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 real challenge.

TechSpot's guide to the best smartphones is meant to highlight the stuff that matters, making it easier for you to buy the best device possible at your desired price point.

Best Phone for Most People

Google Pixel 3a

We had high hopes for the Google Pixel 3 ahead of its launch last year. It would be the year that Google took over Samsung and become the best flagship Android phone, or at the very least the premium phone we'd be recommending thanks to Google's excellent cameras and unmatched Android OS updates. But that didn't happen, mostly due to an ugly design and dubious hardware choices, thus the Galaxy S10 remains the superior choice.

What we didn't know however is that months later Google would come up with the true phone we want to recommend to most of our friends and family. You know, those who prefer not to spend nearly a thousand dollars on a new phone. The Pixel 3a is a $400 handset that packs the best camera in the market, for the first time offered at this price point.

What the Google Pixel 3a lacks in fancy design choices, makes up for in key areas. It is a good looking phone, it's well constructed, it doesn't go on a whim with borderless displays and doesn't have a notch. What you get is a more typical looking handset with black borders on top and bottom and a proven fingerprint sensor placement on the back. As usual buying a Google phone translates into Pure Android and guaranteed fast OS updates.

Performance is not flagship, and that is one of the obvious sacrifices you will have to make. You could say the Pixel 3a is the anti-OnePlus because it's gone completely the opposite way by forgoing futuristic looks and the best internals in favor of practicality and yes, that top-grade camera system. Also the headphone jack is a feature, go figure.

Whereas Samsung likes to offer every feature possible with its premium phones, other manufacturers try to do the same at the budget and mid-range segments, namely expandable storage or a svelte design at an attractive price point. With the Pixel 3a however you will still have to suffer from certain choices that are nonetheless much more forgivable at $400. You don't get waterproofing, no microSD card slot, and no wireless charging.

More Choices (For More Money)

We couldn't name a worthy competitor for the Pixel 3a at the same price level, but there are other more expensive alternatives to consider:

  • If you have to have an iPhone and don't want to spend a thousand bucks, the obvious choice might be the iPhone XR which is still a very expensive $749. The major gripe we have with the XR is the low resolution display, although less picky owners may not see the difference. In certain markets the previous-gen iPhone X is still on offer for $650 and we feel this is the smarter move for most. Finally, for kids who want an iPhone, the older iPhone 7 and 8 series are still available direct from Apple, starting at $449.

  • Samsung fans will have a tough time deciding between this year's Galaxy S10e or last-gen Galaxy S9, both 5.8-inch handsets. The newer Galaxy S10e will set you back $700, and at that price it offers most of what makes the S10 unique and great, including the performance, incredible display, hole-punch notchless design (with a few minor compromises), cameras and improved software over the S9. Samsung has done a better job than Apple did with the XR, in our opinion.

    You also get the choice of buying last year's Galaxy S9 which is readily available for $480. For the price it surpasses the Pixel 3a in a number of aspects: you get waterproofing, you get the same amount of internal memory but with expandability, the year old design is more elegant and sleek than the Pixel (it is also more fragile). The display quality is still flagship-like and you get a faster processor. The two areas where the Pixel 3a remains in the lead are clear however: better cameras and much better software.
  • The OnePlus 6T is still a relatively new phone and remains a favorite among enthusiasts who value great specs at a good price. The 6T features a 6.41-inch AMOLED display and a teardrop notch that’s covered in Gorilla Glass 6. It’s powered by a Snapdragon 845 SoC, 8GB of RAM and your choice of 128GB or 256GB of onboard storage. For $549 it matches the Galaxy S9+ size and overall footprint but has no headphone jack, no expandable storage, no wireless charging and no water resistance, which is why we believe the Galaxy S9 offers a more complete package.

Best Overall

Apple iPhone XS

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 and 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.

Apple's latest iPhones comprise the 5.8-inch iPhone XS and a new flagship 6.5-inch XS Max (ridiculous naming and pricing, but 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. Eventually the trend will be to eliminate this screen cut-out -- many have been trying this past year -- but for now Apple seems to be set on it.

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. Extra storage will cost you handsomely as no expansion slots are ever offered on iPhones. The closed ecosystem is great in many ways, including app selection that remains a tad better than Android's (except for Google apps), timely OS updates for a few years, and iPhones also 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.

Premium Android Contenders

There are three major rivals that not only challenge the iPhone but are in some ways superior: the Samsung Galaxy S10, OnePlus 7 Pro and Huawei's P30 Pro. Starting with the last of the bunch, the P30 Pro, we'll dedicate a simple conclusion to its case: it's an amazing phone, but Huawei is too troubled at the moment to consider spending the big bucks on this handset right now.

Samsung's latest Galaxy iteration offers the best there is on the Android camp as usual and is the most direct competitor to the iPhone. The Galaxy S10 and S10+ come in 6.1-inch and 6.4-inch bodies, with few specs separating the two. The model-defining hole-punch camera looks great (two front facing cameras on the Plus), the build quality is top notch and the feature set is as complete as it gets: best-in-class AMOLED screen, latest Snapdragon SoC inside, great battery life (3,400mAh and 4,100mAh on the bigger variant), two or three rear cameras, waterproofing, microSD slot expansion, wireless charging (and reverse charging), plus an improved One UI skin on top of Android.

On a less positive note, Samsung's track record with Android updates is still lacking, especially after the first year of ownership has passed and new versions of Android take its sweet time to make it over. That is not the royal treatment you should receive considering what you pay for this device. Also new in this generation is the onscreen fingerprint reader, which works well but is not yet perfect. The cameras are also good but don't score as well as the Pixel 3 or the P30 Pro in low light. Samsung also learned along with Apple how to charge more for their flagship phones, although they are still more accessible: $800 for the S10 and $930 for the S10+ both with 128GB of internal memory (expandable).

The OnePlus 7 Pro enters the premium smartphone market at $670, which is considerably higher than its previous offerings but undercutting flagship Android and iOS devices and set to compete in price with the iPhone Xr and Galaxy S10e but with an arguably more convincing and well rounded hardware package.

The OnePlus 7 Pro comes with an impressive list of features that includes a notchless QHD+ 90Hz display, Snapdragon 855 SoC, a responsive in-display fingerprint reader, solid build quality and design, a novel pop-up front camera (again, no notch), stereo speakers, fast wired charging, 4000mAh battery, running Oxygen OS which is a customized version of Android which usually receives high praises for not compromising what already works well in Android. What you miss for paying less versus well established flagships could be a dealbreaker for some and a non-issue for others: no wireless charging, a good but not stellar camera setup, no waterproofing, no expandable memory, no headphone jack.

Best Budget Phone

Motorola Moto G7

For the second year in a row, Motorola has outdone itself by offering the consensus best affordable phone in the market. We’ve been recommending 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.

In the $200 to $300 segment there are many decent options to choose from, so we’ll be talking about a few decent choices however the Moto G7 and the Moto G7 Power variant should be at the top of your list.

The $230 Moto G7 uses 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 632 SoC, along with 64GB of storage, 4GB RAM, a microSD card slot, and a headphone jack. The display is a 6.2-inch 1080p-class display and the rear cameras are decent for the price. The battery life is not stellar, but if that's most important to you then check out the 'Power' model. The phone's build and design are decent, but that Motorola front logo and fat notch reveal this is a budget phone.

The Moto G7 Power variant is similar but packs a gigantic 5,000 mAh battery. That means the phone is a little thicker but for good reason. The G7 Power manages to be less expensive ($200) however you get less RAM (3GB), less internal storage (32GB) and a lesser display.

Other standout options in the budget segment include the Nokia 6.1 ($180) and Nokia 7.1 ($350). 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. And why not, if you want to spend even less, our favorite budget phone from last year, the Moto G6 is worth a look for $150.

Masthead credit: Photo by William Hook