Why Buy a Smartphone?
Editor's Note (Sept. 16, 2016): The Consumer Product Safety Commission has ordered a formal recall of the Galaxy Note7. Samsung plans to have replacement units available no later than September 21, or owners may return their phones and accessories and receive a full refund.
Editor's Note (Sept. 6, 2016): Samsung has recalled the Galaxy Note7, our top pick in this category, responding to reports that its non-removable battery can catch fire while charging. Since you cannot buy a new Note7 right now, we've temporarily removed it from our lineup. Our opinions and test results have not changed, and you can still read our thoughts below and see the full review of the Note7 here. Samsung plans to replace existing customers' phones as early as this week, and we expect to see a new version of the device made available for sale soon afterwards. Once it is, we'll add it back to our lineup.
The top performers in our review are the Gold Award winning Samsung Galaxy Note7, the Silver Award winning Samsung Galaxy S7, and the Bronze Award winning OnePlus 3. Here’s more on choosing a smartphone to meet your needs, along with details on how we arrived at our rankings of the 10 best devices.
We've long since passed the point when people choose between smartphones and feature phones – dumb phones, as they've come to be called. Every major carrier and minor cell phone provider offers phones with touch screens and internet connectivity at virtually any price point – $600, $200, even $50. The question is no longer, "Should I buy a smartphone?" Rather, we now ask ourselves, "Which smartphone is best for me?"
With rigorous testing and our trademark side-by-side comparisons, we've identified 2016's best smartphones and ranked them for their processing power, battery life, camera quality and that almost intangible but extraordinarily important quality: design.
How We Tested the Smartphones
Whenever a major manufacturer comes out with a new smartphone, we put it through its paces with an intense sequence of performance benchmarks. The phone's display, processor, camera, battery life and unique features are each tested multiple times under identical conditions. Once we have our results, we compile them by Olympic average and aggregate them in the grades and scores you see above.
Of course, while synthetic benchmarking can reflect the capacity of a smartphone, it doesn't always reveal real-world performance. Consequently, we also run a series of real-world tests that simulate, as closely as possible, the experiences of a typical consumer.
To obtain each smartphone in our comparison, we either received them on temporary loan from the manufacturers or purchased the phones outright. Manufacturers had no input or influence over our evaluation methodology nor was it provided to any of them in more detail than is available through our reviews. Results of our tests were not provided to the companies in advance of publication.
Android, iOS or Windows Mobile
The first decision you need to make when picking a smartphone is probably the easiest: Which operating system should you choose? Whatever their die-hard fans might say, Android isn't better than iOS, and iOS isn't better than Android. Both platforms have powerful advantages and some nitpicky disadvantages, and your choice comes down to personal preference. Do you want everything on your phone to just work, and are you willing to pay a bit of a premium for that? Go iOS. Do you like customization and buying on a budget? Pick Android. Already have a preference? It's not wrong, so embrace it!
Windows Mobile, recently rebranded by Microsoft from Windows Phone, is the odd platform out. The OS is about to see some extreme revamping thanks to the impending release of Windows 10, and once that happens, it could well be a serious contender in the market. Until that time comes, however, Windows Mobile isn't as functional or reliable as Android or iOS. It takes more time and taps to do anything on a Windows Mobile device, and its app marketplace is dreadfully underwhelming.
Smartphone Pricing: Flagship, Budget and Midtier
There are essentially three tiers of smartphones available from the major providers. Flagship phones are the top-tier, brand-defining devices you see ads for. They have impressive specifications and tons of raw power under the hood but are usually rather expensive off-contract, clocking in at around $600. Samsung's Galaxy S series, HTC's One series, and Apple's iPhones are all flagship product lines.
Budget phones are on the opposite end of the spectrum. Often available from prepaid cell phone providers, these devices can range anywhere from $0.99 to $100 but are usually around $40 or $50. They overwhelmingly run the Android operating system, though usually a generation or two behind the most recent version of the platform. Budget phones are functional: They have cameras, internet connectivity and the ability to stream music and video, but they often chug under heavy app loads and don't have the same build quality as more expensive options.
Midtier devices split the difference between flagship and budget. They range from $150 to $400 off-contract and run either Android or the Windows Mobile operating system. Midtier phones are what you think of when you say to yourself, "I don't need the latest and greatest, just a phone that does what I need it to do." A few phones, like Google's Nexus line or the OnePlus series, are priced as midtier phones but deliver the power of flagships.
Smartphones: Our Verdict and Recommendations
There are dozens of recent smartphones on the market and well over a hundred once you account for older models still being sold. Picking the best for you can be a trying task, but we've made things easy. Here are our top recommendations:
The Best Performing Smartphone: Samsung Galaxy Note7
Brand new and undeniably impressive, the Galaxy Note7 is as capable as it is elegant. Thanks to Qualcomm's latest Snapdragon 820 processor and 4GB of memory, the phone bulldozed through our benchmark tests, and Samsung's introduced a number of welcome features to the Note line like water resistance, SD card expansion, an always-on display and an even better S Pen stylus. If you're looking for the best of the best, Samsung has managed to build it.
The Best Value Smartphone: OnePlus 3
The most recent OnePlus device, the OnePlus 3 costs hundreds less than similar phones from Apple and Samsung, but it screams past them in raw power, delivering better performance in our benchmarks than any other phone we've ever tested. Thanks to a near-pure version of Android 6.0 Marshmallow, the OnePlus 3's usability is top-notch, and its extra features like USB Type-C and a flawless fingerprint scanner make you feel like you're on the cutting edge. Add to all this the phone's superb build quality, and you've got a device that anyone can love.
If you're still having trouble choosing the right device for your needs, try reading some of the articles on smartphones we've written up. Between them and the comparison chart above, you should have no problem picking a phone to be your in-pocket companion for the next couple of years.