Best smartphone 2015 - buying guide & top mobile phone picks
If you've been confused by the sheer number of smartphones available and can't work out which one you should buy, then you've come to the right place. After testing hundreds of mobile phones, we've sifted through all of the reviews to bring you the definitive list of what's commonly available. We've even got a handy buying guide to help you narrow down your choice.
Smartphone buying guide
Smartphones are so useful that they're already near-indispensable in our lives, but finding the right one for you and your budget can be tricky, especially when there are so many expensive contracts to sift through. To make things easier, we've rounded up everything you need to know about buying your perfect smartphone as well as what you need to know about picking out a contract.
Which smartphone operating system do I need?
The first, and probably most important, decision to make is which operating system you want your phone to run. This will dictate what the phone is like to use, which features it has as standard and the apps you can install on the phone to add to its capabilities. There are three main choices: Apple iOS, Google Android and Windows Phone 8.1. All are slick, modern operating systems, but each offers a very different user experience and the handsets available with each OS vary widely.
iOS is only available on Apple's own smartphones. Its big rival Android has made some great gains in terms of smooth operation, but iOS still feels like the slickest OS, as the phone never seems to judder or slow down – something which can happen on even high-end Android handsets. Some argue that its interface is a bit simplistic, and it's not as customisable as Android, but there's no doubt it's incredibly easy to use and the latest version made it more open than ever before. See our full iOS 8.2 review for more information.
Apple iOS is also still the best-supported OS with the widest range of apps, although Android is very close behind. Finally, Apple is very good at providing updates for older handsets, so you'll very likely be able to download and install the latest version of iOS when it's released.
Android is iOS's biggest competitor and is by far the world's most popular smartphone operating system, running on around 80% of smartphones. Any handset manufacturer is free to make a phone with Android, which leads to a huge choice of smartphones at a wide range of prices. For this reason, most people will end up choosing an Android smartphone, as all the choice means it’s easy to find one that exactly fits your requirements. There are many different versions of Android available, but Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean) or higher is recommended, as older versions are now outdated and may not have comprehensive app support.
On top of this, manufacturers customise their own version of Android, which means that the experience differs. For example, Android 5.0 Lollipop review explains how the latest version works, but the experience differs a lot between different manufacturers; our reviews, explain how Android behaves on that particular phone. These customisations mean that Android update process can be pretty painful, with the latest version of Android often taking months to arrive on a particular handset, as manufacturers have to make their operating system customisations work with the new Android version. If you're wondering if your handset will get an upgrade, read our Android Lollipop update guide for the full lowdown.
There's a huge range of apps available in the Google Play store, and the number almost matches the number available in Apple's App Store. Android app quality is also improving, but iOS apps generally still have the edge. Also, while app makers will almost always make a version of their app for iOS, not all apps make it over to Android.
The third main smartphone OS is Windows Phone 8.1. This is also available on phones from different manufacturers, but Nokia (now Microsoft) makes by far the most. Windows Phone is a highly accomplished OS, which is incredibly smooth and intuitive to use. We love its Live Tiles, which are large icons that display information from apps, such as your latest calendar appointments.
There are a couple of disappointments on Windows Phone, though, as there are nowhere near as many apps available for the platform as on Android and iOS. However, Microsoft is constantly updating the Windows Phone Store with new apps and services and the selection is improving rapidly. Before buying a Windows Phone handset, check that there isn’t an app missing from the platform which you can't live without, and read our Windows Phone 8.1 review.
What should I look for in a smartphone display?
As most smartphones are controlled entirely with their touchscreens, the size and quality of a handset's display is highly important. A larger screen will make everything easier to read and is particularly useful for web browsing, but a big display makes for a big phone which you may find harder to carry around.
Screen resolution is also important. The latest Android phones have Full HD (1,920x1,080) or above screens, so everything is incredibly detailed. However, this resolution isn't strictly necessary: a 1,280x720 (or thereabouts) resolution still provides plenty of detail, while an 800x480 screen is fine for a budget model. A screen's pixel density, measured in pixels per inch (PPI), will give you can idea of how clear and sharp text will appear on a screen; a smaller number of pixels stretched across a huge screen, for example, will lead to jagged edges.
Screen technology can be important, with Super AMOLED screens and LCD the two main technologies. In Super AMOLED screens, each pixel is self-illuminated, rather than filtering through light from a backlight as on LCD screens, so you get better contrast with deeper blacks, as well as lower power consumption. The disadvantage is that such screens use PenTile sub-pixel arrangements. In a traditional display, there are three sub-pixels per pixel (one red, one green and one blue), which combine to create a final colour; PenTile screens typically use two sub-pixels (one green and alternate red and blue). The result is that AMOLED screens may not have quite the colour accuracy of LCD models. Our reviews tell you how good each screen really is.
Battery life and performance
A modern smartphone is a proper computer, with most models having at least dual-core processors, if not quad-core. Some phones even have eight cores, with four lower-power cores dedicated to less-intensive tasks. The speed of a processor determines how fast each handset is, how slick the OS feels, and how the phone copes with complicated web pages, but you can't tell this from specs alone.
To test performance we run a web browser benchmark on each phone and also a 3D test to see how well a handset can cope with modern games. We also play a video on repeat to test each phone's battery life; some phones will cope with a couple of days away from the mains, but most phones need charging every day. Our guide to smartphone battery life gives more detail and shows how the top 60 phones of 2014 compare.
How much smartphone storage do I need?
Having enough storage space is vital. Apps, especially games, take up plenty of room, and you'll also need space for your photos, videos and music. All phones have a certain amount of onboard storage, but a handset's pre-installed apps can eat into that. Our reviews will tell you if there's not much space left for you to use.
Some phones let you expand their storage with microSD cards. With 32GB cards costing less than £20, this is a cheap way to add more capacity. Generally speaking, a minimum of 8GB of onboard storage is fine if there's a microSD card slot; 16GB should be the minimum otherwise. Some cheap phones only have 4GB of onboard storage, so you'll definitely need to add a microSD card to get the most out of your smartphone.
Do I need 4G on my smartphone?
All smartphones support 3G, but only some models support 4G (LTE). 4G is incredibly fast, but 4G contracts can still be expensive. Prices are coming down, however. Bear in mind that all smartphones have Wi-Fi built in, which will help you cut down on mobile data use when you're on your home or a guest network, as well as letting you take advantage of super-fast data speeds.
How should I buy a smartphone?
You can get smartphones from £80 all the way up to around £1,000, but this largely depends on how much you've got and how you want to pay. Generally speaking, buying a phone unlocked and SIM-free is the best option, as you can use any SIM you like and sell the phone when you want to upgrade, but you do have to have the money up-front. Don't buy a PAYG phone, as you'll end up paying the SIM-free price, but with your phone locked to a network (with the exception of on Three, which doesn't lock phones). If you can't stomach the up-front cost, then go with a contract, but work out the total cost of it over the period to make sure you aren't getting ripped off: if you can afford a bit more up-front, you'll most likely save over the contract's length.
1. Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge
It's eye-wateringly expensive, but the Galaxy S6 Edge really is one of the most desirable phones on the planet right now. Its curved edges look stunning, and it's got plenty of power behind it, too, thanks to Samsung's octa-core Exynos 7420 chip. Its 2,560x1,440 Super AMOLED display is equally stunning, producing rich, vibrant colours and ultra-deep blacks.
The S6 Edge's battery life may not be quite as good as the S5's, but with 15 and a half hours worth of video playback, it still outperforms the rest of the competition. Its 16-megapixel camera has also received a number of welcom improvements, including optical image stabilisation and a brighter f/1.9 aperture. If you want a smartphone that will truly wow your friends and family, the Galaxy S6 Edge is the phone to buy.
Price when reviewed: £760 SIM free. For the latest prices, see our full Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge review
Processor: Quad-core 2.1GHz and quad-core 1.5GHz Samsung Exynos 7420 Screen Size: 5.1in, Screen resolution: 2,560x1,440, Rear camera: 16-megapixel, Storage: 64GB / 128GB, Wireless data: 3G, 4G, Size: 142x70x7.0mm, Weight: 132g, Operating system: Android 5.0.2
2. Sony Xperia Z3 Compact
Phones have generally become larger, but with the Sony Xperia Z3 Compact you get a high-end phone in a smaller package. It has the same top-end Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 CPU as its big brother, and is incredibly quick. Its 4.7in, 720p display is excellent and the 20.7-megapixel camera one of the best. If you want a smaller phone, this is the one to buy.
Price when reviewed: £348 SIM free. For the latest prices, see our full Sony Xperia Z3 Compact review
Processor: Quad-core 2.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 801, Screen Size: 4.6in, Screen resolution: 1,280x720, Rear camera: 20.7-megapixel,Storage: 16GB, Wireless data: 3G, 4G, Size: 127x65x8.6mm, Weight: 129g, Operating system: Android 4.4.4
3. Samsung Galaxy S5
Best seen as a refinement of the already excellent Galaxy S4, the S5 is one of the most powerful smartphones to date. With Qualcomm's latest Snapdragon 801 SoC running at a massive 2.5GHz, the Galaxy S5 achieved some of the fastest benchmark scores we've ever seen from an Android smartphone. Long battery life and an excellent screen nicely round the package off.
Price when reviewed: £560 SIM free. For the latest prices, see our full Samsung Galaxy S5 review
Processor: Quad-core 2.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 801, Screen size: 5.1in, Screen resolution: 1,920x1,080, Rear camera: 16-megapixel, Storage: 16GB, Wireless data: 3G, 4G, Size: 142x73x8.1 mm, Weight: 145g, Operating system: Android 5.0
4. Apple iPhone 6
It took Apple a while, but it finally increased screen size with the iPhone 6 range. Now with a 4.7in display, a fast processor, improved battery life and iOS 8.1, the iPhone 6 is an improvement in every way on the iPhone 5S. We also think that it strikes the perfect balance between screen size and physical size, making it the best iPhone for most people.
Price when reviewed: £619 SIM free. For the latest prices, see our full iPhone 6 review
Processor: Dual-core 1.4GHz Apple A8, Screen Size: 4.7in, Screen resolution: 1,334x750, Rear camera: 8 megapixels, Storage: 16GB / 64GB / 128GB, Wireless data: 3G, 4G, Size: 138x67x6.9mm, Weight: 129g, Operating system: iOS 8
5. Samsung Galaxy Note 4
Samsung started the phablet market with its original Note and the Note 4 is the best model yet. A huge screen with a high resolution, plenty of power, tons of battery life and a stylus all combine to make this one of the best phablets you can buy.
Price when reviewed: £600 SIM free. For the latest prices, see our full Samsung Galaxy Note 4 review
Processor: Quad-core 2.7GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 805, Screen Size: 5.7in, Screen resolution: 2,560x1,440, Rear camera: 16-megapixel, Storage: 32GB, Wireless data: 3G, 4G, Size: 153x78x8.5mm, Weight: 176g, Operating system: Android 4.4.4
6. Apple iPhone 6 Plus
When Apple decided to do big, it went really big, with this huge 5.5in handset. Provided the size doesn't put you off, the high-quality screen, long battery life, brilliant OS and excellent camera make this the best (and most expensive) iPhone that you can buy.
Price when reviewed: £619 SIM-free. For the latest prices, see our full iPhone 6 Plus review
Processor: Dual-core 1.4GHz Apple A8, Screen Size: 5.5in, Screen resolution: 1,920x1,080, Rear camera: 8 megapixels, Storage: 16GB / 64GB / 128GB, Wireless data: 3G, 4G, Size: 158x78x7.1mm, Weight: 172g, Operating system: iOS 8
7. Motorola Moto G (2nd Gen, 2014)
The original Moto G was an exceptional budget smartphone, but Motorola's latest version of this monumental handset is even better. The 2nd Gen Moto G now comes with a large 5in screen, an improved 8-megapixel camera, 4G support and a microSD card slot, making it even more versatile than before.
Price when reviewed: £145 SIM-free. For the latest prices, see our full Motorola Moto G 2014 review
Processor: Quad-core 1.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 400,Screen Size: 5in, Screen resolution: 1,280x720, Rear camera: 8-megapixel, Storage: 8GB / 16GB, Wireless data: 3G, 4G Size: 141x70x11mm, Weight: 149g, Operating system: Android 4.4.4
8. HTC One (m8)
With its all-metal design, faster internals and a larger screen, the HTC One (m8) retains the beautiful build quality of the original and improves everything else. A fast processor, excellent LCD and smart Duo Camera that lets you focus your shots after you've taken them, this is one of the most intriguing high-end phones. If you want an Android handset with the best build quality, this is it.
Price when reviewed: £530 SIM free. For the latest prices, see our full HTC One (m8) review
Processor: Quad-core 2.3Ghz Qualcomm Snapdragon 801,Screen size: 5in, Screen resolution: 1,920x1,080, Rear camera: 4-Ultrapixel, Storage: 16GB / 32GB, Wireless data: 4G, Size: 146.4x70.6x9.4 mm, Weight: 160g, Operating system: Android 5.0 (Lollipop)
9. HTC Desire Eye
The Desire Eye is one of HTC's most unusual smartphones to date, as it has a 13-megapixel camera with dual LED flash on both the front and back of the handset. It's the perfect phone for selfie and photography fans alike, and its powerful internals means it's just as fast as HTC's flagship One (m8).
Price when reviewed: £410 SIM free. For the latest prices, see our full HTC Desire Eye review
Processor: Quad-core 2.3GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 801,Screen Size: 5.2in, Screen resolution: 1,920x1,080, Rear camera: 13-megapixel,Storage: 16GB, Wireless data: 3G, 4G, Size: 152x74x8.5mm,Weight: 154g, Operating system: Android 4.4.4
10. Motorola Moto E (2nd Gen, 2015)
If you're looking for extremely low-cost Android phone that you can buy outright, the 2015 edition of the Motorola Moto E should be top of your list. Available for just £109, it's extremely good value. Its 960x540 screen is a little low-res, but its quality is very good. Performance is also respectable, and its battery life of 13h 30m in our video playback test is also extremely good for a budget handset. It even runs the latest version of Android, Lollipop.
Price when reviewed: £109 SIM-free. For the latest prices, see our full Motorola Moto E (2015) review
Processor: Quad-core 1.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 410,Screen Size: 4.5in, Screen resolution: 960x540, Rear camera: 5-megapixel, Storage: 8GB, Wireless data: 3G, 4G,Size: 130x67x12.3mm, Weight: 145g, Operating system: Android 5.0.2
11. HTC Desire 816
Large-screen phones are often expensive, but the 5.5in HTC Desire 816 is the welcome exception to this rule. It may have a 1,280x720 resolution only, but the quality of the screen is excellent. Only the 5-megapixel camera proves to be a disappointment, but if you're looking for a large-screen handset on a budget, this is the one to buy.
Price when reviewed: £270 SIM free. For the latest prices, see our full HTC Desire 816 review
Processor: Quad-core 1.6GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 400, Screen size: 5.5in, Screen resolution: 1,280x720, Rear camera: 5-megapixel, Storage: 8GB, Wireless data: 3G, 4G, Size: 157x79x8mm, Weight: 165g, Operating system: Android 4.4
12. Nokia Lumia 930
The Lumia 930 is one of Nokia's first handsets to come with Microsoft's latest Windows Phone 8.1 operating system, and what a difference it makes. Nokia's also pulled out all the stops to make sure the Lumia 930 is one of the most powerful and well-equipped Windows phones ever made. With a quad-core 2.2GHz Snapdragon 800 processor, a 20-megapixel camera, a large 5in Full HD AMOLED display and a huge 32GB of storage, there's hardly anything left wanting.
Price when reviewed: £462 SIM free. For the latest prices, see our full Nokia Lumia 930 review
Processor: Quad-core 2.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 800, Screen size: 5in, Screen resolution: 1,920x1,080, Rear camera: 20-megapixel,Storage: 32GB, Wireless data: 3G, 4G, Size: 137x71x9.8mm, Weight: 167g, Operating system: Windows Phone 8.1
13. Nokia Lumia 735
With its beautiful OLED screen, the Lumia 735 is one of the best Lumia phones we've seen, and it's also quite a bargain. With its great camera, the stunning display and longer-lasting battery, this is a great budget Windows Phone for anyone.
Price when reviewed: £190 SIM free. For the latest prices, see our full Nokia Lumia 735 review
Processor: Quad-core 1.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 400,Screen Size: 4.7in, Screen resolution: 1,280x720, Rear camera: 6.7-megapixel,Storage: 8GB, Wireless data: 3G, 4G, Size: 134x68x8.9mm, Weight: 134g, Operating system: Windows Phone 8.1
14. Nokia Lumia 630
The Nokia Lumia 630 is the perfect Windows phone if you don't want to fork out for the Lumia 930: it's much cheaper than Nokia's flagship handset, but it still comes with the brand new Windows Phone 8.1 operating system and the same funky colours. It's screen might be low resolution, but the quality's great, making this phone a great choice for anyone on a tight budget.
Price when reviewed: £129 SIM free. For the latest prices, see our full Nokia Lumia 630 review
Processor: Quad-core 1.2GHz Snapdragon 400, Screen size: 4.5in, Screen resolution: 854x480, Rear camera: 5-megapixel, Storage: 8GB,Wireless data: 3G, Size: 130x67x9.2mm, Weight: 134g, Operating system: Windows Phone 8.1
15. Nokia Lumia 1020
The Lumia 1020 is the first phone we've seen that can truly replace a compact camera. Its 41-megapixel sensor lets you take astounding shots in both daylight and dark conditions, and the live photo preview makes it a pleasure to mess around with the camera's settings. It's getting on a bit now, but it still has the best camera of any smartphone, and you can get it cheaply now, too.
Price when reviewed: £600 SIM free. For the latest prices, see our full Nokia Lumia 1020 review
Processor: Dual-core 1.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4, Screen size: 4.5in, Screen resolution: 1,280x768, Rear camera: 41-megapixel, Storage: 32GB, Wireless data: 4G, Size: 130x71x10.4mm, Weight: 159g, Operating system: Windows Phone 8