How To: The 5 Best Phones for Streaming Videos from Netflix, Hulu, YouTube & Amazon Prime

The 5 Best Phones for Streaming Videos from Netflix, Hulu, YouTube & Amazon Prime

For many, phones are starting to replace televisions as the primary device for watching videos. Thanks to their portability and easy to use apps, it's often easier to watch Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, or Prime Instant Video on the smaller screen. But not every phone is suited to fit this need, so we did the testing to find the best of the best when it comes to streaming videos.

This list is for those without a budget. If you're looking to spend less, we did a separate comparison to find the best streaming experience on phones under $400, which you can check out at the link below.

For this list, we looked at all phones and evaluated their specs and the features that lend themselves to an enjoyable watching experience. We focused on the screen, the audio, and all the little details that come into play when your stream a video, and we narrowed down the field to the five best phones to accomplish that task. Let me stress that there may be better overall phones out there, but for those who love to binge watch their favorite shows on their phone, here are your best options.

Table of Contents

Comparison Chart

Image by Jon Knight/Gadget Hacks

Key Comparison Points

  • Starting Price: The current price of the base model of this phone.
  • Modem: The modem used by the SoC found in the phone. This hardware component is directly responsible for managing your LTE cellular data connection. Modems are measured in categories, with higher numbers indicating faster theoretical max speeds. With today's higher resolution videos and HDR, a consistently high data speed is needed to prevent buffering, or worse, downgraded resolution.
  • Display Size: The size of the screen. Easily one of the most important criteria on our list, a larger display provides the best video watching experience. Every phone on our list is at least 5.5".
  • Display Notch: The controversial notch included in some phones to help reduce the size of bezels. However, the notch disrupts the symmetry of the screen, forcing videos to either stop short of the bezel or push the video around it, removing a section of the screen.
  • Screen Resolution: The resolution of the display. Every phone on our list is at least 1080p.
  • Pixel Density: The best measure of a display's sharpness. If you multiply the resolution numbers (see above), you'll find the total number of pixels in a screen. Then, if you divide that number by the total area of the screen, you'll see how many pixels are in a square inch of the display. The higher the PPI number (pixels per inch), the sharper the screen.
  • Aspect Ratio: The ratio of the width of a display compared to its height. This number comes into play when watching movies, as the aspect ratio of films is displayed differently depending on the aspect ratio of your screen. When compared to 16:9 screens, 18:9 (or taller) screens won't show horizontal black bars for 1.85:1 videos (which is typical of older movies such as The Godfather), and black bars will be smaller with 2.39:1 videos (found on newer movies such as Netflix's The Cloverfield Paradox).
  • Panel Type: The type of display panel used by the device. For smartphones, there are currently two options: LCD and AMOLED. Although there are variations of these two, the underlying technology is always the same. AMOLED is Samsung's marketing term for OLED, and it offers the best contrast ratios with its ability to display black without light bleed.
  • Battery Size: The capacity of the battery included in the smartphone. While it doesn't paint the whole picture (specifically with Apple's iPhone X), higher capacity does greatly assist in better battery life.
  • Internal Storage: The size of the internal storage, measured in gigabytes. With most streaming services offering the ability to download movies and TV shows onto the device for offline viewing, having a phone with larger storage is helpful. Typically, streaming services will allow you to adjust the quality of the video you are downloading, with higher resolution videos taking up more space.
  • Expandable Storage: Whether the smartphone supports storage expansion via microSD cards. Since the internal storage stores more than just movies, it can easily get filled up with other media files besides movies. With expandable storage, you can add additional storage (the largest currently being 512 GB) to ensure you have enough space for your apps and pictures, as well as offline Netflix series you want to watch on a plane ride. Only the iPhone X doesn't include support.
  • Headphone Jack: Whether or not the phone includes a 3.5 mm headphone jack. With smartphones' portability element, headphones might be necessary to enjoy in a more noisy environment. And while there is always the option of Bluetooth, wired headphones offer better clarity, sound, and have far more options.
  • Front-Facing Stereo Speakers: Whether the phone includes stereo speakers orientated towards you. A handful of phones on our list use a bottom-firing speakers in combination with the earpiece, which is effective, but isn't better than two speakers directed toward your ears.
  • Netflix Picture-in-Picture: The ability to view Netflix content in a small floating window. Thereby, you can perform another task in full screen while still enjoying Netflix movies. This feature requires Android 8.1 Oreo or higher.
  • Netflix HDR: The phone supports viewing Netflix content in HDR. Even if the phone's display supports HDR, Netflix has to add support on their end. As a result, only 14 smartphones support HDR (via either HDR10 or Dolby Vision).
  • Netflix 5.1 Surround Sound: The phone supports 5.1 surround sound audio. Thanks to Razer Phone's dual amplifiers and Dolby Atmos support, it is the only phone on our list that supports the feature. Since it only has two speakers, 5.1 surround sound is artificially created using the two speakers.
  • Netflix Zoom to Fill: The ability to zoom Netflix videos, in order remove horizontal and vertical black bars. While this may crop the video, it does allow you to use more of the screen for a more immersive experience. The zoom to fill ability varies based on the operating system and the display's aspect ratio.
  • Hulu Zoom to Fill: The ability to zoom Hulu videos, removing horizontal and vertical black bars.
  • Prime Video HDR: The phone supports Amazon Prime Video in HDR. According to Amazon, only five phones are supported.
  • YouTube HDR: The phone supports HDR content on YouTube.
  • YouTube Signature Device: The phone is certified by Google as being capable of providing the best-possible experience for watching YouTube videos.
  • Battery Life: Using GSMArena data, we collected the battery life of each phone while playing a video from 100% to 10%. Brightness was held at 50%, and the video was a standard definition video which looped while airplane mode was enabled.
  • Maximum Brightness: The highest level of brightness the screen can achieve, measured in nits. In direct sunlight, a higher brightness level is needed to view the screen. Data was sourced from PhoneArena.
  • Minimum Brightness: The lowest level of brightness the screen can achieve, measured in nits. Lower minimum brightness makes nighttime viewing easier, as brighter screens interfere with our sleeping patterns. Additionally, the lower brightness level drains the battery less. Data was sourced from PhoneArena.
  • Color Temperature: The "warmness" or "coolness" of a screen's color calibration. A perfect representation of white is 6,500 K, so the closer to this number, the better. A higher number indicates that whites will be "cooler" or bluer, while a number lower than 6,500 K indicates whites will appear "warm" or slightly orange. Data was sourced from PhoneArena.

How We Picked These Phones

We focused strictly on phones released on or after January 1, 2017. While there are some strong offerings that were released earlier, we figured most people reading this article will be looking to upgrade their phone to one with more recent hardware. Also, older phones means older SoCs with older modems, which directly affects video performance when on cellular data.

We also only looked at phones officially released in the US from a carrier or major retailers. Therefore, you won't find any Xiaomi, Meizu, and many of the better offerings from Huawei. Again, there are some remarkably great phones overseas, but without an official release, readers looking to upgrade their device will have some difficulty finding and paying for the phone, or even using it on US cell networks.

To make this list, all phones must have at least a 5.5" display. At 5.5", the screen is large enough to enjoy the video from a distance and large enough to read subtitles. A smaller screen would need to be held close, which isn't the ideal position to watch a movie. It's true that smaller screens can be beneficial for lots of other reasons, but when it comes to watching videos, bigger is clearly better.

Finally, we eliminated phones from the same company, and instead focus on their best offering. For example, while the Samsung Galaxy S9 and S9+ are great considerations for our list, because the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 is even better, we went with it and took the Galaxy S-series devices out of consideration. Same goes for Apple iPhones.

Phone 1: Galaxy Note 9

Despite the fact that Samsung recycled its design from last year, the Galaxy Note 9 is a major upgrade from its predecessor. It isn't much of stretch to say that besides the design, everything has been upgraded from last year's Galaxy Note 8, which was already a great phone, especially for watching movies. And thanks to its massive battery upgrade and new larger display, it pushed its way to the top on our list.

With the Galaxy Note 9, it all starts with its display. It has a 6.4" 2960 x 1440 screen which uses Samsung's Super AMOLED technology. It is well known that Samsung reserves the very best displays for its products and the Note 9 is no exception. According to DisplayMate, the Note 9 received a record "Very High Absolute Color Accuracy" that is "visually indistinguishable from perfect". DisplayMate also notes that Samsung managed to increase the brightness by 27% from last year's Galaxy Note 8 and improve contracts by 32%. The Note 9 matched or set many of the Display Performance Records as measured by DisplayMate, earning the website's highest grade of A+.

While it looks similar to last year's Galaxy Note 8 (left), the Note 9 (right) is a significant upgrade. Images by Jon Knight/Gadget Hacks

With such a beautiful and large display, Samsung knew they need a battery large enough to power this for the day (and even longer, depending on your usage). To accomplish this, they paired it with a massive 4,000 mAh battery. This is the highest battery capacity for the Galaxy Note Series and tied for the largest battery on our list. However, battery capacity isn't the whole story, as other factors come into play when deciding battery life, including how the operating system manages resources. Fortunately for the Galaxy Note 9, the extra large battery was worth it, achieving over 16 hours of usage when watching a video, 5 hours more than second place.

As with its predecessor, the Note 9 supports HDR on the major video streaming services, including Netflix, Prime Video, and YouTube. While Netflix and Prime Video are limited to 1080p streaming, YouTube can take full advantage of Note 9's 1440p resolution, allowing video to display up to 60 fps with HDR at this resolution. This is one of the reason's the Note 9 is one of only two phones on our list certified as a YouTube Signature Device.

Thanks to the Galaxy Note 9's 18:5.9 aspect ratio, most videos utilize the entire screen. For YouTube, you will deal with black bars for many videos unless the content creators shoot it in a 2:1 aspect ratio. However, for most movies, you will hardly see black bars. For some older movies, the Galaxy Note 9 will display the video zoomed a bit horizontally and vertically, with a bit of cropping. However, you can always zoom out to see the movie in its original aspect ratio.

Samsung also brought over the AKG-tuned stereo speakers they introduced with Galaxy S9, providing speakers that are clear and loud. However, unlike others on our list, only the earpiece faces toward you, using a bottom-firing speaker as the second speaker. But it is one of only three phones on our list which includes the headphone jack.

The Galaxy Note 9's new stylus can also help with video playback. The new Bluetooth S Pen can pause and play video, so you can control your video even from a distance. Samsung is opening the SDK to third-party developers, so apps such as Netflix and Prime Video can create specific features for customers using the stylus within the app.

If you want the best of the best for movie watching, the Galaxy Note 9 is the best choice out there. Somehow, Samsung was able to outdo themselves with the display, creating a new standard for smartphones. With an all-day battery life to match, support for HDR, and the largest display on our list, no phone is better for streaming. With the Note 9, you can sit back, relax, and enjoy a mini home theater in the palm of your hand.

Phone 2: Xperia XZ2 Premium

Sony's Premium line has been known to push the envelope. It was in this lineup that Sony first introduced the world to a 4K display on a smartphone, then adding HDR to the same resolution a few years later. Unfortunately, as with its predecessor, finding apps that utilize this screen is rare, making the display more something to talk about than to something to enjoy.

Let's start with the good. The Xperia XZ2 Premium has a 4K HDR screen at 5.8 inches. Yes, the display is "only" LCD, but it more than makes up for this with HDR and its 765 pixels per inch. This display is paired with a 3,540 mAh battery, which you would expect to not be enough for such a power-hungry display. And you would be right, allowing you to draw you eyes to the major XZ2 Premium's main shortcoming: It hardly uses the 4K resolution.

Sony was able to get nearly 12 hours of battery life on such a high-resolution display by not using the screen to its full potential. Most content, including your home screen launcher, is displayed at 1080p. Except for a few streaming services (more on that later), 4K content is limited to videos recorded using the rear camera.

Only YouTube currently supports 4K on mobile devices. YouTube can output up to 4K HDR at 60 fps on the XZ2 Premium. However, there isn't much content that utilizes all these technologies except for a handful of videos, mostly b-roll footage showcasing the new details available with 4K and HDR.

According to Sony, Netflix and Prime Video both support 4K HDR, but we had no luck with our test unit. While neither streaming service gives us the same level of information that YouTube does with active streams, there is a way to tell if 4K is outputted on your screen for each service.

Netflix will inform you which series output in 4K using a small "4K" icon once it recognizes you are viewing the app from a device which supports 4K output (this also requires you have Netflix's Premium plan). Unfortunately, we never once saw this icon on our phone.

Prime Video displays the current resolution of the video. Typically, videos will start at 720p and as jump to 1080p once it determines you have enough bandwidth. Unfortunately, no video we watched reached a resolution higher than 1080p. But what is strange is that Amazon shows Ultra HD (4K) content in the main menu, something that is only done when it determines your device can output to 4K. We contacted Sony and will update once we get an answer.

While the 16:9 screen will normally result in black bars with movies (either vertically or horizontally), depending on the movie, it is one of the easiest to fix with zoom to fill. While Android doesn't let Hulu zoom to fill, for Netflix and Prime Video, both will let you zoom perfectly to eliminate the bars. While Prime Video keeps its zoom option in a submenu for media playback controls, Netflix lets you use the pinch-to-zoom gesture to accomplish this.

As for audio, there is some positive and some negative. The positive is Sony managed to include dual stereo front facing speakers (known as the S-Force Front Surround) which are loud and punchy. Additionally, there is a feature called Dynamic Vibration which vibrates the phone each time the bass comes in to draw you in. The negative is the is the lack of a headphone jack.

When I initially started to outline this article, I assumed the Xperia XZ2 Premium would definitely win with its 4K display. However, after testing the phone and seeing its limitations, while it is a great phone to enjoy content (and arguably, the primary reason to go out and spend $999.99 for it), it isn't better than the Galaxy Note 9. If it, in fact, supported 4K for Netflix and Prime Video, it would close the gap, but still fall short. We can only recommend going with the Xperia XZ2 Premium if you have personal files at a 4K resolution that you wish to watch on your phone. Otherwise, the Galaxy Note 9 is better.

Phone 3: Razer Phone

Here is the funny thing about gaming-centric phones: They are also great at other things. Since graphically intense games will push the phone's CPU and GPU to their max, you need top-tier specs to handle them. And because the best video game experience mirror that of movies, they will also have specs and features that create not only the best gaming experience but a great movie watching experience. We saw this first with the Galaxy Note 9, and we now see it with the phone which restored the genre, the Razer Phone.

First off, you will not find a better pair of smartphone speakers than those included in the Razer Phone. I have been able to play music and clearly hear it up a flight of stairs, at half its volume. Thanks to Razer's dual amplifier, the Razer Phone can produce sharp, punchy sound that can hit the highs and lows of any audio. These speakers support Dolby Atmos, allowing them to replicate surround sound from two speakers. It is because of this that Razer was able to secure support for Netflix's 5.1 surround sound, the only phone on the market which includes this feature.

Image by MKBHD/YouTube

Razer also designed the hardware to assist with media consumption. The flat box design allows the phone to rest horizontally, perfect for watching movies comfortably. Razer also made one side completely flat, using a flat fingerprint scanner and placing the volume rocker on the opposite side. Therefore, you can prop up the phone on its flat side, and still control the volume of the video.

Razer Phone has a 5.7-inch 1440p display, large enough to enjoy the video even with subtitles. While the screen is "only" LCD, Razer has still managed to support HDR on both Prime Video and Netflix. Razer Phone is only lacking HDR support in YouTube.

With the same aspect ratio as the Sony Xperia XZ2 Premium, the default view for content is the same. Only YouTube will typically utilize the entire screen by default, with Netflix and Prime Video showing black bars, depending on aspect ratio of the video.

Image by Unbox Therapy/YouTube

Based on the raw data, battery life is its biggest flaw despite its massive 4,000 mAh battery — but this isn't the complete picture. While GSMArena recorded an abysmal a 7.4-hour battery life (the lowest on our list), my personal experience was much different. As my daily driver, I was able to achieve an average of six hours screen-on time, with varied usage, but a significant portion being YouTube. If I brought the brightness down and mirrored their testing, I'm sure I would get battery life closer to the Galaxy Note 9 and not dead last on our list.

I honestly love the Razer Phone. It is a bit large in hand due to its thicker design, but if you can get past this, it's honestly one of the best smartphones on the market for watching videos. While it lacks the clarity of an AMOLED display, with its fantastic audio and low price, we highly recommend you pick it up.

Phone 4: iPhone X

When Apple first introduced the iPhone X in 2017, a feeling of relief hit me as I'm sure it hit many others. Finally, the sexy bezeless design of Android phones would make its way to iPhones. While its use of a display notch is controversial, it has the second-best display on the market.

iOS has always been great at managing battery life, and the iPhone X is no exception. Battery life is second on the list, only bested by the Galaxy Note 9. And it manages this with the lowest battery size on our list. Similar to the Galaxy Note 9, this battery life can be extended thanks to its AMOLED panel when watching movies with a mostly black background. So for example, watching movies like Interstellar and Gravity should do less harm on your battery than say Avengers: Infinity War.

Before the Galaxy Note 9, DisplayMate declared the iPhone X's screen the "best smartphone display." Despite using Samsung panel, it was able to perform better than the Galaxy Note 8 and S8 at the time thanks to in-house calibration. Its usage of an AMOLED display allowed it to achieve fantastic picture quality and allow for HDR support from all the major streaming services, including Prime Video, Netflix, and YouTube.

Image by Dallas Thomas/Gadget Hacks

iPhone X also has the brightest screen at 640 nits, making it easy to enjoy movies even in direct sunlight. And even without front-facing speakers, its stereo speakers are loud and clear.

One of the weird decisions by Apple is how it handles zoom to fill. By default, Netflix displays videos just short of the display notch. Therefore, with videos recorded in 2.35:1 aspect ratio, you are stuck with vertical black bars on the side, and a horizontal bar along the top. You can double tap to zoom, which will push the video behind the notch, but it still won't fill the entire screen, leaving horizontal black bars on the top. However, unlike for Android, Hulu supports zoom to fill on iOS, so you can remove horizontal bars when watching older content.

Image by Dallas Thomas/Gadget Hacks

The only big letdown is the different modems, depending on the model of your iPhone X. For Verizon, Sprint, and unlocked users, your iPhone X uses the Qualcomm X16 modem which offers category 16 speeds, with a theoretical max. of 1 Gbps. However, AT&T and T-Mobile variants use the slower Intel XMM 7480, which is a category 12 with a theoretical max of 600 Mbps. With the lower speed, maintaining HD quality video will be harder as you move into lower signal areas.

The iPhone X is an excellent all-around phone that is also excellent at watching videos. While its variability in modems and lack of external storage do hinder its ranking, its amazing screen, support for HDR on major streaming services, and excellent battery life make it a great choice for movie watchers, and the only option for those in the Apple ecosystem.

Phone 5: ZenFone 5Z

Because of this one phone, I had to redo the outline of this article when I discovered how good it is for watching videos. While ultimately it came in last, it is lightyears better than phones not this list thanks to several key features. On the surface, it looks like an iPhone X clone, but dig deeper and you'll see the ZenFone 5Z is an excellent phone to binge-watch your favorite show, and at a somewhat affordable price.

Image by Beebom/YouTube

The ZenFone 5Z has a 90% screen-to-body ratio, the highest on our list. Asus managed to fit a 6.2-inch display in the body of 5.5-inch phone, making it easy to hold, but also immersive, as it has little to no bezel on each side.

And then there are the speakers. The dual speakers are laid out similarly to the iPhone X, using the earpiece together with a bottom-firing speaker. However, unlike the other phones on our list, the speakers have dedicated smart amplifiers which improve clarity at louder volume levels.

Image via Asus

Additionally, the ZenFone 5Z is the only phone on our list which supports DTS Headphone: X, a feature which allows for the phone to artificially create surround sound audio through headphones. Instead of audio coming in one direction, the sound is directed from multiple angles to your ears, making the experience more immersive.

The biggest issue with the ZenFone 5Z is its lack of HDR support for Netflix, YouTube, and Prime Video. While it could potentially come in the future, as of now, it doesn't support it. It also only has a 1080p display with limited contrast due to its LCD panel. However, at just $499, it has the highest price-to-performance ratio, creating an experience rivaling the OnePlus 6 in overall performance and making our list of the best phones for media consumption.

Conclusion

You honestly can't go wrong with any of the phones on our list. Whether you are a fan of Android or iOS, you'll find something that fits your needs. Except for two phones, you will likely have to spend a pretty penny. However, this gets you top-of-the-line performance and a phenomenal movie-watching experience.

The best offering currently is the Samsung Galaxy Note 9. Samsung did a great job at improving all aspects of its predecessor to create a phone topping many lists, including movie watching. But if money is a bit limited, the Razer Phone is your best bet. Audio is unmatched by the phones on our list, and their attention to finer details makes this a great choice whether you're at home on the couch or laying down on your bed.

Cover image by Justin Meyers/Gadget Hacks, photos by Jon Knight/Gadget Hacks (unless otherwise noted)

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