The best smartphones

Smartphones are perhaps the most personal tech we own. That’s why it’s super important to pick the phone that’s best for your needs. There are many factors to consider, from design and operating system to security and durability. We consider every aspect of the smartphone to determine whether it’s a good buy for you, or if you’re better off with something else.

Last year was an incredible year for phones because of the sheer variety available, thanks in part to new contenders such as Razer and Essential. Even on the iPhone side, you now have the iPhone 8, 8 Plus, and the X to choose from. After much debate and soul-searching, we landed on the iPhone X as our top pick for the best smartphone available right now, though Google’s Pixel 2 XL is the closest second we’ve ever had in this race. Here’s why the iPhone X ultimately triumphed, and a list of our picks for other smartphone categories.

Our pick

iPhone X

iphone x waterproof phones
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Why should you buy this: You want the most powerful, secure, and shutterbug-friendly phone ever.

Who’s it for: Anyone who’s been itching for an iPhone with a new look.

How much will it cost: $1,000

Why we picked the iPhone X:

The iPhone X represents the next decade of Apple’s signature product. Gone is the home button in favor of a modern, edge-to-edge “bezel-less” design that makes it easily identifiable. This change brings an all new gesture-based way to interact with the iPhone that’s satisfyingly fun.

While it features technologies we’ve seen before in other Android phones, Apple often does them best. The high-resolution OLED screen, which DisplayMate recently affirmed as the best, is energy-saving and colorful, with inky, deep blacks; it makes watching videos and movies feel a little more immersive. The all-glass design makes the iPhone X capable of wirelessly charging, and it can take a dip in water because it’s IP67 water-resistant. The A11 Bionic processor remains unmatched, with reliably fast performance when moving around the home screen or playing intensive augmented reality games using ARKit.

Most importantly, the TrueDepth camera introduces a new, more secure way to unlock your phone, and it also helps you step up your selfie game. The TrueDepth camera is an array of depth-sensing cameras and sensors on the top of the iPhone X. It can identify the intricacies of your face, allowing you to unlock your phone just by looking at it via a new system called Face ID. Apple said it considers Face ID the future of its product line, so wave goodbye to Touch ID. It’s fast, and even works at night. While Touch ID is a hair faster and a little more reliable, it’s much harder for someone to get into your phone with Face ID equipped.

Face ID isn’t the only new feature the TrueDepth camera brings — you can now use Portrait Mode with your selfies. The cameras can fairly accurately detect the background and the subject, allowing you to blur everything around your face when snapping a selfie. It’s in beta and will only get better in the coming months, but it does make your selfies stand out. The TrueDepth camera also lets you send animated emojis, or Animojis. Like motion capture used in movies, emojis can mimic your facial expressions and record audio, and you can send these to friends on any device via the Messages app.

The battery easily lasts a full day, though like with most flagship smartphones, heavy use will bring it perilously low by the end of the day.

Switching to iOS 11, it offers far more customization than ever before, and on the iPhone X it feels snappy and fluid. There’s the redesigned App Store, a new easier-to-use Control Center, and a Files app that will make working with your Macbook a breeze.

Add to all that Apple’s commitment to your security and privacy, instant software updates, and its industry-leading customer service that lets you walk into any Apple Store and get help for free, and you have one great smartphone.

The lack of a headphone jack is the only major mark against the iPhone X. It comes with Lightning EarPods, but if you have your own headphones, you may struggle with the included 3.5mm-to-Lightning adapter. You may want to purchase wireless earbuds, but neither of these scenarios are the end of the world. The iPhone 7 Plus removed the headphone jack first in 2016, and most Android manufacturers have jumped on board. Based on our experience with the iPhone X, we can tell you with confidence that you will survive. It’s not ideal, but it’s becoming the standard across the industry.

iPhone X Review

The best Android phone

Google Pixel 2 XL

Google Pixel 2 XL against plant
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Why should you buy this: It’s the only Android phone with hardware and software straight from Google.

Who’s it for: Anyone who wants speedy software updates, and the best camera.

How much will it cost: $850

Why we picked the Pixel 2 XL:

Google’s Pixel 2 XL is the best Android phone we’ve ever used. The Pixel range continues to be the only Android phones that can fully compete with Apple’s iPhone in several key areas — security, timely software updates, customer service, and software design. If you’re an Android fan who will never buy an iPhone, the Pixel 2 XL is the best phone you can buy.

Google went with LG to manufacture the Pixel 2 XL, and it’s able to perfectly optimize the hardware and the software — similar to what Apple does with the iPhone. That approach, plus the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor and 4GB of RAM, makes the Pixel 2 XL the most powerful Android phone around.

The Pixel 2 XL’s software experience is where it shines. It runs the latest Android 8.1 Oreo, which is uncluttered and silky smooth. The little tweaks Google added make the phone an absolute joy to use, from the redesigned Google feed to the At a Glance widget that shows your next calendar event and the weather. The Google Search bar is below the dock, making it easier to access, and Living Universe wallpapers bring your phone to life. Set a dark wallpaper, and the user interface triggers a dark mode.

One of our favorite features is Now Playing, which automatically identifies music playing in the background and subtly lets you know the song name and artist on the Always-on Display. This happens offline, and no data is ever sent to Google. We also love Active Edge, which lets you squeeze the Pixel to trigger the Google Assistant. We think Assistant is one of the best voice assistants you can use on a smartphone, and this feature lets you get straight to it. It’s this attention to detail and design that makes the Pixel 2 XL a great smartphone.

Then there’s the crisp, plastic, 6-inch OLED screen with a 2560 x 1440-pixel resolution. There have been many complaints about the screen, such as a blue tint when looking at it at an angle, muted colors, and screen burn-in. Google has responded to these complaints, saying it’s confident in the screen, but it has issued a software update to mitigate these concerns — we think the criticism is overblown. We haven’t seen any deal-breaking issues with the screen, and we stand by our statement that the Pixel 2 XL as the best Android phone you can get.

The Pixel’s design may not be for everyone, but we like the mix of two-tone aluminum and glass on the rear. It’s less easy to shatter and it isn’t a fingerprint magnet, unlike most flagship phones that are all-glass. The rear aluminum coating feels like a matte chalkboard, and it’s pleasant to the touch. The fingerprint sensor is fast, and you can swipe down on it to see your notifications. Like most flagship phones, it’s IP67 water-resistant.

The Pixel 2 XL’s spotlight feature is its 12.2-megapixel camera, which is one of the best around. Google’s HDR+ technology allows for excellent dynamic range in photos, and the detail it captures is stunning. It’s even one of the best performers in low-light scenarios. There’s no optical zoom, unlike many of its competitors, but it does have Portrait Mode even though it lacks dual cameras. Google purely uses software to detect the background from the subject, and its results are as good as the iPhone X. We’ve even found it takes better Portrait Mode selfies than Apple’s iPhone.

The best things about the Pixel 2 XL are its commitment to timely software updates and customer service. Pixel phones get automatic Android software updates and security patches without delay. In fact, they will be automatically downloaded when you aren’t using the phone. That’s vitally important for your privacy and security. There’s also a 24/7 support team you can access via the phone or by chat directly in your Settings app.

Like the iPhone X, the main problem here is the lack of the headphone jack. You get a USB-C to 3.5mm adapter in the box, but if you’re not a fan of dongles, you may want to grab wireless earbuds. Again, it’s not ideal, but it’s manageable.

The Pixel 2 XL costs $850, which is expensive, but it’s well worth your money. There’s also the smaller, 5-inch Pixel 2 that offers the same exact features, though it doesn’t have a bezel-less design.

Google Pixel 2 XL review

Top alternatives

Our other top contenders include the Samsung Galaxy S9 and the S9 Plus, which win points for those gorgeous bezel-less displays, an incredible low-light camera, the latest Snapdragon 845 processors, and major camera upgrades over last year’s S8. We’re also excited about the dual camera in the HTC U12 Plus, which has a liquid-glass rear that is drop-dead gorgeous. The LG G7 ThinQ is chock-full of features you will want, including a headphone jack. The Essential Phone is hands down the most beautiful phone of last year, and it’s available at an incredible price.

Last but not least, we cannot recommend the OnePlus 6 enough. For $530, it truly retains the flagship-killer moniker. You get the same Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor that is powering the rest of this year’s flagships, along with even more RAM. OnePlus also goes a step further with an excellent, customizable software experience, and a nearly bezel-less design. While its price is at the higher end of the budget category, the OnePlus 6 is at the top of our best cheap phones guide.

The best camera phone

Google Pixel 2

google pixel 2 images 042
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Why should you buy this: It has the best smartphone camera you can buy.

Who’s it for: Anyone who wants the best smartphone camera.

How much will it cost: $650-plus

Why we picked the Google Pixel 2:

Nearly all flagship smartphone cameras these days are excellent, but Google’s Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL stand out by reliably capturing remarkable photographs. We’re focusing on the Pixel 2 here, as it’s far cheaper than most flagship smartphones listed above.

The Pixel 2 has a 12.2-megapixel camera, but it’s Google’s image processing that does all the hard work. There’s virtually zero shutter lag, and while the processing takes a second or two, the results can be astonishing. The Pixel excels thanks to Google’s HDR+ technology, where the smartphone captures multiple photos at once, picks the best one, and layers the rest to produce an image with the least amount of noise. This also eliminates overexposed or underexposed parts of an image, resulting in excellent dynamic range.

Though there is only one camera on the rear, Google added a Portrait Mode, which blurs out the background behind a subject. It’s impressive what Google can do with just software, as the camera can very accurately detect depth and the subject in the photo. The rear camera in Portrait Mode isn’t as good as the iPhone X or 8 Plus, but it’s excellent on the selfie camera.

The excellent camera experience is paired with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 chip, which is still speedy, along with 4GB of RAM. As we mentioned earlier, Google’s software optimization results in one of the most reliable, highest-performing Android phone ever made. Best of all? The Pixel 2 is water-resistant, and it gets automatic software updates directly from Google, so your phone will always be up to date and perfectly safe. Google also offers 24/7 customer support right in the settings menu, so you can reach out to Google immediately if you have a problem.

Google Pixel 2 review

The best smartphone with great battery life

Huawei P20 Pro

huawei p20 pro security scaremongering pointing camera opinion

Why should you buy this: Smartphones are as good as they last, and you need a phone that can last more than a day.

Who’s it for: People who need a phone that can last two days.

How much will it cost: $1,100

Why we picked the Huawei P20 Pro:

You will find an impressively large 4,000mAh battery in the Huawei P20 Pro, which is enough to see you through two days before you need to find an outlet. It’s not just the big battery that gives this phone such stamina — Huawei has also pulled off some clever software trickery to optimize power management. In addition to boasting a long-lasting battery, the P20 Pro also supports quick charging, with Huawei’s proprietary SuperCharge technology offering a full charge from empty in 90 minutes; it’ll charge the phone to 50 percent in just half an hour.

There are no compromises under the hood to achieve the solid battery life. The P20 Pro is packing Huawei’s own Hisilicon Kirin 970 processor, backed by 6GB of RAM with 128GB of storage. We found performance to be fast and smooth in our testing.

The 6.1-inch AMOLED Full HD display is vivid and sharp, and there is an excellent triple main camera that combines 40-megapixel, 8-megapixel, and 20-megapixel sensors. We also like the design, with a small notch at the top of the screen and a slim bezel at the bottom that houses the fingerprint sensor. The P20 Pro runs Android 8.1 Oreo. If we had to find a weakness it would be Huawei’s EMUI user interface and the lack of the headphone port, but this is a great all-around device.

You can check out our roundup of other smartphones with the best battery life for other alternatives.

Huawei P20 Pro review

The best budget phone

Nokia 6.1

Nokia 6.1 smartphone
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Why should you buy this: You’re on a strict budget, but you still want a powerful phone.

Who’s it for: Bargain buyers who want a steady Android phone.

How much will it cost: $270

Why we picked the Nokia 6.1:

The Nokia 6.1 offers great build quality, something the Nokia brand has always been associated with. While everyone else turns to glass, the Nokia 6.1 is unashamedly metal and it retains a 16:9 aspect ratio and big bezels around its screen. A dull, dated look is skillfully sidestepped with a series of arresting anodized copper highlights that really make this phone pop.

The 5.5-inch display is Full HD, there’s a respectable Snapdragon 630 processor inside backed by 3GB or 4GB of RAM, depending on whether you opt for the 32GB or 64GB model. There is also a MicroSD card slot for expansion. The 3,000mAh battery goes the distance it recharges via the USB-C port.

Budget phones tend to have weak cameras, but the 16-megapixel lens in the Nokia 6.1 has an f/2.0 aperture and Zeiss optics and it performs well in good lighting conditions. In low light or at night it’s not so great. There’s also a capable 8-megapixel selfie camera.

This is an Android One phone, so you get pure, unadulterated Android 8.1 Oreo out of the box. There’s no manufacturer user interface on top or bloatware anywhere in sight. Even better, the Nokia 6.1 should get timely updates for the foreseeable future.

Support for Bluetooth 5 and Google Pay via NFC round out this feature-packed budget device. Read our guide of the best cheap phones to learn about other options.

Nokia 6.1 review

Should you buy now or wait?

This is a decent time to purchase a smartphone. Samsung, LG, HTC, Sony, and Huawei have all unveiled their flagship phones, and it will be a few months before we see anything new from Apple or Google.

It’s best to buy your phone unlocked if possible, as they can be used on any network, which allows you to switch carriers and keep your phone if you want. Buying your phone unlocked means you’ll avoid carrier bloatware like extra apps and services you don’t need. If you are an Android user, it also means the carriers can’t hold back your software updates.

If your phone is just a year old or less, you really don’t need to get a new one.

Which OS is best for you?

This is where things get personal. Picking a smartphone operating system is a huge deal. You’re buying into an entire ecosystem of apps and compatible products when you choose between Android and iOS.

Apple’s iOS is a beautiful, simple operating system and the App Store offers the best app selection imaginable. Each and every aspect of iOS is curated by Apple, and it shows. Android is more open and it has fewer rules, but that means that manufacturers and app makers can willfully ignore Google’s Material Design language and do whatever they want, sometimes rendering Android unrecognizable and cluttered. Android is gorgeous, as seen on Google’s Pixel 2 and 2 XL, but you don’t often see it like that.

Since Apple is the only company that makes iPhones, it also has complete control over software updates. As such, iPhone users always get the most recent and best iOS experience possible. It released iOS11 last September, and 76 percent of Apple devices are on it.

Android users don’t have that luxury. Unless you own a Pixel or Nexus device — and very few of Android users do — you will have to wait months if not a year to get software updates. That is why less than five percent of Android devices are running Android 8.0 Oreo, which released in August 2017. It’s absurd.

Software updates contain security updates, which keep your phone safe from malware, viruses, and hackers. Android is the most heavily targeted mobile OS, so it is attacked by the worst bugs, like Stagefright and Heartbleed, both of which remain unpatched for millions of Android users. Google now issues a security patch every month, but many manufacturers don’t push them to users in a timely fashion, if ever.

In contrast, Apple can immediately patch security flaws and send the updated software to all iPhone users immediately. Since most users update their software when prompted, most iOS users are protected from these very real threats. There is no denying that iPhone users are safer. Apple’s iOS also offers full encryption with no compromises. The company even went to war with the U.S. government and the FBI to guarantee the right to encryption for its users. If you care about your security, you should buy an iPhone.

How we test

A phone is so much more than its spec sheet. Your entire life is stored on it, from your photos and contacts to your music and your favorite apps. For that reason, we take great care when we review phones to recommend only the absolute best out there.

We use each phone we review as our daily driver for an extended period of time to test out all the features. We do benchmarks, play games, take photos, plunge them in water, and use them until their batteries expire. Then we charge ’em up and do it all over again. We test devices like real people use devices. We’re not in some stuffy lab during obscure tests. We’re running around the cities we live in using these phones just like you use your phones.

Then we think about each phone in comparison with its competitors to come to a decision: Should you buy this phone or something else? If the answer is “something else,” we tell you what to buy instead.

Smartphone innovation has peaked, and the number of radical new features that come out each year is shrinking. As such, when you’re buying a phone, you’re buying a device that will be with you 24/7 for several years. It’s a big choice, and things like apps, a product ecosystem, customer support, and security should be important factors in your buying decision.

Editors’ Recommendations


Related Articles

%d bloggers like this: