I reviewed 20 phones in 2023. These are my 5 favorites

This has been a fantastic year for smartphones due to the sheer variety of great devices at all prices. In other words, if you wanted a brilliant new phone this year, it didn’t have to be a $1,000-plus flagship.

I’ve used and reviewed a great many phones over the past 12 months, but the following five have left the biggest impression to become what I consider the very best you can get.

iPhone 15 Plus

A person holding the Apple iPhone 15 Plus.
Apple iPhone 15 Plus Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

While the iPhone 15 Plus may not be the most technically impressive new iPhone released this year, it is the one that surprised me, as I’d felt that the iPhone 14 Plus was too big, too heavy, and too uncomfortable to be a true cheaper alternative to the iPhone 14 Pro Max. The iPhone 15 Plus solved all the comfort issues, which in turn made it more manageable. The camera has really impressed me, too.

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It means the iPhone 15 Plus really can be considered by people who want the iPhone 15 Pro Max’s big screen, but not the accompanying big price tag. It’s still an expensive phone, but there is a substantial savings over the 15 Pro Max, and because it’s a far better phone than last year’s model, it can actually be recommended. Calling it one of the “best” phones I’ve reviewed this year may be a tiny bit of a stretch, but it’s certainly the most improved over what came before.

I’ve also been using the superb iPhone 15 Pro Max since it was released, and the differences between using it and the iPhone 15 Plus for normal, everyday tasks are minimal. It’s only when you get creative with the camera, start playing a lot of intensive games, or compare the two screens closely (one is 60Hz and the other 120Hz) that it’s obvious where the extra money goes. Otherwise, the iPhone 15 Plus is a worthy big-screen alternative to the iPhone 15 Pro Max.

Google Pixel 7a

The Google Pixel 7a in a person's hand.
Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

Most end-of-year lists will feature the Google Pixel 8 or Google Pixel 8 Pro, and they are right to do so, as both are excellent new smartphones. But it’s easy to forget that Google’s cheapest Pixel phone, the Google Pixel 7a, was also released in 2023, and it is the best value Pixel to buy if you don’t want to spend much money. It has all the usual Pixel goodness — great camera and clean Android — for less than $500. While it lacks all the AI features found in the Pixel 8, it’s questionable as to how much they will add to the experience for everyone.

When I’d finished using the Pixel 7a the first time around, I didn’t feel the need to swap my SIM card out and into a more expensive flagship phone. Considering the list included the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra, this is high praise. It’s an incredibly competent phone that shares the same cool design of the Pixel 7 and Pixel 7 Pro, and the camera performs almost as well too. It has last year’s Google Tensor processor inside, so it’s not the most battery efficient, but it still always lasted a packed full day for me.

As tech fans, we’re constantly looking at the next big thing and lusting after the very latest releases, but overlooking the Pixel 7a because it doesn’t share the Pixel 8’s name and processor would be unfortunate. It’s a brilliant, capable, and long-lasting smartphone for anyone not wanting to spend more than $500 on a new phone.

Motorola Razr (2023)

The Motorola Razr 40's cover screen, with the Moo character.
Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

The third phone on my list is yet another midrange device, proving you don’t absolutely need to buy an expensive flagship to bag one of 2023’s best. The Motorola Razr (2023), or Razr 40, as it’s known in the U.K., is the cheaper of the two new Razrs released this year, with the other being the excellent Razr Plus. But the regular Razr is the one that breaks new, important ground.

Why? It brings the compact folding phone down to a sensible price, especially when it was available for just $600. Even at the full $700, it’s still a solid buy — and Motorola seems happy to still offer deals on it, too. It’s far better built than the Razr (2022), the hinge feels more reliable and expensive, and the technology inside is more than enough to satisfy most people for daily use. You’ll want more power if you play a lot of games, but it’s a minor gripe when looking at the Razr (2023) as a complete package.

I liked the Razr (2023) because the hardware never felt like a compromise, and it introduces the joy of a folding phone to those who don’t want to spend $1,000 to get one. Folding phones are fun, exciting, and useful, and the more people who can discover this, the better. The Razr (2023)’s compact design means it’s never a burden, yet you’re not missing out on a lovely big screen when you want it. Plus, the phone is given character by Moo, the creature that lives on the cover screen, something you don’t often find on any smartphone, let alone a modestly priced foldable.

Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra

Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra in Sky Blue, seen from the back.
Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

I had to get to a flagship phone eventually, and the Galaxy S23 Ultra is every bit a flagship. Since the death of the Note series, the S-Series Ultra has taken on the task of providing just about everything that can be squeezed into a modern phone. Several of these features are unique to the S23 Ultra, too, including the 10x optical zoom camera and the Bluetooth-connected S Pen stylus stored inside the phone’s body.

The 10x optical zoom is a big benefit, as no other phone offers a similar feature at all. It adds so much creative ability to the already superb camera, and there’s almost no situation or environment where it doesn’t take a brilliant photograph. I chose it as the phone I took on a short trip over any other for this very reason, and I never once regretted it. Then there’s how good the video recording is. It also introduced me to using Adobe Lightroom on a smartphone to make photos look even better.

The camera’s brilliance is repeated everywhere else, from the outright performance to the software. I’m using the Galaxy S23 Ultra again as I write this, and it has received an update to One UI 6 and Android 14, bringing it right up to date. Big, bold, and brilliant, the Galaxy S23 Ultra is the phone to buy if you don’t want to change it for years.

Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 5

A person holding the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 5, showing the cover screen.
Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

When I decided to upgrade my Galaxy Z Fold 4, I didn’t choose the Galaxy Fold 5 — I bought the Galaxy Z Flip 5 instead. While the Galaxy Z Fold 5 is very good, it really doesn’t offer much new over the Z Fold 4, while the Z Flip 5 is a very different phone from the Galaxy Z Flip 4. I appreciate the compact design too, as it fits in with my current lifestyle better. I didn’t write our initial review of the Z Flip 5, but I’ve been using it long term and updated our review on it recently.

The big cover screen is highly customizable, and although it can run any Android app you like, I find it works best when you use a core selection. The Z Flip 5 is a phone you can properly use open and closed, and for a much wider variety of tasks than before. Its new versatility brings it closer to the Z Fold 5, leaving you mostly with the decision as to whether you value a big screen or a compact phone more when choosing between them.

Samsung’s hardware is also still the best in the business. I love the Motorola Razr (2023), but you can tell it’s cheaper than the Z Flip 5 just from the hinge. The Z Flip 5’s hinge is smooth, yet tight, with no wobble or flex in the wrong places. It gives you confidence in the phone, as does Samsung’s use of durable materials. The Z Flip 5 is the phone that changed my mind about compact folding phones, and it’s easily one of the year’s best new devices.

The ones that got away

A blue Google Pixel 8 Pro, laying face-down next to a small pumpkin and squash.
Joe Maring / Digital Trends

There have been a couple of phones I haven’t been able to use so far this year, and although I don’t expect either to usurp any of the devices above based on what I’ve learned from colleagues, they do deserve special mention. It’s the Google Pixel 8 Pro and OnePlus Open that have eluded me at the time of writing.

The OnePlus Open falls into the same category as the Google Pixel Fold and the Galaxy Z Fold 5 in that big-screen folding phones haven’t been as enticing in 2023 compared to compact folding phones. I’ve enjoyed using the Z Flip 5 and Razr (2023) a lot, and both are considerable improvements over their predecessors. The Z Fold 5 and Pixel Fold are brilliant, but don’t offer much that’s new. I have a feeling the OnePlus Open may be exactly the same.

OnePlus Open in Emerald Dusk showing Flexion Hinge standing up.
Christine Romero-Chan / Digital Trends

I know I’ll love the Pixel 8 Pro’s camera and would be interested to try out the additional AI features that are exclusive to the model, especially as I really liked the standard Pixel 8. It’s sure to be an excellent phone, but the Pixel 7a caught my attention because of how good it is for the price, and the Pixel 8 Pro is the same price as most other top smartphones today. It better be good when I get to use it.

When I use these two phones, perhaps I’ll change my mind about this list. But for now, these are my favorite smartphones from the many I’ve used and reviewed in 2023.

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