Best smartphones of 2016: The 25 best mobile phones you can buy today
Buying the right phone
- Best smartphone of 2016: Android, iOS or Windows Phone?
- Best smartphone of 2016: What size phone is best?
- Best smartphone of 2016: 4G or not 4G?
- Best smartphone of 2016: Is a camera important?
- Best smartphone of 2016: How much do you want to spend?
Android, iOS or Windows Phone
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.
iOS means iPhones, and you probably already know whether or not you’d like to own an iPhone. They’re great devices, with a wealth of apps and games on offer, but they’re not cheap. That said, for anyone looking to buy a high-end phone, 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 G4, the HTC One M9 and the Samsung Galaxy S6. And with Google’s OS constantly improving, the Android smartphones and phablets out there are only going to become more attractive.
What size phone is best?
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.
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.
4G or not 4G?
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.
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.
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.
How much do you want to spend?
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.
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.