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Best smartphone 2019: iPhone, OnePlus, Samsung and Huawei compared and ranked

Guardian Technology 17 Dec 2019 07:00

Need a new smartphone but don’t know which one is the very best? Here’s a guide comparing the current top-end smartphones from Apple, Samsung, Huawei, OnePlus and others to help you pick the best handset for you.

There has never been a better time to buy a new flagship smartphone with many quality handsets available at a wider range of prices than ever before. Whether your priority is two-day battery life, fantastic camera performance or a spectacular screen, there’s plenty to choose from.

This Guardian buyer’s guide to top-end smartphones was last updated on 17 December 2019, and represents the best available models at the time. As new models are released and tested, this guide will be updated to help you choose the right flagship phone for you.

Q&A

What is a buyer's guide?

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Welcome to one of the Guardian’s new buyer’s guides. This article represents hundreds of hours of testing by the author to bring together a succinct list of recommended products or services so you can pick from the best and ignore the rest without having to do hours of your own research.

Best overall: OnePlus 7T Pro

These regularly updated deals have been sourced through a third-party price comparison service. The Guardian may make a small commission if a reader clicks through and makes a purchase. More information.

Best iOS: Apple iPhone 11 Pro

These regularly updated deals have been sourced through a third-party price comparison service. The Guardian may make a small commission if a reader clicks through and makes a purchase. More information.

Best smaller Android: Samsung Galaxy S10

These regularly updated deals have been sourced through a third-party price comparison service. The Guardian may make a small commission if a reader clicks through and makes a purchase. More information.

Best camera: Huawei P30 Pro

These regularly updated deals have been sourced through a third-party price comparison service. The Guardian may make a small commission if a reader clicks through and makes a purchase. More information.

Best value: OnePlus 7T

These regularly updated deals have been sourced through a third-party price comparison service. The Guardian may make a small commission if a reader clicks through and makes a purchase. More information.
Quick guide

Smartphone jargon

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Size

Smartphones are rated by screen size measured on the diagonal in inches. The bigger the number the larger the phone, but different phones use different ratios of height to width.

How easy it is to handle comes down to the width of the phone and its weight. The narrower and lighter it is, the easier it is to hold in one hand and the less likely you are to drop it.

Processor

What is commonly called the processor in a phone is actually a system-on-a-chip combining the processor, graphics and other essential systems into one.

Generally the newer the processor the more powerful and battery efficient it will be. Samsung, Huawei and Apple make their own, while Qualcomm is the largest supplier to other brands at the high end, with its Snapdragon 8-series range at the top.

RAM

The RAM (memory) is where your apps and processes are stored when in use, so the you more your phone has the better, up to a point.

Android requires more RAM than iOS, so it's difficult to directly compare them. But with Android at least 4GB of RAM is currently recommended.

Storage

Different from memory, storage is where everything is stored on the phone, including apps and media. While a few phones can have their storage expanded with microSD cards, most cannot.

That means you should aim for 64GB of storage at a minimum, but more if you want to store lots of photos. Cloud services such as Spotify or Google's Photos can help offload your music, photos or videos to the internet.

Software updates

Keeping your phone secure from hackers is essential, which makes software updates critical to patch bugs and security holes, as well as adding new features and improving things such as battery life and the camera.

Not all phones receive regular updates. Apple's support of older phones is the best in the business of around 5 years, followed by Samsung and Google's three years, both from when the phone was released - not when you buy it.

Battery life

Battery life varies drastically between devices, and "all-day battery" often doesn't mean 24 hours between charges. Some may not last long enough, particularly if you're out in the evening.

Battery life gets worse as the battery ages too, so a two-day battery will likely make sure the phone lasts at least a day two years later.

Camera

Cameras are the current battleground between the big players, but the margins between them are slimming.

Most use computational photography that combines hardware with advanced software algorithms, typically allowing multiple cameras to combine to make one image.

As such the camera software makes as much difference as the hardware, and is one of the few areas that actually improves over time with updates.

Multi-camera systems often offer more, such as useful zooms, portrait modes and better low-light performance, but they are not all created equally. There are also 3D cameras, which can detect facial expressions and other fun tricks.

The number of megapixels (MP) also makes a difference. Having more MP doesn't necessarily equal a better image, but modern smartphone cameras combine multiple pixels to improve image quality producing 12MP shots from 48MP sensors, for example.

Other things to consider

Wireless charging: convenient, but slower than via cable and normally a charging pad doesn't come in the box

Durability: generally glass on the front and back of the phone makes it more fragile

Resale value: iPhones hold their value better than most others

OLED versus LCD: OLED screens emit their own light so have much deeper blacks and more vibrant colours, while LCD screens are cheaper

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Apple’s cheaper iPhone 11 is the follow-up to last year’s iPhone XR and offers most of the features of the iPhone 11 Pro. It has slightly battery life too, but is missing the excellent ultra-wide angle camera, has a slightly larger, but worse screen. It is made of aluminium and glass, instead of stainless steel, losing its luxurious feel and the knowledge that it’s the best Apple can make.

If you must have an iPhone and it must have a massive screen or epic battery life then the iPhone 11 Pro Max is your only option. But it has really poor ergonomics, is big, expensive and heavy, making the smaller iPhone 11 Pro or iPhone 11 are better options.

The smallest, cheapest variant of Samsung’s current S10 line is still good, but falls slightly short of the high bar set by the regular Galaxy S10. The Galaxy S10e loses the optical zoom with only two cameras on the back, has a flat, slightly smaller screen and a lower capacity battery. It also ditches in the in-screen fingerprint scanner for one embedded in the power button – great for right-handed users but not so for the left handed.

Samsung Galaxy S10+

The bigger version of the Galaxy S10 with a 6.4in QHD+ display has the best screen available on any device. The oval-shaped hole-punch notch is novel, containing two good selfie cameras. The triple rear camera is good, but not a patch on the Huawei P30 Pro. Performance is good, so is the software, but the battery life is slightly disappointing compared with the best. The fingerprint scanner is a bit slow and can be frustrating to use.

The Galaxy Note 10+ is a Samsung super-fan’s dream. It has the biggest screen on a Samsung with a monstrous 6.8in on the diagonal, new faster UFS3.0 storage, reasonable battery life and plenty of party tricks. The stylus can now be used as a magic wand for gestures, there are three cameras on the back and is available in a 5G version too. The fingerprint scanner is a bit slow and can be a bit frustrating to use.

The biggest, most powerful version of Samsung’s S-line is the S10 5G and it’s huge with a 6.7in QHD+ AMOLED screen, long oval-shaped hole-punch notch for the selfie cameras, and four cameras on the back. Performance, software and battery are good, but it’s not as slick or ergonomic as the OnePlus 7 Pro 5G. The fingerprint scanner is a bit slow and can be frustrating to use.

The Mate 20 Pro has the big, attractive 6.39in QHD+ screen, svelte body, long battery life and great performance that made it the top phone of 2018. However, its excellent triple camera system with 3x optical zoom has been outdone by Huawei’s newer P30 Pro, which has a Leica quad camera with 5x optical zoom. It recently received EMUI 10 (Android 10) and is worth looking out for deals, particularly if you want the 3D face unlock option.

The Google Pixel 4 XL is a mixed bag. On the one hand you have a good-looking 6.3in QHD+ AMOLED display running at 90Hz, a stellar camera, new Soli radar gesture system, amazing new on-device AI and super-fast 3D Face Unlock. But on the other you have no fingerprint scanner, meaning until apps are updated to use the Face Unlock you’re forced back to using the old pin or password, the battery life is fairly short and there have been quite a few bugs that have needed fixing since launch. One day it might be great.

Xiaomi’s first slider phone offers more than most for the money, with top-flight specs for 2018 competing directly with the OnePlus 6T and Honor View20. It takes a different approach to the problem of where to put the selfie camera in an all-screen design, hiding it behind the screen on slide-out section.

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