Now that the HTC 10 has been revealed in all its glory and we aren't likely to hear of any other new major phone releases until the end of the summer, it's time to announce my picks for the ten best smartphones to start 2016.
While we've seen some great offerings in the $400 or less price zone, we also saw the iPhone and a few Android flagships launch in the typical high-end $600 to $900+ range. Each of us has to make our own decision as to what price is acceptable to us, but as a person who uses a smartphone for hours each day as an essential tool I have yet to see an unreasonable price for the value I get out of my phones.
As you will see in the list below, I finally found a phone to knock the big screen iPhone model out of the top spot. I've had the iPhone 6 Plus and iPhone 6s Plus at the top of my last three lists, dating back to late 2014. My iPhone 6s Plus hasn't served as a daily driver for a couple of months now and it's not just because of the hardware.
Let's take a look at my current top picks for to kick off the first half of 2016. Because there are so many great devices today and the bigger screen variations of a couple models don't offer that much more, I've combined the iPhone and Galaxy standard and bigger screen models into a single pick.
1. Samsung Galaxy S7/S7 Edge
I don't think there is any surprise here with my top pick of 2016 so far. Samsung's new Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge are clearly the best smartphones available today with industry leading specifications, refined design, and capabilities that had me almost awarding it a perfect 10 in my review. The only con I could come up with for the S7 was that it is a fingerprint magnet and for the S7 Edge that the edge screen sometimes facilitated inadvertant screen presses. Samsung is fixing that screen sensitivity with a software update soon.
The Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge have extremely fast cameras that take incredible photos and video, responsive fingerprint scanners and advanced Samsung Pay support, water resistance without the fuss of ports, elegant refined design with the use of metal and glass, and also launched with sweet offers from US carriers and Samsung.
While wireless charging is just a convenience, Samsung has everything you could want in a phone in the S7 and S7 Edge to make using one a sheer joy.
CNET also awarded the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge an Editor's Choice award so there's little doubt that Samsung has the best smartphone on the planet so far.
2. HTC 10
The HTC 10 review embargo just lifted yesterday and after using one for two weeks I'm pleased to say that HTC is back with a real winner. HTC set the bar for the use of metal and enhanced design elements several years ago and the HTC 10 is the culmination of all that is great with HTC.
No other phone can match the audio experience of the HTC 10. If you use your phone for music or videos and like having a pocketable device that is built to withstand life's daily movement, then you will understand why I picked the HTC 10 as my second choice.
HTC has come a long way with the cameras, introducing the first front-facing camera with OIS. The rear 12 megapixel UltraPixel 2 camera with OIS is its best yet, but there are still a few software tweaks to be made to beat out the Samsung Galaxy S7 and LG G5.
If you are considering a GSM model in the US, then I highly recommend you purchase the $699 unlocked model from HTC.com. This comes with the 1-year Uh Oh protection plan (one free replacement if you break or soak the phone) and is free of carrier bloatware, while also having an unlocked bootloader.
I awarded the HTC 10 a a 9.5/10 in my review, but after a software update or two it may earn a couple more tenths before the release in a couple of weeks.
3. Apple iPhone 6s Plus/6s
Apple continues to make excellent phones, but this time I moved the Apple iPhone 6s Plus and iPhone 6s down a couple notches. It's still an excellent choice, but we are starting to notice that Apple is missing out on some features such as fast charging, wireless charging, easily expandable memory, universal USB Type-C connections, water resistance, and advanced camera functionality.
Apple does a solid job with battery life, primarily because of how well standby time is managed. However, Android Marshmallow has provided Android phones with smarter standby battery management so Apple isn't the only one getting battery life on a phone to go for at least a day.
3D Touch, Touch ID, Hey Siri, the improved camera, the awesome front-facing camera flash technique (now present on Android phones), and more all make the iPhone 6s/6s Plus a great choice today.
The iPhone 6s and 6s Plus remain the most expensive smartphones available, priced from $649 to $949. With US carriers no longer hiding the real price of phones behind subsidized scams, people are starting to understand how expensive the iPhone really is and it seems there is more consideration for more reasonably priced alternatives.
Check out the my full review of the iPhone 6s Plus (9.5 rating). CNET also has reviews of the iPhone 6s (8.9 rating) and iPhone 6s Plus (9 rating).
4. Samsung Galaxy Note 5
It's been a couple of years since I owned a Galaxy Note, but after falling in love with the radical design changes in the Galaxy S6 Edge I knew I had to buy the Note 5. I returned my Galaxy S6 Edge because it didn't meet my battery needs so I was thrilled to see the Note 5 with the curved back (much better design than a curved front), new S Pen technology, one of the best smartphone displays ever, and more.
The S Pen has always been a focus of the Note line, but in the past I only used it occasionally. With the Note 5, I used the S Pen much more often. The ability to add notes to the display when the display is off is key to this change in my usage patterns.
As you can see in my full review (9.7 rating) the Note 5 has excellent specifications, but they were trumped by the 2016 Android phones. Rocking a Samsung Exynos octa-core processor, 4GB of the fastest RAM, 5.7 inch 2560x1440 pixels display, 16 megapixel camera, 3000 mAh battery, and more make it a device to seriously consider.
Samsung Pay is also better than Android Pay and Apple Pay thanks to its use of magnetic secure transmission (MST) technology. The Galaxy Note 5 is priced at $700 for the 32GB model and $780 for the 64GB model.
Check out the CNET review of the Samsung Galaxy Note 5 that earned an 8.9 rating.
5. LG V10
The LG G4 was the Rodney Dangerfield of 2015 and despite its leading camera technology and other attributes, it never earned the respect it deserved. LG snuck one in on me in late 2015 with the release of the LG V10 and thanks to the awesome Des Smith at T-Mobile I had the chance to spend a few months with the LG V10.
The LG V10 took all that was great about the LG G4 and then beefed it up with a unique secondary front display, second wide-angle front-facing camera, rear fingerprint scanner, rock solid stainless steel sides, and a composite textured removable back cover. Android Marshmallow is just now rolling out for the LG V10, making it as relevant today as when it was launched several months ago.
LG continues to provide an IR transmitter in its phones so you can control your TV and other media right from the phone. The camera on the LG V10 still stands out above the crowd with manual video recording capability that gives you full control over the mics and other advanced recording settings.
6. LG G5
LG continued to chase Samsung in the Android space so in 2016 they went outside the box with a focus on modularity. The LG G5 has a removable bottom piece and battery with the capability to slide in a camera grip battery module and digital-to-analog module. While the idea is interesting, we have yet to see many uses for such modularity so the success of the LG G5 remains to be seen.
Despite the modular focus, the LG G5 continues LG's success in the camera space with another unique take on the camera. Unlike the dual front-facing cameras on the LG V10, LG decided to bring that wide-angle lens to the back and provides two cameras on the rear of the device. This allows for some great landscape and full room shots.
Like most Android flagships of 2016, the LG G5 sports the highest end processor and internal specifications. You will also continue to find an IR transmitter, in addition to a removable battery and microSD card slot.
The LG G5 doesn't quite have the fit and finish of its previous devices and the design lags behind the Galaxy S7 and HTC 10. I awarded it an 8.6/10 rating in my full review. CNET gave it a similar rating of 8.4/10 in its full review.
7. Google's Huawei Nexus 6P
The Google Nexus 6P is a fantastic device, I gave it a 9.6/10, that is brought to use from Huawei. This is the first time Google worked with Huawei on a Nexus and it's also the most premium Nexus device ever.
In addition to high end specifications and a reasonable price, you can use the Nexus 6P with Project Fi wireless service.
The Nexus 6P was the first Android 6.0 Marshmallow smartphone to launch and includes the new fingerprint scanner technology, USB Type-C port, and Now On Tap capability. You can now even get in on the Android N preview action with the Nexus 6P so you can test what's coming next.
The Nexus 6P is priced at $499, $549, and $649 for 32GB, 64GB, and 128GB internal storage capacity. This is $200 to $300 less than Samsung and Apple flagship smartphones.
Check out the CNET review of the Google Nexus 6P, earning a score of 8.4/10.
8. Nextbit Robin
While this phone didn't earn one of my highest review ratings, I had to include the Nextbit Robin in this edition of my top 10 list. Remember, this list is subjective so I get to make the rules for it on my blog.
The Nextbit Robin, especially the cool Electric color Kickstarter model I purchased, is a looker with retro rectangular styling, use of high end plastic material, colorful options, and a unique take on the Android OS. It is focused on using the cloud for external storage and appears to handle it well.
Even if you personally don't focus on the cloud portion of the design, the Nextbit Robin is a fantastic pure Android device that feels good in the hand, is very responsive, has a decent camera, provides a stereo front-facing speaker experience, and is fairly inexpensive at $399.
The design is consistent and if you are a bit OCD about your devices then you may appreciate the Nextbit Robin. I awarded it an 8.4/10 and with some software updates it may deserve an even higher score.
9. BlackBerry Priv
BlackBerry launched its first Android smartphone, the BlackBerry Priv, in early November. After taking the AT&T BlackBerry Priv for a spin I went and bought another BlackBerry Passport.
A couple months later, BlackBerry rolled the Priv out to T-Mobile while also releasing a few software updates and during my second look I grew to appreciate and understand the usefulness of the Priv.
The BlackBerry Priv is an Android smartphone with a 5.43 inch display that slides up to reveal a portrait-oriented QWERTY keyboard. The BlackBerry Priv has decent specifications that include a Snapdragon 808 processor, 3GB of RAM, 32GB of internal storage and microSD card slot, 18 megapixel camera, rapid and wireless charging support, massive 3,410 mAh battery, and more. The camera is OK, but can't match that of the newest Android devices.
BlackBerry reportedly only sold about 600,000 Priv handsets, but it is a nice device for those who still want a physical keyboard and the BlackBerry enhancements to Android are very efficient.
CNET awarded the BlackBerry Priv a 7.6/10 in its full review.
10. LG G4
I've been rocking a T-Mobile LG G4 since May 2015 and posted my review (rating of 9.6) last year. The LG G4 remains one of the top Android smartphones one year later and even has the latest version of the Android operating system.
The LG G4 has one of the best cameras available on a smartphone, has a removable user-replaceable battery, and includes a microSD expansion card slot. It supports rapid charging and with a simple $10 mod to the back cover, did I mention it comes in leather?, you can even get Qi wireless charging support.
You can now pick up the LG G4 on T-Mobile for just $350 so if you are looking to save money and still end up with an excellent smartphone don't overlook the older LG G4.
You will find a Snapdragon 808 1.8 GHz 64-bit processor, 3GB RAM, 16 megapixel camera with f/1.8 aperture and OIS, front facing 8 megapixel camera, removable 3,000 mAh battery, Quick Charge 2.0 technology, and support for up to 2TB microSD cards.
Check out CNET's review of the LG G4 with an 8/10 rating.
While it's always fairly clear which devices are in the top five, the second five are a bit tougher and some devices get left off the list. Here's the others that I considered for my top 10 and one reason I passed them by: Google Nexus 5x (2GB RAM is too low for today's phones), Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge+ (limited release trumped by S7 Edge), Motorola Moto X Pure Edition (Moto has lost its appeal to me), and Sony Xperia Z5 (limited release, Sony can't seem to release great camera software).
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