The funny thing about buying a smartphone in 2016 is that it’s hard to go wrong. Not too long ago, even great phones could have terrible battery life, be bogged down by gobs of unwanted software, have an awful camera, or be missing a crucial feature or two. Now, we find almost every major handset will last till bedtime, take decent photos, display them on an excellent screen, blaze through apps with a speedy processor, and browse the web with fast 4G/LTE connectivity.
The Galaxy S7 Edge (and its smaller sibling, the S7) are two remarkable phones. In 2015, the Galaxy S6 held our Best Smartphone accolade for many months until it was eventually dethroned by the impressive Nexus 6P.
But Samsung improves on the S6 in all the right places. It keeps the classy glass-and-metal design but adds on impressive waterproofing without compromising design. It actually makes you wonder what the Galaxy S7 Active, Samsung’s “rugged” Galaxy lineup, will have to offer. But the Galaxy S7 camera is also a cut above what’s come before it. With an f/1.7 aperture so you can take phenomenal photos in lowlight, and a redesigned photo sensor means the S7 is almost always in focus.
The reason I’m singling out the 15cm Edge over the 13cm S7 isn’t for it’s Edge-like features (which are OK but whatever). The bigger Edge device also means a bigger battery and I saw noticeable differences in how much time I would get out of the S7 and S7 Edge comparatively. If you’re not the biggest fan of large phones, Samsung packs in a lot of screen into a relatively small frame. It’s the smallest 15cm phone I’ve ever held.
Factor in a great processor, display, and build quality, and it’s almost a no-brainer that the Galaxy S7 is the best phone you can buy right now. However, many companies like HTC and Apple, haven’t shown what’s in store for 2016 quite yet, so who knows how long the S7 will remain on top.
Huawei and Google’s team-up on the Nexus 6P has created a smartphone that’s built for everyone, and it’s the real good. The 6P fixes everything wrong with 2014’s Nexus 6 and creates something that’s the perfect vessel for pure Android.
The 6P is Google through and through — from the hardware design, to the operating system, and even to the very carrier if you so desire. It leverages everything new in Android, like a fingerprint sensor, and includes new hardware like the Android Sensor Hub that can turn that usually terrible battery life into a guaranteed full days worth (and beyond).
At around $960, the 6P also retains the look and feel of an luxe piece of gadget. It’s a Nexus phone cloaked in metal, and its design fits nicely with all other smartphones of its calibre. But in a sea of Android that’s still full of sub-par skins and ROMs, the Nexus 6P shines with its bloat-free software. It’s incredibly fast, great-looking, and an all-around solid choice.
The iPhone 6s used to occupy this hallowed position as best smartphone in a tiny package, then Apple packed all the best bits from the 6s in an even smaller, 10cm frame. The same speedy processor and 12 megapixel, 4k-shooting camera all make an appearance, and while some tech like the arguably useful 3D Touch doesn’t make the cut, Apple still brought on its best feature — live photos.
That’s not to say the iPhone SE isn’t without its blemishes. For one, that small display has a sub-720p resolution and it’s not nearly as bright as the 6s. But the iPhone SE’s biggest sell is to people who cry foul at smartphones’ steady climb to bigger and bigger dimensions. The iPhone SE is a nostalgia throwback that puts modern technology into what was the undisputed King of small phones in 2013, the iPhone 5s.
But the iPhone SE is like voting for a local city councilman when only one candidate is running — there’s not much there to compare it to. But if your chief concern is going as small as possible without giving up the technological convenience that comes with bigger phones. Congratulations, you’ve arrived.
Yes, the Nexus 6P is big but the Galaxy Note 5 is a different kind of big. Samsung’s been through five iterations of the Note series, trying to build an OS that takes advantage of that huge screen real estate, and the Note 5 is the best yet.
TouchWiz is the often bemoaned skin of Android that’s historically cluttered up the Android experience to a point of annoyance, but with the Note 5 and its included S Pen, some of those added software features are actually quite useful. Small tweaks have made the Note 5 better of the last year’s Note 4, including a quick launch feature for S Note and Samsung Pay, which uses NFC and MST technology to create the most widely accepted mobile payment system out there.
The premium Note 5 adopts the same look as our old smartphone champion the Galaxy S6, so it definitely looks the part and it also includes other forward-thinking features, including a YouTube livestream application build right into the camera app. Oh, and it also takes some of the best photos around. If you want to leverage every single inch of your smartphone display and don’t mind Samsung toying around with Android to make that possible, the Note 5 is a great, great pick.
The OnePlus 2 is by almost every degree an upgrade over our former Best Cheap Smartphone champion, the OnePlus One. It has a better processor, a better camera, and even small hardware improvements, like a dedicated button to quickly silence notifications.
At around $450 (16GB) and $540 (32GB), it’s slightly more expensive than the OnePlus One, and the new model is the first phone to ditch Cyanogen, the ROM used on the One. Used instead: its own operating system called Oxygen, which is much like stock Android in many respects. Even though it’s built off of Android Lollipop, the OS already includes some Marshmallow-y features, like customisable quick settings and some lite app permissions management. But if you’re still worried, OnePlus has promised that Oxygen will be updated to the new Android OS in the first quarter of 2016.
You can order the phone directly from the company if you use a mail-forwarding service in Australia, or try local grey importers and eBay. There are differences in LTE band support between models (Europe, US and Hong Kong), so be sure to check how each version works on Telstra, Optus and Vodafone.
iPhone 6s/6s Plus (demoted April 2016)
A fantastic smartphone. If you want iOS and don’t want something small, this is your guy. But newer Android phones slightly edge out Apple in performance. I expect this to change with the iPhone 7 this fall. Read the full review.
Huawei Honour 5x
The 5x comes in at an impressive $US200 with an all-metal build quality. But its operating system, though designed to look like iOS, is only a mere shadow of Apple’s software when it comes to functionality and style. Read the full review.
This guy is one of the most stylish phones available, and it’s got a processor that’s only a year out of date to keep the price down. It’s also has a feature to store you apps in the cloud. Read the full review.
This guy is basically a powerhouse G4 in phablet form, a serious contender for big phone enthusiasts. But some of its hardware experiments border on gimmick-y than being genuinely useful. Read the full review.
Blackberry made the move it should have made about 4 years ago and is now on Android, but it still has some issues to iron out. I’d pass on this first generation phone. Read the full review.
Moto X Pure Edition
A totally great smartphone for $US400 ($526), but there are equally great phones for cheaper and better phones for only slightly more, so it kind of gets lost in the shuffle. Worth a look if you prefer a clean Android UI. Read the full review.
Nexus 6 (demoted November 2015)
This phone held the Best for Pure Android (and Movies) category for its big screen and stock Android OS. But with the more manageable 6P, the Nexus 6 need no longer apply. Read the full review.
Sony Xperia Z3
The Z5 is out now, which is still tricky to find in the US but not impossible. You can even get the 4K-equipped Z5 Premium but that seems like the definition of overkill.
Lumia 950 and XL
Windows 10 on a phone doesn’t quite convert all the magic of the desktop experience to the palm of your hand. If you’re a Windows phone acolyte, sure, go for it. But for most others, there are better options.
Galaxy S6 (demoted 11/2015)
Still a fantastic smartphone with a swiss army knife of features, like a great payment platform and wireless charging capabilities. It’s just not quite as great an experience as the 6P in our opinion. But if you’re giving all the front runners due consideration, the Galaxy S6 still belongs in that group, benefiting a smartphone once considered The Best Overall.
Galaxy S6 Edge
The Best for Showing Off, perhaps. The Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge is a fine phone, and it looks slick, but you’re paying an extra $US100 ($131) for worse ergonomics while everything else stays the same.
Galaxy S6 Active
We tried it. Not bad, but you’d get better protection by simply buying a case.
The HTC A9 is impressive in many ways. It’s incredibly thin and has great build quality that’s synonymous with HTC, but man, it looks just like an iPhone. If you want the iPhone look running Android, this is a good pick, but if you don’t meet that exact definition, you’re almost certainly better served elsewhere.
Droid Turbo 2
The Droid Turbo 2 makes advancements in some areas, such as a better processor and a shatterproof display. But it doesn’t look very great, and it is absolutely filled with bloatware and branding from Verizon.
Sony Xperia Z3 Compact
Take everything awesome about Sony’s Z3, and shrink it down for smaller hands. Give it even better battery life — and, yeah, a lower res screen. Then tease poor Americans by only selling it off-contract, on GSM networks, for less than a year. We called it Android’s Best Kept Secret.
Microsoft / Nokia Lumia
Despite Microsoft’s latest woes, hardware’s never been the problem with Lumia devices. In fact, they have some of the best cameras you’ll find. But that software is just not as good as iOS and Android. Not even close. If you actually want to use lots of apps, look elsewhere.
HTC One (M8) for Windows
The HTC One M8 was great, sure — over a year ago. And while Windows Phone actually suits this device pretty well, a neglected app store as well as a neglected mobile OS means you’re much better off with practically any alternative.
Photos by Michael Hession and Alex Cranz