Crowning the best smartphone on the market has become an arduous task. If only a few years ago the really good models were counted on the fingers of one hand, today the overall growth of the market, combined with the wide variety of models and features available have expanded the cords of the competition, leaving us with a difficult choice.
The best smartphones today are no longer super-evolved cell phones, but real mini computers that have become indispensable to have everyday with you. They are equipped with a powerful processor and a real operating system that can manage all sort of applications (programs): from the simplest ones (like a word processor or a calculator) to those much more complex — like video games.
And, in addition to the features that have become essential such as 4G connection and GPS support, there are numerous other features that can improve the user experience. Like the multiplication of the number of cameras, thanks to dedicated sensors for wide-angle photos, zooming and depth calculation, that can give free rein to your creativity when taking a photo. Or the possibility to charge your smartphone wireless or the new all-screen design that allows for larger displays for multimedia consumption. In short, there is a lot that you have to take into account before deciding which is the best smartphone for you.
This is a double-edged sword because it allows you to definitely find the perfect device that can cater to your needs, but, on the other hand, you will have to choose between so many valid alternatives that you will never be sure if you made the right choice. Better an iPhone or a Galaxy? A Huawei or a Xiaomi? To try and help you out, we decided to create this buying guide and the updated lists of best smartphones that you will find at the end of this page.
How to choose a smartphone
These are the main features that you need to take into account in order to find the best smartphone for you.
The display is one of the most important components of a smartphone. It dictates the size and handling of the device, the quality of the content displayed on the screen and, in broader terms the user experience.
As for the size, manufacturers now focus on 5.7 inch models or bigger. Above 6 inches you may encounter problems with handling, mostly using the phone with one hand and difficulty in keeping it comfortably in your pocket. We have to point out, however, that the handling also depends on the materials (metal and glass tend to be more slippery than plastic) and the dimensions of the frames.
In the past, smartphones had smaller displays but occupied similar volume. This is because the display was surrounded by generous frames: with the advancement of technological evolution, in fact, various manufacturers have found different methods in inserting larger displays in similar size phones. There is a compromise though, since there is no space for the front facing camera and sensors.
This is how the notch was born and introduced with the launch of the iPhone X. A notch can take on the following forms:
Traditional notch — the standard notch, a horizontal strip along the top perimeter of the display.
Water drop notch — one of the first smartphones almost completely without frames, the rare Essential Phone by Andy Rubin, used this particular type of notch that became decidedly widespread in the second half of the 2018. It typically houses just the front facing camera (no sensors) and takes up as little space as possible.
Hole punch — the use of the hole punch notch has spread at the beginning of 2019 and there are already several terminals that have adopted it. It is an alternative system to the notch, but it performs the same task: integrate the front facing camera into an all-screen design. Usually it is perfectly circular and houses only the front camera, but in some cases it has an oblong shape and can enclose two or more cameras, or some sensors.
Some smartphones use exclusive systems to offer an all-screen design without resorting to a notch: among the most popular systems we have automatic or manual sliders, which allow you to lower the display or raise the part of the frame with the cameras. Other models use a retractable camera, which pops out of the body.
Before moving to the resolution I will briefly explain what the format ratio of the display is. This is the proportion between the long side and the short side, so assuming we have an 18:9 display that means a panel that measures 18 units in length in the long side, and 9 units in the short side. In this case, the longest side is twice as long as the short side, and is one of the most popular formats especially in the low to medium price ranges. More advanced devices use even more “elongated” ratios, such as 19:9 or 19.5:9, and in some sporadic cases you get to 21:9, which, however, can be uncomfortable if you’re not used to it.
There is little to say about the resolution: the higher it is, the better. Most phones now have a Full HD (1920×1080 pixels) or at the very least an HD (720×1280 pixels) screen.
iPhones differ here since Apple often uses displays with non standard resolutions. Don’t be fooled by the numbers, though, because iPhones, like all high-end devices, use very high quality panels regardless of the built-in resolution. Also remember that higher resolutions such as Quad HD (2560×1440 pixels) or 4K Ultra HD (3840×2160 pixels) can “weigh” a lot on battery life, so before buying a smartphone equipped with such a screen make sure that its battery is powerful enough.
Another value that helps evaluate the level of sharpness is the PPI (pixels per inch), which indicates the pixel density for each screen. Again, the higher the value, the sharper the image or text.
Screen resolution also plays a key role in VR. If you plan to use a virtual reality headset (like the Google Cardboard) you have to buy a smartphone with a high resolution screen — above Full HD — so you don’t see the individual “pixels”.
When evaluating the screen resolution, you also have to consider the type of panel that can be TFT LCD (fortunately less and less common), IPS LCD or AMOLED/SUPER AMOLED. Here are their main features.
TFT LCD displays are those used on some low-end devices. They guarantee good image quality but their colors seem washed off when you change the viewing angle.
IPS (In-Panel-Switching) LCD displays are an evolution of TFT and are present on many smartphones, from low-cost to top of the range, like the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus models. They reproduce colors almost perfectly, and have pure whites. They also have great viewing angle and consume less energy.
AMOLED displays and their evolution (like Super AMOLED or Dynamic AMOLED) are present on many mid to high end smartphones, such as the Samsung Galaxy and the iPhone XS. Their main feature is that pixels emit their own light. They do not have major problems in color rendering (although IPS displays generally return more natural shades) and are less “readable” than IPS under direct sunlight. On the other hand, they have very pure blacks, an excellent contrast ratio and ensure low power consumption, as black pixels are physically turned off.
When considering viewing angles, i.e. the ability of the screen to maintain color fidelity and visibility when viewed from “extreme” angles a very important factor is the quality of the oleophobic treatment that affects the screen’s ability not to retain fingerprints.
Some top-of-the-range smartphones can also support technologies that improve the reproduction of colors, lights and shadows. For example, the iPhone, starting with the iPhone 7, have Wide Color (DCI-P3) technology that increases the number of colors displayed on the screen to make their image more faithful to reality. Other smartphones, on the other hand, such as LG’s V30 and Apple’s iPhone XS, support HDR technology (also found on many TVs) that allows you to view a wider range of shadows and lights. Another technology found on Apple’s iPhones is the True Tone that automatically adapts the tone of the display to that of ambient light.
Processor and RAM
Processor and RAM are the two components that most affect the performance of a smartphone.
The processor is the “brain” of the phone and is the one that performs all the calculations: the higher its power the faster the device manages to perform all the operations. It is integrated into the SoC (system on a chip), an integrated circuit that in a single chip contains the central processor, the graphics processor and other key components. To evaluate its power it is necessary to examine the number of cores (that is, the number of computing units that perform the task) and their operating frequency, which is measured in GHz. Among the leading manufacturers we find MediaTek (mainly on Chinese brands), Qualcomm, Samsung (Exynos family), Huawei (HiSilicon Kirin family) and Apple.
RAM is the memory where all the data from current applications and system processes is temporarily stored. The greater the amount of RAM installed on your smartphone, the greater the ability of your phone to manage multi-tasking, thus keeping more apps open at the same time and switching between applications without freezing or slowing down. At the moment, at least 4GB of RAM are required to achieve good performance, but even 2 or 3 GB can be fine for undemanding users.
Android smartphones have a fixed memory and some also an expandable memory. Phones with expandable memory are those where applications, photos, videos and other data can be moved to microSD.
An important thing to know is that the amount of internal memory reported in the spec sheet of a smartphone does not match the memory actually available on the device: from the nominal value of internal storage you need to subtract the amount of space occupied by the operating system and the pre-installed apps (which vary from case to case).
Lastly but not least not all memory is the same. On cheaper models it is easy to find eMMC memory that guarantees write speeds of up to 350MB/s, while in more advanced ones you can find UFS 2.0 or UFS 2.1 memory that guarantees extremely higher performance (up to 750MB/s writing). Unfortunately, manufacturers hardly indicate the type of memory used in a smartphone, so to find out this detail you will have to search online.
Support for 4G/LTE and wireless connectivity
Except for the cheaper models, all smartphones currently support the 4G/LTE network. The important thing to emphasize is that there are several categories of LTE, each of which supports a different data transfer rate.
- LTE Category 21 — 1400Mbps download and 300Mbps upload
- LTE Category 20 — 2000Mbps download and 300Mbps upload
- LTE Category 18 — 1100Mbps download and 150Mbps upload
- LTE Category 16 — 1000Mbps download and 150Mbps upload
- LTE Category 15 — 4000Mbps download and 1500Mbps upload
- LTE Category 14 — 400Mbps download and 100Mbps upload
- LTE Category 13 — 400Mbps download and 150Mbps upload
- LTE Category 12 — 600Mbps download and 100Mbps upload
- LTE Category 11 — 600Mbps download and 50Mbps upload
- LTE Category 10 — 450Mbps download and 100Mbps upload
- LTE Category 9 — 450Mbps download and 50Mbps upload
- LTE Category 8 — 3000Mbps download and 1500Mbps upload
- LTE Category 7 — 300Mbps download and 100Mbps upload
- LTE Category 6 — 300Mbps download and 50Mbps upload
- LTE Category 5 — 300Mbps download and 75Mbps upload
- LTE Category 4 — 150Mbps download and 50Mbps upload
- LTE Category 3 — 100Mbps download and 50Mbps upload
- LTE Category 2 — 50Mbps download and 25Mbps upload
- LTE Category 1 — 10Mbps download and 5Mbps upload
Smartphones with “LTE Advanced” in their specifications support LTE networks of category 6 or higher. If you are wondering, the speed increase in data transfer is because phones can take advantage of multiple download and upload channels at the same time on the 4G network.
You will also have heard of 5G networks, one of the most anticipated revolutions in mobile internet. 5G will improve in different areas than 4G, such as the download and upload speed and the ability of antennas to send and receive data from more devices.
It is also good to inquire about the type of Wi-Fi networks supported by your smartphone. Most phones are now able to connect to the 2.4GHz Wi-Fi networks and take advantage of wireless b/n/g standards (with data transfer rates up to 300Mbps). For better performance, however, it is recommended to purchase a smartphone that supports the 5GHz dual-band networks (which suffer less interference than the 2.4GHz one) and the ac wireless standard that allows data to be transferred within the local network at a maximum speed in the order of Gigabit per second (Gbps). Some models also support the latest ax wireless standard.
Remaining within the scope of wireless connectivity, it is worth checking the type of Bluetooth technology supported by your smartphone and whether or not an NFC chip is present. Bluetooth technology is divided into several generations, and smartphones that support the latest generations provide less power consumption and a greater range for connected devices. Smartphones with Bluetooth 5.0, such as the Galaxy S8, even allow for the audio stream to be sent to two devices (two headphones) at the same time.
The NFC chip, if present, is the one that allows you to make micro-payments via your smartphone (using contactless POS enabled) and connect your phone wirelessly to others devices that support this technology. The convenience lies in the fact that communication between devices that have NFC chips occurs with a simple physical touch between them.
Some smartphones have Dual-SIM support, meaning you can use two SIM cards at the same time. Be careful, though, because they are not all the same. There are DSDS (Dual SIM Dual Standby) terminals that render one unavailable while the other is in use for a call and the rare DSFA (Dual Sim Full Active) smartphones that instead allow you to keep the two SIMs always active at the same time.
In addition, it must be noted that in many dual-SIM phones the slot for the second SIM is also used for a microSD card, and this means that you have to choose whether to use two SIMs or expand your smartphones memory (you can’t do both at the same time).
Most smartphones have two cameras, one in the front and one in the rear. The rear one is generally better than the front one, but in some cases, in so-called selfie-phones, the front camera can also have good quality.
In order to judge the quality of a camera you can’t stop at the number of megapixels: you also have to evaluate the aperture, the ability of the camera to capture light; the resolution and the maximum frame rate of the videos you can shoot; the ability or not to shoot video in slow- motion; the presence of an optical stabilizer and other.
The best way to find out the quality of the camera is to browse the web for a review that contains photos and videos taken with the phone’s camera.
Also note that there are devices with dual rear cameras that, depending on the choices made by the manufacturer, can shoot wide-angle photos, or photos with optical zoom, or capture selfies using the bokeh effect. Some models also use more than two cameras: the Nokia 9 PureView, for example, has as many as five. If you are looking for a “cameraphone”, this can be the deciding factor for you.
Battery capacity of smartphones is expressed in mAh (milliamperes hour). As a result, the more mAh, bigger the battery. However real autonomy is also affected by the degree of software optimization and the energy efficiency of the processor and other integrated components.
In the past, mobile phones made it possible to swap the battery with a new or fresh one (they were called smartphones with a removable battery), however modern smartphones hardly ever offer this possibility.
Smartphones of generous sizes — from 6” up — have bigger batteries, and tend to last longer than smaller ones.
Battery life is not the only parameter you have to take into account. The charging times of the smartphone are also very important, so much so that more and more devices support quick charge technologies.
Before buying a smartphone you should also check its audio quality and this includes call volume, number of speakers, number of channels (mono or stereo) and the presence of a high quality DAC (the DAC is the component that translates the digital audio signal into analog).
You should also check whether or not the headphone jack is present. Some smartphones, starting with the iPhone 7 onwards have decided to sacrifice the headphone jack in favor of wireless headphones and adapters (dongles) that allow you to connect the classic headphone 3.5mm jack to the charging port (be it USB-C or Lightning).
Many smartphones have a biometric sensor for fingerprint detection that allows you to quickly unlock the phone and speed up the identification process in digital applications and stores. Be careful, however, the responsiveness and accuracy of these sensors varies greatly.
Another important thing to evaluate is the position of the sensor: most smartphones position it in the back, however in-display fingerprint sensors are gaining momentum — especially in the high-end —. These sensors are located underneath the display and require an AMOLED panel to function properly. There are two types: optical sensors and ultrasonic ones. The first are more simple: they use the pixels in order to illuminate the finger, acquire the fingerprint, and test it against the one they have memorized. Ultrasonic sensors on the other hand are way more complicated and use ultrasounds to create a three-dimensional mapping of your finger to compare with the one on reference. This is a more reliable and secure technology, precisely because it uses a 3D scan and not an image as with the optical sensors.
Some smartphones also use a face unlock. We also have two types in this case too: 2D or 3D. 3D face scanning is more secure but requires dedicated sensors such as a depth camera. 2D face recognition can be faster, but it is much less secure since it can be fooled by a photo.
There is no clear winner but you need to know the pros and cons of each one so as to choose the one that best suits your needs.
Android is the most popular operating system, has an infinite number of applications and grants enormous freedom of choice to the user. Applications, for example, can be downloaded from sources outside the Google Play Store and you can customize almost every aspect of your phone (you can even install modified versions of the operating system downloaded from the Internet). By contrast, Android is more susceptible to malware attacks and its distribution is fragmented, which means that updates do not arrive at the same time on all devices. The only devices that will receive all updates in a timely manner are those produced directly by Google (Google Pixel) and those equipped with Android One, a stock version of Android.
iOS is the iPhone’s operating system. It is very easy to use but for this simplicity you have to give up on customizing your device. Apps can only be downloaded from the App Store. Among its positive aspects are timely updates, that are available on all terminals (even older ones), and almost no malware. In addition, the average app quality is higher than their Android counterparts.
Waterproof and dust-proof
The most advanced smartphones are water and dust resistant. Depending on their degree of impermeability and dust resistance, they can have various certifications, such as IP68.
USB ports and OTG support
Smartphones can sport the classic micro-USB port or the next-gen USB-C port. Apple’s iPhones sport a proprietary port called Lightning. The type of port on a smartphone is very important when choosing accessories.
Many Android smartphones also support a technology called OTG (abbreviation for USB On-The-Go) that allows you to use memory sticks, keyboards, mice, hard drives and other USB devices on your phone like on the computer. Smartphones without this kind of support do not allow the use of those devices.
Perhaps not everyone knows this, but some smartphones are equipped with an infrared port that allows you to use the phone as a universal smart remote control for TVs, Blu-Ray players, air conditioners and other appliances.
Most smartphones are equipped with an LED for notifications that displays a small light signal whenever you have a notification.
Before buying a smartphone, carefully check the terms on the warranty.