Back to school 2019: the best phones for college and university

Whether you're at university or about to be, T3 has compiled the definitive list of best phones for students in 2019

Best student smartphones 2019 back to school
(Image credit: Future)

The experts at T3 have here compiled a list of the very best phones for students no matter your budget, helping you get back to school or university and transitioned into the student lifestyle as smoothly and easily as possible.

Our smartphone guide for students covers different operating systems, hardware from Apple, Samsung, and others, and a range of prices, too – from the expensive iPhone XR and Galaxy Note9 to the super cheap Google Pixel 3a and Nokia 6.1

On any of these handsets, you can game until your hearts content, file last-minute homework, chat to friends, and aimlessly scroll social media. These are quality all-round phones that don't break the bank and can act as serious studying tools.

Pick of the bunch

(Image credit: Google)

It's hard to do better than the Google Pixel 3a in terms of bang for your buck: amazing hardware, a great screen and camera, and guaranteed Android updates until 2022 – something few other manufactures that don't rhyme with "chapel" can offer. Oh, and did we mention the price? £399, or around half of its expensive Android-toting cousins. It really is a steal.

And you really do want a phone that won't let you down as, after all, going off to university or to a different college can feel daunting and scary, so having a good phone is essential – for emergencies, chatting to new friends, whiling away the hours, taking notes, and keeping in touch with worried parents (or maybe not...) 

We've thought long and hard about which phones to include to give the best overview for any aspiring academic, weighing up the pros and cons of every device – how good the camera is, the display, the speed, and so on, compared to how pricey (or not) the smartphone is. We only include the absolute best phones in this list, so you can be sure you're reading about the very latest, cutting-edge devices.

So, without further delay, read on to find the best smartphones for students in 2019.

Apple iPhone XR

It doesn't get much better than a colourful iPhone.

(Image credit: Apple)

1. iPhone XR

It's cheaper than the XS but just as good – and maybe better.

Specifications
Weight: 194g
Dimensions: 150.9 x 75.7 x 8.3 mm
OS: iOS 12
Screen size: 6.1-inches
Resolution: 828 x 1792
CPU: Apple A12 Bionic
RAM: 3GB
Storage: 64/256/512GB
Battery: 2,942 mAh
Rear camera: Dual 12MP
Front camera: 7 MP
Reasons to buy
+Amazing, vivid display+Comes in great colours +iOS runs like a dream+Exceptional cameras

You'll likely already know about the iPhone XR, the latest in the long line of stunning devices Apple has released over the past decade. Unlike the XS (and its Max variant), the XR comes in a range of really fun colours – the standard grey, white, and black alongside red, yellow, pink, and blue – which adds to the appeal and unique feel. If you really want to stand out on campus, we recommend the yellow one

In terms of software, you're graced with the latest version of iOS – which is currently version 12 before a new one is released later in summer – and all of its associated apps, spanning more things than you could possibly imagine. The camera app, too, has been given a boost here to make your pictures look extra amazing. Behind-the-scenes work has also made the battery life in the XR very much above-average, complimented by fast-charging.

But the main reason we recommend the XR over the XS is simple and important, especially for students: price. A brand new XR with 64GB storage starts at £749, a considerable amount less than the £999 price tag on the base-level XS and £1,099 XS Max. The bigger storage options do increase the price quite a bit, but it's hard to do better for a top-of-the-line iPhone. 

A top tip: If you're lucky enough to own an iPhone 5s or above, Apple also offers a decent trade-in discount, starting at £25 and going up to £445 for an iPhone X. 

So there you have it: Apple has made the perfect phone for students, especially for those who don't want an Android. It looks and feels superb, has amazing battery life, a great camera, and enough oomph to do whatever you want. Plus, you can have it in a really cool colour. 

Best student smartphones 2019 back to school

The Pixel 3a might seem cheap but don't let that fool you. 

(Image credit: Google)

2. Google Pixel 3a

One of the best Android phones around, especially for the price.

Specifications
Weight: 147g
Dimensions: 151.3 x 70.1 x 8.2mm
OS: Android 9.0
Screen size: 5.6 inches
Resolution: 2220 x 1080 pixels
CPU: Snapdragon 670
RAM: 4GB
Storage: 64GB
Battery: 3,000mAh
Rear camera: 12.2MP
Front camera: 8MP
Reasons to buy
+Really great price+Guaranteed Android updates+Superb camera

To grossly paraphrase Aesop, cheap and cheerful wins the race – and there's no better evidence for that than Google's Pixel 3a, the little brother to the more expensive 3a XL. The cheap part is covered by its £399 price tag while the cheerful part is covered by the latest version of Android (plus guaranteed updates), a stunning camera, great screen, and otherwise top-tier hardware.

The 3a comes in just a 64GB variant, which should be enough for most students, especially given the free Google Photos storage that Google provides exclusively to Pixel owners. Those who want more will have to look at the XL model, but we think it's just about enough.

The Pixel 3a is quite a simple smartphone, offering the best of Android for very little money. Sure, some of the bigger phones – like the Note 9, for example – do some things better, but they're also much more expensive, which, when combined with uni itself, can be a dealbreaker.

If we had to sum it up as simply as possible: a best-in-class camera combined with great hardware, Android 9.0, and free Google Photos storage. How's that for the best student smartphone in 2019.

Best student smartphones 2019 back to school

The Galaxy Note 9's S Pen Digital Stylus functionality makes it perfect for taking notes.

(Image credit: Samsung)

3. Samsung Galaxy Note 9

A productivity powerhouse

Specifications
Weight: 201g
Dimensions: 161.9 x 76.4 x 8.8 mm
OS: Android 9.0 (Pie)
Screen size: 6.4-inches
Resolution: 1440 x 2960 pixels
CPU: Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 / Exynos 9810
RAM: 6GB/8GB
Storage: 128GB or 512GB
Battery: 4,000mAh
Rear camera: Dual 12MP
Front camera: 8MP
Reasons to buy
+Huge, beautiful screen +S-Pen for note taking+Top-draw audio from Dolby 

Being a student involves a lot of note taking and as phone screens get bigger and bigger – to the point of being "phablets" – the devices get better and better at it. The Note 9, the latest iteration of Samsung's largest phone, is the perfect example of how prioritising productivity can pay off, albeit at a steep price point.

The base-level Note 9 will set you back around £899 with the fully-loaded model coming in at £1,099, equivalent to a high-spec iPhone. For that £899, you get a very generous 128GB of storage, 4GB of RAM, the latest version of Android, and everything else that Samsung packs into the phone. It comes in three colours: black, blue, and purple.

Really, the best thing about the Note 9 is the screen – and what you can do with it. At 6.4-inches, it's a similar size to the largest iPhone models, giving plenty of room for doodling, note taking, watching media, gaming, and everything else. The AMOLED nature means that colours, especially blacks, absolutely pop. On top of this, Samsung sells the S-Pen stylus, introducing a whole new world of interactivity. 

If money is no object, then you can't go wrong with Samsung's biggest smartphone: the screen is amazing, S-Pen is useful for taking notes, and it runs the latest version of Android. 

Best student smartphones 2019 back to school

The best Nokia phone is an extremely good budget pick.

(Image credit: HMD Global)

4. Nokia 6.1

For around £180, you can't do any better than this.

Specifications
Weight: 172g
Dimensions: 148.8 x 75.8 x 8.2 mm
OS: Android One
Screen size: 5.5-inches
Resolution: 1080 x 1920 pixels
CPU: Snapdragon 630
RAM: 3/4GB
Storage: 32/64GB
Battery: 3,000mAh
Rear camera: 16MP
Front camera: 8MP
Reasons to buy
+Really cheap without being bad+Latest version of Android with no skin+Great hardware for the price

There's a lot to love about the Nokia 6.1 starting with the iconic branding, harking back to times of yore when things were definitely simpler. In 2019, HMD Global now has the rights to the brand and has begun to make cheap Android phones that don't compromise in quality or user experience. 

While the 6.1 isn't the very top of the Nokia line-up, don't let that fool you. It still packs a punch with a beautiful 5.5-inch screen sitting atop a Snapdragon CPU and plenty of RAM. the 6.1 runs Android One without any of the frills that manufactures choose to include (for good and bad), meaning updates are guaranteed until at least May 2020.

But the real selling point here is simple: £155. That's how much the phone costs right now at Amazon for the 32GB model. While that much storage won't be enough for most people, the 6.1 includes a microSD card slot that lets users add up to 256GB in extra storage. A quick glance shows a 256GB card will set you back an addition £30 or so, making this phone insanely good value.

You're hard-pressed to find better value-for-money than the 6.1, making it the ideal phone for students-to-be. 

Best student smartphones 2019 back to school

Like the Note 9, the S10e packs a punch but at a fraction of the cost. 

(Image credit: Samsung)

5. Samsung Galaxy S10e

The cheapest Galaxy phone has everything you could ever need.

Specifications
Weight: 150g
Dimensions: 142.2 x 69.9 x 7.9 mm
OS: Android 9.0 Pie
Screen size: 5.8-inches
Resolution: 1080 x 2280 pixels
CPU: Snapdragon 855 and Exynos 9820
RAM: 6/8GB
Storage: 128/256GB
Battery: 3,000mAh
Rear camera: Dual 12MP and 16MP
Front camera: 10MP
Reasons to buy
+A truly amazing phone+Cheaper than the Note 9+Very powerful +Compact, stylish design

Completing this list of the best phones for students is Samsung's Galaxy S10e, the budget pick of what many see as the best Android range around. While the price is less than the S10, S10+, and Note models, it doesn't scrimp on hardware: you'll find a beautiful AMOLED display, powerful processors, large battery, the latest version of Android, and an amazing camera. 

The best way to think about the S10e is as the iPhone XR of the Samsung world: just as wildly capable as its larger siblings, but for slightly less money which – let's be honest – is the aim of the game on a student budget. Unlike the Pixel 3a, for example, the S10e has wireless charging and a microSD slot. This is, without a doubt, one of the best sub-6-inch smartphones around.

The look and feel of the S10e is on point, too, with a glass/metal frame that feels nice in the hand without also feeling like it will break easily. Samsung has even included water and dust resistance, adding to the sense that it's not a hugely precious object destined for the nearest hard surface.

The software skin that Samsung includes – running over Android 9.0 Pie – is something of a marmite occurrence in the Android world; some people swear by it, others prefer the more "natural" version. What it does mean is software updates might take a little longer to arrive, although Samsung is still one of the better manufacturers.