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Best smartphones of 2016: Google Nexus 6P is our top dog (and bone)

Alphr logo Alphr 06-05-2016 Alphr

Best smartphones of 2016: Google Nexus 6P is our top dog (and bone)

Best smartphones of 2016: Google Nexus 6P is our top dog (and bone)
© Alphr.com

There's an enormous breadth of choice in today's smartphone market – and it's growing all the time. That's why we've put together this comprehensive guide to the best mobile phones of 2016. From mid-range stunners to the finest flagship smartphones, you're bound to find something here that will hit the spot.

If you just want to start shopping right now, then click the menu above to read the reviews of our favourite phones. You'll find quick summaries of our in-depth reviews, as well as all the key specifications you need to help you make a buying decision. 

If you're not sure what kind of smartphone is right for you, then have a read of our Buyer's Guide. This will help you decide between Android, iOS and Windows Phone, and run you through all the key specifications you need to know about and look out for when buying a new phone.

Best smartphones of 2016: 

1. Google Nexus 6P

Price when reviewed: £449 inc VAT, 16GB; from free on a £27.50/mth, 24mth contract

© Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited
ScreenCameraProcessorStorageBattery

5.7in

1,440 x 2,560

12MP

8MP

Snapdragon 810

3GB RAM

32/64/128GB

No microSD

3,450mAh

Non-removable

Everyone had high hopes for the new Nexus phones, and it's fair to say that Huawei delivered on its side of the bargain. Tasked with creating Google's new big-screened phone, it served up the Nexus 6P – a stylish, speedy phone with a long list of talents.

Where to start? There's a pair of superb cameras, great software, impressive battery life and a big, sharp, colourful 5.7in display which is protected by a burly layer of Gorilla Glass 4. You can choose between 32, 64 or 128GB models, and the only thing that'll bother some people is the decision to not include a microSD slot – well, that and the decision to opt for a USB-C charging port. Leave your charging cable at home, and you may end up cursing Huawei's insistence on using the latest USB connector.

Suffice to say, the Google Nexus 6P is our favourite smartphone. It was the first phone to knock the Samsung Galaxy S6 off its perch after more than six months at the top. Why is it so awesome? Simple - because this 5.7in handset gets pretty much everything right, and wraps it up in a picture perfect package that doesn't cost a huge amount of money. It's a recipe its rivals are going to find it very hard to beat. 

2. Google Nexus 5X

Price when reviewed: £329 inc VAT, 16GB SIM free; £379, 32GB

© Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited
ScreenCameraProcessorStorageBattery

5.2in

1,080 x 1,920

12MP

5MP

Snapdragon 808

2GB RAM

16/32GB

No microSD

2,700mAh

Non-removable

Looks aren't everything, as Google’s 2015 Nexus 5X ably demonstrates. Built by LG, the Nexus 5X is something of a frumpy, plastic-clad lump compared to its glass and metal competitors, but it has all the qualities you'd expect from a high-end phone – and it undercuts them on price, too.  

Up front, there's a 5.2in Full HD screen which is bright and colour accurate, so images look lifelike and natural, and thanks to an impressively high contrast ratio it more than holds its own against flagships at nearly twice the price. Combined with a pixel-perfect camera that snaps 12 megapixel photos and 4K video, and locks onto subjects super-quickly with its laser-targeted autofocus, the Nexus 5X is a lovely, lovely phone.

Of course, none of this would be worth a damn if the Nexus 5X didn't hit the right notes for performance and stamina, but it does just enough to stay in contention. The six-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 delivers enough punch to keep things ticking along nively, even if it's a way off the pace of pricier flagships. The only downside? The 2,700 mAh battery simply isn't big enough to deliver more than a day's usage – you'll find the quick charge function (50% charge in half an hour) coming in very handy indeed.

Okay, so it can't rival the Sony Xperia Z5 Compact for looks, but it’s a much bigger bargain. For your money, you get one of the best mobile phone cameras in the business, slick performance and - most important of all - pure Android 6.0 Marshmallow. It’s a class act. 

3. Samsung Galaxy S7

Price: 32GB, around £569 inc VAT

Samsung Galaxy S7 review: Main shot© Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited Samsung Galaxy S7 review: Main shot
ScreenCameraProcessorStorageBattery

5.1in

1,440 x 2,560

12MP

5MP

Exynos 8890

4GB RAM

32GB

microSD

3,000mAh

Non-removable

The Samsung Galaxy S7 is the most capable smartphone on the market today, with great performance, the best camera in the business and a polished design that no other handset can match. It's a brilliant phone, AND especially now Samsung has brought back storage expansion via microSD card and water and dust resistance.

There's really very little it does wrong. Samsung's 5.1in Super AMOLED screen is simply divine, and the screen technology allows for the clever always-on capability – you can set the Galaxy S7 to display the time and basic notifications all the time, and without adversely affecting battery life.

It's little surprise to find a superb camera in the S7. It might look like a downgrade at first sight – it's dropped from 16 to 12 megapixels – but Samsung has taken the opportunity to enlarge the camera sensor's pixels and increase the lens aperture to maximise the camera's light-gathering abilities. The phase-detect autofocus, a feature more commonly found on DSLRs, has been improved too, and now locks on to subjects super-quickly. In short, it's a great camera.

The clincher is the S7's performance – and it's battery life. The octa-core processor absolutely hammers through benchmarks and games, and it makes for a gorgeously silky experience in everyday use. Astonishingly, battery life is best in class, too, with the Galaxy S7 outlasting all of its rivals in our video rundown tests. 

So, why isn't it number one? Simple: the only reason it doesn't swing top spot is that it's significantly more expensive than the Nexus 6P, and for our money, isn't quite as good value. 

If you can't quite afford the S7, though, the Samsung Galaxy S6 is still a great phone and significantly cheaper, so make sure you check out our review of that handset, too.

4. Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge

Price: 32GB, around £569 inc VAT

Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge always on screen from another angle© Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge always on screen from another angle
ScreenCameraProcessorStorageBattery

5.5in

1,440 x 2,560

12MP

5MP

Octa-core Exynos 8890

4GB RAM

32GB

microSD

3,600mAh

Non-removable

Just like its stablemate, the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge is pretty much as good as it gets. It isn’t a huge upgrade on last year’s model, but with improvements all round – a better camera, bigger screen, better Edge screen functions, the all-important return of the much-missed microSD slot, weather-proofing and superb battery life – it’s a big enough update to maintain Samsung’s position at the top of the smartphone tree.

It certainly helps that it looks bloody gorgeous, too. The glossy glass finish spreads across a glittering metallic base, while the 5.5in screen curves quickly away to reveal the dainty, softly curved edges. It really is something special.

Turn it on, meanwhile, and Samsung's expertise with Super AMOLED technology shows: the screen delivers class-leading levels of brightness, colour accuracy and contrast. It's really quite stupendous, and it shares the clever always-on technology of the standard S7, which allows the time and basic notifications to be displayed permanently, and without hammering the battery.

And talking of battery, the S7 Edge has an enviable ability to pair ridiculous, high-end performance with the best battery life Alphr has ever seen. Meanwhile, a clever feature allows you to limit the framerate in games to squeeze even more battery life out of the S7 Edge. It's just a great, great smartphone. 

5. AppleiPhone 6s

Price: 16GB, £539 inc VAT

Apple iPhone 6s review:© Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited Apple iPhone 6s review:
ScreenCameraProcessorStorageBattery

4.7in

750 x 1,334

12MP

5MP

Apple A9

2GB RAM

16/64/128GB

No microSD

1,715mAh

Non-removable

The iPhone 6s is a great smartphone – fast, reliable and with an excellent camera – and with its new 3D Touch (Force Touch) display, 12-megapixel camera and faster A9 processor it's the best iPhone yet.

3D Touch is an ingenious idea. It senses how hard your fingers are pressing on the screen, and this enables a whole swathe of unbelievably handy little features. In many apps, this manifests itself as the ability to quickly preview emails and images by simply pressing down a little harder on the screen; in others, it provides the ability to bring up a list of quick actions on the homescreen to make navigation around iOS that bit quicker. As app developers explore the potential of 3D Touch, it should go from nifty addition to something you can't live without.

Everything else about the iPhone 6s just screams quality. The luxurious feel and picture-perfect design will be enough to loosen most wallets, but that's just part of the phone's appeal. The Apple A9 processor is mind-bendingly powerful, and makes flicking between apps and playing games an unerringly smooth and silky experience. The only disappointment is that battery life isn't up there with the Android competition – if long battery life is a must, and you want iOS, then you'll need to look at either the 4in iPhone SE or the 5.5in iPhone 6s Plus. 

Nevertheless, the iPhone 6s is all-round a better phone than the iPhone 6 – and if you buy one, you're very unlikely to come away disappointed. 

6. Apple iPhone 6s Plus

Price: £619 inc VAT, 16GB; £699, 64GB; £789, 128GB

© Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited

ScreenCameraProcessorStorageBattery

5.5in

1,080 x 1,920

12MP

5MP

Apple A9

2GB RAM

16/64/128GB

No microSD

2,750mAh

Non-removable

If you like your phones big, you’re going to love the iPhone 6s Plus. Equipped with a huge 5.5in Full HD display and ingenious pressure-sensitive touchscreen tech (that's 3D Touch, if you're wondering), it’s Apple’s biggest and fastest smartphone yet.

Although it’s largely identical internally to the 4.7in iPhone 6s, it is superior in some respects: it has much longer battery life and the camera’s optical image stabilisation (OIS) gives it the edge for low-light photography. That's a big plus point: the iPhone 6s' camera is already absolutely top-dollar but the addition of OIS nudges it even closer to perfection. 

The 5.5in screen sports a mere Full HD resolution – which might not sound like much compared to the qHD displays on rival Android phones – but with that many pixels crammed into such a small space, it still looks fantastically sharp. Factor in the high brightness, deep contrast and well-judged colour accuracy, and the iPhone 6s Plus's display is every bit as good as its rivals. 

The Apple A9 processor still delivers fantastic performance in everything from Safari to games, but the extra large battery makes the biggest impact, pushing battery life past the one day mark and well into two days. Activate iOS' Low Power Mode and the iPhone 6s Plus will keep on trucking long after many of its rivals have crawled back to their chargers. 

Yes, it's expensive, and that high price will put many off, but make no mistake, the iPhone 6s Plus is one fabulous smartphone. 

7. Sony Xperia Z5 Compact

Price: 32GB, around £400 inc VAT

© Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited
ScreenCameraProcessorStorageBattery

4.6in

720 x 1,280

23MP

5.1MP

Snapdragon 810

2GB RAM

32GB

microSD

2,700mAh

Non-removable

Bigger isn't necessarily better. If you’re against the trend towards giant handsets and almost-tablet-sized screens, then the Xperia Z5 Compact is going to set you fumbling for a credit card. It's Android made little and oh-so-lovely.

The design might not be to everyone's tastes – the glass rear picks up smudges and scratches a tad too easily, for one thing – but although it's not the slimmest phone, the extra girth combined with the rounded edges makes it easy to hold even for larger hands. And as ever, Sony's attention to detail when it comes to design makes for a phone which looks the part – the combination of the glass back and rubberised edges looks and feels the part.

Importantly, though, Sony has made the Z5 Compact as tough as they come. It feels sturdy, that easily-smudged glass back aside, and the IP68 water resistance means that it can withstand a thorough soaking without ending up on the scrapheap. 

Everything else is on point, too. Its 4.6in screen is lovely and bright, and far sharper than the 720P resolution might suggest; the 20 megapixel camera is fantastic, serving up photographs that teem with life and fine detail; and battery life is excellent for such a a compact handset.

Factor in the reasonable price, not to mention the tough build and waterproofing, and the Z5 Compact is something of a pint-sized superstar. 

8. Sony Xperia Z5

Price: around £510 inc VAT

© Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited
ScreenCameraProcessorStorageBattery

4.6in

1,080 x 1,920

23MP

5.1MP

Snapdragon 810

3GB RAM

32GB

microSD

2,900mAh

Non-removable

Well, hello – you handsome 5.2in handset, you. We've since had a sneak peek of the Xperia Z5's replacement, the rather lovely Xperia X and X Performance, but we're still somewhat smitten with Sony's previous attempt at bringing the big-screened Xperia bang up to date.

The design hasn't changed much, but that's no bad thing: Sony has done a fantastic job of designing a flagship handset that feels and looks pleasingly different to the rest of the competition out there. Water– and dust–proofing reaches IP 65 and IP68 standards respectively, so the slick, modern good looks go hand-in-hand with a handset that'll survive the odd soaking. A word to the wise, though: the glass back is rather delicate; our review unit smashed after a 30cm drop onto loose gravel. 

Questionable design decisions aside, there's much to love. The camera has received an impressive upgrade, and performance and battery life are excellent. The only huge, glaring problem is that the competition has got that much tougher – the Apple iPhone 6s and Samsung Galaxy S6 have markedly superior hardware, and the LG G4 is nearly as good while costing almost half the price. It's still a lovely, lovely phone, though, and if you happen to find it selling for a bargain price – or on super-cheap tariff – then it's well worth snapping up.

9. OnePlus 2

Price: 16GB, £239 inc VAT; 64GB, £289 inc VAT

© Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited
ScreenCameraProcessorStorageBattery

5.5in

1,080 x 1,920

13MP

5MP

Snapdragon 810

4GB RAM

64GB

No microSD

3,300mAh

Non-removable

It used to be the case that you could only buy a OnePlus 2 if an existing owner invited you, but now that's changed, and the company has put the 64GB edition of the phone on general sale. The 16GB version is no longer available, but a price drop of £40 to £249 on the 64GB model makes up for that and represents fabulous value for money.

So, are you missing out on much from the flagship rivals at over twice the price? Not a vast amount, really. The OnePlus 2 looks the part thanks to its confident, minimalist design, and the magnesium-alloy body means that it feels like a high-end handset should. 

It also packs in a 13-megapixel camera, equipped with laser-assisted autofocus – that’s normally a feature associated with £500+ smartphones, not £250 mid-range models. Admittedly, the shots it produces aren't the best you'll ever see due to a very slight blotchiness to photos and weak low-light performance.

It has the latest version of Qualcomm’s octa-core Snapdragon 810 processor (810 v2.1), developed specially for the OnePlus 2, and this is backed by 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage. It doesn't come as a surprise to find that this is a very, very quick combination and only substantially outgunned by the very best (and most expensive) rivals out there. Only the battery life leaves the OnePlus 2 noticeably off the pace of the best we've seen.

By any yardstick, though, this is a fabulously good value smartphone. If you want a taste of the top-end for under £300, there simply isn't anything better. 

10. Samsung Galaxy Note 5

Price when reviewed: around £430 inc VAT

© Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited
ScreenCameraProcessorStorageBattery

5.7in

1,440 x 2,560

16MP

5MP

Exynos 7420

4GB RAM

32/64/128GB

No microSD

3,340mAh

Removable

The Galaxy Note was arguably the phone which kicked off the big-screened phablet revolution. It was also the first phone in a long, long time that came with a bundled stylus for onscreen scribbling, sketching and handwriting recognition. Now in its fifth generation, there's only one major stumbling block.

And it's quite the stumbling block: it isn't actually officially available in the UK. This is why we can't give it the full double thumbs-up, but if you're willing to forgo the official manufacturer warranty it is an amazing smartphone in every sense. 

It's had its thunder stolen by the Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge in all-out performance terms, but it's still no slouch. It's as fast as the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge+, has a glorious 5.7in AMOLED display, looks absoultely gorgeous, and – its killer feature – the pressure sensitive stylus is as brilliant as ever. Oh, and you want a great quality camera, too, then you're also in luck. Samsung has equipped the Note 5 with a 16 megapixel snapper that serves up fantastic quality photographs thanks to speedy phase detect autofocus, a big high-quality sensor, and a dual-LED flash.

If you're looking for a smartphone that's more of a mini-tablet, and perfect for jotting down notes and quickly annotating documents with comments and feedback, then there's simply no other smartphone that's quite like the Samsung Galaxy Note 5. It's an all-round good egg, and great value, too.  

11. Microsoft Lumia 950 XL

Price: £530 inc VAT

© Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited
ScreenCameraProcessorStorageBattery

5.7in

1,440 x 2,560

20MP

5MP

Snapdragon 810

3GB RAM

32GB

microSD

3,000mAh

Non-removable

Sorry, Microsoft, but when the only phone that gets into a Best Smartphones list has a three star review, you're getting something badly wrong. Let us explain. 

Neither of Microsoft's debut Windows 10 phones is good enough to be recommended above the rival Android flagships or iPhones (and that's why it's been relegated to the bottom of the list here), but for fans of the Windows ecosystem, they do represent a step forward from the previous best Windows handsets. That's why the Lumia 950 XL sits in our selection of best smartphones. It's behind its rivals in a variety of key ways, but if you really, really want a Windows Phone, then read on.

Of the two Lumia phones launched at the end of 2015, the Lumia 950 XL is the one we'd recommend to Windows Phone fans, and from a hardware point of view, it's mostly ship shape. 

The camera is excellent, the screen very good, it has a replaceable battery and storage expansion via microSD. Plus, via its USB Type-C socket and Microsoft's Continuum feature, you can connect it to a monitor, keyboard and mouse and use it like a desktop PC. Right now, that isn't quite the revolutionary feature it sounds like, with performance hiccups souring the deal. And with a limited number of apps available that even work in Continuum mode, it'll be some time yet before your phone replaces your desktop PC.

One other caveat: given all its flaws, the Lumia 950 XL bgeins to look very expensive indeed. Not to mention the fact that you could go out and buy a Nexus 6P or Nexus 5X for less. Nevertheless, Windows Phone fans with money to burn need look no further. 

Buyer's Guide: Android, iOS or Windows Phone?

© Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited

The number-one question to tackle is which platform to buy into. Now that BlackBerry has all but left the phone game, you have iOS, Android and Windows Phone from which to choose.

"You probably already know whether or not you want an iPhone."

iOS means iPhones, and you probably already know whether or not you want an iPhone. They’re great devices, with a wealth of apps and games on offer, but they're not exactly cheap – although the £359 iPhone SE is pretty affordable compared to most flagship phones. That said, for anyone looking to buy a high-end handset, Apple's iPhones deserve a place on the shortlist.

If you definitely don’t want an iPhone, then Windows Phone and Android handsets are available in a number of shapes, sizes and prices.

Windows guarantees you a certain level of gloss right down to the super-budget models, and the top-end Windows Phone handsets are pretty impressive. Performance is sprightly, though, even on the lower-end models, thanks to the minimal demands of Microsoft's Windows Phone OS – these phones just don't need high-end processors and gigabytes of RAM to perform.

The downside of Windows Phone (and the forthcoming Windows 10 Mobile, too) is that its selection of apps and games isn’t anywhere near as healthy as that of Android or iOS. If you want to play a new game every week, and want the best entertainment and travel apps out there, it probably isn't for you.

For many, though, Android is the right choice. Most phones use it, and nowadays it offers a good balance of apps, games and general performance. Aside from the iPhone, all the most high-profile phones use Android, including the LG G5, Nexus 6P and the Samsung Galaxy S7. And with Google's OS constantly improving, the Android smartphones and phablets out there are only going to become more attractive.

Buyer's Guide: What size phone is best?

Nexus 6P review: The camera bulge looks rather good up close© Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited Nexus 6P review: The camera bulge looks rather good up close

Once you’ve made your choice of platform, you need to pick a size. This in part will be determined by how much you want to spend, but as long as you’re willing to fork out £150 or more, there's quite a range available to you.

"If you’re not used to a bigger phone, we recommend trying one out."

Most of the higher-end phones are quite large these days; if you’re not used to a bigger phone, we recommend trying one out in a high-street shop before buying. Most people can generally get accustomed to phones up to 5in in screen size, but anything larger than that becomes a bit of a struggle for people with smaller hands.

Have huge hands? Want a big screen? In the past couple of years, the phone-tablet hybrid market has exploded, and there are several phones that offer 5.7-6.1in screens – truly massive displays for a phone.

For any phones of 5in or larger, we recommend a 1080p screen, which will get you sharp images. Many manufacturers are squeezing Quad HD screens with 1,440 x 2,560 pixels into their larger-screened phones, and some are beginning to move into the realms of 4K, but despite the hype you'll likely struggle to tell the difference between 1080p and Quad HD at these sorts of screen sizes.

Even around the £100 mark it's possible to get hold of handsets with super-sharp screens, such as the Motorola Moto G. Whatever you decide, we recommend opting for screen quality over whether it has wireless technology extras such as NFC or an IR transmitter.

Buyer's Guide: 4G or not 4G?

© Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited

One wireless technology that does matter, though, is 4G. Once reserved for expensive phones, this superfast mobile internet standard is now available in fairly low-cost models too.

"4G may well be faster than your home broadband."

Although performance can vary depending on where you live and the network you subscribe to, 4G can get you around ten times the speed of a normal 3G network. While a 3G network might provide 2Mbits/sec downloads, you’ll often get 16-20Mbits/sec from a 4G network in a big city. That may well be faster than your home broadband.

Most contracts are subject to quite limited data allowances, however, so make sure you do your research before getting too excited about 4G hardware. The speeds vary dramatically depending on which mobile network you're on and where you are in the UK, however – you'd be wise to check out RootMetrics brilliant speed and coverage reports to see which network is quickest in your area before splashing out. 

Buyer's Guide: The camera

MWC 2016 6 things we've learnt already© Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited MWC 2016 6 things we've learnt already

The one other bit of hardware that’s important to consider is the camera. If you’re looking at a phone costing £200 or more, you’re almost guaranteed a reasonably good camera, but if you’re a budget buyer then you'll find most models make compromises.

Low-end phones often leave out the front camera and the flash. Some don’t even have autofocus. If a phone leaves out any such features, it cuts hugely into the photographic flexibility of a smartphone.

At the higher end of the scale, look out for optical image stabilisation. This moves the lens and/or sensor to compensate for the effect of shaky hands. It allows the phone to use longer exposures, enabling more light onto the sensor, which leads to cleaner, less noisy photos when shooting in low light.

Another thing that will help you capture better photographs in difficult conditions is a larger aperture. This is the "F-number" you'll see on the spec sheet, and the lower the number the better. 

It's also worth looking out for advanced, secondary-focus systems. Samsung, Apple and LG all use phase-detect systems that allow faster, more accurate focussing than most phones, which rely on contrast detect autofocus.

Buyer's Guide: How much do you want to spend?

iPhone 6s vs Sony Xperia Z5: Features© Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited iPhone 6s vs Sony Xperia Z5: Features

How much do you need to spend to get a good phone? Great mobiles start at around £80, with models such as the Motorola Moto E. It’s currently about as cheap a phone as you can get without having to give up too much in the way of looks or build quality.

"The very latest flagship phones cost anything up to £700."

High-end phones start at around £270, with slightly older flagship mobiles providing most of what you get from a more expensive phone at a less scary price. Shop around, and you may be able to grab yourself a bargain.

If nothing but the best will do, the very latest flagship phones from companies such as Samsung, LG, Sony and Apple cost between £400-700. On a contract, that normally equates to at least £30+ a month, unless you’re a better haggler than we are.

Best smartphones of 2016: Google Nexus 6P is our top dog (and bone)© Alphr.com Best smartphones of 2016: Google Nexus 6P is our top dog (and bone)


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