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.
Best overall – Huawei Mate 20 Pro
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
- Full review: Huawei Mate 20 Pro review: cutting-edge brilliance
Best iOS – Apple iPhone XS
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
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
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
These are good phones still worth buying if none of the top four smartphones fit the bill.
Apple iPhone XR
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.
- Full review: iPhone XR review: Apple’s cheaper battery king
Apple iPhone XS Max
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.
- Full review: iPhone XS Max review: Apple’s supersized smartphone
Samsung Galaxy S9
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
- Full review: Google Pixel 3 XL review: big is still beautiful
Xiaomi Mi Mix 3
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.
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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