The best smartphones of 2018

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. In this guide, we consider every aspect of a smartphone to determine whether it’s a good buy for you, or if you’re better off with something else.

After much debate and soul-searching, we landed on the Pixel 3 as our top pick for the best phone available right now, though for iOS fans, Apple’s iPhone XS is still a close second. Here’s why the Pixel 3 ultimately triumphed, and our picks for other smartphone categories. If you’re partial to the Android mobile operating system, we’ve compiled a list of the best Android phones on the market.

TL;DR

Best smartphones of 2018

Google Pixel 3: The best

Google Pixel 3
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Why you should buy this: You get a rich — and unequivocally smart — software experience, paired with a fantastic camera.

The best phone ever

Our Score

Google Pixel 3

The Pixel 3 is pure Android bliss, straight from Google.

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

How much it will cost: $800

Why we picked the Pixel 3:

Google’s Pixel 3 and 3 XL are the best phones we’ve ever used. The Pixel range continue to be the only Android phones that can fully compete with Apple’s iPhone in several key areas — security, timely software updates, and software design. But it goes further with meaningful artificial intelligence features anyone can appreciate.

Google manages the Android operating system, and so with the Pixel series, it’s able to optimize the hardware and the software — similar to what Apple does with the iPhone. That approach, plus the Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor and 4GB of RAM, makes the phone a joy to use. It has the best software experience on a phone, and it performs fluidly.

The Pixel 3’s software experience is where it shines, thanks to built-in artificial intelligence. It runs the latest Android 9 Pie, which is uncluttered and silky smooth. The little tweaks Google added make the phone an absolute joy to use, from the helpful At a Glance widget that shows your next calendar event to Now Playing, which uses on-device machine learning to identify songs playing in your surroundings and display them on the lock screen. The Google Search bar is below the dock, making it easier to access, and Living Universe wallpapers bring your phone to life.

There’s also Call Screening, which uses Google Assistant to screen transcribe robocalls in real time so you can mark something as spam without ever having to say a word. And 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. It’s this attention to detail and design that makes the Pixel 3 a great smartphone.

Then there’s the crisp, plastic, 5.5-inch OLED screen with a 2,160 x 1,080 resolution. It looks fantastic, and it gets bright enough to see outdoors. The biggest downside is the design on the front, where there are chunky bezels surrounding the screen. It’s much better than last year’s Pixel 2, but it’s not as “bezel-less” as other Android phones in this price range. The Pixel 3 XL is no better, because it has one of the ugliest notches on a phone we’ve seen this year.

It’s a much better situation on the back, though. Google is maintaining the two-tone look, but this time it’s all glass. Google has added a matte-like texture that makes the bottom half of the glass resistant to fingerprints, which solves a common complaint of glass phones. This use of glass also adds wireless charging support, which is convenient all around, especially since Google went ahead and made a smart wireless charger (sold separately). The fingerprint sensor is fast, and you can swipe down on it to see your notifications. Like most flagship phones, it’s IP68 water-resistant.

The Pixel 3’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, thanks to a bigger image sensor over last year’s Pixel 2. There’s no optical zoom, unlike many of its competitors, but Google is using A.I. again for a feature called Super Res Zoom. This lets you digitally zoom in to get a photo, but it brightens up the image and removes noise so you get a decent shot. It’s not as good as optical zoom, but the results impress. Another killer feature in the camera that uses A.I. is Night Sight, which lets you take shareable photos in ultra low lighting. It’s jaw-dropping, and makes the Pixel 3 more versatile.

The Pixel 3 also has one of the best Portrait Modes available on a phone, 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 XS, if not even better. We’ve even found it takes better Portrait Mode selfies than Apple’s iPhone.

Other highlights of the Pixel 3 are Google’s 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.

There’s no headphone jack, but Google includes a 3.5mm to USB-C adapter in the box, and it goes an extra step further to include USB-C earbuds that actually sound great. They also have Google Assistant’s smarts packed in for extra value. Speaking of Google Assistant, you can also utilize Google’s Duplex technology (in select cities) to have the Assistant make dinner reservations on your behalf. It genuinely works, and takes the hassle out of your hands.

The Pixel 3’s Achilles’ heel is battery life, which will mostly get you through a day with average use. It also costs $800, which is expensive, but it’s well worth your money if you want a reliable, smart, and uncluttered smartphone experience. There’s also the bigger, 6.3-inch Pixel 3 XL that offers the same exact features, though at a higher price tag and with an unsightly notch.

Google Pixel 3 review and Google Pixel 3 XL review

iPhone XS: The best iPhone

iPhone XS Max
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Why you should buy this: You want the most powerful, secure, and shutterbug-friendly iPhone ever.

The best iPhone

Our Score

Apple iPhone XS

With a gorgeous OLED screen, top-notch security, unrivaled power, and a competitive camera, you can't do better than the iPhone XS.

Who it’s for: Anyone who wants the best iOS experience.

How much it will cost: $1,000

Why we picked the iPhone XS:

The iPhone XS is good at almost everything. It’s even better than the iPhone XS Max, because it’s the perfect size with its 5.8-inch screen.

Speaking of its screen, the high-resolution OLED is energy-saving and colorful, with inky, deep blacks. The edge-to-edge, or “bezel-less,” design, makes watching videos and movies feel a little more immersive. The all-glass design means you can wirelessly charge the iPhone XS, and it’s the most water-resistant iPhone, with an IP68 rating. The A12 Bionic processor remains unmatched, with reliably fast performance when moving around the home screen or playing intensive augmented reality games using ARKit 2.0.

The TrueDepth camera makes a return, and Face ID is even faster. Apple is still one of the only companies that has a secure facial-recognition tool that can log into all your sensitive apps on a system level. This front-facing camera system also lets you make fun Animojis and Memojis, and the fluidity and tracking capabilities are still unmatched. Then there’s Portrait Mode, which helps up your selfie game.

The battery easily lasts a full day, though like with most flagship smartphones, heavy use will bring it perilously low.

iOS 12 is smart, with artificial intelligence powering a lot of the new features. There are Siri Suggestions, where Siri can adapt to your usage patterns and make suggestions like responding to a call or text when it’s been sitting idle for some time.  Grouped notifications also dramatically improve the way you interact with notifications, making them far easier to deal with. On the iPhone XS, it all feels snappy and fluid.

Add to all that Apple’s commitment to your security and privacy, instant software updates, and 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 still one of our major issues with the iPhone XS. It comes with Lightning EarPods, but Apple decided to remove the 3.5mm-to-Lightning adapter this year. It’s silly not to include it, considering you’re paying so much for the phone. Apple should also include a fast charging cable in the box, like every other manufacturer, since the new iPhone supports it.

This is the best time to buy an iPhone, and the iPhone XS is worth every penny. If you think the screen size is too small, spring for the iPhone XS Max, which has a 6.5-inch screen for the best viewing experience and slightly better battery life.

iPhone XS review

Top alternatives

Our other top contenders include the Samsung Galaxy S9S9 Plus, and the Galaxy Note 9, which we’ve already mentioned. They win points for gorgeous bezel-less displays, incredible low-light cameras, the latest Snapdragon 845 processors, and major camera upgrades. The LG V40 ThinQ is a great choice that’s chock-full of features you will want, including a headphone jack, and there are five cameras for increased versatility. The image quality isn’t as strong as the Pixel 3, though. We’ve also mentioned this already, but the iPhone XR is the best iPhone to buy if you don’t want to shell out $1,000 for a new iPhone.

If you’re looking for a real bargain, we recommend going for the OnePlus 6T. It’s a phone with flagship specifications, but it only costs $550. Even better, OnePlus finally has a carrier partnership in the U.S., so you can play around with the phone at any T-Mobile store in the U.S. before you buy it. It also works on Verizon’s network as well, allowing more people to use the phone than ever before. Its biggest downsides are it doesn’t have a headphone jack, water resistance, or wireless charging, and the camera isn’t its strong point. Still these are minor quibbles, and the OnePlus 6T is still the best value you can get for a smartphone.

For a true alternative to modern all-glass smartphones, we recommend taking a look at the BlackBerry Key2. Yes, the company is still around, but it’s TCL that makes the hardware, and BlackBerry Limited manages the Android software. The physical keyboard is absolutely fantastic, and it’s not hard to switch from a touchscreen one. The Key2 may not have the same technical power as the other smartphones we’ve talked about, but it deserves a place here because it’s not just unique — it’s good.

Google Pixel 3 and 3 XL: The best camera phone

Google Pixel 3 XL
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

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

Best camera phone

Google Pixel 3 XL

Google's Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL offer incredible cameras that take detailed, brilliant photos.

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

How much it will cost: $800+

Why we picked the Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL:

Nearly all flagship smartphone cameras these days are excellent, but Google’s Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL stand out by reliably capturing remarkable photographs. Both the Pixel 3 and 3 XL have the same exact camera and features, so you can’t go wrong with either, but the smaller Pixel 3 is cheaper.

The Pixel 3 phones have 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 are 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 is only one camera on the rear, Google has 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. It’s as good, if not better, than Portrait Mode on the iPhone XS and iPhone XR, and you can also control the blur intensity after you snap the photo. There’s also Super Res Zoom, which uses artificial intelligence to improve digital zoomed photos. The Pixel 3 takes multiple photos before and after you tap the shutter button, and because of this, Top Shot is a new feature that recommends the best frame in case you missed a perfect moment.

A new Photobooth mode lets you place the camera down and make funny faces or smile, allowing you to free your hands as you and your friends take fun selfies, photobooth-style. This uses A.I. to detect the best shots. A.I. is also used with an upcoming feature called Night Sight, which will make low-light photos look dramatically better. Even better, Google has added an extra wide-angle camera on the front, so you can get way more in the shot — especially handy for group photos.

The excellent camera experience is paired with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 845 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 Android phones ever made. Best of all? The Pixel 3 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 3 XL review

Huawei Mate 20 Pro: Best battery life

Hauwei Mate 20 Pro
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

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

Best battery life

Our Score

Huawei Mate 20 Pro

The Huawei Mate 20 Pro is a great smartphone that will easily last you more than a day.

Who it’s for: People who need a phone that can last two days.

How much it will cost: 900 British pounds ($1,160 U.S.)

Why we picked the Huawei Mate 20 Pro:

You will find an impressively large 4,200mAh battery in the Huawei Mate 20 Pro, which is enough to see you through two days before you need to find an outlet. It’s not just the big battery that gives this phone such stamina — Huawei has also pulled off some clever software trickery to optimize power management. In addition to boasting a long-lasting battery, the Mate 20 Pro also supports quick charging, with Huawei’s proprietary Super Charge technology offering a full charge from empty in 70 minutes.

There are no compromises under the hood to achieve the solid battery life. The Mate 20 Pro is packing Huawei’s latest Hisilicon Kirin 980 processor, backed by 6GB of RAM with 128GB of storage (an 8GB RAM version with 256GB of storage is also available). We found performance to be fast and smooth in our testing.

The 6.39-inch AMOLED Quad HD+ display is vivid and sharp, and there is an excellent triple-lens main camera that combines 40-megapixel standard lens with a 8-megapixel telephoto, as well as a 20-megapixel wide-angle. We also like the design, with a notch at the top of the screen for 3D facial recognition to unlock the phone, and a slim bezel at the bottom. There’s an under-glass fingerprint sensor as well, and while it doesn’t work as well as we’d like, it’s one of the few phones with this technology. If we had to find a weakness it would be Huawei’s EMUI user interface — which still thankfully runs Android 9 Pie — and the fact this phone isn’t coming to the U.S.

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

Huawei Mate 20 Pro review

Nokia 7.1: Best budget phone

Nokia 7.1 Review
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

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

Best phone under $400

Our Score

Nokia 7.1

The Nokia 7.1 can handle most of the tasks you'd expect from a flagship, with a capable camera.

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

How much it will cost: $350

Why we picked the Nokia 7.1:

The Nokia 7.1 is close to being the perfect budget phone. with a $350 price tag, it’s extremely affordable for most people. The build quality is superb, as the aluminum unibody feels sturdy, though don’t expect the “toughened” glass on the back to withstand cracks or scratches.

The 5.84-inch LCD screen makes this phone feel perfectly compact, and it also supports HDR10 — a feature not found in many budget phones — which means you can get excellent video quality when watching HDR movies and shows in supported apps like Netflix and YouTube. There’s only a single bottom-firing speaker, but it gets surprisingly loud and sounds good, and a headphone jack is present.

The best part of the Nokia 7.1 is software, because it runs Android One. It will get fast version updates for two years, and security updates for three, which is rare for most budget phones. It will get an update to Android 9 Pie by the end of November. The interface is stock Android, which means there are no flourishes in the software or any additional bloatware (other than Google apps). It’s uncluttered and easy to use.

Performance is solid, with the Snapdragon 636 processor powering this phone with 4GB of RAM. We had no trouble running our usual suite of apps, though performance can dip from time to time when you try to juggle multiple apps at the same time or play graphics-intensive games.

The camera is quite capable too, producing photos worth sharing on social media, though you often need to stay very still to make sure it’s not blurry due to the lack of optical image stabilization. The biggest downside of this phone is that battery life may not last you a full day with heavy use. With medium to light use, we usually managed to hit 40 to 35 percent by 6 p.m.

There may be a few compromises, but this is absolutely the best phone you can buy if you’re restricted to a $350 budget.

Nokia 7.1 review

Should you buy now or wait?

This is a great time to purchase a smartphone. Almost all smartphone manufacturers have released their phones of the year, and you’re spoiled for choice.

It’s best to buy your phone unlocked if possible, as they can be used on any network, which allows you to switch carriers and keep your phone if you want. Buying your phone unlocked 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 fewer 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 3 and 3 XL, but you don’t often see it like that.

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. It released iOS 12 in September, and already 50 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.

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 unpatched 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. 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. For that reason, we take great care when we review phones to recommend only the absolute best 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 be important factors in your buying decision.

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