Phones we love: ZDNet writers actually use these devices

Curious about the favorite devices and phone buying habits of ZDNet’s tech reporters, mobile business editors, and gadget freaks? Read on.

On the other hand, if you want our expert recommendations on the latest and greatest phones, we have you covered elsewhere.

The fact is, of the 22 ZDNet contributors we talked to, barely half currently use handsets that are still for sale — new — by their respective vendors. So much for “early adopters,” right? 

Senior contributor David Gewirtz calls his six-year-old iPhone 6s Plus “the best phone I’ve ever used. Why spend thousands of dollars when this thing hasn’t failed me once?”

Reviews editor Charles McLellan said that despite “having seen all manner of new and improved flagship phones flow through the reviews system,” he remains happy with his Samsung Note 8, thank you very much.

By contrast, it’s no surprise that our mobile gadgeteer Matthew Miller thinks his iPhone 12 Pro Max “sets the bar for all other phones.”

As with our earlier survey of “Laptops We Love,” Apple once again dominated. In fact, 16 out of 22 editors are using an iPhone model. Specifically, the iPhone SE and iPhone XR are tied for most popular — each used by three of our contributors.

As expected, a couple of Samsung models showed up in the survey results. Less expected: The Lumia 1520 and Huawei P20 Pro each found a fan.

We also asked our colleagues about their next planned phone purchase and, looking further into the future, to describe their dream phone. Here are all their mobile realities and fantasies, in their own words.

Jason Cipriani and Simon Bisson


Jason Cipriani: I’ve almost always used an iPhone as my daily driver, but the iPhone 12 lineup has solidified it for me. The camera with improved portrait mode thanks to the Lidar sensor and HDR video is truly impressive. And MagSafe, which I thought was a gimmick, has turned into a very useful feature for me. Between the Shortcuts app and HomeKit devices around the house, there’s not much I can’t do from my phone. 

Next phone or dream phone? The iPhone 13 Pro. We’ll see what the future holds, but 120Hz display and potentially no ports? Go on, I’m listening. 

Simon Bisson: With a pair of young kittens in the house a good, fast camera phone is essential for capturing those moments of cuteness that pass by fleetingly as the kittens leap from one thing to the next. It’s also got a good screen it’s also helped keep me sane during extended lockdowns here in the UK, with my mobile operator throwing in Apple TV, Apple Arcade, and Apple Music as part of a SIM contract. That’s let me work my way through a backlog of videos in my daily workouts, and as a result, I may be one of the few who’s coming out the other side of the pandemic lighter and fitter. There are other benefits, too, as Microsoft has turned off Cortana as a home IoT hub, it’s helped me shift to HomeKit-based automation for lights and heating, with tools to set my devices up for voice control from a couple of HomePod Minis. I still miss the usability of Windows Phone, though iOS’s new Widgets are the closest thing yet to Live Tiles.

Next phone or dream phone? I suspect I’m going to keep this one for at least another two years, so who knows what will be available then? The ARM ecosystem is accelerating at such a rate, it’s hard to predict what will be available next year, let alone in another two. Then there’s screen technology, memory, networks: So many different factors to consider!

$999 at Amazon

$1,000 at Best Buy

$999 at Apple

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols and Charlie Osborne


Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols: My Pixel 3 was starting to show its age, so I decided that since I was going to upgrade my phone, why not go for the gusto and get the top-of-the-line Samsung? So far, I’m glad I did. I love the 6.8-inch 120Hz Quad HD screen. The five cameras backed by a 108MP sensor and 10x optical zoom are insanely good. It also has 5G, which, at this point, isn’t really that important on Verizon since I don’t live next to a Verizon 5G UWB tower. What does matter to me is that it works well with my Samsung Galaxy Watch 3. Samsung claimed early on that its watch would work well with other Android phones. It does but it doesn’t come with all the health features. My only problem is the price: It lists for $1,199. I didn’t that pay that much, but I still paid a lot.

Next phone or dream phone? Pixel 7? 8? Let’s see what Google can do next. I like phones that keep up with the latest and greatest Android releases and that means Pixels.

Charlie Osborne: I purchased this phone as a photography enthusiast — for me, it’s all about the camera. For someone with small hands, this device is unwieldy, but I don’t regret the mild inconvenience as in return I can take advantage of an extensive camera zoom, multiple lenses, and an impressive display. I opted for a 5G phone as future-proofing for travel, but in hindsight, that element — at least — wasn’t necessary.

Next phone or dream phone? A dream phone that could come somewhere close to my Canon DSLR/L-Series setup, or at least provides more variety when it comes to telephoto, fisheye, macro photography. Next phone? I have no plans to upgrade anytime soon

$1,184 at Amazon

$1,200 at Best Buy

Matthew Miller


Matthew Miller: After a couple years of favoring the smaller iPhone X and XS, I made the leap to the big iPhone 12 Pro Max. As a phone reviewer, I usually move my SIM along every month or so, but it’s now been four months with this phone serving as my daily driver, and not even the best Samsung S21 Ultra can knock it from my hands. The built quality is fantastic, the cameras let me capture content to my heart’s delight, and regular updates keep it running perfectly for me. The addition of 5G and move to Qualcomm was the icing on the cake that set the bar for all other phones.

Next phone or dream phone? Samsung Galaxy Fold 3. I purchased the first two Galaxy Fold devices, and they were awesome. However, until this phone includes a level of water resistance and support for the S Pen, the big iPhone will be my primary daily driver.

$1,099 at Amazon

$1,100 at Best Buy

$1,099 at Apple

Greg Nichols, Aimee Chanthadavong, and David Grober


Greg Nichols: I’m stuck in the Apple ecosystem, for better or worse. Mostly for better, and the combo of an aging but reliable MacBook Pro and my humble iPhone SE, a replacement for my last SE (the original!) is really all the computing power I need for reporting and running an on-the-go mobile office from a sailboat (my usual digs) or the small travel trailer my family and I are currently loping through the Southwest with. For a tech reporter, I guess I’m unusually skeptical about the latest and greatest, and the SE is the best budget phone I can imagine and more than enough for staying connected, posting stories, and taking goofy videos of my kids.

Next phone or dream phone? Lord, it’s exhausting to think of shopping for a new phone. Dream phone? I dream a lot of not being quite so connected these days. But, for kicks, let’s say the Nokia N81, a little phone that was ahead of its time and made me fall in love with the possibilities of mobile journalism. I’d love to get that thrill back.

Aimee Chanthadavong: I’m a bit old-school when it comes to my phones. I still prefer having a home button and keeping them at a size that I can fit nicely into my smallest purse. Plus, I don’t want to be spending a copious amount of money for something I’m likely to drop every 5 minutes, so when Apple announced the iPhone SE (2020), it was always going to be an easy choice. My house is also chained to the Apple brand, so really, what other options did I have?

Next phone or dream phone? Try me again when Apple releases another low/mid-tier priced iPhone.  The other versions of the iPhone aren’t exactly appealing, even if they might have a better camera. Still can’t justifying spending so much on a phone.

David Grober: I like a phone that fits into most any pocket, and I’m a cheapskate. The $400 iPhone SE is more than enough phone for me. Yes, there are plenty of comparable sub-$400 Android phones, but I live in an Apple household (iPads, AirPods, Mac, and soon Apple TV), so I remain a happy prisoner of Cupertino’s ecosystem. I’m a video, photo, and podcast packrat, so my only regret is not spending the extra $100 for 256GB storage. And because I really, really like my home button and touch ID, more expensive iPhone 11 and 12 models were never even a temptation.

Next phone or dream phone? OK, if Apple could somehow squeeze the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s camera into my iPhone SE, I would never ever upgrade my phone again. (Yeah, right.)

$400 at Best Buy

$399 at Apple

Chris Matyszczyk


Chris Matyszczyk: My XR became heavy and cumbersome. It had begun to fade. I saw the 12’s blue color and thought it might be fetching. And then an Apple store employee took the time to talk me into the 12, just when I was at my weakest.

Next phone or dream phone? The iPhold. I’ve been impressed by Samsung’s folding phones, once they got the folding part right. I have to hope that Apple will, as usual, take its time and create a folding phone that’s both desirable and usable. I’m far too lost in Apple’s ecosystem to change.  

$829 at Amazon

$800 at Best Buy

$829 at Apple

Ed Bott


Ed Bott: I switch between two phones regularly, the iPhone 11 Pro and a newish Galaxy S21 5G, because a lot of what I do requires that I understand both platforms well. I generally stay roughly one generation behind the current models, which avoids hardware teething issues and lets me save a ton of money. I picked up the iPhone, which was only about three months old, from a seller on Swappa, replacing my old iPhone XS and paying about $500 less than a new model would have cost. The Galaxy was a deal from Xfinity Mobile that basically gave me a flagship Samsung phone at half price with no contract or commitment. I like both phones about equally and have been pleasantly surprised by the smoothness of the interface on the Samsung.

Next phone or dream phone? Next year I’ll probably get an iPhone 12 Pro, gently used, courtesy of some obsessive Apple upgrader who will trade it in shortly after its successor comes out. I do like the camera improvements Apple made in the 12 series, but I’m not tied to Apple’s ecosystem in any serious way so maybe I’ll get a new Samsung instead.

$600 at Best Buy

$599 at Apple

Ulefone Armor 9

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes


Adrian Kingsley-Hughes: OK, I use my iPhone 11 Pro Max a lot, but the Ulefone Armor 9 is a tough, ruggedized Android smartphone with a built-in thermal camera. Not only can I recreate scenes from Predator in my garden, but that FLIR camera is great for diagnosing problems, from overheating components, high-resistance in vehicle wiring, and problems with plumbing systems. I’ve also dropped the phone so many times that I’ve lost count, and it still looks like new. It’s a tank!

Next phone or dream phone? iPhone 12 Pro Max. The camera is just superb. The quality of Apple’s cameras, backed up by the sophisticated AI that takes mediocre photos and makes them pop, has meant that my Canon DSLR gets less and less usage.

Tony Baer


Tony Baer: I like the Pixel because unlike branded phones (e.g., Samsung Galaxy), it has just one operating system, and therefore, just one app for things like photos. This was an endless source of confusion for me during the days with my old Samsung phones: Which photo app did my pictures go in? (Etc., etc. for other bundled apps.) However, the Pixel 2 has one mechanical defect: The charging port is just slightly too large, meaning that when I plug in the charger, I can’t always be sure that the phone is getting any juice. For work at home, this is just an inconvenience, but when we go back on the road again, this will be a show stopper. 

Next phone or dream phone? When the world reopens, hopefully in 2022, my next phone will still likely be a Pixel, but with one important requirement: It must have wireless charging.

[Editor’s Note: Good news, Tony, Google’s Pixel 5 does indeed come with wireless charging. See any of the links below.]

$699 at Amazon

$700 at Best Buy

Federico Guerrini


Federico Guerrini: Very good phone for its price (I bought it for 280 euros). Good camera, nice display, handy format. I bought it before the ban, so no problem with Google apps, etc. The charger is very fast, in half an hour it goes from 0% to almost 50%. I’m not very concerned about Huawei spying on me, but just in case, I have other phones on which I installed Ubuntu Touch for the “sensitive” calls. 😉

View Now at Huawei P40 Pro

Damian Radcliffe, Angelica Mari, and Sean Portnoy


Damian Radcliffe: I like a big screen and a good camera. I have two small children so my phone is my go-to device for capturing day-to-day and special moments with them. My digital SLRs are gathering dust somewhere, as the recent iPhones have made them redundant. Pre-pandemic I was also using it a lot for video calls — as the rest of my family lives back in the UK — so large screens and good camera are valuable for that, too. I spend more time than I would like to admit on my phone (about five hours a day, the screen manager tells me), although I find that my phone is often quicker than my laptop for many tasks, so I often default to my phone for using social media, online banking, and shopping as well as editing Google Docs. I just wish Siri and the speech-to-text function could understand my British accent.

Next phone or dream phone? I’ll probably upgrade to the next iPhone, not least because I’ve found the XR to be quite glitchy. It’s not happened in a while, but for a long time, I had to restart it each day as it would often crash. Maybe a new OS has addressed that? It’s a bit of a pandemic self-indulgence, but also an opportunity to geek out and play with something new. Built-in microphone quality should probably also be a consideration, as I use the phone for a lot of voice memos and recordings (interviews and podcasts).

Angelica Mari: I loved my home button and was ready to upgrade my old iPhone SE for its new generation, but was also considering the XR, which handled a bit more than I needed and, in theory, I wouldn’t have to change anytime soon. However, given the price difference (the SE costs about $630 in Brazil, and the XR costs approximately $880 — I know, import taxes), I was getting ready to buy an SE. A friend bought an XR during an overseas trip and hated it and sold it to me for less than I would spend on an SE locally. It is alright, but I guess an SE with 256GB storage would do the job just as well.

Next phone or dream phone? I will hang on to this phone for as long as I can, but I guess my next device will be an iPhone. I am an Apple user and won’t let go of my MacBook Pro. I will be aiming for the cheapest option, though.

Sean Portnoy: We had been on T-Mobile’s Jump program for some time, but around a year ago, we decided to buy off our current phones and enjoy slicing our bills in half. The XR still handles what I need from a phone and isn’t so massive it can’t fit in my pocket.

Next phone or dream phone? Future iPhone with telephoto lens. I would love a built-in iPhone camera with more lens versatility without requiring me to break the bank. Otherwise, functionality hasn’t jumped enough for me to see the need to upgrade anytime soon.

$749 at Amazon

$500 at Best Buy

$750 at Boost Mobile

Robin Harris


I have a Moment wide-angle lens and case, which gives me the tech I need for landscape photography. There’s a lot of landscape where I live, and picturing it never gets old. I keep looking at the newer iPhones each year, but things like a wider lens and low-light performance aren’t hot buttons. I haven’t used my Canon DSLR in years.  

Next phone or dream phone? iPhone 13 or 14 Pro Max. Folding iPhone? I like a big screen as long as it will fit in a shirt pocket, and Moment makes a case for it. Not sure I’d be up for the extra fiddling a folding iPhone would require, but it would likely replace my iPad Mini.   

$900 at Boost Mobile

Asha Barbaschow


I’ve always used iPhones. Started with the iPhone 3, and never strayed. I refuse to use a case, so I’m onto phone No. 2 after shattering my first XS Max like a disco ball. The screen size is great. I had the first Max iteration and probably won’t ever be able to have a smaller screen again as a result.

Next phone or dream phone? My upgrade cycle is based purely on when my contract runs out (outright cost in Australia is insane), so I guess my next device will be in the 13 range later this year (RIP bank account).   

$1,100 at Boost Mobile

$520 at eBay

$500 at Back Market

Tiernan Ray


Purchased in 2016, I’ve had no reason to upgrade in four years. The thing does a perfectly fine, which is to say, in Apple’s case, fairly mediocre job of calling and texting and apps. I never take my phone out of my pocket, usually use it with AirPods, so I don’t care about screen size or resolution upgrades. I have an actual digital camera, so I don’t care about digital camera upgrades.

Next phone or dream phone? Apple Watch Series 13. It would just be a stylish wireless transceiver for the AirPods. Never worry about leaving the phone somewhere by accident because it’s always on the wrist!    

$670 at Boost Mobile

$370 at eBay

David Gewirtz and Iliana Meir


David Gewirtz: I am still using my iPhone 6s Plus from 2015. For those keeping track, that’s almost six years old. But it’s the best phone I’ve ever used (with the Palm Treo running a close second). I haven’t wanted to give it up because I use the headphone adapter while filming and to be sure I have a set of earbuds that never run out of battery power. Sure, the new iPhones seem nice, but I don’t have a single complaint about this one, so why spend thousands of dollars when this thing hasn’t failed me once?

Next phone or dream phone? iPhone 13 Ultra Massive. It’s likely my 2015-vintage iPhone won’t run iOS 15 and, by extension, won’t run some iOS 15 apps. So, it’s likely that will be when I semi-retire the grand 6s Plus. But, as long as it still runs with my camera software, I’ll probably still use the old fellow as a camera in the workshop, Fab Lab, or my office. If I have to upgrade, I’m going for the full monty, with all the features and screen size I can get. But that’s almost a year away.

Iliana Meir: Bought it in 2016 and it hasn’t broken despite a few drops and accidents. I only use it for essential stuff: Check mails, calls, Instagram, Maps, so I haven’t felt the need to upgrade. The camera feels outdated (but I have a few professional cameras for work and never use the iPhone for that) and storage capacity (64GB) is no longer enough, so I might change at the end of 2021.

Next phone or dream phone? I have no idea. I get overwhelmed by the amount of choice. It’ll be an iPhone I guess. I’m used to them.

$260 at eBay

$143 at Back Market

Mary Branscombe


Yes, I am indeed still clinging to the phone that made me love phablets, upgraded to Windows Mobile 10 even though that was never officially supported. You can’t beat the Windows Phone start screen and live tiles for giving you clear navigation and showing the few notifications you actually need. I have a desktop-grade browser, so most sites don’t fob me off with a mobile version. I have great email, and I have OneNote, and I even found some good third-party Sonos controller apps. And no matter how many times I drop it, the Lumia polycarbonate keeps on rocking. Oh, and 24-hour battery life, and I don’t worry about trackers in apps!

Next phone or dream phone? An Arm-based Windows 10 phone with integrated Skype in a phablet form factor with 5G; while I hope that a project like Empirion can succeed, I’m not banking on it. But surely we need a third OS to balance Android and iOS as the government investigations continue?

$204 at Amazon

Charles McLellan


I’ve been using Samsung’s Note 8 for several years now, despite having seen all manner of new and improved flagship phones flow through the reviews system during this period. It’s got an excellent 6.3-inch AMOLED display, a 3.5mm headphone slot, MicroSD storage to complement the 64GB on-board, two 12MP cameras at the back, plus an S Pen stylus and IP68 dust/water resistance. It’s tough, too: I’ve broken plenty of phones before, but the Note 8 has survived the longest. Probably reaching the end of the road now, though.

Next phone or dream phone?  A 2021 flagship-class phone with an integrated thermal camera. A thermal camera is a great tool for jobs around the house/office and for seeking out wildlife after dark

$224 at Back Market

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