Gift Guide: The Five Hottest, Weirdest, Best Smartphones of 2017

Folding phones, gamer phones, camera phones, phones with pens; it's been a confusing year

Axon M phone unveiled in NYC Credit: TPG/ZUMA

Smartphones keep getting smarter.

This year’s batch of new entries bring with them not just the iterative improvements delivered through increased resolution screens, longer battery life, faster processors and better cameras, but also some truly innovative changes to what is become the most useful bit of tech in most people’s lives.

The smartphones of 2017 might include a foldable screen, liquid smooth apps and video, face-memorizing tech or the ability to sense a squeeze, depending on which you select. The problem, increasingly, with deciding on which phone to purchase is that it’s not simply a question of which is best, but rather which is best for you.

Before settling into our guide to read how the microchips fall for the best in smartphones this year, you’ll need a short primer.

Increasingly, phones make up one of, if not the most important piece of a growing ecosystem of tech. Your choice of phones can’t be limited to simply which you like best, you also have to think about what other bits of tech you regularly use and which phone works best with that.

The best example of this approach is Apple, which delivers one of the best smartphones in its history reinventing the device. If you own a Mac, or like the Apple Watch or picked up an iPad, there’s a very compelling reason for you to stick to Apple. And once you already own these devices, it’s hard to break free of Apple if you decide you want to. The technology is designed to work best together.

Samsung has been slowing expanding its efforts in this approach as well, currently delivering some of the best smartwatches on the market, solid tablets and even Smart Home devices. The company also has a solid offering of wireless earbuds, one of the best mobile-powered VR headsets and a fantastic 360 camera. While Samsung’s devices will work with other smartphones, unlike most of Apple’s gear, its tech still works best within Samsung’s ever-growing ecosystem.

If you decide to pass on Apple and Samsung, you’re left with a variety of Android phones from which to pick.

Once you’ve decided on the operating system and ecosystem you want to use (Apple’s iOS, Samsung or Android), you can start to dig into the standard specifications of the phones to see how they compare. The good news is that many of this year’s top phones line-up nicely with one another.

The key things you want to look for are the size and type of the screen, the battery life of size, the process used, the RAM included, the camera built into the device, the size and weight of the device and whether it has things like water resistance, NFC to use for payments and how it charges.

Finally, you’ll want to look at what sort of special features separate the phones from one another.

In sorting through the selection this year, we decided on five smartphones to suggest, depending on your needs and tastes. Each offers a compelling reason to pick up, which we break down by what we believe will be the key selling point for the phone. At the bottom of this article you'll find a handy chart comparing all of these phones by their numbers, but be warned: there's a lot more to every smartphone than its specs.

For the Apple Aficionado
If you’ve already invested in the apps and hardware of the Apple ecosystem, you’re likely going to stick to Apple. The good news is that this year Apple released three phones: the iPhone 8, the iPhone 8 Plus and the iPhone X.

The best, and most expensive at $999, of the three is the iPhone X. An oddly-sized, nearly all screen phone that ditches face buttons and add a cluster of cameras for high-end face security scanning.

While the X has nearly the best camera on the market and its use of face scanning to unlock the screen can at times feel magical, the most compelling argument for picking up the X is that its made by Apple. That’s not a backhanded compliment, but the X doesn’t have the best screen, camera or most RAM among the five phones we checked out. On top of that, the X reimagines a lot of those gestures that have become second nature to most iPhone users. The new gestures, created mostly to make up for the lack of a power button, aren’t as natural nor as quick to perform. And while I love the bezel-free look of the phone’s face, I’m not a fan of how it looks resting on a table or in my hand.

The good news is that the X is lightning fast, leaps beyond the competition in terms of raw processing power, and no matter how it might look resting in my hand, it feels like it was designed to sit there.

The power of the X is most noticeable when multitasking and quickly zipping through a multitude of different tasks in short order. It’s also easy to forget just how seamlessly Apple’s hardware all works together and just how good the native Apple-built apps are. I never ran into any issues with crashing apps, lost communication between phone, watch and earbuds, or any of the other multitude of tiny annoyances that sometimes beleaguered other, just as well built smartphones.

If you’re a fan of Apple, be happy in the knowledge that this year’s offerings include three choices and that the X is a strong entry in the field.

For the Samsung Supporter
About a year ago, I made the sudden decision to switch from a lifetime of Apple-created smartphones to the Android-powered, integrated Samsung offerings. This wasn’t because of the phones, though Samsung’s phones are certainly among the best. It was because my favorite earbuds and my favorite smartwatch were both Samsung created. Between the two and Samsung’s approach to mobile VR, I felt the ecosystem I like most shifting around me.

I couldn’t have picked a better time. This year, Samsung released three of the best phones in its history: the S8, the S8 Plus and the Galaxy Note8.

After spending a bit of time with all three, I’ve settled on the Note8 as the best among the bunch. That’s not because it includes a hidden-away touch pen (and by-god a headphone jack), but because the design takes everything good - and there’s a lot good - about the S8 line and makes it better. The curves of the phone’s bezel-less face have been elongated, improving some edge touch uses and the sleek look of the device. The screen is slightly better, slightly brighter and there’s 50 percent more RAM. The big selling point here, though, is that the Note8 now includes a second rear camera, bringing with it a lot of neat photo tricks seen in phones like the iPhone X and Pixel 2XL.

The Note8 has the most beautiful screen of the bunch, in my opinion, though a lot of the differences at this level can have to do with personal preference. It’s also the largest of the phones among the group we looked at, delivering both the biggest screen(at 6.3-inches), but also an odd aspect ratio and a whole lot of phone to hold onto when you’re using it.

The Note8 has a fancy, tucked-away stylus built in (much like Apple has that fancy new face scanning-security), but again, the thing that is likely the biggest selling point for the $950 phone is that it’s made by Samsung. You get with it better interoperability with all of Samsung’s other great gadgets. Though, Apple does do a better job with its in-house apps and making sure you don’t have freeze-ups or strange software bugs. (That last is the nickname I gavel Bixby, Samsung’s take on Siri, which still isn’t working correctly.)

For the Early Adopter
You may not be familiar with ZTE. The Chinese multinational telecommunications equipment company has a massive share in the phone business but isn’t very well known in North America, nor for creating high-end smartphones.

The company is trying to change that this year with its Axon M smartphone. The company’s approach seems to be to try and deliver an adequate, solid smartphone with one distinguishing feature. In this case, the Axon M is the first phone to feature a folding, two-screen design. It’s an interesting concept, which when folded up is hardly distinguishable from other smartphones. But once unfolded grows from a 5.2-inch screen phone to a 6.75-inch phone, easily the largest in this bunch.

When folded, the phone’s two screens are back to back, with one functioning and the other essentially acting as a glass back to the phone. The phone unfolds with a shark click, doubling in size and also showing off the Axon’s unfortunate bezel which runs down the middle of the two screens. Once unfolded, you can use the screens as one giant screen, as two different screens, or slightly fold the phone, rest it on a table like a tent and mirror the screens so both show the same thing at the same time.

Using the two screens as one single display to watch a video is probably the worst use of this bit of interesting tech. That’s because the bezel slices the image in half. But, there are plenty of useful, even wonderful ways to use the screens. Using the two screens as one to read and browse websites greatly enhanced my experience online with a smartphone. Better still is the ability to launch two different apps, one for each screen, and use them simultaneously without having to subdivide the already small space or toggle back and forth. I could, for instance, look at my notes while writing an email, or watch a video while chatting. It was the sort of experience that showed the potential of this sort of technology.

Interestingly, the phone also does use the second screen when taking pictures. Instead of placing cameras on both sides of the phone, it simply turns the backside of your folded phone, and it’s unused screen, into the viewfinder. Taking selfies, then, uses the same camera, which captures at 20 megapixels.

Unfortunately, the innovation that ZTE built into the Axon M is dragged down a bit by an outdated processor (last year’s Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 processor) and not-great screen pixel density.

While the phone is the cheapest of the bunch at $725, its old tech makes it seem expensive. This is the sort of phone for someone who is dying to try the latest innovation, even if it hasn’t been completely mastered yet.

For the Pocket Photographer
I wasn’t very impressed with the original Pixel XL when it shipped last year. I couldn’t understand why so many different people were giving it so much praise. Or going on and on about how good the camera was. That early praise, it turns out, made way for a bit of a real-world reality check helped along by some significant issues.

But this time around, it seems like Google is delivering on those high expectations with the Pixel 2.

Most notable, at least to me, is just how good the camera seems to, somehow outperforming both the iPhone X and Note8 with a single back lens and still offering a lot of the same neat features, like a solid bokeh effect. And when you combine Pixel 2 XL’s top-of-the-line camera with its software and Google’s ability to store essentially infinite images, you get the best smartphone for people who use their device as a camera first and foremost.

Judging by the specs alone, the Pixel 2 XL doesn’t do a whole lot to set itself apart. Its single lens has essentially the same aperture size (f 1.8) as the competition and has the same size sensors (12MP). So the real work of out-delivering the Apple and Samsung frontrunners comes down to software. It’s the software that mimics those neat effects the other two phones deliver with dual lenses. It’s also software that can so smoothly blend optical and electronic image stabilization for your videos. And it’s software that senses when you’re phone is running out of space and automatically backs it up to the Google cloud

Software, it turns out, is the Pixel 2’s main selling point across the board, no surprise given that this is a phone created by Google. The company built in a lot of neat little software-driven touches. For instance, the always-on screen (something you’ll also find on the Note8) is also always listening to whatever music if hears playing and keeps the title floating under the time for a quick glance. (Don’t worry you can turn it off too). The Google Assistant is as good as (perhaps better than) Apple’s Siri and can be called up with a quick “Hey Google.” You can also squeeze the phone gently to bring up the assistant: a neat, new touch.

Also not surprising, the Pixel 2XL is one of the few Android phones to ship with the latest version Oreo.

In terms of specs, the Pixel 2 XL has a beautiful 6-inch AMOLED screen, with the highest pixel density of the bunch and uses the same top-of-the-line Snapdragon 835 processor as the Note8 and Razer’s phone. It also has 4GB of RAM, which outpaces the iPhone X, ties the Axon M, but puts it below the Razer and Note8.

There’s very little to knock about the Pixel 2 XL other than that it is a phone that in many ways stands alone, which is both good and bad. On the one hand, it does a great job of supporting most Android accessories, but it also doesn’t really have much of its own built-up ecosystem. There are some new earbuds, which to no one’s surprise work best with the Pixel, but not a whole lot else. Vanilla Android smartwatches are fine, but not nearly as good as Samsung and Apple’s offerings for their own phones. Google surely will continue to build up support for their phones, but I don’t see a lot more coming in the lifetime of this second phone from the company.

All that said, this is the only phone among the bunch that made taking pictures, even ones I took almost by accident, seemingly mistake-free. It’s hard to overstate just how good the Pixel 2 XL’s camera is. So if that’s an overwhelmingly important feature to you, this is the phone you should get.

For the Gamer
Don’t worry, I said the same thing the first time I had someone tell me there was a phone for gamers. Do gamers really need their own phone? What’s that even mean? Then I tried Razer’s take on the smartphone and I got it.

Razer came into the smartphone market by purchasing smartphone company Nextbit at the beginning of the year. So this first phone by the company best known for making gaming gear and laptops is really a refocused Nextbit Robin, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

The phone sports a Snapdragon 835 chip and a 5-7 inch LCD, not LED, screen. It has two rear-facing cameras that are on par with what Apple’s iPhone X sports, a battery that falls about in the middle of the bunch and it runs the slightly outdated Android Nougat. But where it really stands out is in the rest of its guts. The phone has 8GB of DDR 4 memory, two front-facing Dolby Atmos speakers with independent amplifiers and comes with a THX certified DAC dongle designed to deliver top of the line audio to your headphones. The most important spec is that screen, the world’s first 120Hz refresh rate screen on a smartphone. What that means is silky-smooth scroll and lag-free game graphics at up to 120 frames per second. After using the phone for a week, it was hard to walk away from that level of refresh rate. But it does come with a cost. The decision to use an LCD versus an LED screen means that the colors might not seem as vibrant to you and the screen itself not as bright, which some people may not like. The high refresh rate can also drain the battery very quickly. Fortunately, you can go in and change that rate to 90 or even the 60 most smartphones use. Better still, the phone’s Game Booster software allows you to set the frame rate, resolution and even CPU usage for each game. This means you can play games on the highest settings and then automatically revert to standard phone mode when not gaming to save on battery.

The sound on the phone is also superb, and the speaker placement means that your fingers aren’t in the way, unless they’re tapping or touching the screen.

Some don’t like the squared-off look of the phone, but I appreciate its brutalist design, especially in an era where almost every smartphone seems to have that same rounded corner, sloped-edge look.

The real issues the Razer phone faces is its lackluster software support. The camera is a great example of this. The hardware is comparable to the rest of the phones in this guide, but the result, thanks to outdated or overly simplistic software, makes the phone feel well behind the competition. The shutter speed feels slightly laggy, there are not neat extras like you find in other smartphone cameras and the resulting shots seem dull and a bit fuzzy.

While Razer says it didn’t want to include any bloatware on the phone, it could have put a bit more effort into system settings and other basic functionality.

The good news is that all of this is likely fixable through software updates and a bit of time. Updates to smooth out the rough edges of the camera and some other system apps and time to deliver more games that can take full advantage of the Razer phone’s beefy specs.