, of course, superb and the only noticeable outer differences are a reshuffle of the buttons and a different camera layout on the rear.
Inside is a new SoC, the A15 Bionic. It's made up of a new six-core CPU with a GPU that is reportedly 30 per cent faster than rivals. They help power new iOS 15 features such as Live Text in Camera and a new 3D Maps navigation feature as well as provide a typically slick and speedy user experience.
Apple claims that it has hiked up the maximum brightness of the 6.1 OLED display by 28 percent to a claimed 800 nits for SDR and 1200 nits for HDR content. That brings a little more punch without sacrificing detail in whiter elements of the picture. OLED’s inherent strengths help here too, obviously, with deep, rich blacks and amazing clarity that just draws you in.
On the audio side, you won’t be surprised to learn that it sounds just as good as its predecessor. Throw any genre its way and the iPhone just makes it interesting to listen to. It sounds exciting and dynamic, while maintaining an excellent handle on timing, sticking to the rhythm of a track. Bolstered by a terrific sense of weight, drive and power, it remains a force to be reckoned with.
Read the full Apple iPhone 13 review
There will always be some people who’ll buy the most expensive iPhone that Apple produces each year, either because they’ve got deep enough pockets or because they simply have to have the best. If you're shopping for value, then look elsewhere. If it's performance you crave, then welcome home.
The iPhone 13 Pro Max is no great departure from its predecessor, as the near-identical design will likely attest, but it has received some meaningful upgrades. The cameras have wider apertures for faster, improved low light shooting, there's better macro photography available and more zoom too. Graphics processing is also up thanks to the 5-core GPU within the A15 Bionic chip.
The 6.7-inch screen has been upgraded with a brighter OLED panel (from 800 nits to 1000 nits with outdoor use) and there’s definitely a little extra pop to the new models HDR performance. The image is little more solid and three-dimensional too.
On the audio front, this model sounds better than its predecessor, certainly through the phone speakers. With headphones there's very little difference. It’s the best iPhone made just a little bit better.
Read the full Apple iPhone Pro Max 13 review
While the Xperia 1 series (in top spot on this page) delivers a level of video and audio performance above that of other flagship Android phones, the Sony Xperia 5 range is smaller, cheaper and has similar specs, so what’s not to like?
Indeed, if you value music and video performance highly, you really should consider one of these latest Sony phones. It backs up its impressive AV performance with decent features elsewhere, too – 3.5mm headphone jack, 4000mAh battery, Android 10, and the combination of 12MP f/1.7 wide lens, 12MP f/2.4 telephoto lens and 12MP f/2.2 ultrawide camera lenses.
While the pricier sibling still edges this Xperia 5 II for 4K video performance and ultimate sound quality, the more compact and affordable Sony Xperia 5 II remains a terrific choice.
Read the full Sony Xperia 5 II review
Samsung’s flagship Galaxy S22 Ultra smartphone boasts so many headline-grabbing specs, it’s tough to know which one to lead with.
For example, it is categorically the most powerful Ultra to date thanks to the arrival of a 4nm processor, aka the fastest CPU on a Galaxy device yet, but to Samsung’s avid fan base the fact that it's the first S-series device to feature a built-in S Pen will probably garner more attention, since it effectively merges Samsung’s S line with the now-defunct Note series.
Then there's the "completely different", four-lens camera system that Samsung says delivers the best low-light photography and smoothest video of any phone yet. And that’s before we mention its Corning Gorilla Glass Victus+, on the front and back of the device, which Samsung says makes it 12 per cent stronger than its predecessor.
Of course, we're drawn to the 120Hz AMOLED display, which Samsung says can hit a whopping 1750 nits at peak brightness, as well as the built-in Dolby Atmos speakers.
Read the full Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra review
How do you improve on a What Hi-Fi? Award-winning flagship smartphone? By not messing with it too much. That's very much the approach for Sony's latest and best digital Swiss Army Knife.
The design has had a tiny, glass-toughening tweak, the battery boosted, the 4K display now has a 120Hz refresh rate, and there’s an upgraded chipset and GPU. Photography fans will be pleased by the inclusion of a periscope lens too.
But crucially for us, Sony has eked out yet more performance from the Xperia 1 III screen and 3.5mm headphone jack which gives us even more reason to recommend it.
The sonic performance manages to deliver a little more punch and a little more detail compared to its predecessor. Bass notes sound a little tighter, meaning more control and agility, plus there's the kind of dynamics to rival any phone on the market and plenty of dedicated hi-res players too.
Read the full Sony Xperia III review
The iPhone 12 is another model we can add to a successful line of phones from Apple. Although some new Apple products are undoubtedly more evolution than revolution, the current iPhone 12 sports a brand-new design, a new screen, is powered by a new processor, and is capable of performing some new party tricks over its predecessor (below) – including, for the first time, 5G support.
The addition of an excellent 6.1in OLED Super Retina XDR display (complete with HDR10, Dolby Vision and HLG support) has elevated picture performance to another level and helps justify the slight price hike over its predecessor. As a daytime snapper, there isn’t much to grumble about, with the dual-camera producing nicely balanced pictures with even colours and a fine sense of realism. Sound quality is as good as it’s ever been, too. All these positives combined make for a highly tempting and typically Apple package.
Read the full iPhone 12 review.
If you have big hands, big pockets and a ‘bigger is better’ outlook on life, then the iPhone 12 Mini probably isn’t for you. This is a smartphone for those who prefer a more subtle and discreet design, where pocket space is at a premium and you’d rather not pull a thumb muscle every time you attempt to write and send a text one-handed. And it's a very good one indeed for Apple fans.
It gets the same flat-edged design as its bigger siblings, meaning it feels premium in the hand; its 12MP dual-lens set-up on the back is perfect for those who want to point and shoot high good quality pictures with minimal fuss in both decent and sub-optimal lighting conditions; and it offers perfectly listenable sound quality by smartphone standards.
Essentially, it offers all the top features of the iPhone 12, but in a smaller, more pocket-friendly package. It is smooth and speedy to use, camera quality is great and picture and sound performance are both excellent for the money. The battery life takes a small hit – there's a drop in both video playback (15 hours versus 17 hours) and audio playback (50 hours versus 65 hours) compared with the iPhone 12 – but that doesn’t really detract from this hugely talented tiny iPhone.
Read the full iPhone 12 Mini review.
2020's Galaxy S20 line-up marked a thorough overhaul, bringing in 5G support and 120Hz refresh rate displays for the first time, plus significant camera upgrades. But for the S21 range, the gains are more marginal – the camera software has been enhanced, the design is arguably better and it packs the company’s most advanced processor yet.
Of the three-strong, 5G-supporting Galaxy S21 range, you’ll want to consider the two more premium models, the S21+ S21 Ultra, if you’re after a large screen or a top-spec camera (offered by the S21 Ultra). But the standard S21 variant here is solid for the money and offers an excellent balance between performance and value. It has a great camera, very nice screen and is as speedy and reliable to use as you'd expect.
Either of the Sony Xperias are better bets for those who place greater importance on music listening, so that’s one area we would hope Samsung advances for the next generation of Galaxy S phone. For now, though, the line’s reputation as one of the market’s best all-rounders remains intact.
Read the full Samsung Galaxy S21 review.
A premium device at a premium price, Oppo’s Find X5 Pro smartphone boasts the flashy design and standout camera that we all now expect of flagship phones. Our primary concerns, though, are picture and sound quality, and here it’s a bit more of a mixed bag.
Still, those determined to avoid the usual high-end options and instead go for something out of the ordinary will find much to like here, particularly if they’re willing to spend some time in the settings menu.
Oppo’s Find X5 Pro is a solid device in most ways. It's packed with features, user friendly software and it provides an enjoyable, if not mind blowing visual performance. However, it's marred by an audio experience that’s easily surpassed by the class leaders.
Still, if you’re determined to go with an outsider choice for your next phone and sound quality isn’t much of a priority, the Oppo Find X5 Pro is certainly worth a look.
Read the full Oppo Find X5 Pro review
Big, premium and considerably less expensive than other flagship phones, the OnePlus 10 Pro is every bit the standard-bearer you’d expect. OnePlus has made a name for itself as a purveyor of high-end smartphones at a price that more people can afford and this 6.7-inch, 5G Android mobile is no exception. Several hundred pounds/dollars cheaper than the rest of the top-end competition, it’s going to make a lot of buyers’ shortlists.
The good news is that, if you’re after an impressive spec sheet and all the mobile mod-cons, then you’re definitely fishing in the right stretch of the river. For us, though, it’s screen and sound that count most. So, if you need your pocket portable to be a top-notch player first, and all other things mobile a definite second, then this is the low-down you need.
Comparing this cut-price flagship phone to other top-end mobiles is a bit of a rough ride for the OnePlus 10 Pro. Even so, it stands up to the test in most departments. In terms of build quality, photography, user experience, battery life and most other features, it’s more or less right up there and all for a smaller outlay. And, while it can’t quite reach the same heights on the video front, what you get for the price difference is actually very comparable.
Listening to music, though, is where you’ll notice the biggest downgrade. The audio performance is just not in the same class as the best flagship phones, nor really quite good enough for the step-down in outlay either. It makes a perfectly passable listen but ‘passable’ doesn’t win you five stars.
Read the full OnePlus 10 Pro Review
How we test the best smartphones
Here at What Hi-Fi? we review hundreds of products every year, a number of which are smartphones from the likes of Apple, Samsung, Google, OnePlus and Sony. So how do we come to our review verdicts? And why can you trust them?
We have state-of-the-art testing facilities in London and Bath, where our team of expert reviewers do all our in-house testing. This gives us complete control over the review process, ensuring consistency.
We spend time with the phones; we live with them, testing every feature and spec exhaustively, from screens to cameras, sound quality to battery life. We focus particularly on audio and video performance, so if you spend a lot of time listening to music or watching videos, you should read our reviews carefully before making that all-important buying decision.
All products are tested in comparison with rival products in the same category, and all review verdicts are agreed upon by the team as a whole rather than a single reviewer, again helping to ensure consistency and avoid individual subjectivity.
The What Hi-Fi? team has more than 100 years experience of reviewing, testing and writing about consumer electronics.
From all of our reviews, we choose the products to feature in our Best Buys, such as this one. That's why if you take the plunge and buy one of the products recommended below, or on any other Best Buy pages, you can rest assured you're getting a What Hi-Fi?-approved product.