I know it is a tired cliche to write “it’s been an eventful year” in the intro of a year-end wrap-up piece, but it really has been an extraordinarily eventful year for smartphones in 2019. After all, this is the year in which the future-shaping 5G networks became official; Samsung unveiled a cutting-edge new technology (a screen that bends) that promptly malfunctioned in the hands of some of the world’s most famous tech reviewers; and the U.S. government dealt a crippling blow to a Chinese phone brand that had just overtaken Apple for the world’s number two spot, potentially adding further tension to what is shaping up to be a new Cold War.
Despite all that drama, everyone still thrived. Apple released a critically acclaimed iPhone that many including myself declared as a major jump from previous years. Samsung’s folding phone did hit the market after that initial failure and seems to be slowly winning over consumers. Other Chinese brands such as Oppo and Vivo continued to innovate. The only victim of all that drama: Huawei, whose phones finished either number one or number two on my list of favorite phones in 2017 and 2018, this year fell to number six due to Google uncertainty and also very tough competition.
The scene remains healthy—global smartphone sales increased for the first time in two years in Q3 of 2019—and the critically acclaimed iPhone 11 Pro along with exciting new form factors and 5G connectivity all but ensure momentum heading in 2020.
As usual, Hong Kong is arguably the best spot in the world in terms of sheer access to phone brands. There’s no brand that’s banned; no geopolitics preventing consumers access to a rival country’s products like in other regions. We get everything in Hong Kong, and once again, the total number of phone models I tested in 2019 exceeded 30.
And so, without further ado, here are my top seven favorite smartphones (and three honorable mentions) of 2019, ranked according to how much I enjoyed using the phone, while mixing in factors such as value and innovation. The latter is important to me; I like to reward phone brands that push the industry forward instead of playing it safe.
Keep in mind, this is not necessarily the “best” phones of the year, but my personal favorites.
Google’s Pixel 4 takes the best still photos of any smartphone I’ve used this year. Its software bokeh mode is so good, in fact, I have been using the Pixel 4 for product shots instead of my mirrorless Sony cameras in some of my recent reviews.
So why, then, wouldn’t the Pixel 4 even crack my top seven if the camera is that good? Well, the Pixel 4 is arguably the worst value in the industry, and there are a couple of hardware flaws I just can’t forgive. The former is basically consensus within the entire tech writing industry, the Pixel 4 is overpriced not just compared to value kings from China, but it’s also overpriced compared to Apple’s iPhones. Every other phone in the Pixel’s $1,000 price range offers more RAM, more storage, more battery, and more cameras.
Even if money is no issue, the other two flaws are undeniable: the smaller Pixel 4 also has the worst battery life of any smartphone this year, and Google’s face unlock system isn’t truly secure because it unlocks without requiring the phone owner to pay attention to the screen.
The Realme X2 Pro, in many ways, is the anti-Pixel 4: it is a steal of a value, at around $400, you get Snapdragon 855+ (better than the Pixel 4’s Snapdragon 855); full-time 90Hz fluid screen (the Pixel 4’s 90Hz turns on and off); and four good cameras.
But the phone is too similar to what OnePlus and Oppo already put out that it feels like recycled hardware, and it isn’t widely available.
The good: Vivo’s Nex 3 is an affordable 5G phone without a notch; it’s also the first to market with the so-called waterfall curved screen that’s quite a stunner to look at. Hardware design and build quality are top notch, and the internal specs keep up with the best of the best from Android.
The bad: The camera can be hit and miss. Night mode, for example, doesn’t seem to work at all; and video recording has no stabilization whatsoever for jerky videos. Still images under good lighting are great, at least.
The weird: Vivo’s FunTouchOS Android skin completely revamps some of the most basic Android software features, such as putting all shortcut toggles in a swipe-up menu instead of part of the pull-down notification shade. I also tested the Chinese version of the software which didn’t come with Google and had quite a bit of Chinese text that I couldn’t get rid of.
The good: At the time of release in March, the P30 Pro had the best camera system around. The phone’s low light capabilities were so ahead of the pack it garnered superlative praises from The Verge, Android Authority and myself, and then the phone also introduced a pioneering “Periscope” zoom system that can pull off 5x lossless zoom, credible 10x and 20x zoom, and even decent 50x zoom.
The bad: Huawei’s RYYB sensor is able to pull in so much more light due to its extra yellow sensor, but that in turn gives many images an overly warm (yellowish) hue. Still, I was able to put up with it for the industry-best night camera at the time. But the iPhone 11 Pro has climbed close enough to narrow the gap that its more accurate colors and superior camera modes elsewhere puts it above the P30 Pro’s system. Huawei’s zoom camera was also surpassed by the Oppo Reno 10X Zoom just a month later—that phone can achieve 60x digital zoom.
The weird: The P30 Pro can run Google’s mobile services perfectly fine because it was released before the announcement of the Google ban, but the phone cannot be upgraded to the regular Android 10; instead it’ll use the AOSP (Android Open-Source Project) version that’s on the Mate 30 Pro.
The good: One of the most beautiful designs this year in my opinion: the front is entirely screen with no interruptions; the back is minimal yet stylish, with no camera bump or indentations. Even the pop-up selfie camera is unique, as it’s shaped like a shark fin. The camera zoom system on this is the best in the business, able to get up to 60x digital zoom. This, plus the wide-angle lens make it the most versatile camera system around in terms of focal length. The two photos below were taken at the exact same spot.
The bad: Not much, to be honest. Smartphones have gotten so good that starting at this spot I’m likely going to have to nitpick to find something “bad,” but I wish the Reno 10X Zoom had better video stabilization and wide-angle performance in low light.
The weird: Oppo have since pumped out like four or five more “Reno” devices, and the naming scheme began to get weird. For example, the Reno 2, you would think, is a “sequel” phone with superior performance but no, it runs on a less powerful chip. There’s the Reno Ace, which has a better screen, but brings back the notch.
The good: OnePlus phones have always offered the fastest, smoothest performance relative to everything else at the time, and arguably the best software experience. This year, with the 7 Pro, OnePlus added a third highlight: the best screen on a smartphone: it’s Quad HD resolution, it’s without a notch or cutouts, and it zips around at 90Hz screen. There have been other 90Hz screen phones since, but the OnePlus 7 Pro is still the best one.
The bad: The wide-angle camera, at the time of review, couldn’t capture videos; and the one gripe I have with what is an otherwise flawless software experience is that OnePlus’ software doesn’t offer a one-hand mode. The 7 Pro needs it too, because it’s a big phone.
The weird: the 7 Pro actually has a direct follow-up, the 7T Pro, but this phone was only released in certain markets, was announced at a separate event from the main 7T, and wasn’t made available to many international or American reviewers—likely because it’s one of the most minor upgrades in recent memory.
The good: The LG G8X, by itself, is a solid but unspectacular phone. The design is a bit generic, the cameras are just fine, and LG even did away with the wonderful haptic engine of previous LG phones. But snap the G8X into its included “Dual Screen” case and the device transforms into something original: a two-screen phone that offers true multi-tasking.
I’m always going to reward thinking outside the box and practical features, and the G8X Dual Screen can simply do things many other phones cannot do right now. Your mileage may vary, but for me, who do a lot of work on a phone and is always on the road, having two screens at the same time has proven extremely useful.
And it’s not just running two apps side-by-side, LG has thought of these quirky but useful ways of taking advantage of the extra screen space too, like using the bottom screen to display a larger keyboard, so that I can place it on a desk and type as if I’m on a tiny laptop. It takes a couple of hours to get used to, but I am able to type noticeably faster doing this than I could on a regular smartphone.
The price is also worth highlighting: LG is selling the entire package for $700 in the U.S. and around the same in Hong Kong, for that you’re getting flagship Android specs in a unique, rarely seen package.
The bad: As mentioned, LG inexplicably removed two of my favorite LG features: the first is that strong haptic engine that provided tactile feedback. The haptics on the G8X are mushy and weak; another omission here is “Knock Code,” which was an LG-specific feature that allowed me to unlock a phone by tapping a sequence on the screen.
The weird: The G8X, the device’s international name, within South Korea it’s called the V50S. This is very confusing branding that LG should avoid. In general, LG could also shorten its phone names because the official name of this device is LG G8X ThinQ Dual Screen.
The good: I have a love-hate relationship with the iPhone (and Apple products, in general). I hate not being able to place apps freely on a homescreen (iOS forces us to place apps in a top down, left-to-right grid); the iPhone’s notification management system is a dumpster fire compared to Android’s; it also annoys me that my iPhone has a giant red bubble reminding me to buy iCloud storage that I can’t dismiss permanently. When I’m using an iPhone as my main phone, there isn’t a day in which I don’t mutter “freaking Apple…” to myself.
But I still have to use an iPhone from time to time, and it’s still number two on my list, for two reasons: the iPhone 11 Pro has the best camera system overall. The Pixel 4 beats it in still photos and Huawei still wins in extreme low light, but in terms the overall package—color science, dynamic range, camera app responsiveness, video stabilization, bokeh portrait mode, etc.—the iPhone 11 Pro comes out on top.
Video stabilization, in particular, is stunning on the iPhone 11 Pro—it’s miles ahead of any Android.
The other reason I must use an iPhone? Many of the top apps run better on iOS than on Android, and some of the smaller companies, if they can only afford to build one app, will always build for the iPhone first.
The bad: I know I already vented about this earlier, but why won’t Apple let us customize our phone’s homescreen the way we see fit? A phone is our personal computer, and we each have different needs.
For example, I use my phone with one hand a lot, so on an Android, I place all my apps at the bottom of the screen for easier thumb reach. I also place a calendar widget on my homescreen on all my Android phones so I am always reminded of upcoming appointments. I can’t do neither of these things on my iPhone.
The weird: I usually carry around an iPad Pro as my main work computer. If I’m using an Android phone that day, I can use one USB-C cable for all my charging needs. If I’m using an iPhone, I need to carry two cables. Ironic, no?
The good: as I already mentioned twice earlier: I reward innovation and out of the box thinking and Samsung’s Galaxy Fold is the epitome of that. Whether or not you believe in this particular phone for now—some say it’s too expensive; others say it’s too fragile—what you can’t deny is that this is different from any other phone before it, and it is likely the future.
Who wouldn’t want more screen, without sacrificing pocket or bag space? Who wouldn’t want to one day be able to get real computer-like productivity from a 12-inch screen that can fold up into the size of a wallet? The Galaxy Fold is just the first step towards that future.
Yes, I know durability is a concern for now—although I must say my unit is still holding up well after nearly three months of heavy use—and it is twice as expensive as the best Apple or Huawei phone. But both durability and price will improve over time.
All I know is no phone this year gave me the same sense of genuine excitement as the Fold. And when the honeymoon period has worn off—say, right now, three months into owning the device—I still bring the Fold with me on every trip, because who wouldn’t want to be able to watch movies or read articles on a larger tablet-like canvas, but without needing to actually carry one in a bag? I can pull the Fold out of my pocket and get double the screen as everyone else sitting next to me at a cafe or on a plane. I’ve also done real writing work on the Fold on days when I didn’t bring a laptop but realize I need to do some work. Yes, I needed a separate keyboard, but those are cheap and increasingly portable too.
The bad: In folded form, the Fold’s front screen is a bit too cramped to type on. I wish Samsung had made it just bit larger—even an additional 0.3 inches would have drastically improved usability.
The weird: The initial batch of the Galaxy Fold that were sent out to top reviewers malfunctioned in spectacular fashion for two reasons: either small particles or debris got under the very noticeable gap in the hinge, or users unknowingly peeled off a plastic film covering the screen that looked just like any other cheap plastic screen protector. That Samsung didn’t think the gap in the hinge or having a crucial plastic film that looks like it should be peeled off would cause problems is mind-boggling.
What Samsung did to “fix” these issues aren’t anything high tech—the company merely added plastic caps to close off the gap and tucked the plastic screen cover under the lip of the bezel so users can’t just peel them off.
Sometimes the smartest people can miss the most simple of things. Still, the Samsung Galaxy Fold is my phone of the year in 2019.