For a while, things were looking bleak. The Note 7 crashed and burned, Apple did a copy and paste of the iPhone, and Google’s Pixel looked like something from 2012. Which is to say, 2016 was a pretty forgettable year for mobile, with a lack of innovation and meaningful features creating a pretty boring environment.
But there was a light at the end of the tunnel. We knew 2017 would make smartphones exciting again, and the year didn’t disappoint. We saw everything from the Galaxy S8 to the highly underrated HTC U11. In other words, this year was among the more memorable in recent memory.
The most popular trend this year was the edge-to-edge display. Samsung kicked things off and pretty much every competitor followed suit, including Apple, which release the iPhone X. On that note, Apple finally adopted wireless charging technology, while Google once again proved it’s the best in the biz when it comes to cameras.
Even if you don’t agree with our picks, one thing’s for sure: There was something for everyone this year, whether you could afford the Note 8 or wanted something more practical (and affordable).
Below are our picks for best smartphones of 2017.
Best budget: OnePlus 5T
The OnePlus 5T doesn’t reinvent the wheel, and it’s certainly not better than the Galaxy S8 or iPhone X. But for its price ($499), it’s one of the best values on the market. Not only does it offer a sleek design and great software, but it has incredibly powerful guts. And its suite of added features make it one of the more enjoyable Android experiences on the market. If you want to save some money without comprising power and features, you can’t do any better than the OnePlus 5T.
Best camera: Google Pixel 2
Google set a high bar last year with the original Pixel, and it surpassed its own standards with the sequel. Simply put, the Pixel 2’s images are unrivaled in their quality, offering great colors, exposure, and sharpness. It also features a portrait mode that uses a single lens arrangement, as opposed to the dual-camera setup of the iPhone X. In a market full of phones with really great cameras, the Pixel 2 is second to none.
Biggest surprise: Essential Phone
When Andy Rubin unveiled the Essential Phone, it showed a lot of potential. Unfortunately, the device fell well short of what Rubin envisioned, resulting in plenty of anger from critics and fans. But a funny thing happened. Several updates and an all-important price drop has seen a renewed interest in the device, finally living up to what Rubin initially promised.
With a gorgeous design, edge-to-edge display, and clean software, the Essential Phone is a fantastic first effort and a big surprise among the industry’s greats. The camera is still below the standards set by the Pixel 2 and iPhone X, but it’s good enough for selfies and social media.
Meanwhile, the design continues to shine, and the consistent updates from Essential means owners always have the latest security patches. The device’s larger ecosystem is still absent, but first adopters will still find plenty to like about the Essential Phone, which continues to be a joy to use among more established alternatives.
Best display: iPhone X (or Note 8)
This one was difficult to pick. On the one hand, you have the Note 8’s behemoth 6.3-inch screen, which features HDR support, vibrant colors, and 1200nits of brightness. It’s positively sumptuous to look at, especially when viewing content on Netflix and YouTube. By all accounts, it’s the most beautiful smartphones screen on the market.
The iPhone X’s display is equally as gorgeous. As the first iPhone to use OLED technology, pressure was on Apple to deliver—and deliver it did. The Samsung-manufactured screen was custom built for Apple’s newest flagship, and it’s an absolute dream to behold. It’s vibrant without being cartoonish, and it supports Dolby Vision HDR, so movies on iTunes look amazing.
Of course, there’s the issue of the iPhone X’s notch, which initially detracts from the experience. Overall, the Note 8 and iPhone X both feature excellent screens that are a treat for the eyes.
Most underrated: LG V30
Have you already forgotten about the LG V30? With the OnePlus 5T, Pixel 2, Note 8, and iPhone X all on the market, LG’s most recent flagship has been seemingly pushed aside. Which is a shame, because it’s a flagship worth checking out, in large part because of its high-end camera experience. It also features phenomenal specs, a gorgeous display, and a sleek build that feels just right. This is one of those situations where LG did almost everything right but was simply overshadowed by its more popular rivals.
Smartphone of the year: iPhone X
I’ve used a lot of smartphones over the past few years, reviewing everything from the iPhone 8 to the Moto Z, and never have I seen a device quite like the iPhone X.
Note: Jon chose the Note 8 as his smartphone of the year. While I agree it offers a great blend of power, features, and technology, it doesn’t feel much different from the ill-fated Note 7.
When Apple says the iPhone X is the future of smartphones, I tend to agree. It feels like a huge leap forward in design and user experience, with everything you could possibly need. The camera is fantastic, the screen is delightful, and it’s the fastest, most beautifully-designed iPhone yet.
There’s a learning curve when using the iPhone X because there’s no home button. But once you’re accustomed to the device’s gestures, you’ll never want to use a home button again. Face ID has also proved to be a worthy replacement for Touch ID.
I was pretty close to choosing the Pixel 2 XL (display issues notwithstanding) as my top phone of 2017. For me, the camera puts it ahead of the pack, and I love the handset’s clean software. But the iPhone X doesn’t feel like any of its competitors, and there’s something to be said about taking a new approach to the tried and true formula we’ve seen perfect by OEMs over the past few years.
By no means is the iPhone X perfect, and it certainly isn’t the cheapest smartphone on the market. But Apple’s latest flagship feels like it’s a generation ahead of the competition, bringing new ideas to the table that elevate the experience beyond the norm.
The iPhone has been boring for several years now, and the iPhone X is definitive proof that Apple can still innovate—even if it was late to the wireless-charging party.
Do you remember the first time you used an iPhone? The excitement. The joy. The frustration.
For millions of iPhone fans, using one has become instinctive, and a big reason for that is the home button, which is a simple concept for anyone to understand. No matter where you are in iOS, pressing it returns the same result.
The iPhone X is a big departure from the vision shared by Steve Jobs in 2007. Instead of a home button, there’s now a navigation bar and advanced facial recognition. It’s an upheaval of the iPhone’s original ethos, and it forces millions of people to re-learn even basic actions, like closing an app.
When it launched a decade ago, Apple’s smartphone was a harbinger of innovation, revolutionizing the industry and earning TIME Magazine’s coveted Invention of the Year. It helped build industries, popularized the concept of an app store, and sparked innovation across the industry.
With the home button gone, Apple wants the iPhone X to usher in a new generation of iPhone releases. It’s a huge risk on Apple’s part, and one that mostly pays off.
The design is beautiful
In overall shape, size, and thickness, the iPhone X isn’t that different from the iPhone 8. Both have all-glass designs, no headphone jack, and a familiar, rounded shape. Holding it feels like the past few iterations, with an added heft that makes it feel more substantial. And the chrome frame (at least in the silver model) gives the device a pristine polish.
The iPhone X carries over some of the iPhone 8’s internal DNA, too, including the A11 Bionic chip. The device also features a dual-camera setup, one wide-angle lens with an f/1.8 aperture and a telephoto lens with an f/2.4 aperture. Both feature optical image stabilization.
Apple also says the iPhone X features a battery that lasts up to two hours longer than the iPhone 7. In my experience, the battery lasted to the end of the day without any issues, which is about what you can expect from most phones. And when I say the end of the day, I mean through a 9 to 5 workday to the time I sleep around 10 or 11.
The big story is the iPhone X’s 5.8-inch OLED display, which (nearly) reaches from one edge to the other. It’s a drastic change from previous models, and it makes a pretty significant difference in day-to-day use.
But it’s not just about giving users more screen to play with. Minimal bezel means the the iPhone X isn’t much larger than the iPhone 8. Apple has essentially managed to squish an iPhone Plus model into a much smaller form factor.
Which is to say the iPhone X is stunning to look at and even more impressive to hold. It’s as if an Apple took off its shackles and designed the iPhone of our dreams. Throw in wireless charging, dust and water resistance, and improved stereo speakers, and it’s easy to conclude that Apple doesn’t have a more beautiful design anywhere in its portfolio.
The display isn’t just bigger, but more beautiful to look at, too, thanks to the move to OLED, which offers 1,000,000 to 1 contrast ratio. According to Apple, the screen has been custom designed for the iPhone X, and the results are pretty spectacular. It doesn’t avoid the typical pitfalls of OLED technology, such as color shifting and the imminent specter of burn-in, but it’s the best in Apple’s mobile lineup, offering better color accuracy and a wide color gamut.
The design is accentuated by several small and very welcome additions, such as True Tone technology, support for Dolby Vision HDR, and some new hardware, including Apple’s A11 Bionic processor, which features a Neural Engine that the company says powers an artificial intelligence accelerator.
Clearly, there’s a lot to admire about the design. But there are a few things of note that hold it back. The notch is, at least initially, a big eyesore because it disrupts the display’s bezel-less appearance. The camera bump, meanwhile, is utterly gigantic. There’s also no headphone jack, which is still a divisive topic.
The iPhone X notch is a necessary evil due to the inclusion of Apple’s new TrueDepth camera system, which makes the company’s Face ID feature possible. The facial recognition technology is supposed to be the future of Apple’s mobile lineup, and after using it for the past week, I’m totally onboard.
Face ID is a worthy replacement
You’ll no longer unlock the iPhone using your fingerprint. Instead, Apple’s new facial recognition system is used for all things authentication. It’s a jarring, drastic change, but the good news is Face ID works very well, even when using it at weird angles or with glasses or in complete darkness.
In fact, I haven’t run into any situation where Face ID flat out refused to work. I found it to be a little finicky when lying down on my side before bed, but that’s the only time where I’ve seen the technology stumble. When there is an issue, either input your passcode or sleep/wake the screen and try again. I’ve never seen it fail two times in a row.
Which is something Apple needed to get right in order to make the transition from Touch ID to Face ID seamless. All you do is stare at the device and that’s it. It’s a completely effortless experience. There’s something so delightful about watching the Face ID icon animate when opening an app like 1Password.
Face ID works by projecting more than 30,000 invisible dots to create a depth map of your face. An infrared camera then reads the dot pattern, captures an image, and sends that information to your phone’s Secure Enclave. If it matches what’s stored on your phone, you’re good to go. It does all of this in a matter of seconds.
That’s another thing Apple needed to get right: speed. Face ID is just a beat slower than using Touch ID, which is impressive considering Touch ID has been around for a few years. When unlocking your phone, simply hold it in front of your face, watch the lock icon unlock, and then swipe up.
What’s cool is the system is attention-aware, which means it’ll only unlock when it knows you’re looking at the device. That means someone can’t easily unlock your phone when you’re sleeping. The attention-aware feature is also handy when viewing notifications on your lock screen.
By default, information will be obscured when notifications come in. But once you look at your device and Face ID recognizes it’s you, you’ll be shown a preview of what your message says. It’s a clever way to really personalize the experience, and highlights a great unity between Apple’s software and hardware.
Face ID isn’t just a neat trick. Apple claims the technology is more secure than Touch ID, with a one in a million chance a stranger can fool the system. We have no way of testing those claims, but during our testing, we found Face ID to be incredibly adept at noticing subtle changes, like when shaving off a beard.
And, in case you were wondering, I found Face ID worked just fine while wearing sunglasses with polarized lenses. (They’re from Warby Parker.) However, Apple does note that the feature won’t work with all polarized sunglasses, so that’s something to keep in mind.
Worth noting, the accuracy and speed of Face ID has been a topic of much debate in our office. I found it to be accurate nine out of ten times, but others in the office felt it was slow and often didn’t work. Apple says the system will improve the more it’s used, so perhaps over time they’ll have a better experience.
Beyond Face ID, the iPhone X’s TrueDepth camera really shines when using Animoji, a new feature that lives inside the Messages app. When the feature was first introduced, I rolled my eyes. But the feature is actually pretty damn fun to use.
By capturing and analyzing over 50 different facial muscle movements, the iPhone X essentially turns its users into an animated character. Put it this way: A single Animoji is way more entertaining than the Emoji Movie.
Gestures are (mostly) your friend
While the transition from Touch ID to Face ID is pretty straightforward, the lack of a home button certainly takes some getting used to. To the point where you need to relearn how to navigate the software. Apple even made a tutorial video on how to use the iPhone X’s gestures, which shows the company knows there is a big learning curve.
While testing the device, I handed it to my girlfriend’s dad, who owns an iPhone 6 Plus, and it was almost as if the device was alien technology. The iPhone X just isn’t something you instinctively know how to use—at least, not in the same way previous iPhones were.
According to Apple’s Jony Ive, gestures are more natural compared to mechanical buttons. I wasn’t onboard with this message when I first started using the iPhone X. In fact, I was frustrated and annoyed without a trusty home button. But the experience slowly grew on me.
The more I used the iPhone X, the more I liked the gestures, to the point where they’ve become second nature. I’ve built up so much muscle memory using iPhones over the years that the lack of a home button was initially a huge shock. One week later and the gestures feel incredibly intuitive. I love jumping between apps by swiping across the home bar.
But it’s by no means a flawless experience. Again, this isn’t a device you can just pick up and intuitively know how to use. This cheat sheet is indicative of just how complicated the iPhone X’s gestures can be.
For example, invoking Control Center requires a swipe from the top right corner of the display. A simple 3D Touch gesture would have sufficed. Jumping into the multitasking menu also requires a precise movement. At times, using the iPhone X feels like conducting an orchestra.
So, the lack of a home button has led to a domino effect of issues, which Apple doesn’t seem to have figured out. Many of the iPhone X’s faults lie with iOS, which is becoming slowly turning into a convoluted nightmare.
Like I said, I’ve largely become accustomed to the gestures, but the system has become more complex than it needs to be, and it could get worse once Apple ditches the home button completely, which reports suggest will happen in 2018.
Outside of the gestures, the experience is largely what you’d get from an iPhone 8 or iPhone 8 Plus. There’s still an ongoing adjustment period where apps need to be updated in order to fully support the device. It’ll probably be several months before the issue is ironed out.
The best iPhone camera (as expected)
Apple’s iPhone 8 offered the best camera we’ve seen in an iPhone. Now, the iPhone X quickly takes that crown with a camera that takes fantastic images. (If you put weight into analysis from DxOMark, the iPhone X scored the highest ever still images.)
With the inclusion of the A11 Bionic chip, Apple has a more advanced image signal processor that is capable of detecting elements in a scene, including people, motion, and lighting conditions. This, in theory, will optimize your images before they’re even taken.
The results speak for themselves. Images are beautifully exposed, with excellent color reproduction and little noise, even when in low light situations. That’s thanks in part to the dual optical image stabilization, along with the apertures—wide-angle photos look especially great.
Like the iPhone 8 Plus, Portrait Mode is a blast to use and returns some really impressive results. Unfortunately, the front-facing Portrait Mode needs some work. The software seems to be a little too aggressive with a really shallow depth of field. That could perhaps be fixed with some more thoughtful software tweaks.
As to whether the iPhone X takes better pictures than the Pixel 2, that is something we’ll have to explore more in-depth. Bottom line: Pictures look utterly fantastic. The Portrait Lighting feature, particularly the Studio Light option, still needs a lot of work. But that’s a beta feature right now, so we’ll cut Apple some slack.
An expensive, beautiful luxury
At $999, the iPhone X is an expensive, beautiful luxury. But it’s one that I thoroughly enjoyed using. When reviewing a device like the iPhone 8, you can pretty much plot out exactly what to expect—everything is predictable and there aren’t many surprises.
The iPhone X was a consistently enjoyable experience, even with the rocky transition to the gesture-first experience. It’s by no means perfect, and the software needs a lot of work for this to truly feel like a transformative release, but the building blocks are there.
I’ve reviewed all manner of phones this year, and I don’t recall using a device that has filled me with such joy. Maybe the Galaxy S8, but the honeymoon period with Samsung’s phone was very quick.
If you’re an iPhone loyalist, you’ll absolutely love the iPhone X because of its elegant design, Face ID, and terrific camera. If you’re someone who simply wants a device for communication and the occasional picture, the iPhone 8 is a safer bet. You already know how to use it, and it’s much more affordable.
On that same token, the iPhone X is the clear future of the iPhone, so devices like the iPhone 8 are a dying breed in Apple’s lineup. So far, I really like where Apple’s future is headed.
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