The Multicore Awards: Phone of the Year
2023 saw fierce competition. Who came out on top?
Welcome to The Multicore Awards.
Our first and possibly only category this year is the one you’ve all been waiting for: Phone of the Year.
And it goes to...
Winner: Xiaomi 13 Ultra
Cameras are the one feature where you still see significant differentiation between bar-style smartphones, which are otherwise something of a solved technology. Xiaomi wins the inaugural Multicore Phone of the Year by delivering an incredibly well-rounded combination of camera hardware and software.
Xiaomi paired a class-leading 1-inch sensor for the main camera with three above-average 1/2.51" sensors and fast lenses for the ultrawide, telephoto, and periscope telephoto. The result is a truly versatile system that covers a lot of optical range without compromising on light-gathering ability. It’s like having four high-quality prime lenses for a premium compact camera.
I tend to be skeptical of phone makers partnering with camera companies, as it rarely amounts to more than a branding exercise, but Xiaomi's work with Leica has proven to be an exception. The Leica Authentic mode on the 13 Ultra is punchy and restrained, producing images that look like actual photographs rather than AI-powered HDR concoctions. Together with the hardware, I think this is one of the best photographer-focused point-and-shoot cameras ever made, regardless of its strengths as a phone.
The latest MIUI software is mature and efficient, though the jury is still out on Xiaomi's imminent shift to HyperOS. The rest of the 13 Ultra's spec sheet is in line with what you'd expect from any other high-end Android phone in 2023: bright OLED screen, Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 processor, 5,000mAh battery, etc. The hardware design is classy, evoking aspects of Leica cameras without being too on the nose.
But really, the 13 Ultra is all about the camera, and the results speak for themselves. When I think back to 2023 and the phone I was using, I'll remember the 13 Ultra's photos the most.
Runner-up: Oppo Find X6 Pro
In any other year, Oppo's Find X6 Pro would have run away with the camera prize. Oppo took a different approach to Xiaomi and beat it in some ways; this is really a matter of personal preference.
Like the 13 Ultra, Oppo used a 1-inch sensor for the main sensor. The ultrawide and periscope telephoto lenses, meanwhile, use 1/1.56" sensors, larger than in any other phone.
The ultrawide is easily the best available, with depth and detail comparable to main cameras in flagship phones from just a year ago. The same is true of the telephoto, though there is a slight catch. Oppo used a periscope mechanism to maximise sensor size, and the tradeoff is that it only reaches 2.6x focal length.
The telephoto camera is good enough that you can crop into it for a 5.2x zoom and still get results that are better than most 5x periscope cameras to date, particularly in low light. But the Xiaomi 13 Ultra and Pixel 8 Pro raised the bar on 5x cameras this year, and the Find X6 Pro can't quite keep up with them when maximum reach is a priority.
I personally prefer Xiaomi's approach to colour science but I imagine a lot of people would be more into Oppo's. Co-developed with Hasselblad, the default camera settings strike a good balance between Xiaomi's muted colours and high contrast and the HDR-forward presentation of Apple, Vivo, and Samsung.
The Find X6 Pro is hard to fault in a vacuum, and you could certainly make a case that it's the most technically impressive phone of the year. I have a slight preference for Xiaomi's design and camera system, though, so Oppo ends up here.
Third place: Oppo Find N3 / OnePlus Open
And Oppo ends up here as well. The Find N3 is not quite as sleek a product as the two phones above it, but the fact that it comes close is why it's on this list at all. Rebranded in some markets as the OnePlus Open, this is by far the closest anyone has come at making a folding phone that holds its own against typical flagships.
It starts with the outer screen. Oppo's Find N and N2 stood out with shorter, wider panels than Samsung's Galaxy Z Fold line, making for a more usable one-handed design. The Find N3 keeps the width but extends the height, ending up with a 20:9 6.3" screen — in other words, one that feels as practical as a normal smartphone.
That also means the inner screen is bigger than before, at 7.82". Oppo makes the most of it with a well-thought-out multitasking system that keeps apps running on the side of the screen for easy switching. It works a lot better than other clumsy attempts at window-style app management. Oppo also continues to eat Samsung's lunch when it comes to eliminating the crease in the panel.
Foldable phones still have to deal with the fact that they're necessarily much thinner than bar-style phones, which makes it harder to cram in camera hardware. Oppo has done the best job yet, managing to fit a 1/1.43" main sensor along with 1/2" sensors for the ultrawide and 3x telephoto. It’s not as good as the Find X6 Pro, but it’s comfortably the best foldable setup available.
There are still durability and price concerns over foldable phones, and that’s likely to be the case for some time. With that in mind, the Oppo Find N3 is the sleekest and least compromised foldable yet.
4th place: iPhone 15 Pro
After a couple of years where Apple fell behind its Android competition in meaningful areas, the iPhone 15 Pro is a solid return to form. Nothing about its hardware will blow you away, but it allows you to enjoy the benefits of Apple's ecosystem with much fewer asterisks.
It would be a stretch to call the 15 Pro a redesign, but I really like the shift to titanium construction. All of the finishes look great, the slightly softened edges feel refined, and the reduction in weight and bezel size is welcome.
USB-C, of course, is the physical addition that makes the most difference in use. I mostly use wireless charging at home, but it's so much better to use the same cable for everything when travelling. This change was long overdue.
With the exception of the somewhat underwhelming "tetraprism" 5x lens on the iPhone 15 Pro Max, Apple kept its camera hardware the same as last year. Against all odds, though, it's a big improvement. The 15 Pro's approach to HDR is much punchier and more natural than the washed-out results I've come to expect from Apple of late.
I still wouldn't call this one of the best phone cameras available, but the fact that it's no longer miles behind the competition is a huge improvement. As a Mac user I love Apple's ProRAW workflow and it's helpful to have much better files to work with from the start. I'm also a lot happier to share photos from my iPhone than before. The 15 Pro isn't anywhere close to the best phone camera of the year, but it might be the most useful.
The 15 Pro being an iPhone also means the usual things. You'll get the best processor and performance. The App Store is unparalleled. You can use an Apple Watch. The phone integrates seamlessly with everything else Apple makes.
That's the bottom line with the iPhone 15 Pro, really. I use Apple products, and this is an iPhone, and I'm happy with it on its own terms for the first time in a while.
Fifth place: Google Pixel 8 Pro
The baseline for any Pixel phone is that it will deliver a fantastic, canonical Android software experience. The reality with a lot of them is that they've been difficult to recommend due to various quirks. The Pixel 8 Pro mostly nails it.
The software is still excellent, with Google pushing AI experiences harder than ever. There are truly useful things the Pixel 8 phones do, from miraculous photo editing to real-time language processing, that other phones simply don't.
Google doesn't quite have the camera advantage it once did, but the 8 Pro's is very solid and recognisable as a Pixel with its cool, vibrant colours. The 5x telephoto lens is one of the best around and the whole system benefits from helpful software.
There is one potential asterisk around the hardware, and that's Google's own Tensor G3 chip at the heart of the phone. Google says it helps the Pixel perform AI tasks more efficiently, including some that have only just shipped as part of an update. It's hard to know how well those tasks would run on competing hardware, but what we do know is that the Tensor G3 often lags Qualcomm in conventional high-end tasks like gaming.
Still, I don't often find this to be an issue. The Pixel 8 Pro really does feel like a different kind of phone with its priorities in different places, and it's easily the best Pixel to date.
Overall, I think this has been a very strong year for phones, with high levels of competition across the board. Chinese manufacturers really stepped up their game, and even the US market got a little more interesting with devices like the Pixel Fold and OnePlus Open. I would be happy to use any of the five phones above as my primary driver.
Hopefully the trend continues over 2024. See you in a year.