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The 10 best smartphones of 2020: Z Fold 2 tough to beat for productivity

5G is still in its infancy in the US, but low-, mid-, and high-band networks are available from all major carriers. It's not the only reason to consider our top picks, but 5G support is one reason to buy a phone and be confident keeping it for two or three years.

5G deployment continues to expand across the US. And with the coronavirus pandemic leaving many of us still stuck in homes sharing limited Wi-Fi bandwidth, fast wireless technology is ever more critical. The top picks in our list all support 5G technology and it's great to finally see Apple join the party.

We have seen new phones from Google, Samsung, Apple, OnePlus, and LG in 2020 with more still to come. It was tough to limit this list to 10 phones given the compelling releases we have seen in 2020. 5G is a staple of most phones, but there are a couple on this list without 5G that still deserve consideration.

It's easy to find a great phone these days, phones are so good you really don't need to be replacing them on an annual basis, but carrier and manufacturer upgrade programs make this fairly painless. With smartphones today serving as critical tools for conducting business, a monthly lease or payment option is a justifiable expense.

1. Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2 5G

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While I fell in love with the Galaxy Fold last year, I didn't include it in my 10 best smartphones list because it seemed like an extravagant purchase. However, given the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2 is the third iteration of its folding phone and has been significantly improved, it deserves to not only be on this list but to be at the top.

I spent a couple of weeks with a review unit, and after just a couple of days with that evaluation device, I ordered my own. I exercised patience and ordered a black phone with metallic red hinge and it is lovely. The Z Fold 2 is priced at $2,000, but if you use your device as much as I do daily to get work done, then the price can be justified.

The Z Fold 2 serves as a very capable smartphone and small tablet, providing an extremely strong and fast 5G connection in both modes. The outside display offers a typical 6.2-inch smartphone experience while the large 7.6-inch main display is stunning with 120Hz refresh rate and Samsung's lovely AMOLED technology.

You get the fastest RAM and internal storage speeds available today, triple rear cameras, two other 10MP cameras, and much more. The 4500mAh battery easily gets you through a full day, even when using the large main screen.

$2,000 at Best Buy $2,000 at Best Buy

2. Samsung Galaxy Note 20/Note 20 Ultra 5G

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Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

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Samsung announced the Galaxy Note 20 series a couple of months ago and it is clear the Note 20 Ultra is one of the best phones for productivity and an easy recommendation for those who love the S Pen.           

The Note 20 devices bring everything we saw on the S20 series with some improvements in the cameras. Of course, the S Pen is a staple of the Note series, and with the Note 20, we see more Air Actions that are actually proving to be quite useful and reliable this year.

Samsung's two Note 20 series devices are powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 Plus, unique AMOLED 6.7- and 6.9-inch 120Hz refresh rate displays that automatically adjust for the content being displays, 8GB and 12GB RAM, 128GB with a 512GB storage option for the Ultra with a microSD for even more capacity, three rear cameras, IP68 rating, Wi-Fi 6, and Bluetooth 5. Battery capacity is 4,300mAh and 4,500mAh.

$750 at Amazon $750 at Best Buy $750 at B&H Photo-Video

3. Apple iPhone 12/12 Pro/12 Pro Max

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Apple's new iPhone 12 lineup includes four models, all sporting support for 5G networks. New Apple processors, improved camera performance, and a more square-shaped design (similar to the iPhone 4 and iPad Pro) are found on all four models. 

The iPhone 12 and 12 Pro have the same size 6.1-inch display and this year that also means the exact same OLED panel. The only differences between the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro are the additional telephoto camera, LiDAR support, and likely more RAM found on the iPhone 12 Pro model for the more than $120 difference in price.

The iPhone 12 Pro Max is the largest iPhone with a 6.7-inch display. This year Apple also has the 12 Pro Max having slightly better cameras when compared to the 12 Pro.

Pricing for the new iPads starts at $699 for the iPhone 6 Mini and ranges up to $1,399 for the 512GB iPhone 12 Pro Max. Pricing varies by storage capacity with some new carrier pricing differences. The iPhone 12 mini and 12 are available in white, black, blue, green, and PRODUCT(Red). The iPhone 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max are available in graphite, silver, gold, and pacific blue.

$829 at Amazon $800 at Best Buy

4. Samsung Galaxy S20/S20 Plus/S20 Ultra

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While I spent a few months with the flagship S20 Ultra 5G, I agree with ZDNet's Jason Cipriani that the S20 Plus is the best Samsung phone for most people.

The focus on the S20 line this year is universal 5G and improved camera experiences. The S20 Ultra saw some software updates to improve its camera, but it is a very large device that went a bit overboard with a high price to boot.

Samsung's S20 series phones are powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 865, AMOLED 120Hz refresh rate displays ranging from 6.2 to 6.9 inches, 12GB RAM (with 16GB option), 128GB to 512GB storage options with a microSD for even more capacity, three rear cameras (the Ultra has unique camera specifications), IP68 rating, WiFi 6, and Bluetooth 5. Battery capacity ranges from 4,000mAh to 5,000mAh. The S20 does not support high band (mmWave) faster 5G networks so make sure you pick the device that will fit your network needs.

$1,150 at Walmart $1,150 at Best Buy $1,397 at Sam's Club

5. Google Pixel 5

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The Google Pixel 5 is the first 5G smartphone available from Google and appears to check the boxes needed for a competitive smartphone. Unlike past Pixel phones, it is not designed to compete with the flagships from Apple, Samsung, and others, but provides the essentials with Google's software chops.

Google's past Pixel phones always lacked some features and couldn't compete with Apple and Samsung flagships so this approach makes much more sense. Priced at $699, the Pixel 5 is a great option for getting 5G into your hands with Google's software and reliance on regular updates for years.

The Pixel 5 has a 6-inch display, Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G processor, 8GB of RAM, 128GB internal storage, 4000mAh battery, dual rear cameras (12MP and 16MP ultrawide), 8MP front camera, and more.

You can pick one up in black or an interesting green color (Sorta Sage). The back is aluminum and we also see the return of a rear fingerprint sensor.

$649 at Amazon $650 at Best Buy $649 at B&H Photo-Video

6. OnePlus 8/8 Pro

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OnePlus rolled out its new 2020 phones with the OnePlus 8 and OnePlus 8 Pro, both compatible with 5G networks. T-Mobile carries the OnePlus 8 while Verizon has a unique version with 5G mmWave support.

This latest OnePlus flagship offers extremely responsive performance with its 90Hz and 120Hz displays, fast UFS 3.0 internal storage, generous RAM, and the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 processor.

The phones are lovely with Interstellar Glow, Glacial Green, and other color options available. There are a couple of different RAM and internal storage options for each phone. With the size and battery capacity differences between the OnePlus 8 and 8 Pro, we also find some differences in cameras, display refresh rate, and wireless charging functionality.

The OnePlus phones now have Android 11 and are very responsive. They still lack an IP rating so be careful using them outside as inclement weather season approaches.

$999 at OnePlus

7. LG V60 ThinQ 5G

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The LG V60 ThinQ 5G is available from T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon. It's only available in the US from one of these wireless carriers, but it may appear as an unlocked model on Amazon in the future.

This latest LG V series device continues to focus on video creation with a triple rear camera system, 8K video recording, four microphones, ASMR and Voice Bokeh audio technology, and advanced camera software. It's also powered by a massive 5,000mAh battery with a 1080p display so it is sure to help you capture hours of video content.

The LG V60 ThinQ 5G is composed of two pieces of Gorilla Glass 5 with a metal frame and is certified for shock resistance to MIL-STD 810G. LG's new phone has a 6.8-inch OLED panel, Qualcomm Snapdragon 865, 8GB of RAM, 128GB of internal storage with a microSD card, and 5G. A Dual Screen cover is included for the $900 price and gives you a large platform for serious productivity.

Along with 5G and a focus on video capture, the LG V60 continues LG's tradition of audio excellence with a 3.5mm audio port with quad DAC support and stereo speakers. It sounds great through the speakers, but the wired headphone experience is even better. It's one of the last phones remaining with a 3.5mm audio port so audiophiles are sure to be pleased.

$900 at Best Buy $900 at LG

8. Samsung Galaxy S20 FE

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While the Galaxy S20 series that launched in early 2020 provide compelling options, they are flagship phones priced in the $1,000 and higher range. In order to offer customers another alternative, Samsung recently released the Galaxy S20 FE (Fan Edition) 5G phones. The S20 FE is available in five lovely colors to suit your style.

Priced at $699.99, you may think Samsung compromised a lot to offer a powerful 5G phone. However, we see a 6.5-inch Infinity-O display with 120 Hz dynamic refresh rate, high-end Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 processor, large capacity 4500mAh battery, 6GB of RAM, 128GB storage with a microSD card slot, IP68 dust/water resistance, three rear cameras (one with 3X optical and 30x super-resolution zoom), and a high resolution 32MP front camera.

Where are the compromises? Exactly, there really aren't any and yet the $700 price is where we see phones in the upper mid-range with less capable specs appear. The S20 FE challenges Google's new Pixel 5 and other phones.

$343 at Amazon $280 at Walmart

9. Microsoft Surface Duo

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There seems to be a love it or hate it feeling with the Microsoft Surface Duo and even though I found it very productive I ended up returning mine in favor of the Galaxy Z Fold 2. While the Surface Duo has 2019 specs and bold bezels, in the right hands it is a productivity workhorse.

The Surface Duo does not support 5G networks and is powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 855. It has two 5.6-inch displays when you open it up with no ability to see anything on the outside of the device. The Surface Duo has 6GB of RAM, 128/256GB internal storage, and a sub-par single 11MP camera.

The story is not about the hardware though and its capability rests in the software enhancements offered by Microsoft. There have been a couple of updates to improve the experience and this first generation is a good first attempt. The $1,400 starting price is tough to swallow, which is one reason its positioned towards the bottom of this list.

$1,399 at Best Buy

10. Google Pixel 4A 5G

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If you want an Android phone that will always have the latest firmware and security updates, while also offering a fairly stock experience while also now having 5G support then take a look at the affordable Google Pixel 4A 5G. At $499, it's the most affordable 5G phone we have seen released.

The Google Pixel 4A 5G has a large 6.2-inch, Snapdragon 765G processor, 6GB of RAM, 64GB, and 128GB integrated storage, 12.2MP rear camera, 8MP front-facing camera, and a 3,800mAh battery.

In addition to the software being a focus for Google, the camera is another reason to buy the Pixel 4A 5G over other better smartphone hardware. However, while others have phones with three or four rear cameras, Google provides just one so there are some limits on its capability as a daily shooter.

Android 11 powers the phone and it will receive OS upgrades for three years. Monthly Android security updates are the most important software support for the enterprise since major firmware updates tend to break things and be less stable immediately after release.

$899 at Amazon $1,145 at Walmart $900 at B&H Photo-Video

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