In 3 Simple Categories
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.
The best phone you can buy right now is also one of the most expensive handsets in the market. The iPhone XS offers an incremental upgrade over last year's iPhone X that introduced the notch and a near bezel-less design, inheriting everything that made the phone a hit, while improving in key areas: stronger construction/glass, better waterproofing, faster Face ID, faster wireless charging, more RAM, and better cameras that have also received a software upgrade.
The iPhone XS also sports a stupid-fast A12 SoC that honestly we don't know what you can do with this thing that you couldn't do before, but it remains very efficient, and as far as bragging rights go, it's faster than any other smartphone on the market.
This year the 5.8-inch iPhone XS is joined by the new flagship 6.5-inch XS Max (ridiculous naming and pricing, but pretty solid hardware), which is the exact same phone but sporting a larger display. If your phone is your primary computing device and you enjoy of a more expansive display, then the XS Max is probably worth the extra $100.
Once you live with the iPhone XS, it’s hard to go back to the surfboard designs of past iPhones with their enormous bezels. Many other manufacturers have followed Apple with notch designs that look ugly when you stand to look at them, but when done right (like Apple has), in regular use you don't really notice it that much. The trend no doubt will be to eliminate this screen cut-out, with some like OnePlus offering a teardrop design for the front camera only.
The iPhone XS uses the notch to house sensors used for Face ID -- Apple's facial recognition/authentication that works extremely well -- and also allow the iPhone to produce Portrait Mode (simulated background blur) photos using the front camera, and to create surprisingly fun Animoji.
The iPhone XS and XS Max feature dual rear-facing cameras: a 12-megapixel wide-angle shooter with optical image stabilization and a six-element lens with f/1.8 aperture alongside a 12-megapixel telephoto camera (2x optical zoom), also with optical image stabilization, with a six-element lens and f/2.4 aperture. Apple’s camera system also features Smart HDR that meshes multiple shots into one to get the perfect blend of highlights, shadows and reduced shutter lag. Another new feature allows you to adjust the depth of field after a shot was taken.
Generally speaking, Apple phones are an expensive affair that is not limited to the price of admission, but extra storage will cost you handsomely -- no expansion slots are ever offered on iPhones -- and the closed ecosystem, while great in many ways with app selection that remains a tad better than Android's (except for Google apps which integrate much better on Android handsets), iPhones tend to receive the royal treatment from developers and accessory makers, but usually that also comes at a cost.
If you don't mind the expense, the iPhone XS is a joy to hold and operate and it is the best phone you can get.
Best Phone (that is not $1,000)
The Galaxy S9 and Galaxy S9+ are undoubtedly great phones, but with Samsung's smartphone release cycle dictating that we'll see the Galaxy S10 as soon as late February 2019, what makes the Galaxy S9 the best Android phone right now?
In a single word: price.
The Galaxy S9 is currently selling for just $520, while the larger Galaxy S9+ is $640, both attractive price points for high-end phones that have pretty much the best hardware combination you can get. Samsung phones have fantastic displays, the Snapdragon 845 SoC 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.
Even though the Galaxy S design essentially hasn't changed for almost two years, Samsung held such an impressive lead in terms of build quality and design that by today's standards, they're still pretty much up there with the best, and no notch. The fragility concerns regarding the phone's mostly-glass construction persist, but that's the price you have to pay for the infinity display looks unfortunately.
The Galaxy S9 fingerprint reader on the back of the phone remains the main authentication method although Samsung introduced a decent face unlock feature, it's not at the level of Apple's Face ID. The S9 packs stereo speakers, a headphone jack, USB-C port, microSD card slot and water resistance. The 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.
Over the past year we've gone back and forth, recommending either the Galaxy S9 or the Google Pixel as best Android phones. We had high hopes for the Pixel 3, and even though Google seems to have delivered on the software front, the external design remains too antiquated for our taste. Hardware-wise, the Pixel 3 does offer a marked improvement, with the same Snapdragon 845 SoC and all the high-end features you'd expect on a premium-priced handset, except for the lack of expandable storage.
The Pixel 3 takes better photos than the Galaxy S9 and also brings direct (read: better and timely) software updates. In fact, the Pixel is considered the best camera phone bar none, so if you don't mind the looks, it is a great phone. Usually retailing for $800 and $900, the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL are discounted as of writing to $649 and $699.
Finally, the OnePlus 6T. A favorite among enthusiasts who value great specs at a good price. OnePlus continues to demonstrate a winning formula, and now in a shortened cycle, the company has improved its flagship phone aesthetics for the same price.
Usually we'd list the OnePlus on a separate category, dedicated to flagship value, however the 6T is $549 which is not less expensive than the Galaxy S9 at the moment. The OnePlus is larger however, matching the S9+ screen size and overall footprint.
So if you're not buying it for the killer value, know the OnePlus 6T still has plenty going for it. The handset packs a 6.41-inch AMOLED display with a resolution of 2,280 x 1,080 pixels and a teardrop notch that’s covered in Corning Gorilla Glass 6. It’s powered by the same Snapdragon 845 SoC, up to 8GB of RAM and your choice of 128GB or 256GB of onboard storage. The phone's design is top notch and it is one of the first to feature an in-display fingerprint sensor which works well for the most part. It also offers excellent battery life and ships running OxygenOS atop Android 9 Pie.
Showstoppers for some, the 6T has no headphone jack, no expandable storage, no wireless charging and no water resistance, which is why we believe the Galaxy S9 does offer a more complete package.
Best Budget Phone
In the $200 to $400 market there are many decent options to choose from, so we’ll be talking about a few good choices. Given the bargain price, the standout from the pack is the Motorola Moto G6. A relatively new release, the Moto currently retails for a mere $200 on Amazon.
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 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 features to save some money. You also get a larger (lower-res) display. The Moto G6 is the better buy at the moment because it's discounted and selling for about the same price as the Play.
Both Nokia phones were born as inexpensive mid-range handsets that run Android One, sporting good looks, decent cameras and features for the price. They're considered well-rounded value phones, taking a page from Motorola's book. On the other hand, LG’s previous generation phone has a lot of good things going for it at just $360, 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 mid-range phones and it could be a good option to explore.
Masthead credit: Photo by William Hook