Best smartphone 2019: iPhone, Samsung, Google and Huawei compared and ranked

 

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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Best smartphone 2019: iPhone, Samsung, Google and Huawei compared and ranked” was written by Samuel Gibbs, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 6th March 2019 09.58 UTC

Need a new smartphone but don’t know which one is the very best? Here’s a guide comparing the current top-end smartphones from Apple, Samsung, Huawei and others to help you pick the best handset for you.

There has never been a better time to buy a new flagship smartphone with many quality handsets available at a wider range of prices than ever before. Whether your priority is two-day battery life, fantastic camera performance or a spectacular screen, there’s plenty to choose from.

This Guardian buyer’s guide to top-end smartphones was last updated on 6 March, and represents the best available models at the time. As new models are released and tested, this guide will be updated to help you choose the right flagship phone for you.

Welcome to one of the Guardian’s new buyer’s guides. This article represents hundreds of hours of testing by the author to bring together a succinct list of recommended products or services so you can pick from the best and ignore the rest without having to do hours of your own research.

While the Guardian may earn a small commission from items bought through affiliate links, the items featured in this buyer’s guide have been tested and included without influence from any advertiser or commercial initiative.

 

Best overall – Huawei Mate 20 Pro

RRP: £899

smartphone buyer's guide - huawei mate 20 pro

The Huawei Mate 20 Pro has a large, beautiful screen, long battery life, a cutting-edge in-display fingerprint sensor, 3D face recognition and the best camera in the business.
Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian


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If you just want the best phone currently available, that’s the Huawei Mate 20 Pro. No other phone combines so many cutting-edge features in such a good-looking, well designed device.

The 6.38in QHD+ OLED screen is one of the biggest and best on the market, but thanks to its curved edges and slim bezels it’s still a relatively manageable 72.3mm wide. That means it’s a lot easier to wield day-to-day than some of the wider competition, so hopefully you’re less likely to drop it.

An iPhone X-like notch at the top of the screen contains a 3D IR-based face recognition system, which is much more secure than 2D camera-based versions. A pressure-sensitive fingerprint scanner is embedded directly under the screen too, which is good, but not quite as good as Huawei’s excellent rear-mounted capacitive fingerprint readers.

On the back there’s a brilliant triple camera system capable of up to 5x hybrid zoom at one end and 0.6x wide-angle zoom at the other so you can fit more in. Combined with solid camera software, it makes the Mate 20 Pro the best all-round camera on the market.

Running the show you have Huawei’s top-notch Kirin 980 processor, 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. It’s got a battery that will see it last the best part of two days of heavy usage, or much longer with lighter usage, too, and both 40W rapid charging via cable and fast 15W wireless charging. The Mate 20 Pro can even wirelessly charge another Qi compatible device, a trick never before seen in a phone.

The only potential downside is the look of Huawei’s modified Android 9 Pie, EMUI 9, which is customisable and has plenty of features but may not be to everyone’s tastes. It may also not receive Android updates as fast as some others, although Huawei is improving in this regard.

It’s also a metal and glass sandwich like most top-end smartphones at the moment, which means if you drop it the risk of smashing one or both sides is high.

Why should you buy it?

The combination of in-display fingerprint sensor, 3D face recognition, brilliant triple camera system, beautiful 6.38in screen, class-leading battery life, top-end performance and gorgeous design make the Mate 20 Pro the phone to beat.

Buy if: you want the best, most-cutting edge phone

Don’t buy if: you want a smaller phone

Best iOS – Apple iPhone XS

RRP: £999 / $999

smartphone buyer's guide - iphone xs

Apple’s smallest new iPhone is also the best combination of power, size, screen and camera.
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The best iPhone is not the biggest or most expensive. The iPhone XS combines a stunning, good-size 5.8in screen, svelte body and top-notch performance into the most appealing package from Apple to date.

Apple’s Face ID is the best face recognition system in the business, the dual-camera system on the back is excellent, as is the performance of the A12 Bionic processor and the class-leading gesture navigation system of iOS, which has replaced the home button of iPhones of yore.

You’re also in line for about five years of software updates, which is likely at least two more than any other brand of phone. The iPhone XS is a metal and glass sandwich, and will smash just like the competition when dropped, but the stainless steel sides and glass back exude a luxury feel not matched by other phones. Sadly most will put it in a case.

The biggest downsides are the price, which at £1,000 is likely significantly more than the competition, and battery life, which only manages about a day of medium usage. The iPhone XS has wireless charging and supports fast charging via a USB-C to Lightning cable, but only ships with a slow charger in the box. Its cellular modem performance is also not as good as competitors, struggling more to keep a working 4G data connection in congested areas, particularly compared with the Mate 20 Pro.

Why should you buy it?

If you’re locked in to iOS, or want the longest software update coverage, then the iPhone XS is the best Apple smartphone you can buy (and not very far behind the Mate 20 Pro overall), thanks to its combination of size, camera, capability and luxurious feel.

Buy if: you want the best iPhone

Don’t buy if: you don’t want to spend £999 or want to use Android

Best Android – Google Pixel 3

RRP: £739 / $799

smartphone buyer's guide - google pixel 3

Google’s smaller Pixel 3 doesn’t skimp on performance, with the best Android experience currently going and a cracking camera.
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On the outside the Pixel 3 is quite attractive, but looks dated with a fairly large forehead and chin containing the front-facing speakers making it decidedly not “all-screen”.

The back is all glass, but four fifths of it is frosted, hiding fingerprints and scratches more easily than its polished competitors. It looks best in white and feels really nice in the hand.

It’s also one of the smallest and lightest phones that’s still of flagship performance and quality, with a great-looking 5.5in FHD+ OLED screen.

But what you buy the Pixel 3 for is the software experience, which is hands-down the best on any Android smartphone.

You get Google features first on the Pixel 3, such as Gmail’s Smart Compose feature, and the software is just smoother and more polished than any other Android, from operation to animation. The Pixel smartphones also receive both security and features updates before any other Android phones, guaranteed until at least October 2021.

The camera is also fantastic despite being a single camera on the back, offering zoom and portrait mode matching rival dual or triple-camera systems. Google’s Night Sight is class-leading too, producing some amazing photos in very low light conditions, rivalled only by Night Mode on the Mate 20 Pro.

Performance all round is excellent, but battery life is only just about a day of medium usage, which is about the only downside. The Pixel 3 has fast wireless charging and relatively fast cable charging.

Why should you buy it?

The Android software experience is unparalleled, you get updates first and guaranteed through October 2021, it’s camera is great and it’s arguably the best smaller phone on the market that doesn’t skimp on performance.

Buy if: you want the best Android software experience in a smaller top-end phone

Don’t buy if: you want brilliant battery life

Best value – OnePlus 6T

RRP: £499 / $549

smartphone buyer's guide - oneplus 6t

Simply put, at £500 you have to spend a considerable amount more to better the OnePlus 6T.
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If you want a massive, top-spec phone, but don’t want to spend £900, then the OnePlus 6T is the one to buy.

It has a big and beautiful 6.41in full HD OLED screen, a tiny widows peak-like notch for the selfie camera, slim bezels all round and a good-feeling metal and glass construction matching the quality of most others.

It has a top-of-the-line processor, 6GB of RAM, 128GB of storage and 30-hour battery life too. The Android experience on the OnePlus, Oxygen OS, is second only to Google’s on the Pixel; it is brutally quick and smooth in operation. OnePlus guarantees two years of software updates and an additional year of security updates from the release date of the phone.

It even has the cutting-edge in-display fingerprint scanner, which is almost as good as the best dedicated capacitive sensors, and dual-sim support for having two mobile phone network connections at the same time.

The downsides are a good, but not great, camera that doesn’t quite match the competition here, no formal water resistance rating and no wireless charging.

Why should you buy it?

A massive and great screen with tiny bezels, excellent software and performance, in-display fingerprint scanner and a good-but-not-great camera mean you have to spend significantly more to get a better phone than this.

Buy if: you want a top-notch phone but don’t want to spend more than £500

Don’t buy if: you want a really good camera

Size

Smartphones are rated by screen size measured on the diagonal in inches. The bigger the number the larger the phone, but different phones use different ratios of height to width.

How easy it is to handle comes down to the width of the phone and its weight. The narrower and lighter it is, the easier it is to hold in one hand and the less likely you are to drop it.

Processor

What is commonly called the processor in a phone is actually a system-on-a-chip combining the processor, graphics and other essential systems into one.

Generally the newer the processor the more powerful and battery efficient it will be. Samsung, Huawei and Apple make their own, while Qualcomm is the largest supplier to other brands at the high end, with its Snapdragon 8-series range at the top.

RAM

The RAM (memory) is where your apps and processes are stored when in use, so the you more your phone has the better, up to a point.

Android requires more RAM than iOS, so it’s difficult to directly compare them. But with Android at least 4GB of RAM is currently recommended.

Storage

Different from memory, storage is where everything is stored on the phone, including apps and media. While a few phones can have their storage expanded with microSD cards, most cannot.

That means you should aim for 64GB of storage at a minimum, but more if you want to store lots of photos. Cloud services such as Spotify or Google’s Photos can help offload your music, photos or videos to the internet.

Software updates

Keeping your phone secure from hackers is essential, which makes software updates critical to patch bugs and security holes, as well as adding new features and improving things such as battery life and the camera.

Not all phones receive regular updates. Apple’s support of older phones is the best in the business of around 5 years, followed by Samsung and Google’s three years, both from when the phone was released – not when you buy it.

Battery life

Battery life varies drastically between devices, and “all-day battery” often doesn’t mean 24 hours between charges. Some may not last long enough, particularly if you’re out in the evening.

Battery life gets worse as the battery ages too, so a two-day battery will likely make sure the phone lasts at least a day two years later.

Camera

Cameras are the current battleground between the big players, but the margins between them are slimming.

Most use computational photography that combines hardware with advanced software algorithms, typically allowing multiple cameras to combine to make one image.

As such the camera software makes as much difference as the hardware, and is one of the few areas that actually improves over time with updates.

Multi-camera systems often offer more, such as useful zooms, portrait modes and better low-light performance, but they are not all created equally. There are also 3D cameras, which can detect facial expressions and other fun tricks.

Other things to consider

Wireless charging: convenient, but slower than via cable and normally a charging pad doesn’t come in the box

Durability: generally glass on the front and back of the phone makes it more fragile

Resale value: iPhones hold their value better than most others

OLED versus LCD: OLED screens emit their own light so have much deeper blacks and more vibrant colours, while LCD screens are cheaper

 

Runners up

These are good phones still worth buying if none of the top four smartphones fit the bill.

Apple iPhone XR

RRP: £749 / $749

smartphone buyer's guide - iphone xr

Slightly bigger than the iPhone XS, slightly cheaper and with longer battery life, but the XR loses some of that luxury feel all iPhones have and at £750 it isn’t that cheap.
Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian


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Apple’s slightly cheaper iPhone XR offers most of the features of the iPhone XS. It has better battery life too, but has a worse camera, a slightly larger, but worse screen and is made of aluminium and glass, instead of stainless steel, losing its luxurious feel and the knowledge that it’s the best Apple can make.

The iPhone XR looks stunning in red, but it’s not cheap by any stretch of the imagination, costing as much or more as true flagship phones from competitors. The iPhone XS still the one to buy if you want an iPhone, but if you want to save money, switch to Android.

Apple iPhone XS Max

RRP: £1,099 / $1,099

smartphone buyer's guide - iphone xs max

A huge display makes the iPhone XS Max appealing, but it’s heavy and harder to hold and more expensive than its smaller sibling the iPhone XS.
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If you must have an iPhone and it must have a massive screen, then the iPhone XS Max is your only option. But it’s even more expensive and bigger and heavier, making it pretty difficult to handle day-to-day, meaning the smaller iPhone XS is the better option.

Samsung Galaxy S9

RRP: £649 / $619

smartphone buyer's guide - samsung galaxy s9

Samsung’s Galaxy S9 is a solid but not remarkable phone, due for a replacement soon.
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Samsung’s smaller flagship phone for 2018 fits a 5.8in screen in a small body, but doesn’t quite have the all-screen design of the competition. It matches most of the competition on features, but its battery life is only about a day, and its camera isn’t as good as that on the Pixel 3, iPhone XS or Mate 20 Pro. It has just been replaced with the Galaxy S10 for 2019.

Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus

RRP: £869 / $739

smartphone buyer's guide - samsung galaxy s9+

The Samsung Galaxy S9+, due for a replacement soon, has gorgeous screen and dual camera, but doesn’t quite match rivals released in the second half of 2018.
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The bigger-screen version of the Galaxy S9 also includes a dual-camera system on the back, which isn’t quite as good as the competition, and better battery life. Despite the great-looking screen, the design of the S9+ looks dated and it has just been replaced by the Galaxy S10+ for 2019.

Samsung Galaxy Note 9

Price: £899 / $899

smartphone buyer's guide - samsung galaxy note 9

Samsung’s productivity powerhouse is the phone you need if you want a stylus, but it is huge and the camera isn’t quite as good as rivals.
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Samsung’s Galaxy Note 9 offers something a bit different, with long battery life, a massive screen and the all-important S Pen stylus. If you’re looking for a productivity powerhouse, the Note 9 is it. But it’s also huge with a slightly dated design.

Huawei P20 Pro

RRP: £799

smartphone buyer's guide - huawei p20 pro

Huawei’s first truly fantastic phone is still great, but bettered in almost every way by the company’s Mate 20 Pro.
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The Huawei P20 Pro has a cracking camera and matches rivals from the first half of 2018 on specs with very good battery life. But the firm’s Mate 20 Pro is better all-round, making the P20 Pro a little dated. Still a great phone, just not quite the best any more.

Honor View20

RRP: £500

smartphone buyer's guide - honor view20

The Honor View20 is a brilliant phone at just £500, with a great camera on the back that rivals the very best.
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Huawei’s Honor brand has made a name for itself cut-price but good phones. The View20 is the best phone it has ever made and is cracking value at just £500.

It has a top-of-the-line Huawei Kirin 980 processor (as seen in the Mate 20 Pro), a good-looking 6.4in FHD+ LCD screen, plenty of storage, 6 or 8GB of RAM, a super-quick fingerprint scanner on the back and it even still has a headphone socket. Standout features are a hole-punch notch in the screen, through which an excellent 25-megapixel selfie camera pokes, and a really great 48-megapixel camera on the back.

Fast charging, long battery life, great in-hand feel and a wild light-reflecting V-shaped pattern in the glass back round out the highlights. Honor’s Magic UI 2, based on Android 9 Pie, is not quite as good as OnePlus’s OxygenOS, but at least you get two to three years of updates.

Out of the two £500 top-end phones, buy the Honor View20 if you want a better camera; buy the OnePlus 6T if you want a better user experience and software.

Google Pixel 3 XL

RRP: £869 / $899

smartphone buyer's guide - google pixel 3 xl

Google’s super-sized Pixel 3 XL is big and lasts slightly longer than its smaller sibling, but it’s relatively hard to handle and can’t match the Mate 20 Pro overall.
Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian


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The larger Google Pixel 3 XL has everything that makes the Pixel 3 a really great phone, but is bigger with a huge notch at the top of the screen. It’s more difficult to handle than its smaller sibling and is more expensive, but has slightly better battery life. If you like the Pixel 3 but want a bigger screen, this is the phone for you, but on the whole the smaller version is a better device for most people. The Mate 20 Pro is a better big-screen phone all round.

Xiaomi Mi Mix 3

RRP: £499

smartphone buyer's guide - xiaomi mi mix 3

You get a lot of phone for your money with the Mi Mix 3, but the OnePlus 6T and Honor View20 are better buys.
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Xiaomi’s first slider phone offers more than most for the money, with top-flight specs for 2018 competing directly with the OnePlus 6T and Honor View20. It takes a different approach to the problem of where to put the selfie camera in an all-screen design, hiding it behind the screen on slide-out section.

Good, but quite as great as its competition, this huge phone is held back by a heavy weight and a software experience that just isn’t as good, despite solid gesture navigation options.

Not recommended

Nokia 8 Sirocco – Good software but average design and camera – £600

Razer Phone 2 – Gaming phone beast that falls down on camera performance – £500

Sony Xperia XZ3 – Good, but not great phone that misses the mark – £699

LG G7 – uninspiring design and software that’s not as good as rivals – £375

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