The Samsung Galaxy Note 9 sat at the top of my list for the last few months and is still my personal ultimate daily driver. However, there are a couple other phones I do not have that are likely better for others, one is not easy to find in the US and the other is one that performs better than anything else in benchmark testing.
With just two months left in 2018, the lineup you see available now (with the exception of the OnePlus 6T coming in a few weeks) is what we will end up with for the holidays. After the Huawei Mate 20 Pro, the next three could be in just about any order and are honestly all really in second place. Maybe a future update will switch them around a bit as time goes by.
1. Huawei Mate 20 Pro
Last week Huawei announced the Mate 20 Pro and it brings together all of the greatness of Huawei into a single device that is going to be tough to beat. The Mate 20 Pro includes the first Android 7nm process chipset with the Kirin 980 (Apple's A12 Bionic also uses the 7nm process), two Neural Processing Units, a fourth-generation image signal processor, and a LTE Cat.21 modem.
The triple rear camera capability from the Huawei P20 Pro is brought to the Mate 20 Pro, but in a different central two-by-two arrangement with one change made to one of the three lenses. The three rear cameras have 40MP, 20MP, and 8MP resolution with a 24MP front-facing shooter and artificial intelligence to help you capture great shots. The monochrome lens has been replaced with a wide-angle lens so that you now have telephoto, wide-angle, and standard camera functionality.
A large 6.39 inch OLED is on the front with cool Midnight Blue, Emerald Green, Black, Pink Gold, and Twilight color options for the device. Android 9.0 Pie powers things while EMUI has been updated to version 9.0.
One interesting move from Huawei is the inclusion of an external storage card slot using its own new nano memory card rather than standard microSD cards. We also see one of the first fingerprint scanners embedded right into the display. Huawei is known for very long battery life and massive batteries so the 4,200 mAh battery is no real surprise, but much appreciated.
We will soon have a review and other articles on this new flagship from Huawei. The 6GB RAM/128GB internal storage model is priced at €1049 and is available now in countries outside the US.
2. Samsung Galaxy Note 9
For US customers, the Galaxy Note 9 remains at the top of my domestic phone list. I've been using one now for a couple of months and despite trying out some stunning new phones like the iPhone XS Max and Google Pixel 3 XL, none of these can replace the Note 9 and everything Samsung includes in this stunning device. This is especially true for use in the enterprise space.
The Galaxy Note 9 improves upon the Note 8 with a Bluetooth S Pen, more internal capacity and RAM, a massive 4,000 mAh battery, improved dual rear cameras with some software intelligence, enhanced audio capability, and new placement of the rear fingerprint scanner.
The new Bluetooth S Pen is an excellent innovation that is sure to please all Note fans with the additional remote control functionality. Later this year a SDK will be released so that third parties can add support for the Bluetooth S Pen.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 9 continues to have all of the excellent Galaxy Foundation aspects such as a high level of water resistance, fast wireless charging, a stunning Super AMOLED screen, expandable microSD storage, a 3.5mm headset jack, and much more.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 9 has standard pricing across all carriers with the 128GB version available for $999.99 and a 512GB model for $1,249.99. With a large capacity microSD card you could actually have more than 1TB in the palm of your hand. There have been a lot of promotions and special offers over the past month so you can find the Note 9 at less than the full price in many places.
Check out our Galaxy Note 9 review.
3. Apple iPhone XS Max/XS
Apple pushed the entry-level price of a flagship up to $1,000 last year with the iPhone X and raised the bar again this year with the most expensive flagship available in the iPhone XS Max. ZDNet's Jason Cipriani awarded the iPhone XS Max an impressive near-perfect score of 9.6/10 so I'm pretty sure Jason would give the top spot to this phone.
I ordered my own iPhone XS Max to replace my iPhone X, using the T-Mobile Jump On Demand program, but after two weeks I sent it back as I found the small size of the iPhone X was one of the primary reasons it still earned a place in my pocket.
The Apple iPhone XS Max has been shown to best all other phones in benchmarking testing and the Apple A12 Bionic chipset certainly blazes new trails. It has a fabulous OLED screen, good sized battery, and new camera software to make it a very compelling flagship.
The iPhone XS Max starts at $1,099 for a minimal storage 64GB model and runs up to $1,449 for the 512GB model. I may eventually go back to the iPhone XS Max, but there are no Plus-sized optimizations so it is tough for me to personally justify such a big device without something special.
ZDNet's Jason Cipriani awarded the iPhone XS Max an impressive near-perfect score of 9.6/10.
4. Google Pixel 3 XL and Pixel 3
While the Galaxy Note 9 offers just about everything you want, software updates are not its specialty. If you want an Android phone that will always have the latest firmware and security updates, while also offering a fairly stock experience, then nothing beats the new Google Pixel 3 and 3 XL. These two phones are the exact same except for the overall size and battery capacity.
The Google Pixel 3 XL has a large 6.3-inch 18:9 display, Snapdragon 845 processor, 4GB of RAM, 64GB and 128GB integrated storage, single rear 12.2 megapixel camera, dual front-facing cameras, IP68 dust and water resistance, a 3430 mAh battery, and dual front stereo speakers. The smaller Pixel 3 has a 5.5 inch display and smaller 2,915 mAh battery while the rest of the specs are the same as the XL model. Thankfully, wireless charging is included this year, along with a set of wired Pixel Buds in the retail package.
The larger Pixel 3 XL has a display with a notch while the smaller model forgoes this design approach so often seen today. They both help you shoot stunning photos so if photography means more to you than other functions and features you may want to consider the Pixel 3 or 3 XL over other smartphones in this list. You can check out my weekend with the Pixel 3 XL where I captured some great shots while on vacation.
The smaller Pixel 3 starts at $799 while the Pixel 3 XL starts at $899 for the 64GB model. They are both powered by Android 9.0 Pie and will receive OS upgrades for three years. Google's newest Assistant features are present along with some other Google software advances.
ZDNet's Jason Cipriani awarded the Pixel 3 XL a 9.2/10 rating.
5. Huawei P20 Pro
The unique triple camera design with 68 megapixels worth of shooting power should help you take some fantastic shots with a low light mode that beats out all the other smartphones available today.
Huawei has been including massive capacity batteries in its flagships and the P20 Pro is no exception with 4,000 mAh that is sure to get you through at least one full, busy day. It has a large 6.1 inch OLED with a notch you can show or hide, a powerful Kirin 970 processor with integrated AI, IP67 dust and water resistance, and more.
Huawei's EMUI has come a long way and the home screen now has a standard Google Feed on one panel with an interface that is close to stock. When Huawei does provide software and settings beyond stock Android, those serve to enhance the device rather than clutter it up and slow it down. The P20 Pro flies through every action and is a sheer joy to use.
Sandra Vogel awarded the Huawei P20 Pro an 8.9/10 rating in her full review and CNET gave it an 8.4 in its review. I wrote a post a few months ago after using it for a month and it still goes with me when I want to ensure I capture some great photos.
6. LG V40 ThinQ
LG continues to release great phones that appreciate over time and in a crowded flagship market, the LG V40 may have a tough time finding its place as well.
While Huawei was one of the first major brands to launch a phone with three rear cameras, LG bumped that up by announcing a phone with five total cameras. Three are found on the back and two are on the front.
LG has always stood apart from the others with its second rear camera having a true wide-angle lens for great landscape and large room photography. The new LG V40 keeps the wide-angle camera while also adding a telephoto lens to the standard lens option so you can do just about anything you want, including snapping once to take three photos, with this new flagship phone.
Like the Samsung Galaxy Note 9, the LG V40 ThinQ has everything but the kitchen sink included. It has a 3.5mm headphone jack with Quad-DAC support, triple rear camera setup, dual front-facing camera, wireless charging, IP68 rating, MIL-STD 810G shock resistant rating, microSD expansion card for inexpensive unlimited storage expansion, a screen that extends nearly the full front with a notch, and incredible audio support with its Boombox speaker system. The 3,300 mAh battery may not get you as far as the top five phones in this list.
Last year, the LG V30 impressed me and earned an 8.7/10 rating. I'll be using the LG V40 this week with a full review to come in early November.
7. Apple iPhone XR
This year Apple announced three new phones with one releasing a month after the other two. I just ordered my own iPhone XR that will arrive this week. There are no reviews yet available for this phone, but it has many of the same elements found in the iPhone XS/XS Max at a much more reasonable price.
The Apple iPhone XR differs from the XS/XS Max with a LED screen instead of OLED, lower resolution, no 3D Touch support (does anyone even care about this?), a single rear camera, and a 6.1 inch display that fits in between these other two new phones. It has the same Apple A12 Bionic processor, same camera software and hardware as the 12MP prime camera, and other enhanced Apple features like face unlock. The iPhone XR has a larger capacity battery than the iPhone XS and a reported battery life greater than the XS and XS Max.
You can purchase the iPhone XR in black, white, blue, yellow, coral, and Product Red. The iPhone XR starts at $749, which is $250 less than the 64GB iPhone XS. There is also a 128GB model for just $799, which is likely the best deal for the iPhone XR with the iPhone XS 256GB at a whopping $1,149.
Stay tuned for much more on the iPhone XR as it gets into our hands for further direct testing.
8. Sony Xperia XZ3
Sony is back on the 10 best list with its best smartphone in years in the form of the Xperia XZ3. I've been using one for a few weeks and even though I am not happy with the fingerprint scanner placement it is still a compelling smartphone.
The Sony Xperia XZ3 matches up on the spec sheet closely with the Google Pixel 3 and 3 XL with 4GB RAM, 64GB internal storage, Android 9 Pie, Qualcomm Snapdragon 845, 3300 mAh battery, wireless charging, and IP68 dust and water resistance.
The Xperia XZ3 has a gorgeous curved design with lovely color options and microSD storage expansion options. The 6 inch OLED screen looks great, especially when viewing video content and experiencing the HDR up-conversion technology.
A single 19 megapixel camera is found on the back with a 13 megapixel shooter on the front. The Sony Xperia XZ3 is available now for $899.99 from Amazon and Best Buy in black, forest green, and white silver.
CNET: Sony Xperia XZ3 preview
Sandra Vogel posted a full review of the OnePlus 6 on ZDNet and awarded it a 8.0/10 rating.
9. Samsung Galaxy S9/S9 Plus
Samsung's Infinity Display continues to impress and earns a near perfect score like other Samsung displays on the newest Samsung, Apple, and Google phones. There is 6GB of RAM, the fastest Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 mobile processor, a rear dual aperture camera, another one with super slow motion support (S9 Plus only), the ability to add inexpensive microSD cards, improved Bixby assitant and a hardware button dedicated to its use, Samsung Pay payment technology, wireless and fast charging, IP68 dust and water resistance, a USB Type-C standard port, and traditional 3.5mm headset jack. It also launches with Android 8.0 Oreo. There is nothing missing from the Galaxy S9 Plus and it still deserves respect several months later.
One of the things that stands out on Samsung phones is RF performance so if you live in an area with a weak cellular signal then you might move the S9/S9 Plus up further in your list of best smartphones.
The Samsung Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus are available at prices starting at $720 (S9) and $840 (S9 Plus). T-Mobile and Samsung have the best prices with other carriers adding additional premiums on top of the MSRP. If you buy an unlocked one from Samsung it will not contain carrier bloatware and is priced lower than most US carriers too.
10. OnePlus 6
It has been a few years since I bought a OnePlus smartphone, but after testing the OnePlus 6 for a couple of weeks I purchased the gorgeous Silk White model and it may be one of the most attractive phones I have ever seen.
If I had an affordable smartphone list, then the OnePlus 6 would be number one with prices ranging from $529 to $629. The lowest cost one still has 6GB of RAM and 64GB of storage while the $629 model has 8GB of RAM and 256GB of internal storage. You will not find another phone with these great specs for these prices.
The OnePlus 6 is composed of two pieces of Gorilla Glass 5 with a metal frame. The design is elegant and the build quality is excellent. It has a lovely AMOLED 6.28 inch display, Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor, dual rear cameras (they are a bit underutilized compared to the high end flagships), ample RAM and internal storage options, some level of dust and water resistance, a 3300 mAh battery and quick charge capability, with excellent radio support for GSM networks.
The display has a notch and also runs the latest version of OxygenOS with an extremely responsive software experience. You can even enable an all touch interface, similar to the iPhone X.
Sandra Vogel posted a full review of the OnePlus 6 on ZDNet and awarded it a 9.1/10 rating.
The OnePlus 6T may cause some shuffling in the last five on the list, but the top five are likely to remain this way until we see what might be revealed at CES and then MWC in early 2019. If you want to save a few bucks, last year's models are still fantastic so you can pick up an iPhone X, iPhone 8 or 8 Plus, Pixel 2 or 2XL, and more at a significant savings and still get a fantastic phone.