Throughout the years we’ve reviewed dozens of smartphones and got hands on time 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'd buy for ourselves based in a number of factors (particularly price point) and thus make it easier for you to buy the best possible device.
Best Android Phone
There are plenty of good Android phones on the market, but the Google Pixel 2 is the best of the lot. And we’re not talking about the larger Pixel 2 XL here; it’s the smaller variant, the Pixel 2, that gets our recommendation for a number of reasons.
The Pixel 2 hits the nail on the head in several areas. The camera solution is the best of any smartphone available, thanks to its ability to produce photos with outstanding dynamic range, excellent colors and great detail. Even though there’s just a single sensor on the rear, the Pixel 2 is also capable of astonishing simulated background blur with elite edge detection. The selfie camera is by far the best we’ve seen on any phone, with the same ability to simulate background blur as the rear camera.
Performance? Fantastic, thanks to the Snapdragon 835 SoC and bloat-free software. The Pixel 2 is seriously fast to use, more so than other Snapdragon 835 flagships we’ve used. The Pixel 2 pairs this stellar performance with great battery life on a smaller body, falling above average in our battery benchmarks and easily enough for a day’s usage.
One of the key reasons we continue to recommend devices like the Pixel 2 is the software. As this is a Google device, you get a clean Android experience. It’s coherent and packed with features, simply the best version of Android you can get. When combined with fast updates to the latest versions of Android, security patches every month, and full support for three years, it’s clear the software experience on the Pixel 2 is unmatched.
Now the Pixel 2 isn’t a perfect device. The 5.0-inch 1080p AMOLED display looks fantastic, but it’s flanked by fat bezels, unlike the Pixel 2 XL and other flagships from the likes of Samsung and LG. There’s no headphone jack and no microSD card slot either, which can be found on competitors. However, you do get a water resistant body and stereo front facing speakers.
The main reason we recommend the Pixel 2 over the Pixel 2 XL is the superior display. You may have heard about the Pixel 2 XL’s poor viewing angles, troubles with burn in, and uneven uniformity; none of these issues are present with the Pixel 2. The smaller Pixel is also easier to use one-handed, and costs $200 less for almost identical hardware to the Pixel 2 XL. The Pixel 2 XL is still a good buy if you’re willing to fork out extra cash for what is essentially just a larger, lower-quality display. But we think the best value is with the Pixel 2.
Runner-up: Samsung Galaxy S9+ (Snapdragon model)
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.
The 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.
The Galaxy was our previous top Android phone, so why we chose the Pixel 2 over it? It's a close call, but for one, the camera is better on the Pixel 2. The software experience is a lot better on the Pixel, too: stock Android, fast updates, no bloat. The Galaxy S9 design is superior, but more fragile. Depending on what is more important to you, benefits like a microSD card slot, wireless charging, and headphone jack could be outweighed by the superior camera and software.
For those that bought the Galaxy S8 or S8+, there is little reason to upgrade to the Galaxy S9+ in light of mostly minor changes. For those upgrading from an older handset, the past two years’ worth of improvements do make the Galaxy S9+ a solid option. If you are interested in buying one, try and hunt down the Snapdragon since we observed significant downsides on the Exynos model which some regions get by default.
Best from Apple
While the Pixel 2 is the best overall Android phone, there are plenty of people who prefer iPhones and have no intention to switch anytime soon. If you’re one of those people, you currently have three choices: the iPhone 6S for paying the least for a new iPhone, the iPhone 8/Plus if you want the latest internal hardware on a somewhat dated design, and the iPhone X.
If you don't mind the expense, the iPhone X is the best 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 provides all the fantastic hardware of the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus, such as the extremely fast A11 SoC and great set of rear cameras, but with a slew of additional features. The main addition is Face ID, which provides quick facial recognition and authentication in place of Touch ID, allowing you to unlock your device without tapping on a sensor. In the vast majority of conditions, Face ID works quickly and accurately.
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 larger display and other hardware additions come at significant cost. 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 Flagship for Less
Wait for it If you don’t want to spend $650 or thereabouts on the Pixel 2, or if you want a few additional features at a lower price, it’s hard to look past OnePlus' offerings. As of writing, we're expecting the OnePlus 6 to come out with an iPhone X-esque design (notch and all) coming soon.
With an expansive 6-inch 18:9 display that reduces bezel size significantly, the OnePlus 5T is basically a better version of the OnePlus 5. As a result, the fingerprint sensor has moved into a more comfortable position on the rear, though the overall size of the phone hasn’t been impacted significantly. Like with the iPhone X, you’re getting more screen real estate than older models in a comfortable, usable body.
It’s not just the screen that has received an update. OnePlus has implemented a fast face unlock feature similar to the iPhone X, but without the depth-sensing camera. The rear camera ditches the secondary zoom lens for a standard focal length, instead combining data from both cameras into higher quality photos. Camera quality is still behind the best flagships like the Pixel 2, though it’s serviceable at its $500 price.
Other features remain largely the same. You’re still getting a Snapdragon 835 SoC, USB Type-C plus a headphone jack, a 3,300 mAh battery, and a relatively clean software experience. You won’t get updates as fast as with Google’s Pixel handsets, but at least you aren’t bloated down with an ugly skin and garbage features.
Runner-up: LG V20 (if you can find it)
LG is one of the few phone manufacturers to aggressively slash prices while continuing to offer their previous-gen high-end phones. With the freshly launched LG V30 now occupying the company’s flagship big-screen phone slot, the V20 can be found for about $350 or less.
Update: As stock has run dry after the last holiday season, the LG V20 is mostly available as certified refurbished phone for less than $250. A pretty great deal for the most part.
The LG V20 is not an old phone, so it's packed with quality components and should be considered by anyone looking for a large-screen handset. You get a 5.7-inch 2560 x 1440 LCD plus a smaller secondary display above it. It’s not as neat as the small-bezel displays of 2017, but the screen on the V20 is still beautiful.
The hardware stacks up well. There’s a Snapdragon 820 under the hood, which is easily twice as fast as most Snapdragon 600-series chips found in other mid-range devices. Plus it obliterates any MediaTek SoC I’ve used, not just in terms of performance, but also in wireless connectivity and power efficiency. Other features include: 64GB of storage (and microSD slot), 4GB of RAM, NFC, Wi-Fi ac, a fingerprint scanner, and Category 12 LTE. There’s even support for 32-bit/192kHz audio.
The camera array is very similar to that of the LG G5, G6 and even the V30, consisting of a standard 16MP camera plus a wide-angle 8MP shooter. You get OIS, laser autofocus, 4K capture, and a decent 5MP front camera with an f/1.9 lens. This camera is pretty good by today’s standards.
The LG V20 is also one of the last major phones to sport a removable battery.
A Mid-Priced Superstar
The LG G5 didn’t impress at release as a flagship contender. The modular system added nothing to the package, and although there is a removable battery, battery life was not great. The "metal" body also lacked the polish we want on a premium handset, so it was an easy win for the likes of the Galaxy S7 and Huawei P9.
But let’s be real here: at $230 the hardware you’re getting in this phone is hard to pass up, even considering some of the aforementioned issues. The Snapdragon 820 inside still stacks up very well against modern flagships, but at less than half the price. The LG G5's compact 1440p display is also bright, crisp, and clear.
Perhaps one of the most compelling aspects of the G5 at under $250 is the camera solution on offer. One standard camera, one wide angle camera, and both deliver fantastic image quality superior to some high-end phones today.
Best $100 Phone
Update: As of writing Motorola is about to release their new Moto E5 and G6 models starting at $100 up to $300. We're reviewing them soon and updating this section with potential recommendations to what have been our usual favorite recommendations for new budget handsets.
If you’re on a tight budget, it’s hard to look past the Motorola Moto E4, which retails for $99 with easily-avoidable lockscreen ads through Amazon. This budget device doesn’t pack the greatest specs or the flashiest design, but it does include all the basics and refuses to compromise on essential features.
The display is a 5.0-inch 720p LCD that looks surprisingly good for what it is. If you purchase the USA variant, it’s powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 425 SoC, which is capable enough for lightweight tasks and does provide a relatively smooth experience. There’s 2GB of RAM, 16GB of storage, and a 2,800 mAh battery as well; again it’s nothing amazing, but every year we see phones like this get upgraded with slightly better specs than last year.
The camera is serviceable for just an 8-megapixel unit with an f/2.2 lens. This area of budget phones tends to be the weakest, and it’s hard to find an option that doesn’t produce utter garbage, but the Moto E4 makes the most of the camera hardware it has.
It’s the little things that make the Moto E4 such a solid buy at this price. You get a fingerprint scanner, Gorilla Glass 3 protecting the display, a splash resistant coating, microSD card support, dual-SIM functionality (depending on the variant) and that all-important headphone jack. Even better, it runs near-stock Android 7.1, which provides a much cleaner experience than the horrendous software you get with some other OEMs like Xiaomi, Huawei or Oppo. It is a basic handset, but for $99 you get a lot of value with the Moto E4.