In a year when we saw the first foldable screen on a smartphone, Huawei hamstrung by US trade restrictions, and Night mode finally come to the iPhone, 2019 delivered plenty of action on the phone front.
Here's NOTED’s top ten smartphones of the year, from the cheap to the eye-wateringly expensive. For more help on what to consider when buying a new phone, check out our detailed guide to buying a smartphone.
A worthy upgrade for Nokia’s entry-level smartphone, which has the advantage of running the stock-standard version of Android Pie, so has very little software clutter. It has a pretty impressive design, complete with a Google Assistant button on the side for quick access to information, and a solid build that will make it suitable for equipping the kids.
As you’d expect, the hardware specs aren’t spectacular. It has a low-resolution display and low-powered chipset as you’d expect at this price. The screen quality I can live with, but the occasional lag in loading apps and navigating the interface suggests the processor is occasionally struggling. On the camera front, you’ll get a single 13-megapixel (MP) camera on the rear, with an LED flash and a 5-MP selfie camera on the front. There are some useful camera features, such as support for HDR (high dynamic range) and Google Lens, which uses artificial information to supply information about what is in the frame. But the basic photo results aren’t great – okay for well-lit scenes, but a bit muddy and dull otherwise.
Ultimately, the 2.2 is an upgrade from its predecessor and will serve its purpose for those who want to keep things simple, need a phone that will offer a full day’s charge and can handle being dropped now and then.
Pros: Runs Android Pie, sturdy design, good battery life
Cons: Sluggish performance, camera results disappoint
Huawei Y9 Prime
Huawei’s budget phone, the Y9 Prime, shares its higher-priced siblings’ strengths on the photography front while offering a tidy overall design. It’s a large phone (6.59-inch display) and slightly heavy in the hand at 198 grams.
On the back of the phone, you get a three-camera set-up. They aren’t the same cameras as its more expensive sibling the P30 Pro carries, but there is a 16MP, f/1.8 wide-angle main camera, an 8MP ultrawide angle camera and a 2MP depth sensor to help with focus and sharpening photos. The display (2340 x 1080) is crisp and bright – impressive at this price point.
Huawei’s selection of AI tools do their work to make the most out of your photography. The front facing camera is the Prime’s most striking feature. Rather than being built into the phone’s bezel or screen, it instead pops up out of the phone when activated. It adds a flourish and means the screen is unencumbered with camera and sensor housings. But it also means a slight lag while the camera pops up.
Battery life is decent and the design finish is impressive – the midnight blue version is particularly good looking. The big question mark over the Prime and every other Huawei device, is its access to future Google and Android updates due to the trade restrictions the US has slapped on China.
Pros: Good camera set-up including that fancy pop-up selfie cam, decent battery life, great display and overall design
Cons: User interface isn’t great, slight delay with pop-up camera, uncertainty over Google support
Samsung Galaxy A70
It doesn’t have the superb design aesthetic of Samsung’s ‘S’ Galaxy range but then the A70 is half the price of the S10! Given that, the feature list is fairly impressive: a 6.7-inch Full HD AMOLED Infinity-U screen, with an unobtrusive teardrop notch to house the front-facing camera.
It has USB Type-C fast charging, an in-display fingerprint scanner that is fast to use, NFC capability to support wireless mobile payments and even sports a 3.5mm headphone jack. There’s no wireless charging, water resistance or support for DeX, Samsung’s system of using your phone as a fully-fledged computer. You also only get one speaker.
But when it comes to cameras, you get a decent set-up on the A70, with 32MP on the front and back, plus 5MP depth of field and 8MP ultrawide cameras on the rear. The same Samsung software powers the photo app and it is intuitive and responsive to use. The A70’s six-core Snapdragon 675 processor with 6GB of RAM is up to delivering good performance across tasks. With a 4500mAh battery, you are looking at a day and a half of typical usage between charges.
If you love the familiarity of the Samsung user interface and experience but the price of an S-model is too much, the A70 is a worthy compromise.
Pros: Camera set-up, in-screen fingerprint sensor, good battery life, fast charging and snappy performance, 128GB of storage as standard
Cons: No waterproofing or wireless charging, average design
Huawei Nova 5T
The Nova impressed me last year in the way it mimicked some of the design elements of Huawei’s more expensive phones, in a package that gave good performance at a mid-range price.
The Nova 5T takes that a step further, starting with the spectacular 'Midsummer Purple' finish to the phone, which gives it an elegant look with the Nova monogram embedded. Most impressively, you get a 4-camera set-up, just like with the P30 Pro.
You get a 48MP main sensor (f/1.4) with optical image stabilization and laser autofocus, a 16MP ultrawide lens (f/2.2), an 8MP telephoto lens (f/2.4) which also has stabilization at 3X optical and 5X hybrid zoom. There’s also a 2MP (f/2.4) macro lens. That is a heck of a lot of photography potential for the price and while it isn’t the same camera set-up as the P30 Pro, it delivers exceptional value and beats most other phones in its class. The 32MP front-facing camera has a hole-punch design, which looks great and is my preference over the P30 Pro’s teardrop version.
The key limitation of the Nova 5T is its LCD screen which doesn’t deliver the vibrant, accurate colours and contrast of higher-end AMOLED screens. But there needs to be a sacrifice somewhere and sporting the same processor as the P30 Pro, 128GB of storage and dual SIM capability, the Nova 5T is possibly the best mid-range phone out there at the moment.
Pros: Great cameras, dual-SIM, sleek design and colour scheme
Cons: No wireless charging, LCD screen, no waterproofing
Oppo Reno 2
At the top of the mid-range we have Oppo’s new Reno smartphone, which comes with a single feature I love – the cameras on its rear are recessed so there is no camera bump. There is simply a tiny stud to stop the glass over the cameras scratching when you put the phone down on a table. That coupled with the notchless display, gives the Reno 2 the same design credentials as the Ren 10x Zoom, at a much lower price point.
It's in the specs rather than the design where the Oppo Reno 2 shows its mid-range credentials. There's a Snapdragon 730G chipset, 8GB of RAM, and 256GB of on-board storage under the hood which is impressive, and you can expand that with a microSD card – an option we always like to see.
There's also a 3.5 mm headphone jack here, so the Oppo Reno 2 is one of a dwindling number of options you've got left if you want to keep on using wired headphones without the aid of a dongle. The phone isn't waterproof or dustproof though, and you don't have the option of wireless charging.
Pros: Notch-free screen, great camera set-up, appealing design, dual SIM
Cons: Middling processor performance, no waterproofing
Oppo Reno 10x Zoom
This is Oppo’s best phone yet when you weigh up features and value for money and will be even better in the next generation when it hopefully incorporates the under-screen camera technology Oppo has developed to make the shark fin pop-up camera redundant.
You get a great balance of features, a snappy processor and good battery life – most of the features you’d expect on a more expensive handset, for a seriously good price. That optical zoom is in a class of its own. The Reno’s size may, however, put some people off. Go in-store to literally weigh it up in your hand before parting with your hard-earned cash.
Read NOTED’s full review of the Reno 10x Zoom here.
Pros: Excellent cameras including exceptional telephoto performance, impressive design and performance, efficient fast charging
Cons: User-interface isn’t great, no waterproofing, quite heavy
Huawei P30 Pro
A worthy successor to the P20 Pro on every front. The P30 Pro again delivers exceptional camera performance with its quad-camera set-up and delivers 5x optical zoom with a periscope camera system.
It has a beautiful curved screen design (borrowed from the Galaxy range), the flagship Kirin 980 processor, reverse wireless charging and a fast in-display fingerprint scanner. Virtually everything you need, but it is all about exceptional photos.
Huawei’s P and Mate range face an uncertain future with restrictions on the phone maker’s access to Google software and services. Hopefully, trade negotiations between China and the US will sort these out early in 2020 before the debut of the next P-series phone.
Read NOTED’s full review of the P30 Pro here.
Pros: Category-leading quad camera design, excellent screen quality and processor performance, in-display fingerprint scanner. Impressive battery life with reverse wireless charging
Cons: Uncertainty over long-term Google support and updates, wireless charging needs dedicated add-on
The addition of a second camera on the rear marks the biggest change in the iPhone 11 and with little else separating it from the higher-priced 11 Pro, other than the fancier screen on the latter, the iPhone 11 really is fantastic value.
The combination of the new camera hardware and the interaction with the smart photography algorithms makes for an excellent combination and Night mode proves its worth. Coupled with improvements in iOS13, including dark mode, the iPhone 11 is the iPhone to own unless you have a special requirement for high-end photography (see iPhone 11 Pro below).
Read NOTED’s full review of the iPhone 11 here.
Pros: Fast performance and excellent overall build quality. Great value for money
Cons: A tight 64GB of storage as standard, lacks the dazzling retina display
Samsung Galaxy S10+
The 10+ wasn’t a spectacular upgrade on its predecessor considering this is one of the most expensive Androids on the market, but the S10+ refined the Galaxy S formula to a degree where it delivers a category-beating mix of features and design.
Samsung’s user interface is one of the best executed around and with one of the largest batteries in an Android phone (4100 mAh) and a new quad HD+ Dynamic AMOLED display, the S10+ screams quality.
The camera set-up is the most extensive on a Samsung smartphone yet – five in total. It gives the Huawei P30 Pro a run for its money and will keep Samsung aficionados loyal to the brand.
Read NOTED’s full review of the S10+ here.
Pros: Excellent Infinity-O display, ultrasonic fingerprint scanner, fast processor and exceptional camera performance and battery life, reverse wireless charging
Cons: Expensive, double hole-punch on the front is slightly distracting
iPhone 11 Pro
It starts with the A13 Bionic processor, which is the same one featured in the iPhone 11 and delivers computer processing performance that is hard to beat. Add to that the new three-camera configuration on the iPhone 11 Pro, which is delivering professional-level results, and you have one of the most fully-featured iPhones yet.
Yes, it costs a fortune and it is infuriating that Apple won’t give you 128GB of storage as a standard feature. But Apple knows its market, which consists of a sizeable cohort of raving fans who are willing to pay a premium for simplicity, functionality and a great user experience.
Pros: Top-flight camera set-up, new Night mode, screen quality, overall build and design, fast charging
Cons: A tight 64GB of storage as standard, lower estimated battery life than iPhone 11.
Price: From $1,899
Samsung Galaxy Fold
It’s all about that spectacular mini tablet that emerges as you unfold the Galaxy Fold from its smartphone mode. The engineering required to get that screen to fold and withstand hundreds of thousands of folds, is what adds the massive price premium here. But it is a wonder to behold. You can multitask with three windows open on the screen and every app takes on a new element with all of that extra screen real estate.
The Fold is less elegant when closed, slightly chunky and bulky in your pocket. But the interaction between the small display and the front and the unfolded internal display is pretty seamless. There’s a fragility about the Fold that can be expected of a first generation phone. But it points the way forward to a time when the foldable screen will be a standard and attractive feature on high-end smartphones.
Read NOTED’s full review of the Galaxy Fold here.
Pros: Excellent screen quality and execution of the fold and screen hinge, the same performance as the S10+, multi-tasking on that big screen is well executed
Cons: Bulky and fragile, very first-gen