Along with the rest of 2020, it’s been a wild and unpredictable year for smartphones. Samsung started the year by shipping its most expensive phone ever in the S20 Ultra and finished with one of its best bargains in the Galaxy S20 FE. Google dropped its flagship Pixel 5 to the mid-range and delivered its best design ever, while a OnePlus phone topped a grand for the first time. Plus Apple shipped its smallest iPhone since the iPhone 5. And everything came with 5G on board.
But amid all that, which phone emerged from the chaos as the champion of 2020?
Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra: The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is Samsung’s best phone to date even if it has a slightly inferior camera and a smaller battery than the S20 Ultra.
OnePlus 8 Pro: OnePlus went all out on its phones this year, attacking both the high end and the low end with more models than ever before. Even with the 8T arriving months later, the 8 Pro is my pick of the litter, especially at its newly reduced price tag.
Google Pixel 5: Google did an about-face with its smartphones this year, but the Pixel 5 is still among the best Android phone, thanks to Android 11.
iPhone 12: You can make an argument that the $999 iPhone 12 Pro is worth the extra money, but unless you’re taking a lot of zoomed shots, the iPhone 12 is the sweet spot.
Note: The Android phones here represent the best in North America. That means Huawei, which continues to innovate with its camera and speed, and Xiaomi, which had an impressive entry with the Mi 10 Ultra, are out of the running.
iPhone vs Android: Design
The phones here might not fold or swivel, but that doesn’t mean they don’t each have their own unique identities. Their respective wheels most certainly haven’t been reinvented, but each phone has enough little touches to both separate it from the others and raise it above the rest of the pack.
First, let’s look at the size and screen proportions.
Screen to body ratio (listed from highest to lowest) Note 20 Ultra: 91.63% OnePlus 8 Pro: 90.79% iPhone 12: 87.45% Pixel 5: 86.75%
The Note 20 Ultra is unmistakably Samsung, with a giant curved Infinity display, hole-punch selfie cam, and very skinny bezels above and below the screen. Like previous Notes, it has a very squared-off aesthetic that makes it seem much taller than it is, while the camera bump in the left corner is quite a bit large and way more bulbous than the other phones here.
The best color is the new matte Mystic Bronze that’s a cross between gold and rose gold. But you’ll probably want to put it in a case. For one it’s made entirely of glass, and for another, its size makes it tricky to hold even with two hands. The squared corners, flat bottom, and camera bump look good, but they combine to create a very awkward and clumsy grip. It’s also extremely heavy compared to the other phones here.
The Pixel 5 isn’t just the lightest in this group, it’s also one of the nicest. Google did a great job with its latest Pixel phone, delivering the first design that doesn’t have enormous bezels. In fact, it’s the only Android phone that I’m aware of that has universal bezels all around, giving the Pixel 5 a balanced, symmetrical aesthetic similar to the iPhone 12.
Otherwise, it’s very much a Pixel. The silhouette is the same as it’s been since the original model, and the square camera array is very much cribbed from the Pixel 4. With very little bezel, the selfie cam is in the left-hand corner of the screen and mostly tucked out of sight.
The Pixel 5 is the only phone here that isn’t made of glass, but it’s not quite aluminum either. The back is covered in a plastic bio-resin that gives the phone a strange texture and a less-than-premium feel. The Sorta Sage color is nice though and the chrome-wrapped power bottom is a nice touch.
The OnePlus 8 Pro is probably the least recognizable of the group, but that’s not to say it’s a plain or boring phone. It has a fantastic curved display and is the only phone in this bunch that doesn’t have a distractingly large camera array. The corners of the display perfectly match the phone’s shape, and the bezels above and below the screen are extremely skinny, giving it a near edge-to-edge aesthetic that feels great to hold.
The back is made of glass but it’s frosted so it doesn’t pick up fingerprints as easily as the Note 20 and iPhone 12. The two new colors, Glacial Green (8GB RAM) and Ultramarine Blue (12GB RAM), wrap around the sides of the display and look fantastic.
At first glance, the iPhone 12 looks a lot like the iPhone 11 it replaces, but the subtle changes Apple has made are meaningful. The most obvious is the bezel size. On the iPhone 11, bezels were quite large at 5.57mm all around, but on the iPhone 12, they’re just 3.47mm. The iPhone 12 is also thinner and lighter than the iPhone 11, and since Apple has returned to a “flat” design for the sides and the screen, the phone has an aesthetic that looks and feels even smaller than it is.
It’s also a lot lighter than the other all-glass phones here. Granted, it has a smaller screen than the Note 20 and OnePlus 8 Pro, but the difference in both weight and distribution is palpable when you’re holding it. By contrast, the Note 20 is very top-heavy and while the Pixel 5 is significantly lighter, feeling less like a premium phone and more like a plastic budget one. The iPhone 12 strikes a nice balance between balance and build quality.
The rather large notch remains as does the attention-grabbing camera array, but the iPhone 12’s overall design is the nicest Apple has produced in years. It’s solid, symmetrical, and stylish, and easily stands out in a crowded field of rounded rectangles. As phones become homogenous with giant screens and cameras, Apple continues to find a way to lead the way with smart iterations and character.
Our pick: iPhone 12
iPhone vs Android: Display
Premium smartphone displays have reached the point where they basically all get A+ ratings from DisplayMate, so no matter which phone you get, you’re getting one of the best displays ever made.
Before we get into size, brightness, and pixel density, the main difference between the Android phones and the iPhone 12 is display speed. While the iPhone 12 is stuck at 60Hz, the Pixel 5 operates at 90Hz, and the Note 20 Ultra and 8 Pro have 120Hz refresh rates. Higher refresh rates mean scrolling should be faster and gaming and videos smoother on those phones, especially when you switch between 60Hz and 120Hz on the Note 20 Ultra and OnePlus 8T. But Apple does such a tremendous job with its display calibration and OS optimization that the iPhone 12 doesn’t feel noticeably slower than the 120Hz phones.
The same goes for the resolution. The iPhone 12 and the Pixel 5 both have Full HD+ 1080p displays while the Note 20 Ultra and OnePlus 8 Pro have Quad HD+ 1440p displays. (One caveat, however: you need to lower the Note 20 Ultra’s resolution to 1080p to use the 120Hz refresh rate.) The difference is negligible. While the Pixel 5 has separate issues with color saturation and brightness, both displays are as crisp and pixel-dense as the QHD displays, and the iPhone 12 is every bit as rich and vibrant. If I didn’t see the spec sheet, I’d never know the iPhone 12 has fewer pixels.
Apple might not have changed the resolution for its “Super Retina XDR display,” but it did add a small change that elevates it even further above the other phones here. Apple calls it Ceramic Shield and it’s designed to keep your phone’s screen from cracking when dropped from a high distance. I thankfully didn’t have a chance to test that, but after a month of use without a screen protector, I couldn’t see any micro scratches on my phone’s screen like on other phones, including the most recent iPhones.
While all of the phones here fall into the “large” category, there’s nearly an inch between the smallest and the largest. That might not seem like much on paper, but it makes a huge difference when using them.
The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra isn’t just the biggest among the phones here, it’s one of the nicest displays I’ve ever used. Colors are vibrant without being too saturated, photos are rich and bright (with a peak that touched 1,600 nits), and videos are dynamic and smooth. It’s hard to find a complaint, except perhaps it’s a bit too big.
The said, the OnePlus 8 Pro isn’t all that smaller than the Note 20 and it, too, is visually stunning. Like the Note 20, the sides are curved, and its Quad HD+ 3168 x 1440 is bright and vivid. It’s bright and crisp, but I found the white balance to be a bit off at times and I noticed a slight purple tint when compared to the other displays.
And as I said above, the iPhone 12’s display is remarkable as well. But for speed, clarity, brightness, and depth, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra stands alone. Even with 1080p resolution, Apple is very close to the Note 20 Ultra, and if the iPhone 13 gains a 120Hz ProMotion display as rumored, it will more than likely catch up.
Our pick: Galaxy Note 20 Ultra
Next page: Performance, battery life, and OS comparisons
iPhone vs Android: Performance
The phones in this annual contest always represent the top of the line when it comes to processors and specs, and as such you’ll find the Snapdragon 865+ in the Note 29 Ultra, the 865 in the OnePlus 8 Pro, and the A14 Bionic in the iPhone 12.
But you’ll find a considerably slower chip on the Pixel 5. To keep costs down, Google has opted for the slower 765G processor, which is plenty capable but in an entirely different league. It’s not a bad chip, but it’s more akin to the Snapdragon 835 in the Pixel 2 than any of Qualcomm’s newer phone chips.
So benchmarks are going to be a little skewed. They don’t tell the whole story, as Google’s Android optimizations help a lot, but the message is pretty clear: If you want the fastest phone in 2020, the Pixel 5 isn’t it. It’s the iPhone 12.
Geekbench 5 Compute (in order of performance) iPhone 12: 9439 Note 20 Ultra: 3564 OnePlus 8 Pro: 3221 Pixel 5: 1010
You can argue all you want about the veracity of Geekbench’s results on iOS versus Android, but the fact of the matter is the iPhone 12 is head-spinningly fast. Apps fly open, scrolling is incredibly smooth even without a 120Hz display, and the system never feels sluggish in the slightest. And while I’m not sure what’s going on with the Note 20 Ultra in BrowserBench’s Speedometer 2.0 test, it doesn’t really matter when compared to the iPhone 12, which is nearly three times faster than the OnePlus 8 Pro. And somehow, the gulf is even more apparent with 3DMark’s new cross-platform Wild Life graphics benchmark.
The Pixel 5 might be able to get away with a lackluster chip for common tasks, but it shows its inferiority when it comes to its GPU. Once again, the iPhone is the clear winner here, with more than double the score of its closest competitor, and the real-world results bear that out. Where I experienced occasional stutter and lag with all of the other phones here, the iPhone never dropped a frame or fumbled a transition. Case in point: Wild Life measures the average frame rate on the iPhone 12 at 51fps, where the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra only reached 25fps.
The iPhone 12 improves on boot time as well. While you’re not going to need to restart any of these phones very often, you’ll be able to start using it in no time at all. Last year, Apple brought up the rear with the iPhone 11 with a lengthy 21 seconds, the iPhone 12 nearly cuts that time in half:
As far as 5G goes, all four phones feature sub-6GHz 5G modems on all three major networks, so if you’re in a nationwide coverage area, you’re good. If you happen to also live near one of Verizon’s super-speedy millimeter-wave hubs, you’ll be able to access it on the iPhone 12, Note 20 Ultra, and Pixel 4, which all have the required n260 and n261 bands to tap into the ultra-wideband spectrum, but not the OnePlus 8 Pro. The speeds are spectacular, but it’s not all that necessary now, when sub-6GHz 5G has only just begun to take off.
Our pick: iPhone 12
iPhone vs Android: Battery and charging
The four phones all deliver when it comes to battery life, even with vastly different capacities. Apple uses a laughably smaller capacity compared to the others here but still manages to deliver all-day battery life and then some.
I can’t remember the last time I used an Android phone with a battery under 3,000mAh, and there’s a reason for that. If any of the ones here had a battery that small, they would almost certainly struggle to make it through half a day. But the iPhone 12 rarely finished a day with less than 20 percent remaining and somehow manages to eke more out its 2815mAh battery than Samsung or OnePlus with 4500mAh ones.
Here’s how much battery was drained after playing a 1-hour-and-49-minute 4K HDR movie (Birds of Prey) on each phone at full brightness and auto-brightness.
It’s quite remarkable. Even with such a small battery, the iPhone 12 sips power while the others drink it. All four phones are basically guaranteed to get you through the day, but the iPhone 12 and OnePlus 8 Pro are as close as you’re going to get to completely worry-free. No matter what you’re doing, neither phone will make you reach for a charge at any point throughout your day and should comfortably make it the end of it. But none of the phones here will need much in the way of charging.
Speaking of charging, all four phones feature fast charging, but they’re quite different. For starters, the iPhone 12 doesn’t include a power adapter in the box, so you need to bring your own 20W or higher plug. The other phones all include everything you need to get peak charging out of the box.
All of the phones will fill up fast enough, but the OnePlus 8 Pro fills up the fastest without needing any extra equipment. But if you need a fast charge in less than a half-hour, any phone will fit the bill.
You’ll also get wireless charging with each of the phones and again, it varies quite a bit even when using the same standard charging pad.
You’ll obviously need to bring your own charger, but the right one can actually increase your speed. OnePlus sells a Warp Charge 30W wireless charging stand that’s a little bulky and has a built-in fan for cooling, while Apple has a magnetic MagSafe charger that ups the speeds to 15W. MagSafe has the potential to be a game-changing feature and if you’re on the fence, could be the thing that pushes you over. There’s nothing like it on any Android phone and could lead to some pretty cool accessories beyond just chargers and stands.
On the flip side, Android is still a bit hit or miss. While the Pixel 5 obviously ships with Android 11 out of the box and the OnePlus 8 Pro quickly received its Android 11 update, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is still waiting for One UI 3.0 to make it out of beta testing. Samsung hasn’t indicated when a stable release will roll out to the U.S., but it likely won’t arrive until early 2021.
The good news is the Note 20 Ultra is finally guaranteed to get updates beyond the most recent one. While Samsung’s premium phones have generally been good for two release updates and possibly a third, Samsung now assures buyers that they’ll be getting updates to their phone for years to come.
The difference between generations and years is significant. While the Note 20 Ultra released in late August, it’s only guaranteed to get Android 11, 12, and 13, even if Android 14 lands before the third year is up. Google, on the other hand, promises three years of updates, giving it a little wiggle room on phones that release on the bubble, like the 4a. At any rate, you’ll definitely get Android 14 on your Pixel 5. OnePlus continues to be extremely disappointing with updates, with its recent Nord N10 phone not guaranteed to get an update past Android 11.
The iPhone 12 might stick out, but Apple’s non-guarantee is a feature, not a bug. The iOS 14 release that just landed in September supports all iPhones going back to the 6s, which launched in 2015. Even if Apple drops support with iOS 15 as rumored, that’s five versions and six years of updates, which blows away anything you’ll get from Android.
And even if you do get three full Android versions with the Note 20 Ultra, it’s likely going to be missing some features. Along with Assistant and camera features, Google has started to limit access to Android features to non-Pixel phones, including app suggestions, smarter text selection, and extreme battery saver in Android 11. They’ll arrive eventually, but with the state of updates, who knows if you’ll ever get them on your OnePlus or Galaxy phone.
Plus, Google’s Android optimizations make the Pixel experience better than any other phone here. The Pixel 5 isn’t quite on the level of the iPhone 12, especially with a far slower processor, but like Apple, Google is doing more with less on the Pixel 5. Even with a slower processor, the UI feels snappy and responsive in a way no other Android phone does.
It’s not that the OnePlus 8 Pro and Galaxy Note 20 Ultra feel slow by any stretch, but there’s something about the Pixel experience that feels natural. It’s difficult to put into words and impossible to demonstrate, but there’s a certain simpatico between the hardware and the software that make the whole thing feel pleasurable.
After this year’s moves, I’m not sure where Google’s going with the Pixel, but if it sticks with a mid-range processor, it’s going to be harder to justify phones that cost well over a thousand bucks when the Pixel performs so smoothly at a fraction of the price.
When it comes to security, the iPhone 12 still stands alone with Face ID, its super-secure 3D face recognition biometric tech. Google tried something similar with its Soli camera on the Pixel 4, but it’s gone here (likely due to cost and lack of widespread support) in favor of an old-fashioned rear-mounted fingerprint sensor.
The Note 20 and OnePlus 8 Pro both have in-display fingerprint sensors, and while they’ve certainly improved with each release, they’re finicky and frustrating. Unlocking routinely takes several attempts, and even when it works, the method is very deliberate. With the iPhone 12, the system is much faster, more secure, and more reliable, and I even preferred the Pixel 5’s old-school fingerprint sensor to the newfangled ultrasonic and optical ones.
Our picks: iPhone 12 and Pixel 5
Next page: Camera, price, and conclusions
iPhone vs Android: Camera
While each phone here has multiple cameras, the hardware is quite different. The Note 20 Ultra offers a 50X “Space Zoom” lens while the OnePlus 8 Pro has a dedicated color filter camera. The Pixel 5 has an ultra-wide lens for the first time and the iPhone 12 offers night mode on both the wide and ultrawide cameras as well as the selfie cam.
But no matter which phone you choose, you’re getting an excellent camera. There are surely subtle differences between them, but smartphones in 2020 have reached staggering heights when it comes to photography, to the point where we have the luxury of nitpicking.
Take nighttime or low-light shots. Just two years ago, it was a detriment for most of these phones, but ever since Google introduced Night Sight on the Pixel 3, everyone has scrambled to catch up. And they have. In the image below, which was taken in a room where I could barely see what I was shooting, all of the phones capture color, detail, and clarity that the eye simply cannot see.
In the photo above, the Pixel 5, bottom right, captures an incredible level of clarity to the point where you can easily read all of the words, even the ones way in the back. The OnePlus 8 Pro (bottom left) also does a fantastic job with conveying detail, though the exposure is a bit amped up. The Note 20 Ultra (top right) also nails the color and detail, while the iPhone 12 (top left), which is still very good, isn’t as sharp as the others.
In better lighting, all four phones do an admirable job capturing a scene, as you can see above. The color, contrast, and depth on this busy scene are all preserved incredibly well, with only the OnePlus 8 Pro (bottom left) going a bit too hard on the saturation in the leaves. The iPhone 12 (top left) gets really nice detail on the leaves while the Note 20 (top right) leans too heavily into focusing on the front leaf. Once again, the Pixel 5 (bottom right) gets it all right.
It’s the same story with color. Each of the phones here does a tremendous job of parsing different and diffused colors above, but you can see a little softness in the OnePlus 8 Pro (bottom left) and Galaxy Note 20 Ultra (top right). The iPhone 12 (top left) and Pixel 5 (bottom right) get the color and the clarity nearly perfect, but Google once again gets a slight edge.
There’s a bit more separation when it comes to zooming. The Note 20 Ultra has 5X optical zoom versus 3x on the OnePlus 8 Pro and pure digital zoom on the iPhone 12 and Pixel 5. So the Note 20 is clearly ahead of the other phones here when zooming, whether at 5X or 30X. It’s an area where the iPhone 12 (top left) shows its inferiority and where even Google’s incredible processing on the Pixel 5 (bottom right) can’t compensate. The OnePlus 8 Pro surprisingly struggles as badly as the non-telephoto phones, which shows how hard it is to zoom with a fixed smartphone lens. But if you’re going to be taking a lot of shots from further away, the Note 20 is definitely the one to buy.
When it comes to video, all four phones offer impressive video stabilization as well as 4K at 60fps. The Note 20 Ultra can shoot in 8K at 24fps as well and the iPhone 12 records in 10-bit Dolby Vision HDR 4K at 30fps. On the front, the selfie cams are all fairly equal, even with different hardware.
But you’re not going to want to make a decision based on the front camera. And when it comes to the rear camera, any phone will deliver the goods, but there’s one that’s just a little ahead of the pack, despite its lack of a zoom lens.
Our pick: Pixel 5
iPhone vs Android: Price
Before we get down to the price, we need to talk about storage. The iPhone 12 starts at 64GB, while the Note 20 Ultra, OnePlus 8 Pro, and Pixel 5 have 128GB. So to keeps things fair, I’ve bumped the iPhone 12 to the next storage tier when comparing prices.
The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is certainly in the conversation for the phone of the year, but its price is a major detriment. Even Apple’s most expensive iPhone, the 6.7-inch iPhone 12 Pro Max, is $200 cheaper than the Note 20 Ultra with many of the same features, including a 2.5X telephoto lens. Samsung needs to seriously rethink its prices now that 5G is pretty much universal.
At the other end, the Pixel 5 needs to be cheaper to compete with the iPhone 12 and more specifically, the iPhone 12 mini, which starts at $729. The Pixel 5 seems to be in something of a transitional period and there’s a lot to like about Google’s moves, but the value just isn’t quite there.
Apple increased the price of the iPhone 12 by $130 as compared to the iPhone 11, which is no small hike, but you’re also getting much more for your money: namely, 5G and an OLED display. And it’s still more than $400 cheaper than the Note 20 Ultra and just $80 more than the cheapest OnePlus 8 Pro with 8GB of RAM.
Our pick: iPhone 12
iPhone vs Android: Conclusion
As I said at the start, these are four of the best phones of the year, and they all have their strengths. The Note 20 Ultra has a gorgeous display. The OnePlus 8 Pro works hard, lasts long, and charges in a flash. The Pixel 5 has great software integration and the best camera I’ve ever used in a $699 Android phone.
But only the iPhone 12 brings it all together so well. The design, display, processor, OS, and camera are all at the top of their game, and even if it isn’t the best in every category, it’s at or near the top in most of them. Not since the iPhone X has there been such a generational leap in performance and features, and even with the same camera hardware, the iPhone still improves over the iPhone 11. Add in the guaranteed OS updates and incredible battery life and you’ve got the phone of the year—and likely most of next year too.
Michael Simon has been covering Apple since the iPod was the iWalk. His obsession with technology goes back to his first PC—the IBM Thinkpad with the lift-up keyboard for swapping out the drive. He's still waiting for that to come back in style tbh.