The smartphone pecking order is shifting. Once dominant companies, such as Samsung, are seeing their positions erode amid stiff competition. Younger firms, particularly those from China, have made it their goal to unseat those at the top. That’s good news for consumers.
The entire smartphone market is slowing, says research firm IDC. In the third quarter, phone shipments dropped 6% from the same period a year earlier to 355.2 million, continuing a year-long decline.
Despite that, manufacturers debuted some of their most exciting devices ever in 2018. Here are the ones that caught our eye based on their combination of attractive hardware, good battery life, and excellent cameras.
Apple iPhone XS Max
The iPhone XS Max is the most Apple-ish device Apple has ever made. The phone goes overboard with nearly every feature.
It boasts the biggest display ever on an iPhone (6.5 inches) with crazy-good resolution and contrast. This makes it an ideal media machine, and high-def content is a joy to watch.
The design is refined and tasteful. A strong stainless steel frame is sandwiched between two gorgeous pieces of glass. Apple’s manufacturing partners assembled it with care and precision. You may need to slap a case on it to keep the glass from breaking, but at least it’s waterproof.
More important is what you can do with the XS Max. With Apple’s most stable OS (iOS 12) and advanced internal specs, the phone is fantastic for augmented reality. The XS Max doesn’t disappoint when used to immerse yourself in blended reality games, adventures, or learning environments.
Let’s not forget the camera. The dual-camera array on the back lets you take outstanding portraits with artsy lighting effects, while the selfie camera is good enough to keep your Instagram following entertained.
Have I mentioned the price? It costs a sobering $1,099.
Google Pixel 3
Google has never truly created excellent hardware, but the Pixel 3 (and larger 3 XL) are some of the cleanest, most usable phones from the search giant. Gone are the odd industrial design foibles of the Pixel and Pixel 2; the Pixel 3 is smooth, sleek, and cohesive from top to bottom.
But don’t buy the Pixel 3 for the hardware. Buy it for the advanced software tools that should make your life easier.
For example, the Pixel 3 can screen calls and automatically block annoying spam callers. Use Digital Wellbeing to control screen time in a healthy way. Google Assistant is available, too, for clutch stuff like setting reminders, alarms, calendar appointments and, of course, responding to your queries.
Google knows how to create camera software better than any other phone company, and it shows in the results from the Pixel 3. Top Shot automatically fires a burst and somehow finds the perfect composition, while Night Sight captures eye-popping detail in the darkest environments. See something and want to know more about it? Google Lens on the Pixel 3 can recognize more than one billion different objects.
The Pixel 3 is a bit more affordable than the Apple XS Max at $799.
Huawei Mate 20 Pro
The current economic climate between the U.S. and China means Americans are being denied access to one of the most stunning pieces of hardware available: the Huawei Mate 20 Pro. This phone sees China-based Huawei at the top of its game, and charging hard at Apple and Samsung for global dominance.
Black slab phones are a dime a dozen. Huawei went with glass that changes color from lustrous blue to near black along the length of the phone. It’s eye catching. The high-grade aluminum frame is razor thin, and the Mate 20 Pro is assembled superbly.
The Mate 20 Pro is smart, too; the artificial intelligence that’s baked into the processor offers two major benefits. First, it’s able to balance power requirements with efficiency and deliver two-day battery life. Second, it ensures the camera is lightning-quick to recognize scenes so you get the best shot every time.
You can import the Huawei Mate 20 Pro via Amazon for about $1,000.
OnePlus brings affordability to the equation. Its goal has always been to make the best phones available at prices that won’t bankrupt consumers. The OnePlus 6T is its finest phone and the least expensive on this list by hundreds of dollars.
Don’t let the notion of inexpensive lead you to believe anything about the 6T is cheap. It goes toe-to-toe with the other phones on this list in terms of design, quality, and capability. The 6T is attractive and modern, offering more bang for the buck.
One of the phone’s most novel features is the fingerprint reader. Rather than reserve a special area of the phone for the fingerprint reader, OnePlus used new techniques that allow fingerprints to be read through the display.
Neat trick! It makes for a cleaner design.
The 6T also brings formidable camera chops to the fight. OnePlus’ low-light shooting mode, called Nightscape, produces excellent pictures in dark spaces.
The 6T starts at $549.
Samsung Galaxy Note9
No list of top phones would be complete without the Samsung Galaxy Note9. The Note9 is the market behemoth, the phablet all others strive to beat. It’s also the best at what it does.
The Note9 sees Samsung bowing to its customers’ wishes. The Korean company tweaked the already-great design of the 2017 Note8 and delivered an impressive combination of hardware and software that targets power users.
The Note9 has an edge-to-edge screen that transitions from work to play in a tap of the S Pen stylus. Truly, the Note9’s massive, high-resolution display is something to behold; it’s the perfect canvas for scribbling memos or using two apps side-by-side.
Speaking of multitasking, the Note9 is the master. It can connect to a display and other peripherals to act as a full PC in a pinch.
Samsung endowed the Note9 with its best camera, which is capable of high-quality portraits, sharp optical zooming, and vibrant color that pops.
The Galaxy Note9 costs $899.