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The 10 best smartphones of 2019: 5G powers the top contender

We didn't expect much right at the end of the year, but with last week's network rollout we had to give a capable 5G smartphone the top spot. Stay tuned for many more 5G-capable phones in 2020 with a shakeup of this list in January or February.

The best smartphones on the market right now ZDNet's Matthew Miller talks with TechRepublic's Karen Roby, breaking down the best of the best smartphones that are available to consumers right now. Read more: https://zd.net/2AEIxGA

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Best Phones for 2019

Our editors hand-picked these products based on our tests and reviews.

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As we approach the end of 2019 and look to new smartphones launching at CES and MWC in early 2020, a small shake-up in this 10 best list is warranted. T-Mobile just rolled out its nationwide 5G and after spending a couple of days with the OnePlus 7T Pro 5G McLaren it's clear the network and phone combination deserve a high rank on this list.

Must read: Samsung Galaxy Fold review: Most innovative phone of 2019 nears Holy Grail of One Device

The Apple iPhone 11 Pro sat at the top of this list for a few months and could be justified to remain in that top spot. However, after spending more than a month trying to figure out a daily driver to end 2019 with, the iPhone 11 Pro is my second or third option, while my top choice is preferred for a few reasons.

It's easy to find a great phone these days and today's 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.

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1. OnePlus 7T Pro 5G McLaren

OnePlus and T-Mobile just launched the OnePlus 7T Pro 5G McLaren smartphone last week as the T-Mobile 600 MHz 5G low-band network was activated. This phase of the 5G network currently offers minor speed improvements, but enhances the range, penetration, and reliability of the wireless network.

This latest OnePlus flagship offers extremely responsive performance with its 90Hz display, fast UFS 3.0 256GB internal storage, massive 12GB RAM, and the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 Plus processor. Triple rear cameras are found on the back with a 16 megapixel rising up from the top just when you need it.

The OnePlus 7T Pro 5G McLaren is composed of two pieces of Gorilla Glass with a metal frame. The design is elegant and the build quality is superb. It has a lovely AMOLED 6.67-inch display, large 4,085mAh battery, and Warp Charge 30T capability, with excellent radio support for GSM networks. There is no certification for dust and water resistance and a 3.5mm headphone jack is nowhere to be found.

Unlike the majority of phones today, there is no notch or hole-punch in the display for the camera. The front-facing camera extends and retracts out of the top only when in active use. This helps make the phone perfect for working with documents and spreadsheets during the work day or watching media content during your commute.

The phone is running the latest version of Android 10 and is regularly updated with the latest Android security update. There are also some cool Papaya Orange highlights and McLaren software elements. The OnePlus 7T Pro is an extremely capable phone with a full retail price of $899.99.

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2. Samsung Galaxy Note 10/10 Plus

The Samsung Galaxy Note 9 sat on top of our 10 best smartphone list for much of the past year and was at the top of this list earlier this year. While the headphone jack is gone, everything else has been improved on the 2019 version of the Galaxy Note. The Note 10 is now offered in two variants, with the presence of a microSD card slot, display size, and battery capacity being the prime differentiators.

The Galaxy Note 10 Plus is an excellent enterprise smartphone with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 processor, massive amounts of RAM, fast internal storage, microSD card expansion, capable rear quad-camera system, and much more.

Check out our Samsung Galaxy Note 10 Plus review.

The Samsung Galaxy Note 10 has a Link to Windows button in the quick controls area along with support for the latest version of DeX. Extending it to an external monitor with Samsung DeX is quick and easy, while also providing a full functioning desktop experience. The additional capability to charge up other devices and gear, such as the Galaxy Buds, via wireless technology on the back of the Note 10 is convenient for road warriors.

The Note 10, starting with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of internal storage, starts at $949.99 while the Note 10 Plus with 12GB of RAM and 256GB internal storage starts at $1,099.99. There are also increased RAM and storage options for both devices, but the default base models offer ample RAM and storage for most users. The Note 10 Plus is available now from Samsung and all carriers. T-Mobile also just rolled out a 5G variant, priced at $1,299.99.

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Apple iPhone 11 Pro. 

Apple, Inc.

3. Apple iPhone 11 Pro/Pro Max

My full review of the Apple iPhone 11 Pro led me to almost rank it with my first perfect 10. I held back from that since Apple launched it with just 64GB of internal storage capacity, which I find unacceptable for a $1,000+ flagship phone with a triple camera system -- the best video capture system on a phone. Apple has also been struggling with iOS 13 performance issues, which is why it doesn't remain at the top of this list.

The only differences between the iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max are the display size and battery capacity. After going full circle, it's clear that the 5.8-inch model works best for me. There's a lot to be said for a phone that is easily pocketable and capable of satisfying people with smaller hands. It's usable with one hand.

Apple has once again showed it bests all other phones in benchmarking testing with the Apple A13 Bionic chipset. It has a fabulous OLED screen, good-sized battery with a rating of four hours more than last year's iPhone, and new camera hardware (with improved software) to make it a very compelling flagship. It continues to get regular updates (one coming within the first week of release) and iOS apps are still better than comparable Android apps, despite the improvements in Android phones.

Face ID continues to be one of the fastest and most secure methods of maintaining security on your phone, and the version in the iPhone 11 Pro has been improved for better performance. Google may release an alternative with the upcoming Pixel 4, but current ultrasonic fingerprint scanners are not proving very reliable for consistent performance.

The iPhone 11 Pro starts at $999 while the iPhone 11 Max starts $1,099 for a minimal storage 64GB model. There are some attractive colors for enterprise users and compared to the iPhone 11 the Pro version are more focused on business users.

Check out our Apple iPhone 11 Pro review.

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Image: Apple

4. Apple iPhone 11

While this list starts out with the most powerful, and expensive, phones available, ZDNet's Jason Cipriani was right in stating that the Apple iPhone 11 is probably the best phone for most people. We typically see Apple keep prices the same, or increase them, each year, but with the iPhone 11 we actually saw a price drop of $50.

Unlike the terrible decision to launch the iPhone 11 Pro/Pro Max with 64GB and then charge a massive premium to upgrade to the next level of 256GB, Apple lets iPhone 11 buyers go from 64GB to 128GB for just $50. Thus, the iPhone 11 with 128GB is an excellent option for most people.

The iPhone 11 has a size between the 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max with a long battery life, capable processor, several color options, and rear dual camera setup. The iPhone 11 has an ultra-wide angle and standard rear cameras, but doesn't have the 2x telephoto zoom lens found on the other new iPhone 11 models.

The iPhone 11 starts at $699 for 64GB with the 128GB model priced at $749. Six colors are available so there is one to appeal to everyone.

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5. Samsung Galaxy S10/S10 Plus

Samsung's current mass-market flagship is a winner in almost every respect, remaining a more affordable and pocketable option compared to the new Note 10 series. Prices have dropped over the past six months too so you can get this phone at a great price.

Last year's S9 Plus was a solid Android smartphone, but the S10 Plus improves upon that device with an ultra-wide camera, much longer battery life, better software with One UI and the ability to wirelessly charge up other devices.

Samsung's S10 and S10 Plus have a Qualcomm Snapdragon 855, Super AMOLED Infinity-O display, 8GB RAM (with 12GB option), 128GB to 1TB storage options with a microSD for even more capacity, five cameras, IP68 rating, WiFi 6, Bluetooth 5, ANT+, and a stunning design with gorgeous Prism color options.

The Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus 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. In addition, extending it to an external monitor with Samsung DeX is quick and easy, while also providing a full functioning desktop experience. The additional capability to charge up other devices and gear, such as the new Galaxy Buds, via wireless technology on the back of the S10 Plus is convenient for road warriors.

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Best Phones for 2019

Our editors hand-picked these products based on our tests and reviews.

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The Galaxy S10 Plus has now been available for six months, which means you can often find special offers from your preferred carrier. Amazon regularly has unlocked models at even more affordable pricing than Samsung or the carriers. The Galaxy S10 started at $899.99 while the S10 Plus started at $999.99 for the 8GB/128GB model.

Check out our Galaxy S10 Plus review (9.5/10).

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OnePlus

6. OnePlus 7T

OnePlus launched the OnePlus 7T in October for just $599 and it offers much of what is found in the 7T Pro 5G McLaren phone. Due to its high-end specifications, reasonable price that is hundreds less than other flagships, extremely responsive performance, and use of new technology such as the UFS 3.0 internal storage (now seen on the Note 10 Plus) and 90Hz screen refresh rate (now seen on the Pixel 4) it is clearly a device to consider.

The OnePlus 7T launched at a $599 price, and unlike past OnePlus phones, there is just one RAM/storage option of 8GB/128GB. The only choices in the US are the colors Glacier Blue or Frosted Silver. This price is nearly half the price of most of the flagships at the top of this list and will also be offered by T-Mobile.

The OnePlus 7T an AMOLED 6.55-inch display, Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 Plus processor (only mainstream phone with this processor at this time), triple rear cameras, ample RAM and internal storage, a large 3,800mAh battery, and Warp Charge 30T capability, with excellent radio support for AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, and other US networks. There is no certification for dust and water resistance and a 3.5mm headphone jack is nowhere to be found.

Check out our OnePlus 7T review: The best smartphone value of 2019.

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S Pen

7. Samsung Galaxy Note 9

The Galaxy Note 9 was arguably the best phone for business customers in 2018 and until the release of the Note 10 Plus continued to be the phone I kept going back to after getting bored of testing out new, flashy phones. I've been using one now for a full year and despite trying out many other phones I held onto this one long enough to trade it in for the next Note.

The Galaxy Note 9 improved upon the Note 8 with a Bluetooth S Pen, more internal capacity and RAM, a massive 4,000mAh battery, better dual rear cameras with some software intelligence, enhanced audio capability, and new placement of the rear fingerprint scanner.

The One UI software that came with the Android 9 Pie update greatly improves the Note 9 with a less obtrusive and more user-friendly experience. While it took several months for users to receive the update, it's been well worth the wait. Note fans are looking ahead to the next several months when the Note 10 is likely to be revealed in all its glory.

Since it has been out now for a year, you can find great deals on Note 9. If you want the Note experience and just must have that 3.5mm headset jack, or you have a Note 8, then the Note 9 is still a great phone to buy.

Check out our Galaxy Note 9 review.

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8. Google Pixel 4 XL and Pixel 4

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 Google Pixel 4 and 4 XL. These two phones are the same except for the overall size and battery capacity.

The Google Pixel 4 XL has a large 6.3-inch 18:9 display, Snapdragon 855 processor, 6GB of RAM, 64GB and 128GB integrated storage, dual rear 16MP and 12.2MP cameras, 8MP front-facing camera, IP68 dust and water resistance, a 3,700mAh battery, and dual front stereo speakers. The smaller Pixel 4 has a 5.7-inch display and smaller 2,800mAh battery while the rest of the specs are the same as the XL model.

It's too bad we see storage start at just 64GB, especially with Google no longer providing free unlimited full resolution backup of your photos. Battery life is a concern for both the Pixel 4 and 4 XL, especially when compared to other flagships in this price range that will power you through at least a day of use.

In addition to the software being a focus for Google, the camera is another reason to buy the Pixel 4 or 4 XL over other better smartphone hardware. However, while others have phones with three or four rear cameras, Google added just one and went with telephoto over ultra-wide angle so the utility of the Pixel 4 cameras may not be as great as what you get on other smartphones in this list.

The smaller Pixel 4 starts at $799 while the Pixel 4 XL starts at $899 for the 64GB model. They are both powered by Android 10 and 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.

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9. Google Pixel 3A XL and Pixel 3A

Google launched a couple of mid-level phones that are much more affordable and still include Google's industry-leading camera solution. The Pixel 3A and 3A XL are the same phones with just the screen size and battery capacity being different from each other. An $80 price difference differentiates between the two sizes with the same color options also being available.

The Pixel 3A and 3A XL are powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 670 processor with 5.6 or 6-inch OLED displays, 12MP rear camera, 8MP front camera, 4GB of RAM, 64GB of internal storage, stereo speakers, and 3,000/3,700mAh battery options. This is targeted to the masses with limited internal storage and US carrier availability at Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile, as well as unlocked directly from Google.

The smaller Pixel 3A is priced at just $399 while the Pixel 3A XL costs $479. The only option, other than size, is the color of the phone. Available colors include Just Black, Purple-ish, and Clearly White. 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 3A XL an 8.5/10 rating.

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#5: Colors, colors, and more colors!

10. Apple iPhone XR

Last year Apple announced three new phones with one that people seem to like more than any other one month after the other two. I traded in the iPhone XS Max for an iPhone XR, saving $350 over the iPhone XS Max, but couldn't give up the iPhone XS form factor in the end.

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.

The battery life of the iPhone XR is awesome and the camera does a great job. For many people, it is likely one of the best iPhones you can buy today and is more reasonably priced than the new XS and XS Max.

Check out our full review of the iPhone XR with an 8.4/10 rating.

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