Picking the best phones in the world is always a) incredibly hard, and b) terrific fun. Thankfully. This being an iOS-centric site, you’d expect an Apple iPhone at number 1 and you’d be right. But this isn’t sycophantic – in my other life as the producer and presenter of The Phones Show I do regular top 5 features – and an iPhone is invariably in the top spot because it’s the one top specced phone that can be recommended as the answer to “What phone should I buy” without any real caveats or possible recriminations.
Oh, and a point of order. It would be a little crazy to allow multiple iPhones of the exact same form factor into the top 10. So I’ve not allowed myself to have both the ‘6s’ and the ‘6’, for example. Ditto for the ‘6s Plus’. It would be almost as bad as allowing all the various memory variations! And don’t get me started on colours… Plus several of the Android phones also have variants of one kind or other – for this top 10, common sense will prevail!
I’d have loved to have had some more OS variety too, but Windows 10 Mobile remains an unfinished mess for day to day use, and Blackberry OS 10 has had its day and is now fading into retirement…
As to criteria for the top 10, it’s raw functionality, it’s style and a solid build, it’s well-supported software, it’s flexibility and, to an extent, value. Though I haven’t let money intrude too far – after all, just about any Android flagship will be ?200 cheaper a year (and sometimes even six months) down the road, so if something’s too expensive then you’ve only got to be patient! Apple’s prices for iPhones, of course, rarely change at all – but then that helps on the other end of ownership, at sale time, in keeping the resale value high.
Motorola started nailing ‘the Android smartphone’ a couple of years ago with the original ‘X’ and the budget ‘G’ variants – strong chassis, curved back to allow for maximum battery capacity, and, here on the Style/Pure Edition (the name depends on market!), front-mounted stereo speakers too. It’s a distinctive design, and backed up a decent (if not world leading) camera, great reception, innovative ‘ambient’ display (since copied by Google itself) and various voice and gesture aids. And all at mid-range prices, making the range always worth considering, from the bottom end ‘E’ up to the top end ‘X’.
If there’s a complaint, it’s that Motorola hasn’t been paying attention to industry trends, with no fingerprint scanner, no OIS in the camera and no Qi charging, for example. Motorola, now owned by Lenovo, needs more than another year of treading water if it wants to still be top 10 material in the flagship stakes at Christmas.
Read: Moto X Style review
Representing the unashamed value pick in this top 10, the Honor 5X is firmly in the budget camp – you can get four of these for one Samsung Galaxy S7 edge or iPhone 6s Plus! Yet it’s solid metal, has a fast fingerprint scanner, a very good screen and a surprisingly good camera. I honestly don’t know how Huawei (which makes the Honor handsets) does it, it’s clearly secret sauce of some kind. Admittedly, performance isn’t cutting edge, but then neither is it laggy – and the only thing to complain about is the lack of an application drawer. As with all Huawei’s handsets, you’ll need to put on your own third party app launcher if you don’t like the iOS-like homescreen sets here.
Terrific value and a terrific smartphone. Start here if your budget is limited!
Read: Honor 5X review
The Note 5 is an odd beast, but tremendously high end, as you’d expect from the original phablet range, which Samsung uses to test and showcase its latest technology. And yes, that still includes an intelligent stylus, here better than ever. The 5.7″ QHD AMOLED screen is stunning, the Exynos processor and 4GB of RAM produce super performance, the camera’s almost as good as in the Galaxy S7 range mentioned below, the build is all metal and glass – and most definitely premium. Sculpted curves around the sides (on the back) make the phone easier to hold than previous Galaxy Notes.
The catch, as widely publicised, is that the traditional Note replaceable battery and expansion card support is… gone. With the goal of the reboot of the Note series as having premium design – hey it even comes, as shown above, in an iPhone-esque ‘pink gold’! The loss in flexibility is an issue for hardcore Note fans, but then they can stick to the Note 4, which is still available, and have almost as stellar an experience, so perhaps everyone wins in the end.
There’s little point in rattling through more specifications, since the Note 5 has the lot, right down to Qi or PMA wireless charging, depending on market. And it’s the market itself which limited the Note 5, since it was never sold in many markets, including the UK where your humble writer lives. Roll on the Note 6 (or 7) in just a few months time though and we should see expansion card support return, along with even higher internal specs.
Buy: Samsung Galaxy Note 5
The premise for this was simple, if a little unfashionable in 2016, with burgeoning screen sizes all round in the industry. Take the classic straight-edged aluminium form factor with 4″ screen that was so beloved back in the day, for the iPhone 5 and 5s, and update it with the very latest processor, GPU and camera from the iPhone 6s. In other words, put the fastest and latest internals in an incredibly compact smartphone.
Other than fitting in any pocket, the small form factor also has advantages in terms of reachability, with every on-screen control available to a roving thumb, and with even a small hand able to grip the phone securely without risk of dropping it. On the downside, many modern applications – especially games and media-related – do rather assume a 4.7″ screen or larger in the iOS world, so things do sometimes seem a little cramped. But iOS itself and the vast majority of applications run beautifully, without any lag, the imaging side of things is world class (for stills and video) and I guarantee that a huge smile will appear on the face of anyone who picks up the new SE. Perhaps it’s a blast from the past? Or perhaps it’s a breath of fresh air in a world of two-handed, droppable monsters?
Read: iPhone SE review
Love ’em or hate ’em, you can’t ignore the Samsung Galaxy range, and the S7 (and its ‘edge’ variant, see below) represents the second generation of the reboot from the horrendously plasticky (remember the elastoplast back?) Galaxy S5 – a very decent phone in a $10 plastic chassis. That Samsung decided to jettison the replaceable battery and expandable storage as part of the reboot in the Galaxy S6 range was unfortunate. But both are fixed for the Galaxy S7, with the range supporting both Quick Charge 2.0 (for fast top-ups) plus dual standard wireless charging, and microSD support makes a welcome come back. Add in a much improved camera (matching the bar set by the LG G4), with larger aperture and OIS, and the Galaxy S7 is many people’s ultimate converged smartphone.
It’s pretty too, with the back now subtly but ergonomically curved in the same manner as last year’s Galaxy Note 5.
Touchwiz remains a little annoying for Android purists, but many of its features are genuinely useful (e.g. hiding applications in the app drawer that you don’t use) and, with every software generation, TouchWiz and Samsung’s app load-out gets lighter and lighter, so it’s hard to complain too much.
Read: Galaxy S7 (range) review
There’s a real ‘wow’ factor to Samsung’s Galaxy S7 edge (and yes, the lowercase ‘e’ is official!) – held in the hand and, ideally, photographed artily in dim rooms(!), it’s stunning. In daily use, the phone’s essentially identical to the Galaxy S7 above, of course, and many of the same pros and cons apply, except that this is prettier. Much prettier.
In practice, the ‘edge’ screen doesn’t add much to functionality and even gets in the way when you try and take photos – you have to be careful where you rest your thumbs. But the cosmetics and feel in the hand are so stunning that any caveats are immediately forgiven. This is the Porsche of the phone world, the Lamborghini – you buy it as much to admire it as to use its blazing speed and terrific camera. In fact, it’s probably heresy to put it in a case, though that might be advisable when you’re out and about because, well, accidents happen.
Top of the line all round – and also top dollar to acquire – but then you knew this already, right?
Read: Galaxy S7 edge review
Apple’s challenge in 2014 was to come up with a way of bringing much larger screens into the iPhone line-up, matching what the Android world had been doing for years. A larger version of the existing aluminium unibody design (as in the SE, above) would have been arguably too heavy and would have felt ‘too large’ in the hand, so Jony Ive and his team plumped for curved edges, more rounded corners, and a thinner profile overall. Doing this meant that a 4.7″ display (up from 4″) could be achieved with only a 17g increase in weight. At last the iPhone range could stand tall with the best of Android in terms of form factor and expectations.
The iPhone 6 was a best seller, of course, but durability issues showed that Apple had perhaps thinned out the aluminium just a little too much, plus another year of development enabled the 6s, released a few months ago, to have faster internals, an even better camera again, an even faster fingerprint sensor, and – yes – more aluminium where it counts in order to improve robustness. As an added bonus, there’s even token waterproofing, which should help prevent disaster when dropped in water (and quickly retrieved)!
The biggest innovation for the 6s was the addition of an extra screen layer, introducing ‘3D Touch’ to the world, a way of adding peek and pop pressure-driven gestures into the iOS interface. It’s early days in terms of application support for this technology, but it’s showing promise – see my full review for more details.
Read: iPhone 6s review
Buy: iPhone 6s
With security a hot topic in 2016, there’s no better way to stay right up to date with the very latest patches and updates from Google than by owning a Nexus – and the 6P is currently the flagship. Yes, it’s a little tall, but that’s because of the front facing stereo speakers – and they’re very decent indeed. Yes, there have been reports of fragility, but most 6P owners seem very content – just don’t put this in your back pocket!
But from the very capable and fast 12MP camera to the USB Type C 3A ‘Power Delivery’ to the lightning quick fingerprint sensor on the back, the Nexus 6P is one of the most capable smartphones on the planet – and it comes with Google’s direct blessing. It’ll be top of the Nexus heap until HTC’s rumoured Nexus later in 2016.
Read: Nexus 6P review
HTC was one of the companies that pioneered smartphones back in the day, around 12 years ago, with the first Windows Mobile handsets as an OEM, before branching out under their own brand with Windows and then Android handsets – and it’s been something of an inconsistent and tortuous path ever since – with a stunning device one year and then a couple of seasons of disappointment. Happily it has all come together for a perfect ’10’ for the company. The HTC 10 is not only the follow-up to the slightly ‘meh’ ‘One M9’, it’s a superbly designed and realised slice of high technology.
With the only caveat being that the stereo BoomSound speakers didn’t make to this model, everything else – and I mean, everything else, is top of the line. From screen to camera to audio output to performance to battery life, the beautiful and extremely solid HTC 10 just knocks it out of the park.
This is the class act of 2016 so far – and yes, I’d rate it even over the Galaxy S7 range. Look at this one first in the Android world.
Read: HTC 10 review
With the 5.5″ screen option, Apple opened up the world of iPhone to a whole new set of experiences. The ‘phablet’ (phone-tablet!) market had been expanding for a couple of years and the iPhone 6 Plus was a huge success, letting iPhone owners join in a world of glorious 1080p media and high-resolution web page renders with absolutely zero eye strain. And as with the 6-to-6s, the 6s Plus inherits the new internals, the better camera, the faster fingerprint scanner and the 3D Touch functionality. Oh, and the 6s Plus is also a lot stronger, it being the original 6 Plus that had been most at risk from miscreant ‘bend-gate‘ antics.
But the size was only part of the 6 Plus proposition and the same applies to the 6s Plus. In addition to the higher resolution display and superb OIS-equipped camera, iOS itself works differently – almost everything (including the homescreen system) now works in landscape mode, befitting a larger phone that you might well want to use this way, for watching media or, shown below, for getting things done, with the aid of a Bluetooth keyboard:
Using an iPhone 6s Plus in this manner is eye-opening – not that you might want to use iOS in this way on a phone all the time, but to know that it’s possible, and only on the 6 Plus and 6s Plus, is just very cool indeed.
The larger size plus the extra aluminium for strengthening, plus the 3D Touch layers, do all have an impact on the weight (192g), but it’s well worth it. This is a solid and sizeable lump in any pocket, but it’s also a really capable mini-tablet computer, masquerading as a mere ‘phone’. Own this and be proud.
Read: iPhone 6s Plus review
Buy: iPhone 6s Plus
Be sure to let us know what you think is the best smartphone in the world right now in the comments below.