You may have heard that “the iPhone” is the most popular smartphone in the US. But that’s not quite accurate, because there are a lot of different iPhone models being sold right now. At the time of this writing, Apple itself is offering seven different iPhone models. Survey the shelves at the three major US carriers, as well as Metro and Cricket, and that number rises to 17.
Of Apple’s seven models, we see reasons you might want to buy six of them. There’s no reason to get an iPhone XR; the iPhone SE is faster, more capable, and less expensive. As for models being sold by the carriers, we see arguments for the 12, 11, SE, and 8 generations. The X and XS no longer show a good price-performance balance compared with other phones available, and the 7 and 6s phones are showing their age.
In PC Labs, we’ve tested every Apple phone since the first-generation iPhone was released in 2007. Here’s what we’ve learned about how to choose the best iPhone right now.
Get the Most Speed and Power You Can Afford
Every year brings faster and more powerful iPhones. If you tend to play a lot of games or even surf a lot of image-heavy web pages, a faster processor is better.
We expect a 15% to 20% jump in overall performance, including web browsing performance, for each new generation of Apple’s A-series chips. There’s not that big a difference between the A13 (in the iPhone 11 and SE) and the A14 (in the iPhone 12), but there’s a huge difference between either of those and the A9 (in the iPhone 6s).
The iPhone SE has enough power for gaming, and it still has a Touch ID sensor.
To 5G or Not to 5G?
The iPhone 12 series are Apple’s first 5G phones, and they support the upcoming C-band network. That’s a strong argument for getting an iPhone 12 series phone on either T-Mobile or Verizon. T-Mobile has already expanded its fast mid-band 5G network to much of the country, and Verizon will launch C-band covering 100 million people starting next March. Both systems will make a considerable difference in connection speed and performance.
If you’re on AT&T, I don’t see 5G making a big difference as quickly. This isn’t a knock on AT&T—its 4G network is excellent, and not worrying too much about 5G gives you more iPhone options. Note that 4G/LTE performance on the iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 12 series is better than on the standard iPhone 11, the iPhone SE, or earlier iPhones, because of 4×4 MIMO technology.
How serious are you about taking photos with your smartphone? That can help determine your choice of model.
The iPhone 11 introduced Night mode, which is not available on the SE or on earlier phones. I think this is a very important feature. Everyone takes photos in low light, and Night mode makes a big difference.
The 11 and 12 series also have wide-angle cameras, which help you fit more scenery into a shot. They’re great if you’re trying to take photos of groups or crowds of people.
The iPhone Pro models pack regular, wide-angle, and zoom cameras.
Pro and Plus phones have 2x or 2.5x zoom cameras that help with crisp close-ups.
Finally, the iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max series have a special ProRAW mode that gives expert photographers a lot of control over tweaking a photo in post-production. If you’re not the sort of person who already uses Adobe Lightroom, you don’t need to worry about that.
Our photo expert Jim Fisher goes into much more depth in his comparative iPhone camera analysis story.
How Big Are Your Hands?
Some people like big phones. Some like small phones. The iPhone lineup offers both.
If you are upgrading from a very old iPhone, all of the new phones will seem large. The iPhone SE is the same size as the iPhone 6, 7, and 8 models and will be most familiar to folks with those devices. The iPhone 12 mini is the smallest current iPhone, but it has a bigger screen than the SE, 6, 7, and 8 do, because it gets rid of the bezel and home button. If you miss the tiny iPhone 4, you’re out of luck; there’s nothing that small on the market any more.
iPhones come in a range of sizes. The 12 mini (at left) is the smallest, followed by the 12, the Pro, and the Pro Max.
The iPhone 12 mini is perfect if you’re a fan of smaller phones. It combines a relatively hand-friendly and pocket-friendly size with all of the latest features.
Recommended by Our Editors
If you have poor eyesight or shaky hands, you might like the larger touch targets and bigger screens on the Plus and Max models. They’re also great if you watch a lot of video on your phone, but they can be heavy.
Larger iPhones generally have longer battery life than smaller iPhones, because they have larger batteries. Short battery life has been the biggest concern with the iPhone 12 mini.
Check Your ID, Jack
Two features are vanishing from the iPhone line: Touch ID and the headphone jack. People love and miss both of them, especially since Face ID doesn’t play well with face masks.
The iPhone SE is the only current iPhone with a physical Home button and Touch ID scanner. The iPhone 8 series also has them. The last iPhone with a headphone jack was the 6s. It’s slow now, running out of time on its software support, and we don’t recommend it any more. It’s probably time to give in and get some wireless earbuds.
Your iPhone Is a Ticking Clock
iPhones do eventually run out of software support. The latest Apple OS, iOS 14, only runs on iPhone 6s or later models. Expect that each year, a generation of iPhones will get sloughed off as the latest software requires more powerful processors than the very old models have. Don’t cry too much for the 6s and its ilk; that’s a seven-year-old phone now.
The iPhone 8 is the oldest iPhone we still recommend.
We no longer recommend phones older than the iPhone 8 line; they will likely get at least two more years of OS support. If you want a phone with long-term resale value, go for the 11 generation or higher.