Smartphones and their features vary wildly, and people’s preferences for what they want in a smartphone are highly subjective. Sure, there can sometimes be a consensus about objective qualities—which phone is the lightest, which one has the strongest telephoto lens—but, ultimately, everyone likes what they like. That’s why in this article I’m picking my favorite phones of the past year across multiple categories, while also looking ahead for what I hope to see in 2024.
The smartphone market had a fairly difficult time early in 2023, much like the PC market did. Many companies had a difficult period for earnings—even Apple, which usually posts record iPhone shipments every quarter like clockwork. The market seems to have had a slow turnaround in 2023, except for China, which may have rebounded somewhat in the fourth quarter. Here’s hoping for a better year industrywide in 2024.
Favorite Overall Phone — Tie: Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra And iPhone 15 Pro Max
This was a tough choice. Because I agonized over it for so long, I finally decided to award a tie for this slot to the iPhone 15 Pro Max and the Samsung S23 Ultra. I used the S23 Ultra for the whole year, and it has been an incredibly reliable device that has allowed me to capture beautiful memories throughout with the optional 512GB (versus 256GB standard) of storage. The S23 Ultra is a rock-solid device with flagship specs across the board and considerably improved battery life compared to the S22 Ultra. It lived up to Samsung’s claims for improved low-light performance and is still the best on the market at capturing telephoto images and video with the optical 10x lens. (Alas, Samsung has done away with that lens for the S24 Ultra, which I have just written about here.) Unfortunately, that 10x sensor and optical stack have the least low-light performance, making the camera less valuable at night. That said, I enjoyed the 5G performance and coverage on this phone, and I regularly had stronger signal and better performance than my wife did on her iPhone 13 using the same 5G network.
The iPhone 15 Pro Max came out later in 2023, so it has the slight advantage of being nine months newer than the S23 Ultra—though that’s also a good indicator of how well the S23 Ultra has held up with time. The iPhone 15 Pro Max Titanium outer body has impressed me with how much lighter it feels in the hand and in the pocket. I also love that it has a true 5x optical telephoto, greatly improving photos and video over the last generation’s 3x. I also think that its ability to capture spatial video is great because I already have devices including the Leia Lumepad 2 for viewing these videos until I get my own Apple Vision Pro headset. The camera quality on the iPhone 15 Pro Max is excellent, and I love so many of the photos I’ve taken. However, one letdown is the lack of a 3x zoom to bridge between the 1x and 5x optical. Yes, there is a 2x sensor crop, but 3x hits a sweet spot that I think is missing on this iPhone, and comparing it to the S23 Ultra makes that obvious. The iPhone also does not have connectivity as fast as the S23 Ultra’s, which matters to me, especially when I’m testing things like live streaming on the Ray-Ban Meta smart glasses.
Favorite Phone Camera — Google Pixel 8 Pro
The Pixel 8 Pro was in the running for my favorite overall phone this year, but I found that I did not really want to use it as a primary phone like the S23 Ultra or the iPhone 15 Pro Max. I carried both of those phones daily, while the Pixel 8 Pro came out at night. I found the Pixel 8 Pro’s zoom lens to be extremely sharp, even though I don’t think it has the reach of the S23 Ultra. That aside, Google still has the cleanest-looking portrait-mode photos, and I enjoy shooting JPEG+RAW on the Pixel and seeing how good Google’s postprocessing is. What really held back the Pixel 8 Pro for me was Google’s Tensor processor, less-than-ideal connectivity performance and battery life considerations. I don’t think the Pixel 8 Pro is particularly bad in those areas, it’s just that the iPhone and S23 Ultra are both better.
I also think that the Pixel 8 Pro has a better Android experience than any other phone I tested—as it should, given that this is Google’s flagship phone. This extends to its AI capabilities, but I don’t think that those features are enough to overcome the deficiencies of the Pixel 8 Pro. That said, I found Google’s implementation of face unlock to be a welcome addition to the fingerprint sensor; the combination of these offers the best flexibility based on the scenario. The added thermometer is a cool feature, but I don’t have a practical application for it. I’d like to see Google continue exploring additional sensors for new applications.
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Favorite Flip Phone — Razr+ (A.K.A. Razr 40 Ultra)
While the Moto Razr+ wasn’t necessarily the most “flagship” of foldable flip phones, it did change the game for the industry and created real competition for Samsung in foldables—a segment Samsung had previously dominated. Until the Razr+, if you wanted an affordable foldable, you got a Samsung Flip and that was the best that the industry had to offer. Moto revived the Razr brand in 2020 with the first iteration of the Razr flip phone, which fell short because it initially didn’t ship with 5G, and then the 2022 Razr release also slightly missed the mark.
The third time was the charm with the Razr 40 Ultra, which currently sells for as low as $700 unlocked and features a great dual-camera design and a stunningly implemented gigantic high-res cover screen. This makes it incredibly easy to use the phone—including taking photos—without opening it. There’s very little need for an inside selfie camera on this phone, enabling much higher quality selfies and other photos. I also really loved what I call the “partner preview” feature where your partner can see how a photo looks on the outside cover screen before you take it. T-Mobile also commissioned a special colorway for this phone, in partnership with Moto and Pantone, that features the official Pantone color for “T-Mobile Magenta.” That seemed to be very popular, I think mostly because of its uniqueness. I do wish Motorola would improve its accessory game for these phones like Samsung has for its Flip series.
Favorite Foldable Phone — OnePlus Open
The OnePlus Open was probably my biggest surprise of this year and arguably the most impressive first-generation product I’ve seen from a smartphone manufacturer in a long time. Yes, OnePlus’s Open is a derivative of Oppo’s Find N3, which launched in China around the same time, but OnePlus made a few tweaks in software that I like, and this phone is available in the U.S. and Europe. The OnePlus Open is what I’ve been waiting for in a book-style foldable phone for quite some time—something we never got from Samsung. The OnePlus Open has an excellent hinge design with almost no crease, just the right aspect ratio for the front screen and an ideal camera configuration. OnePlus, for the first time, went for the most high-end configuration that it could offer with a Snapdragon 8 Gen 2, 512GB of storage and 16GB of RAM standard.
The OnePlus Open also takes outstanding photos and videos, and while it doesn’t have a 5x optical telephoto zoom, it does offer a 6x crop, which works better than expected. I am also super impressed with OnePlus’s image processing, which I believe is heavily borrowed from Oppo (not a bad thing). The finished photos are often processed considerably better than in previews. The phone also has 4×4 MIMO for cellular connectivity, which enables better uploads and translates to better signal and battery life.
The OnePlus Open is the first phone I have ever used where I could see myself abandoning carrying two phones in favor of just one because most phones have some compromises and I end up having to carry multiple phones to get the best of everything. I have always struggled with foldables because there have always been compromises made to enable them to be slim, but with the OnePlus Open, I am truly ready to leave everything else behind for the Open. The only reason I might not switch at this point is because I want to carry both an Android phone and an iOS phone with me. That said, I still carry the OnePlus everywhere, especially since that 7.9-inch main screen is gorgeous and great for watching YouTube videos and movies on the go. This phone is also extremely durable, which is a concern for many foldables. I accidentally dropped it, and there was no noticeable damage other than a scuffed case.
Favorite Gaming Phone — RedMagic 8 Pro
This phone came out earlier in 2023 and was quickly replaced by the RedMagic 9 Pro in December. While I haven’t had an opportunity to play with the RedMagic 9 Pro yet, I have used and benchmarked the RedMagic 8 Pro, which is a great phone. RedMagic really understands gamers and has expanded itself into a broader gamer brand that now sells gaming monitors, keyboards, mice and headsets that are all extremely well-designed and thought out. The RedMagic 8 Pro continues to use the high-end active cooling solution that helps the phone stay cool during longer gaming sessions, while also looking quite cool with its RGB lights. I have noticed that other phones have started to have comparable sustained performance to the RedMagic phones, at least for 10- to 15-minute-long gaming sessions. For longer sessions, the RedMagic phones always win out thanks to the active cooling solution.
The new RedMagic 9 Pro takes the design in a slightly different direction, but keeps the strong cyberpunk looks and camera design. These phones are very square and striking in appearance and offer a bevy of accessories including a Gamepad to easily convert the phone into an Android gaming handheld. Other accessories include additional fans for added cooling, true wireless low-latency earbuds and probably the coolest-looking 150-watt GaN charger I’ve ever seen.
Favorite Business Phone — Moto ThinkPhone
The ThinkPhone from Motorola is the first phone coming from the Lenovo-branded Think business line of products. This is the first truly business-class smartphone from Motorola since the Lenovo acquisition. Yes, Moto has had other phones in the past that were technically for business applications, but this is the first one that really feels on-brand for Lenovo and Motorola and seems to offer the right features and performance while being elegant at an extremely attractive price. The ThinkPhone launched at $700, which is admittedly a difficult price point to compete at when you consider that it has only a Snapdragon 8+ Gen 1. This is still a great processor, but it’s more challenging to justify a device with a generation-older chip for $700. That’s why the current $400 price is a great deal and makes the ThinkPhone a great companion alongside the Lenovo ThinkPad for business applications.
Lenovo has worked hard to improve connectivity between its PCs and the Moto brand of phones, especially on the ThinkPhone, which has security as a primary feature. It also offers Windows 365 integration, app streaming, file drop and enhanced webcam features through the phone. I think Motorola and Lenovo did a great job with this phone, especially considering its current price, and I’d love to see where the company goes with the next iteration of this device.
Favorite Midrange Phone — Pixel 7a Or Pixel 8 (Depending On Price)
I initially wrote this article planning to bestow the title of my favorite mid-range phone to the Pixel 7a. I had a chance to use it for a few months and was pretty pleased with the results for the price. However, the Pixel 8 has come out and is now priced low enough that I’d instead recommend it over the Pixel 7a. The Pixel 8 is better in almost every way compared to the 7a, which isn’t a huge surprise, but when their prices are less than $100 apart, the Pixel 8 just looks like a better deal. You can easily get a Pixel 8 for $549, while the Pixel 7a sells for $499. The Pixel 8’s more powerful processor, more prominent display, extended OS support, improved thermals and better cameras all point to a much better value that I didn’t have in the cards for the Pixel line of products.
The Pixel 8 isn’t supposed to be a mid-range phone, but at $549 it’s an incredible deal for someone who doesn’t want to spend $1,000 on a phone but also doesn’t want a budget phone. The Pixel 8 is simply a phone I can see people using for a long time, especially with seven years of OS and Wi-Fi 7 support.
Favorite Budget 5G Phone — Samsung Galaxy A54 (On Sale) Or OnePlus N30 At Regular Price
Last but certainly not least is the Samsung Galaxy A54 at its current price. Whenever its current sale ends, then I’m more inclined to suggest the even more affordable OnePlus N30. The A54 is such a big deal because it usually sells for $450 but is on sale right now for $325 on Amazon. This $100-plus reduction in price makes it a very competitive device for a budget-conscious consumer because it was already a solid competitor when it launched at $450; at $325, there aren’t many comparably priced phones that can compete with it. The A54 is a refinement of 2022’s blockbuster A53.
All that said, the OnePlus Nord N30 is even more affordable at $249 and still offers 5G, a 120 Hz 6.7-inch display, a 108 MP camera, 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage powered by 50-watt charging and a 5000 mAh battery capacity. The OnePlus Nord line has been highly effective at threading the value needle for consumers and is generally my primary recommendation when someone is looking for a budget phone in the North American market. There are other considerations for phones outside the U.S., but I haven’t had much time to try out those devices.
In all, 2023 was an outstanding year for the progression of smartphones from all the most significant makers and even some of the smaller players. It started out as a concerning year for the business side of the industry, but it looks like the second half of the year came with many fresh new devices that didn’t flop like some phones did in 2022. I welcome the continued commitment to competitiveness from all the companies mentioned in this article, but I would especially like to credit OnePlus for pushing the envelope with the Open and Moto with the Razr+. Both of these devices have shaken Samsung from its comfortable seat atop the foldable world, and I believe that will make Samsung a more competitive player when Apple comes to market with its foldable phone, most likely after the foldable iPad, which has been repeatedly rumored but might actually happen this year.