Picking the best smartphones in the world is always a) incredibly hard, and b) terrific fun. Thankfully. This being an iOS-centric site, you’d expect an Apple iPhone at number 1 and you’d be right. But this isn’t sycophantic – in my other life as the producer and presenter of The Phones Show I do regular top 5 features – and an iPhone is invariably in the top spot because it’s the one top specced phone that can be recommended as the answer to “What phone should I buy” without any real caveats or possible recriminations. There are several iPhones here, plus more Android units, of course. And I’d love to have stuck in one of the new flagship Lumias, except that they’re still a week away. Maybe next time.
Oh, and a point of order. It would be a little crazy to allow multiple iPhones of the exact same form factor into the top 10. So I’ve not allowed myself to have both the ‘6s’ and the ‘6’, for example. Ditto for the ‘6s Plus’. It would be almost as bad as allowing all the various memory variations! And don’t get me started on colours… Plus several of the Android phones also have variants of one kind or other – for this top 10, common sense will prevail!
As to criteria for the top 10, it’s raw functionality, it’s style and a solid build, it’s well supported software, it’s flexibility and, to an extent, value. Though I haven’t let money intrude too far – after all, just about any Android flagship will be £200 cheaper a year (and sometimes even six months) down the road, so if something’s too expensive then you’ve only got to be patient! Apple’s prices for iPhones, of course, rarely change at all – but then that helps on the other end of ownership, at sale time, in keeping resale value high.
10. Samsung Galaxy Note 4
Starting with the Samsung Galaxy Note 4, by some way the oldest smartphone in the top 10 but here with very good reason. You see, it’s the last of the ‘classic’ Galaxy Note line to feature the flexibility that many crave: top specs all round yet with swappable battery and microSD expansion. With a device like a Note, it’s a professional tool that needs to keep you going through thick and thin and I’ve lost count of the number of owners (including me) of Note II, 3 and 4 devices who have multiple batteries to swap in on a long and hard day out. Yes, the industry does seem to be swaying towards sealed devices, a charge led over the last seven years by Apple, but plug-in emergency chargers, however good, can’t match going from 0% to 100% in 30 seconds by slamming in another battery, produced from a pocket.
Away from the flexibility angle, the Note 4 ushered in the era of QHD screen resolution, 3GB of RAM, OIS and 4K video capture on a phone, specifications which have since become more common. With the improved stylus too, the Note 4 had the lot in terms of geek checklists. Heck, you can even clip on a Qi-charging back to add this as well.
9. Samsung Galaxy S6
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, as with the Note 4 above, you can’t ignore the Samsung Galaxy range, and the S6 (and its ‘edge’ variant, also referred to below) represented a reboot from the horrendously plasticky (remember the elastoplast back?) Galaxy S5 – a very decent phone in a $10 plastic chassis. That Samsung decided to jettison the replaceable battery and expandable storage as part of the reboot is unfortunate (the latter will probably reappear for the S7 next year), but on the bright side we’re now talking a sleek, iPhone-style metal unibody design that absolutely looks the part in 2015.
Coming along for the ride is a stunningly good camera, with OIS as in the Note 4 above, but further refined. Allied to the QHD AMOLED screen, the S6 is something of an imaging powerhouse. Touchwiz remains a little annoying, but many of its features are genuinely useful (e.g. hiding applications in the app drawer that you don’t use) and at least some of the Samsung bloat is now avoidable.
Read: Samsung Galaxy S6 review
Better still, the fingerprint scanner now works properly, unlike the travesty on the ‘5’, there’s full Qi and PMA wireless charging, plus the price of the S6 has dropped dramatically since launch – it won’t get much cheaper than it is now and represents good value.
Buy: Samsung Galaxy S6
8. Apple iPhone 5s
What on earth is a 2013 smartphone doing in this mix? Good question. It’s all about the form factor and capabilities. Not everyone wants a large phone and most devices on this page have a screen which is 5.2″ or bigger. Great for watching media and web browsing, but not so good when it comes to holding and using the smartphone one-handed, and not so good for tucking it unobtrusively in a pocket. Add in Apple’s 2014/2015 design language (you’ll see the 6s below, don’t worry), wherein the form factor is all curves and there are still plenty of fans of the straight-sided aluminium design that came in with the iPhone 5. (I’d go so far as saying that the steel version (4/4S) two years previously was even more substantial, but that was thicker and also had the glass back that most users ended up shattering.)
So, with the admittedly subjective view that the iPhone 5 design is the ‘best’, in terms of compactness and sheer density of technology, the obvious one to plump for is the iPhone 5s. This is the version with faster internals, much better camera (larger pixels, larger aperture, ‘True Tone’ dual LED flash) and fingerprint sensor built into the home button, all relative to the iPhone 5. For anything to do with security and authorisation (e.g. Apple Pay) then, the 5s represents the starting point in the Apple iPhone device family. And, contrary to the rule about Apple not usually lowering prices, the 5s has indeed come down, brand new, from £549 to £379 in the UK in the intervening two years. Making it the cheapest way to get a fully capable new iPhone right now. Plus it’s widely available second hand if price really is an issue.
7. Samsung Galaxy S6 edge+
Another Samsung – that’s three in the top 10! There’s a real ‘wow’ factor to Samsung’s Galaxy edge (and yes, the lowercase ‘e’ is official!) designs – held in the hand and, especially, photographed artily in dim rooms(!), they’re stunning. In daily use, the phone’s essentially identical to the Galaxy S6 above, of course, and many of the same pros and cons apply, except that this is prettier.
And larger, in that I’ve plumped for the newer ‘edge+’ – it was against the rules to have both size variants of the same exact phone and if you’re going to go all weird and have a curved front and flat back then why not go all out in terms of form factor? The edge+ has a 5.7” screen, putting it firmly in the ‘phablet’ category, yet without a stylus. But you don’t need one, so again…. why not?
Camera, processor, screen resolution, charging options, everything follows the established Galaxy S6 pattern – the only departure is the welcome addition of an extra Gigabyte of RAM – Samsung’s TouchWiz on QHD-screened devices has been shown to run low on a regular basis. So top of the line all round – and also top dollar to acquire – but then you knew this already, right?
6. Sony Xperia Z5
After numerous redesigns and design iterations, we finally have the ultimate Sony Xperia – and it’s a good ‘un. Beautiful design, top notch materials, a full 5.2” 1080p screen, a killer camera and, crucially, 3GB of RAM, whereas previous Xperias (and even the Z5 Compact) had to make do with 2GB. This makes all the difference in terms of performance and future proofing.*
* There’s also now a Z5 Premium, available in the next week or two, but this is much more expensive and has a crazily over-the-top 800ppi screen – this will just appeal to alien races with far more advanced eyesight than mere humans…
The other internals impress – stereo front-mounted speakers, ‘supersampling’ camera and an excellent side fingerprint scanner. I’d quibble over the lack of Qi charging, but then the Z5 supports Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 2.0, so it’s certainly not a deal breaker. The light nature of Sony’s skin over Android, the terrific power saving options (two days on a charge is quite achievable), the relative imperviousness to dust and water, all make the Z5 a very good choice.
5. LG G4
There’s an argument to be made that the LG G4 is burdened with a heavy proprietary skin, that there’s too much plastic, that it’s too expensive (it’s not anymore, 6 months down the road, though), that the control buttons are in the wrong place (on the back, though you do get used to them), that it’s… LG. But the company has been coming good in recent years and the G4 marked the point where the technology being shoehorned in was too impressive to ignore.
LG was one of the companies championing QHD resolution screens and in the G4 it also championed a whole new degree of expertise in imaging, with detail even in low light that’s outstanding, thanks to next-gen OIS, laser auto-focus, a dedicated ‘colour spectrum sensor’ and a relatively huge F/1.8 aperture. Even six months after launch, the competition haven’t caught up – if smartphone photography is your thing then look no further.
Read: LG G4 review
Overall specifications are terrific too, with a perfectly pitched Snapdragon 808 (no overheating) and 3GB of RAM, plus some unique selling points in the 2015 smartphone flagship canon – replaceable battery and microSD expansion – this is the flexible phone that Samsung owners of the past (and even the Note 4 mentioned at the top) might want to gravitate to. That the back covers come in a variety of textures (including real leather) adds extra interest to an already compelling smartphone.
Buy: LG G4
4. Google Nexus 6P
The Nexus 6P is the most perfect…premium Nexus ever released by Google since the inception of the brand. After using potato camera for years on its Nexus smartphones, Google has finally gotten around to giving what Android users have wished for since eons: a Nexus smartphone with a great camera and build quality. The aero grade aluminium chassis of the 6P oozes quality, though it might not necessarily survive a bend test.
The Nexus Imprint fingerprint scanner located at the rear is super fast and accurate, while the front facing stereo speakers make viewing media on the 6P a joy to use. The iPhone 6s Plus might be better than the Nexus 6P in a lot of aspects, but there are a few areas where Apple can take some inspiration from the latter for the iPhone 7.
3. Apple iPhone 6s
Apple’s challenge in 2014 was to come up with a way of bringing much larger screens into the iPhone line-up, matching what the Android world had been doing for years. A larger version of the existing aluminium unibody design would have been too heavy and would have felt ‘too large’ in the hand, so Jony Ive and his team plumped for curved edges, more rounded corners, and a thinner profile overall. Doing this meant that a 4.7″ display (up from 4″) could be achieved with only a 17g increase in weight. At last the iPhone range could stand tall with the best of Android in terms of form factor and expectations.
The iPhone 6 was a best seller, of course, but durability issues showed that Apple had perhaps thinned out the aluminium just a little too much, plus another year of development enabled the 6s, released a few months ago, to have faster internals, an even better camera again, an even faster fingerprint sensor, and – yes – more aluminium where it counts in order to improve robustness.
The biggest innovation for the 6s was the addition of an extra screen layer, introducing ‘3D Touch’ to the world, a way of adding peek and pop pressure-driven gestures into the iOS interface. It’s early days in terms of application support for this technology, but it’s showing promise – see my full review for more details.
Read: iPhone 6s review
Buy: iPhone 6s
2. Samsung Galaxy Note 5
The Note 5 is an odd beast, but tremendously high end, as you’d expect from the original phablet range, which Samsung uses to test and showcase its latest technology. And yes, that still includes an intelligent stylus, here better than ever. The 5.7” QHD AMOLED screen is stunning, the Exynos processor and 3GB of RAM produce super performance, the camera’s even better than that in the Galaxy S6 range mentioned above (though not quite up to the G4’s level), the build is all metal and glass – and most definitely premium. Sculpted curves around the sides (on the back) make the phone easier to hold than previous Galaxy Notes.
The catch, as widely publicised, is that the traditional Note replaceable battery and expansion card support is… gone. With the goal of the reboot of the Note series as having premium design – hey it even comes, as shown here, in an iPhone-esque ‘pink gold’! This is an issue for hardcore Note fans, but then they can stick to the Note 4, mentioned above, and have almost as stellar an experience, so perhaps everyone wins in the end.
There’s little point in rattling through more specifications, since the Note 5 has the lot, right down to Qi or PMA wireless charging, depending on market. And it’s the market itself which is limiting the Note 5 right now, since it’s not officially available in large chunks of the world, including the UK where this humble writer lives.
1. Apple iPhone 6s Plus
With the 5.5″ screen option, Apple opened up the world of iPhone to a whole new set of experiences. The ‘phablet’ (phone-tablet!) market had been expanding for a couple of years and the iPhone 6 Plus was a huge success, letting iPhone owners join in a world of glorious 1080p media and high-resolution web page renders with absolutely zero eye strain. And as with the 6-to-6s, the 6s Plus inherits the new internals, the better camera, the faster fingerprint scanner and the 3D Touch functionality. Oh, and the 6s Plus is also a lot stronger, it being the original 6 Plus that had been most at risk from miscreant ‘bend-gate‘ antics.
But the size was only part of the 6 Plus proposition and the same applies to the 6s Plus. In addition to the higher resolution display and superb OIS-equipped camera, iOS itself works differently – almost everything (including the homescreen system) now works in landscape mode, befitting a larger phone that you might well want to use this way, for watching media or, shown below, for getting things done, with the aid of a Bluetooth keyboard:
Using an iPhone 6s Plus in this manner is eye-opening – not that you might want to use iOS in this way on a phone all the time, but to know that it’s possible, and only on the 6 Plus and 6s Plus is just very cool indeed.
The larger size plus the extra aluminium for strengthening, plus the 3D Touch layers, do all have an impact on the weight, but it’s well worth it. This is a solid and sizeable lump in any pocket, but it’s also a really capable mini-tablet computer, masquerading as a mere ‘phone’. Own this and be proud.
Read: iPhone 6s Plus review
Buy: iPhone 6s Plus
Be sure to let us know what you think is the best smartphone in the world right now in the comments below.