Best Android Phones: Q1 2016by Brandon Chester on March 29, 2016 6:30 AM EST
As we start wrapping up the last of our Q1 2016 buyers guides we finally come to the best Android smartphones guide. With the year having just begun, we haven't seen all that the major players in the Android space have to offer for their flagship devices. However, MWC played host to some notable announcements, and by now we've already seen what Samsung has to offer this year, with LG and HTC coming very soon.
As usual, I'll be moving down the price range, starting from the largest and most expensive phones, and ending with the best of Android's mid range devices.
Best Android Phablets: Samsung Galaxy Note5 and Google Nexus 6P
Unchanged from the 2015 Holiday recommendation is the best Android phablet recommendation. The Galaxy Note5 is Samsung's flagship large screen smartphone, and it still comes out on top of the competition in all the key areas like camera, display, and performance. At a high level, the Galaxy Note5 has a 5.7" 2560x1440 AMOLED display, Samsung's Exynos 7420 SoC, 4GB of LPDDR4 memory, and a 16MP camera with OIS that also supports 4K video recording. Samsung created the phablet category, and they've continued to improve on the Note line with every iteration, leading to a well refined smartphone that is difficult to compete with.
It's worth noting that due to Samsung's release schedule the Galaxy Note5 is actually a step behind the Galaxy S7 in some ways. Obviously the 5.1" Galaxy S7 and 5.7" Galaxy Note5 don't compete directly, but Samsung does offer the Galaxy S7 Edge which has a 5.5" curved display. You don't get the S-Pen from the Note5, but you do get improvements in other areas, including a new camera and either Qualcomm's Snapdragon 820 or Samsung's Exynos 8890 SoC depending on your region.
Of course, the market is always moving, and if you really want to wait five or six months you could wait for the next iteration of the Galaxy Note. For now, the Note5 is as good as it gets for large Android phones.
If you're looking for something priced more affordably than the Galaxy Note5, or if you're not a fan of Touchwiz, the Nexus 6P could be a viable alternative. It's Google's flagship Nexus phone, and it's made in partnership with Huawei. Like the Note5 it sports a 2560x1440 AMOLED display, but it's powered by Qualcomm's Snapdragon 810 SoC which is paired with 3GB of LPDDR4 RAM and 32GB of NAND.
Compared to the Note5 you do make some sacrifices with the Nexus 6P. Snapdragon 810's problems are a known quantity at this point, and I'm honestly very hesitant to recommend a phone that uses it. In the case of the Nexus 6P, you're getting what is likely the best Snapdragon 810 implementation in a phone, so there's less throttling than with other smartphones like the OnePlus 2. The Nexus 6P's 12.3MP camera can take some really great photos, but you're almost always forced to shoot in the slow HDR+ mode, and exposure can still be incorrect at times. The final compromise is storage performance, as the Nexus 6P's eMMC NAND is simply not competitive with Samsung's UFS 2.0 solution.
While the Nexus 6P is a step behind the Note5 in many respects, the promise of software updates and unmodified Android software from Google is an important thing for many people. In addition, the price is also a step behind that of the Note5 as well, with the Nexus 6P starting at the equivalent of $499 USD in many markets. For me, this is what the true appeal of the Nexus 6P is, and in markets where the phone isn't sold directly from Google at a relatively low price there may be better options available for users looking to get a phablet for a lower price than the latest generation of flagship phones.
Best High-End Android Smartphone: Galaxy S7
As the most widely known line of Android flagship smartphones, I don't think the Galaxy S series needs any introduction. This year marked the release of the Galaxy S7, the seventh flagship Android phone from Samsung if you're ignore derivative smartphones like the Galaxy S Edge series. The Galaxy S7 represents Samsung making important changes to the design and feature set that they arrived at with the Galaxy S6. The design is very similar to the Galaxy S6, but Samsung has tweaked the curvature of the back, edges, and cover glass to make the phone significantly more ergonomic. The chassis does get thicker and heavier, which allowed for a significant reduction to the camera hump on the S6, as well as a larger battery.
As far as specs go, the Galaxy S7 comes in two versions. Both have 5.1" 2560x1440 AMOLED displays, 32 or 64GB of UFS 2.0 NAND, 4GB of LPDDR4 memory, a 12MP Sony IMX260 camera with a f/1.7 aperture, and a 3000mAh battery. Depending on where you live you'll either get Qualcomm's Snapdragon 820 or Samsung's Exynos 8890 SoC, both of which use custom ARM cores. More specifically, the US, Japan, and China will receive the Snapdragon 820 version, while the rest of the world gets Exynos 8890.
Regardless of which Galaxy S7 you get; you'll be getting the best hardware that Samsung has to offer. I was a fan of the Galaxy S6, and simply improving upon it for 2016 was a pretty surefire way to create a great successor. People who were upset by the loss of MicroSD support on the Galaxy S6 will also appreciate Samsung adding it back, although it does mean that there's no 128GB version of the phone available.
As for price, the Galaxy S7 starts at $650 for the 32GB model, with the price going up to $750 for 64GB.
For buyers looking for an option besides Samsung, my best advice would be to wait a bit longer for 2016's flagship phones to launch. Market availability of the LG G5 is right around the corner, and HTC will surely be introducing their own flagship phone for this year. While I wouldn't want to comment on the quality of devices that we've yet to do some sort of review of, what we have seen of the upcoming flagships makes it very likely that the Galaxy S7 won't be the only flagship phone to consider this year.
Best Mid-Range Android Smartphone: Google Nexus 5X
This section of the guide is also not changing from the Holiday 2015 edition. The Nexus 5X still stands out as a very capable and high quality device for its price, and it's my choice of best mid-range Android phone. I'm being a bit looser with my definition of mid-range here, as I often use that term to refer to phones that cost between $200 and $300, perhaps capping at $350 or so. The Nexus 5X is right at that high end, with a price of $349.
When you look at the Nexus 5X's specs, it's hard to deny that you're getting a great phone for your money. It has a 5.2" 1920x1080 IPS display, and from my review of it you'll know that it's an incredibly well calibrated display for a phone of this price. The chassis is also a significant improvement in both ergonomics and finish over the Nexus 5, with there being fewer seams and smoother transitions between surfaces. As for the internals, you get the same 12.3MP camera as the Nexus 6P, a 2700mAh battery, 16 or 32GB of storage, and 2GB of LPDDR3 memory. This is all powered by Qualcomm's Snapdragon 808 SoC, which is the one notable downside to the Nexus 5X.
Even thought the SoC isn't impressive like Snapdragon 800 was in the original Nexus 5, I think the fact that the feature set is similar to the Nexus 6P at $150 less is impressive, and for $349 I wouldn't opt for any other phone. The Nexus 5X happens to be my daily Android phone of choice, and I think it's the best mid-range Android smartphone.
Best Budget Android Smartphone: Huawei Honor 5X
I look at many mid range Android smartphones in my reviews. I've seen the state of the market go from a cesspool of horrible phones to a market of phones that actually provide a pretty great user experience for someone shopping on a more constrained budget. At one point Motorola was the champion in this space for users who didn't live in regions serviced by Xiaomi. Unfortunately, they've made some missteps regarding software updates lately, and they've let their hardware become a bit stale ever since they were purchased by Lenovo. While my holiday recommendation for a budget Android phone went to the 2GB version of the Moto G, my recommendation for early 2016 has to go to Huawei's Honor 5X.
The Honor 5X is actually a phone from 2015, but it was recently brought to North America after a launch event at CES. I published my review of it last month, and I said that for $199 it would be really difficult to find a better device. That still holds true, with the exception of users who only care about performance, and for those users I would recommend the ASUS Zenfone 2. For everyone else, the Honor 5X is a great all around device for $199. It has a 1920x1080 IPS display, 16GB of NAND, a 13MP rear-facing camera, and a 3000mAh battery. At the heart of the phone is Qualcomm's Snapdragon 616 SoC paired with 2GB of LPDDR3 memory.
On top of having relatively good specs for a $199 phone, the Honor 5X goes above and beyond in two ways. The first is the chassis, which is primarily made of aluminum and looks a lot nicer than most of the mid range phones you'll find. The second is the inclusion of a fingerprint scanner, which is a convenience that is often lost when moving down from the flagship smartphone market. Including the sensor is one thing, but the fact that it's a really nice and simple to set up fingerprint scanner is a big advantage over competing phones that don't even include one at all.
Obviously there are always exceptions. If Xiaomi operates in your market and works on your carrier you may find "better" devices from them. For a large number of buyers that simply isn't an option, and at these price points importing a phone is going to be more trouble than it's worth to get something that's a bit faster or has a couple spec advantages. I think for most users looking for a mid range phone the Honor 5X really delivers, and bringing features like the fingerprint scanner and metal chassis from high end smartphones helps to position it above the competition. For $199, I don't think you can go wrong with the Huawei Honor 5X.