2018: the year Apple’s iPhone XS Max made this Android fan a convert

  • Chinese smartphones – from OnePlus, Xiaomi, Oppo and Huawei – take four of the top five spots in our ranking of the best handsets of 2018
  • But the No. 1 spot goes to Apple – and that’s not because its iPhone XS Max is the best at anything
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 December, 2018, 8:45am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 December, 2018, 4:25pm

Unless you live in the United States or South Korea, it’s just about impossible to ignore the aggressive emergence of Chinese smartphone brands in 2018.

Huawei is now in the same league as Apple and Samsung (critical and commercial success back this up); another Chinese brand, Xiaomi, expanded into Europe; Oppo, Vivo, and OnePlus – who share the same parent company – grabbed headlines with some wild designs (pop-up cameras; two-screen phones and in-display fingerprint scanners); and every Chinese smartphone company seemingly launched a sub-brand (Honor, Realme, Poco and Nubia) that immediately made a splash in the emerging Southeast Asia market.

Huawei ships a record 200 million smartphones, defying US crackdown

Of course, the established names – Apple, Samsung, LG and Sony – haven’t gone away, and each had compelling new releases in 2018. Between all these brands, it felt like there was a new phone launching every week; I alone tested at least 35 handsets this year.

Narrowing them down to a top five wasn’t easy, but, after much consideration, these are my five best smartphones of 2018.

5: OnePlus 6T

Once the value king, OnePlus lost that title this year to Huawei’s sub-brand Honor, which expanded aggressively. But while the OnePlus 6T no longer offers the most bang for your buck, it still has easily the best software of any Android smartphone.

Bar a couple of glaring flaws, everything about the phone is up there with the best of the best. Build quality is superb, the 16-megapixel camera has a relatively large 1/2.8-inch sensor that produces sharp and bright images, and the 6.4-inch OLED display with the extra small notch is a joy to look at.

OnePlus 6T full review: probably the best upper mid-range phone you can buy

In years past, OnePlus phones tended to finish higher on my year-end list, but the loss of its value factor and a very weak single speaker grille that OnePlus has refused to address for years, knocks it down to fifth position this year.

Price: HK$4,298 (6GB RAM, 128GB ROM); HK$4,498 (8GB RAM, 128GB ROM); HK$4,998 (8GB RAM, 256GB ROM)

4: Xiaomi Mi Mix 3

If you want to know how fast the smartphone industry moves just look at the Mi Mix series. The first, launched in 2016, was a jawdropper that grabbed all the headlines for its, at the time, never-before-seen near bezel-less design. Two years later, the Mi Mix 3 features even less bezel, but the phone mostly flew under the radar given there are a dozen other handsets out there that offer the same screen-to-body ratio.

Still, the clicky magnetic sliding form factor alone makes the Mi Mix 3 a gadget geek’s dream. I’ve had the phone for a few weeks now and I still don’t get tired of sliding the phone up and down for the tactile satisfaction.

Xiaomi Mi Mix 3 first impression: no notch needed thanks to a satisfying slider screen

Performance across the board is solid, too: the phone ships with up to 10GB of RAM, but even the 6GB version runs smoothly, and version 10 of Xiaomi’s MIUI Android skin is very aesthetically pleasing.

Price: from 3,299 yuan

3: Oppo Find X

The Find X is, in my and many other tech writers’ opinion, the sexiest looking smartphone of 2018. Whether it’s the curved OLED screen that goes from edge to edge, or the gradient glass back that’s uninterrupted by camera modules or indentations for fingerprint sensors, the handset resembles one solid piece of jewellery.

World’s most bezel-less phone, Oppo Find X, is a truly daring device

To achieve this design, Oppo had to adopt some radical ideas, chief of which is hiding the entire camera system in a pop-up module. The camera isn’t just used for taking photos, but also unlocking the device, so the average user will have to activate the motorised elevating module 150 to 200 times a day. Oppo claims it has tested the mechanism over 300,000 times, but a motorised moving part is ultimately more fragile and susceptible to damage from impact or raindrops.

Price: 4,999 yuan

2: Huawei Mate 20 Pro

Huawei’s latest and greatest should have grabbed top spot easily. The Mate 20 Pro is, bar none, the most feature-packed phone to date. Every single feature you can think of, every innovation the smartphone industry has seen in recent years, Huawei has collected into one package. In-display fingerprint reader? Wireless charging and super fast wired charging? Curved OLED display? Real 3D face scanner? 7nm chip set? The Mate 20 Pro has it all.

Huawei’s Mate 20 series: epic battery life, best photos – Pro and X smartphones put through their paces

The Mate 20 Pro’s 4,200 mAh battery gives it epic endurance, and the triple-camera system remains strong as ever – for still photography, anyway. In video recording, Huawei’s software just does not stabilise well enough, resulting in serious micro-jitters. The phone also, bafflingly, cannot record footage in 4K/60fps.

What ultimately knocked the Mate 20 Pro from my top spot is nagging compatibility issues with certain apps. To my knowledge, the apps Zynga Poker and Nova Launcher cannot run on the Mate 20 Pro without major hiccups (I’ve tried this on two devices). Neither of these apps are obscure, by the way; they have over 50 million downloads each on the Google Play Store.

Price: HK$6,888 (Mate 20 Pro, 6GB RAM/128G ROM); HK$7,888 (Mate 20 Pro, 8GB RAM/256GB ROM)

1: iPhone XS Max

The iPhone XS Max isn’t necessarily the best in any single area: many Android phones have higher-resolution displays; the Google Pixel 3 can capture superior lowlight images; the OnePlus 6T is noticeably faster in loading apps; and the Huawei Mate 20 Pro has far better battery life.

iPhone XS Max full review: stunning screen and photos make upgrade worth it – if you don’t have an X

But the iPhone XS, particularly the larger variant that I prefer, takes top spot this year for being the most well-rounded, refined device. There is no significant flaw with the XS Max, like there was on last year’s iPhone X (terrible battery life) or on Android offerings this year.

I usually prefer Android to iOS, but this year, Apple has won me over.

Price: HK$9,499 (XS Max, 64GB); HK$10,799 (XS Max, 256GB); HK$12,499 (XS Max, 512GB)