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Friday, February 22, 2019

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Google Pixel XL


Google has done something amazing: They’ve made a smartphone that’s almost perfect.

Granted, there are degrees of “almost,” and smartphone perfection is in the eye of the beholder. If you prefer one-handed screens and easy pocketability, you’re probably willing to compromise on battery life. Still, it’s not hard to imagine what a perfect smartphone is: something comfy, long-lasting, easy and even fun to use, and packing all the little modern extras that make the huge price tag a tad easier to swallow.

The Pixel XL is almost – almost – there.

Here is a smartphone that should rightfully be on the Christmas list of just about every gadget lover. It runs the best version of Android ever, with a slick, low-key interface that never overwhelms. It has a ridiculously good camera, a delightfully long-lasting battery, and Qualcomm’s latest and greatest Snapdragon processor. It’s fun. It’s attractive. It’s the best Android phone in the world.

It’s also incomplete. Google Assistant, for all the software gets right, isn’t quite where Google implied it stood during the Pixel’s announcement event. The phone is priced against the iPhone 7 Plus and Galaxy S7, but it’s not waterproof. It has a headphone jack – thank the gadget gods – but it’s on the top rather than the bottom, so you might find yourself swatting the headphone cord out of the way of the screen or camera.

These are ridiculous, nitpicky concerns – tiny pebbles on an otherwise pristine beach of soft white sand. But it only takes one pebble in your shoe to stop you in your tracks. Can the love the Pixel XL engenders strip those pebbles away?


From the front, the Pixel XL looks very similar to the iPhone 6s Plus. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean the bezels are a tad wider than they probably should be – on the top and bottom, as well as on either side of the screen. The phone’s rear cover is built from the same beautiful aluminum as Apple’s iPhones and even has those white plastic antenna lines cutting across the metal finish. Its edges are an obvious differentiator, as they’re beveled and have a few hard angles where the iPhone is all curves. I personally prefer the pristine grace of Apple’s take, but the Pixel XL is certainly attractive.

I thought I’d hate the glass panel on the Pixel’s rear cover; its addition seemed so very arbitrary, like Google threw it on the back face simply to stand out from other top smartphones. It’s nice to be wrong, though – the glass is just wonderful. As other reviewers have pointed out, the panel’s position on the upper third of the phone’s back cover helps you orient it in your hand, perfect when you’re pulling it from a pocket or purse while your eyes are on something else.

I wasn’t prepared for how great the glass feels on your fingertips. It’s wonderfully glossy – I’ve used the term “luscious” to describe this sort of coating in the past, and it still fits – and its grippiness helps secure the phone in your hand. It doesn’t seem to pick up fingerprints very much, either, which is always a concern when you’re dealing with glass construction.

Many of the design elements you’d expect from a modern Android phone are here, including a reversible USB Type-C charging port, a top-tier fingerprint scanner on the back cover, and yes, a 3.5mm headphone jack. The phone’s chassis is ever-so-slightly thicker on top than it is on the bottom, which helps pack in the camera without resorting to an asymmetrical bump.


We expect wonders from our smartphone cameras, perhaps more so than anything else in our phones. We take pictures with them every day – selfies, food photos, cat pictures, sharable moments – and we pass them constantly between friends and family. If there’s one thing a phone needs to get right to be a hit, it’s the camera. And Google nailed it.

We’ve been fans of DxOMark for quite some time, and were duly impressed when we heard their independent camera quality analysts had awarded the Pixel the company’s highest-ever rating: a score of 89. By comparison, the Samsung Galaxy S7 got a score of 88, and Apple’s iPhone 7 earned an 86 – and those are the two undisputed kings of the phone camera world. Once we got the Pixel XL in our hands, we confirmed DxOMark’s findings ourselves. This shooter really is fantastic.

Granted, scores of 86, 88 and 89 are pretty close to one another, and it’s usually tough to pick a winner in side-by-side comparisons between the Galaxy S7, the iPhone 7 and the Pixel. All three capture rich, wide-gamut colors with thoroughly appealing accuracy levels. All three do a great job of nailing white balance, cutting through shadows to give you bits of detail without too much noise, and retaining sharpness without going overboard and introducing artifacts. All three take pictures quickly, offer rapid focus and fine exposure control, and let you record video up to 4K or in slow motion at up to 240 fps.

They’re all great phones; the Pixel is just a tad better. It lacks some built-in features like full manual control for expert users, but those are easily acquired through a Play Store download. What you get automatically is the best built-in digital video stabilization we’ve ever seen. Movies you take with the Pixel are absolutely stunning. Low-light photographs capture rich detail without falling into a morass of grain and distortion, since every photo is post-processed behind the scenes to integrate HDR (unless you explicitly turn it off). And we think the colors of basic, outdoor, brightly-lit photos are just more pleasing to the eye.

Internal Specs

Between its Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 processor and 4GB of RAM, I honestly expected the Pixel XL to best every other Android phone we’ve benchmarked. Google’s phone put in a good showing, but it fell behind other competition like the HTC 10, the Galaxy S7 and the OnePlus 3. It didn’t come close to matching the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus benchmark results, but I didn’t really expect it to; Apple’s custom chips, lower screen resolutions, and top-to-bottom software and hardware integration make for stunning overall performance.

Not that the Pixel’s numbers aren’t impressive in their own right. With a 1440p display to run, its processor has a lot of work to do, so it’s not surprising the phone falls behind devices with lower resolutions. That said, a Geekbench 4 score of just 4,130 is a bit flagging when you compare it to the Galaxy S7’s 5,473.

I ran the Pixel XL through over 60 different synthetic and real-world tests, gathering almost 400 data points in the process. Our results score is given as a percentage of the current leader among our smartphone reviews – in this case, the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, which are close enough to one another to each earn 100 percent. The Pixel XL comes in at a meager-seeming 76 percent, but keep in mind that the Galaxy S7 sits at just 79 percent.

Here’s the takeaway: The Google Pixel XL is really fast and optimized beautifully. You won’t notice any slowdown and won’t really see a difference between it and its competitors unless you run side-by-side benchmarks like we do. Rest assured that you would be buying a phone with flagship-tier capabilities.

Battery Life

What good is an amazing smartphone without the longevity to use it anywhere? The Pixel XL’s battery is perhaps the best reason to go for Google’s bigger-model phone, rather than the 5-inch Pixel. It’s impressively long lived.

Technology has hit a roadblock in battery construction. For the moment, lithium-ion batteries – the sort you find in pretty much every modern phone – don’t last longer unless they’re bigger. Capacity correlates directly to size. Google can’t change this, so it’s packed the biggest battery it can into the Pixel XL: a whopping 3,450 mAh cell. By comparison, both the Galaxy S7 and the OnePlus 3 have 3,000 mAh batteries, while the iPhone 7 Plus has a 2,900 mAh cell inside.

Our web browsing battery test forces the smartphone to navigate through webpages over and over until the device shuts down. It’s light on processor usage (browsing the web is easy for a phone) but heavy on screen usage, so it reflects active, continuous use of a phone’s LTE connection. In our test, the Pixel XL managed a phenomenal 11 hours and 11 minutes. That’s 33 minutes longer than the iPhone 7 Plus and almost two and a half hours longer than the Samsung S7. It also doesn’t factor in systems like Doze or Battery Saver mode, which can greatly enhance your phone’s longevity.

The Google Assistant

During Google’s announcement presentation for the Pixel and Pixel XL, company CEO Sundar Pichai explained that AI was going to be the next great driving force of smartphone technology. He then spoke of Google Assistant, an AI guide in the vein of Siri and Cortana. Google Assistant had already been soft-launched with Allo, Google’s new texting app, and it’s capable of better speech recognition than any of its peers.

The Pixel is the first phone to have Google Assistant fully integrated on launch, and it’s arguably one of the Pixel XL’s biggest selling points. It handled my first request beautifully: “Okay Google,” I asked, “how long would it take to get to Salt Lake City from here?” It’s a relatively straightforward question, but it requires the assistant to delve into Google Maps, query the system, map out the answer, and then get me the response – all without just assuming I wanted to start driving right now.

Google Assistant hit the nail on the head, returning how long the drive would take without actively starting the route. Excited, I headed out to lunch, ready to ask it all sorts of questions on the journey. I thought I’d start with something easy: “Okay Google, play my EDM playlist.”

This should have been a simple request, since I use Google Play Music every day and listen to my playlist titled “EDM” often. The app knows it and keeps it within easy reach at all times, so somewhere in the plethora of metadata Google has accumulated on me, it knows I like this playlist.

As expected, Google Assistant cheerily responded, “Okay!” It opened Play Music and started a playlist. But there was one problem: The playlist wasn’t mine. The assistant completely ignored my library of songs, instead hopping into the ether to find a random EDM playlist someone else had put together. Figuring that issues were to be expected, I tossed it another softball and asked, “Okay Google, what song is this?”

“I’m sorry, Dan, I can’t do that yet.”

Playing around with Google Assistant is a near-endless procession of experiences like this. Sometimes you get magical functionality. You feel like you could ask the phone anything and it would know the answer. Then you ask it to do something simple, something you could manage yourself with two taps of the finger, and it fails. The illusion falls apart. For an AI that supposedly has access to a staggering wealth of knowledge about its users, it’s bizarrely incapable of tapping into that knowledge to make your life a little easier.

Will Google Assistant eventually be everything we want it to be? Most assuredly. Right now, you can make reservations at a local restaurant through OpenTable; someday, you’ll be able to snap a photo and have it post to your Facebook timeline, complete with a grammatically correct comment, without ever touching the screen. But until then, it’s really not all that much better than Siri or Cortana, whatever Sundar Pichai might hope.


The only real caveat that should keep you from buying a Pixel XL is the cost. Google has priced its first true flagship phone against Apple’s and Samsung’s latest and greatest devices, and for many of us, that expense can be all too difficult to swallow, even accounting for monthly payment programs.

Yet whether you’re a gadget lover, a camera aficionado or just someone who really likes Google, there’s simply too much here that’s great to not fall instantly in love. The Pixel XL takes everything that’s wonderful about smartphones in general, and Android in particular, and purifies it.

True, it’s not perfect yet. Google Assistant’s iffy responses and the lack of waterproofing are definitive knocks. But someone told Google they had to go big or go home, and Google swaggered its way up to the plate with determination in one hand and the world’s best Android smartphone in the other.

OnePlus 3T


Back in January 2007, Apple released the original iPhone as an AT&T exclusive, and people switched carriers en masse for the chance to own the world’s first true smartphone. Ten years later, it’s rare for any device to be a carrier exclusive, and unheard of for a smartphone to be so good that its fans switch providers just to own it.

I wasn’t thinking about any of this when I started reviewing the OnePlus 3T, but I’m thinking about it now. Here is a smartphone that’s simple, elegant, comfortable, usable. It scored better in our benchmarks than any other Android phone on today’s market. It has a 16MP selfie camera. It has both a USB Type-C port and a 3.5mm headphone jack on the bottom of the device. It improves on its predecessor, the OnePlus 3, in virtually every way, and it does it all at an MSRP that’s hundreds less than comparable devices from Apple, Samsung or Google.

Having spent dozens of hours with the OnePlus 3T, I am seriously considering a switch away from Verizon, our pick for best cell phone provider, just so I can buy myself one. It’s a simply wonderful phone.


Admittedly, the OnePlus 3T’s aesthetics won’t win any awards. From the outside it looks exactly like the OnePlus 3, and bears all the same external components – the same 5.5-inch, 1080p display; the same 16MP camera with 4K video, phase-detect autofocus and an f/2.0 aperture; the same antenna lines and three-notch notification switch. In fact, there’s no easy way to tell the 3T from the original OnePlus 3 without turning it on and running it through its paces.

There’s a downside to this similarity: Certain failings of the original OnePlus 3 haven’t been fixed. Its edges, for example, are still slightly sharp, which means you may prefer the feel of the phone when it’s snug in a case. Fortunately, OnePlus’s official cases are stylish and relatively comfy, without adding noticeable bulk.

Much of what makes the OnePlus 3T so great comes down to its software, a custom Android 6.0.1 overlay called OxygenOS. I’m not usually a fan of Android skins because manufacturers so often add unnecessary bloat or ugly theming in a vain attempt to differentiate. OxygenOS is one of those rare exceptions that add to Android rather than subtract from it. It’s almost identical to the stock operating system, but has a few nice extras – tap-to-wake gestures, hardware controls and customization, and so forth – that add to the overall experience. The level of polish even extends to the pleasing vibrations that fire every time you tap a button on its virtual keyboard – vibrations that are comfortable, understated and honestly add to the overall typing experience.

The biggest failing of OxygenOS is the slow pace at which the software gets upgraded. Google has already released Android 7.1 for smartphones, but as of our testing, OnePlus has yet to release an updated version of its software. Fortunately, the company promises a non-beta, Android Nougat edition of OxygenOS is rapidly forthcoming, so you shouldn’t have to wait too long to get all of Android’s latest core features.


Not much about the rear-facing camera changed between the OnePlus 3 and the 3T. The 3T uses the same 16MP sensor, f/2.0 aperture and single-LED flash. Its phase-detect autofocus isn’t as fast as the Galaxy S7’s shooter, but it still lets you quickly refocus on the fly and can handle landscape shots particularly well.

One great addition: electronic image stabilization, or EIS. The OnePlus 3T already has optical image stabilization, or OIS, which helps reduce the blurring effect that can come from shaky hands as you’re trying to take a picture. EIS takes this principle a step further, applying it to video. As you’re capturing a movie, the phone uses its internal gyroscope to monitor how the camera shakes in real time, then compensates for it. The resulting videos aren’t always perfectly smooth, but they’re surprisingly fluid, even if you’re walking along the road or sitting in the passenger seat of a moving car.

While EIS is the only major addition to the OnePlus 3T’s rear-facing camera, its front-facing camera has gotten an overhaul, having been bumped up from 5MP to a massive (for a selfie camera) 16MP, mirroring the rear-facing shooter. The selfie cam doesn’t have OIS and can’t take 4K video, but with all those extra pixels to work with, its pictures are significantly improved over its predecessor’s.

Internal Specs

One of the biggest improvements made to the OnePlus 3T comes in the form of its processor, known in the mobile world as the system-on-a-chip, or SoC. Like most Android manufacturers, OnePlus turned to Qualcomm and their Snapdragon SoCs for its latest phone. Where the OnePlus 3 used a Snapdragon 820 chip, the 3T uses a Snapdragon 821.

The difference between these two chips is pretty minor. We run each phone we get through dozens of benchmarks, and the 3T only eked an extra 3 percentage points of performance out of its newer processor. The real boon comes in heat reduction. The 820 chip was an overheating mess, notorious for getting hot and staying hot through even simple tasks. The Snapdragon 821 doesn’t suffer from the same malady, which means your phone stays cooler longer.

In addition to the new 821 processor, the OnePlus 3T boasts 6GB of onboard RAM and either 64GB or 128GB of internal storage, depending on which model you spring for. Keep in mind when making your decision that it doesn’t support SD cards, so you can’t expand your storage options beyond that initial allotment.

Battery Life

There are two factors to consider when thinking about a smartphone’s battery: life and charge time. The OnePlus 3T’s battery life is solid, but relatively average for a device of its size, clocking 10 hours 27 minutes in our web browsing test. That’s just 11 minutes shy of the iPhone 7 Plus’s performance in the same test, and is a tremendous improvement over the OnePlus 3, which only managed 8 hours 33 minutes. Squeezing an extra two hours of life into the exact same chassis is no easy feat, and should delight any OnePlus fan.

Almost as important as battery life, of course, is charge time. OnePlus has been delightedly marketing the 3T with the tagline, “a day’s power in half an hour.” Obviously the veracity of that claim depends on your usage patterns, but we’ve found it pretty accurate. Within a half hour you’ll get well over a 50% charge, and you’ll be able to hit 100% from empty in under 90 minutes. Even if you’re a very heavy user, if you can find 20 minutes to charge up halfway through the day, you’ll likely make it to bedtime without trouble.


In almost every way, the OnePlus 3T improves upon its predecessor. It has either identical or better components compared to the OnePlus 3 in all but one respect: For whatever reason, OnePlus decided to drop the 3’s internal barometer, leaving with 3T without a means of accurately judging altitude.

In all fairness, barometers don’t see much use. While top smartphones tend to have them, they’re usually included for somewhat esoteric reasons – a good barometer can track how many flights of stairs you’ve climbed, for example, but few people will otherwise need to know precisely how high they are above sea level.

Aside from the missing barometer, the 3T has all the same ports and sensors as the OnePlus 3. The fingerprint scanner is as reliable as what you’ll get from an Apple or Google phone; you can use Google Pay to charge purchases with contactless payments; and yes, there’s a headphone jack on the bottom of the device, which means the cord won’t flip in front of the screen when you’re trying to switch songs, or in front of the camera while you’re trying to snag that surprise photo. The only major feature I wish were present is water resistance, but given its mid-tier price point, that’s easily overlooked.


The OnePlus 3T is a GSM phone that you buy unlocked from the manufacturer. This means here in the U.S., it will only work on one of the country’s two GSM networks: AT&T or T-Mobile. If you’re a Verizon or Sprint customer, the 3T isn’t an option; it can’t even see their cell towers, much less connect to them.

If you’re already an AT&T or T-Mobile customer and you’re looking to buy a new phone, the OnePlus 3T demands your consideration. It’s one of the best Android smartphone around, and that’s before you consider how affordable it is, available for $200 to $300 less than its immediate competition. It’s not impeccable – the lack of waterproofing and its 1080p screen in an age of 1440p displays are both clear cost-cutting measures – but it’s darned close.

Should Verizon or Sprint users switch carriers just to buy it? That’s a much harder question to answer. For whatever it’s worth, were I not on my family’s Verizon plan, I’d probably have already made the jump. The OnePlus 3T is almost too good to miss.

Apple iPhone 7



Onstage at Apple’s annual Special Event in early September, the company revealed a new color option for the iPhone 7: jet black. Dark as a grand piano and polished to a gleaming shine, the new color scheme is intensely elegant and demands attention. It also scratches like a furious kitten and picks up fingerprints faster than a detective, and Apple knows it: There are disclaimers on its site pointing it out. If you buy a jet black iPhone 7, you almost assuredly want to keep it in a case. But what’s the point of getting the fancy coating if you can’t look at it and appreciate it?

That choice, elegance versus usability, permeates every aspect of the iPhone 7’s design. The home button is a great example: No longer a button, Apple switched out moving parts for a capacitive pad and the company’s Taptic Engine, a magnetic vibrator that can give the illusion of a click – though now it feels like the entire chin of the phone is clicking, rather than just the home button. The change keeps the phone water- and dust-resistant and minimizes moving parts that have the tendency to break. It’s a cool and futuristic approach to a button, but it’s still not a button, and your mind kind of knows it. It’s not as instantly understandable or actionable. Is it functional? Certainly. An elegant design? For sure. But definitely not as usable.

The missing headphone jack is another example. No, the iPhone 7 does not have a standard 3.5mm headphone jack. Apple removed it, citing the space they could save and repurpose to other needs – a better camera, a bigger battery and so forth. Instead, the company is pushing for wireless headphones or wired ones that can plug in using Apple’s proprietary Lightning connector, the same port you use to charge the phone.

Innumerable words have been written bemoaning the loss of the headphone jack, while others say “good riddance,” wanting to be done with antiquated technology. I’d be fine with the absence if it didn’t impact usability, but it does: In order to listen to music and charge my phone at the same time, I have to either buy wireless headphones – which are expensive, have to be recharged separately and suffer from Bluetooth’s audio compression – or get a third-party dongle. Apple only sells an adapter that lets you plug 3.5mm headphones into the charging port; it doesn’t have an additional charge element.

Let’s be clear, a phone without a headphone jack is undeniably forward-thinking. Wireless headphones are getting better, and cords are obnoxious. But right now it’s nowhere near as effortless at the corded solution.

Even the phone’s size and shape point more to elegance than usability. There’s a lot of history to the layout of the iPhone’s front, with its large bezels above and below the screen, but there’s also a lot of wasted space. Most modern flagships minimize their bezels as much as possible. The Galaxy Note7, despite its huge 5.7-inch screen, feels barely bigger than the iPhone 7 with its relatively small 4.7-inch display, because of how much Samsung has shrunk the bezels. A bigger screen in a smaller form-factor is simply more usable, but Apple hasn’t made that move.

There’s a similar issue with the iPhone 7’s screen resolution. Apple hasn’t upgraded the pixel density of the screen in years, continuing to stick with its 1334 x 750 display. That calculates out to 326 pixels per inch (ppi). This isn’t a problem in most circumstances –nobody can tell the difference between displays above about 300 ppi anyway, and the iPhone 7’s wide color gamut makes for breathtaking visuals, especially when viewing photos you’ve taken with its camera. But that lower pixel density means you can’t use your iPhone with a 3D viewer like Google Cardboard; for VR, the screen isn’t crisp enough. Today, that’s not a problem. Tomorrow, it might be.


Whatever reservations you might have about the iPhone 7’s design, they fade away when you fire up its camera. It is positively superb.

Phil Schiller, one of Apple’s VPs and a perennial presence on stage at the company’s announcement events, gushes every year about how the iPhone is the best camera most people own. It’s a bold and very true claim – most of us don’t own dedicated cameras and probably couldn’t use them very well if we did. But we take our iPhones with us everywhere; we photograph every aspect of our lives.

In the iPhone 7, Apple’s upped its game again, introducing optical image stabilization (it was previously restricted to Plus models) and doubling down on the quality of its digital image processing – the behind-the-scenes interpolation the phone does whenever you take a picture to make sure the results are always as realistic as possible.

By the numbers the iPhone 7’s camera is no more impressive than any other flagship. It has a 12-megapixel sensor and an f/1.8 aperture. That’s plenty big and very wide, but it doesn’t beat Samsung’s Galaxy phones, which have held the top spot in our camera comparisons for half a year. No, it’s the digital image processing that sets the iPhone 7’s images apart. Sharp, free of artifacts, colored beautifully, effective in low light – when you want a camera that just works, you pull out an iPhone and shoot away.

Internal Specs

We test a lot of smartphones here at Top Ten Reviews. I run each phone we get through a huge battery of synthetic and real-world tests, gathering an average of about 400 individual data points per phone through over 60 benchmark runs. But every year I’m most excited about testing the latest iPhone because I know that it will always, always blow away the competition.

The wait was worth it this year because the iPhone 7 did indeed make waves; it’s unquestionably the fastest phone we’ve ever tested, breaking 5,500 in Geekbench 4 and managing over 37,800 in 3DMark’s Ice Storm Unlimited test. These are insane numbers, and they owe their size to the new Apple A10 Fusion chip.

The A10 Fusion is a highly optimized phone processor. Like most modern mobile chips, it’s a quad-core processor, but the difference is in how Apple has distinguished those cores. Two of the cores are high-intensity for extreme gaming or other heavy operations, while the other two are for more mundane tasks like checking your email or watching a video on YouTube. Those lesser cores aren’t as fast, but they consume far less power, and the phone intelligently switches between the faster and slower cores depending on what you’re doing. Think of it as built-in power saving at the most basic levels of the device.

The phone’s 2GB of RAM, working in conjunction with iOS 10’s optimizations, are more than enough to keep things snappy. You’ll also find a sizable increase in internal storage. Basic iPhone 7 models start at 32GB, but they jump up to 128GB at the next storage tier and top out at 256GB. This is the first phone we’ve tested with a 256GB variant, and we’re a bit surprised it took companies this long to start offering up that much storage. Granted, most Android phones have SD card support, something the iPhone has never had. Without external storage, there’s no expanding if you run out of room, so keep an eye on your downloads and consider springing for at least the 128GB model.

Battery Life

While Apple hasn’t brought rapid charging to the iPhone 7 or partnered with Qi to let you recharge wirelessly, the company has been working to increase overall battery life. Two primary improvements make the iPhone 7 the longest-lasting iPhone ever: a larger physical battery cell and optimized processor cores.

According to Apple, the larger battery cell is feasible because of the removal of the headphone jack. When it comes to portable batteries, more space always means longer life, and with the removal of the 3.5mm jack and some rearranging of components inside the phone, Apple was able to move up from a 1715 mAh cell in the iPhone 6s to a 1960 mAh cell in the iPhone 7. That might not match the 3000 mAh batteries you can find in competing phablets, but it’s a sizable jump in its own right.

The other change is the new Apple A10 Fusion processor, which flips back and forth between high-intensity cores and power-saving cores on the fly, depending on how you’re currently using the phone. This lets the device save battery life passively by using more efficient silicon whenever it can, though you can turn around and pump out the power when you fire up a game or start editing photos.

The iPhone 7 made it nine hours three minutes in our web browsing battery test. By comparison, the iPhone 6s made it just six hours 46 minutes. Of course, phablets like the Galaxy Note7 still take the win, but for a non-big-screen phone, the iPhone 7’s battery really lasts.


If you’re about to buy a brand-new flagship phone, then you care about what it feels like to own one. You care about the day-to-day experience.

That’s why the iPhone 7 is such a polarizing device, more so than any iPhone that preceded it. Yes, there will always be Mac cultists who have to have the latest iPhone. There will always be Android purists who shun everything Apple. But in the middle are the rest of us, those smartphone buyers who want the best user experience we can afford. The iPhone 7 is, by and large, that top-tier experience, which is why we’ve elevated it in our smartphone rankings and recommend it for most people. There’s no better camera or faster processor in the world right now, and its much-extended battery life is an absolute lifesaver.

But it’s far from perfect, and those imperfections are more crystalized in the iPhone 7 than in any of its predecessors. You’re going to notice that odd buzz-click from the Taptic Engine whenever you press the home button. You’re going to miss the absent headphone jack. You’re going to scratch up your jet black finish and get frustrated at just how easily it scuffs, no matter how hard you try to keep it pristine.

Are these deal-breakers? Not at all. But a perfect phone wouldn’t make you accept them in the first place. For better or worse, when we look to Apple, we expect perfection.

Motorola Moto G5 Plus


The thing that makes the Motorola Moto G5 Plus ($299.00 at Amazon.com) the best budget phone on the planet is that, for the most part, it doesn’t feel like one at all. It looks, feels and operates like a much pricier phone, which means that wallet-watchers are getting a great deal.

This is just Moto continuing its trend of providing more features than other inexpensive Android phones. This year’s model improves on last year’s Moto G4 Plus with a modern, metal body; more storage; Android 7.0 Nougat; Google Assistant; new Moto gestures; NFC (in the UK model); a really good camera and 4K video: all while remaining delightfully affordable (prices below).

But this generation of the Moto G ($359.00 at Amazon.com) family also includes the slightly cheaper Moto G5. Both phones have a similar metal body design, but the G5 has a smaller screen, half the storage and a weaker processor. The G5 isn’t offered everywhere, for example it won’t be sold in the US. But even if it were, the G5 Plus would be the better value.

Lots of Moto models

The Moto G5 Plus costs $229 (32GB), $299 (64GB) or £249 (32GB), depending on the model. Each model differs slightly when it comes to storage, RAM and NFC. Motorola hasn’t yet announced an Australian model, but the US price converts to AU$300 and AU$390.

Moto G5 Plus US and UK models and pricing

Price Storage RAM NFC Amazon Prime Price
(UK) £249 32GB 3GB Yes NA
(US) $229 32GB 2GB No $185 + lock screen ads
(US) $299 64GB 4GB No $240 + lock screen ads

Since the G5 Plus is a universally unlocked phone, it will work on all major US and UK carriers. It’s worth checking compatibility with your carrier if you’re unsure. The dual-SIM option on Moto G5 Plus is only available in select regions globally in Latin America, Europe and Asia.

The magic touch of one-button navigation

One of my favorite features is the G5 Plus’ fingerprint sensor. It’s on the front below the display and works as well as Apple’s Touch ID on the iPhone. But Motorola did something really cool: it added a handful of shortcut gestures that turn the fingerprint sensor into a mini touchpad, a feature it calls One Button Nav.

Once you turn it on in the Moto app, tapping the fingerprint sensor brings you home. If you swipe left, it shows your recent apps. If you swipe right, it goes back. If you long press, you lock the phone and if you tap and hold, Google Assistant pops up.

It’s all quite easy and intuitive and I like that I didn’t need to make any extra moves reaching for separate onscreen buttons. In fact, after using the Moto G5 Plus, it was difficult not to instinctively try Moto’s shortcuts on other phones.

Peppy performance across the board

The Moto G5 Plus has a 2GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 625, which is also inside the Moto Z Play. My review unit had 4GB of RAM (some have 2 or 3GB). The G5 Plus supports both 2.4GHz + 5GHz band Wi-Fi. In use, the phone was fast and responsive. The camera was peppy, playing games like Super Mario Run was smooth, and social media apps like Instagram and Snapchat worked without a hiccup — even when adding filters.

The battery lasted 13 hours and 22 minutes in our looped video battery drain test: 2 minutes longer than last year’s Moto G4 (13 hours 20 minutes) and 1 minute longer than the new, premium LG G6 (13 hours and 21 minutes).

Good camera with a dark side

The camera uses a 12-megapixel sensor similar to the one in the Samsung Galaxy S7 and S8 (it’s a dual-pixel sensor if you’re following along) — that makes autofocusing fast and accurate. In most situations, I got good sharp photos. But in darker locales, for example inside a bar, the autofocus slowed and I started to see noise in the pics (blurry specks and sprinkles).

Take a look at some of the snaps I got with the Moto G5 Plus in the gallery below.

Motorola Moto Z2 Play


The more time I spend with the Moto Z2 Play, the more I like this midrange phone.

It’s certainly the most interesting handset in its price range. Those magnetic Moto Mods and a ton of software features and shortcuts take it way beyond what most $500 phones can do. The hardware gets the job done, and there are a lot of little touches I appreciate. 

Go ahead and laugh, but the timer is the best of the four phones I’ve currently been using, including the Samsung Galaxy S8, HTC U11 and the iPhone. A timer may seem inconsequential, but since I’ve been using three times a day as part of an exercise routine, I really start to notice. (If you really want to know, the Moto interface lets you tap the time widget on the home screen to open the clock, plus you can save multiple timers, say for 1 minute and 2 minutes. The other phones have you open the clock app first and don’t save timers, so I’m scrolling a lot to switch duration.)

Anyway, I like this phone, and I’m eager to see how it compares to the upcoming OnePlus 5, which will launch June 20. The 3T earned CNET’s Editors’ Choice award for its midrange prowess, so the OnePlus 5 should present some pretty stiff competition. 

(P.S. This review is based on near-final software. Motorola says a final version of the phone’s software will be pushed out before the phone ships to consumers in July.)

In the US, eager buyers can get it from Verizon in early July, or buy it unlocked from Motorola.com.

Amazing battery life, promising voice trick

I have good news and bad news. The good news is that the best thing about the Z2 Play is its battery life. In our looping video drain tests, the Z2 Play ran an average of 17 hours, which is pretty great for a phone that costs a fistful less cash than tier-toppers like the Galaxy S8 ($649.88 at Amazon Marketplace) and LG G6. Those guys ran for 16 hours and almost 13.5 hours, respectively, in the exact same test.

In real life, you should be able to easily go a day and a half or even two days with some heavy use. I streamed 45 minutes of YouTube video without making much of a dent. (Motorola claims the battery will last up to 30 hours total.)

Are you ready for the bad news? It’s that last year’s Z Play ran for 23 hours in our video playback test, so this year’s attempt isn’t as much a marathoner. If you’re looking for a new phone though, this is still very good.

So that was the Z2 Play’s best feature. Its most clever feature — and its most promising — is actually a voice command that opens apps when you simply say “show me.” That’s right: no wake word like “Siri,” “Alexa” or “OK, Google” to call out before telling the phone what you want it to do. Just “Show me YouTube,” “Show me Maps” — you get the idea.

You just slide the shade that pops up and you’re in. Or, in the case of the calendar and weather, the information floats on screen before fading off. Best yet, you can configure “show me” to work from the lock screen when it recognizes your voice.

OnePlus 5


The OnePlus 5 is simply stellar.

It delivers a grade-A experience and nearly all the specs you demand in a flagship phone for hundreds of dollars less than the Samsung Galaxy S8, Google Pixel and Apple iPhone 7.

This is the fourth major phone from Chinese phone maker OnePlus, which has earned a reputation for creating cheap, quality Android phones that undercut the competition. While OnePlus doesn’t have the volume or pure brand clout as Samsung, Apple and even Huawei, it has garnered a loyal following through flash sales and word-of-mouth recommendations.

The OnePlus 5 excels at serving high-performing hardware, like the latest Snapdragon chipset and an enduring, fast-charging battery. It’s also on trend with a dual-lens rear camera that takes artsy portraits and can hold its own against the iPhone 7 Plus.

But it doesn’t have super-slim bezels or the water-resistant body that so many top-tier phones do. And its price, while still hundreds less than its top-tier competitors, inches closer to them than years past due to its more expensive features. As a result, the phone isn’t quite the deal it once was. But, rest assured, the trade-off is more than fair.

Editors’ note: This review has been updated on July 12, 2017, with additional benchmark tests.  

Pricing and where to buy

The OnePlus 5 will come in two storage capacity variants (both have no expandable storage) and you’ll need to buy direct and unlocked since it’s not available through major carriers. It will also only work on GSM networks, like AT&T and T-Mobile in the US (and not Verizon and Sprint). There will be an online “early drop sale” the day of its announcement on June 20. The day after, on June 21, OnePlus will host one-day pop-up shops for the phone in London, Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam, Helsinki and Copenhagen. Finally, on June 27, the device will be available globally on its site for open online purchase.

OnePlus 5 pricing

USD GBP AUD (converted) EUR
Gray (64GB/6GB RAM) $479 £449 AU$750 €499
Black (128GB/8GB RAM) $539 £499 AU$830 €559

One of the best cameras around

The OnePlus 5 hopped aboard the dual-camera trend and has two rear shooters. Unlike other phones that have two cameras for wide-angle or monochrome purposes, the phone has a standard 16-megapixel shooter and a secondary 20-megapixel telephoto lens. This enables it to take “bokeh” images that have a shallow depth of field and blurred backgrounds (as if you took the photo with an DSLR camera).

The effect turns my run-of-the-mill photos of my friends into something more artsy and dramatic, and it works the same way the 7 Plus’ cameras do. You need to stand 1-6 feet away from your subject to use the effect, and there were times when the camera didn’t recognize or “catch” the subject initially. But when it worked, my pictures looked great. Due to its longer focal length, the telephoto lens has a fixed optical 1.6x zoom (it then adds digital “multi-frame technology” to bring it up to 2X), so you can toggle between the standard lens or zoom in on distant objects clearly and steadily with the telephoto.

The effect doesn’t always work perfectly every time on both the OnePlus and the iPhone. It can be patchy around objects with tricky outlines (like with stray hairs and such). But the iPhone did a slightly better job at reading these situations and determining where best the blurring should start and end. The iPhone’s bokeh effect also looked softer and more natural at times. In some of the OnePlus’ portraits, the foreground looked too harshly contrasted with the blurred background, and the effect looked too digitally rendered. (Check out CNET’s full OnePlus 5 vs. iPhone 7 Plus camera comparison here.)

Portrait mode on the OnePlus 5 (left) and iPhone 7 Plus (right).

Lynn La/CNET

The OnePlus 5 takes excellent low-light pictures, better even than the pricier Pixel at times. That’s due to a combination of better processing technology from OnePlus and a slightly wider aperture (f1.7 versus f2.0 on the Pixel), which lets in more light. And in photography, light is everything. Many of the OnePlus’ photos were clearer and sharper (with less digital artifacting) than the Pixel. White balance was also more accurate, since the Pixel gave off a slight greenish hue with some of my dark, indoor shooting.

Shooting in low light with the OnePlus 5 (left) and Pixel (right).

Lynn La/CNET

In general, the OnePlus 5 has a superb camera (and its 16-megapixel front-facing shooter takes sharp selfies as well), if not one of the best camera phones around. When it comes to regular day-to-day shooting, though, personal preference comes into play — especially when all premium phones carry first-rate cameras.

For instance, in a few photos, the OnePlus had deeper reds and purples than the Galaxy S8. This gave objects more vibrancy and depth, while the S8 came off flatter. At the same time, however, the OnePlus rendered skin tones darker and more orange, whereas on the S8 (and the iPhone too, actually), people’s complexions looked more true to life. The S8 also had a more accurate white balance indoors, with whites being much more purer and brighter. (Check out CNET’s more extensive camera shootout with the OnePlus 5, the Galaxy and Google Pixel here.)

While there were some situations when the iPhone, S8 and Pixel had an edge, all of them have their own strengths and weaknesses. The OnePlus 5 is the only phone that we know that has two cameras for the bokeh effect with that high of a megapixel count. What’s more, while the camera is competing neck-and-neck against these rivals, keep in mind it’s doing it at hundreds of dollars less than the others.

Other camera features

  • “Pro mode” gives more manual control for photographing and OnePlus included new tools like a histogram for adjusting ISO levels and white balance, and a leveler. Click here for more about getting the most out of your OnePlus 5’s camera.
  • Camera still has time-lapse, slow-motion and panoramic shooting.
  • The camera does not have optical image stabilization, but it does have electronic image stabilization for video only.
  • On top of the 2x telephoto optical+digital zoom, you can digitally zoom up to 8x.

Comfortable but not waterproof

Though the 5 is still wider than my petite hands prefer and its bezels aren’t as sexily thin as the S8 and LG G6, its softer edges make it more comfortable to hold than last November’s 3T predecessor. I also dig the smaller and flatter camera footprint.

Apple iPhone 7 Plus


Editors’ note (March 21, 2017): Apple has unveiled new editions of its flagship iPhone 7 and 7 Plus as part of the (Red) program, which funds programs that combat HIV and AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. The special edition models will come in 128-gigabyte and 256GB configurations, starting at $749 (£699). The company has also doubled the storage capacity of its budget iPhone SE, which starts at $399 and is now available with 32GB or 128GB of storage. The company is expected to unveil the next-generation iPhone 8 in September 2017.


The iPhone 7 and 7 Plus get a new vibrant color.


The original iPhone 7 Plus review, published in September 2016 and updated since then, follows.

Phone cameras are getting really damn good.

Samsung’s Galaxy S7, the Google Pixel, and the iPhone 7 all take photos that sometimes border on astonishing. In that sense, the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus aren’t as distinctive as phones anymore. They’re excellently made, superfast, and this time they’re water-resistant, too. They’re great phones, but we already knew that about the iPhone.

When Apple first made the larger Plus phones back in 2014, the appeal was always about screen size, battery life, and to a small extent, the camera. Really, all the larger 5.5-inch model had that the standard 4.7-incher didn’t was optical image stabilization (OIS). This year, the iPhone 7 finally gets OIS — great for smoothing out shaky-handed pics and videos.

That’s just one of the many similarities between the 7 and 7 Plus. Really, they’re two variants on the same phone:

  • Both are water-resistant.
  • Both have the same fast A10 Fusion processor.
  • Both have optical image stabilization on the rear camera for better low-light photos.
  • Both lack headphone jacks.

The iPhone 7 Plus has a few distinct advantages:

  • Two rear cameras — one wide angle, one telephoto — that can zoom in at 2x or even further digitally. And it can create depth-of-field blur effects, or “bokeh” type effects, with portrait photos in a unique camera mode.
  • Better battery life, but not by a huge amount.
  • Larger 5.5-inch 1080p display.
  • 3GB of RAM, instead of 2GB
  • It’s heavier and bigger.
  • And, of course, it costs more.

After several months trying both phones, I prefer the 7 Plus. But I spend my life on my phone and run around shooting photos and videos for work-related posts. For me, it’s an essential tool, and I justify the extra camera quality.

For a lot of others, the Plus will seem unnecessary. Pick the phone that you can afford, and go with battery packs for charge-ups. But I still feel like I miss that headphone jack, even though I honestly don’t find many instances anymore where I need it.

Two iPhones, straight outta Brooklyn.


Put another way: Everything we like — and dislike — about the smaller iPhone 7 applies to the 7 Plus model, too. (Read the iPhone 7 review here.) Just know that you’re paying a premium of $120, £120 or AU$190 when you step up to the 7 Plus at each storage capacity. (Yes, the price has crept up a bit from last year.)

But if you like shooting photos with your phone, it’s totally worth it.

Editors’ note: This review was originally posted in September 2016. It has since been updated with performance charts, battery life, and tests done with iOS 10.1, as well as comparisons to the Google Pixel camera.

The iPhone 7 Plus is Apple’s most advanced phone to date.


It’s big, though

Samsung and other manufacturers are doing a far better job folding identical 5.5-inch or larger displays into bodies that feel smaller and better in your hand, like the S7 Edge‘s. But now with cameras that can truly differentiate it from its smaller sibling, the 7 Plus finally has an easy justification for that jumbo size. It’s finally the step-up experience the larger phone needed.

But keep in mind that next year’s iPhone may solve the size problem, and fold more screen into a smaller body. You might want to consider holding out and seeing what happens in 2017 with that new design.

Did we mention it’s water-resistant?


How the dual cameras up the ante

I’m not a pro photographer, but I’m trying to get better. James Martin, a senior photographer at CNET, is. He shot with the 7 Plus in the Bay Area, while I took it around and used it for everyday life in New York and New Jersey.

Compare and contrast James’ photos from the 7 Plus to 6S Plus to the Samsung Galaxy S7 here.

The dual cameras don’t actually zoom, like a point-and-shoot camera with a protruding lens. Instead, the phone switches between the wide-angle camera and the telephoto, from 1 to 2x. From there, the camera app can digitally zoom up to 10x versus 5x on the iPhone 7. For video, it’s 6x.

The camera made these nosebleed seats look good.

Scott Stein/CNET

Digital zoom works better than it used to, but zooming in too far still results in blurry, digitized pics. It can’t work miracles. But adding the 2x optical helps frame photos: I found many landscape shots transformed.

I went to the New York Jets’ season opener and sat in the cheap seats. And being able to zoom in closer to the game action with less loss of detail was a great change — all without a big, heavy camera around my neck.

Note, too, that the camera equals the low-light performance of its smaller sibling, which is an improvement over the 6S/6S Plus models. But also note that the Google Pixel’s low light capabilities are even better. To compare Pixel vs iPhone 7 Plus, check out this in-depth comparison.

It takes better low-lighting photos than the iPhone 6S.

James Martin/CNET



In high school, being different only works if you’re also cool. Otherwise, you get mocked or, possibly worse, completely ignored. LG can no doubt relate.

After the lackluster reception of its unique, modular-like G5, LG decided not to double-down with another quirky approach to mods. Instead, it reversed course, toed the party line and released the more traditional G6. Gone is that funky hot-swappable chin. In its place is a slim, water-resistant build whose screen takes up an enviable 80 percent of the phone face. For LG, this is the safer but smarter play since the G6 has to do battle with the OnePlus 3T, the Google Pixel phones and the Samsung Galaxy S8.

So does it usurp its biggest South Korean rival, the S8? Not exactly. On paper, the G6 doesn’t have as powerful a processor and as long-lasting a battery. LG fans will also be disappointed that said battery is no longer removable (then again, neither is the S8’s). And while earlier LG was set to announce its big-screen, small-bezel phone, Samsung’s S8 takes the same basic idea and adds more elegance with a unique curved-edge twist.

But Samsung’s still dealing with some Galaxy Note 7 fiasco fallout, and the G6 is a great alternative if you’re squeamish about Samsung. Plus, with a $600-$720 (depending on the carrier) price tag, the G6 is about $30-$100 cheaper than the S8. For the first time in a long time, an LG handset stands a fighting chance to be your next high-end Android phone. It may not be popular enough to be Prom King, but it’s a no-compromise premium phone with enough mainstream appeal to be on the ballot.

Editors’ note: This review was originally published on April 12, 2017 and has been updated and expanded with direct comparisons to the Samsung Galaxy S8.

Polished and splash-friendly

The G6 is LG’s nicest-looking flagship yet, which I don’t say often, especially given last year’s out-there G5. But the polished G6 has a streamlined aesthetic and a smooth unibody design (think the LG V20 with fewer seams or the G5 with fewer bumps). It’s a bit heavy in the hand, but that doesn’t bother me much. Like with previous LG handsets, the fingerprint sensor is built into the home button on the back, which sits below the camera (and not next to it, like with the S8). Oh, and don’t worry, there’s still a headphone jack.

The sharp, 5.7-inch screen takes up roughly 80 percent of the front of the phone, leaving it with an impressively thin bezel all around. It’s unique in that it has an 18:9 aspect ratio (with the exception of the S8, most phones are 16:9).

With the G6’s 18:9 aspect ratio, your eyes will get an extra helping of content to view.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The phone feels expansive and “tall,” especially when you’re scrolling down your web browser or social media feed. Not all apps and games take full advantage of this ratio though, and when they can’t, you’ll see black bars on the sides of the display even at full screen, aka “pillarboxing.” You can enable “app scaling” on some apps by going into Settings. The longer display works, and seeing that you get more screen for about the same build size, I’m all for it.

In addition to its beautifully glossy design and screen, the G6 is dust- and water-resistant like the S8s, the Apple iPhone 7s and several Sony Xperia phones. It’s rated IP68, so you can dunk it in up to 4.9 feet of water (about 1.5 meters) for up to 30 minutes. For the everyday user though, it just means the G6 won’t crap out after you accidentally drop it in the pool or spill coffee on it. (Get a deeper dive on IP ratings and what they mean for waterproof gadgets.) I dunked it in a fishbowl and a bucket of water and let it sit each time underwater for 30 minutes. I also placed it inside a shower with the water splashing on it for 30 minutes. In all three instances, the handset kept ticking fine afterward, and it even registered an incoming call during the full dunking.

With the G6, LG dives into waterproofing.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Non-removable battery is a bummer

With that said, waterproofing and removable batteries don’t tend to go together these days, so the fact that the G6 does not have a removable battery was kind of a given. Still, to longtime LG fans, this might come as a disappointment. After the LG G2 in 2013, the company has been one of the few holdouts to feature swappable batteries in its flagship phones, so people can switch a drained one for a charged one or replace an old battery with a fresh one.

Not having that advantage is a drag, but it’s not a deal-breaker for everyone either. LG also hopes that the G6’s increased battery capacity (from 2,800mAh in the G5 to 3,300mAh) and new wireless charging feature — just for the US — can offset the benefits of a swappable battery. During our lab tests for continuous video playback on Airplane mode, the handset lasted an average of 13 hours and 21 minutes, which is better than last year’s 12.5 hours.

The Galaxy S8 ($649.88 at Amazon Marketplace) doesn’t have a removable battery either. Samsung’s flagships ditched that years ago. Its 3,000mAh battery clocked an average of 16 hours of drainage time. Samsung also said the overall life expectancy of the S8’s battery life will last longer as well, years down the road.

Samsung Galaxy S8


The Samsung Galaxy S8 is without a doubt the most beautiful, polished phone I’ve ever held. These words were true when I first reviewed it in April, and are still true a month on. I do have some additional insights since then — scroll down a bit for those.

OK, so the S8 is pretty. But it’s also the most important Samsung phone right now, at least until the Galaxy Note 8 comes along. It’s been helping restore buyers’ confidence after the double Note 7 battery disaster (the S8’s apparently selling like hotcakes), and it’s a chance to cement the Samsung name as the top Android brand against upcoming rivals: the pure Android Google “Pixel 2,” squeezable HTC U11 and cut-price OnePlus 5. It helps that soon, you’ll be able to use the Galaxy S8 in Google’s Daydream headset.

What makes the Galaxy S8 so special is this: A tall, narrow shape that fits snugly in my palm and curved sides that scream “classy.” And the screen? 5.8 inches of colorful gorgeousness with a display that stretches from edge to edge with just a whisper of a bezel. For its looks alone, Samsung’s flashiest phone lands at the top of the class. Trust me, when you see the S8 and larger, pricier S8 Plus, you’re gonna want to put your hands all over them.

I did everything with these two phones at home, in the office, around town and at the beach. I took scores of photos and videos, watched tons of YouTube and Netflix movies, chatted my fingers off. I sat on them in my back pocket (no Bendgate yet). I’ve unlocked these things 100 times in four different ways (fingerprint, eyes, face, PIN). So I’m confident pointing out the S8’s problems — because, let’s be real, there’s always something.

In this case, I can boil it down to the awkwardly placed fingerprint reader — you will curse this — and the still-up-in-the-air Bixby AI software, which combines Siri, Google Now and a camera add-on. (Samsung’s Siri-like Bixby Voice tool is live in South Korea, but nowhere else and I use the rest of the Bixby features… never.) Also, while photo quality is great, it’s weird to me that Samsung, usually so on top of trends, opted for one camera lens on the back instead of two.

So far, the battery has made the S8 warm, like most phones get, but not dangerously hot. Hopefully Samsung’s new eight-point battery test has done its job keeping all future handsets combustion-free, unlike the poor Note 7. The battery reserves have lasted a good, long time (but I’m keeping an eye on idle drain as the months march on). Overall, it’s zippier than the Galaxy S7, but not so much better at its core that S7 owners should dash to upgrade.


Decorate yourself and your buddies.


What you really need to know is that the S8 is an extremely fast, highly competent, visually stunning device that you’ll probably want to use with a case. Yes, this will hide most of its beautiful lines. Tough luck: It’s just too costly and pretty to risk dropping.

And the Galaxy S8 is expensive. At $750, £689 or AU$1,199, you want to know that your phone is going to go the distance, and that you won’t regret getting something cheaper — like the midrange but awesome-for-what-it-is OnePlus 3T (which is being phased out in preparation of the OnePlus 5, so hurry if you want one) — or holding out for the next iPhone, Google Pixel or Note 8, each of which should debut in the next four to six months.

So long as you aren’t hanging all your hopes on work-in-progress Bixby (Google Assistant is an easy alternative to invoke) and have the patience of a saint when unlocking the phone, the Galaxy S8 is a sound buy that will make your friends jealous of its tall, curved, crazy-elegant screen. If you’re serious about buying, I’d make a special trip to test out the fingerprint reader before taking the plunge. And if your current phone isn’t yet on its last legs, it doesn’t hurt to wait and see how the S8’s battery continues to fare in the wild. So far, though, it appears to be incident-free.

Editors’ note: This review originally published April 18, 2017, and was updated May 26 at 11 a.m. PT.

What I’ve noticed since my initial review

  • A case helps make the fingerprint reader easier to hit, but there are a lot of false scans compared to the Google Pixel and Huawei phones like the P10, Honor 8, etc.
  • Top-level controls in the native camera app’s manual mode are easy to access, so that’s good
  • The sides of some games and apps cut off when you go full-screen (Clash of Clans is one example)
  • I’m not loving the jerky scrolling on the Recents tab
  • If you use a third-party app to remap the Bixby button (like Bixby Remapper), you might notice lag using it

If you already have a Galaxy S8, here are our best tips and tricks.

All-new design is thumbs-up

Not to be dramatic, but the Galaxy S8 really is a feast for the eyes. It adopts a new dimension — 18.5:9 (that’s almost 2:1 like the LG G6 ($599.95 at Amazon Marketplace)) — which means that it’s tall and narrow. That makes it easier to use one-handed. Extremely slim bezels mean there’s much more screen stuffed into the shape: 83 percent of the phone’s face is all yours for tapping and viewing. The S8 is almost the exact same height as the G6, but those curved sides make the S8 feel narrower, slimmer and, in truth, much more vulnerable.

Don’t want this to happen? Get a case.

Luke Lancaster/CNET

I was extremely nervous I’d drop it. It almost seems more like a museum piece than a tool I’m going to use every day. I’ve had a couple close calls so far, but it hasn’t smashed to the ground yet. When it inevitably does, because butterfingers, I have a feeling those rounded edges will be easier to crack than a device with straight sides. I can’t say for sure, but the bigger problem may be the glass back.

Last year’s GS7 shattered when I dropped it (oops), and my colleague Luke Lancaster in Sydney said his S8 slipped and slid out from under him, resulting in a bash. With the Galaxy S8’s newer Gorilla Glass 5 topper, time will tell just how often this happens for others, too.

See what happened when we purposely tried to smash it up.

There’s no more physical home button, and honestly? I didn’t miss it at all. The onscreen control you see on pretty much every other Android phone felt completely natural. In fact, going Home on the S8 was faster than going Home on a lightly used S7. By the way, you can swap the placement of the Back and Recents buttons if you want to.

The S8 is the first standard Galaxy S phone (as in, not an Edge or Edge Plus) to have curved sides and the Edge display. You can use it as a kind of speed dial for your frequent apps and contacts, news headlines and so on, which you can call up from any screen (and tweak the tab location so it’s easy for you to grab). You can add a lot of panes in the settings, but I like it best when kept to two — otherwise you waste time trying to find what you’re looking for.

Oh, one more thing about the screen. It’s a very high-resolution, 2,960×1,440-pixel display, and that makes text, images and video absolutely pop, even in direct sunlight. You should know, though, that the off-standard dimension means you’ll have to either be cool with black bars on the sides of videos you play (called pillarboxing), or you’ll need to tap a screen control to crop-to-fit. In some videos, doing so reduced image quality. At other times, it looked just as good.

The S8 falters when you give it the finger(print)


That fingerprint reader is mighty close to the camera.


My biggest problem with the phone design is the fingerprint reader, which moved from the home button on the S7’s front face to a narrow strip on its backing that looks a lot like a Tic Tac, just left of the camera mount. I have no idea what Samsung was thinking putting it here. Other rear-mounted fingerprint sensors, such as the LG G6 and Google Pixel, are closer to the middle center of the phone’s body, well clear of the camera and flash. They’re round and easier to completely cover with your fingertip.

Muscle memory has somewhat taken over and I’ve grown more used to the placement. I got a lot of setup errors, and the accuracy is still less “hit” and more “miss,” especially when I haven’t unlocked the phone for a stretch. And yes, I did often smear the camera with finger grease (yum) on the way to the scanner.

(Interlude: My colleague Patrick Holland tested the effect of fingerprint smudges on a bunch of phones, and noticed that the S8 still takes great pics regardless. We’ll see if this holds up over time, or if the protective exterior coating wears out and image quality begins to suffer.)

Back to the fingerprint reader. Wait, you say! You can always use face unlock (which Samsung calls more convenient than it is secure, so no thanks) or the iris scanner, which is deemed secure enough for Samsung Pay. I tried both. The iris scanner takes longer than an accurate fingerprint reader on a rival phone, plus you have to hold it level to your face, and lift your sunglasses if you’re outside. It doesn’t always work in every lighting situation. But it worked fine with my glasses, even though I registered my peepers with contacts.

Best combination: Fingerprint reader with the iris scanner as backup, plus a PIN or pattern for times when the other two take too long.

One other thing about the fingerprint reader and Samsung Pay. Using both the fingerprint and iris methods to authenticate a payment took longer than on the Galaxy S7 and Note 7 (where the reader’s on the home button), which made me feel like a jerk for holding up the line. Having a credit card ready is frankly faster, even though it’s way less cool.

Bixby AI assistant still half-baked

Oh, boy. So much. Bixby is the blanket name for a feature that’s actually broken into three parts: Voice, Home and Vision. It does not replace Google voice search or Google Assistant, which comes preloaded on the S8 and which you can invoke by long-pressing the home button.

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