Best Android phones 2018: What should you buy?

Picking an Android phone can be difficult, but we're here to help. These are the top Android phones you should consider bringing home.

android phone hub Rob Schultz/IDG

Choosing a new Android phone isn’t easy. The Android universe is teeming with options, from super-expensive flagship phones, to affordable models that make a few calculated compromises, to models expressly designed for, say, great photography. 

Chances are that whichever phone you buy, you’ll keep it for at least two years. So choosing the best Android phone for you isn’t a decision you should take lightly. But we can make things easier: We’ve made picks for the best Android phone in several categories. Check out our summary list below, or keep reading for the details on each one. 

At the bottom of this article, we also list all our recent Android phone reviews—in case you have your eye on a model that doesn’t make our cut.

Updated 1/18/18: We have new picks for the best phone for photographers, phablet lovers, and bargain hunters.

Best overall phone

Samsung’s flagship phones are usually quite good, but the Galaxy S8 and S8+ really pull out all the stops and deliver a phone that is more polished, usable, and technically impressive than ever before. Inside and out, this phone is a masterpiece.

The gorgeous design is built around a big, tall 18.5:9 aspect ratio AMOLED display that delivers the best brightness, contrast, and color we’ve ever seen. The new form factor isn’t just good looking, it’s more comfortable and usable, too.

Inside you’ll find the first phone with a 10nm Snapdragon 835 chip, which gives it top-tier performance and excellent power efficiency. In fact, these phones performed just great in our battery benchmarks (roughly 9 hours), with real-world use easily taking us through a busy day. 

There are so many features it’s hard to list them all. Bluetooth 5, support for future gigabit LTE, wireless charging (Qi and PMA), iris scanner, Samsung Pay and Android Pay support, USB-C, headphone jack, IP68 water proofing, microSD card support... for such a smooth, slim, attractive phone, it sure packs in a ton of “stuff.”

Samsung’s software is better than ever, too. 

You still have to contend with far too much bloatware and from Samsung and carriers, and the fingerprint sensor is placed in a terrible location. But these sore spots are relatively minor distractions from a phone that does more, looks better, and is more delightful to use than anything else on the market.

Best phone for photographers

The original Google Pixel produces amazing images, but the Pixel 2 takes photography to a whole new level. Indeed. The camera in Google’s latest smartphone isn’t just the best in an Android phone this year. It has also raised the bar for the entire smartphone industry.

The first thing you’ll notice about the Pixel 2’s camera is its specs. Like last year, Google hasn’t gone with a dual camera set-up, and in fact it, hasn’t really upgraded the hardware much at all. Check out this specs comparison:

2016 Pixel: 12.3 MP, f/2.0, electronic image stabilization, phase detection & laser autofocus, dual-LED flash
2017 Pixel: 12.2 MP, f/1.8, optical image stabilization, phase detection & laser autofocus, dual-LED flash

As always, however, specs don’t tell the whole story. For one, optical image stabilization makes a huge difference in both low-light situation and motion pics, but what’s most impressive is what Google is doing behind the scenes. In the Pixel 2, Google is using its AI and machine-learning engines to amplify its image processing prowess, and the results are simply stellar. For example, even without a second camera, the Pixel 2 phones take some of the best portraits this side of an DSLR, even besting Apple’s stellar iPhone X.

But the best part might be that both the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL have the exact same camera. The upshot is the smaller and less expensive Pixel phone doesn’t give up anything to the larger one when it comes to the photography—it even has the Pixel Visual Core image processing chip that Google just turned on in the Android 8.1 update. So no matter what kind of photographer you are, the Pixel 2 is the phone that needs to be in your pocket.

Best phablet (over 5.5 inches)

The Galaxy S8+ was our favorite phablet of 2017 until we got our hands on the Note 8. While it’s only a fraction of an inch bigger than the S8+, and comes with the same processor and storage, Samsung has upgraded its productivity phablet in a number of meaningful ways.

The most important change is in the camera. For the first time in a Galaxy flagship phone, Samsung has added a second camera to the rear setup, bringing 2x optical zoom and a true portrait mode. That’s on top of the already great camera that’s in the Galaxy S8. The Note 8 has one of the best cameras we’ve used in a smartphone, and the addition of a second lens makes a noticeable difference, most notably with a new portrait mode that lets you adjust the intensity of the bokeh effect.

And there are other little upgrades as well. The bigger display makes it feel more substantial to hold, and with a higher maximum brightness, it’s much easier to read in direct sunlight. The battery in the Note 8 is actually smaller than the Galaxy S8’s (3,300mAh vs 3,500mAh), but Samsung’s OS optimizations make it last just as long. And even with the same processor, the phone feels faster, thanks to 6GB of RAM and a newer version of Android Nougat.

But the best reason to choose the Note 8 over the Galaxy S8+ is the S Pen. Like Notes of old, there’s a slot on the bottom of the device to keep the stylus tucked away until you need it, and Samsung has added a few new tricks to maximize its usefulness, such as Live Message that lets you send animated notes and better third-party app support. Samsung has tailored the whole Note 8 experience around the S Pen, and the result is a unique, remarkable phone.

At $950, it’s not cheap, but if you want the best phablet, it’ll be worth it.

Best phone for Tango

Augmented reality is the tech buzzword of the moment, and Google has its own platform for AR called Tango. However, unlike Pokemon Go, Tango requires some serious hardware specs to function, and there are only two phones able to run its apps, the Asus Zenfone AR and Lenovo Phab2 Pro. And one of them is clearly superior.

If you’re looking to test out Google AR apps, Asus’s Zenfone AR is the best option. It has a Snapdragon 821 chip, up to 8GB of RAM, and up to 128GB of storage. But what makes it Tango-ready is its impressive camera array. It has three rear cameras: one 23MP main one, along with motion-tracking and depth-sensing cameras dedicated to AR. Its 1440x2560 Super AMOLED display is crisp and vibrant, and handles tracking with ease. Add it all up, and you’ve got a device ready to tackle today’s AR apps (and probably tomorrow’s too).

But what gives the Zenfone AR its edge over the Lenovo Phab2 Pro is its size. With a slim frame and a 5.7-inch screen, it fits comfortably in your pocket and your hands, and feels more like a phone than the 6.4-inch Phab2 Pro. And it’s even compatible with Google’s Daydream VR platform, so you’ll be on the cutting edge of both sides of reality.

And while Tango is still an emerging platform, there are more than enough apps to keep you occupied, like Wayfare View for 3D shopping and Google Measure. The Zenfone AR isn’t perfect, but if you want AR in your life, it’s the only phone you should buy.

Best budget phone ($300 or less)

There was a time when the words “budget” and “Android” conjured images of disposable, plastic phones with small screens.

The Moto G5 punches way above its weight with a quality 5.2-inch 1080p display, metal body, fingerprint sensor, and a very decent camera for its price. For $230 you get 32GB of storage and 2GB of RAM with a Snapdragon 625 processor, or for $300 you can bump that up to 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage. 

Not only that, but it’s fully 4G LTE compatible on all four major U.S. carriers—something that not a lot of budget phones can claim.

The phone has its drawbacks, including microUSB instead of USB-C and a lack of NFC, not to mention that the camera is adequate but doesn’t hold up against top-end phones. 

As a complete package, though, the build quality, specs, performance, battery life, and software experience here is way better than we’re used to seeing in the $200-300 price range.

Best bang for the buck

OK, it’s getting to the point where this category should just be “Most recent OnePlus release.” For years, the company’s handsets have dominated the value category, with premium specs and design for hundreds less than its competitors. And the OnePlus 5T only widens the gap.

While the OnePlus 5 that launched earlier this year is still a solid value, its 5.5-inch screen and design seem a little stale. OnePlus changed that with the 5T. While it has the same Snapdragon 835 chip, RAM, and storage as the 5, the screen has changed dramatically, bringing it more in line with the premium Android phones. The 5T has a 6-inch, 18:9 OLED display, and the bezels around it have been reduced so the overall footprint hasn’t changed much.

That means the OnePlus 5T has a display, processor, and battery that can stand shoulder to shoulder with the Pixel 2 XL and Galaxy S8. But while it might look and feel like a premium phone, it doesn’t cost as much as one: At just $500, the OnePlus 5T is a downright steal.

How we test Android phones

First and foremost, we spend at least several days with the phone under review, treating it as if it were our one and only. No number of lab tests or benchmarks will tell you as much about a phone as living with it for awhile. We’re concerned with real-world performance, stability, interface usability, camera quality, and whether proprietary features are useful or cumbersome. We use social media, check email, play games, take photos and videos in a variety of conditions, navigate around town, and do all the things most people do with their phones.

oneplus 3 benchmarks battery

We run a suite of benchmarks, but what matters most is the overall experience.

Of course, we also run extensive benchmarks: 3DMark (both Ice Storm Unlimited and Sling Shot), PCMark, GFXBench, AnTuTu, Geekbench, and Vellamo. We run all our tests with the phone set up the way it would be out of the box, without disabling any pre-installed apps or services. We do, however, make efforts to make sure benchmarks are not interrupted by notifications and that background downloads aren’t taking place. We may not report results from all of these tests (real-world everyday performance is far more important than benchmarks), but we do share the most interesting results.

Before running each benchmark, we make sure the phone is charged to 100 percent, plugged in, and left to cool off. Phones can sometimes run slower as their batteries get low, and charging the phone can make it hot and cause the SoC to slow down. So we do our best to make sure every test starts with the phone topped off and at room temperature.

When we run battery benchmarks (PCMark and Geekbench), we calibrate the display to 200 nits and disable all auto-brightness and screen-dimming features. Display brightness plays a major role in draining your battery, and we want to create a level playing field. Of course, we also keep a close eye on how long the battery lasts in our everyday use, including screen-on time, standby time, and even how fast the battery charges with the included charger.

What to look for in a phone

Smartphones are very personal. Everyone has different needs, a unique budget, and personal preferences. You might need to access secure corporate email and documents with a phone that works on lots of networks around the world. Or you might spend all your time chronicling your life on Snapchat.

That said, there are major features of all smartphones that you should compare before making a purchase decision.

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