I’ll be honest: 2023 wasn’t the greatest year for smartphones. Sure, we had a lot of solid options, but the age of crazy innovation year-over-year seems to be behind us. However, that didn’t stop a few smartphones from standing out this year. Here are three of my favourites.
iPhone 15 Pro Max
When I reviewed the iPhone 15 Pro Max back in late September, I called it Apple’s most boring phone yet. As such, it might be a bit surprising to see it on a list of my favourite smartphones from 2023. Despite how little it seemed to innovate on the idea of an iPhone, the 15 Pro Max has been my daily driver for the past couple of months, and I honestly don’t see that changing.
The feel of the phone is exceptionally nice, and while I do worry about just how durable the change to titanium will be in the long run, I’ve found myself enjoying the design a lot more than I expected to. The iPhone 15 Pro Max sports a 6.7-inch OLED display with a maximum 120Hz refresh rate. It’s great for playing games, watching videos, and catching up with my family over video chat. The A17 Pro processor and 8GB of RAM inside are also more than fast enough to handle my daily tasks while also offering some great power for gaming and whatever else I throw at it. Add in the fairly large 4,422 mAh battery, as well as the enhancements to efficiency that Apple shipped with iOS 17, and the iPhone 15 Pro Max is a powerhouse that lasts throughout the day.
While Apple didn’t do anything surprising with the iPhone 15 Pro Max, the change from the quick, silent switch to the configurable Action Button has actually been one of my favourite features. Being able to set up various options using a one-touch shortcut is really handy, and it’s actually become one of my most used functions. I’ve also found the versatility of the Dynamic Island to be helpful, too, though I know that feature was first introduced on the iPhone 14 Pro last year.
As usual, Apple’s Pro offering comes with a ton of camera options, including new features like Spatial Video (though these are only properly viewable on an Apple Vision Pro headset). The included triple-camera setup sports a 48MP main camera, which it takes solid photographs, even in low light situations.
Despite how boring it might be compared to some of the more innovative options that Apple has pushed in the past, the iPhone 15 Pro Max remains one of my favourite smartphone releases of the year.
I’ll admit, I’ve never seen the appeal of a foldable smartphone, and I honestly never considered buying one. At least, not until I saw the OnePlus Open. Despite its rather expensive price, the OnePlus Open was the biggest surprise smartphone of the year for me. Not only does it offer a ton of reasons to love it for the hardware alone (the primary 7.82-inch display is awesome), but it also just looks better than the other foldables on the market right now.
On top of the massive internal display, the secondary cover display is also large, measuring in at 6.31-inches. You can do everything you need on that display, though being able to fold the phone open and take advantage of even more screen real estate is a huge plus. Both displays also offer dynamic refresh rates, with a maximum rate of 120Hz, for smooth usage across games, videos, and more.
OnePlus didn’t skimp with the internals here, either. The included Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 is more than enough to power through any games or apps you throw at it, and the 16GB of RAM keep things from hitting any hitches. There are also smaller options for RAM available, but if you’re going to spend the money on a phone like this, I’d honestly recommend going with 16GB of RAM anyway. It also comes with a massive 4,805mAh battery, so you can make use of that large internal display without having to worry too much about when you’ll be around a charger throughout the day.
The camera array on the OnePlus Open is great, taking full advantage of the included Sony LYT-T808 Pixel Stacked sensor. The ultra-wide and telephoto lenses deliver fantastic camera shots, too, offering support for Dolby Vision HDR even when recording in 4K at 30FPS. OnePlus tagged in camera company Hasselblad here, and the OnePlus Open continues to show off just how beneficial that partnership has been for the two companies.
OnePlus did a lot right with the Open, though it definitely could have a much better price (US$1,699.99 MSRP), and is missing some important options like wireless charging and full water resistance. Those issues aside, the OnePlus Open is a fantastic first foldable for OnePlus. If the company can take what it did right with the Open and improve upon it going forward, it might convince me to give its future foldables a chance, too.
Pixel 8 Pro
When Google first started shipping its own chips with the Pixel 6, I’ll admit I wasn’t very impressed. The company wasn’t offering a lot of reasons to choose the Pixel lineup over other smartphones with better hardware, and while I’d been a Pixel fan for years, I wasn’t expecting the Pixel 8 Pro to be as exciting as it is. But, somehow, Google turned it around.
Sure, the Pixel 8 Pro’s Google-made Tensor G3 still falls behind some other flagship models when it comes to raw performance. But where the 8 Pro really shines is in its use of AI to make that G3 more efficient. There has, of course, been some talk about the accuracy of Google’s Gemini AI demos, but even before those issues were called into question, the Pixel 8 Pro was already doing some impressive things.
The Pixel 8 Pro ships with a full suite of hardware, including a large 6.7-inch OLED display, and a maximum 120HZ refresh rate. The device’s battery maxes out at 5,050mAh, providing all-day battery life even when using the phone consistently throughout the day. The clean stock Android experience included with the Pixel 8 Pro continues to be one of my favorite ways to enjoy Android. The flagship Pixel device tops out at 12GB of RAM, which may not be as high as something like the OnePlus Open, but it’s still more than enough to power apps, games, and whatever other experiences you might have on your smartphone.
Chief among my favorite features of the Pixel 8 Pro is the use of AI to create generated wallpapers. It makes your smartphone more unique and customized, and the use of AI within the various video and photo editing functions shows just how useful machine learning can be. If you’ve ever used a Pixel smartphone, then you’re probably already well aware of just how good Google has gotten at enhancing photos.
The included 50MP main camera is powerful and provides a lot of wiggle room for you to customize how you capture images. The Pixel 8 Pro continues Google’s long-standing reputation of delivering exceptional photos, and the AI features I mentioned above only make it easier to find the best shot that you’ve taken in that session. Throw in the new video boost function, too, and there’s literally no reason to choose another smartphone over the Pixel 8 Pro when it comes to camera functionality (at least, not in my opinion).
Ultimately, the Pixel 8 Pro, with its awesome cameras and AI, wasn’t good enough to tempt me away from Apple and my iPhone 15 Pro Max (there’s just something there that keeps its hooks in me), but I did seriously debate it for a time.
These are just three of my favorite smartphones from 2023, but there were countless other options out there, too. Whether you’re an Android lover or someone who finds joy in using iOS-based devices, 2023 was a solid year for new phones. And while nothing felt overly innovative, the introduction of AI with the Pixel 8 and Pixel 8 Pro will surely lead to some exciting advancements next year, which I’m exceptionally excited to see.
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