It’s a great year to buy a smartphone. These days, even mid-range phones are at least OK, so it’s hard to go horribly awry if you’re browsing devices at your local retailer. Especially if you’re looking at devices over $500, you’re almost guaranteed to find passable cameras, fast processors, and gorgeous screens. Many phones are trying so hard to imitate the biggest and best smartphones, (Samsung Galaxy devices and iPhones are still the trend setters) that they tend to blur together.
At the same time, phones have never been more expensive, and there are a lot of small pitfalls you can run into, especially if you’re trying to buy a phone that will last you 2-3 years.
No matter why you’re here, we hope this guide helps. We’ve picked the best smartphones for both major platforms, and have a bunch of tips to help you make the best choice possible. Happy phone hunting!
The Best Overall
There are a lot of good reasons people may choose iOS over Android, but right now Google’s Pixel 2 and larger Pixel 2 XL are our picks for best overall smartphone. Google has made it super easy to buy its flagship phones unlocked, and all Pixel phones get security and software updates direct like clockwork. We gave the phone a 9/10 review (WIRED Recommends) and believe it represents the absolute best that Google’s Android operating system has to offer, with the latest Android Oreo features without any bloatware, and an industry leading 12-megapixel camera that’s a stunner.
The Pixel 2 is an outstanding phone with a superb 1080p screen, decent front-facing speakers, IP67 waterproofing, a powerful Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor, 4GB of RAM, more than a day of battery life, and fantastic build quality.
The only real downsides are the lack of a microSD card for extra storage and no 3.5mm headphone jack, though that is sadly absent from many top phones these days.
The iPhone To Buy
While we love the spiffy iPhone X, let’s get down to brass tacks: the cheaper iPhone 8 (and iPhone 8 Plus) are virtually identical in the ways that count.
We gave the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus an 8/10 review and our WIRED Recommends badge. Many of us on the Gear team still like having a home button and the 12-megapixel camera on the iPhone 8 kicks butt (buy the 8 Plus if you want 2x optical zooming and Portrait mode bokeh effects). Both iPhone 8 models are water resistant, and have Apple’s powerful new A11 Bionic processor and iOS 11. Like all iPhones, they also come with years of security and software updates directly from Apple, and a 1-year warranty that you can extend with AppleCare+.
Like always, not everything is perfect. No new iPhones have a 3.5mm headphone jack and none support storage expansion, so buy what you need upfront. Apple’s iCloud services are also behind the times a bit, and we find them harder to manage than what Google offers.
Everything But The Kitchen Sink
There are a ton of fantastic reasons to choose a Samsung Galaxy S9. Read all about them in our review (8/10 WIRED Recommends). Samsung is slower to update its phones than Google or Apple, but they do deliver larger updates to their flagship phones a few times a year.
The Galaxy S9 is the first major phone of 2018 to feature the cutting-edge Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor, which is seriously speedy. It also has a fantastic camera setup on the back (it’s the only 12-megapixel camera with dual apertures), which delivers stills and video up there with the iPhone and Pixel series. Like those phones, it also has a fingerprint sensor (that’s easier to use this year) and an absolutely gorgeous, edge-to-edge AMOLED screen.
Did we mention it has a microSD slot for extra storage and a headphone jack? Those two features alone set it apart from the crowd. If you don’t feel like buying new wireless headphones, this is the device for you. It comes with a 1-year warranty and we love the lilac purple color.
The downsides are mostly Samsung’s heavily customized Android software, which feels like it’s cluttered with bloatware from the moment you power it on.
It’s no secret. We like the Motorola Moto X4 a lot, and we happily recommended it in our Best Cheap Phones roundup and gave it a WIRED Recommends badge (8/10 score). For less than $400, it offers a lot of high-end features and it’s compatible with all four U.S. wireless carriers to boot.
It has a 3.5mm headphone jack, microSD card slot, 16-megapixel front camera, dual rear cameras, a beautiful HD screen, a front fingerprint sensor with gestures, waterproof metal and glass design, solid battery life, and an almost pure version of Android Oreo from Google. It comes with a 1-year warranty.
The downside is that it has a mid-range Snapdragon 630 processor and you’ll encounter a bit of lag every now and then. For a phone that’s a third to half the price of the others on this list, the sacrifices are worth it.
Other Great Smartphones
If the picks above don’t suit your fancy, here are some other smartphones that we like. These are all high quality devices and new enough that they won’t feel obsolete the moment you buy them, but they’re great upgrades if your phone is starting to show its age.
A Few Buying Tips
Phones to Avoid: Avoid devices older than 2 years and optimally 2017 or newer or devices from brands not listed here or that you aren’t familiar with. There are plenty of good ones, but it’s easy to get burned or buy a phone that won’t work on your carrier.
Features You Want: Check to make sure phones have the features most important to you. Try to get one with at least 64GB of internal storage (minimum 32GB), optimally with a MicroSD slot so you can add more storage later. IP67 waterproofing should be standard on most devices and will be handy that one time you drop your phone in the tub. Many phones don’t have 3.5mm headphone jacks, so make sure yours does. You’ll also at least want a Snapdragon 630 processor and 4GB of RAM in any Android phone you buy. It should also run Android 8.0 Oreo (2017) at this point.
Buy Smart, Do the Math: Wireless carriers and retailers often offer 24-month installments to pay off phones. Try to buy your device all at once to avoid paying extra or paying more than you need to for your device. Carriers sometimes hide higher prices in seemingly cheap monthly installments.
Buy Unlocked Because… You Never Know: If you buy phones that are Unlocked, you can easily switch wireless providers if you see a better deal, move to a location where your carrier has weak service, or get fed up with the crap your carrier is trying to pull. Read our full guide to the Best Unlimited Wireless Plans to see our current favorites.
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