Nailing down the best smartphones of 2015 is no easy task. The phone industry is hugely competitive and we’re constantly bombarded by advertising about a phone which is claimed to be the fastest, the most powerful and the greatest thing since sliced bread. And often, those claims fall a little short of the mark.
Chances are there are even adverts surrounding this feature telling you to “BUY PHONES”. But if you want to get a new device for yourself or a loved one this Christmas, which should you go for? Here’s our pick of the flagship devices from all of the major manufacturers – whether you're after a new iPhone, a fresh slice of Android or (gasp!) a brand new Blackberry, there's something here whatever your high-end taste.
So, in no particular order...
Best Smartphones of 2015
iPhone 6S / 6S Plus
Let’s start with the best selling phones of the year. This year’s iteration of Apple’s iPhones improved on last year’s iPhone 6 both on the inside (making use of Apple’s new A9 processor), and also in terms of how you can interact with them.
The big addition is the introduction of a feature that Apple calls “3D Touch”. Essentially, due to a special layer built into the screen, the phone can detect how hard you’re pressing down. This is used to enable “right click” style gestures.
For example, now when choosing an app on the home screen, if you press harder than normal the screen will blur and a new menu will pop out of the icon enabling you to skip directly to a specific part of the app. For example, you can go straight into selfie mode on the camera, skipping the need to go into the main camera and then faff about finding the switch button. On the Twitter app, you can skip straight to the “Compose New Tweet” box.
It can also be used in apps too. If you’re scrolling through a list of emails you can 3D Touch in order to “pop” messages up and get a fuller preview of the contents within, without having to load up the email in full.
In terms of looks, the 6S and 6S Plus appear essentially identical to last year’s models. But rest assured, if you pick up an iPhone this Christmas, you’re going to want the latest one.
Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge
As usual, Samsung released about fifty million different phones this year, but the flagship devices were unveiled back in April. However, the Galaxy S6, a shinier, metal-cased successor to last year’s S5, was significantly overshadowed by the Galaxy S6 Edge, one of the first phones to sport a curved glass screen.
The screen curves around to both the left and the right, creating a unique-looking handset – and the Edge screens can even be useful too. The idea is that when the phone is face-down you can set one of the edges to flash a given colour if a notification is received. If the phone is lying on your bedside table, you can have it display the time or even the RSS feeds on the edge, so you can see it from under the duvet. Pretty neat.
Samsung Galaxy Note 5
If the S6 Edge just isn’t big enough for you, then check out its heftier brother, the Galaxy Note 5, which was released in August. The phablet has a 5.7 inch 2K screen and a 16MP camera, and has been hailed by none other than Giz as “the best Android phone that spares no expense”.
The device is perhaps most recognisable for its stylus, which comes spring-loaded in the body and can be used for taking notes like a boss. Using it, you can highlight images, text or simply chop out parts of the screen and import them into the S Notes app for safe keeping. Best of all, in settings it is possible to enable the phone to automatically load the notes app when you take out the stylus - even when the phone is locked. This means that taking notes takes only scant seconds, rather than requiring a frustrating ten seconds unlocking your phone and navigating to the app.
It is also, along with the Galaxy S6, one of the first devices to support Samsung’s new payment platform, which will be launching in the UK next year to rival Apple Pay.
HTC One M9
HTC’s entry into the flagship race this year was the HTC One M9, which while not setting the world on fire, did provide a worthy spec boost to keep pace with its rivals. Sharpening some of the HTC One M8's curvier edges, it remains one of the best looking phones on the market, even if its headline features were iterative rather than ground-breaking.
So if you’re a fan of HTC’s “Sense” UI, which aggregates your social networks and news feeds onto your home screen, you can get more of the same with the M9.
Huawei Mate S
When Huawei announced the Mate S it was quite a coup. The company managed to beat Apple to “Force Touch” by a matter of weeks - and it showed off this pressure-sensing technology by using an app to weigh an orange, in an amusingly oblique reference to its competitor.
The feature actually shows a lot of promise too. On the phone “the force” is used for magnifying parts of photos (with the level of zoom depending on how hard you press) and perhaps more usefully to hide the ugly “back”, “home” and “carousel” buttons found at the bottom of every Android screen unlocking more screen real estate for your apps. Instead, you just press harder where that button would usually be.
The other significant advantage the Mate S has over its better known rivals is that it is significantly cheaper. So if you want a phone that feels like a premium device but comes without the pricetag, this is the one to get.
Google Nexus 5X / 6P
If you decide to go Android, there are a lot of options from a number of manufacturers. But sometimes you just want a shot of pure, undiluted, Google - and for that you’ll need to pick up either the Nexus 5X or 6P.
Both devices are recently released and are competitive with the other top-spec handsets available. But crucially, they run Android Marshmallow exactly how Google intended it to be. So if you like Google’s approach to “material design”, and don’t want your phone covered in Samsung or LG’s bloatware, one of these could be the phone to pick up.
The other hidden benefit is one of security. One of the persistent problems for Android has been that if a bug is discovered, patching it can be time consuming as (unlike how Apple can simply release a single fix for the few generations of iPhones running its vanilla OS), Google is forced to distribute its security updates through the individual handset manufacturers and phone networks. So though Android Marshmallow has technically been “released” for some months now, some handsets are still waiting for the software update. If you stick with a Nexus, as Google make it themselves (albeit with the actual manufacturing carried out by hardware partners LG and Huawei), you’ll always have the latest updates available on your phone.
OnePlus is a Chinese phone manufacturer that has a bit of a cult following thanks an “invite only” sales process. If you can wangle an invite though it might be worth picking one up it's latest OnePlus 2 handset, a powerful device available at a cheap price.
What separates it from the pack is that despite running Android, it doesn’t run the ‘official’ Google version, but a spin-off called “OxygenOS”. So it’ll run all of the same Android apps, as well as a suite of apps that OnePlus has created specifically for the phone - and it is much more customisable than Google’s stock Android.
And finally, if you’re steadfast in refusing to join the rest of us in the second decade of the 21st century with phones that use a touchscreen, you could always pick up the Blackberry Priv. This is the company’s first Android phone, but following in Blackberry tradition, it sticks with a slide-away physical keyboard beneath the 5.4 inch 2K screen.
The phone has received a mixed reception, but those who like it seem to really like it - with the keyboard going down well. And we’re not surprised; spec-wise it is powered by a 64 bit hexacore Snapdragon 808 with 3GB of RAM, and Blackberry reckons you can get 22.5 hours of usage out of it before needing to recharge.
As a phone aimed at business users, the company is also trumpeting its supposed enhanced security features, which have been brought over from its own previous Blackberry platform. This includes an app which will let you manage app permissions on an individual basis, and notifications when different services are being accessed on the phone by different apps.
With the LG G3 last year, LG entered into the upper tier of smartphone manufacturers that can compete on raw power, as well as prestige. With the G4, LG appears built on its success turning out another device that is suitably powerful yet elegant. Spec-wise it is up there with the likes of the Galaxy S6, with a 2K screen 16MP camera and 3GB of RAM. But the phone beats it on several metrics too - including the feat of cramming an 8MP camera into the front for selfies, versus 5MP on the S6.
Perhaps most unusual is what's on the outside: Rather than opt for plastic or metal, the latter of which has become increasingly standard in top-tier devices, a subset of LG G4 variants opted for... leather. Yeah - say what you will about using a slice of dead cow but it certainly makes the phone look unique. Helpfully, LG has also retained the standby button in the centre of the rear of the device rather than put it on the side, so that it sits intuitively where your finger naturally fits.