Throughout the years we’ve reviewed dozens of smartphones and got hands on with plenty others. The good news is that as smartphones have matured, they've become so good in terms of hardware and design that it’s getting harder to pick something you will truly regret... or if you’re the glass half empty kinda person, they’ve become so good that picking the one that’s right for you can be a challenging task.
You've read the reviews and have formed your own opinions on the devices you've owned and currently own, but with our vast access to devices, TechSpot's guide to the best smartphones is meant to highlight the stuff that matters, what we've bought ourselves, making it easier for you to buy the best possible device given a certain price point.
A contentious call considering the strong divide between iOS and Android phones, but right now the best overall smartphone you can get is from Apple. Android fans can skip ahead to the next section for the best Android phone right now, however if you are one of many users that prefer iOS, your choices are limited among current-gen offerings: it’s either the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus, or the iPhone X.
An additional key consideration: Apple will be updating their line-up of smartphones around the September-October timeframe, potentially in just a few weeks. If you are happy to wait, you will be better off seeing what Apple’s next-gen phones have in store. With that said, we expect Apple's next flagship to be an evolution of the current iPhone X, and if you don't mind the expense, it is the best phone you can get.
When you first see and hold the iPhone X, it’s hard to go back to the surfboard designs of past iPhones with their enormous bezels. The expansive display on the iPhone X is beautiful despite the annoying notch, and it provides extra screen real estate in a similar form factor to the smaller iPhone 8. The iPhone X is a joy to hold and operate as a result.
The iPhone X is powered by the extremely fast and efficient A11 SoC and comes with a great set of rear cameras. Face ID, which provides quick facial recognition and authentication in place of Touch ID, allows you to unlock your device without tapping on a sensor. In a majority of conditions, Face ID works well, though a sizable portion of long-time Apple customers often complain about missing the simplicity of Touch ID and are hoping an improvement on this front for the X's successor.
The sensors used for Face ID also allow the iPhone X to produce Portrait Mode (simulated background blur) photos using the front camera, and to create surprisingly fun Animoji. On top of this hardware addition, the iPhone X supports wireless charging for the first time.
The iPhone X is expensive, starting at a whopping $999 for 64GB of internal storage (and no expansion). If you want to purchase the best iPhone on the market, be prepared to pay for it.
Best Android Phone
The Galaxy S9+ is undoubtedly a very good phone with minor improvements that have led to a better smartphone than the Galaxy S8+, which was one of our favorite phones last year. Over the past year we've gone back and forth, recommending either the latest Galaxy S or the Pixel 2 as the best Android phones. But with Google set to launch newer Pixel smartphones in just a few months, we think you’re better off buying a newer phone like the Samsung Galaxy S9+ if you want the best Android phone on the market right now.
While reasonably expensive with a retail price over $800, the Galaxy S9+ has pretty much the best hardware combination you can get. As well as having a fantastic display, the Snapdragon 845 model delivers class-leading performance and great battery life, with excellent cellular radio support, fast storage, and excellent cameras with support for 1,000 FPS slow motion video capture.
The S9's fingerprint reader is now better positioned and Samsung has introduced a decent face unlock feature and great stereo speakers. They’ve also retained the headphone jack, USB-C port, microSD card slot and water resistance. The largely unchanged display remains one of the best available, with both an oversaturated default setting, an accurate mode you can use if you like, and excellent brightness for an AMOLED.
The fragility concerns regarding the mostly-glass construction persist, but that's the price you have to pay for the looks unfortunately.
While the Pixel 2 and Huawei P20 Pro have cameras that produce better photos, the difference between those phones and the Galaxy S9+ is small in terms of camera quality. But it’s the other areas of the Galaxy S9+ that take the hardware crown, including the notch-free display, Snapdragon 845 SoC, and inclusion of a headphone jack and microSD card slot.
Important note: we only recommend the Snapdragon model of the Galaxy S9, as there are issues with the Exynos variant that make it hard to recommend. It can be difficult to find the Snapdragon model outside the USA, so in that case we’d look towards the Pixel 2 XL or Huawei P20 Pro in this category.
Best Value Flagship
OnePlus is at it again with the standout best value flagship phone on the market: the OnePlus 6. We’ve been using this phone at the office for a few weeks now and it’s very impressive, combining great hardware with great software in a relatively affordable package, with the base model retailing for $530 direct from OnePlus.
The OnePlus 6 is packed with high-end features, including a fast Qualcomm Snapdragon 845, at least 64GB of storage with 6GB of RAM, and a decent camera that holds its own against better phones considering the price difference. Battery life, in our experience, has also been good and comparable with the best high-end Android devices out there.
One of the key reasons we like this phone overall, not just for the value category, is the use of OxygenOS which is very close in design, (lack of) bloatware and performance to stock Android found on Google’s Pixel line. In other words, it’s excellent in all of those categories, and while the update situation isn’t as strong as Google’s frequent update promise, so far updates seem to be coming at good intervals.
The OnePlus 6 is splash resistant, not fully waterproof like other top contenders, and it doesn’t feature a microSD card like the S9+, nor superb slow motion video capture. But it does include a headphone jack, which can be useful to many, and the expansive screen with a notch is very nice for viewing apps and content.
Considering this phone is several hundred dollars cheaper than other flagships like the Pixel 2 XL, Galaxy S9+ and so forth, the OnePlus 6 is a great option for those with around $500 to spend.
But I want an iPhone...
For Apple users looking for more affordable options, the iPhone 6S at $450 and the iPhone 7 at $550 are your best bets. That’s pretty expensive for phones that are a few generations old, but if you can’t afford the higher prices for the iPhone 8 or iPhone X, last-gen iPhones are as good as it gets.
An additional note, buying new phones direct from Apple is recommended as there's a ton of older iPhone inventory from dubious sources that often consist of refurbished units that come with lesser batteries.
A Mid-Priced Superstar
In the $200 to $400 market there are lots of decent options at the moment, so we’ll be talking about a few good choices, but the standout from the pack is the Motorola Moto G6 from an overall value perspective. A brand new release, it currently retails for a bargain $250 through Amazon and its cousin, the G6 Play, is even cheaper at sub-$200.
We’ve recommended the Moto G line for years, and that’s for one simple reason: the software.
It might seem trivial to some that prefer better hardware, but you won’t find as nice a software and hardware experience for the price. And this is coming from someone that’s used plenty of Xiaomi phones over the years only to get continually frustrated with their version of Android.
The Moto G6 includes near stock Android, which is fast, easy to use, and fits in seamlessly with the rest of the Android ecosystem. It includes a decently powerful Snapdragon 450 SoC, along with 32GB of storage, a microSD card slot, and a headphone jack. It even has moved with modern trends to include a 5.7-inch 18:9 1080p-class display, and the rear cameras are decent for the price. Thanks to the Snapdragon 400 series SoC, battery life is fantastic from a phone that’s not all that chunky.
The G6 Play is also a good option if you’re willing to sacrifice a bit of performance and a few other hardware features to save some money.
Another remarkable option in our opinion is the Google Pixel, the original Pixel, which you can buy new for around $320 these days. It’s a few generations old, but the Snapdragon 821 SoC is still powerful, the camera is still excellent, and Google is still providing software updates. If you have an extra $70 to spend over the Moto G6, the Pixel will give you a great experience and great value for money.
The final standout in this category is the LG G6, currently available for $380. LG’s previous generation phone has a lot of good things going for it at this price, including the expansive, tall, high-resolution display, the great dual-camera solution on the back with a handy wide-angle lens, and solid performance from the Snapdragon 821 inside. It has those few extra features you don’t get with the Pixel and it could be a good option to explore.
Best $100 Phone
When you get down to the $100 phone market, it becomes harder to find an excellent option. If you can, we usually recommend spending at least $150 if not $200 on a phone, because it’s around that price point that you can get a great value hardware combination. But we understand that not everyone has that sort of money to spend on a phone.
If $100 is your budget, we’d recommend importing the Xiaomi Redmi 5A. There used to be a $100 or so Moto E that we recommended but that’s no longer available, so the next best option is this device from Xiaomi that can often be found for as low as $99.99 through various import websites.
You’re not going to get anything amazing from the Redmi 5A, but what you do get is pretty decent considering the price. The design is basic gold aluminum but it is functional and metal, there’s a 5.0-inch 720p display and its powered by the Snapdragon 425 which is one of the fastest SoCs available in this price tier. We hate recommending sluggish devices and while the S425 isn’t super fast by any means, it’s still a capable entry-level chip.
The camera won’t blow you away by all reports, at just 13-megapixels with an f/2.2 lens, and 5-megapixels on the front. But at least the rear camera has autofocus, which yes, is sometimes not included with these cheap handsets. It’s also dual-SIM and the 3,000 mAh battery should last a fair while with this level of hardware inside.
The main issue with Xiaomi devices tends to be their terrible software, but looking across other $100 phones, you’re not going to find many options that give you a significantly better experience unless you’re willing to spend 30% more. Look out for the Nokia 2.1 as well when that becomes available.
Masthead credit: Photo by Youssef Sarhan