Get Smarter About Your Smartphone

Unlock the full power of your phone to simplify everyday tasks, protect your privacy, help you be healthier, and more

Persons finger touching smartphone and light coming out of it. Photo: Getty Images

Our phone is our lifeline to family, friends, and everyone else in our contact list, but it’s also much more. It’s our photo album; our gateway to music, movies, and books; and our camera, map, wallet, calendar, newspaper, flashlight, and, yes, maybe even the keys to our house.

As anyone who has recently shopped for a smartphone knows, this virtual appendage doesn’t come cheap. The starting price for the newest premium phones from Apple and Samsung exceed $1,000; if you prefer a model with an extra-large screen and more generous storage, you’ll pay even more.

But you can pay a lot less and still get a lot of phone. Here, we’ll tell you how to squeeze more life out of the phone you’re using and how to save on a new (or as-good-as-new) model. We’ll also share loads of useful things your smartphone can do that you probably don’t know about. To help you choose the best phone for you, check our latest smartphone ratings.

Extend the Life of Your Phone

Consumers have begun holding on to their cell phones for over three years, according to Hyla Mobile, a Texas-based company that collects and sells trade-ins.

That’s not only because new phones can be expensive but also because the phones of the past few years can do just about any task we throw at them now. Keeping your phone longer doesn’t just save you money. It also helps the environment by saving the energy and materials used to make a new cell phone. And it keeps gadgets out of the waste stream.

Before you rush out to buy a new model, consider whether your current phone is still meeting your needs. If it is, here are ways to keep it running longer.

More on Smartphones

Update the operating system. This will install the latest security protections, along with potentially fun and useful new features. It can also speed up a sluggish phone. If the phone is too old to accept the latest update, it’s time to spring for a new one.

Replace the battery. For the average user, a smartphone’s battery performance will start to decline after about two years, says Richard Fisco, CR’s head of smartphone testing. If your battery is running out of juice too quickly, you can usually get a new one for less than $100.

Swap in a new screen. Scratches and cracks can easily be fixed with a new screen. Though replacing the screen on the fanciest phones can cost more than $300, you can make older models look like new for half that much—or even less.

Increase the storage space. An easy way to free up space is to delete any apps you never (or rarely) use and off-load your photos to a cloud-storage service offered by Amazon, Apple, Google, or another company. Many phones made by Samsung and others let you expand storage capacity by stowing apps, photos, and other items on microSD cards, which can be purchased for as little as $10.

Spend Less on a New Phone

If it’s time to buy a new phone, a highly rated model can be far less expensive than you might think. Here are some strategies you can use to find a phone that won’t empty your wallet.

Buy an older version. Purchasing a new phone from an earlier generation can be a great way to save money, especially if you have your heart set on a pricey Apple or Samsung device.

For example, the Samsung Galaxy S20 FE 5G started at $699 when it launched in fall 2020. But now you can pick up one for about $600. Though it has fewer camera tricks and is slightly heavier than the S21 FE, the S20 FE is still highly rated. 

Better yet, Fisco says, you’re not necessarily sacrificing much when you purchase a model that’s a year or two old because manufacturers are no longer adding must-have features with each new upgrade. “A few years ago smartphones were evolving rapidly, adding multiple features with each new generation,” Fisco says. “That’s no longer the case.”

Though the screens on this year’s phones may be a little sharper and the processors a little faster, you might not want to spend an extra couple hundred bucks for those features, says Tuong Nguyen, a senior principal analyst for the tech research firm Gartner. “For the typical consumer, these differences are unnoticeable.”

According to data from Decluttr, a platform for buying and selling electronic gadgets and other items, the prices of older smartphones drop when a new model is released. The big phone makers tend to launch new models around the same time every year, letting you plan ahead. Samsung typically unveils phones in early spring and late summer, and Apple announces its new offerings in March and September.

Consider all brands. Apple and Samsung are the biggest names in the smartphone business, but they’re not the only companies that make great phones. Google, OnePlus, and Sony also manufacture top-rated models with cutting-edge displays, speedy processors, and excellent battery life.

Buying one of these can save you a lot if you’re willing to give up on the most popular brands and accept slightly less stellar camera performance and perhaps a plastic casing.

“The most expensive phones don’t always give you the most for your money,” Fisco says. “A midtier model can provide many people with everything they need. Determine which features you want in your next phone, then compare the models that have those features side by side.”

Can’t do without an OLED display? Take a look at the Apple iPhone 13, $800, and Samsung Galaxy S21, $800, but don’t over­look the OnePlus 8, $250, which earns an Excellent score in CR’s testing. It has a 6.6-inch OLED display and three rear cameras, providing much of what you get in phones that cost more than twice as much.

Want long battery life? The iPhone 13 Pro Max, $1,100, tops the charts with just over 52 hours of juice, but the OnePlus Nord N100, $180, follows not far behind, with just over 48 hours of battery life. 

The Upside of Buying a Used Phone

Refurbished phones are used models that have been freshened up, to one degree or another, to be resold, usually at a lower price than new models.

Refurbished phones can come with significant savings. Samsung, for example, was recently offering the refurbished Galaxy Note20 5G for $400 on its website, compared with $1,000 for a new phone; Apple was offering the refurbished iPhone 11 Pro for $769, compared with $1,000 for a new one.

But not all retailers refurbish phones the same way. Refurbished phones sold in Apple stores and on its website have a new battery, new outer shell, new white box, and even a new one-year warranty in case anything goes wrong. Samsung uses similar standards for the refurbished phones sold on its website.

Refurbished phones offered by other retailers might not have new batteries or could be packaged without the original accessories, such as a charging cord. So before buying a refurbished phone, always inquire about its condition, the return policy, and whether it’s covered by a warranty. Pick the wrong option and you might end up stuck with a buggy phone that looks and feels, well, used.

When Only the Best Will Do

Though you can certainly get along very well without one, it’s hard to go wrong buying a top-of-the-line smartphone. Seven of the 15 that we’ve tested in the $1,000 or more price range earn Excellent ratings; six earn Very Good scores.

One of the newest premium models, the Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max, $1,100, has a longer battery life than the previous generation iPhone 12 Pro Max, along with a 6.7-inch screen with a higher 120Hz display refresh rate for speedier scrolling. But the new phone costs the same. 

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G, $1,200, has a 6.8-inch display that will also appeal to big-phone fans. It’s compatible with an optional stylus for taking notes by hand or just doodling on the lock screen. The brilliant display is perfect for binge-watching your favorite shows, and the phone includes Samsung’s best cameras.

If you need any further justification for such a pricey investment, consider it as a way to futureproof your purchase. Experts don’t expect smartphone features to change much over the next two years, so it may make sense to put your money into a model that’s likely to serve you well.

You may be able to find a discount on one of the next top-shelf phones—but shop carefully. The appealing price you see in an ad may come with strings, such as carriers offering discounts to coax people into a financing agreement that ties them to the carrier for a couple of years.

In some cases, carriers will subsidize the cost of the new phone with trade-in offers. Or, they’ll serve up a buy-one-get-one-free deal—essentially two phones for the price of one. The catch? You can get the deal only if you’re adding a new line of service.

Of course, if you do need to add a line for your spouse, kid, or parent, it could make sense to pick up a popular phone at a lower price in the process.

Independent retailers such as Best Buy and Target generally don’t sell new models at bargain prices, but they do sometimes throw in a gift card to get you to buy the latest Apple or Samsung smartphone from them. Just make sure it’s a card from a place where you like to shop. In that case, it’s as good as cash in your pocket.

Headshot of CR author Melanie Pinola

Melanie Pinola

As a service journalist, my goal is to help people get the most out of their technology and other tools. Prior to joining CR, my work appeared online and in print for publications including The New York Times, Wirecutter, Lifehacker, Popular Mechanics, and PCWorld. When I'm not researching or writing, I'm playing video games with my family, testing new recipes, or chasing the puppy. Feel free to reach me on Twitter (@melaniepinola).