It's that time of year again. Knowing our audience, chances are that you're looking for some sort of gadget to purchase for yourself or someone else. Whether the smartphone being replaced is too old, too bootloopy, or just doesn't have all the features you want, we've got you covered with our choices for the best smartphones you can buy.
The sheer number of smartphones on the market today makes narrowing the choices down difficult. So many factors - battery life, cameras, displays, software, water resistance, and more - come into play, but our goal is to find the best all-rounders out there.
Each of the three categories, separated by price, will feature three to four phones - enough to provide a few options without making picking one too difficult. The phones here will mostly be unlocked, though there are a few instances where we'll suggest carrier models. We apologize in advance if your favorite phone isn't mentioned, but we can't include every single one. We're going to restrict the devices in this list to those you can purchase brand-new, as used phones don't make for the best holiday gifts. If you'd like to see what you can get in the used market (and you can find some very good deals), check out our used phone buyer's guide.
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This section will include phones that won't break the bank, but are still be pretty decent daily drivers. Of course, you'll have to make a few compromises, but that's a given in this price range.
Moto E4 / Moto E4 Plus
Lenovorola has churned out a ton of phones over this past year, and while some were so-so, others were awesome. The Moto E4 and E4 Plus are in that second camp. Depending on how big of a phone you want, both are excellent choices at their price points.
In the US, the 5.0" Moto E4 comes with a Snapdragon 425, while the 5.5" E4 Plus has the slightly better Snapdragon 427. Both have 720p displays, 2GB of RAM, and fingerprint sensors. Both of their batteries are noteworthy; the E4's 2,800mAh cell is removable (a rarity these days), and the E4's 5000mAh fixed unit is positively massive. The 8MP camera on the E4 is below par, but the E4 Plus's 13MP shooter is actually quite decent. Should you take selfies in the dark often, worry not - both phones sport front-facing flashes. Both are running stock-ish versions of Android 7.1.1 Nougat, but they're unfortunately not listed in Motorola's Oreo update schedule. Since the phones are both GSM/CDMA unlocked, they should work on any carrier.
The Moto E4 is going for $129.99, and the E4 Plus in 16GB and 32GB versions for $179.99 and $199.99, respectively. Expect to save $30-40 if you buy a Prime Exclusive model from Amazon. And given the impending holiday season, chances are you're going to see even more discounts (at publishing time, the 16GB E4 Plus is $159.99, and the 32GB model $169.99).
Huawei may have only recently entered the mainstream market with the Mate 9, but its budget-oriented Honor brand has been here for a bit. The Honor 6X is one of the newer Honor phones, and we called it "a great value proposition" in our review of it.
The Honor 6X has some great specs for the price. In the US, we get a 5.5" 1080p IPS display, a Kirin 655, 3GB of RAM, 32GB of storage with microSD expansion, a 12MP/2MP rear camera setup, an 8MP selfie-shooter, and a sizable 3,340mAh battery. It's also unlocked and dual-SIM. In our review, we found performance, battery life, and the fingerprint sensor all fantastic. Less impressive were the lack of an oleophobic coating on the screen and no NFC for the US market, as well as the lack of 5GHz WiFi. But all things considered, the Honor 6X is a great phone, and EMUI 5.0 made the software experience better.
MSRP for the 6X is $199.99, though it can usually be found for a few bucks less. It even hit $150 a few weeks back, though we don't know if a similar deal will pop up any time soon.
Moto G5 Plus
You might be wondering why we're recommending the Moto G5 Plus and not the newer G5S Plus here. Well, despite the G5S Plus's slightly better specs and nicer design, it's also noticeably more expensive and takes arguably worse photos. The older G5 Plus "still the king of budget phones," just as the title of our review for it calls it.
The G5 Plus sports a 5.2" 1080p LCD, a Snapdragon 625, 2GB of RAM and 32GB of storage or 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage with microSD expansion, a 12MP rear camera, a 5MP front-facing camera, and a 3,000mAh battery. We liked its display, performance, and battery life, but didn't take as well to its microUSB connector and lack of NFC. The phone is unlocked for both GSM and CDMA networks, so you'll be able to use it on virtually any carrier.
MSRP for the 2GB/32GB model is $229.99, and for the 4GB/64GB model, it's $299.99. 2GB of RAM is on the lower end, but if you don't do anything intensive on your phone, it and the 32GB of storage should be sufficient. Amazon only seems to be selling the much cheaper Prime Exclusive versions now, but there are plenty of retailers who sell the standard variants.
Honorable mention: Xiaomi Mi A1
One of the main complaints about Xiaomi phones is the non-traditional software, but that problem goes away with Android One devices. The Mi A1 (A1, Android One, get it?) combines Xiaomi's excellent hardware with stock software, making for a great end product. Unfortunately, it's not officially sold in the US, meaning we can't give it a regular spot, though the option to import one is there if you really want one.
As we've come to expect from Xiaomi, the Mi A1 has great specs for the price. It features a 5.5" 1080p IPS display, a Snapdragon 625, 4GB of RAM, 64GB of storage with microSD expansion, a 12MP/12MP camera setup on the back, a 5MP selfie-shooter, and a 3,000mAh battery. It's a dual-SIM device, though that second SIM slot is taken up by a microSD slot if you have one installed. Android 7.1.2 Nougat is currently on board, though an Oreo update is expected before 2017 ends.
Much to our chagrin, the Mi A1 isn't sold stateside by Xiaomi or Google. But if you really want one (Corbin and Rita love theirs), there's a third-party reseller on Amazon who sells them for $260 a pop. That's actually not much more than the ~$231 price the phone costs in India, but you won't have full band compatibility or a warranty.
This bracket will contain phones that are very good, but not quite the absolute best. They're either slightly older flagships or mid-rangers on the upper end, but they should be more than usable for anyone, even those acclimated to having the latest and greatest.
Due to a combination of a ton of buy-one, get-one promos and fierce competition from the Galaxy S8, the LG G6's pricing dropped like a rock. That being said, it was a good phone at its release price and it's an incredible deal now. The only real downside is its inclusion of the Snapdragon 821 instead of the 835, which the Galaxy S8 has, but the phones go toe-to-toe in almost every other regard.
By no means is the G6 a slouch, though. The Snapdragon 821 is still powerful, and it's backed up by 4GB of RAM. 32GB of storage is on board, but it's expandable with a microSD card. The display is a 5.7" 1440p LCD in the now-commonplace 18:9 ratio, which makes web browsing and multitasking easier. The back features two cameras: one standard 13MP sensor with OIS, and another with a wide-angle lens. The 3,300mAh battery is above average, and it can be recharged wirelessly for US-market phones. IP68 water resistance is present as well, making this LG's first water-resistant flagship. Of course, we can't forget about that elusive headphone jack.
The G6's price drop is unique in that the MSRP is actually still the same $600-700 in unlocked and carrier variants. But if you do some digging, you can find some real gems. Amazon is the only retailer that currently has the unlocked G6 for around $400, though it's the Prime Exclusive model. There don't currently appear to be any deals on the standard US unlocked model, but you can often find new carrier models for around $400 on Swappa if you use the filter function. And if you're okay with a used phone, you can probably manage another $100 in savings on top of that. Some carriers should have pretty good deals become available closer to the holiday season as well.
If there's one manufacturer that consistently outdoes itself with the specs:price ratio, it's OnePlus. For the past few iterations, the company's offered specifications that other companies could only dream of including in their phones, but at a price point hundreds less than competitors'. It's truly astonishing the kind of bang for the buck consistently delivered, and this continues with the OnePlus 5T.
You might want to brace yourself for this: the OnePlus 5T sports a 6.0" 2160x1080 AMOLED display, a Snapdragon 835, 6GB or 8GB of RAM, 64GB or 128GB of storage, dual cameras on the back (16MP and 20MP), a 16MP selfie-shooter, and a 3,300mAh battery. The display may still be "only" 1080p, and it might not be water-resistant, but you really can't find specifications of this caliber in a phone intended for the US anywhere else. This thing is quick, the screen-to-body ratio is high, and the software is essentially stock with a couple of nice tweaks. Best of all, it still has a headphone jack.
The only place to get a OnePlus 5T new in the US is OnePlus itself. A 6GB/64GB model will run you $499, and an 8GB/128GB $559. OnePlus's prices have been steadily climbing for some time now, but even so, they're still extremely competitive.
Samsung Galaxy S8
When it debuted in March, we were wowed by the Galaxy S8. Gone were the capacitive buttons and physical home button that had been ubiquitous on almost all Samsung products, replaced by a sleek, modern, nearly bezel-less design. The beauty was backed up by power, too; the Galaxy S8 was one of the first phones in the world to use the now-commonplace Snapdragon 835.
Aside from that 835, the Galaxy S8 sports a 5.8" 1440p AMOLED panel in an 18.5:9 ratio, 4GB of RAM, 64GB of storage with microSD expansion, a top-notch 12MP rear camera with OIS, an 8MP selfie-shooter, and a 3,000mAh battery. Also present are IP68 water resistance, fast wireless charging, an iris scanner, a heart rate monitor, and (surprise!) a headphone jack. Virtually the only downfall is the slower-than-stock software, even if it is better than TouchWiz used to be. Over time, however, this software really bogs the phone down. Many S8 owners on the AP team have experienced this, and I personally even opted to use my first-gen Pixel, a phone with fewer features and generally inferior hardware, instead because I just couldn't stand the slowdown.
Like with the G6, you'll have to look to Swappa to find great deals on new units. A quick scan revealed that a sealed S8 can be had for around $550, regardless of carrier. Unlocked models, whether they be for the US or the international dual-SIM models, can sometimes be found for around that much, but you'll have to wait a bit. You may have noticed by now that the larger, 6.2" S8+ hasn't been mentioned. That's because pricing for new S8 pluses are about the same as those for the newer, superior Galaxy Note8 (which we'll get to soon). And as with the G6, you may be able to snag an S8 from a carrier on the cheap thanks to the impending holiday season.
Honorable mention: Nokia 8
Our second honorable mention goes to another phone that can't be officially purchased in the US: the Nokia 8. It's so strange seeing the name 'Nokia' thrown around so much in the tech world again, but what's even more odd is how good these Nokias are. This new HMD Nokia has already garnered a pretty substantial fanbase as a result.
The Nokia 8 sports a 5.3" 1440p IPS display, a Snapdragon 835, 4GB/6GB of RAM, 64GB/128GB of internal storage with microSD expansion, dual 13MP (one color, one monochrome) cameras with OIS, a 13MP front-facing camera, and a 3,090mAh battery. IP54 water (splash) resistance, Nokia OZO audio, a headphone jack, and NFC are also on board. It launched with Android 7.1.1 Nougat, but already got its Oreo update. The phone is very good overall, with an excellent build, a good display, stock Android, and tremendous power. HMD has been doing a great job with updates thus far, making long-term ownership of one of these very promising.
Like the Mi A1, the Nokia 8 is actually fairly easy to purchase if you're in the US and don't mind the lack of a warranty and imperfect band compatibility. A third-party seller on Amazon has the 4GB/64GB model for $484, which isn't bad at all. In fact, it even has an 'Amazon's Choice' badge. We're starting to hear rumors of some Nokia phones making their way to the US soon, so we can only hope that includes their entire catalog and not just the low-end devices.
The very best
Do you need to be on the bleeding edge of technology? Do you pride yourself on having the most advanced phone of any of your friends? If so, you'll have to take a good look here. Expect very few, if any compromises from phones in this category.
Google Pixel 2 / Pixel 2 XL
Yes, we're giving the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL spots here. Many of you will probably argue that this duo has too many issues, like a poor display on the XL, audio problems when recording video, and so on to warrant a place in this post. In regards to the display, yes, there is some blue shift when the phone is tilted, and the problem is more severe on some panels than others. But for me and many others on the team, it's barely noticeable. And that video recording audio issue is being fixed. Google could have done better with these issues this year, but the phone is still very good.
The Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL differ only in the sizes of their screens (and bezels) and batteries. The Pixel 2 has a 5.0" 1080p Samsung AMOLED panel and a 2,700mAh battery, while the Pixel 2 XL has a 6.0" LG P-OLED display in an 18:9 ratio and a 3,520mAh battery. Both phones have the Snapdragon 835, 4GB of RAM, 64GB or 128GB of internal storage, a 12MP camera with OIS, and an 8MP selfie-shooter. Both also have IP67 water resistance, no headphone jacks, and dual front-facing speakers. And of course, since these are Google phones, you get the pure, buttery smooth Android experience in the form of 8.0 Oreo (and 8.1 if you're on the developer preview track). This means you'll get updates before anyone else, as well as consistent security updates.
In the US, only the Google Store and Verizon officially sell the Pixel 2 line. The Pixel 2 starts at $649 for a 64GB model, and the Pixel 2 XL a staggering $200 more at $849 for 64GB. You'll have to add another $100 on top of that to both phones' pricing to get storage upgraded to 128GB. They're pricey, but only you can decide if the true stock Android experience is worth the money.
Samsung Galaxy Note8
Last year's Note7 was a bit of a... dumpster fire. This year's Galaxy Note8 brings all of the class-leading qualities that its predecessor had, but with 100% less dumpster fire. This phone arguably represents the most complete package possible in a phone. Even the performance is noticeably improved over the S8, which still had some frame-dropping issues. Plus, there are fewer accidental touches on the sides of the display thanks to less curved glass.
Samsung's most expensive phone comes with a 6.3" 1440p AMOLED display in an 18.5:9 ratio, a Snapdragon 835, 6GB of RAM, 64GB of storage with microSD expansion, a 12MP main camera with OIS, an 8MP selfie-shooter, and a 3300mAh battery. Also on board are an iris scanner, IP68 water resistance, fast wireless charging, and of course, the S Pen. If you need a productivity workhorse, there's really no better option, especially given the compatibility with DeX docks.
The Note8 is sold on all four major US carriers. There's a US unlocked model, and dual-SIM variants pop up on eBay for good prices fairly often. With the holiday season coming up, carriers should have some good deals in store. But if you just can't wait, you can find some pretty great deals on sealed versions on sites like Swappa. Oddly enough, new Galaxy Note8s are often cheaper than new Galaxy S8+ units.
If neither the Pixel 2 XL nor the Galaxy Note8 is your speed, you might want to look into the LG V30. Thanks to its 'Quad DAC' and very useful wide-angle camera, it's garnered itself a fanbase in spite of some display quality issues similar to the Pixel 2 XL's.
The V30 sports a 6.0" 1440p P-OLED display in an 18:9 ratio (sound familiar?), a Snapdragon 835, 4GB of RAM, 64GB of storage with microSD expansion, a 16MP/13MP pair of cameras out back, a 5MP sensor up front, and a 3,300mAh battery. All this is encased in a handsome, nearly bezel-less glass sandwich built that is actually IP68 water-resistant. Other features include superior audio through the 3.5mm jack thanks to the Quad DAC and unique amplifier, the wide-angle camera, wireless charging, and tons of control over video recording. Battery life is above average, though it's not class-leading. It's currently on 7.1 Nougat, and we're not sure when Oreo will come (though a beta is being tested in Korea).
MSRP for the V30 varies by carrier, though it's between $800 and $840. Sprint is the only "major" US carrier that sells the V30+ (a V30 with 128GB and nice included headphones), and that phone does require a slight premium. But again, if you hunt for new devices on Swappa, you might be able to get a bit of a discount. The T-Mobile V30 in particular can be had for as little as ~$550 thanks to the various buy-one, get-one promos that are frequently run there, but other carriers' devices are both more expensive and not as abundant in new condition. B&H only recently started selling the US unlocked V30 for $820, for what that's worth.
Honorable mention: iPho-
The iPhone X is the single greatest phone I have ever used in the history of everything and all other phones are now irrelevant because all praise Jony Ive and the notch