Best smartphone 2016 - buying guide & top mobile phone picks
Our smartphone is one of the most important devices we use on a daily basis, but picking the right one for your needs and budget can be tricky when there are so many different handsets lining the shelves. To help you make the right choice, we've sifted through all our reviews to bring you the definitive shortlist of the best handsets currently available and which ones are the best value for money.
Now that 2015 is behind us, it will only be a few short months before we start seeing the next batch of flagship smartphones going on sale, as well as newer versions of our budget favourites. In particular, phones such as the Samsung Galaxy S7 and HTC One M10 are both likely to be released before spring, which rather puts a bit of a dampener on anyone thinking about buying a top-end handset before then. Of course, as newer models start replacing old ones, there's a good chance you'll still be able to pick up one of last year's top handsets for a lot less than their shinier successors, making them even better bargains than they were before. Naturally, we'll be updating this article with new smartphones as and when we get them in for testing, but right now you won't find anything better than the phones we've listed below.
If you're not quite sure about which smartphone is right for you, be sure to check out our handy buying guide on page two to help you narrow down your choice. We explain everything from which operating system you should go for to screen quality, battery life and performance, and how much storage you'll need. We also explain whether you need 4G and the best ways to buy your new handset.
Battery life in-depth
One of the things that everyone wants from a smartphone is the best possible battery life, as it's the one thing that has actually gotten worse over the years, with pretty much every single phone having to be charged at least daily. Here at Expert Reviews we test all of our phones at the same screen brightness, so there's a level playing field. We test by playing back a video, which requires the screen to be on and the processor working quite hard. What this test gives us is a comparison between phones, so we can see which one has the best battery life overall. However, I should point out that this is a continuous stress test, with phones lasting for longer in day-to-day life.
Even so, being able to compare phones in this way helps you make the right decision about the handset that's right for you, choosing the one with the longest battery life if you're going to spend a lot of time away from a power socket. All of our main phone reviews have battery life scores in them, but if you want to see how all of the current flagship phones stack up (as well as all of the other models released last year), you need to read our best smartphone battery life article before you choose which handset to buy.
Contract or up-front?
While most of us buy our phones on contract, there has been a growing number of SIM-only deals, designed for people that have bought their phone outright. So, which one is the right way to do it? Well, it largely comes down to budget and how much up-front money that you've got. With a phone contract, you don't have to put much money down up-front, instead paying the cost of the phone over a set period (24-months is usual). This increases the monthly price and means that you're also paying interest on the phone purchase, but you can get the latest handsets without having to pay a huge amount for them.
With SIM-only you need a large lump sum, but you don't pay interest on it, can sell and upgrade whenever you like and you have lower monthly payments. Expert Reviews investigated the SIM only vs contract question in greater deal, including resale values of handsets to help you make the right decision.
1. Motorola Moto X Force
The Motorola Moto X Force is truly the king of all smartphones. With its incredible shatterproof display, you never need to worry about breaking your phone's screen ever again. We've hit it with a baseball bat, chucked it on the floor (concrete or otherwise) and it's come out completely unscathed.
It's an astonishing feat of engineering, and to make things even better, Motorola has also equipped it with a gorgeous 5.4in 2,560x1,440 AMOLED panel, a super fast octa-core processor, a fantastic camera and one of the largest batteries we've seen this year. Even if you've never dropped a smartphone in your life, you never know when that dreaded day might arrive. With the Moto X Force, you can just keep on rolling with the punches, making it our top smartphone of 2015.
Price when reviewed: £480 SIM free. For the latest prices, see our full Motorola Moto X Force review
Processor: Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 Screen Size: 5.4in, Screen resolution: 2,560x1,440, Rear camera: 21 megapixels, Storage: 32GB / 64GB, Wireless data: 3G, 4G, Size: 150x78x7.6mm, Weight: 169g, Operating system: Android 5.1.1
2. 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. Its 16-megapixel camera is also fantastic. 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 megapixels, Storage: 64GB / 128GB, Wireless data: 3G, 4G, Size: 142x70x7.0mm, Weight: 132g, Operating system: Android 5.0.2
3. 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
4. Motorola Moto G (3rd Gen, 2015)
The 2nd Gen Moto G was an exceptional smartphone, but the latest version of Motorola's monumental handset is even better. While it's not quite as good value as its predecessor, the 3rd Gen Moto G is by far one of the most comfortable and attractive budget smartphones around. Its large 5in HD screen looks great, it has a fantastic 13-megapixel camera, and its battery life is best in class. It also comes with 4G support and a microSD card slot, making it even more versatile than ever.
Price when reviewed: £159 SIM-free. For the latest prices, see our full Moto G 3rd Gen 2015 review
Processor: Quad-core 1.4GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 410, Screen Size: 5in, Screen resolution: 1,280x720, Rear camera: 13 megapixels, Storage: 8GB / 16GB, Wireless data: 3G, 4G, Size: 142x72x6.1mm, Weight: 155g, Operating system: Android 5.1.1
5. OnePlus 2
When it first launched in 2015, you needed a special invite to get hold of OnePlus' excellent OnePlus 2, but now those restrictions have been lifted, allowing anyone to get one of the best flagship smartphones of 2015 for just under £300. With its top-end specs and great camera, the OnePlus 2 gives almost every other premium smartphone a real run for its money, providing an excellent alternative to both the Nexus 5X and Moto X Play. If you're after the best value smartphone money can buy, the OnePlus 2 is the phone for you.
Price when reviewed: £289 SIM-free. For the latest prices, see our full OnePlus 2 review
Processor: Octa-core 1.8GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 Screen Size: 5.5in, Screen resolution: 1,920x1,080, Rear camera: 13 megapixels, Storage: 16GB / 64GB, Wireless data: 3G, 4G, Size: 152x75x9.9mm, Weight: 175g, Operating system: Oxygen OS (Android 5.1)
6. Nexus 5X
It's that time of year again, when we not only get a new Nexus phone but a whole new version of Android to go with it. This year, it's the Nexus 5X and Android 6.0 Marshmallow, making this the go-to phone for Android purists. After last year's disappointing Nexus 6, the 5X is a breath of fresh air. It may not be the most attractive phone you've ever seen, but its fast internals and excellent screen make it great value for money. It's also got one of the best cameras we've seen in recent months, too, making it a fantastic all-round package.
The Nexus 5X isn't the only Nexus phone this year, though, as Google has also launched the super-sized Nexus 6P, which is made by Huawei. The 6P is equally good value for those after a big screen phablet, but for us, the Nexus 5X has the greater long-term appeal. It's cheaper, it's slightly easier to hold and it's generally a bit more practical.
Price when reviewed: £339 SIM free. For the latest prices, see our full Nexus 5X review
Processor: Hexa-core 1.8GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 Screen Size: 5.2in, Screen resolution: 1,920x1,080, Rear camera: 12.3 megapixels, Storage: 16GB / 32GB, Wireless data: 3G, 4G, Size: 147x73x7.9mm, Weight: 136g, Operating system: Android 6.0
6. Sony Xperia Z5
The Xperia Z5 has the most colour accurate LCD display I've ever seen, delivering bright, punchy colours that outshine almost every other smartphone display I've tested. If that wasn't enough, it's one of the fastest Android phones around, too, with blistering web browsing speeds and exceptional gaming performance. Topping it all off is Sony's brand-new chassis, which has a gorgeous frosted glass finish that dramatically improves the phone's grip and comfort, and a handy fingerprint sensor built straight into the power button, making it easier than ever before to keep your phone secure.
Price when reviewed: £549 SIM free. For the latest prices, see our full Sony Xperia Z5 review
Processor: Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 Screen Size: 5.2in, Screen resolution: 1,920x1,080, Rear camera: 23 megapixels, Storage: 32GB, Wireless data: 3G, 4G, Size: 146x72x7.3mm, Weight: 154g, Operating system: Android 5.1.1
7. Sony Xperia Z5 Compact
If the Z5 is just a little bit too big for your pocket, the Z5 Compact is the phone for you. While its screen only has a 720p resolution rather than Full HD, the Z5 Compact is just as fast as its big brother and has exactly the same camera sensor, making it excellent value for a miniature flagship smartphone. It's also got a fantastic display and a beautiful design, borrowing the same frosted glass finish as the Z5.
Price when reviewed: £429 SIM free. For the latest prices, see our full Sony Xperia Z5 Compact review
Processor: Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 Screen Size: 4.6in, Screen resolution: 1,280x720, Rear camera: 23 megapixels, Storage: 32GB, Wireless data: 3G, 4G, Size: 127x65x8.9mm, Weight: 138g, Operating system: Android 5.1.1
8. Motorola Moto X Play
The Moto X Play may not be Motorola's flagship smartphone any more, but this mid-range monster is extremely good value. With a battery life to rival the Samsung Galaxy S6, this smartphone has more than enough stamina to keep you going all day, and its octa-core processor Snapdragon 615 has plenty of speed, too. Its 21-megapixel camera is also excellent, providing plenty of detail with bright, rich colours.
Price when reviewed: £270 SIM free. For the latest prices, see our full Motorola Moto X Play review
Processor: Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 615, Screen Size: 5.5in, Screen resolution: 1,920x1,080 Rear camera: 21 megapixels, Storage: 16GB /32GB, Wireless data: 3G, 4G, Size: 148x75x8.9mm, Weight: 169g, Operating system: Android 5.1.1
9. Vodafone Smart Ultra 6
The super-sized Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 is something of a budget miracle. Better value than the Moto G, this £125 handset has a 5.5in Full HD display, 13-megapixel camera and a super-fast Snapdragon 615 processor. It's tied to Vodafone, of course, but you won't find a better value smartphone for less.
Price when reviewed: £125 PAYG. For the latest prices, see our full Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 review
Processor: Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 615, Screen Size: 5.5in, Screen resolution: 1,920x1,080 Rear camera: 13 megapixels, Storage: 16GB, Wireless data: 3G, 4G, Size: 154x77x8.4mm, Weight: 159g, Operating system: Android 5.0.2
10. 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 megapixels, Storage: 32GB, Wireless data: 3G, 4G, Size: 153x78x8.5mm, Weight: 176g, Operating system: Android 4.4.4
11. 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 megapixels, Storage: 8GB, Wireless data: 3G, 4G,Size: 130x67x12.3mm, Weight: 145g, Operating system: Android 5.0.2
12. Vodafone Smart Speed 6
Motorola's budget phones are excellent, but for those that don't want to pay £90 for the 2nd Gen Moto E (listed below), the £50 Vodafone Smart Speed 6 is a truly excellent alternative. You'll need to join Vodafone to get one, as it's only available on Pay as You Go, but if that doesn't bother you, then this compact smartphone is easily the best in its price range. It's just as fast as the Moto E, has great battery life, and runs stock Android, too, making it very simple and easy to use.
Price when reviewed: £50 PAYG. For the latest prices, see our full Vodafone Smart Speed 6 review
Processor: Quad-core 1.0GHz MediaTek MT6735M Screen Size: 4.5in, Screen resolution: 854x480, Rear camera: 5 megapixels, Storage: 8GB, Wireless data: 3G, 4G, Size: 132x65x9.9mm, Weight: 146g, Operating system: Android 5.1