The smartphone market is becoming rather stale, 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 four best smartphones right now that I can recommend ... and a few to watch but maybe to skip.
Great camera, great value
Google Pixel 3a
The Pixel phones have two great things going for them that ex-Lumia users care about: great camera and stripped-down Android. For 2019, Google is wisely offering a mid-range choice with the new "3a" variants. The hardware is mostly the same though - including those awesome cameras - making the 3a one of the absolute best budget choices right now.
For those looking for a "purer" Android experience so that they can run Microsoft Launcher for Android or do other customization the Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a 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 3a include just 4GB of RAM, which is unfortunate. Putting the camera aside the rest of the Pixel 3a'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 are those rather large top and bottom bezels).
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 3a is a solid choice especially for value.
Great camera, so-so phone
Google Pixel 3a
Google's latest has all the best stuff in Android making it easy to recommend.
The Pixel 3a has one of the best, easiest to use cameras of any smartphone, plus you get a more "pure" Android experience with great support. While the 4GB of RAM and rather bland design keep it from being great that is one killer price.
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.
Move over Lumia 1520
Huawei Mate 20 X
One of the largest and most powerful Android phones on the market is also one of the best.
While most will shy from a 7.2-inch smartphone the Mate 20 X is perfect in every way - gorgeous display, inking, amazing camera, and a battery that will never die. It's also the best to type on.
OnePlus 7 Pro
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 7 Pro is turning out to be quite popular especially since it is now sold through T-Mobile in the US.
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.
Toss in some excellent build quality and cutting edge features a OnePlus fun is easily one of the best around. Of course, they used to be a better value at $550 back in 2018, but the new OnePlus 7 Pro at $669 is starting to creep up into that high-end market. Plus, the company got rid of the headphone jack after years of saying they would never.
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.
My new bae
The Honor 20 is the real sneaker of a phone for $479. It has an outstanding quad-camera in the rear including a 48MP sensor and a 16MP super wide + 2MP depth assist + 2MP macro. The front camera is 25MP. Add that to a very good build quality (it's iPhone-esque), 6GB of RAM, 128GB of storage, and a zippy Kirin 980 processor the Honor 20 is a really fun phone to use that also beats the Pixel and OnePlus.
While you could splurge for the new Honor 20 Pro (more RAM, new 8x telephoto lens, improved glass, etc.) the cost difference doesn't quite justify it over the Honor 20, which will be fine for most people.
Honor is a subsidiary of Huawei, however, which means you can't get them through a US carrier. Still, like the Mate 20 X above you could get one through a retailer on Amazon.
Of all the phones here the Honor 20 is actually the best one, but due to difficulty in getting the phones (and support) it makes recommending them a bit hard for average people.
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.
Expensive but reliable
Apple iPhone XS
While not the best value the iPhone XS is also easy to use.
The iPhone XS has the best apps, reliable security, and Apple is better at privacy than Android. Whether that's worth the $1,000 starting price is another matter, but it's hard to deny it being a great phone.
Samsung Galaxy Note 10
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.
The new Note 10 for 2019 is an interesting advancement with nicer looking hardware (more squared), missing headphone jack, but Samsung is also now offering a regular 6.3-inch model and a larger 6.8-inch Note 10+ variant. There's even a 5G version with the Note+ coming too.
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.
Still, if you really liked the Note 9 but held off last year the new Note 10 (or Note 10+) may be the phone for you. You're getting top shelf hardware and with a Samsung phone you can bet wide ranging support including from Microsoft. That's definitely worth considering.
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.
IFA 2019 is just weeks away in Berlin with many smartphone makers poised to make new announcements. Likewise, expect Apple to shower the world with its iPhone 11. Will any of those get me to switch later this year? I can't wait to find out.
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