The three flagship phones, side-by-side.
I spent the last few months running around the world with arguably the three most popular phones in the world: the Apple iPhone X, the Google Pixel 2 XL, and the Samsung Note8. I have spent considerable time with all three phones, using each of them as daily drivers at one point or another, and I have come away with some valuable insights that I would like to share.
I wanted to start off by saying that I am genuinely impressed by all three phones, and they are all great devices. The elevated competition among Samsung, Google , Apple , LG, and others has raised the bar to the point that you almost can’t make a wrong decision when it comes to buying a smartphone. These three devices are very close to each other in different ways, and I can’t say that anyone phone is the best. In fact, considering the strengths and weaknesses of each device, they probably tally up to roughly the same aggregate score. Here is my side by side comparisons.
The good news is that these phones have great cameras. Truly, all of them take amazing photos, and I have gotten praise from people from photos shot on all three cameras. However, there are a few things I noticed that might sway users’ opinions one way or another. Also, remember that photography is highly subjective–not everyone sees everything the same and not everyone likes the same things.
In daylight settings, I found Samsung’s camera to be most to my liking. I felt that Google tried to lower the shadows too much, giving unnecessary contrast to photos. While Apple’s photos did look good during the day, I felt that the HDR was a little too on the ‘bloomy’ side—everything seemed like it was glowing a little too much. That said, all of them produced amazing photos in the daylight, and I was pleased with photos from all three devices at different times.
While I do believe that all three phones have great overall cameras, there are some deficiencies I noticed when I used them. The most significant one was that when recording 4K video on the Note8, it takes roughly 1-2 full seconds for the camera to show that it’s recording any footage. After going back and reviewing the footage, it appears I miss the first second of whatever it is I’m shooting. The Pixel 2 XL has the same processor and doesn’t have this issue, so hopefully, Samsung can resolve this issue with a software update. Also, though there have been steady improvements on all three devices, portrait mode still needs some work. I would say that the Pixel is on Par with the iPhone, while Note8’s bokeh effect still feels a little unnatural. The Note8 is also the only device out of the three without front-facing portrait mode, because it lacks the depth sensing and/or AI to create the effect. One other peculiar finding was that the magenta or on the other bright solid color backlight completely befuddles the Pixel 2 XL and iPhone X, while Note8 handles it flawlessly.
Battery life and charging
Battery life is a major factor for anyone using a phone all day along, and when it comes to flagship devices, consumers expect only the best. In this area, none of the phones were a letdown. They all provided all-day battery life, and I don’t think I ever had any of the phones truly die on me. The nice thing about these phones is that you don’t have to worry about plugging them in overnight, every night, because many of them will last a day and a half—by then you’ll have found a charger somewhere. Speaking of chargers, it was genuinely a joy to use the Note8 and iPhone X with my Qi wireless chargers. The dream of having the same charger for both Android and iOS devices is real, and it is here and now.
On that note, one of the letdowns was the Pixel’s lack of wireless charging. I also would’ve liked to see QuickCharge 4+ in the Note8 and Pixel, instead of QuickCharge 2.0—the newer version is faster and allows for cooler charging temperatures. The iPhone X has quick charging capabilities, but it is relatively expensive and not part of the standard iPhone X charger. On the bright side, Apple chose to go with USB-PD—providing charger (but not connector) compatibility with the Pixel.
Device design preference is highly subjective, but I truly believe that these are three very well-designed and beautiful phones. I was impressed by Apple ’s ability to cram an enormous OLED display into a ridiculously small frame, while upgrading virtually every component of the device. Both Apple and Samsung’s new flagships have a ridiculous number of sensors in the front and back of their devices, all of which function well and look decent. Also worth noting is that all of these phones are now considerably water-resistant—dropping it in the toilet or swimming pool is no longer a death sentence. These devices aren’t going to melt if you use them in the rain, and likely will never need to be saved by a bowl of rice.
Additionally, the iPhone X and Note8 still have bottom-firing speakers—a compromise for screen size and real estate. Unlike the Pixel, with its two front-facing speakers, if you look at the iPhone X and Note8, you can see there’s virtually no room for a speaker. At least Apple utilizes both the bottom and earpiece as speakers; Samsung doesn’t, and as a result, I’m often accidentally blocking the speaker with my hand while watching videos. Obviously, this doesn’t make for the best experience.
Flagships are always built and tested with the best possible performance in mind. As a result, these phones are all extremely quick. The entire Android and iOS ecosystem are targeting these three devices, and between the three of them, you’ve got support for things like ARKit, Daydream, and other important APIs for each ecosystem. They also are quite good at keeping their devices up-to-date and patching security holes and fixing bugs. One commonly overlooked thing is all the extra capabilities that come with the Note8’s stylus. Samsung has honed the creation and productivity capabilities of the Note8, in a way that the other two devices aren’t currently capable of matching.
Not all users are fond of Samsung’s Bixby, and many of them consider it bloat. I will admit that I rarely, if ever, use it, and it doesn’t seem to be much of a nuisance if I don’t press the Bixby button. I think Samsung either needs to up its software to meet or match Google ’s capabilities or streamline its software experience for performance. It’s hard to compete with the Google Pixel, which has as little software as possible.
I also had a few minor software gripes with the iPhone X. While it is certainly a marvel of hardware engineering, until the latest update, I could not for the life of me share a video shot in 4K 60 on Instagram. It would consistently crash every time I tried to upload. Though Apple fixed this in the latest update, there are tons of other little bugs here and there—in different applications or applications that don’t yet support the new resolution and ‘notch’ in software. In addition, many of the applications that do support these new capabilities lack consistency in how they are utilized. That being said, I believe that these issues and the various software bugs will be resolved in time.
Many people have complained about the iPhone X’s notch, but as someone who has used the Essential phone and other unique displays, the ‘notch’ on the iPhone X doesn’t bother me one bit. I don’t consider it an issue—it’s a necessary element of the design and display, due to the current sensor and display technology available today. However, one big issue for me was the Pixel 2 XL’s OLED display, with its dramatic blue-shift whenever you moved away from the center. With some tweaking of the display settings, it’s less noticeable (and eventually you get used to it), but the display is simply not as good as the iPhone X or Note8 OLED displays in my opinion.
Samsung deserves credit where credit is due—even though the Note8 is IP68, it’s still managed to allow for a removable, expandable memory card. This capability means that users can always upgrade their storage and back up their phone to their microSD card for safekeeping. Google counters that with the Pixel 2 XL’s unlimited video and photo storage feature (though that feature does have an end-date, while Samsung’s hopefully doesn’t). Apple doesn’t have removable internal storage or unlimited cloud storage at full resolution, but it has done quite a good job of offering larger and larger capacities to accommodate the needs of 4K video, caching YouTube videos, and storing entire albums in high quality on Spotify. I can safely say that the days of worrying about storage are over, and it’s nice.
Biometric authentication is a standard for user experiences on all of the devices, with Apple and Samsung going further than Google in enabling multi-factor authentication. Apple’s FaceID works particularly well, as does Samsung’s Iris recognition. Both of them have their faults, but work pretty well most of the time. I also appreciate the sheer speed of the Pixel’s fingerprint sensor, though I’m not sure why they went with a smaller sensor than the last generation. I preferred the speed and ease of use of the iPhone 8 Plus’s fingerprint sensor because I’m not particularly in love with having to align my face with the phone every time I have to unlock it. For that matter, I have the same issue with Samsung’s Iris recognition.
Additionally, while it’s possible that the lack of a headphone jack may be a deal-breaker for some on the iPhone X and Pixel 2 XL, the ecosystem is stepping up to provide both wired and wireless solutions that will make this less of a valid complaint as time goes on. Even so, the Note8’s inclusion of a headphone jack could tip the scales in its favor for some traditionalists.
One surprising disappointment was the lack of Gigabit-class LTE on the Pixel 2 XL and to a lesser degree Apple. I believe that devices sold in 2018 are going to not only want but need Gigabit-class LTE—all the carriers will be rolling it out to improve capacity and speeds. I was expecting Google to have this capability on its flagship phone, but it’s only capable of a maximum of 800 Mbps. As for Apple, it has its dual modem supply situation, and the current Intel modem it uses doesn’t support Gigabit-class LTE. For that reason, I can somewhat understand why Apple doesn’t have it, even if it should. It’s expected that the next iPhone will gain this capability since Intel INTC -1.28%’s modem for next year will have Gigabit-class LTE.
If we’re going to compare the iPhone X to the Note8, it’s really a difficult call. The iPhone X packs an amazing amount of technology and performance into a borderline impossible-sized package. The Note8, on the other hand, has features that the iPhone simply doesn’t, and the screen size is more of an asset than a liability. I would say that if you’re looking for a compact device, you should look at the iPhone X and if you want something bigger, get the Note8. That’s ignoring whether you’ve already heavily bought into the Apple or Google software and content ecosystems—in that case, you already know the answer.