2020 in the rear view mirror? Good riddance! Looking back on the year, like some of my colleagues, I also have thoughts about the best smartphones of the year. So this is my own Top 5, but with a couple of twists.
First, I decided to stick to phones I’ve used extensively this year, and ignored ones I just played with for a few days or less, as well as ones I haven’t even touched. So all of these opinions are based on spending some quality time with each of these devices. That’s why you won’t see anything from OnePlus or Google or Apple on the list – I simply haven’t used them enough and thought it wouldn’t be fair to mention them, even if they look great in a theoretical sense, based on spec sheets and other reviews.
Second twist: it was very hard for me to create an actual hierarchical Top 5, because everyone’s needs are very different, so what I’ve done is singled out the things that most stood out to me (in a good way) about each of these devices. At the end I’ll tell you which of them I would actually buy with my own money, for my personal use. Let’s get right to it, then.
Best in-hand feel and best software: Oppo Find X2 Pro
The Oppo Find X2 Pro is, in my humble opinion, by far the most underrated flagship smartphone of the year – I’ve said as much before in a dedicated feature, so make sure you read that for my full thoughts on it.
As we wrap up 2020, I keep remembering what a great positive influence the vegan leather back has been for this phone when it comes to handling and overall in-hand feel. No other phone I’ve used this year can come even close, this is the one device I always felt 100% comfortable using without a case. Glass on the back looks ‘premium’ (whatever that means), or so they say, but the faux leather on the Find X2 Pro isn’t not premium feeling, and it makes holding this phone a dream, with zero anxiety about possibly dropping it.
Next up is probably the most surprising paragraph I’ve ever written, to me at least. Had you asked me one or two years ago about my opinions on Oppo’s ColorOS, I could have ranted for (literal) hours about how bad it was compared to other skins, pushing an iOS like aesthetic and iOS-inspired functionality on Android users. But that all changed starting with ColorOS 7.x, which was the first version of the skin that I felt didn’t get in your way at all, and just let you enjoy the hardware on offer.
ColorOS 11 then came and made things even better. So much so, in fact, that at the moment ColorOS 11 is my favorite Android skin. Its personalization options are far reaching without containing needless features no one’s going to use, its speed is unmatched, and there are no lags or stutters anywhere, ever. It’s fast, it’s smooth, and on the Find X2 Pro it truly augments the flagship hardware on offer with a flagship software experience. There are no weird idiosyncrasies anywhere (aside from the way the Settings menu is structured, but that’s easy to get over or get used to in a few days), everything just works, all the time.
Finally, the ~35 minute fast charging from zero to full has made me care about the (admittedly not great) battery capacity way less than I thought I would, and so, with all these things considered, the Oppo Find X2 Pro is definitely worth a spot on my Top 5 list of 2020.
Best overall user experience: Xiaomi Mi 10 Pro
The Xiaomi Mi 10 Pro has everything a proper 2020 flagship needs, including a high refresh rate screen, fast charging, good cameras, and top of the line chipset. But what makes this phone worthy of its spot on my Top 5 of 2020 list is something that’s very hard to describe, and impossible to ‘see’ on a spec list, no matter how detailed.
And that’s the general experience of using it. Ever since MIUI 12 came by, the Mi 10 Pro has consistently been one of the best phones to use – ever. Most of that feeling comes from the revamped animations, coupled with the gentle vibration nudges throughout the UI, which are simply amazing feeling thanks to what is one of the best vibration motors ever put into a smartphone. Speaking of things that are “best ever”, the Mi 10 Pro’s stereo speakers are, if not that, then pretty close.
The software itself still has a lot of small quirks and annoyances, and it’s not fully bug-free, but it does look exactly as modern as an Android skin should in 2020, and it’s just a joy to look at and use. The Mi 10 Pro doesn’t have any big glaring downsides either, unless you absolutely need a periscope zoom camera, so you are getting a full flagship package on par with any other, but no other top of the line phone in 2020 has provided this level of pleasure of use to me. If you want to learn more about my experience with it, don’t miss my long-term review of the Mi 10 Pro.
The “What if?” phone: Huawei Mate 40 Pro
The Mate 40 Pro has made this list even if, for most people in Western markets, its lack of Google services and apps is a no-starter. That I would have it here anyway is a testament to how good of a phone it actually is, in spite of what it’s missing. Thanks to its amazing camera system, it would have probably snatched my “overall best of 2020” award from the jaws of its competitors, but it’s not all about cameras.
Battery life is outstanding, I’ve already mentioned the cameras which are solidly among the best ever put into a phone, performance is amazing, and smoothness is the best I’ve ever seen, even if it’s working with ‘just’ a 90 Hz screen.
Oh, and speaking of that screen, I love the way it curves on the sides, and I also love the fact that despite this being the most ‘waterfall-y’ design of 2020, you get zero accidental touch issues, thanks to how Huawei was able to pair hardware and software to achieve that.
I don’t have anything bad to say about the Mate 40 Pro – aside from the weird lack of OIS on the main camera, although in fairness in 99% of the cases you don’t actually feel that very much when shooting. Still, it’s the phone’s second biggest possible downside, because living without Google services and apps in 2020 isn’t for everyone, and that’s why the Mate 40 Pro is just part of a Top 5 list and not “the best smartphone” in my opinion.
Best looks: Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra
This one is easy and entirely subjective. The Mystic Bronze Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra is the best looking phone I’ve ever seen or used. Ever. Its back is also the best feeling glass back I’ve ever handled, with its satin-like vibes and almost entire lack of fingerprints. The camera island is huge, but unlike the S20 Ultra’s, I really like the way it’s designed. It’s actually funny how I would rate the S20 Ultra’s back as probably the ugliest ever, while the Note20 Ultra’s is the nicest (to my eyes and taste). Clearly, Samsung has two different design teams for the S and Note lines, and you already know whose work I prefer.
But it’s not all about the back either. Everything about this phone’s looks screams premium to my eyes, which it should, given its price. But seriously, the lines, the gentle curves, the boxiness of the design compared to most of its competitors (while not going all in on boxy like Sony), the flat metal top and bottom, it’s just the epitome of good design in my book. Nothing else has come close this year, in terms of design, and the Note20 Ultra is just stunning every single time I look at it.
As for everything else about it, well.. That’s complicated. Stay tuned for my long-term review of it arriving in a few weeks with more details.
Best flagship killer: Realme X50 Pro
Flagship killers are a dime a dozen right now, everyone makes at least one, and so this part of the market has never been more crowded. Although if you ask Realme you probably won’t get this referred to as a flagship killer, the X50 Pro is just that, in my mind. It’s the best one I’ve used this year, although it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why I feel that way. Something about the combination of size, user experience, fast charging, and a camera system that while not the best out there isn’t crippled and actually features a telephoto lens.
Because Realme UI is basically just a renamed version of ColorOS, everything I said about ColorOS 7.x and later when discussing the Oppo Find X2 Pro applies to the X50 Pro as well. Same goes for the insanely fast 65W charging. Compared to other contenders in the space, the Realme X50 Pro also has a couple of very unique-looking color options, which you may not necessarily appreciate, but I did.
It’s the only flagship killer of the year that didn’t give me a feeling of being too compromised while using it, and that’s what flagship killers used to be about – some corners are cut to achieve the price point, yes, but those cuts shouldn’t impede the overall feeling of usability, and the price needs to stay far enough away from proper flagships that the delta makes it worth it to ‘settle’ for a flagship killer. The Realme X50 Pro hits all of those boxes for me, so kudos to the brand for nailing the formula on its first try. (Note: I haven’t used the Samsung Galaxy S20 FE, this section might have been different if I did).
Best for me
And now it’s time for the most subjective part of this feature. If you’ve been wondering which of these I’d actually buy, spending my own money on them, then here’s the truth: the Oppo Find X2 Pro or the Xiaomi Mi 10 Pro. That’s it. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get any of the others, it’s just that for my use and for my personal taste, these are the only ones that I think would be worth it.
The Mate 40 Pro’s lack of Google is sadly a deal breaker for me, even if things, on the app front, have improved tremendously in the past few months – I wrote an entire feature about that. The Note20 Ultra, on the other hand, in my mind, isn’t worth the price, but I would consider buying it if it was cheaper, by a lot. Like I said, I’m writing an entire long-term review to tell you all about my thoughts on it, but this is my personal conclusion (and keep in mind I’m one of those people who don’t really have much use for the S Pen).
Finally, the Realme X50 Pro is a great phone, but I love curved screens, and that’s so important to me that if I’m spending my own money I won’t compromise on it, regardless of the money savings on offer.
Looking forward to 2021
2020 has been a very bad year in general, but a very good year for smartphones. Flagships have become amazingly good, to the point where it’s very hard to recommend just one or two to people with unlimited budgets. Flagship killers have grown in numbers, and while most of them have started to offer a rather compromised experience compared to their top of the line relatives, there are still some gems to pick from. And the affordable/budget segment has seen good value turn into tremendous value for money for some devices.
And then there are weird form factors (hello, LG Wing) and foldables, which have matured in record time compared to any other form factor ever. Now all we have to wait for is the prices to come down to levels where foldables can actually become mainstream, and I’m hopeful that that will either happen fully in 2021, or at least that next year we’ll see the start of that.
That’s incredibly exciting, because the promise of foldables is unique – you basically get two devices in one. It’s been a while since we last saw something along the lines of “this will negate the need to carry an additional thing with you” – think cameras on phones, and especially after cameras on phones got good. From that point on, the mantra of “the best camera is the one you have with you” started applying for most people, most of the time, and so now the only people who have standalone cameras are content creators and enthusiasts.
If the “tablet that folds into a phone” category of foldables really takes off, we might see something similar happen to tablets. It’s still early days, yes, but the future does seem filled with interesting potential.