Smartphones: Is there any innovation left?
Samsung just launched its latest flagship device, the Galaxy Note 9, and the Note finds its way back to the top of our list. There will be new Apple iPhone models, new Google Pixel 3 devices, and one or two from Huawei coming in the next month or two so stay tuned for more shakeups on this 10 best smartphones list before we hit the holiday season.
1. Samsung Galaxy Note 9
For a few months last year, the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 lived at the top of this list, eventually being knocked down by the iPhone X and then Huawei P20 Pro. With the recent launch of the Galaxy Note 9 and a few days of heavy usage it is time to put the Note 9 back on top as the best smartphone currently available.
The Galaxy Note 9 improves upon the Note 8 with a Bluetooth S Pen, more internal capacity and RAM, a massive 4,000 mAh battery, improved dual rear cameras with some software intelligence, enhanced audio capability, and new placement of the rear fingerprint scanner.
Also: Samsung Galaxy Note 9: Everything you need to know
The new Bluetooth S Pen is an excellent innovation that is sure to please all Note fans with the additional remote control functionality. Later this year a SDK will be released so that third parties can add support for the Bluetooth S Pen.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 9 continues to have all of the excellent Galaxy Foundation aspects such as a high level of water resistance, fast wireless charging, a stunning Super AMOLED screen, expandable microSD storage, a 3.5mm headset jack, and much more.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 9 has standard pricing across all carriers with the 128GB version available for $999.99 and a 512GB model for $1,249.99. With a large capacity microSD card you could actually have more than 1TB in the palm of your hand.
Check out our Galaxy Note 9 review.
2. Huawei P20 Pro
While US consumers will have to resort to eBay to pick one up, the Huawei P20 Pro is one of the most exciting phones of 2018.
The unique triple camera design with 68 megapixel worth of shooting power should help you take some fantastic shots with a low light mode that beats out all the other smartphones available today.
Huawei has been including massive capacity batteries in its flagships and the P20 Pro is no exception with 4,000 mAh that is sure to get you through at least one full, busy day. It has a large 6.1 inch OLED with a notch you can show or hide, a powerful Kirin 970 processor with integrated AI, IP67 dust and water resistance, and more.
Also: 7 things to know about Leica and Huawei’s partnership | Huawei’s P20 Pro has a huge design flaw
Huawei’s EMUI has come a long way and the home screen now has a standard Google Feed on one panel with an interface that is close to stock. When Huawei does provide software and settings beyond stock Android, those serve to enhance the device rather than clutter it up and slow it down. The P20 Pro flies through every action and is a sheer joy to use.
Sandra Vogel awarded the Huawei P20 Pro an 8.9/10 rating in her full review and CNET gave it an 8.4 in its review.
3. Samsung Galaxy S9/S9 Plus
Samsung launched the Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus earlier this year. It’s an evolution in the Galaxy S line, but one that leads as close to perfection as you can expect for a smartphone today.
Samsung’s Infinity Display continues to take the top spot with every new release, trumping the Apple iPhone X that lived in that spot for a few months. There is 6GB of RAM, the fastest Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 mobile processor, a rear dual aperture camera, another one with super slow motion support (S9 Plus only), the ability to add inexpensive microSD cards, improved Bixby assitant and a hardware button dedicated to its use, Samsung Pay payment technology, wireless and fast charging, IP68 dust and water resistance, a USB Type-C standard port, and traditional 3.5mm headset jack. It also launches with Android 8.0 Oreo. There is nothing missing from the Galaxy S9 Plus and it deserves the top spot.
CNET: Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus review (8.8/10)
There are a few experiences in my usage that convinced me to place the S9 Plus above the iPhone X, including the RF performance of the S9 Plus. It holds a connection longer, with faster speeds, than the iPhone X on T-Mobile in the same area. The S9 Plus also has a newer Qualcomm modem than the iPhone X and also supports T-Mobile’s 600 MHz spectrum. For work, it is tough to beat the Galaxy S9 Plus.
The Samsung Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus are available at prices starting at $720 (S9) and $840 (S9 Plus). T-Mobile and Samsung have the best prices with other carriers adding additional premiums on top of the MSRP. If you buy an unlocked one from Samsung it will not contain carrier bloatware and is priced lower than most US carriers too. Compared to the $1,000+ iPhone X, the S9 and S9 Plus are reasonably priced.
I awarded the S9 Plus a 9.7/10 rating in my full review. Jason Cipriani took the slightly smaller single camera Galaxy S9 for a spin and awarded it a 8.9/10 rating in his full review.
4. Apple iPhone X
The Apple iPhone X has been available for several months now and regular readers may be stunned to know I still have one. It was the highest price mass market phone to launch with a starting price of $999 for 64GB and $1,149 for 256GB. Samsung has slightly higher prices for the Note 9, but we are likely to see even higher priced larger iPhone models in the near future.
The iPhone X is the first unique iPhone design we have seen since the original iPhone launched 10 years ago. It has a large 5.8-inch front display with minimal bezels and no front home button. A Samsung OLED panel is used for the first time on an iPhone. There is a dual rear camera setup with a new way to use the iPhone due to the lack of a home button and traditional power button.
Without buttons on the front, the iPhone X relies on advanced facial recognition to unlock and use Apple Pay. It performs reliably and far exceeds the functionality of Samsung’s iris scanning technology. Apple finally includes wireless charging too so you can conveniently charge it by simply setting it down on a wireless charging device.
CNET: iPhone X review (8.9/10)
The iPhone X is powered by the new A11 bionic chip and M11 motion coprocessor so it flies with iOS 11. It has an IP67 dust and water resistant rating. Glass is now used on the back to support wireless charging. The front facing camera is 7 megapixels and labeled TrueDepth so you can take portrait selfies.
The iPhone X is the most advanced iPhone to date and offers some new experiences with the front display. This includes extensive gesture support and new ways to access functions on the iPhone. It offers a big screen experience in a rather compact package when compared to other large screen smartphones.
Check out Jason’s full review (9.5/10) and my experiences after using it for a month.
5. Samsung Galaxy Note 8
The Galaxy Note 8 was in the top spot for a couple of months because it was the most advanced smartphone on the market. The Note 9 is better so it pushed the Note 8 down, but it is still a very capable smartphone and may be available at lower prices soon with the Note 9 launch.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 8 has all of the excellent Galaxy Foundation aspects found in the S9 and S9 Plus, but it uses the Snapdragon 835 processor and the camera does not have dual mechanical aperture. That said, it has the S Pen and if you enjoy using a stylus with your phone then the Note 8 cannot be beat.
CNET: Samsung Galaxy Note 8 Phone review (8.9/10)
I spent a couple weeks with an evaluation device, but traded it in for an iPhone X with the T-Mobile Jump On Demand program.
Check out Jason Cipriani’s full Galaxy Note 8 review with a 9/10 rating. Jason is more conservative with his ratings than I am so a 9 from Jason is outstanding.
6. LG G7 ThinQ
If you’ve read about the LG G7 ThinQ you have probably seen that most people state it is not exciting and there is nothing that unique and compelling to make people choose the LG G7. To be honest, you could say that about most phones as we have reached peak smartphone and there is very little left that manufacturers can do to raise the bar.
That said, after spending a couple of months with the LG G7, it is clearly a very underrated smartphone. The size is nearly perfect, it offers a wide-angle camera, and it is fairly affordable at less than $750 for a flagship. You can even buy one from Google and use it on Project Fi.
Like the Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus, the LG G7 ThinQ has everything but the kitchen sink included. It has a 3.5mm headphone jack, dual camera setup (one is widescreen that is unique among the dual camera devices), wireless charging, IP68 rating, microSD expansion card for inexpensive unlimited storage expansion, a screen that extends nearly the full front with a notch, and incredible audio support.
Also: LG to launch super-premium $1,800 Signature V35: Report
The LG G7 ThinQ includes AI elements in its camera and brings the best from the LG V30 video camera with Cine Video mode and more. LG set the bar for phone cameras a few years ago and may be doing it again with the LG G7 ThinQ.
We awarded the LG G7 a 7.8/10 rating in our full review, but after more usage I could easily bump that up to 8.5. There is a lot to like in the LG G7 ThinQ and LG is standing behind it with a two year warranty and promises of “continuous upgrades” so now we just need to know the price and availability.
7. Google Pixel 2 XL and Pixel 2
The Google Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL bring some features I wanted to see (water resistance and smaller bezels on the XL) and some I didn’t (removal of standard 3.5mm headset jack). Both are excellent phones with the stock Android experience so if you want a phone functioning the way Google designed Android to operate then the Pixel 2 may be the one.
The Google Pixel 2 XL has a large 6-inch 18:9 display, Snapdragon 835 processor, 4GB of RAM, 64GB and 128GB integrated storage, single rear 12 megapixel camera, IP67 dust and water resistance, a 3520 mAh battery, and dual front stereo speakers. The smaller Pixel 2 has a 5 inch display and smaller battery while the rest of the specs are the same as the XL model. There is no wireless charging or 3.5mm headset jack on either phone.
CNET: Google Pixel 2 XL review (8.7/10)
The smaller Pixel 2 starts at $649 while the Pixel 2 XL starts at $849 for the 64GB model. They are both powered by Android 8.0 Oreo and will receive OS upgrades for three years. Google’s newest Assistant features are present along with some other Google software advances.
ZDNet’s Jason Cipriani awarded the Pixel 2 XL a 9/10 rating.
8. OnePlus 6
It has been a few years since I bought a OnePlus smartphone, but after testing the OnePlus 6 for a couple of weeks I purchased the gorgeous Silk White model and it may be one of the most attractive phones I have ever seen.
If I had an affordable smartphone list, then the OnePlus 6 would be number one with prices ranging from $529 to $629. The lowest cost one still has 6GB of RAM and 64GB of storage while the $629 model has 8GB of RAM and 256GB of internal storage. You will not find another phone with these great specs for these prices.
CNET: OnePlus 6 review (8.5/10)
The OnePlus 6 is composed of two pieces of Gorilla Glass 5 with a metal frame. The design is elegant and the build quality is excellent. It has a lovely AMOLED 6.28 inch display, Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor, dual rear cameras (they are a bit underutilized compared to the high end flagships), ample RAM and internal storage options, some level of dust and water resistance, a 3300 mAh battery and quick charge capability, with excellent radio support for GSM networks.
The display has a notch and also runs the latest version of OxygenOS with an extremely responsive software experience. You can even enable an all touch interface, similar to the iPhone X.
Sandra Vogel posted a full review of the OnePlus 6 on ZDNet and awarded it a 9.1/10 rating.
9. Apple iPhone 8/8 Plus
The new Apple iPhone 8/8 Plus look like the iPhone 7/7 Plus, but have glass backs for wireless charging support. In addition the new iPhones have a slightly improved processor, improved camera, and improved LCD display.
CNET: iPhone 8 Plus review (8.9/10)
There are stereo speakers for good sound performance, but no standard 3.5mm headphone jack. These new iPhones do have fast charging support so they can gain up to 50 percent of battery capacity in 30 minutes.
There is no longer an 128GB capacity option with 64GB and 256GB models available. The iPhone 8 is priced at $699 and $849 while the iPhone 8 Plus is priced at $749 and $949.
10. HTC U12+
HTC earned a spot back on my 10 best smartphones list after just recently issuing a major software update to address its terrible haptic button performance. I think the phone is still priced too high, but there is still a lot to like in the new HTC U12 Plus.
As always, HTC’s designs are stunning and the U12 Plus is no exception. The colors, transparent blue design glass back, perfectly positioned fingerprint scanner, curves, and more make it pleasant to use.
CNET: HTC U12 Plus review (7.8/10)
The camera is outstanding and rivals the best smartphones today. The audio experience through the USB-C port is tough to beat with noise-canceling earbuds that customize the audio for your ear are included in the box and I can’t stop listening to music with this phone.
The HTC U12 Plus earned a 7.8 rating in our ZDNet full review, but after the software update I could easily bump that to 8.5 or more and plan to post a follow-up article after further testing.
Rumors and leaks indicate we will see three new iPhone X variations from Apple, two new Google Pixel 3 phones, and one or two from Huawei in the next month or two. It is also possible we could see a OnePlus 6T and a LG V40 before the holiday season. It is an exciting time for smartphone fans so stay tuned for more updates.