The best iPhone to buy in 2020

The iPhone 12 series has launched, and that means we have a new top pick: The iPhone 12 Pro.

Not only is the iPhone 12 Pro the best iPhone, it’s also currently at the top of our overall list of best smartphones. It has a great combination of sleek styling with robust hardware, a stellar camera setup, and consistently great performance that makes it the stand-out pick.

When you go to buy a new phone with an eye to save money, be sure to see our latest smartphone deals and iPhone-specific deals. And as bigger deals for the holiday shopping season near, you’ll want to follow our Black Friday deals.

Best iPhone at a glance

Best overall iPhone: Apple iPhone 12 Pro

iPhone 12 Pro
Andrew Martonik/Digital Trends

Why you should buy this: The iPhone 12 Pro brings the latest and greatest technology Apple has to offer in a package that’s still relatively affordable and manageable in one hand.

Who it’s for: If you want the best iPhone money can buy, this is for you.

Why we picked the iPhone 12 Pro:

The iPhone 12 Pro has a lot to love. A new flat and slab-sided design is beautiful, while differentiating itself from the iPhone 11 series, and has a hyper-polished stainless steel frame that looks incredible and feels surprisingly hefty. A new larger OLED display still makes an affordance for Face ID unlocking, but is brighter and more colorful than any prior iPhone.

And as you’d expect, there’s another step forward in cameras this year. The main camera has a wider aperture for notably better low-light photo quality, and Apple has enabled Night Mode on all cameras. Extra memory and a dedicated LiDAR sensor let the 12 Pro take combined Portrait Mode and Night Mode photos. Unfortunately the ultra-wide and telephoto cameras haven’t improved year over year — you have to step up to the iPhone 12 Pro Max to see a full revamp of the camera system.

The two all-new additions this year are 5G connectivity and MagSafe, which both hold promise for the future but don’t dramatically change the experience today. You want to have 5G if you plan to have your phone for another two (or more) years, but right now you may not see it very often. MagSafe is a new way to think about cases, mounts, and chargers, but until we get a flood of third-party accessories, these strong magnets don’t do a whole lot.

The complete package is extremely compelling. While it’s more expensive, the iPhone 12 Pro is the best Apple has to offer. It stands out, both in its design and its capabilities, and every iPhone owner will be able to appreciate what it offers.

Apple iPhone 12 Pro review

Best value iPhone: Apple iPhone 12

iPhone 12
Andrew Martonik/Digital Trends

Why you should buy this: The iPhone 12 offers most of the 12 Pro experience, minus a few edge features, for $ 200 less.

Who it’s for: Anyone who wants the latest core iPhone features but has an eye on the budget.

Why we picked the iPhone 12:

The best thing about the iPhone 12 is that it’s mostly the same as the 12 Pro, but starts at $ 200 less. For that money you get the same design as the 12 Pro, albeit in a lighter aluminum rather than stainless steel, in the exact same size down to the point where cases are interchangeable. That means the OLED screen is the same size, 6.1-inches, and it’s brilliant.

The front and rear cameras are also the same, which is a huge boost for this base model. The only things you miss out on here are the telephoto camera and LiDAR sensor, so you don’t get Portrait Mode in Night Mode. But otherwise, the processing features including Night Mode, Deep Fusion, and Smart HDR are all here. The result is a fantastic array of cameras in a relatively affordable phone.

You also still get the exact same 5G and MagSafe experience, if you had those on your list. Elsewhere the day-to-day experience of using an iPhone 12 is basically the same as the 12 Pro. Battery life, performance, and software features are all the same. That makes the iPhone 12 an incredible value.

Apple iPhone 12 review

Best productivity and video iPhone: Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max

Julian Chokkattu / Digital Trends

Why you should buy this: In this case we recommend waiting to buy the iPhone 12 Pro Max. It still has a bigger screen than the iPhone 12 Pro, but it also has some additional features too.

Who it’s for: Whether you want to work on your iPhone, or watch a lot of video, you’ll enjoy the benefit of a larger screen.

Why we picked the iPhone 11 Pro Max:

The iPhone 12 Pro Max replaces the iPhone 11 Pro Max at the top of the new iPhone range, and for once there are a few more differences between it and the iPhone 12 Pro. It’ll be released in November. Regardless, like the iPhone 11 Pro Max, the iPhone 12 Pro Max is likely to remain supreme for video and productivity, as the screen size is bigger than ever before at 6.7-inches. It also has a more technically impressive camera system, with a special new optical image stabilization mode, plus a greater 5x optical zoom.

The trade-offs will be the same. The Pro Max is bigger and heavier than the Pro. It’s 228 grams in all, and both wider and longer than the iPhone 11 Pro. If you’ve got small hands, it’s a seriously big smartphone, and over long periods of use the additional weight is noticeable, as is the additional bulk in your pocket. Otherwise the phone is the same as the iPhone 12 Pro.

The iPhone 12 Pro Max will cost the same as the Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max making it the most expensive iPhone you can buy. It starts at $ 1,099 for the standard 128GB model, up from just 64GB on the 11 Pro Max, but we recommend the 256GB model. The more internal storage the phone has, the longer it lasts. This costs $ 1,249.

Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max review

Best budget iPhone: Apple iPhone SE (2020)

Andy Boxall/DigitalTrends

Why you should buy this: If the iPhone 12 is financially out of reach, the iPhone SE (2020) is the cheapest way to buy a brand new iPhone from Apple.

Who it’s for: You want an iPhone, but you need to save some money

Why we picked the Phone SE (2020):

Apple’s iPhone SE 2020 starts at $ 400, making it the cheapest brand new iPhone you can buy at the moment. The good news is it’s a great little smartphone, provided you understand its limitations. The phone takes the iPhone 8’s design, which has stayed surprisingly fresh-looking from the back, and puts the new A13 Bionic processor inside. This gives it up-to-date performance, and tweaks to the camera’s ability too.

The screen measures 4.7-inches and has a 1334 x 750 pixel resolution, while the single-lens camera on the back has 12-megapixels. It operates on the latest version of Apple’s iOS software, and is very slim, light, and pocketable. The camera performs well in good light and has a portrait mode, while the screen is great for general browsing, some video, and a little gaming too. The Touch ID fingerprint sensor is very reliable, but the phone does not have Face ID.

Where the iPhone SE (2020) suffers is when you watch a lot of video or play a lot of games. The small battery struggles to keep up, and may not last a full day if you hit it hard. The camera isn’t great in lowlight either. Otherwise, if you want all the desirable Apple benefits from great software to Apple Pay, there’s no cheaper way to get them than with the iPhone SE (2020).

However, don’t forget about the iPhone XR, even when considering the iPhone SE (2020). We called it the, “best iPhone of the year,” when we reviewed it at the end of 2018, and said it represented great value at the $ 750 it cost then. Now it costs $ 600 and despite being more than a year old, it still has a similar look to the modern iPhone 11, unlike the iPhone SE (2020).

Apple iPhone SE (2020) review

Best used/refurbished/old stock iPhone: Apple iPhone XS

iPhone XS review
Apple iPhone XS Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Why you should buy this: The XS may be a couple generations old, but it still feels pretty new — and can be had at a steep discount.

Who it’s for: Anyone who wants a cheap full-size iPhone for a family member, or someone who wants to get started with an Apple phone without spending much.

Why we picked the iPhone XS:

The iPhone XS launched at the end of 2018, which means it’s in a sweet spot of being old enough to be deeply discounted but still new enough to run the latest iOS software and feel like a modern phone. It has a 5.8-inch OLED screen with Face ID face unlocking, and the phone is new enough to still receive Apple’s software updates for a couple more years as well. On the back is a dual-lens camera, taking 12-megapixel images along with 2x optical zoom shots.

It’s not as advanced as the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro’s camera, or as high performance overall. Apple’s A12 Bionic processor is no slouch, it has a battery that will last all day, and it supports wireless charging.

But here’s the great part: So many people bought the XS new and have now upgraded in the subsequent years, that there are an incredible number available on the refurbished market. When it was new, the iPhone X started at $ 1,000, so how much can you get one for today?

Apple often sells refurbished iPhone XS models through its own store, with prices around $ 549 up. If you search online stores like Amazon’s refurbished store and Walmart, the iPhone XS can be picked up for around $ 500 up, which represents very good value. Local retail stores specializing in refurbished phones may also have good deals, as could eBay. While this may sound expensive for a phone released in 2018, remember that iPhones hold their value, which helps you when the time comes to trade it in.

Apple iPhone XS review

Things to remember when buying an iPhone

Buying an iPhone is a shrewd purchasing decision. Not only are you getting a well-made smartphone that will serve you well for several years, but it will be supported with software updates from Apple for up to five years after its launch date. This means even if you buy an iPhone X now, it should still receive the latest software until 2022.

Additionally, regardless of which model you choose, the trade-in value of an Apple phone is usually higher than any other brand. Prices vary depending on where you sell it, its condition, whether it’s an unlocked device or not, and the age and memory capacity of the model. When you decide to upgrade to a new phone, the extra return from your old iPhone is a considerable benefit.

If you’re coming to an iPhone from an Android phone, remember that some data may not easily transfer over, and you will have to get used to a new software operating system. For example, data saved in some messaging apps (WhatsApp, for example) can be difficult to export or import, so you may start with a clean slate. While iOS is logical and easy to use, it will feel different, so expect a learning curve before it feels like home.

Another aspect newcomers may not realize straight away is that Apple iPhones do not have expandable storage. When you buy a 64GB, 256GB, or 512GB iPhone, that’s all the storage space you get. Some Android phones have a MicroSD card slot, but not an iPhone. Instead, you can use the included iCloud online storage as an additional space; but bear in mind you only get 5GB free. To increase this, you have to pay a monthly subscription starting at $ 1 per month for 50GB. This is why we recommend paying extra for larger capacity iPhone models when you buy one.

Finally, once you’re inside the Apple ecosystem, it can be difficult to escape. Many accessories are Apple-only, apps you purchase can’t be swapped to Android or vice versa, and if you buy an Apple Watch Series 6 or Apple Watch SE — which we recommend if you want a smartwatch — then it only works with an iPhone. Provided you understand the commitment you’ll be making for the next two years minimum, an iPhone will serve you so well, you may not want to switch to another brand at all.

How we test

Why should you pay attention to our recommendations? We have reviewed iPhone models since the very beginning, along with almost every major Android smartphone too. While the new iPhone 12 models haven’t arrived yet, we’ll be hard at work on our reviews when they do. When we try out a phone we live with it everyday, mostly as our only smartphone, to see how it performs doing the tasks we all need it to on a daily basis. This way, we get to see where it excels, and also where it may fail. Then we tell you all about it.

For that reason, we can make educated recommendations on which phones are worth it. Buying one of these is not just a lot of money, it’s committing to one phone for up to two years, should you buy it with a contract through a carrier. You need to make sure the decision is the right one, and being as informed as possible ahead of laying down your money is sensible.

We’re confident buying an iPhone is one of the best decisions you can make in the smartphone market, based on our experience, and the models above are the ones that deserve your attention. Check back very soon to see where the iPhone 12 models fit into our list.

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