The Best Smartphones
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 Phones for Most People
Apple perfected the iPhone formula in 2019 by keeping the expensive $1,000+ models and naming them ‘Pro’, while rounding up the XR variant and making it better in almost every single way, even the price. The iPhone 11 is by no means an inexpensive phone at $699, but it brings to the table a great mix of features and capabilities that make it the best phone that most users will be happy with in the long run.
On the Android side, there is a much wider variety of options to choose from. You also gain a lot of flexibility on the spec sheet and can save some money for a comparable handset. Our pick for most people is the Samsung Galaxy S10e, a direct competitor to the iPhone 11 that is currently being sold for $550 unlocked. Read on for more details why these our two top choices in this category.
Why the iPhone 11
The iPhone 11 features a 6.1-inch “Liquid Retina” LCD display that is almost identical to the one found in the iPhone XR, notch included. When the iPhone XR was offered a year ago, it seemed to check most boxes but the low resolution display seemed like a shortcoming on paper. A year later, customers didn’t seem to care, the iPhone XR was Apple’s best selling iPhone in the US and people simply preferred to spend less to get into into Apple’s ecosystem while still getting a decently sized screen that is more than serviceable. Ask the average user and they’ll tell you the phone looks great. And that’s honestly the only big drawback on buying the iPhone 11 if you want an iPhone.
Build quality is top notch (no pun intended), you get to choose from six colors and because most people use a case to protect their phone, iPhones enjoy from the largest variety of accessories in that regard. The iPhone 11 gets Apple’s latest silicon, the A13 Bionic which is the fastest CPU and GPU in a smartphone, that should guarantee some longetivity, in addition to software updates that come often and directly from the manufacturer.
The handset is IP68 water-resistant up to two meters and it’s wireless charging capable, you also get a faster version of Face ID that is pretty good. What you don’t get compared to an Android phone: no storage expansion (64GB is the default at $699, or pay $50 more for 128GB), and no headphone jack.
The iPhone 11 gets a very capable dual-camera setup that includes an ultra-wide shooter with support for 2x optical zoom, video can be captured in up to 4K resolution at 60 fps. The front camera features an improved “Portrait Mode.” Besides the hardware, Apple has improved image processing making the iPhone 11 one of the best phone cameras around. Battery life is good, rated for 17 hours of video playback, it should last a day of heavy use without a problem.
Why the Galaxy S10e
Samsung’s approach to Galaxy S phones is that they like to offer every feature possible on their premium handsets. In 2019, however they modified this formula to add the Galaxy S10e. This is a step down from the S10 flagships at a more affordable price point, while sacrificing in very few areas. Most importantly, since introduction, the Galaxy S10e is now available for $550 which makes it very competitive, rendering obsolete many mid-range options.
Samsung does premium hardware really well and the Galaxy S10 is one of the best phones in the market. So what do you sacrifice by going with the S10e? The S10e gets a full HD display instead of a Quad HD display — it’s still higher resolution than the iPhone 11 and AMOLED — plus the average customer don’t seem to care about the lower resolution as mentioned above. You lose the telephoto lens on the back and get a smaller battery, which is perhaps the biggest drawback in this phone. There’s also no in-screen fingerprint reader, instead this is embedded in the power button which many owners tend to prefer as it’s actually more accurate.
Now, what makes the Galaxy S10e a compelling package: It’s very well built, the 5.8-inch screen is flat with regular-sized bezels which means it’s less delicate than the S10. It’s a compact phone, just slightly smaller than the iPhone 11 Pro. The phone is powered by the flagship Snapdragon 855 SoC, you get 128GB of onboard storage and 6GB of RAM, plus expandable storage via microSD slot.
The Galaxy S10e packs two rear cameras: a main 12-megapixel OIS sensor and a secondary 16-megapixel one used with an ultrawide lens. On the front is a 10-megapixel camera capable of recording video in 4K. Generally speaking, this is the same camera array used by the Galaxy S10 and is considered among the better cameras around, but shy of being the most consistent across different scenarios and lighting conditions. Usually the latest iPhones, Huawei and Pixel phones are a tad better overall.
The Galaxy S10e is IP68 waterproofed, gets wireless charging including novel 4.5W reverse wireless charging, fast charging via USB-C and a 3.5mm headphone jack is present. Samsung has also improved the look and feel of Android with One UI. It’s certainly better than previous iterations of Samsung’s skin, but the big shortcoming comes from the irregular software updates that are dictated differently by region and carrier, which honestly is pretty bad.
Best Value (Killer Performance or Camera for Less)
Our two best value phones fall into two opposites sides of the spectrum: the OnePlus 7T is loved by many for its high-end specs, excellent build quality and unique 90Hz AMOLED high-res display. Everything for $599. Then the Google Pixel 3a is a more modest offering, that goes easy on the specs, but for $400 packs a top of the line camera.
Why the OnePlus 7T
OnePlus has built a loyal following of users who want high-end specs and features without paying $1,000 for it. You get a big 6.55-inch display that is not curved (sturdier) and a small teardrop notch for the front-facing camera with minimal bezels. Cherry on top is that buttery-smooth 90 Hz screen. Combined with a lightning fast processor (Snapdragon 855 Plus, 8GB RAM), the OnePlus 7T feels even faster than the premium phones above. The phone ships with OxygenOS, a modified version of Android 10 that is praised by owners as it’s very close to stock Android with useful additions.
The OnePlus 7T gets a main 48-megapixel camera with OIS and two more 12MP telephoto and 16MP ultra-wide lens on the back. In the front, a 16MP front facing camera. So you get all the array of options, however most critics agree that photos are not nearly as good as those taken by iPhone, Huawei and Google phones. They are good cameras, but fall behind the leaders including Samsung’s Galaxy S10 line.
The in-screen fingerprint reader is excellent and arguably tops Samsung’s implementation. You get 128 GB internal storage but no option to expand it. And that’s one of the corners OnePlus has cut to get the phone down to $599. The 7T lacks wireless charging, water resistance, and a headphone jack. If those are important to you, the more affordable Galaxy S10e might be a better choice.
Why the Pixel 3a
The phone we recommended to most of our friends and family in 2019. 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 one of the best cameras in the market, for the first time offered at that 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 fast OS updates. Performance is not flagship, and that is one of the 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.
You don’t get waterproofing, no microSD card slot, and no wireless charging (our top Android choice for most people, the Galaxy S10e does all of that for $550), but it’s a forgiving trade-off for an otherwise excellent $400 phone.
Best Premium Phones
If you’re looking for the best flagship phones in the market, you’ll have to pay for the luxury. Apple and Samsung cater to this segment with top of the line specs, build quality, and displays. Depending on your preference for iOS or Android, and a regular or oversized display, you can pick between the iPhone 11 Pro (5.8-inch) or Pro Max (6.4-inch), and the Galaxy S10 (6.1-inch) or S10 Plus (6.4-inch). Samsung’s phones have been out for longer, and so they’re also more affordable starting at $699 compared to $999 for the base iPhone 11 Pro.
Why the iPhone 11 Pro
The iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 Pro Max feature Retina XDR OLED displays (458 PPI) that are excellent all-around, usually only second to Samsung’s. The iPhone 11 Pro is manufactured out of “surgical grade” stainless steel with a matte textured finish in four colors – midnight green, space grey, silver and gold – and are backed by an IP68 rating.
The biggest addition to the iPhone 11 Pro is the rear-facing triple camera array. This square camera hump packs in a 12-megapixel wide-angle camera (26mm, f/1.8) with OIS, a 12-megapixel telephoto camera (52mm, f/2.0) with OIS and focus pixels, and a 12-megapixel ultra-wide camera (13mm, f/2.4) with a 120-degree field of view. Across the range of cameras, you effectively get 4x optical zoom. Each of the rear cameras can also shoot 4K 60 FPS video with extended dynamic range and video stabilization. Taking a page from Google’s strategy, Apple has been working hard to improve image processing backed up by dedicated hardware and software that is seamless to the user.
The iPhone 11 Pro is slightly thicker than its predecessor to deliver improved battery quoted at 18 or 20 (Pro Max) hours of video playback. There is support for Dolby Atmos, Gigabit-class LTE at speeds up to 1.6Gbps, and Wi-Fi 6 as well as Dual SIM and eSIM support. Face ID is used for authentication and payments and is now 30 percent faster. There is no option for expandable storage (64GB comes standard), so you’ll have to pay a premium for 256GB and 512GB options.
Most importantly, you will live in Apple’s exclusive walled garden of services and timely software updates. Sometimes that will mean more polished apps, better security, or easier access to services and accesories (AirPods and Apple Watch owners only logical choice, to cite an example). Other times, that will mean less room for customization and a higher price to pay for similar access.
Why the Galaxy S10
Since its launch in early 2019, the Samsung Galaxy S10 has been at the top of the Android food chain. That also means the phones are due for an update in the February to March 2020 timeframe and current discounted prices are reflection of that. Regardless, they remain amazingly well-rounded phones. The Galaxy S10 features a full top-to-bottom, side-to-side AMOLED screen with support for HDR10+. A bright 1,200 nits “Infinity-O” display with a color gamut capable of 60 million colors, making it highly vivid and color accurate (S10 6.1-inch 550 PPI / S10+ 6.4-inch 522 PPI). Samsung launched one of the first ultrasonic on-screen fingerprint readers which works well most of the time, though like most technologies in its first generation it’s not truly perfect.
Depending on the market, the Galaxy S10 comes equipped with the Exynos 9820 or Snapdragon 855 SoC under the hood. 8GB of RAM and 128GB of internal storage is standard, and a microSD card slot is present if you need more space.
The Galaxy S10 and S10 Plus pack three cameras on the back: a main 12-megapixel OIS sensor with a variable aperture (14mm, f/1.5 or f/2.4), a 16-megapixel ultrawide lens, and a third telephoto lens that also provides 2x optical zoom. On the front is a 10-megapixel camera capable of recording video in 4K, while the S10 Plus receives a secondary depth sensor for improved selfies with bokeh effects. Generally speaking, the Galaxy S10 cameras are considered to be really good, but shy of being the most consistent across different scenarios and lighting conditions. Usually the latest iPhones, Huawei and Pixel phones are a tad better overall.
Going beyond the essentials, the Galaxy S10 gets the works: a 3400mAh battery on the S10, 4100mAh on the S10+, wireless charging, fast wired charging via USB-C, reverse charging capabilities, IP68 waterproofing, headphone jack, Gigabit-class LTE at speeds up to 2Gbps, Wi-Fi 6 support, Bluetooth 5, and so forth. There’s also a 5G-ready version of the Galaxy S10+ that is sold in certain markets. The software experience on Samsung devices is pretty good, but not stellar. The company has improved every year in terms of looks and services it offers to owners, but we wish updates came sooner.
Also worth mentioning is the Galaxy Note 10, yet another Samsung flagship. This year the Note is not very different to the S10 Plus. Specs are similar, sizes are similar, build quality is great, software is identical. Design is more differentiated but it really boils down to whether you want the S Pen functionality or not, as that’s the real difference.
After months of rumors and hype, in 2020 we anticipate the release of Motorola’s Razr foldable phone that looks fantastic. Like the Galaxy Fold and Huawei Mate X, the Motorola Razr is a foldable, but unlike those devices, the phone opens vertically rather than horizontally. Samsung should have the Galaxy S11 (or S12?) series out by March, and a number of 5G phones should reach mainstream status. The next generation iPhone in particular is expected to come with 5G support by the end of 2020.
Best Budget Phones
Motorola and Nokia have outdone themselves once again by offering the best affordable phones in the market. We’ve been recommending the Moto G line for years, while Nokia who is a relatively newcomer to the Android scene took note and now offers compelling alternatives with nice software and hardware experience for the price. In the $200 to $300 segment there are several options to choose from however the Nokia 6.2, Moto G7 and Moto G7 Power should be at the top of your list.
Why the Moto G7
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 comes in at 6.2-inch with a 1080p resolution and the rear cameras are very good for the price. The phone’s build and design are very decent for an inexpensive phone. The battery life is not stellar, but if that’s most important to you then check out the ‘Power’ model.
The Moto G7 Power is similar but packs a gigantic 5,000 mAh battery. That means the phone is a tad thicker but for good reason. The G7 Power manages to be less expensive ($180) however you get less RAM (3GB), less internal storage (32GB) and a lesser display.
Why the Nokia 6.2
The Nokia 6.2 is a newer release, so it gets the benefit of slightly faster hardware inside. The Snapdragon 636 is marginally faster, especially the GPU. It’s not a powerful SoC but it’s decent for a budget phone. Otherwise the specs are similar to the Moto G7: 4GB RAM, 64GB of internal storage expandable up to 512GB, a 6.3-inch IPS LCD display. The triple camera array on the back is a tad better than Motorola’s and you also get a larger 3,500 mAh battery. For $250 the Nokia 6.2 offers a nice design and build — arguably more refined than the Moto — plus the added benefit of using Android One, which means at least two years of snappy updates to the latest version of the OS and monthly security updates.
Two more budget alternatives
Sometimes scoring a good deal on a budget phone will depend on where you live and what’s offered by carriers. Outside the US, the Xiaomi Redmi Note 8 is a favorite sub-$200 phone that gets really nice internals. The Samsung Galaxy A30 is also very competitive with the Nokia 6.2 and Moto G line. And why not, if you all you want to spend in a serviceable phone is $100, our old favorite budget phone the Moto G6 is still available for close to that mark at $122.