With thousands (literally, if you include storage, finish and market variants) of smartphones running Android right now, picking a top 10 was never going to be easy. But we sorted through and went ahead anyway. By the way, absent from the top 10 are any of the multitude of Chinese designs (including Xiaomi) flooding the East and sub-continent – most simply never appear in Europe and the West in any quantity – and I don’t apologise for only picking smartphones here that I can personally vouch for in one way or another.
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 wait!
[And note that this top 10 doesn’t include my own primary Android smartphone for the last month. On a personal note, the best phone for me is something low end and niche – the audio-centric Marshall London. Which only goes to prove that you don’t need to have to have top specs!]
In traditional, suspense-preserving fashion, I’ll introduce the phones in reverse order.
10. Sony Xperia Z5 Compact
Sony has taken its time to iterate on its internals, in terms of chipsets, components, and waterproofing strategy over the last three years, but it got there in the end. There’s a strong chassis, no flaps over headphone jack or microUSB ports, sculpted corners, a ‘genius’ fingerprint scanner in the side power button, and a 23MP camera that at last works pretty well and with some intelligence.
Most of all, Sony is almost unique (Apple joined it recently with the iPhone SE) in offering something powerful in a small form factor – the Compact is diminutive by today’s standards, with only a 4.6” screen. And you lose some of that to virtual controls. In fact, it’s all slightly fiddly, but it would be churlish to complain because at least Sony’s giving us the form factor option. Yet with a full Snapdragon 810 chipset – and 2GB of RAM and a 720p screen are absolutely fine at this size. In fact, it helps keep battery life great – with Sony’s OS tweaks on board too, you can last two full days per charge, all without making an unsightly bulge in your pocket.
9. Google Nexus 5X
It’s a fair cop, I wanted to put in the Nexus 6 in the top 10. For me, it even outdoes the newer siblings, the 5X here and the 6P (see below) in terms of sheer functionality. But there’s a flaw in this, in that Google has stopped selling it, leaving just resellers clearing stock and the second hand market. Gah. But the idea of pure Google, stock Android, bang up to date in terms of security patches, provisioned for previews of Android 7, persists and is incredibly appealing. In which case, what are Google selling?
Well, in the mid-range, in terms of pricing, there’s the Nexus 5X, which I described somewhat unfairly in my review as ‘a lacklustre reference design’. You see, the Nexus 5X, like most Nexus phones, has been getting better and better with regular system updates, plus the price has been coming down. Put the two together and if someone has a mid-range budget and if they value security and future-proofing then the Nexus 5X is still a very good choice.
True the speaker is disappointing, and the bezels could be smaller, but hey, the 5X is still an awful lot of pure Android smartphone for your money.
Read: Nexus 5X review
8. Moto X Style/Pure Edition
Motorola started nailing ‘the Android smartphone’ a couple of years ago with the original ‘X’ and the budget ‘G’ variants – strong chassis, curved back to allow for maximum battery capacity, and, here on the Style/Pure Edition (the name depends on market!), front-mounted stereo speakers too. It’s a distinctive design, and backed up a decent (if not world leading) camera, great reception, innovative ‘ambient’ display (since copied by Google itself) and various voice and gesture aids. And all at mid-range prices, making the range always worth considering, from the bottom end ‘E’ up to the top end ‘X’.
If there’s a complaint, it’s that Motorola hasn’t been paying attention to industry trends, with no fingerprint scanner, no OIS in the camera and no Qi charging, for example. Motorola, now owned by Lenovo, needs more than another year of treading water if it wants to still be top 10 material in the flagship stakes at Christmas.
Read: Moto X Style review
7. Honor 5X
Representing the unashamed value pick in this top 10, the Honor 5X is firmly in the budget camp – you can get three or four of these for one Samsung Galaxy S7 edge! Yet it’s solid metal, has a fast fingerprint scanner, a very good screen and a surprisingly good camera. I honestly don’t know how Huawei (which makes the Honor handsets) does it, it’s clearly secret sauce of some kind. Admittedly, performance isn’t cutting edge, but then neither is it laggy – and the only thing to complain about is the lack of an application drawer. As with all Huawei’s handsets, you’ll need to put on your own third party app launcher if you don’t like the iOS-like homescreen sets here.
Terrific value and a terrific smartphone. Start here if your budget is limited!
Read: Honor 5X review
6. LG G5
LG’s phones are always quirky, but you can’t blame them for trying something different every year in the shadow of their great rival, Samsung. This time round it’s a modular design with a phone bottom that comes away completely, to reveal a replaceable battery. More than this, you can replace the bottom section with a couple of ‘Friends’, different specialist modules, see the review link below for full details.
However, the compromises needed to make the bottom come away mean that fit and finish isn’t in the same league as the other smartphones below – it’s a quirky concept that LG hasn’t quite managed to pull off.
Still, the internals are superb, from the blazingly fast processor and oodles of RAM to the dual camera, with one set to wide angle/fish-eye permanently and offering various artistic ways to view each scene. As the review concludes, the G5 is a ‘flawed flagship’ but it still makes my Top 10 Android here!
Read: LG G5 review
5. 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 4GB of RAM produce super performance, the camera’s almost as good as in the Galaxy S7 range mentioned below, 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 above, in an iPhone-esque ‘pink gold’! The loss in flexibility is an issue for hardcore Note fans, but then they can stick to the Note 4, which is still available, 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 limited the Note 5, since it was never sold in many markets, including the UK where your humble writer lives. Roll on the Note 6 (or 7) in just a few months time though and we should see expansion card support return, along with even higher internal specs.
4. Samsung Galaxy S7
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, you can’t ignore the Samsung Galaxy range, and the S7 (and its ‘edge’ variant, see below) represents the second generation of the 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 in the Galaxy S6 range was unfortunate. But both are fixed for the Galaxy S7, with the range supporting both Quick Charge 2.0 (for fast top-ups) plus dual standard wireless charging, and microSD support makes a welcome come back. Add in a much improved camera (matching the bar set by the LG G4), with larger aperture and OIS, and the Galaxy S7 is many people’s ultimate converged smartphone.
It’s pretty too, with the back now subtly but ergonomically curved in the same manner as last year’s Galaxy Note 5.
Touchwiz remains a little annoying for Android purists, but many of its features are genuinely useful (e.g. hiding applications in the app drawer that you don’t use) and, with every software generation, TouchWiz and Samsung’s app load-out gets lighter and lighter, so it’s hard to complain too much.
Read: Galaxy S7 (range) review
3. Samsung Galaxy S7 edge
There’s a real ‘wow’ factor to Samsung’s Galaxy S7 edge (and yes, the lowercase ‘e’ is official!) – held in the hand and, ideally, photographed artily in dim rooms(!), it’s stunning. In daily use, the phone’s essentially identical to the Galaxy S7 above, of course, and many of the same pros and cons apply, except that this is prettier. Much prettier.
In practice, the ‘edge’ screen doesn’t add much to functionality and even gets in the way when you try and take photos – you have to be careful where you rest your thumbs. But the cosmetics and feel in the hand are so stunning that any caveats are immediately forgiven. This is the Porsche of the phone world, the Lamborghini – you buy it as much to admire it as to use its blazing speed and terrific camera. In fact, it’s probably heresy to put it in a case, though that might be advisable when you’re out and about because, well, accidents happen.
Top of the line all round – and also top dollar to acquire – but then you knew this already, right?
Read: Galaxy S7 edge review
2. Google Nexus 6P
With security a hot topic in 2016, there’s no better way to stay right up to date with the very latest patches and updates from Google than by owning a Nexus – and the 6P is currently the flagship. Yes, it’s a little tall, but that’s because of the front facing stereo speakers – and they’re very decent indeed. Yes, there have been reports of fragility, but most 6P owners seem very content – just don’t put this in your back pocket!
But from the very capable and fast 12MP camera to the USB Type C 3A ‘Power Delivery’ to the lightning quick fingerprint sensor on the back, the Nexus 6P is one of the most capable smartphones on the planet – and it comes with Google’s direct blessing. It’ll be top of the Nexus heap until HTC’s rumoured Nexus later in 2016.
Read: Nexus 6P review
And, talking of HTC….
1. HTC 10
HTC was one of the companies that pioneered smartphones back in the day, around 12 years ago, with the first Windows Mobile handsets as an OEM, before branching out under their own brand with Windows and then Android handsets – and it’s been something of an inconsistent and tortuous path ever since – with a stunning device one year and then a couple of seasons of disappointment. Happily it has all come together for a perfect ’10’ for the company. The HTC 10 is not only the follow-up to the slightly ‘meh’ ‘One M9’, it’s a superbly designed and realised slice of high technology.
With the only caveat being that the stereo BoomSound speakers didn’t make to this model, everything else – and I mean, everything else, is top of the line. From screen to camera to audio output to performance to battery life, the beautiful and extremely solid HTC 10 just knocks it out of the park.
This is the class act of 2016 so far – and yes, I’d rate it even over the Galaxy S7 range. Look at this one first.
Read: HTC 10 review
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