The 10 best smartphones of 2018
All significant smartphone launches have now passed and as we approach the end of the year, the ten best shake out after more extended usage of each. All ten phones are excellent and certain aspects make each a possible contender for the top spot.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 9 sat at the top of my list for the last few months. After using a Mate 20 Pro for the last couple of weeks, I'm bumping it back to the top for this last ranking of 2018.
The top four are very expensive phones and price was a consideration for number five that trumped some other features it is missing. It's easy to find a great phone today and to be honest today's phones are so good you really don't need to be replacing them on an annual basis.
1. Samsung Galaxy Note 9
The Galaxy Note 9 is the best phone for business and continues to be my favorite phone of 2018. I've been using one now for several months and despite trying out some great new phones like the iPhone XS Max and Google Pixel 3 XL, none of these can replace the Note 9 and everything Samsung includes in this stunning device. This is especially true for use in the enterprise space.
The Galaxy Note 9 improves upon the Note 8 with aBluetooth S Pen, more internal capacity and RAM, a massive 4,000 mAh battery, better dual rear cameras with some software intelligence, enhanced audio capability, and new placement of the rear fingerprint scanner.
The new Bluetooth S Pen is an excellent innovation that is sure to please all Note fans with the additional remote control functionality. Later this year a SDK will be released so that third parties can add support for the Bluetooth S Pen.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 9 continues to have all of the excellent Galaxy Foundation aspects such as a high level of water resistance, fast wireless charging, a stunning Super AMOLED screen, expandable microSD storage, a 3.5mm headset jack, and much more. In addition, extending it to an external monitor with Samsung DeX is quick and easy, while also providing a full functioning desktop experience. Samsung just released a Linux on DeX beta this week that continues to show how capable the Galaxy Note 9 is for business.
Since it has been out now for a few months, you can find great deals on the Note 9. T-Mobile sells it for $900 ($100 less than launch price) while a SIM-unlocked one from Samsungwill only be $800 during its Black Friday sale. With a large capacity microSD card you could actually have more than 1TB in the palm of your hand.
Check out our Galaxy Note 9 review.
2. Huawei Mate 20 Pro
Huawei recently announced the Mate 20 Pro and it brings together all of the greatness of Huawei into a single device that is tough to beat. The Mate 20 Pro includes the first Android 7nm process chipset with the Kirin 980 (Apple's A12 Bionic also uses the 7nm process), two Neural Processing Units, a fourth-generation image signal processor, and a LTE Cat.21 modem.
The triple rear camera capability from the Huawei P20 Pro is brought to the Mate 20 Pro, but in a different central two-by-two arrangement with one change made to one of the three lenses. The three rear cameras have 40MP, 20MP, and 8MP resolution with a 24MP front-facing shooter and artificial intelligence to help you capture great shots. The monochrome lens has been replaced with a wide-angle lens so that you now have telephoto, wide-angle, and standard camera functionality.
A large 6.39 inch OLED is on the front with cool Midnight Blue, Emerald Green, Black, Pink Gold, and Twilight color options for the device. Android 9.0 Pie powers things while EMUI has been updated to version 9.0.
One interesting move from Huawei is the inclusion of an external storage card slot using its own new nano memory card rather than standard microSD cards. We also see one of the first fingerprint scanners embedded right into the display. Huawei is known for very long battery life and massive batteries so the 4,200 mAh battery is no real surprise, but much appreciated.
Check out our Mate 20 Pro review.
3. Google Pixel 3 XL and Pixel 3
Image: James Martin/CNET
While the Galaxy Note 9 offers just about everything you want, software updates are not its specialty. If you want an Android phone that will always have the latest firmware and security updates, while also offering a fairly stock experience, then nothing beats the new Google Pixel 3 and 3 XL. These two phones are the exact same except for the overall size and battery capacity.
The Google Pixel 3 XL has a large 6.3-inch 18:9 display, Snapdragon 845 processor, 4GB of RAM, 64GB and 128GB integrated storage, single rear 12.2 megapixel camera, dual front-facing cameras, IP68 dust and water resistance, a 3430 mAh battery, and dual front stereo speakers. The smaller Pixel 3 has a 5.5 inch display and smaller 2,915 mAh battery while the rest of the specs are the same as the XL model. Thankfully, wireless charging is included this year, along with a set of wired Pixel Buds in the retail package.
The larger Pixel 3 XL has a display with a notch while the smaller model forgoes this design approach so often seen today. They both help you shoot stunning photos so if photography means more to you than other functions and features you may want to consider the Pixel 3 or 3 XL over other smartphones in this list. You can check out my weekend with the Pixel 3 XL where I captured some great shots while on vacation.
In addition to software being a focus for Google, the camera is another reason to buy the Pixel 3 or 3 XL over other better smartphone hardware. Google just released its Night Sightmode for the camera and it is truly magic.
The smaller Pixel 3 starts at $799 while the Pixel 3 XL starts at $899 for the 64GB model. They are both powered by Android 9.0 Pie and will receive OS upgrades for three years. Google's newest Assistant features are present along with some other Google software advances.
ZDNet's Jason Cipriani awarded the Pixel 3 XL a 9.2/10 rating.
4. Apple iPhone XS Max/XS
Apple pushed the entry-level price of a flagship up to $1,000 last year with the iPhone X and raised the bar again this year with the most expensive flagship available in the iPhone XS Max. ZDNet's Jason Cipriani awarded the iPhone XS Max an impressive near-perfect score of 9.6/10 so I'm pretty sure Jason would give the top spot to this phone.
I ordered my own iPhone XS Max to replace my iPhone X, using the T-Mobile Jump On Demand program, but after two weeks I sent it back as I found the small size of the iPhone X was one of the primary reasons it still earned a place in my pocket.
The Apple iPhone XS Max has been shown to best all other phones in benchmarking testing and the Apple A12 Bionic chipset certainly blazes new trails. It has a fabulous OLED screen, good sized battery, and new camera software to make it a very compelling flagship.
The iPhone XS Max starts at $1,099 for a minimal storage 64GB model and runs up to $1,449 for the 512GB model. I may eventually go back to the iPhone XS Max, but there are no Plus-sized optimizations so it is tough for me to personally justify such a big device without something special.
5. OnePlus 6T
OnePlus launched the new OnePlus 6T at the end of October and for the first time ever it launched on a US wireless carrier. I picked up my Mirror Black model at a local T-Mobile store, after visiting several stores that were sold out, and took advantage of the $300 launch trade-in option.
OnePlus earns a top five spot on my list because of the high end specifications, reasonable price that is hundreds less than other flagships, extremely responsive performance, and use of new technology.
If I had an affordable smartphone list, then the OnePlus 6T would be number one with prices ranging from $549 to $629. The lowest cost one still has 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage while the $629 model has 8GB of RAM and 256GB of internal storage. You will not find another phone with these great specs for these prices.
The OnePlus 6T is composed of two pieces of Gorilla Glass 6 with a metal frame. No other phone available today uses Gorilla Glass 6. The design is elegant and the build quality is excellent. It has a lovely AMOLED 6.41 inch display, Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor, dual rear cameras (they are a bit underutilized compared to the high end flagships), ample RAM and internal storage options, some level of dust and water resistance, a large 3700 mAh battery and quick charge capability, with excellent radio support for GSM networks.
The display has a very small notch, similar to what we saw on the Essential Phone, and also runs the latest version of OxygenOS with an extremely responsive software experience. You can even enable an all touch interface, similar to the iPhone X. The in-screen fingerprint sensor works well while the face unlock option is handy for less secure daily unlocking of your phone.
Check out our full review of the OnePlus 6T where I awarded it a near perfect 9.7/10 rating. It is currently one of my favorite phones and I can't believe it is nearly half of what I paid for my Note 9.
6. Huawei P20 Pro
While US consumers will have to resort to eBay to pick one up, the Huawei P20 Pro remains one of the most exciting phones of 2018, even with its new cousin just launching in the form of the Mate 20 Pro.
The unique triple camera design with 68 megapixels worth of shooting power should help you take some fantastic shots with a low light mode that beats out all the other smartphones available today.
Huawei has been including massive capacity batteries in its flagships and the P20 Pro is no exception with 4,000 mAh that is sure to get you through at least one full, busy day. It has a large 6.1 inch OLED with a notch you can show or hide, a powerful Kirin 970 processor with integrated AI, IP67 dust and water resistance, and more.
Huawei's EMUI has come a long way and the home screen now has a standard Google Feed on one panel with an interface that is close to stock. When Huawei does provide software and settings beyond stock Android, those serve to enhance the device rather than clutter it up and slow it down. The P20 Pro flies through every action and is a sheer joy to use.
Sandra Vogel awarded the Huawei P20 Pro an 8.9/10 rating in her full review and CNET gave it an 8.4 in its review. I wrote a post a few months ago after using it for a month and it still goes with me when I want to ensure I capture some great photos.
7. Apple iPhone XR
This year Apple announced three new phones with one releasing a month after the other two. I traded in the iPhone XS Max for an iPhone XR and overall I am quite happy with the device and saving $350 over the iPhone XS Max.
The Apple iPhone XR differs from the XS/XS Max with a LED screen instead of OLED, lower resolution, no 3D Touch support (does anyone even care about this?), a single rear camera, and a 6.1 inch display that fits in between these other two new phones. It has the same Apple A12 Bionic processor, same camera software and hardware as the 12MP prime camera, and other enhanced Apple features like face unlock. The iPhone XR has a larger capacity battery than the iPhone XS and a reported battery life greater than the XS and XS Max.
You can purchase the iPhone XR in black, white, blue, yellow, coral, and Product Red. The iPhone XR starts at $749, which is $250 less than the 64GB iPhone XS. There is also a 128GB model for just $799, which is likely the best deal for the iPhone XR with the iPhone XS 256GB at a whopping $1,149.
The cellular reception of the iPhone XR is a bit worse in weak signal areas than the iPhone X models, but iPhones have never been able to match the cellular reception quality seen in Android phones. The battery life of the iPhone XR is awesome and the camera does a great job. For many people, it is likely one of the best iPhones you can buy today and is more reasonably priced than the new XS and XS Max.
Check out our full review of the iPhone XR with an 8.4/10 rating.
8. LG V40 ThinQ
LG continues to release great phones that appreciate over time and in a crowded flagship market, the LG V40 may have a tough time finding its place as well.
While Huawei was one of the first major brands to launch a phone with three rear cameras, LG bumped that up by announcing a phone with five total cameras. Three are found on the back and two are on the front.
LG has always stood apart from the others with its second rear camera having a true wide-angle lens for great landscape and large room photography. The new LG V40 keeps the wide-angle camera while also adding a telephoto lens to the standard lens option so you can do just about anything you want, including snapping once to take three photos, with this new flagship phone.
Like the Samsung Galaxy Note 9, the LG V40 ThinQ has everything but the kitchen sink included. It has a 3.5mm headphone jack with Quad-DAC support, triple rear camera setup, dual front-facing camera, wireless charging, IP68 rating, MIL-STD 810G shock resistant rating, microSD expansion card for inexpensive unlimited storage expansion, a screen that extends nearly the full front with a notch, and incredible audio support with its Boombox speaker system. The 3,300 mAh battery will not get you as far as the top five phones in this list and is one area that keeps me from using it daily over the long term.
Last year, the LG V30 impressed me and earned an 8.7/10 rating. I'll be using the LG V40 this week with a full review to come in early November.
Check out our full review of the LG V40 with an 8.5/10 rating. It is a jack-of-all trades, but a master of none.
9. Sony Xperia XZ3
Images: Sony Mobile
Sony is back on the 10 best list with its best smartphone in years in the form of the Xperia XZ3. I've been using one for a few weeks and even though I am not happy with the fingerprint scanner placement it is still a compelling smartphone.
The Sony Xperia XZ3 matches up on the spec sheet closely with the Google Pixel 3 and 3 XL with 4GB RAM, 64GB internal storage, Android 9 Pie, Qualcomm Snapdragon 845, 3300 mAh battery, wireless charging, and IP68 dust and water resistance.
The Xperia XZ3 has a gorgeous curved design with lovely color options and microSD storage expansion options. The 6-inch OLED screen looks great, especially when viewing video content and experiencing the HDR up-conversion technology.
A single 19 megapixel camera is found on the back with a 13 megapixel shooter on the front. The Sony Xperia XZ3 is available now for $899.99 from Amazonand Best Buy in black, forest green, and white silver.
CNET: Sony Xperia XZ3 preview
10. Samsung Galaxy S9/S9 Plus
Samsung's Infinity Display continues to impress and earns a near perfect score like other Samsung displays on the newest Samsung, Apple, and Google phones. There is 6GB of RAM, the fastest Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 mobile processor, a rear dual aperture camera, another one with super slow motion support (S9 Plus only), the ability to add inexpensive microSD cards, improved Bixby assitant and a hardware button dedicated to its use, Samsung Pay payment technology, wireless and fast charging, IP68 dust and water resistance, a USB Type-C standard port, and traditional 3.5mm headset jack. It also launches with Android 8.0 Oreo. There is nothing missing from the Galaxy S9 Plus and it still deserves respect several months later.
One of the things that stands out on Samsung phones is RF performance so if you live in an area with a weak cellular signal then you might move the S9/S9 Plus up further in your list of best smartphones.
The Samsung Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus are available at prices starting at $720 (S9) and $840 (S9 Plus). T-Mobile and Samsung have the best prices with other carriers adding additional premiums on top of the MSRP. If you buy an unlocked one from Samsung it will not contain carrier bloatware and is priced lower than most US carriers too.
Samsung is starting to roll out its newest software experience for beta testing on the Galaxy S9/S9 Plus so stay tuned for more on this update.