The best smartphones you can buy

We tried all the latest and greatest smartphones to find the best of 2018

Smartphones are perhaps the most personal tech we own. That’s why it’s super important to pick the phone that’s best for your needs. There are many factors to consider from design and operating system to security and durability. We consider every aspect of the smartphone to determine whether it’s a good buy for you, or if you’re better off with something else.

When it comes to choosing the best smartphones, it’s always a tough decision. Last year was an incredible year for phones because of the sheer variety available, thanks to new contenders such as Razer and Essential. Even on the iPhone side, you have the iPhone 8, 8 Plus, and the new X to choose from. After much debate and soul searching, we landed on the iPhone X as our top pick for the best smartphone of 2017, though Google’s Pixel 2 XL is the closest second we’ve ever had in this race. Here’s why the iPhone X ultimately triumphed, and a list of our picks for other smartphone categories.

Our pick

iPhone X

iphone x waterproof phones
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Why should you buy this: You want the most powerful, secure, and shutterbug-friendly phone ever

Who’s it for: Anyone who’s been itching for an iPhone with a new look

How much will it cost: $1,000

Why we picked the iPhone X:

The iPhone X represents the next decade of Apple’s signature product. Gone is the home button, in favor of a modern, edge-to-edge, “bezel-less” design that makes it easily identifiable. With this change brings an all new gesture-based way to interact with the iPhone that’s satisfyingly fun.

While it features technologies we’ve seen before in other Android phones, Apple often does it best. The high-resolution OLED screen, which DisplayMate recently affirmed as the best, is energy-saving and colorful, with inky, deep blacks; it makes watching videos and movies feel a little more immersive. The all-glass design makes the iPhone X capable of wirelessly charging, and it can take a dip in water because it’s IP67 water-resistant. The A11 Bionic processor remains unmatched, with reliably fast performance when moving around the home screen to playing intensive augmented reality games using ARKit. But most importantly, the TrueDepth camera introduces a new, more secure way to unlock your phone, and it also helps you step up your selfie game.

The TrueDepth camera is an array of depth-sensing cameras and sensors on the top of the iPhone X. It can identify the intricacies of your face, allowing you to unlock your phone just by looking at it through a new system called Face ID. Apple said it considers Face ID the future of its product line, so wave goodbye to Touch ID. It’s fast, and even works at night. While Touch ID is a hair faster and a little more reliable, it’s much harder for someone to get into your phone with Face ID equipped.

Face ID isn’t the only new feature the TrueDepth camera brings — you can now use Portrait Mode with your selfies. The cameras can fairly accurately detect the background and the subject, allowing you to blur everything around your face when snapping a selfie. It’s in beta and will only get better in the coming months, but it does make your selfies stand out. The TrueDepth camera also lets you send animated emojis, or Animojis. Like motion capture used in movies, emojis can mimic your facial expressions and record audio, and you can send these to friends on any device via the Messages app.

The battery easily lasts a full day, though like with most flagship smartphones, heavy use will bring it anxiously low by the end of the day.

iOS 11 offers far more customization than ever before, and on the iPhone X it feels snappy and fluid. There’s the redesigned App Store, a new easier-to-use Control Center, and a Files app that will make working with your Macbook a breeze.

Add to all that Apple’s commitment to your security and privacy, instant software updates, as well as its industry-leading customer service that lets you walk into any Apple Store and get help for free, and you have one great smartphone.

The lack of a headphone jack is the only major blight on the iPhone X. It comes with Lightning EarPods, but if you have your own headphones, you may struggle with the included 3.5mm-to-Lightning adapter. You may want to purchase wireless earbuds, but neither of these scenarios are the end of the world. The iPhone 7 Plus removed the headphone jack first in 2016, and most Android manufacturers have jumped on board. With the iPhone X, we can tell you with confidence that you will survive. It’s not ideal, but it’s becoming the standard across the industry.

iPhone X Review

The best Android phone

Google Pixel 2 XL

Google Pixel 2 XL against plant
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Why should you buy this: It’s the only Android phone with hardware and software straight from Google

Who’s it for: Anyone who wants speedy software updates, and the best camera

How much will it cost: $850

Why we picked the Pixel 2 XL:

Google’s Pixel 2 XL is the best Android phone we’ve ever used. The Pixel range continues to be the only Android phones that can fully compete with Apple’s iPhone in several key areas: Security, timely software updates, customer service, and software design. If you’re an Android fan who will never buy an iPhone, the Pixel 2 XL is the best phone you can buy.

Google went with LG to manufacture the Pixel 2 XL, and it’s able to perfectly optimize the hardware and the software — similar to what Apple does with the iPhone. That approach, plus the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor and 4GB of RAM, makes the Pixel 2 XL the most powerful Android phone around.

The Pixel 2 XL’s software experience is where it shines. It runs the latest Android 8.1 Oreo, which is uncluttered and silky-smooth. The little tweaks Google added makes the phone an absolute joy to use, from the redesigned Google feed to the At a Glance widget that shows your next calendar event and the weather. The Google Search bar is below the dock, making it easier to access, and Living Universe wallpapers bring your phone to life. Set a dark wallpaper, and the user interface triggers a dark mode.

One of our favorite features is Now Playing, which automatically identifies music playing in the background and subtly lets you know the song name and artist on the Always-on Display. This happens offline, and no data is ever sent to Google. We also love Active Edge, which lets you squeeze the Pixel to trigger the Google Assistant. We think Assistant is one of the best voice assistants you can use on a smartphone, and this feature lets you get straight to it. Its this attention to detail and design that makes the Pixel 2 XL a great smartphone.

Then there’s the crisp, plastic OLED, 6-inch, 2560 x 1440-pixel resolution screen. There have been many complaints about the screen, such as a blue tint when looking at it at an angle, muted colors, and screen burn-in. Google has responded to these complaints, saying it’s confident in the screen, but it has issued a software update to mitigate these concerns — we think the criticism is overblown. We haven’t seen any deal-breaking issues with the screen, and we stand by our statement that the Pixel 2 XL as the best Android phone you can get.

The Pixel’s design may not be for everyone, but we like the two-tone aluminum and glass mixture on the rear. It’s less easy to shatter and it isn’t a fingerprint magnet, unlike most flagship phones that are all-glass. The rear aluminum coating feels like a matte chalkboard, and it’s nice to the touch. The fingerprint sensor is fast, and you can swipe down on it to see your notifications. Like most flagship phones, it’s IP67 water-resistant.

The Pixel 2 XL’s spotlight feature is its 12.2-megapixel camera, which is one of the best around. Google’s HDR+ technology allows for excellent dynamic range in photos, and the detail it captures is stunning. It’s even one of the best performers in low-light scenarios. There’s no optical zoom, unlike many of its competitors, but it does have Portrait Mode even though it lacks dual cameras. Google purely uses software to detect the background from the subject, and its results are as good as the iPhone X. We’ve even found it takes better Portrait Mode selfies than Apple’s iPhone.

The best things about the Pixel 2 XL are its commitment to timely software updates and customer service. Pixel phones get automatic Android software updates and security patches without delay. In fact, they will be automatically downloaded when you aren’t using the phone. That’s vitally important for your privacy and security. There’s also a 24/7 support team you can  access via the phone or by chat directly in your Settings app.

Like the iPhone X, the main problem here is the lack of the headphone jack. You get a USB-C to 3.5mm adapter in the box, but if you’re anti-dongles, you may want to grab wireless earbuds. Again, it’s not ideal, but it’s manageable.

The Pixel 2 XL costs $850, which is expensive, but it’s well worth your money. There’s also the smaller, 5-inch Pixel 2 that offers the same exact features, though it doesn’t have a bezel-less design.

Google Pixel 2 XL review

Top alternatives

Our other top contenders include the Samsung Galaxy S8, which wins points for its gorgeous bezel-less display, and the HTC U11, which has a liquid-glass rear that’s drop dead gorgeous. The LG V30 is chock full of features you’d want, including a headphone jack, and the Essential Phone is hands down the most beautiful phone of the year, and it’s available for an incredible price.

Last but not least, we cannot recommend the OnePlus 5T  enough. For $500, it truly retains the flagship-killer moniker. You get the same Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor that’s powering today’s flagships, along with even more RAM. OnePlus also goes a step further with an excellent, customizable software experience, while also adding a bezel-less design. While its price on the higher end of the budget category, the OnePlus 5 is on the top of our best cheap phones guide.

The best camera phone

Google Pixel 2

google pixel 2 images 042
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Why should you buy this: It has the best smartphone camera you can buy

Who’s it for: Anyone who wants the best smartphone camera

How much will it cost: $650+

Why we picked the Google Pixel 2:

Nearly all flagship smartphone cameras these days are excellent, but Google’s Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL stand out in reliably capturing remarkable photographs. We’re focusing on the Pixel 2 here, as it’s far cheaper than most flagship smartphones listed above.

The Pixel 2 has a 12.2-megapixel camera, but it’s Google’s image processing that does all the hard work. There’s virtually zero shutter lag, and while the processing takes a second or two, the results can be astonishing. The Pixel excels thanks to Google’s HDR+ technology, where the smartphone captures multiple photos at once, picks the best one, and layers the rest to produce an image with the least amount of noise. This also eliminates overexposed or underexposed parts of an image, resulting in excellent dynamic range.

Though there’s only one camera on the rear, Google has added a Portrait Mode, which blurs out the background behind a subject. It’s impressive what Google can do with just software, as the camera can very accurately detect depth, and the subject in the photo. The rear camera in Portrait Mode isn’t as good as the iPhone X or 8 Plus, but it excels on the selfie camera.

The excellent camera experience is paired with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 chip, which is still speedy, along with 4GB of RAM. As we mentioned earlier, Google’s software optimization results in one of the most reliable, highest-performing Android phone ever made. Best of all? The Pixel 2 is water-resistant, and it gets automatic software updates directly from Google, so your phone will always be up to date and perfectly safe. Google also offers 24/7 customer support right in the settings menu, so you can reach out to Google immediately if you have a problem.

Google Pixel 2 review

The best smartphone with great battery life

Moto Z2 Play

Moto Z2 Play angled on table
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Why should you buy this: Smartphones are as good as they last, and you need a phone that can last more than a day

Who’s it for: People who need a phone to last more than a day

How much will it cost: $500+

Why we picked the Moto Z2 Play:

Motorola may have reduced the battery capacity on the Moto Z2 Play from its predecessor, yet it still offers the best battery life of any smartphone we’ve tested. In our review, after heavy usage, we were left with 45 percent by 6 p.m. — the 3,000mAh battery will easily last two days with moderate to light usage. The Moto Z2 Play also features Motorola’s TurboPower fast-charging technology, which means it will juice back up quickly if you’re in a hurry.

The smartphone is powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 626 processor, and while it won’t play graphically-intense games flawlessly, it should easily crush everyday tasks. The processor is paired with 3GB of RAM and 32GB of internal storage, or you can opt for the model with 4GB of RAM, which will net you 64GB of storage.

The 5.5-inch AMOLED Full HD display is vivid and sharp, however, the most unique function of the Moto Z2 Play is its ability to utilize Moto Mods. Thanks to a series of pogo pins on the rear, you can magnetically slap on attachments to improve the phone’s functionality. These Moto Mods can range from 360-degree cameras and gamepads, to a battery and wireless charging mod. We recommend the battery mod in particular, as it can further improve the Moto Z2 Play’s battery life.

You can check out our roundup of other smartphones with the best battery life for other alternatives.

Moto Z2 Play Review

The best budget phone

Moto G5S Plus

Lenovo Moto G5S Plus review
Christian de Looper/Digital Trends

Why should you buy this: You’re on a strict budget, but you still want a powerful phone

Who’s it for: Bargain buyers who want a steady Android phone

How much will it cost: $280-$350

Why we picked the Moto G5S Plus:

Motorola’s Moto G series has been widely popular thanks to its sub-$300 prices. The G5S Plus is a new entry, and while it’s a little pricier than the still-great Moto G5 Plus, it certainly can’t be left off this list.

The G5S Plus boasts a 5.5-inch full HD (1920 x 1080 pixel resolution) screen, a zippy Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 processor, and an option between 3GB or 4GB of RAM. The basic model has 32GB of storage, and there is a MicroSD card slot for expansion. The Moto G5S Plus is a great performer for its price, though you shouldn’t expect it to run intensive games and a tremendous amount of tasks without some stutter.

One of the best things about the G5S Plus is the absence of bloatware. You’ll find an near pure Android experience, with very little pre-installed apps, and no convoluted manufacturer “skin” or theme.” The Motorola software installed is genuinely useful, offering up quick ways to trigger the camera or turn on the flashlight with gestures, and more. A large 3,000mAh battery will easily last you through a full day.

The weakest part of the Moto G5S Plus is its camera. It’s the first in the Moto G line to feature a dual-lens camera with 13 megapixels each. The photos it takes are acceptable, and can sometimes be great considering the phone’s price, but it falls short in anything other than good lighting. The front-facing 8-megapixel selfie camera is fairly standard, and nothing to write home about.

Motorola isn’t the most timely manufacturer when it comes to updates, which means it might be a while before the G5S Plus gets a major software upgrade such as Android 8.0 Oreo. U.S. G5S Plus models also lack support for NFC in the U.S. version, which is sure to disappoint if you’re keen to use your phone for contact-less payments. Despite all that, the Moto G5S Plus is still a great all-rounder.

The 3GB and 32GB storage model costs $280, and the 4GB of RAM and 64GB storage version will set you back $350. Read our guide of the best cheap phones to learn about other options.

Moto G5 Plus Review

Should you buy now or wait?

This is a decent time to purchase a smartphone. Every major smartphone manufacturer has released their flagship phone of 2017, but we’re about to see new phones launch at Mobile World Congress at the end of February. If you can, we recommend waiting until the show to see what interests you. These phones announced at the show will likely start launching in March or April. If anything, you’ll see deals for 2017 phones as these newer devices are announced.

It’s best to buy your phone unlocked if possible, as they can be used on any network, so you’ll be able to switch carriers and keep your phone if you want. Buying your phone unlocked also means you’ll avoid carrier bloatware like extra apps and services you don’t need. If you are an Android user, it also means the carriers can’t hold back your software updates. If your phone is just a year old or less, you really don’t need to get a new one.

Which OS is best for you?

This is where things get personal. Picking a smartphone operating system is a huge deal. You’re buying into an entire ecosystem of apps and compatible products when you choose between Android and iOS.

Apple’s iOS is a beautiful, simple operating system and the App Store offers the best app selection imaginable. Each and every aspect of iOS is curated by Apple, and it shows. Android is more open and it has less rules, but that means that manufacturers and app makers can willfully ignore Google’s Material Design language and do whatever they want, sometimes rendering Android unrecognizable and cluttered. Android is gorgeous, as seen on Google’s Pixel 2 and 2 XL, but you don’t often see it.

Since Apple is the only company that makes iPhones, it also has complete control over software updates. As such, iPhone users always get the most recent and best iOS experience possible. iOS 11 released in September, and already 52 percent of Apple devices are on it.

Android users don’t have that luxury. Unless you own a Pixel or Nexus device — and very few of Android users do — you will have to wait months if not a year to get software updates. That’s why less than 0.2 percent of Android devices are running the latest Android 8.0 Nougat, which released in August 2017. It’s absurd.

Software updates contain security updates, which keep your phone safe from malware, viruses, and hackers. Android is the most heavily targeted mobile OS, so it is attacked by the worst bugs, like Stagefright and Heartbleed, both of which remain un-patched for millions of Android users. Google now issues a security patch every month, but many manufacturers don’t push them to users in a timely fashion, if ever.

In contrast, Apple can immediately patch security flaws and send the updated software to all iPhone users immediately. Since most users update their software when prompted, most iOS users are protected from these very real threats. There is no denying that iPhone users are safer. Apple’s iOS also offers full encryption with no compromises. The company even went to war with the U.S. government and the FBI to guarantee the right to encryption for its users. If you care about your security, you should buy an iPhone.

How we test

A phone is so much more than its spec sheet. Your entire life is stored on it, from your photos and contacts to your music and your favorite apps. There is no device more personal than your smartphone, so it’s with great care that we review phones to recommend that you buy only the best ones out there.

We use each phone we review as our daily driver for an extended period of time to test out all the features. We do benchmarks, play games, take photos, plunge them in water, and use them until their batteries expire. Then we charge ’em up and do it all over again. We test devices like real people use devices. We’re not in some stuffy lab during obscure tests. We’re running around the cities we live in using these phones just like you use your phones.

Then we think about each phone in comparison with its competitors to come to a decision: Should you buy this phone or something else? If the answer is “something else,” we tell you what to buy instead.

Smartphone innovation has peaked, and the number of radical new features that come out each year is shrinking. As such, when you’re buying a phone, you’re buying a device that will be with you 24/7 for several years. It’s a big choice, and things like apps, a product ecosystem, customer support, and security should become important factors in your buying decision.

Update: We’ve updated our post to mention that this is not the best time to buy a phone. New smartphones will be announced at the end of February at Mobile World Congress.