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How We Test Phones

We use a stringent set of repeatable tests to analyze the mobile phones we review, taking into account battery life, call quality, multimedia capabilities, reception, and more.

Mobile phones are pocket computers that do a lot more than make calls. Here at PCMag, we look at every aspect and feature of voice phones and smartphones when we test them—which we do on dozens of handsets each year.

To keep mobile phone reviews from getting too long, we don't always include all of our test results in every review. But rest assured, every phone we review has been thoroughly tested in the following categories.

Cellular Radio and Data Speed

We look at a phone’s supported cellular technologies (such as 4G, mid-band 5G, or high-band 5G), frequency bands, and carrier certifications to help determine whether a phone will work well on each US carrier’s network. We use the Ookla Speedtest(Opens in a new window) app to see how the radio’s band combination affects data speeds. (Note: Ookla is owned by Ziff Davis, PCMag.com's parent company.) For phones with millimeter-wave 5G, we typically test the range from a well-known 5G panel location.

Almost all phones now have similar 4G reception. We compare 4G RSSI values between tested phones and a leading smartphone, but we’ll only note it in the review if there’s a big difference. We no longer test 2G or 3G, as those networks are reaching end of life.

Call Quality

With psychoacoustics playing such a large role in call quality, a trained ear is the best guide—and our reviewers have listened to hundreds of cell phones. We make calls to automated voice-recognition systems and landline answering machines. Then we listen to our messages to gauge sound quality. We listen especially for the quality of background noise cancellation, both incoming and outgoing.

We measure maximum speakerphone volume with a decibel meter positioned six inches from the speaker, using a test call to a recording of a person reading a book out loud. We measure maximum earpiece volume by pressing the decibel meter up to the earpiece and calling that same number.

Call Quality

With psychoacoustics playing such a large role in call quality, a trained ear is the best guide—and our reviewers have listened to hundreds of cell phones. We make calls to automated voice-recognition systems and landline answering machines. Then we listen to our messages to gauge sound quality. We listen especially for the quality of background noise cancellation, both incoming and outgoing.

We measure maximum speakerphone volume with a decibel meter positioned six inches from the speaker, using a test call to a recording of a person reading a book out loud. We measure maximum earpiece volume by pressing the decibel meter up to the earpiece and calling that same number.

Performance

We run Basemark Web to evaluate web browsing performance, Geekbench single-core and multi-core to evaluate pure processor power, Geekbench ML to evaluate the phone’s AI, GFXBench (Aztec Ruins onscreen and offscreen) to evaluate graphics display, and PCMark Work 3.0 to gauge application performanceBenchmarks are useful for giving you numbers that can be used to directly compare phones, but they don’t tell the whole story; a phone’s software can significantly affect its performance, and we take that into account in our reviews. 

We also launch and play high-end games (currently, Genshin Impact, Alto’s Odyssey, and Call of Duty) to check for dropped frames, control fluidity, and jitter, and to see how much they drain the battery. We use WeTest PerfDog(Opens in a new window) to monitor and test the frame rate for each phone with the games mentioned above. We compare the performance of each game to other similarly-priced phones.

Wi-Fi

We check the received speed of a 5GHz Wi-Fi network at four different distances from an 802.11ac or 802.11ax router using the Ookla Speedtest app. If the phone can be used as a hotspot, we also test the data speeds it sends through to a tethered device.

Cameras

We test each of the phone’s cameras under a variety of conditions, taking several test photos outdoors in daylight and at night, and indoors in good and low light. We examine photos at full size to evaluate factors such as color accuracy and saturation, depth of field, distortion at wide angles, fine detail, and noise. If a phone is billed as having specialized camera features, such as underwater photography or video stabilization, we test those as well. 

Music and Video Playback

We play a set playlist of music and video on YouTube Music, listening through the phone's built-in speaker and both wired and Bluetooth stereo headphones (if they’re supported).

Other Phone Features

We analyze controls, ports, and storage, along with ringtone volume and the strength of the vibrating alert. We test microSD card slots using a 256GB card. If a phone comes with or supports accessories such as fast chargers or smart pens, we test those too.

Physical Experience

Our reviewers know that how a phone feels in the hand can matter as much as its performance. We evaluate the tactile elements of each phone, including button clicks, weighting, width and one-handed use, and overall impressions. We note the manufacturer’s IP rating for the phone, if any, and observe how well the body of the phone resists fingerprint smudges and scuffs. If it’s marketed as a particularly tough or rugged device, we put it through more aggressive durability testing.

Once all of these tests have been completed, we combine the data with our experience of using the phone, compare the results with other similarly priced phones, and assign a rating.

For more on mobile device testing, learn how we test cellular modems and hotspots. Also, head over to our list of the best phones to check out our favorite lab-tested picks.

Want to know about carriers? We investigate those too, with annual national drive tests to 30 cities in our Fastest Mobile Networks project and a reader survey that results in the PCMag Readers' Choice awards for mobile phones, mobile phone operating systems, and wireless carriers.

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