Well, 2016 is three months in, and the Android phone landscape has had some very interesting developments since December of last year. One of the greatest strengths of Android – choice – can also be a little bit overwhelming. In order to help narrow down the field, I’ve compiled this Android phone roundup to help you pick the phone that best matches your needs.
The first three months of 2016 saw the release of two new Samsung phones – the S7 and S7 Edge, along with the announcement of the LG G5. Both of these phones look pretty interesting (for very different reasons) as I explained in my Samsung and LG new phone post last month. However, these are the only two new flagship-level phones released from major players so far this year, so some of these phones are from last year (though they are still excellent).
The Best Android Phones: January through March, 2016
- Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge
- LG G5
- Nexus 6P
- Nexus 5X
- Samsung Galaxy Note 5
- Motorola Moto X Pure
- Motorola Moto G (2015)
Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge
The newest flagships from Samsung are probably the overall best Android phones that you can buy right now. The Galaxy S7 is the smaller of the two, and features a 5.1 inch AMOLED screen, while the Galaxy S7 Edge is more phablet-sized, with a 5.5 inch AMOLED screen that wraps around the edges. This is the main difference between the two models, and which you prefer will likely depend upon your budget and phone size preference.
- The screen – the main way you interact with your phone today – is excellent on both models. The curved glass on the Edge feels great – Samsung has made it much more comfortable than last year’s S6 Edge, and also uses it to make the device significantly narrower than other 5.5-inch screen devices, making it easier to use with one hand.
- Depending on the variant, the S7 will have either the Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 or the Exynos 8890 processor. Without getting too much into the weeds, they are both excellent processors. In particular, the 820 is a drastic improvement over last year’s Snapdragon 810.
- Battery life is much improved from the S6
- If you love expandable storage, both phones now feature the return of the Micro-SD card.
- The camera is better than the already-great camera in the S6.
- The IP68 rating means that the device is dust and water resistant (able to be beneath 1.5 meters of water for 30 minutes without error).
- The biggest complaint against most non-Nexus Android devices – bloatware. Samsung includes several redundant apps (email, photos, voice control, app stores, SMS) that are able to be “Disabled” but not completely uninstalled. If you buy from a carrier (rather than an unlocked phone) then the carrier may include additional extra apps.
- The Edge screen feature is not necessarily the most useful, and sometimes the edges of the screen can pick up errant touches from the side of your hand.
- The battery, despite being bigger, is not removable.
Although a very interesting design with the removable ‘chins’, so far the LG G5 has not gotten great reviews. One of the things that looks so appealing (at least to me), was the camera control module, but it turns out that it’s just an extra-large battery and the extra controls are a camera toggle (good), shutter (good), video record (a separate button, really?) and digital zoom (ick). Nothing for exposure compensation, shutter speed, ISO, or anything useful to an amateur photographer that would encourage you to pony up the $70 (or so) that it will likely cost.
- The upgraded screen is pretty darn good in bright light, but some calibration and light bleed issues are present.
- Fast! The Snapdragon 820 is quite quick.
- The dual-angle camera is pretty neat.
- This is pretty much the only flagship phone that you can find with a removable battery anymore. Also, it’s got a Micro-SD card.
- The swappable chin design – although neat – causes some weird build issues, and in addition to the silly camera module, the upgraded DAC may not come to the US at all. Plus, to change modules you have to turn off the phone (which means waiting for it to boot up again).
- The battery life isn’t much better than a phone from last year.
- The price is comparable to the S7 or the S7 Edge (if you buy into the extra modules). In terms of build quality, battery life, and performance, it doesn’t feel like it’s quite on the same level.
Every year Google partners with a hardware manufacturer to offer a phone with stock Android. Last year, Google made two – the Nexus 6P is manufactured in China by Huawei, and while this will be the first phone most Americans see from this manufacturer, it does make a strong first impression. It’s the second phablet-sized Nexus phone (the first being 2014’s Motorola-made Nexus 6), and while the screen shrunk a little bit (from last year’s 6-inch behemoth to a “reasonable” 5.7-inches), everything else got a big upgrade. Some of the newest features include a very good camera, a fast fingerprint sensor, USB Type-C, and a metal body.
- Stock Android – this means the fastest possible updates and the latest and greatest Google features
- A sturdy feeling metal body, great (stereo) front-firing speakers, and a lightning-fast fingerprint sensor in the middle of the back of the phone
- A big and high-quality AMOLED screen
- The camera isn’t just “good for an Android” this year – it’s actually good!
- Probably the best implementation yet of Qualcomm’s troubled Snapdragon 810
- USB Type-C is pretty cool
- Despite being a bit smaller than last year’s Nexus 6, this is still a true phablet-sized device, and so may not be a good size for everyone
- The battery life is, according to many reviews, average. This isn’t (entirely) an OS problem, as the Qualcomm 810 has caused just about every phone that uses it battery and performance troubles
- Although the screen is as big as the Samsung Note, there’s no S-pen or other special features to improve productivity or to more easily manage the larger screen – although Android N may change that.
- Stock Android – sometimes the rapid update cycle can work against you, as some of the latest versions of Android have suffered from various performance problems and memory issues
- You’ll (likely) need to get new charging cables, and/or chargers that are compatible with USB Type-C
This is the (highly anticipated) sequel to the great Nexus 5 – made by LG – that was released in 2013. The 5X is also LG-made, and comes with several upgrades (that are also found in the more expensive 6P) such as the same great camera, fingerprint sensor, and a newer Snapdragon processor (though not the 810). While it’s smaller than the 6P, with a 5.2 inch screen and relatively large top and bottom bezels, it’s not quite a compact as the old Nexus 5 was, nor does it have the same metal body as the 6P.
- Stock Android
- A great (LCD) screen
- A fingerprint sensor that is just as fast as the one in the higher-end 6P
- Above-average battery life
- The same (great) camera as the Nexus 6P
- USB Type-C is, again, pretty cool
- The same downside to stock Android as on the 6P – while it’s often great, currently Lollipop and Marshmallow both suffer from some pretty unfortunate memory issues.
- The better battery life is accomplished by a slightly slower (but more efficient) processor, although the GPU (useful for games) is quite good
- If you wanted a metal body in a smaller size, you’ll be disappointed, since this features the same (sturdy) plastic found on the original Nexus 5
- The same downside to USB Type-C – it’s the future, but right now you’ll need to stock up on newer cables.
Samsung Galaxy Note 5
If you’re looking for a phone with the best productivity features and accessories, you can’t do better than the Samsung Note series. The Note is usually released in the second half of the year, so right now the best version of this phone is still last year’s Note 5. The Note 5 includes the S-pen and apps and features designed to take advantage of it. Some people may scoff at using a stylus on a phone, but if that’s what you want, the Note 5 is (by far) the best game in town.
- If you want (or need a stylus) the Note 5 is, by far, the best phone for you. The extra software features (like pulling out the stylus and jotting a quick note on the darkened screen) are pretty killer, and having the stylus stored in the phone means you’ll always know where it is.
- The camera, even though it’s from last year, is excellent.
- The fingerprint sensor (which is on the bottom front button) is fast and reliable.
- The processor – a Samsung-built Exynos 7420 – is miles ahead of the Qualcomm 810s that are in almost every other top-of-the-line phone in both speed, endurance, and battery life.
- Despite a “lighter” version of Samsung’s Android OS (called Touchwiz) there are still quite a few extra apps that come preinstalled – some you may want, some you may not. While you can disable them (preventing them from running) there’s no easy way to uninstall them – so you still lose some storage space.
- Software updates are going to be slower than Nexus phones, although Samsung has said that they will attempt to do better than they have done in previous years. Time will tell.
- If you were a fan of the Note 4’s power-user features like a removable battery and an SD card slot, those are both gone in the service of a “premium design”
Motorola Moto X Pure
The Moto X line has had quite an interesting evolution over the past three years. The first (2013) Moto X was the first phone that was easily customizable from the factory, it had always-on voice control, and was a compact phone with a small 4.7-inch screen. This phone placed user experience and fast updates over an impressive spec sheet and bloated software. The 2014 version featured a larger 5.2-inch screen but retained many of the other lightweight Motorola software tweaks as well as the customizable exterior. For 2015, the Moto X has added the “Pure” moniker, and now includes a large 5.7-inch phablet-sized display, a decent camera, and the extensive Moto Maker customization options.
- With the MotoMaker online store, you can make this phone look unique. Wood, leather, and a variety of colored plastic backs, as well different accent colors and front bezel colors make the options (almost) unlimited.
- The software is still relatively lightweight compared to most other OEMs, but with the recent acquisition of Motorola by Lenovo (and Lenovo getting rid of the Motorola software team) it’s unclear what the future will actually be.
- The camera is pretty good, although the Motorola camera app is still a little bit confusing.
- For the price, this is a great customized option – provided you like big phones, that is.
- The size – for some it’s a plus, but the size of the 2013 Moto X was one of it’s best (and least common) features.
- Battery life is only average, but this phone does include fast charging (although no wireless charging).
- No fingerprint sensor
Motorola Moto G (2015)
When it was released in 2013 the original Motorola G was one of the first (and best) budget phones. Giving decent performance and value-added features at an unlocked price of only about $200, this was a great backup phone or an inexpensive phone for a young family member. The 2015 version adds an upgraded processor, waterproofing (although you still can’t really use a phone underwater), a better camera, and two options for memory and storage (8 GB storage & 1 GB RAM, or 16 GB storage and 2 GB RAM).
- The design, although basic (and not customizable) is still solid for such an inexpensive phone.
- The camera is a big upgrade from last years Moto G, and probably the best camera in a sub-$250 device.
- The slower processor and bigger battery make battery life exceptional.
- This phone, obviously, isn’t going to perform as fast as many of the other devices (especially in gaming), but with the 2GB/16GB version, it’s actually okay for day-to-day usage.
- The display isn’t that great.