The Best Smartphones of 2018
We’ve reviewed smartphones for many years and recently spent over 60 hours getting acquainted with the latest batch of top-of-the-line flagship devices, including the latest iPhones, Galaxies and Pixels. It was an extremely close race, but based on our evaluations, the Galaxy S9+ came out on top. Its sleek design and standout features, such as its new variable aperture camera and super slow-mo video, undoubtedly make it the best Android phone available. The iPhone X is also an amazing device, but its hefty price tag knocks it from the top spot. And if you don’t absolutely need the top-of-the line, latest device, the less-expensive Samsung Galaxy S8 is still a worthy investment.
One of the Samsung Galaxy S9+’s main selling points is its camera. Though it keeps the 8MP front camera from the S8, the rear-facing camera has undergone a total revamp. The S9+ features a variable aperture camera with wide angle and telephoto lenses. The camera changes the f-stop between f/1.5 and f/2.4, depending on lighting conditions, resulting in stunning photos in bright daylight and dimly lit rooms – you can now take great photos of friends at bars or restaurants. The camera also has a wide variety of video capture options, including 4K and super slow-mo. The latter can film short bursts of action at 960 frames per second (fps) at 720p resolution.
The Samsung Galaxy S9+ may look very similar to its predecessor, the Galaxy S8+, but its refinements and new features set it apart. It keeps the S8+’s curved edges and Infinity display, both things we absolutely love, but fixes the main issue we had with its predecessor: the awkward placement of the fingerprint scanner. The fingerprint scanner now resides in the center below the camera lenses.
One holdover from the S8 generation we don’t love is the dedicated Bixby button. It isn’t a huge deal, but it has the dual annoyances of getting in the way more often than it should and not being reroutable. You can shut the Bixby button off to fix the first issue, but you can’t reprogram it to use for anything else.
We also weren’t fans of the two iPhone X copycat features: AR Emoji and Intelligent Scan. While the AR Emojis show some potential, right now the whole thing is just glitchy and creepy. We also had bad luck with Intelligent Scan, which worked sporadically and often took several seconds to register a face.
Overall, however, the Galaxy S9+ is an amazing phone. It keeps useful features that a lot of current smartphones are getting rid of like the headphone jack and expandable storage, but it also mixes things up with new features like super slow-mo.
Even with the release of the updated Galaxy S9, the Samsung Galaxy S8 remains a contender in the Android smartphone sphere. It has the same sleek design as the newer iteration but is now much more affordable.
The Galaxy S8 has a beautiful edge-to-edge Infinity display. Its 5.8-inch AMOLED screen has a 2950 x 1440 resolution and offers an immersive viewing experience. We like its edge menu options you open by swiping in from the right side of the screen, as they make it easy to access to often-used apps without cluttering the home screen.
One design quirk we don’t love is the rear fingerprint scanner. Its placement next to the camera can lead to smudges all over your lens. We do like the 3.5mm headphone jack and MicroSD slot for expandable storage – two often-forgotten smartphone features.
The back of the S8 features a single 12MP shooter. Though it isn’t quite as advanced as some newer dual- or triple-camera setups with zoom or different aperture settings, it still produces perfectly good images. The front features an 8MP wide-angle camera.
The Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 chipset powers the Galaxy S8 – the same chipset in phones like the Pixel 2. It performed well in benchmark tests but didn’t top the rankings. Still, the device is fast enough to support your app, streaming and gaming needs.
It has good battery life for a phone with such a large screen. Our sister site, Tom’s Guide, ran an LTE surfing test to see how long the S8 could last on a single charge, and it stayed alive for 10 hours and 39 minutes. It houses a 3000 mAh battery that supports fast and wireless charging.
The Apple iPhone X was released right on the heels of the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus. It features the largest screen on an iPhone, even though it’s smaller than the Pluses. Its gorgeous OLED edge-to-edge display (except for that notch) and streamlined body make it feel like something entirely different.
FaceID, enabled by the front TrueDepth camera, is also a huge nod in its favor. Other manufacturers’ mediocre attempts to mimic it – like Samsung’s Intelligent Scan and OnePlus’s Face Unlock – just prove how great this feature is.
Camera-wise, there is a lot of tough competition, but the iPhone X holds its own. It features the portrait mode that debuted on the 7 Plus, made possible by the two 12MP rear cameras: one wide angle with an f/1.8 aperture and one telephoto with an f/2.4 aperture and 2x optical zoom. It takes amazing portraits, capturing a bit more warmth and brighter colors than other phones we tested.
The X is different from other phones in that there is no home button – physical or virtual. This takes a bit of getting used to, but it eventually feels natural. Overall, it’s a great phone, and our hands-on experience with it made us feel like it’s really worth the hefty price tag.
Why Trust Us
We combine crazy thorough research and hands-on testing to compare all the features, functions and flaws of the top smartphones so we can recommend only the best of the best.
By now, it’s pretty standard for flagship phones to boast features such as water-resistance, long battery life, great cameras, fast speeds, gorgeous displays and airtight security. We have extremely high expectations for our smartphones, and we know that you’re just as choosy. We put in hours of testing and research so you can be confident in your phone purchase.
How We Tested
Our smartphone evaluations combine thorough research with a barrage of testing – both for user experience and benchmarks. We start by gathering as much information about the phones as possible and arranging our findings on a comprehensive spreadsheet. We then compare the items you see above, including battery capacity, screen size and resolution, camera specs, and internal components.
Of course, a smartphone is more than the sum of its parts. After we compile our data, our lab spends a few days with each device. We conduct a variety of benchmark tests to assess things like CPU processing power, graphic card performance, data read and write speeds, and overall performance, and we factor these results into our overall evaluation.
We then watch some videos, play games, check our socials, take photos, call our moms and try out all the new features and gimmicks manufacturers like to play up for marketing like the Animoji/AR Emoji features. In short, we use the phone just like you would to get a real feel for how the device performs everyday tasks.
How to Choose a Smartphone
Honestly, it’s hard to go wrong with any flagship smartphone camera that’s come out in the last few years, as most snap high-quality photos. Still, there are a few things you should look out for. We spoke with Nicolas Touchard of DxOMark Image Labs – a company that independently benchmarks smartphone cameras and is considered the authority on smartphone camera rankings – to gather information on the most important things to consider when you shop.
“There are a huge range of features you can get in a smartphone camera, so you first have to think through what kind of photos you want to take,” he told us. If you want the best camera for portraits, for example, a portrait mode or focus that blurs the background to make the subject pop can take your smartphone photography to the next level. Some cameras do this using dual lenses, while others apply bokeh filters. Some smartphones can use this or a similar setting with both the rear and the front camera. If you frequent dimly lit locations and want to preserve those moments, look for a smartphone with a camera that takes good photos in low light.
Once you know the camera feature set you want, Touchard advises reading reviews and rankings to find the smartphone with the best camera and other features you need that’s within your budget.
Smartphones should be at least a little water-resistant. These devices are such an investment that it’s really a disservice to you that hundreds of dollars of the latest technology can sometimes be destroyed by a tiny bit of water. Thankfully, manufacturers are catching on and making water-resistant phones.
To assess water-resistance and durability, look at the IP rating. An IP rating, also known as an Ingress Protection, is usually displayed as something like “IP67.” This is a combined score. The first number is the device’s dust rating. A six is the highest score, ensuring complete protection against dust ingress – even if dust gets into your phone, it won’t kill it. The second number is the water rating, with eight being the highest score. Note that water-resistance isn’t the same as waterproof. Phones are a little heartier than in the past and can survive brief dips, but they’re not waterproof enough to go swimming with you.
Flagship, Budget or Mid-Tier?
The smartphone category as a whole is usually split into three pricing tiers: flagship, mid-tier and budget. During our evaluations, we look only at the best products on the market, or flagship smartphones, which are packed with cutting-edge technology and the latest and greatest features. Some manufacturers, like Apple, make only flagship phones. These are usually characterized by a high price tag – think of iPhones, Samsung’s Galaxy S series and the Google Pixel line.
Mid-tier phones, as their name suggests, offer fewer features than their flagship counterparts but also cost a few (or several) hundred dollars less. Lately, the line between mid-tier and flagship phones has blurred. For example, the OnePlus 5T comes in at a mid-tier price, but is on par with flagship quality. Some flagship models fall into this category after they’re replaced by a generation or two of newer devices. With a new generation of phones every year and few really standout developments in the past few years, it’s now easier to find a great phone for less.
Budget phones clock in around the $50 mark, though you can find options that cost less. These devices are designed to function with a camera, internet connectivity and media capabilities, but they tend to not have the same build quality as more expensive options.
iPhone or Android?
Choosing an Android or iOS device is entirely up to your personal preference, as each operating system has its pros and cons.
Apple’s iOS has a reputation for being more streamlined and user-friendly. It’s not super customizable, and it’s only available on iPhones, which tend to be among the most expensive smartphones available. When it comes to privacy, iOS uses Differential Privacy, which anonymizes collected data. The Apple Ecosystem as a whole is less compatible with outside devices, though Apple-branded products work wonderfully together.
Android, the OS that every other phone uses, is pretty much your only option when it comes to budget phones. It’s more customizable and therefore might take a little tweaking to find the optimal settings and setup for you. Google, which runs Android, collects more personal data than Apple to personalize your experience.