With so many different phone manufacturers in the world, how do you know which can be trusted to deliver a quality device with support for the foreseeable future? We're going to take a look at every major manufacturer of Android smartphones and see how each company fared throughout 2018, from trivial problems to major blunders, innovative technologies and solid update schedules, everything counts toward to overall score for each company. Who delivered the best results in 2018? Let's take a look.
Asus went largely unnoticed this year, part of that owing to the fact that they fully embraced the notch as part of their 2018 smartphone identity but failing to realize that every other OEM would seemingly do the exact same thing. That's not to say that Asus doesn't make some good devices, as our reviews of the Zenfone 5Z and the Zenfone 5Q show, but there's little to nothing that sets Asus apart from the pack aside from a slightly lower price. That's not without some big concessions though, including lower quality displays than the competition, and the fact that some of the Zenfone 5 lineup still ships with the 2 year-old Android 7.1 Nougat as well. The shining beacon in Asus 2018 lineup is, undeniably, the ROG Phone. Asus has created a truly unique and lovable device that's not just worth taking a look at, it's really one worth owning for more than just a handful of reasons. Plenty of actually useful gaming accessories are available for the device, and even if you don't want to lug around a portable controller, the AirTouch points on the phone deliver a new method of input that we haven't seen from any manufacturer yet.
Judging on the resignation of Asus' CEO and the subsequent announcement of focusing future products on power users, it's likely we'll start seeing more ROG-type phones and less of what Asus has been making up until now. They've stated that the ZenFone lineup isn't heading to pasture which means we're likely going to see plenty of budget-minded flagships from the company. Let's just hope it's better than this year, because Asus focus this year was a bit on the odd side. Focusing on the notch as some sort of selling point during the ZenFone 5 announcement felt out of touch, and while the phones themselves were good enough, it wasn't until much later in the year that Asus seemed to get a handle on where it needed to go, and it looks like the ship is being steered in the right direction for 2019. As for this year it's definitely been a disappointment. Taking everything into account, Asus products were strong enough to help make up for the company's lackluster performance this year, but only just barely. The promise of more ROG phones and other specialized phones next year is big, but 2018 barely made a blip on the radar for Asus.
Product Grade: D
Company Grade: D
Overall Grade: D
BlackBerry made quite the comeback with this year's KEY2, a phone experience that's wholly unique across the board. While BlackBerry didn't release the sheer number of devices that some other manufacturers on this list, its devices show a level of devotion and focus to a brand and image that is clearly making a resurgence after a decade of declining mindshare. While the BlackBerry KEY2 is clearly different from most other flagship smartphones on the market, namely in its processing performance and screen size, the abilities of the phone are not to be discounted in any way. The KEY2 is simply one of the finest phones for power users who love to multitask and have, quite literally, everything at their fingertips thanks to a powerfully redesigned keyboard whose keys can all be used as quick shortcuts to launch anything on the phone. The KEY2 LE is unfortunately a less impressive phone simply because it's missing two of the most important features from the KEY2; keyboard shortcuts and the ability to use the keyboard as a trackpad.
Parent company TCL has made a name for itself for several reasons over the past few years, but it's not just for the excellent budget-minded TVs they make, it's also for the brands they've helped resurrect and grow. BlackBerry, in particular, has had a strong showing in both innovation and initial sales, and 2018's impressive release of the KEY2 is an important view into how BlackBerry is continuing to make a comeback as a relevant player in the market, offering something others simply don't. Still there's really only two products to speak of in 2018, and while they were both solid devices with great user feedback and support, this is a surprisingly low number of devices given how big BlackBerry used to be.
BlackBerry has momentum going for it, coming off the positive release of the KEY2 and even after the surprisingly drab release of the KEY2 LE, setting expectations high for 2019. BlackBerry needs to work on their support and update schedule, particularly when it comes to OS updates, as the KEYOne only just received Android 8.0 Oreo nearly a year after its initial release, and there are seemingly no concrete plans for an Android 9 Pie update for any of BlackBerry's phones. While OS updates like this are less important for OEMs who include swaths of additional features over stock Android, there's still a certain negative image that slow OS updates create, regardless of whether they're rooted in fact, and BlackBerry needs to make sure to control this image for the future.
Product Grade: C+
Company Grade: C
Overall Grade: C
The Pixel 3 family of devices, particularly the Pixel 3 XL, has been a big letdown in many key areas. Google certainly improved some areas of these devices by providing higher quality screens when compared to last year, and the finest vibration motors in the industry. They've also added wireless charging and a brand new Titan M security chip. But they made some seriously bad decisions in other areas like the inclusion of a giant notch on the Pixel 3 XL that impedes upon content, removal of choice features like navigation buttons and quick settings buttons in the notification shade, performance issues with multitasking, quality issues with audio recording, and a slew of other problems that you can read about in our review. All this while charging more money than ever for these devices.
These issues have been passed down to previous Pixel family phones too, much of which comes in the form of Android Pie's questionable navigation changes, as well as a slew of updates for all three generations of Pixel that have regularly caused issues. These issues range from not being able to properly charge a device, cameras being rendered unusable, photos being randomly deleted, severe issues with sound recording, memory management problems, and even bad audio feedback when making phone calls. Long story short, Google's Pixel line is a family of buggy devices that often face updates with several problems, many of which can are game-breaking for the users that are affected. It's clear Google has some serious work to do on quality control for not just its hardware, but for the updates delivered to said hardware as well.
Google's choices as a phone maker this year have shown signs of being out of touch in some areas, while being perfectly in line with expectations elsewhere. The feedback from users about notches and headphone jacks has been pretty clear, and while few manufacturers listened to the headphone jack situation, Google at least included an excellent pair of USB Type-C earbuds with every Pixel 3 to help rectify the situation a bit. The did quite the opposite with the notch though, something many people have been very outspoken against, and not only made the largest notch on any Android phone, but even modified Android's handling of notches in order to facilitate it. There are plenty of other facets to Google's actions in 2018 that we won't cover here because they fall outside of the scope of being just a phone maker, but they all add up to a Google that feels like it's following others rather than leading and innovating.
Google's Pixel line is the place to go for the absolute fastest updates on any phone, but it's becoming increasingly clear that Google has a quality control problem in more than one area. Both on the hardware and the software side, Google has faltered in its ability to provide upgrades without big problems across all three generations of its Pixel line, and while they've cleaned up some problems, plenty of them are still big issues for customers.
Product Grade: D-
Company Grade: F
Overall Grade: F+
HTC's fall from grace has been pretty monumental over the past few years, and it's really a shame given how good their phones used to be. The HTC U12+, despite the highpoints in video recording, was a mess of a phone when it launched, and continues to underwhelm in a number of key areas when compared to the competition. HTC also announced the rather good-looking budget-minded HTC U12 Life, which unfortunately saw an extremely limited release only in the UK, artificially limiting HTC's ability to sell anything worth measuring. HTC's "blockchain" phone, the Exodus 1, made no dent in the company's mindshare, brought on in a big way by only allowing the phone to be purchased with cryptocurrency. It's really a shame how things turned out too, as HTC's designs and ideas are all solid, it's just the execution that doesn't always seem to pan out so well.
It seems most of HTC's efforts are now gearing toward Google's Pixel line of devices since Google bought out much of the engineering staff at the beginning of this year. The loss of talent seems somewhat obvious with this year's showings, and while the company has been having a hard time for a while now, their focus on products that consistently don't sell well is a bit puzzling. This on top of the odd "U" rebranding over the past year and a half and you end up with a consumer market that doesn't know what to pick up from the once-great smartphone giant, and you end up with a failure on every front. Couple this with the dissolving of one of the best reasons to buy an HTC phone, the Uh-Oh Protection, and you'd got a company that makes products seemingly geared toward no one in particular.
Overall it's pretty clear HTC is a failing company, and while we aren't trying to dogpile on them and make things harder, it's clear HTC needs a reinvention in a big way, not just in order to stay relevant in today's smartphone market but to stay afloat as a company. Thankfully for consumers, the minds behind the once-booming company are hard at work with a possible big rebranding in 2019. For now though, it's seemingly impossible to recommend anything HTC made in 2018 for a swath of reasons, not the least of which are the culmination of many errors along the way.
Product Grade: D-
Company Grade: F
Overall Grade: F+
Huawei feels a bit like the underdog right now, a ridiculous notion given that it's currently the number 2 smartphone vendor in the world. There's no denying the allegations levied against Huawei could land a huge blow on the company, but despite the hardships its faced throughout 2018, Huawei has come out swinging with the absolute best devices they've ever made, and the best mobile cameras in the industry by a fair margin. We already crowned them the new camera champs when the P20 Pro launched in the Spring, and while nothing is perfect, the level of innovation and quality the P20 Pro delivered were unrivaled. Huawei then doubled down on their efforts with the Mate 20 family of devices, improving everything you could think of on these devices, including a brand new third wide-angle camera on all three phones, faster processors and interesting new materials in design.
Huawei's dedication to the Leica brand, and all that such a name implies in the world of photography, is something to be applauded. Huawei has pushed the envelope for available focal lengths on a smartphone, delivering a wider range of available zooming options than any other smartphone on the market by a wide margin. The Mate 20 Pro and Mate 20x, in particular, provide an unheard of 16-270mm focal length range equivalent, which is something most phones can't even achieve with specialty add-on lenses and cases. This is all built into Huawei's jam-packed software, and their work with AI, as it relates to photography, is nothing short of ground-breaking. It's not all about cameras though, as the rest of Huawei's flagships are jam-packed with features, excellent performance, and designs worth looking at again and again.
It's no secret that Huawei is in a world of trouble across the globe, and those looking to buy any of the company's smartphones, especially in the US, are going to have a harder time than ever going forward. Countries that are part of the Five Eyes intelligence group have all banned Huawei device sales from their countries, either in part or in full. The US sees the largest full ban on Huawei sales across the country, and while you can still easily get one from an import shop or a third party seller on a site like Swappa or eBay, Huawei won't be seeing any substantial sales in the US any time soon. This is a particularly difficult thing for a company that, as of CES 2018, had huge plans to launch on AT&T and Verizon in the US officially, and since then has been involved in a downward spiral that has culminated with the arrest of its CFO in Canada. Still, the company dares anyone to prove it's been spying for the Chinese government, a fact that has yet to be made public by any country or agency worldwide despite politicians claiming otherwise, but Huawei could have handled this so much better all year. Now we're left with a tainted brand that makes amazing products that people are becoming increasingly wary of buying.
Product Grade: A
Company Grade: F
Overall Grade: C+
As Huawei's sister company, HONOR typically provides high-performance phone at entry-level to mid-range prices, and this year has been a real showcase year for how far HONOR can stretch components on a budget price. While HMD Global seems laser-focused on its Android One strategy with the Nokia brand, HONOR is focusing on delivering phones with more features and performance than you would ever imagine at the same price points, and it's doing so without sacrificing camera quality either. Two of HONOR's biggest splashes this year include the HONOR 8X and the HONOR 10, two phones with the same processor as the considerably more expensive Huawei P20 family. The HONOR Magic 2, once again, offers the same processor as the considerably more expensive Huawei Mate 20 family and not only does it in a cheaper package, but with an incredibly innovative truly bezel-less design.
Every one of these phones comes with Huawei's EMUI 8 or 9, a fork of Android that features its own look and set of unique features and additions over stock Android, similar to OEMs like Samsung or LG. EMUI has come a long way in just the last year alone, and it's not only fast and stable but offers tons of useful quality of life features and customizations, including a robust theme store. HONOR's focus on camera quality in 2018 has mirrored Huawei's, and while HONOR doesn't boast the same Leica partnership as its sister company, they've been pushing AI-based photography in the same way Huawei has, resulting in a significant increase in overall quality and options. The future is looking bright for HONOR as it continues to innovate through several technologies, including a 48-megapixel camera on the back, in-display camera on the front, and several other breakthrough ideas in the upcoming HONOR View 20. HONOR is most certainly the place to look for high-value, high-performance, and feature-rich devices without compromising the experience.
HONOR's biggest issue is, of course, its direct association with Huawei. As Huawei's subsidiary, anything the parents company does or is involved in will, of course, directly implicate HONOR as well. While virtually no one has mentioned HONOR in any of the political peril surrounding Huawei right now, there's no escaping the truth that they're largely the same company. This will be off putting for some, but HONOR has gone out of its way for quite some time to associate itself as its own brand and typically doesn't market itself as a Huawei-owned brand. The company still uses Huawei's own version of Android, EMUI, and all HONOR phones are also powered by Huawei-built Kirin processors as well. While it doesn't seem fair to ding HONOR for the negative publicity against Huawei, there's little separating the two outside of daily operations staff, and as such they suffer a similar fate to their sister company.
Product Grade: A
Company Grade: D
Overall Grade: B
Lenovo's phone division feels like it fell off a cliff in 2018, and the sales of Lenovo smartphones certainly reflect that. Part of this is due to a lack of enthusiasm for new devices, while the general lack of devices didn't help much either. Lenovo was also a bit dishonest in its teasers, especially for the Lenovo Z5, which was teased multiple times showing no bezels, with the VP of Lenovo even stating that it was a "bezel-less" handset, yet the phone ended up debuting with a rather large notch in its display while still sporting a noticeable chin. Lenovo's phone business seems to be going by the wayside to make room for other divisions within the company if sales and number of devices are any indication, but there's still some sort of hope on the horizon for something big and groundbreaking. If it ever shows up, that is.
Lenovo's product announcements this year, as stated before, have been made with a bit of perceived deception. Whether or not this deception was intentional or not is another story, but there's been a regular pattern of trying to make headlines without any real product showing to match said headlines. The standard Z5 that was mentioned earlier was just the start, but even recently we saw Lenovo conveniently delay their announcement showcase for the Z5s and Z5 Pro GT after first saying that they would beat Samsung to the punch with the first "punch hole" smartphone. This particular announcement of an announcement, just a day before Samsung's actual announcement of a product, felt like yet another time where Lenovo purposefully tried to make headlines without an actual product to show. The Z5 GT Pro certainly looks like it could be an excellent device and could actually be the device we've been waiting for since the Summer's original teaser. For now though, there's little to nothing worth noting about Lenovo's 2018 performance, but the 2019 debuting seems like it could be considerably stronger out of the gate.
Product Grade: D
Company Grade: F
Overall Grade: F+
LG's showing in 2018 was quite solid, with devices for every price point that often met or exceeded expectations in most ways. The LG G7 ThinQ is easily one of the best value flagships to buy at this point in 2018, and the LG V40 ThinQ is among the absolute best smartphones made all year. LG has significantly improved their hardware over the past 18-24 months, coming from a generation of phones with huge hardware issues just 2 and 3 years ago to delivering some of the finest hardware you'll find anywhere. LG even offers a 2-year warranty with its flagship devices; double that of any other OEM on the market. LG is also one of the few remaining companies that makes flagships with 3.5mm audio jacks, and on top of that packs in the absolute best quality DACs in the business, ensuring the highest quality sound on any flagship smartphone, and it's also got the best vibration motors next to Google's latest Pixel 3 phones, meaning your phone will feel as high quality as it looks while using it.
LG's biggest issues still come in the form of timely updates and overall camera quality though, and while they've made significant improvements in both areas, they can't be called the best in either category. Where LG really shines is in its powerful manual camera modes, of which the LG V40 ThinQ shines the brightest. We use the V40 as our main video camera for the YouTube channel here at Android Headlines, as it offers an incredibly versatile way to film video in extremely high quality without having to lug all sorts of equipment around with it. LG's use of wide-angle lenses has been unparalleled until the recent release of the Mate 20 family from Huawei, and a solid set of new features and additions to the latest updates for the G7 and V40 show that LG is working to better their devices, even after releasing them.
LG's two biggest problems are in the general watering-down of the brand, as well as the general slow nature of LG's updates and software upgrades. If LG can put that new Software Upgrade Center to better use, it'll most certainly continue to move up in the rankings, especially if these upgrades can provide meaningful features and additions instead of just visual tweaks. There are signs of improvement though, and while the V40 and G7 are both still running Android 8 Oreo, both phones have seen regular security updates since launch, and even last year's flagships have received regular security updates too. Brand new functions have been added to the camera software since the G7 and V40 launches, and that Android 9 Pie update is already in beta in South Korea. It's slow, but there are definitely improvements versus previous years. There's no shaking the "cheap brand" image that LG continues to hold in the US, in particular, where many prepaid phones are less than great experiences and tend to water down the brand image as a whole.
Product Grade: B+
Company Grade: C-
Overall Grade: C+
Motorola's showings this year are almost all focused on the low to mid-range pricing tier, and as such are pretty run-of-the-mill devices. Motorola has had a tough time selling its flagship-tier phones in any substantial numbers in recent years, despite serious innovation on its Moto Z series with Moto Mods. Even without a truly flagship-tier phone this year Motorola has shows its continued support for Moto Mods with the release of the Moto Z3 family, which are more of redesigns of last year's product than significant upgrades. This is semi-excusable because of the pricetag the phone launches at, as it still provides a high-performance device for the price of a mid-range phone. All of Motorola's entry-level priced phones are exceedingly solid too, including the Moto G6 family, the Moto X4 and even the Motorola One, all of which are priced appropriately for their specs, yet deliver an experience that's generally better than you might imagine at said price ranges. Motorola's continued support for software updates, including the recently released Android Pie updates for several phones, show a solid dedication to its users and the ideas put forth in previous phones, even keeping compatibility for original Moto Mods on its latest Z-series phones as well.
Motorola's as a company has been more impressive than its actual products, particularly because of their support on both the software and hardware fronts. Owners of any Moto Z device can use any Moto Mod on the market, meaning three generations of devices can use the same Mods without issue. While many frown on companies using near-identical designs throughout the years, Motorola's isn't due to laziness or lack of vision, rather the opposite. Motorola's design was clearly future proofed from the beginning, and the company's engineers did an impeccable job of making sure these products would work for many years to come, and have given plenty of support to developers and other companies on how to create successful mods that people truly want to buy. They've also been good about software updates on phones, and while some will certainly question the purpose of stock Android nowadays, Motorola continues to use its near-stock nature to the best advantage it can.
Product Grade: D+
Company Grade: A-
Overall Grade: C
It's been quite some time since Nokia was relevant, but like BlackBerry, 2018 has been a pivotal year for the once-dominating brand. HMD Global relaunched the brand last year with a new focus and has been slowly ramping up its efforts since then. The Nokia 6.1 marked the beginning of Nokia's rise in 2018, with a $229 price tag, great performance and an oh-so-gorgeous metal build. The Nokia 7.1 followed a few months later, introducing a beefed up phone with its own design language, albeit one that's not at all unique in 2018, but delivers solid performance and specs for just over $300. The recently announced Nokia 8.1 once again raises the bar and the price by about $100, delivering even better performance in every area and an incredibly well-rounded mid-range offering by any stretch of the imagination.
Nokia's ability to be available at the biggest retailers across the US in such a short time is nothing short of impressive. Most companies take years to get these sorts of spots, yet HMD Global has achieved all but carrier availability in less than 2. This includes Amazon, Best Buy and B&H, and helps consumers easily find solid, affordable unlocked devices. Every one of these phones are enrolled in the Android One program, meaning they deliver the pure Android experience, all while ensuring that they are getting updates to the latest OS within just a few weeks of release of finalized software by Google, not months.The upcoming announcement of the Nokia 9.1 has been generating excitement for a few months now, with diehard Nokia fans salivating at the idea of a proper PureView camera, powered by the excellent Carl Zeiss lenses, making a huge return with the best operating system a Nokia flagship has ever seen. 2018 has been an awesome year for HMD Global and the Nokia brand, and 2019 certainly seems poised to amplify that even further.
Product Grade: B
Company Grade: B
Overall Grade: B
OnePlus had both a monumentally good year, and one that shows worrying patterns across the board. Up until 2018, OnePlus's motto of Never Settle was always a bit curious, as there's always a level of settling when choosing a device that's significantly cheaper than the competition, but 2018 also brought question to the OnePlus's secondary motto of "by the fans, for the fans" that OnePlus has hinged its success on over the years. Starting with the OnePlus 6 we saw the addition of a display notch to help reduce bezels on most edges of the phone, much to the chagrin and outcry of users leading up to the release of the phone. Despite overwhelming unfavorability on official polls run by the company on social media, which asked users if they want a notch on their new phone, decisions seem to have been made before this ruse was even put forth. To further malign the hard line position fans took in favor of important features like the 3.5mm audio jack, OnePlus bowed to pressure from the component industry and removed the 3.5mm jack on the Fall 2018 release of the OnePlus 6T.
Then there's also the questionable change from metal to glass-backed phones, as OnePlus has yet to release a device that's IP-certified for water and dust resistance, or even one with wireless charging. These two key factors are typically the reason for switching to a more fragile material like glass, but OnePlus's decision seems to be completely done from an aesthetics standpoint. Aside from hardware issues, OnePlus redesigned the multitasking carousel in its Android 9 Pie update to mostly coincide with what Google is pushing on its Pixel line of phones, once again going against the grain of what its users specifically requested in OnePlus's popular forums. OnePlus still seems to tout "speed" as one of its biggest selling points, yet this redesign is anything but fast, and significantly slows down the multitasking experience. Then, of course, was the release of the OnePlus 6T McLaren Edition, which took place not a month after the OnePlus 6T went on sale. This angered fans who had just purchased the regular OnePlus 6T, as it offered even more ram, a special edition design, and a new Warp Charge ability for only about $50 more than the top-end OnePlus 6T.
Outside of these clear blunders, OnePlus still delivered two extremely worthy devices for the price point, but that price has increased over the previous generation with each release. All this sounds pretty negative, but most of it is related to OnePlus's handling of matters rather than them delivering sub-par products. Taking the competition into account shines a very different light on these two phones though, and it's clear that OnePlus is still dedicated to providing a high-value experience to customers for less money than the competition, even if it means conceding some features. OnePlus still consistently delivers a lower price than rivals while oftentimes delivering the same or better specs, especially in the case of RAM and storage, all while beefing up their custom OxygenOS version of Android with new features and a great new look. They were also one of the first OEMs to update to Android 9 Pie, and have delivered fantastic support for previous generation devices in the form of meaningful software updates as well. Making a deal with T-Mobile is easily the biggest win for the company this year too, as it provided a truly significant way to get into the US market; something most Chinese OEMs have been trying and failing to do for years.
Product Grade: B
Company Grade: D-
Overall Grade: C-
OPPO is the sister company of OnePlus, and it shows in nearly every way for the company's flagship designs. Most OPPO and OnePlus phones look incredibly similar, and in some cases nearly identical, but OPPO has branched out onto a path that differentiates it from OnePlus and many other OEMs in pretty significant ways. OPPO released many solid devices this year, including the R15 and R17, the latter featuring some significant innovations in two key areas: a TOF 3D camera and SuperVOOC charging. While a TOF 3D camera isn't exactly a household name, it represents an important new technology that's aiming to make cameras better by providing focal and depth perception in nanoseconds, not milliseconds. SuperVOOC made its debut on the Lamborghini Edition of the Find X, an incredibly expensive device by any measurement, but is now also available on the far less expensive OPPO R17 Pro, which retails for about $500. This tech charges the R17 Pro from 0-40% in just 10 minutes flat, with a full charge in a whopping 25 minutes.
OPPO has also been at the forefront of innovation when it comes to bezel-less designs and intriguing colors. This Fall's OPPO Find X is easily among the most beautiful devices ever created, and while the slider mechanism won't be practical for everyone, the unique style exuded from the Find X is unmistakable in a world where most smartphones look nearly identical. OPPO's got plans to keep this design around for the foreseeable future too, judging on the 5G Find X prototype, and it makes sense too considering how amazing it is to use. This all while significantly improving its own ColorOS version of Android, which features one of the only power user-friendly horizontal Overview multitasking carousel designs, and you've got a selection of phones that cover all the bases, from the fast and affordable to the ultra stylish and ritzy.
OPPO's biggest problems comes in pricing, where it often prices itself about the same as OnePlus's nearly identical looking phones, but often features slightly worse specs. This is more apparent on the R series, where the same price will often net you a Snapdragon 845 on a OnePlus device, while the comparable OPPO device only features a Snapdragon 670 or 710. While the real-world performance of these component changes isn't always noticeable, it's more of the principal for these sorts of changes while not offering any real reason for the decision. OPPO can't even claim software superiority either, as OnePlus's OxygenOS or HydrogenOS (depending on region) is the fastest version of Android on the market and doesn't skimp on features either. Then there's the Find X, which is extremely expensive but features top-end components and design, leaving OPPO fans with no middle ground to run to when it comes to price and specs.
Product Grade: B
Company Grade: A
Overall Grade: B+
The Razer Phone 2 feels like more of a missed opportunity than anything. It's a capable phone in most ways, including a 120Hz display that's truly unique among any other phone on the market and some seriously unique looks. As a gaming device, however, it's difficult to recommend over something like the Asus ROG Phone, which features plenty of unique customizations for games, while the Razer Phone 2 ships with what could almost be considered stock Android. While this sounds great for performance, the reality is that stock Android hasn't meant performance for quite some time now, and you'll find there's no performance distinction between this and another high-end phone, only a distinct lack of features.
The Razer Phone 2 is a solid device that certainly looks cool and has one of the best displays and speakers on the market, but it's a pretty safe move on Razer's part, mostly improving upon hardware elements but not providing much in the way of unique software or extra features that would truly make this feel like a "gaming phone" outside of sheer looks and a liquid smooth display. It's true that Razer is still new to the phone game and can't release more than one or two products to start with, but it's the lack of compelling features on the Razer Phone 2 that make it a hard sell as a gaming device. There's no doubt it's a solid phone and a good buy, especially at the price the Razer Phone 2 is selling for at many retailers, but the brand has been defined by products for hardcore gamers, and this phone simply doesn't offer enough in the way of unique gamer options or features to make it stand out as it should.
Product Grade: C-
Company Grade: C-
Overall Grade: C-
Just about everything Samsung did in 2018 shows a company at the top of its game, one that's unwilling to compromise when industry trends clearly are unfavorable, and one that appears to be listening to its base in every perceivable way. We saw every single major manufacturer bow to the notch trend in 2018, much to the chagrin of outspoken users everywhere, and many also removed the much-loved 3.5mm "headphone jack" from their phones; all except for Samsung, who held true to their word and delivered devices with options for every preference imaginable. Samsung's initial release of the Galaxy S9 was a bit underwhelming, but as the market worsened around them, it became clear why Samsung kept last year's design language and, more or less, added features and speed to what were already excellent designs.
Samsung's release of the Galaxy Note 9 brought back the insane amount of customization present in the Samsung Experience with the return of Good Lock, a curiously named app that's a collection of several other apps, all designed to allow users to completely customize the user interface, navigation, look and feel, and everything else you could possibly think of to create the ultimate pair of devices. Samsung also has the entire ecosystem experience down pat, from the excellent, industry-leading Samsung Pay, to deep integration with its smart TVs, smart watches, appliances and everything in-between. Match this with timely updates that deliver an incredibly well-balanced camera experience and a breath of features and support that actually warrant the relatively high price tags of flagship devices, and you've got the most consumer-friendly set of devices released by any company in 2018.
Looking forward, 2019 is looking a little more cloudy. It's clear Samsung is on the cusp of something big with its foldable device announcement a few weeks ago, but the direction it's taking in regards to notches and headphone jacks is a bit murky. It's clear we're going to see smaller bezels with a camera cut-out in 2019 Samsung phones, as seen with the recent announcement of the Galaxy A8s. The biggest problem with this announcement is, of course, the lack of a 3.5mm audio jack, aside from having a display cut-out of any kind. Both of these selling points have been a staple of the Samsung brand in 2017 and 2018, and to see both of them go by the wayside at the same time is a bit concerning. To further muddy the waters, Samsung's new OneUI redesign of the Samsung Experience Android skin is most certainly going to be a controversial update, not just because of the radical visual design changes throughout the UI, but also because of the big navigational changes in Android 9 Pie that have become such a sore spot for Google's latest big Android update. Much of Samsung's winnings in 2018 can be attributed to the ideology of delivering something for everyone without compromise, and a lot of what will ultimately give Samsung another perfect year ultimately hangs in the balance of whether or not they'll continue to deliver on their promises as they have in 2018.
Product Grade: A+
Company Grade: A+
Overall Grade: A+
It's taken several generations for Sony to finally get its act together, but 2018 spelled a rebirth for the ailing mobile division of the famous Japanese electronics giant. The announcement and launch of the Xperia XZ2 marked a big change to the company's design language for its devices. The old designs didn't age very well against many phones released in 2017, but the new Ambient Flow design language looks modern and fresh, with smaller bezels and taller aspect ratios in 2018. The removal of the 3.5mm audio jack felt like a huge blow to the company's otherwise respectable Hi-Res Audio movement that it's been pushing for years though, and was a bit of a confusing move for Sony fans as a whole. Despite this setback, the Xperia XZ2 went on to be one of our favorite phones of the year, even going on to win runner-up for best battery life on any flagship for the year. This combined with the sheer speed of the device and the excellent price tag that you can find it for today makes it an easy recommendation to anyone looking for a solid flagship-level device.
Sony's follow-up to this, the Xperia XZ3, was launched just recently and was among the first phones to ship with Android 9 Pie. Despite most other OEMs following suit with what is quickly being called one of the worst redesigns ever, Android 9 Pie's multitasking screen, Sony seems to have decided this new design wasn't up to the task for a fast phone and opted to keep Oreo's design instead. That highly criticized gesture navigation style that Google also introduced in Pie is gone as well, and Sony has instead seemingly kept all the good designs and features of Pie without introducing any of the controversial or flat-out bad ones. This, on top of further tweaking the new Ambient Flow hardware design language by introducing curved edges to the brand new OLED display panel, makes the Xperia XZ3 feel like one of the most premium devices in recent memory. The biggest disappointment is not seeing the dual camera setup from the XZ2 Premium make its way to the similarly priced Xperia XZ3, but it's highly likely we'll see Sony push that to next year's flagships instead. Sony's huge changes are all for the better, with the exception of the 3.5mm jack removal, and the inclusion of a working fingerprint scanner in the US, coupled with everything else this year's flagships bring, put Sony closer to the top of its game than it's been in a very long time.
Product Grade: B
Company Grade: A
Overall Grade: B
Vivo had quite a number of "firsts" in 2018, most notably beginning with the in-glass fingerprint scanner announced at CES right in the very beginning of the year. Since then, we've seen a slew of phones from the company make their retail debut, many of which featured hit-or-miss performance on those cutting-edge fingerprint scanners, but being the first to market almost always means quality is going to suffer a bit. Since then, Vivo has significantly improved the quality and performance of its in-glass fingerprint scanners, starting with the Vivo NEX S, a phone that packs incredible technology inside and a quality user experience, all while sporting a truly bezel-less design and a massive display to boot. Vivo is already following this up with the NEX Dual Display Edition, showcasing yet another gorgeous design that's uniquely unparalleled in the smartphone world.
What's impressive about the NEX Dual Display Edition isn't just the truly bezel-less, sleek design, it's almost all found on the back of the phone. An entire second screen sits underneath the gorgeous coat of paint as well as a wholly unique ring flash configuration for better lighting in dark environments. It also functions as a touchpad on the back for apps and games that support it, bringing functionality similar to what Sony offered on the PS Vita a few years ago. Vivo has been the showcase pioneer of several technologies this year, and this is part and parcel to the score they've been given here. Many OEMs this year seem to have let design take a back seat, especially when it comes to camera configurations and display notches, while Vivo has consistently shown up almost everyone in both regards, offering compelling alternatives for almost every taste.
Even Vivo's cameras have been excellent this year, offering a huge step up in quality and features over previous generations of phones, and rivaling even the biggest of big-name manufacturers in this area. Vivo is good about keeping their phones updated with regular security patches and bug fixes, but the FunTouch OS skin is still too heavy for its own good and requires quite a bit of tweaking to get it working well. The worst offense is the overly aggressive RAM and battery management, which regularly pauses apps in the background or even removes them from RAM altogether, requiring a full reload of apps while simply multitasking during a regular day's use. It's also extremely iOS inspired and looks like it was ripped straight from an iPhone a year or two ago. There's certainly a market for this, but it doesn't have the international appeal or ease of support and updating that other OEMs have.
Product Grade: B+
Company Grade: A
Overall Grade: B+
Last, but certainly nowhere near least, is Xiaomi. Xiaomi has consistently delivered solid flagship phones for significantly less than the competition, owing in part to their commitment that they won't make more than a 5% profit on all devices sold. This has allowed the company to deliver consistently innovative, attractive smartphones and devices as prices that seem impossible to deliver on, yet never relax their quality control or design standards either. Xiaomi quite literally has something for everyone, from the near-bezel-less Mi MIX 2s to the unbelievable value-focused Pocophone F1. They even debuted the truly bezel-less Mi MIX 3 at the tail end of the year, showcasing a brilliant slider design and the fully developed vision of what they started with the original Mi MIX just 2 years ago.
Xiaomi's own version of Android, dubbed MIUI, showcases the best mix of speed and features, all while constantly innovating with new quality of life features like that amazing new multitasking Overview interface that's a huge step in the right direction in the mobile world. MIUI offers an unparalleled update schedule that gets weekly bug fixes and often major updates and changes for several generations of Xiaomi phones at a time. This long-term support of products is another incredible value-added portion that makes Xiaomi's already affordable prices seem almost unreal, as they both regularly offer the lowest prices for a comparably powered flagship all while offering a better update schedule and feature list than competitors.
Even folks who prefer stock Android can check out the super affordable Xiaomi Mi A2, a phone that's part of the Android One program that's designed to run stock Android with little to no customizations, offering a pure experience with fast updates from Google. Xiaomi's only odd release this year was the flagship Mi 8, which had a very limited release worldwide and wasn't as innovative as many had initially expected. It's not a bad smartphone by any means, and at the price, represents exactly what Xiaomi stands for as a whole; value without compromise. If there's a true flagship killer in the land, it's coming from the offices of Xiaomi without a doubt.
Product Grade: B+
Company Grade: A+
Overall Grade: A-
2018 has been a surprising year in many ways, from the ultra-quick adoption of the notch, to a series of bizarre design changes and even the deaths of quite a few much-loved services. But 2018 also represented one of the most innovative years in half a decade, from the adoption of in-glass fingerprint scanners, truly bezel-less designs from several manufacturers, and cameras that are once again changing the paradigm of what we expect from a smartphone. There were certainly some upsets, with companies that moved from hero to zero in just a scant few months, while others appear to have gone by the motto of "pulling oneself up by one's bootstraps" and succeeded wildly. What's certain is that tech enthusiasts have a lot to look forward to in 2019.