The term best is subjective, but after testing out a number of smartphones, wearables, tablets, and other mobile gear over the past year, I have developed some informed opinions on the tech we use daily. Some devices are clearly the best for everyone, while others are champions in their particular ecosystem or targeted market.
My most popular ZDNet post of the year was the 10 best smartphones of 2018 list that I update regularly as new phones are released. The phones released in 2018 were so good that it made limiting the post to 10 phones very difficult. Honestly, any of the top five could easily be argued for the No. 1 slot.
Best of 2018
I have a few titles I would like to award to the various mobile tech I reviewed in 2018.
Best overall smartphone
I recently updated my 10 best smartphones post after all major announcements for the end of 2018 were completed. One phone kept popping back up to the top so I’m giving my best overall smartphone award to the Samsung Galaxy Note 9. For business users it offers one of the biggest and best smartphone displays on the market, it has the S Pen for enhanced productivity, can be extended as a desktop thanks to DeX, has a microSD card slot for unlimited storage capacity, and more.
Best smartphone value
OnePlus has been releasing smartphones via direct sales for a few years, but was successful in securing a US wireless carrier deal in 2018. The OnePlus 6T is an excellent smartphone and the low price, compared to other flagships, makes it even more compelling. The cellular reception has been better than other phones, the battery lasts a long time, it is one of the most responsive Android phones, and it is gorgeous in Thunder Purple.
Best Android smartphone
While this might also go to the Note 9, I’m going to give this honor to the Google Pixel 3 XL. This new phone from Google packs it all in and the camera, with magical Night Sight capability, is the one to get to make sure you always have the latest and greatest version of Android on your phone.
Best iOS smartphone
You might think I would have chosen the most expensive new iPhone, but I sent my iPhone XS Max back to Apple after two weeks and wasn’t as impressed as I should have been. The real star of the Apple 2018 iPhone lineup is the iPhone XR with the lowest starting price (by $250 and $350 for the XS and XS Max, respectively), longest battery life, same processor, same rear camera, and availability in six fun colors.
Best camera on a phone
The Huawei Mate 20 Pro might be a contender for this one, but given the consistent results I picking the Google Pixel 3/3 XL for this one again. These two phones have a single rear camera, but what Google has been able to do with software through Night Sight, portrait, and other shots is stunning.
Best battery life
Huawei is known for leading the charge with massive capacity batteries in its phones. It has had 4,000 mAh for a couple of years and as others have reached this level, Huawei went ahead and put in a 4,200 mAh variant in the Mate 20 Pro to raise the bar once again. This phone will last most people a couple of days and even heavy users will get through at least one full, long day.
Best audio experience
LG’s five cameras may not have earned it the best camera phone award, but you can’t argue it excels in audio performance. With a 3.5mm headphone jack, Hi-Fi Quad DAC, DTS:X 3D surround sound, and loud Boombox speaker, it is pretty clear the LG V40 ThinQ leads the way.
For apps and consuming media, it is tough to beat the new Apple iPad Pro. However, if you want a solid tablet that has a full desktop browser, the Pixel Slate is very compelling. The iPad Pro gets the nod this year as Google continues to work out a few bugs, but don’t be surprised if Google takes the crown in 2019.
Apple released the Apple Watch Series 4 this year and if you are an iPhone user then it is probably your best option for a smartwatch. However, for the other 75 percent of you who own an Android phone and maybe even some of you with an iPhone, the Samsung Galaxy Watch is the best available today. It offers outstanding hardware, two different sizes, 2-3 day battery life, Spotify music integration, advanced sleep and fitness tracking, GPS, and more.
Best daily activity tracker
Research indicates 42 percent of adults looking for a wearable are still interested in devices other than a smartwatch. The Fitbit Charge 3 is the best Fitbit band ever and offers all that you could want in a tracker band with long battery life, advanced sleep and heart rate tracking, an expansive Fitbit ecosystem and community, and smartphone notifications. Android smartphone users also can use it for quick replies.
Best GPS sports watch
A couple of years ago, I spent some bucks on the Garmin Fenix 3 HR, but after testing the Garmin Fenix 5X Plus I was sold on the integrated music, advanced sleep tracking, extensive workout customization options, and more. I purchased the Fenix 5 Plus because I didn’t need the extra Pulse Ox sensor functionality and saved myself some money. The Fenix 5 Plus series is outstanding and I haven’t found a single thing missing from this watch.
We have already seen rumors of upcoming Samsung foldable phones and the new Galaxy S10 so I’m sure 2019 will start off with a bang at CES and MWC in the first couple of months.
Which were your favorite mobile devices of 2018?
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Previous and related coverage:
The 10 best smartphones of 2018
All significant smartphone launches have now passed and as we approach the end of the year, the ten best shake out after more extended usage of each. All ten phones are excellent and certain aspects make each a possible contender for the top spot.
Top 12 Raspberry Pi alternatives (Best of 2018)
Here is a selection of single board computers for homebrew projects and automation, with prices starting at only $5.
Best tech gadgets of 2018
Time to take a tour of what I consider to be the best tech gadgets of 2018. There are some that you’ll no doubt expect to find in this list, and others that will probably come as a surprise. All have been personally tested for quality, performance, and durability.
Facebook is expanding Spotify partnership with new ‘Boombox’ project – TechCrunch
Facebook is deepening its relationship with music company Spotify and will allow users to listen to music hosted on Spotify while browsing through its apps as part of a new initiative called “Project Boombox,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said Monday.
Facebook is building an in-line audio player that will allow users to listen to songs or playlists being shared on the platforms without being externally linked to Spotify’s app or website. Zuckerberg highlighted the feature as another product designed to improve the experience of creators on its platforms, specifically the ability of musicians to share their work, “basically making audio a first-class type of media,” he said.
We understand from sources familiar with the Spotify integration that this player will support both music and podcasts. It has already been tested in non-U.S. markets, including Mexico and Thailand, and it’s expected to arrive in about a week.
The news was revealed in a wide-ranging interview with reporter Casey Newton on the company’s future pursuits in the audio world as Facebook aims to keep pace with upstart efforts like Clubhouse and increased activity in the podcasting world.
“We think that audio is going to be a first-class medium and that there are all these different products to be built across this whole spectrum,” said Zuckerberg. “Of course, it includes some areas that, that have been, you know, popular recently like podcasting and kind of live audio rooms like this, but I also think that there’s some interesting things that are under-explored in the area overall.”
Spotify has already supported a fairly productive relationship with the Facebook and Instagram platforms. In recent years the music and podcasts platform has been integrated more deeply into Instagram Stories where users can share content from the service, a feature that’s also been available in Facebook Stories.
Clubhouse closes an undisclosed $4B valuation Series C round, as tech giants’ clones circle – TechCrunch
Buzzy “social audio” app Clubhouse has raised a Series C funding round, reportedly valuing the company at $4 billion. Clubhouse said the new round of financing was led by Andrew Chen of Andreessen Horowitz, with participation from DST Global, Tiger Global and Elad Gil. This round means Clubhouse has tripled the valuation it attained in January when Andreessen Horowitz led its Series B funding round.
The funding comes as Twitter, Spotify, Facebook, Telegram, Discord and LinkedIn are all prepping similar features to Clubhouse’s live audio streaming rooms, which has attracted attention for hosting live chats with the likes of Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg. Indeed, Vox reported that Facebook will announce a series of “social audio” products only today.
But, unusually for such a late stage of funding, the company has not revealed the amount raised. Industry sources say that this is probably because the Series C funding round is “multi-stage” and therefore not officially closed. Alternatively, the company is “hyping” itself ahead of a sale, as is often the case with “hot” startups. Twitter reportedly broke off talks to acquire the startup at a $4 billion valuation, according to Bloomberg.
And despite appearances that this funding round has been timed to coincide with the launch this week of Facebook’s Clubhouse clone, one well-placed source told me “this funding round has been in the works for the last 1.5 months” and that some offers have been “above 2x” the $4 billion valuation. In other words, there are some investors out there who think Clubhouse is worth more than $8 billion.
So far Clubhouse is demurring on all this, and declining to comment more directly to the media. The company disclosed the news about the funding during its weekly “town hall” chat last Sunday night and in a blog post, the company said the fundraising will support a fresh burst of growth for the app.
“While we’ve quadrupled the size of our team this year, stabilized our infrastructure, launched Payments in beta to help creators monetize, and readied Android for launch, there is so much more to do as we work to bring Clubhouse to more people around the world. It’s no secret that our servers have struggled a bit these past few months, and that our growth has outpaced the early discovery algorithms our small team originally built,” said the post.
Noting that “it’s important to us to be building all of this with people who are invested in the community and who represent a diverse set of backgrounds and voices,” Clubhouse has, however, been struck by a wave of problems in the last few days, when anti-Semitic audio rooms seemed to proliferate on the platform. Clubhouse has previously been criticized for its seeming inability to moderate extremism on the app.
The year-old platform, which has reported 10 million weekly active users, has thrived during the pandemic while people were locked down and therefore unable to chat easily in person.
Tech news site The Information first reported details on the Clubhouse funding on Friday.
Facebook invests in audio with short-form Soundbites feature, podcast support, and a Clubhouse clone – TechCrunch
Facebook today officially announced a suite of new audio products — an indication that it’s taking the threat from Clubhouse and other audio platforms more seriously. The company is doing more than just building its own take on Clubhouse, however, it’s also announcing tools that allow podcast creators to share long-form audio, a new Spotify integration for music, and a brand-new short-form experience called Sound Bites.
The Clubhouse clone was probably the most-discussed of the new products ahead of today’s announcement, given the increased interest in the audio networking market.
Like Clubhouse, the Facebook experience will also involve live audio rooms, where users can engage in topical discussions.
“I think the areas where is where I’m most excited about it on Facebook are basically in the large number of communities and groups that exist. I think that you already have these communities that are organized around interests, and allowing people to come together and have rooms where they can talk is — I think it’d be a very useful thing,” said Zuckerberg, in a friendly interview with Platformer, timed alongside the official announcement. “When we launched video rooms earlier last year, groups and communities were one of the bigger areas where that took off. So, I think around audio, just given how much more accessible it is, that’ll be a pretty exciting area as well.”
The Live Audio Rooms will be available across both Facebook and Messenger, Facebook says in an official blog post.
The company will first test Live Audio Rooms in Groups, reaching Groups’ 1.8 billion monthly users. They’ll also be made available to public figures and experts. Early adopters of the feature will include American football quarterback Russell Wilson, Grammy-nominated electronic music artist TOKiMONSTA, artist and director Elle Moxley, and five-time Olympic medalist and entrepreneur Nastia Liukin, Facebook says.
Live Audio Rooms will be available to everyone on Facebook this summer. Also this summer, Live Audio Rooms will be made available on Messenger, for an experience that allows friends to hang out, too.
In addition to products that rehash audio functionality available in tech products from other companies, Zuckerberg also revealed that the company was working on an audio-only version of its TikTok competitor Instagram Reels that allows users to quickly move through algorithmically-sorted short audio clips, a project being called Soundbites. In its blog post, Facebook detailed that they will be testing Soundbites over the next few months with a small group of creators before making it widely available.
“The idea here is it’s short form audio clips, whether it’s people sharing things that they find funny… or kind of pithy things that people want to share that cover a bunch of different genres and topics,” Zuckerberg said.
For podcast creators, Zuckerberg said the company will build out tools for those who follow podcasts and creators through Facebook Pages, but don’t currently have a way to access podcast content via the social network. He noted that there are now 170 million Facebook users who are connected to a Page for a podcast, which it why it wants to ensure they have a way to access this audio content more easily.
For these users, they’ll be able to discover the audio and start playing it, even in the background. Or they could choose to launch a second app to continue play it, Zuckerberg said. We understand that the experience will actually allow users to directly open Spotify, if they would prefer to listen to the music or audio there, instead.
The feature will also help users with new podcast discovery based on your interests, and users will be able to comment on podcasts and recommend them to friends.
Related to these audio efforts, Zuckerberg referenced Facebook’s partnership with Spotify, which is now being expanded with something it has internally referred to as “Project Boombox” — is an integration that would allow people to share content from their favorite artists, playlists and other types of audio in their feed. That content would then appear in a little, in-line player for others to click and play.
We understand from sources familiar with the Spotify integration that this player will support both music and podcasts. It has already been tested in non-U.S. markets, including Mexico and Thailand. It’s expected to arrive in about a week.
“Facebook’s interest in audio is further validation of the category and reinforces what we’ve known all along — the power and potential for audio is limitless,” a spokesperson for Spotify told TechCrunch. “Our ambition has always been to make Spotify ubiquitous across platforms and devices — bringing music and podcasts to more people — and our new integration with Facebook is another step in these efforts. We look forward to a continued partnership with Facebook, fueling audio discovery around the world,” they added.
Zuckerberg also referenced the need to serve the growing creator economy with its new products.
With Live Audio Rooms, fans will be able to support creators through Stars, Facebook’s existing in-app tipping feature, or donate to causes. Facebook says it will later offer other monetization tools like access to Live Audio Rooms on subscriptions. There’s also an Audio Creator Fund being made available to kick off the launch of Soundbites.
The exec also spoke about Facebook’s plans for a newsletters product, all under the umbrella of serving the creator community with a suite of tools — something Twitter is now doing, too, with its plans for Super Follow.
“I think a product where a journalist or a creator can basically create a subscription for people who want to follow them, that spans both a newsletter and a podcast, is going to be a really powerful thing,” said Zuckerberg. “So that’s a big part of what we’re going to enable with some of the monetization tools around podcasts. That dovetails with the work that we’re that we’re planning to do…our work on on our newsletters and giving tools for for independent journalists. I think enabling both of those things to come together on extremely favorable terms to journalists and creators, will be a pretty powerful thing,” he noted.
The product launches, which Vox scooped on Sunday, indicate how seriously Facebook considers the disruption to its dominance that could be attributed to the growing number of places where fans connect with creators. The threat for Facebook today is not just a new app like Clubhouse or Substack’s newsletters or even Patreon, but the fact that the creator economy, in general, isn’t being centralized and owned by Facebook itself.
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