Think you need the best smartphone when you head back to class? These premium handsets are designed to deliver everything you would want.
Flagship smartphones are supposed to be the best a company can bring to market. It’s not just the specs, but also the design, functionality and user experience that help make them the elite models they’re supposed to be. Best screens, best processors, best cameras, and best software.
This list is to help give you some context on what’s available and what to keep in mind before you make the call.
Apple iPhone XS
For now, this is the king of iPhones. True, the iPhone XS Max may be the biggest of them all, but the XS is the more functional of the two. The primary reason? Comfort and operability, meaning it’s easier to use one-handed, fits in more pockets and is the same form factor as the iPhone X. If you have screen protectors or cases for that device, they will fit the XS just the same.
The iPhone XS also has a 5.8-inch Super Retina OLED display made of tougher glass framed by stainless steel edges. If you’re upgrading from an iPhone 7 or 8 (or earlier), don’t fret too much about losing the home button. Yes, you don’t get the Touch ID fingerprint sensor, but you could use Face ID or a PIN code instead. The gesture controls to navigate iOS are intuitive and easy to grasp.
With glass on the back supporting wireless charging, you can be flexible in how you choose to charge up the battery. A pad or dock can be handy when wires aren’t necessary. The dual-lens camera array didn’t drastically change from the iPhone X, but there are some differences in how softer portraits and selfies look in comparison. Dynamic range is better, though low-light photos really didn’t take a leap forward at all.
If you do go with the 64GB version, keep in mind that you will be limited to about 50GB of actual usable storage. The 256GB and 512GB variants leave you with far more space to store whatever you want. Regardless of what you’re studying, the App Store likely has something to help things along.
Samsung Galaxy S10 and Note 10
These two are different phones but they share a lot in common. Breaking them down even further, there are five different models between them: the Samsung S10e, S10, S10+, Note10 and Note10+. The S10e is an interesting option because it does differ a fair bit from its siblings, while the S10 and S10+ are closer together in all aspects. You can read more about that here.
The Note10 and Note10+ are newer, yet borrow heavily from the S10 lineup. They essentially have the same cameras and One UI, the software overlay Samsung uses. The screens on all of them are gorgeous to look at. And with the S10 and Note10 (not the + models), it’s easier to use them with one hand. To learn more about how the Note 10 can benefit students you can read this article by my colleague Erin.
The biggest difference between the two is the S Pen. The Note10 and Note10+ have it, the S10 models naturally don’t. Samsung built in more unique functions for the pen, like controlling the camera app without touching the phone. Jot down notes from a lecture or class and then turn them into text you can use in a Word document.
As alternatives to these, you wouldn’t go wrong with the Galaxy S9/S9+ or Galaxy Note 9. Those are still more than capable and offer great features and performance. If the current models are too out of reach—and you want a Samsung device—those are worth a look.
Google Pixel 3
Google continued its penchant for delivering a pure version of Android that also comes with three years of Android updates. Both the Pixel 3 and 3 XL are very similar, save for the differences in size and the obvious notch at the top of the larger model. If that aesthetic bothers you, the smaller one doesn’t have it at all.
Both phones offer smooth experiences helped by some of the best haptic feedback on any phone out there. They’re not the prettiest of designs, but the functionality makes up for that. These have much better screens than the previous Pixels did, and performance tends to stack up well with competitors. Bear in mind that there’s no storage expansion, so if you’re low on room, you will need to rely on the cloud.
The camera is the jewel of the Pixel 3, capturing some of the best images on any smartphone. Portrait shots—both from the rear and front cameras—are superb. Night and low-light shots are outstanding, in most cases, while video also comes out looking great in almost any setting.
If you want to learn more about what these phones can do, you can check out my full review of the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3XL here on the Best Buy Blog.
Huawei P30 Pro
Speaking of cameras, the Huawei P30 Pro is currently one of the best for mobile photography. It’s not just the quality of the images, but also the sheer number of modes and options available to shoot with. Whether it’s the night mode, HDR, monochrome, pro, or several of the other options laid out in the camera app, learning the triple-lens camera array is well worth it if you choose to go with this phone.
It has a vibrant 6.47-inch display with a strong processor and impressive components inside. Huawei built the phone to excel in a variety of situations, and it accords itself well when doing so. Browsing, social media and messaging are the easy part. Gaming, photo editing and other tougher tasks also work well.
While an Android phone throughout, Huawei’s EMUI software isn’t as efficient or aesthetically-pleasing as other handsets—it’s a trade-off as there are many great things about in this phone. And that breathing crystal colour is truly nice to look at.
OnePlus 7 Pro
OnePlus continues to get better year after year, and the 7 Pro is the company’s best overall effort yet. Sporting a 6.67-inch display, it offers a nice mix of design, performance and battery life to make it one of the more compelling options on this list.
Camera performance is better too, and with a triple-lens array in the rear, shooting ultra-wide or closer with telephoto offers versatility. The front camera pops out from the body, leaving the screen free of any notches, so there are no compromises there. It’s a phone that takes much of the pure Android experience and keeps the software free of bloat.
Apps do run well on the 7 Pro, while the large screen makes it easier to enjoy visual content. Overall, expect a consistent experience when holding this phone in your hand. It’s not the easiest to use one-handed, and doesn’t support wireless charging. It has no IP rating, so there’s no official water-resistance, but the phone can withstand spills and exposure to freshwater.
Other Smartphones to consider
The list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning some of the other unique handsets available. You might look at the Asus ROG Phone as one option if you’re a gamer. Going premium isn’t always an option for everyone, and if you count yourself among them, you can always check out more affordable phones for an upgrade to something new or browse through the full list.