Best Smartphones of 2018

Rebecca Armstrong ·
Phones & Networking Writer
Updated
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We’ve reviewed smartphones for over a decade and recently spent over 60 hours testing the latest batch of top-of-the-line flagship devices, including the latest iPhones, Galaxies and Pixels. It was a close race, but the iPhone Xs came out on top of this round of tests, aided by its impressive A12 Bionic processor, beautiful design and impressive camera setup. As an alternative to the $1,000 iPhone Xs, budget-minded folks can look toward the OnePlus 6T. It has flagship features at a mid-range price. The Google Pixel 3, too, is less expensive than the Xs but is the best Android phone available.  

Best Overall
Apple iPhone Xs
The sleek iPhone Xs makes solid improvements over the experimental iPhone X’s camera and processor while maintaining its best features and intuitive usability.
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Best Value
OnePlus 6T
The OnePlus 6T continues the brand’s flagship's stellar reputation by providing top-tier performance and technological innovation in a budget-friendly phone.
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Best Android Phone
Google Pixel 3
Its combination of intuitive stock Android 9 OS, AI features and amazing cameras work together to make the Google Pixel 3 the best Android phone available.
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Best Overall
The Apple iPhone Xs is the follow-up to last year’s experimental iPhone X. It shares the same size, design and price point as the X but includes improvements to its camera, chipset and internal storage options.
The iPhone Xs has an all-glass body with a band of color-matched stainless steel around the edge. It’s 5.8-inch “Super Retina” OLED screen is beautiful and displays highly accurate colors, thanks to its True Tone technology, which adjusts the screen’s white balance to complement the ambient light in your environment. The A12 Bionic processor is smaller and more efficient than the already-impressive A11 Bionic in the iPhone X, 8 and 8 Plus. With the Xs, apps load faster, AR experiences are more immersive, user experience is more intuitive and even photos are better. The Xs’s use of smart HDR, bokeh, portrait filters, fast sensors, low-light improvements and variable depth of field creates stunning photos. The front-facing TrueDepth camera, which enables FaceID, remains one of the best front cameras on a smartphone. The iPhone’s improvements don’t come cheap. The iPhone Xs starts at $999 for 64 GB of internal storage. It’s also available with 256 GB for $1,149 or 512 GB for $1,349. You can also upgrade to the iPhone Xs Max, which has the same chipset and camera as the Xs but has a 6.5-inch screen, a larger battery and a higher price.
Pros
  • Superfast processor
  • TrueDepth front camera
  • Expansive storage options
Cons
  • High price
  • Does not come with quick charging accessories
  • Shorter battery life than predecessor
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Best Value

OnePlus 6T

The OnePlus 6T, released November 2018, is a noteworthy device not only because it costs hundreds of dollars less than other flagship smartphones, but also thanks to its impressive performance specs and innovative in-display fingerprint sensor.
The 6T is the follow-up to the OnePlus 6, released earlier this year. Though the two phones share similar technical specs, the 6T has some major improvements over its predecessor. Most impressively, the 6T is the first smartphone available in the U.S. with an in-display fingerprint sensor. In testing, the fingerprint sensor worked quickly and accurately, especially in conjunction with the 6T’s facial recognition unlock. The 6.41-inch AMOLED display is beautiful and features a tiny notch in the top center, which houses the phone’s 16MP front camera. The all-glass back holds the dual 16MP and 20MP shooters. Though the phone is constructed entirely of glass, it can't charge wirelessly. However, it kept the previous iteration's superfast quick-charging capabilities, which only require its included charging accessories. The most disappointing difference between the 6 and 6T is the latter’s lack of a headphone jack. Even though the company consistently produces great budget phones, three main issues prevent the OnePlus from being a major contender. First, the phones still aren’t IP rated against water damage. Second, the OnePlus phones lag behind other devices in camera quality. Lastly, OnePlus phones could previously only be purchased through the company's own store, though the OnePlus 6T is now available exclusively through T-Mobile. In addition, the 6T is the first OnePlus phone to work on the Verizon network.
Pros
  • Inexpensive
  • In-screen fingerprint sensor
  • First OnePlus phone to work on Verizon
Cons
  • No wireless charging
  • Not waterproof
  • No headphone jack
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Best Android Phone

Google Pixel 3

Released in October 2018, the Pixel 3 is an intuitive device with unique, easy-to-use features. Its camera and AI features make it the best Android device on the market.
The two most notable things about the Pixel 3 are its camera and Call Screen feature. Although the Pixel 3 features a single rear shooter instead of two like most flagships, it still takes incredible photos thanks to smart software, including Top Shot and Super Res Zoom features. The first takes several shots and chooses the best option, and the second keeps photo details sharp, even when you zoom in. The front camera has two lenses, including a wide-angle option for group selfies. The Call Screen feature uses Google Assistant to screen your calls so you don’t waste time answering robocalls. And while both are major selling points for the device, the Pixel 3 functions spectacularly even without the gimmicks. This is partially because of its fast Snapdragon 845 processor and partially because of its clean, stock Android 9 OS. Because Google makes both the phone and the operating system, the two work together intuitively, from the Google assistant squeeze integration to Google Photos backup. The Pixel 3 shows some definite improvements over the Pixel 2. Its design is much more modern and allows for wireless charging, smaller bezels and a larger OLED screen. Still, there are a few disappointments with the newest handset: a shorter battery life, less storage and lower screen brightness than many other phones we tested. The Pixel 3’s 2,920 mAh battery lasted just eight hours and 27 minutes in our web browsing test compared to the Pixel 2’s 11 hour and seven minute performance in the same test. Even though it’s not perfect, the Pixel 3 is a great phone and the best Android device currently available.
Pros
  • Call Screen feature
  • Great camera
  • Stock Android
Cons
  • Below average battery life
  • Not as bright in sunlight
  • Less storage
US$799Google
Best Battery Life

Samsung Galaxy Note 9

Everything about the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 is large, from its display to its battery to its memory and storage options. This smartphone features a beautiful 6.4-inch AMOLED display, massive 4,000 mAh battery, 6 or 8 GB of RAM and 128 or 512 GB of storage, making it a perfect device for phablet fans.
The feature that sets the Note 9 apart from the plethora of plus-sized smartphones on the market is its S Pen stylus. This innovative stylus works as a programmable Bluetooth remote, which can take photos, open apps or take notes. The stylus’s button is also customizable, and you can program it to interact with compatible apps. In our tests, the S Pen did not run out of battery, but if that happens, it can gain enough charge for 30 minutes of use in just 40 seconds. Aside from the S Pen, the Galaxy Note 9 is like any other large smartphone on the market, albeit a very nice one. It has a large, beautiful display, double rear shooters for great photos in various lighting conditions, fingerprint scanner and Snapdragon 845 chipset. It’s a great phone for power users thanks to its long battery life. In tests, the Note 9 lasted 11 hours and 26 minutes while we continuously browsed the web over LTE. The Note 9 also has great storage and memory options, available with 6GB of RAM and 128GB storage for $999.99, or 8GB of RAM and 512GB of storage for $1249.99 unlocked. The biggest flaw of the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 is its voice assistant, Bixby, which isn’t as intuitive or smart as Google Assistant.
Pros
  • Long battery life
  • Stylus works as a remote
  • Very good camera
Cons
  • Expensive
  • Inferior voice assistant
  • Very large design
$924.00Walmart
Best Camera
The HTC U12+ has an amazing photography setup with four cameras, but it’s strange buttons and disappointing battery life may deter some users.
The HTC U12+ is a large phone that fits right in with other plus-sized phones on the market. While most phones have a smaller base model, the HTC phone does not. It makes use of the space with a notch-less 6-inch LCD screen. Design-wise, the HTC smartphone is one of the most attractive devices available. The all-glass body and color-shifting finishes make it a real stunner. The biggest fault is the phone’s unusual pressure-sensitive buttons. The buttons don’t push in when you press them, they have a simulated, non-mechanical click. The problem with these strange buttons, is that they’re very easy to accidentally push. During testing, users frequently accidentally locked the phone just by shifting grip or moving the phone. The phone also features Edge Sense controls, which allows you to interact with your device by tapping or squeezing the sides of the bottom of the phone. Of course, the best thing about the HTC U12+ is the camera setup. Its second front shooter and true-to-life colors give you wonderfully accurate photos, though some people may prefer higher contrast or more vibrant results.
Pros
  • Great camera setup
  • Unique finishes
Cons
  • Pressure-sensitive buttons
  • Large size
$749.00HTC
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Why Trust Us

We combine thorough research with 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 leverage our own extremely high expectations for our smartphones in our evaluations, 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 and arranging available information about every smartphone in a comprehensive series of spreadsheets. We get our hands on the best smartphones on the market and then compare the items you see above, including battery capacity, screen quality, camera specs, and internal components. After we compile our data, our lab spends time with each device. We conduct a variety of benchmark tests to assess features such as battery life, CPU processing power, graphic card performance, data read and write speeds, display quality and overall performance, and we factor these results into our overall evaluation.

Of course, a smartphone is more than the sum of its parts. To gauge how smoothly all the functions and features work together in day-to-day use, we take each phone for a spin for a few days. We play games, watch videos, check our social media, take photos and make phone calls to feel what it’s like to use the phone.

How to Choose a Smartphone

Size Matters
Many of the smartphones we tested have additional models in the same product line that are larger, have better cameras and higher battery capacities. We chose to focus our evaluations on base model phones, but if you’re a fan of phablets, we recommend the iPhone Xs Max, Samsung Galaxy S9+ or Google Pixel 2XL. The downside to these larger phones is that they cost more.

Camera
Any flagship smartphone camera from the last few years can snap high-quality photos. 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 is 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.



Water-Resistance
To assess water-resistance and durability, look at the IP rating. An IP rating, or 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, so 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. Most smartphones we tested have either IP67 or IP68 ratings, which equate to total protection against dust and some submersion in water. Note that water-resistant isn’t the same as truly waterproof. Phones are now better equipped for brief dips than in the past, 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 primarily look 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. As smartphones get bigger and better, the price tag goes up. It isn’t uncommon now for a flagship phone to start at $1,000, not including size or storage upgrades, though many great devices are available for $600-$800 as well.

Mid-tier phones, as their name suggests, offer fewer features than their flagship counterparts but cost a few 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 for even 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 are among the most expensive smartphones available. When it comes to privacy, iOS uses Differential Privacy, which anonymizes collected data. The Apple Ecosystem is less compatible with outside devices, though Apple-branded products work wonderfully together.

Android, the OS that every other phone uses, is your only option when it comes to budget phones, with options in every smartphone tier. 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. Some smartphone manufacturers alter the Android OS to work better with specific devices, like the OnePlus 6 and it’s Android Oreo-based Oxygen OS.
Do Cell Phones Cause Cancer?

Cell phones emit radio frequency radiation (RFR) when connected to a cellular network, whether or not it’s actively in use. RFR differs from radiation in equipment like X-rays because it is non-ionizing, meaning it does not have enough energy to ionize atoms and is generally safe. RFR is also found in things like microwaves, radio waves and visible light. 

The National Toxicology Program (NTP) published two studies in November 2018 concerning the possible carcinogenesis (beginning of cancer growth) associated with 1,900 MHz and 900 MHz frequencies, and GSM and CMDA modulations commonly used in cell phones. The studies examined the effects of high level RFR on rats and found a correlation between the RFR exposure and tumors in the heart and brain of male rats, but not in mice or female test rodents. Oddly enough, the study also found exposed male rats lived longer than non-exposed control rats and had fewer instances of age-related kidney disease. Because the study began in 1999, it looks at frequencies mostly used in outdated 2G and 3G technologies, and the rats were exposed to RFR levels “much higher than typical patterns of human use.” So keep using your cell phone, but if you want to be extra cautious, the FCC suggests using an earpiece or otherwise keeping your phone away from your head during use.

Looking Forward

There are new smartphones on the market almost every month. Here’s what we know about the shiny new devices on the horizon.

iPhone XR
The iPhone XR went on sale October 26. It’s Apple’s less expensive follow-up to the iPhone XS, which went on sale last month. The XR starts at $250 less than the XS and features several more color options, a larger battery than the XS, a single rear shooter and an LCD screen. 

LG V40 ThinQ
LG announced the five-camera V40 ThinQ on October 3, with availability October 18 for Verizon customers and October 19 for everybody else. Starting price is $949.99 for an unlocked version, though there are currently sales on the device for up to $200 off plus a free microSD card through certain carriers. The large phone features a 6.4-inch OLED display, Snapdragon 845 chipset, 6GB of RAM and expandable storage, as well as some fun but gimmicky camera tricks like Cine Shot and Triple Shot.