2018 was a big year for phones. Bezels began to make way for notches, before notches were dropped for punch holes and camera sliders
While some phones found themselves embroiled in geo-political controversy, others proudly arrived with as many as five cameras, plus some crazy 48 megapixel lenses.
Here, though, we’re only interested in one thing — what was the best phone to emerge over the past 12 months?
- Google Pixel 3 XL – Google’s hardware has finally caught up with its software
- iPhone XS – Takes the X and makes it better
- Samsung Galaxy Note 9 – Samsung’s big phone gets even better
- Google Pixel 3 – Same amazing cameras, but smaller screen and battery
- Huawei Mate 20 Pro – Huge screen, incredible performance, amazing cameras
- OnePlus 6T – Not a huge update from the 6, but its bargain price and flagship performance make it a great choice
- Samsung Galaxy S9 – Great looks and performance, but clunky UI
- iPhone XR – The budget iPhone might not be selling well, but it looks great and performs admirably
- iPhone XS Max – Doesn’t use its large screen well, but still a brilliant phone
Google Pixel 3 XL – The best phone you can buy right now
We think the Pixel 3 XL is the best phone released in 2018, thanks to its exceptional cameras and better-than-ever software. Its design might have been slightly controversial, with its large notch and bold color choices, but in a world of identikit phones, it certainly turns heads.
Other phones might do better in certain areas, such as battery life, pricing, or raw power. But the Pixel 3 XL provides a cohesive package that has rarely been available on an Android phone. It’s also seeing regular updates which add new features and improve on existing ones, as well as regular price drops.
We’re not sure how Google would top it – finding a way to squeeze the front cameras into a smaller notch would be a nice, but not necessarily game-changing. A bump on the Ram could maybe alleviate occasional slow-downs. Either way, it’s an exceptional phone that is certain to wow anyone.
Read our full Google Pixel 3 XL review for more
iPhone XS – Apple’s iterative XS is still excellent
The iPhone XS wasn’t a particularly groundbreaking update on the X, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an incredible phone. We found that its new A12 Bionic processor could breeze through the most demanding tasks, from rendering AR games to multitasking with demanding AI-enabled software.
The XS’ front and rear cameras remain excellent, with innovative smart HDR and portrait mode working well. The true depth front cameras have also been improved, and allow for speedier FaceID unlocks.
There are still the usual iPhone quirks: No headphone jack, no micro-SD card support, and a bumper price tag. Still, it’s a brilliant phone, with noticeable improvements over its predecessor.
For more, see our full review of the iPhone XS
Samsung Galaxy Note 9 – The best big phone on sale
The Note 9 is the biggest phone Samsung offers, and while you’d be forgiven for thinking the opposite – size matters. It has a huge 6.4-inch screen, but thanks to some very skinny bezels, it doesn’t feel quite so gargantuan.
Like all previous Note phones, it comes with a stylus called the S Pen. However, this one is smart. You can use it to take pictures remotely, control apps such as YouTube, or even set your own custom controls.
Beyond the S Pen, the Note 9 has an enormous 4,000mAh battery, and is available in storage options up to 512GB SSD. If that’s not sufficient, it also supports micro-SD cards. It also makes use of the super-speedy Snapdragon 845 processor, and is available with either 6GB or a whopping 8GB of Ram– making it perfect for gaming and other demanding tasks.
Google Pixel 3 – A great phone, but not as good as the XL
The Google Pixel 3 is the smaller brother of the Pixel 3 XL, and while it maintains some of the great things from its XL counterpart, it loses out in some key areas.
The Pixel 3 has a smaller 5.5-inch screen, and has a lower 1080×2160 pixel resolution compared to the 3 XL. However, it also has a different aspect ratio at 18:9, compared to the 18.5:9 for the 3 XL. This means its screen isn’t as sharp, and isn’t as easy to use one-handed. It’s also got a smaller battery.
However, the Pixel 3 remains an excellent phone with the same outstanding software, exceptional cameras, and distinctive Google design.
Huawei Mate 20 Pro – A feature-packed flagship which goes toe-to-toe with the best in the business
2018 was a mixed bag for Chinese phone giant Huawei. There were widespread concerns about the security of its infrastructure products, and its CFO was arrested in Canada. However, it produced some quality phones.
The pick of the bunch is the Mate 20 Pro. It runs Huawei’s super-fast Kirin 980 processor, and has a 6.4-inch screen with a pin-sharp 3120×1440 resolution display. It has an innovative in-display fingerprint sensor, as well as facial recognition.
The Mate 20 Pro packs three rear cameras and an LED flash into a neat square. Those cameras pack a punch as well, with a 40Mp lens, a 20Mp ultrawide lens, and an 8Mp telephoto lens. That Kirin 980 chip also promises huge AI benefits, such as automatically adjusting to your settings when taking a photo, or being able to recognize shapes and objects in videos and photos to edit on-the-fly. It also has a huge 4,200mAh battery and can even reverse wireless charge, meaning you’ll be able to charge another product wirelessly using the power stored in that enormous battery.
If you can get your hands on one, the Mate 20 Pro is well worth the $1,215 asking price.
OnePlus 6T – Pound-for-pound, the 6T is probably the best phone on sale
You might not have heard of OnePlus, but you need to know about the 6T. Unlike most of the phones on this list, which hover around the $800-1,000 price bracket, the 6T is a snip at $549.
However, it can still cut it with the big boys, thanks to a 6.4-inch AMOLED display, 16Mp and 20Mp rear cameras, a Snapdragon 845, and up to 8GB Ram. So what’s the catch?
Well, it doesn’t have an official waterproof rating, it can’t wireless charge, and its display might not be as sharp as some more expensive rivals. Of course, these are more nice-to-have than need-to-have features. The OnePlus 6T undercuts premium models on the market significantly. So, if you can’t bring yourself to drop a grand on a phone, you should definitely keep the 6T in mind.
Samsung Galaxy S9 – Not a huge jump over the S8, but still a top-notch phone
Launched all the way back in March, the S9 is starting to get a bit long in the tooth. However, it’s still an amazing phone. Similar to Apple’s XS, the S9 opts for an iterative approach following the excellent S8, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel.
As such, you get the same near bezel-less infinity screen design and high-quality construction. The S9 also features brilliant front and rear cameras, Dolby Atmos support for great-sounding videos, and impressive AR features. Compared to the S8, you do get an updated processor, more storage options, and improved video performance, so its not just more of the same.
In a most uncommon touch for 2018 flagship phones, the S9 comes with a 3.5mm headphone jack, and support for micro-SD cards. It’ll be replaced early in 2019 by what is sure to be the S10, but its still a great phone, and will continue to be so into next year.
Check out our Samsung Galaxy S9 review for more
iPhone XR – A great-looking, long-lasting iPhone. Who knew?
So according to analysts, the general public hasn’t exactly been taken with Apple’s new ‘budget’ XR model. However, we think its one of the best phones from this year.
It pulls off most of the same tricks as the more expensive XS, but for nearly $250 less. Admittedly, you don’t get the pin-sharp OLED screen from the XS, and you have to make do with a single rear camera. However, you do get the same blistering A12 Bionic processor for super-speedy multitasking and AR performance, and you get to pick from a range of gorgeous colors.
That might not sound like much of a decent trade, but the XR easily stands up to its Android and even Apple competition. However, by dropping the OLED but keeping the efficient processor, you should find the XR has the best battery life of any iPhone on sale. It’s fast, almost affordable, and is the best-looking iPhone in a while. Definitely one for your shortlist.
iPhone XS Max – Sometimes less really is more
The XS Max is Apple’s biggest ever iPhone, and it truly is a whopper. It has a 6.5-inch screen and weighs 208g, making it heavier than both the Pixel 3 XL and the Samsung Galaxy Note 9.
There’s precious little to choose between the XS Max and its smaller XS brother. They both use the same cameras, the same processor, and the same Super AMOLED screen tech. Basically, you’re choosing between a big phone with a big screen, or a smaller phone with a regular-sized screen.
However, the XS Max doesn’t make the most of its big screen. For example, you can run two applications side-by-side with Samsung’s Note 9 and some of Apple’s iPads, but you can’t with the XS Max. What’s more, icons, buttons and other key components of the UI simply get bigger on the XS Max compared to the XS. It’s still a gorgeous phone that’s brilliant for gaming or watching videos on-the-go, but it probably won’t be for everyone.
So that’s the list. The Pixel 3 XL proved that Google has really caught up with the market leaders, and is starting to produce the hardware to match its software. The iPhone XS is still, objectively, one of the best phones on sale. And Samsung’s Note 9 is the most compelling Note series phone in a long time, and the perfect device for power users.
Honorable mentions go to the OnePlus 6T for being a true cut-price flagship, and the Huawei Mate 20 Pro for simply blowing our socks off with its specs, features and design, not to mention its whopping price tag.
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