The smartphone market is becoming rather stale these days but only in the context of so many great devices already on the market. As to which is the best it’s entirely subjective, but I have a few thoughts based on what I own and have used.
Here are the three best smartphones right now that I can recommend and a few maybe to skip.
Great camera, OK hardware
Google Pixel 3
For those looking for a “purer” Android experience so that they can run Microsoft Launcher for Android or do other customizations the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL are excellent choices. Plus, you’ll get the timeliest updates for the OS and security for the coming years.
The Pixel’s camera — despite there just being one on the rear — really is outstanding. If you care about photography, it’s impossible to ignore just how far Google has pushed software enhancements for imaging with machine learning. It’s crazier to know they’re only just getting started.
Some downsides of the Pixel 3 include a somewhat hefty starting price of $799 for a phone with just 4GB of RAM, which is unfortunate. Putting the camera aside the rest of the Pixel 3’s hardware is so basic and boring it’s hard to get excited about. Sure, it’s a great phone, but it’s not the most interesting (plus there’s that huge, unsightly notch on the Pixel 3 XL).
But if you want a phone that will get the best support, do the basics, and have all of Google’s latest tech the Pixel 3 is a solid choice.
My personal fave
Huawei Mate 20 X
When I first saw the Mate 20 X at CES 2019 I was blown away. I had no idea a company was making a 7.2-inch super phone let alone one that had three rear cameras (40MP regular, wide, and zoom).
I grabbed this phone off Amazon from a reseller, and I have never looked back. Effectively just a larger Mate 20 Pro the Mate 20 X is for those who used a Nokia Lumia 1520 and miss having a gargantuan mobile experience. Combined with a massive 5,000 mAh battery, outstanding stereo speakers, and a blazingly fast Kirin 980 processor the Mate 20 X is not only a powerhouse, but it can go days on a single charge.
I had some concerns about EMUI 9.0 — the customization layer on top of Android 9.0 — but I found it better than Samsung’s One UI and more like Oxygen OS. Long story short, I like it a lot.
The Mate 20 X though is not for everyone. With a high price tag around $900, no carrier sales in the US (it runs fine on AT&T and T-Mobile though), its enormous size, and some concerns over Huawei, most people will want to go with something smaller.
For me though, the Mate 20 X is hands-down the best phone I have used, and I don’t see myself switching anytime soon. All my other phones are now in the drawer.
OnePlus 6 or 6T
If I had to pick one phone that most people should buy it’s anything from OnePlus. I’ve had three OnePlus phones over the years with the OnePlus 6 being my latest. The OnePlus 6T is now available and has received rave reviews (though I don’t care for that in-screen fingerprint reader, which is too slow for my tastes).
OnePlus has the best software experience on Android in my opinion. Oxygen OS is fast, clean, looks good, and the tweaks to the OS from OnePlus make Android a better operating system. It’s just a joy to use.
Add in some of the best feeling hardware that feels great to hold and a $550 starting price, the OnePlus is very much the “flagship killer” it attempts to be.
Many friends of mine who were switching away from Windows Phone went with the OnePlus and all have loved it. There’s a good reason as it’s the best value in town.
Great, but not perfect
It seems odd to talk about smartphones and not mention Apple or Samsung. Luckily, I have new phones from both, and while they’re great, they’re not my favorites either.
Apple iPhone XS
The iPhone is still one of the best-selling smartphone brands for a reason: the phones just work. Smooth OS, the best app experiences, and easiest to use the iPhone is hard to ignore.
I’ve been using an iPhone XS since its release, and I have very few complaints. Apple Face ID is impressive, the hardware feels great, and the display and audio are best in class.
But I still find typing on the iPhone XS – even with Microsoft SwiftKey (my preferred keyboard) – to be hit and miss even in 2019. The camera, while pleasant enough, pales compared to what Google or Huawei are doing with AI-assisted photography. Also the overall hardware – like the Pixel 3 – is boring.
Toss in the crazy high starting price of $1,000 it’s easy to see why the more wink-wink “budget-friendly” iPhone XR has generated more buzz.
There are a lot of good reasons to go with Apple, but seemingly just as many against.
Finally, if you’re a fan of Microsoft services you can do a lot on an iPhone, but even more on Android.
Samsung Galaxy Note 9
I grabbed a Samsung Galaxy Note 9 when in Germany covering IFA 2018. It’s an impressive piece of hardware that on paper has all the best specifications you can find in a modern smartphone — fantastic display, great audio, excellent camera, excellent battery life, and that nifty S Pen that lets you ink.
But Samsung likes to futz with the software a lot of doubling on preinstalling its own apps on top of Googles creating a mini identity crisis – the phone feels more like Samsung Android than Google Android.
Many users are fine with all the Samsung bloat and customization, but even the new One UI change with Android 9.0 has not convinced me. I still find the UI design just off and unpleasant with just too much going on for the user.
Galaxy Note 9 is a fantastic phone for many power users, but make sure you really like the Samsung experience. The good news is like all Samsung phones they drop in price, and the Galaxy Note 9 is already just under $800 now making them a better value the longer you wait.
So many more phones
There are many more phones out there – especially in the budget range – including ones from Nokia and Xiaomi (Pocophone F, Mi Mix 3) that didn’t make the list only because I haven’t used them yet.
If there’s one takeaway for smartphones in 2019 is Chinese manufacturers are outpacing the US and Korean ones giving consumers even more choice and more value than ever before.
Mobile World Congress is just weeks away with Samsung, LG, and OnePlus poised to have some significant announcements. Will anything persuade me to switch from my Mate 20 X? I can’t wait to find out.
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