By Darren Orf and Sean Hollister
“What’s the best smartphone?” It’s a question I hear at least once or twice a week.
That’s fine. It comes with the territory, really. I write about all kinds of technology all day, every day, but none so much as smartphones. I’ve reviewed many of the major ones released in the past year, from the dirt-cheap to the metal and glossy. They all have something to add in their own way, but only a handful really stand out.
I teamed up with Gizmodo’s reviews editor Sean Hollister, who is also flush with smartphone knowledge, to finally hammer out the definitive answer.
And as you’d imagine: it’s complicated.
The funny thing about buying a smartphone in 2015 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 LTE connectivity.
If you want a great smartphone, all you really need to do is avoid phones that pretend to be excellent, but aren’t.
So if all good phones are great phones, what makes a phone The Best? Why, it simply had to be better than every other phone at providing something people crave. That was the bar we set.
The Best Overall: Galaxy S6·
The iPhone, dethroned. The Galaxy S6 is the absolute best smartphone that you can buy in 2015. Yeah, I know that the world at large doesn’t seem to agree with me, but hear me out. The S6 does almost everything you could possibly want from your pint-sized computer.
The Galaxy S6 looks great, has both wireless charging standards, decent battery life, one of the best smartphone cameras, a fingerprint scanner that doesn’t suck, a blazing fast processor, and an eye-popping quad HD screen all packed into a 5.1-inch body. Here’s the kicker: it all works. It works very well.
Now, yes, there are some things the S6 can’t do. For instance, you can’t swap out the battery or microSD card (a bummer, I know) and if you drop it in water, you’re pretty much screwed. But it also can’t read your mind and time travel, so I think you’ll be fine.
Now, I’m not saying the Galaxy S6 is for everyone. I would still perform a harrowing misdemeanour if it meant the S6 would just run stock Android instead of still being saddled with Samsung’s user interface layer TouchWiz. But this is the best TouchWiz has ever been, and it’s helped create the best smartphone ever made.
The No-Brainer: Apple iPhone 6 (or iPhone 6 Plus)
Even the best Android device is still a thinking man’s phone. Sometimes you don’t want to think. Like when you witness that perfect, fleeting moment you’d like to capture with your smartphone camera. Technically, there are many phones that take pictures just as good — or better! — than an iPhone. If you set the focus properly. If you hold your hands steady. If you take a burst of pictures and pick the best one. If your phone isn’t bogged down with other apps. The iPhone 6 takes the photo you want almost every single time you hit the shutter button. And thanks to optical image stabilisation, the iPhone 6 Plus does it even better.
That kind of we-figured-it-out-so-you-don’t-have-to thinking pervades the entire experience of using an iPhone, and it’s why the iPhone is the phone that’s easiest to recommend for the most people, regardless of where they’re coming from. If you’re not sure exactly what you want, buy an iPhone 6. (If you’ve got small hands, buy an iPhone 6.) If you want a mini-tablet that takes even better pictures and video, buy an iPhone 6 Plus.
Other reasons to buy an iPhone: The best app store. The best portable gaming device. The best customer support.
The Longest Lasting (And Best Waterproof): Sony Xperia Z3
A lot of smartphones cross my desk, and very rarely does one do something that makes me cartoonishly double take. The Sony Xperia Z3 not only did that, it did it on a daily basis. Simply put, the Z3 has the most insane battery life I’ve ever seen on a smartphone. I could take it off the charger, use it moderately all day, forget to charge it and then almost make it to bedtime on day two. That’s crazy good. Plus, this phone looks pretty fantastic when you consider it’s waterproof as well!
You may not think that waterproofing your smartphone is that big of deal. Just keep it in your pocket when it rains, and don’t be clumsy! But there were times I was busily typing out an email on my smartphone while I was running late for work, and needed to take a shower. I hopped in the shower with the Z3, finished my email, and was out the door. Imagine watching Netflix in your bathtub. Or never worrying about spills. There’s even a dedicated camera shutter button so you can take pictures underwater.
If battery life is the absolute must-have feature you need in a smartphone, the Xperia Z3 is the best you can buy. And yeah, the fact it won’t suicide itself after some drops of water is just an added bonus. Keep in mind, though, that there’s a Z4 right around the corner.
The Best Big Phone: Samsung Galaxy Note 4
There are lots of phones with big screens. There’s only one that actually puts that screen to good use. The Samsung Galaxy Note 4 not only has a gorgeous 5.7-inch, 2560 x 1440 Super AMOLED display that’s nearly as crisp as they come, it comes with split-screen multitasking and an excellent active stylus to let you actually make use of all that real estate. It’s an excellent phone in almost every other way too. It doesn’t have the best battery life, the best camera, or the fastest processor, but they’re all above average, and it’s one of the few remaining high-end phones with a removeable battery and microSD card slot.
Plus, another way it makes use of that awesome screen is that you can slot it into a Samsung Gear VR headset to try out the first generation of good-enough virtual reality. If you want a big phone, the only reasons not to buy it are if you’re set on a heftier iPhone 6 Plus with its amazing camera—and its bulkier chassis—or if you’re waiting for its successor, the Galaxy Note 5, which will surely appear later this year.
The Best for Traditionalists: LG G4
LG’s G4 and the Galaxy S6 are similar in important ways. The G4 also has an awesome camera, surprisingly robust battery life, a speedy processor, and great ergonomics because of its slight curve. The big difference is that LG preserves the old-school removable back cover Android has long been known for: giving you access to your battery and SD card.
In many ways, it’s the perfection of what an Android smartphone used to be. It appeals to the power users of yesteryear. It’s for the kind of person who craves a more complex and powerful camera on their smartphone with an excellent manual mode, not the kind who just wants to take slightly better pictures. Even for those folks, the G4 does lots of things really well. But if you like the old way of thinking, this is the one you’ve been waiting for.
The Best Cheap Off-Contract Phone: OnePlus One
The £179 OnePlus One is the phone you should buy if you don’t want a network provider ball-and-chain around your ankle, and don’t want to spend £500 on something better. It’s phone you buy if your existing phone breaks, and you can’t afford to replace it. Because for the money, the OnePlus One is utterly fantastic. Nothing else in its price range comes close. It’s one of the few lower-priced smartphones under that I would describe as “elegant” and regularly garners “oohs” and “ahhs” from friends.
How does it compare to the other smartphones on this list? It’s a little shy, of course. The One has a 5.5-inch 1080p LCD display that’s definitely a lot duller than the top-tier phones. The One’s CyanogenMod operating system is nice and customisable, but it’s no substitute for Android Lollipop. Even though the camera takes pretty good pictures, I frequently lose photo opportunities because of the One’s abnormally long shutter speed. But where the One fails as a shooter it makes up for in sheer endurance: the battery life is second only to the Xperia Z3. And though the Snapdragon 801 processor isn’t the latest and greatest, it feels quick enough.
The OnePlus Two might be worth the wait, but it’s probably going to be more expensive. £179 is hard to beat.
The Best for Pure Android (And Movies): Nexus 6
If you want the latest and greatest Android has to offer, accept no substitutes. The gigantic Nexus 6 is the only phone guaranteed to get swift Android updates. Even though the Moto X was supposedly a Google flagship phone, the Nexus 6 is the only one where you could already be running a preview build of Android M.
Thankfully, it’s also an excellent phone. While the Nexus 6 is already eight months old, you’d be hard-pressed to tell because it shipped with state-of-the-art specs at launch. The Snapdragon 805 processor and 2560 x 1440 AMOLED screen are still excellent, and the battery life is definitely not bad. It’s also got some of the awesome features Motorola originally introduced in the Moto X line, like the ability to always listen for voice commands and let you glance at notifications even with the screen locked.
Plus, with that gorgeous six-inch screen and nice loud front-facing stereo speakers, this is definitely the smartphone we’d recommend for watching movies.
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 £100 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.
Only if you can get it free on contract. The S6 really is better in many important ways. If you need a removeable battery and SD card, go for the LG G4 instead.
Weak, low-res screen with a weird tint. Not worth the money. Also see: Galaxy S5 Mini.
HTC One M9
The HTC One M9 is all looks with no standout features. No waterproofing, no wireless charging, and not even a passable camera. We considered calling it The Best for Butterfingers because HTC will replace your screen for free if it cracks, but meh.
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.
Moto X (2014)
Motorola makes great phones. But last year’s Moto X is beginning to feel its age with a not-so-great camera and an older processor. Customisation is its only real perk. Plus, a new one is coming, so practise some patience if you’re dead set on Moto and don’t want the Nexus 6 in your corner.
When the iPhone 6 first came out, the iPhone 5S still made a lot of sense. It’s even better for small hands, and it’s a little less likely to slip out of them. Now that it’s aged a bit, we’d be hard pressed to recommend it over any of our top picks. Not when a new iPhone is right around the corner, and the rest of Apple’s lineup is likely to shift.
Same argument as the iPhone 5S above. We were toying with calling this one the Best Free On Contract, but we can’t wholeheartedly recommend buying a new iPhone 5C now, not when Apple’s almost certainly about to change the whole lineup.
LG G Flex 2
I actually love this phone, and I bet you’d be happy with it, too. But its curve is the only defining feature. While that’s a pretty great conversation piece, the phone is run-of-the-mill compared to our bests. A full HD screen when we’re on the cusp of a 2K revolution. Why get stuck in the past?
Moto G (2nd gen)
The Moto G was a great contender for the lower-priced handsets, but it’s no longer cheap enough compared to the OnePlus One to justify its mid-range specs.
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.
Amazon Fire Phone
Photos by Michael Hession