Smartphones are perhaps the most personal tech we own. That’s why it’s super important to pick the phone that’s best for your needs. There are many factors to consider from design and operating system to security and durability. We consider every aspect of the smartphone to determine whether it’s a good buy for you or if you’re better off with something else.
When it comes to choosing the best smartphone, it’s always a tough decision. This year was particularly difficult, because we had two incredible contenders: the iPhone 7 Plus and the Google Pixel XL. After much debate and soul searching, we landed on the iPhone 7 Plus as our top pick for the best smartphone of 2016. However, the Pixel XL is the closest second we’ve ever had in this race. It very nearly won. Here’s why the iPhone 7 Plus ultimately triumphed, and a list of our picks for other smartphone categories.
Why should you buy this: You want the most powerful, secure, and shutterbug-friendly phone ever
Who’s it for: Anyone who wants the most simple, easy to use phone.
How much will it cost: $770+
Why we picked the iPhone 7 Plus:
What’s not to love about Apple’s iPhone 7 Plus? Its iconic aluminum design is now fully waterproof, its A10 Fusion processor makes it the fastest smartphone you can buy — period, the dual-lens camera pulls off amazing DSLR tricks, and iOS has never looked better or been more functional. Add to that Apple’s commitment to your security and privacy, as well as its industry-leading customer service, and you have one helluva smartphone.
The impressive 12-megapixel dual cameras are among the most compelling reasons to buy the iPhone 7 Plus. One of the cameras is a telephoto lens that offers 2x optical hardware zoom and up to 10x software zoom. The quality of 2x zoom on the iPhone 7 Plus is just extraordinary. It beats out every other smartphone on the market. You don’t lose detail, and your zoomed picture turns out excellent. You can go up to 5x in good lighting conditions without too much noticeable loss in quality, which is still better than you can say of any other smartphone’s zoom.
The dual-camera lenses also enable the best bokeh effect (when the background blurs around the subject of the shot) we’ve ever seen on a smartphone. Other phones, including the Pixel, tend to mess up the blurring effect on the small details. Apple is also well known for reproducing colors accurately, while Android phones consistently oversaturate images. It comes down to personal preference, but we prefer the iPhone’s natural hues. It also produces strong images in low light, rivaled only by the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge.
Apple really hit it out of the park in terms of performance with the A10 Fusion processor. It’s the fastest smartphone in benchmarks, leaving every Android phone in the dust. Even though it has less RAM, the iPhone 7 Plus is smoother, slicker, and more efficient than any Android phone. The battery life is a solid day and a half, which is equal to (or more than) every other phone on this list. It even comes standard with 32GB of storage, which is a big upgrade from 16GB, though not as great as last year’s 64GB option.
Since Apple designs the hardware and software together, iOS 10 runs like a dream on the phablet. It is the best version of iOS to date. Interactive notifications, the incorporation of 3D Touch into every aspect of the interface, and the new iMessage are a game changer for iPhone users. Every app and game meets Apple’s design standards, which results in a fluid, seamless experience across the OS and other Apple devices.
Instant software updates are the icing on the cake with iOS. Unlike with an Android phone, you never have to worry that your iPhone will miss an update or vital security patch. Apple has your back when it comes to security and your personal privacy. Our lives are on our phones and hackers are becoming more skilled every day. Security has never been more important and your privacy is of high value. That’s why Apple went to war with the FBI to guarantee your right to encryption and data privacy.
Then there’s Apple’s customer service. If you have an iPhone, you can walk into any Apple Store and get help for free. Apple will even repair your device right there in the store and get it back to you on the same day most of the time. No other company gives you that option.
The lack of a headphone jack is the only major blight on the iPhone 7 Plus’ near-perfect record. It comes with Lightning EarPods, but if you have your own headphones, you may struggle with the included 3.5mm-to-lightning adapter. You may also want to purchase wireless headphones, but it neither of these scenarios are the end of the world. After two months with the iPhone 7 Plus, we can tell you with confidence that you will survive. It’s not ideal, but the same change is coming to Android phones already and will be the standard in a few years’ time. Mark my words.
I’ve personally tried every Android phone on this list, and no matter how good or innovative they are, I always go back to the iPhone, and the iPhone 7 Plus is the best one yet.
The best phablet (the best Android phone)
Why should you buy this: It’s the first and only Android phone with hardware and software straight from Google
Who’s it for: Android fans who want the ultimate stock Android phone by Google
How much will it cost: $770
Why we picked the Pixel XL:
Google’s Pixel XL is the best Android phone we’ve ever used. It’s the first Android phone in history that can fully compete with the iPhone in several key areas: security, software updates, customer service, and software design. It’s so good we nearly named it the best smartphone of the year. Indeed, if you’re an Android fan who will never buy an iPhone, the Pixel XL is the best phone you can buy. Here’s why.
Google built the Pixel XL from the ground up with partner HTC. Because of that, it was able to perfectly integrate hardware and software together into one excellent package — just like Apple does with the iPhone. That approach, plus the Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 chip and 4GB of RAM, make the Pixel the most powerful Android phone you can buy.
The pure, stock Android 7.1 Nougat software runs silky smooth on the Pixel XL. It’s also more minimalist and aesthetically pleasing with the revamped app drawer, which no longer has an icon taking up space, and the replacement of the search bar with a subtle G logo you tap to start searching. The Pixel XL’s software is ridiculously attractive and perfectly done. After using it for two weeks, looking at Android phones with user interfaces on top is hard. The Pixel just looks nicer. It even looks nicer than Android 7.0 on a Nexus 6P. It’s that attention to detail and design that makes the Pixel XL appeal to iPhone and Android users alike.
Assistant is a helpful artificially intelligent bot that surpasses Siri in some ways, but doesn’t yet have third-party app integration.
Then there’s the crisp, natural 5.5-inch, 2,560 x 1,440-pixel screen, which is very easy on the eyes. The Pixel’s design may not be for everyone, because of its aluminum body’s glass insert on the back of the phone, which is easy to shatter and is a fingerprint magnet. However, it feels premium and comfortable to hold. The rear fingerprint sensor is good for security and Android Pay.
The Pixel XL’s 12.3-megapixel camera is nearly as good as the iPhone 7 Plus’, though it doesn’t have 2x optical zoom or the dual-camera tech to pull off accurate lens blur. Its lens blur effect is good, but the iPhone’s is just better.
The best things about the Pixel XL are its commitment to timely software updates and customer service. Pixel phones will get automatic Android software updates and security patches without delay. In fact, they will be automatically downloaded when you aren’t using the phone. No other Android phone will get more timely updates than the Pixel. That’s vitally important for your privacy and security.
The Pixel XL also has 24/7 customer support embedded right in its own tab in the Settings menu. It’s great that you can contact Google’s support team with any questions or problems right in your phone via chat or phone call. That’s just good business.
The Pixel XL may be as expensive as an iPhone, but it is well worth your money. Because it has timely software updates, it will last you longer and keep your data safer. It’s also part of a larger product ecosystem that Google is building, so it has a bright future. We are excited to see how the Pixel phone series evolves.
The best Samsung phone
Why should you buy this: You want a Samsung phone and nothing else
Who’s it for: Samsung loyalists who want a good phone
How much will it cost: $670+
Why we picked the Galaxy S7 Edge:
Samsung has certainly made the Galaxy S7 Edge the “next big thing” — at 5.5-inches, the phone is a beautiful addition to the Korean company’s lineup, and a brilliant successor to the Galaxy S6 Edge.
The S7 Edge improves on its predecessor in every way, with an Always On screen, better Tasks Edge features, and an IP68 waterproof rating. You’ll also find Quick Charge 3.0 helps give you juice faster, and the battery life is decent. The brilliant 1440p display has 550-pixels-per-inch, and is powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 820. It has 4GB of RAM, and the S7 Edge comes with a minimum of 32GB internal storage.
While the battery isn’t removable like LG’s G5 or V20, you still get access to a MicroSD card slot, allowing for up to 200GB of extended storage. The S7 Edge also improves on the camera, which boasts 12 megapixels, super fast focusing, and an aperture of f/1.7. It even performs pretty well in low-light scenarios. If you can get past Samsung’s clunky user-interface, the Galaxy S7 will leave you more than satisfied.
If you want a Samsung phone, this is the one to get now that the Note 7 has crashed and burned (literally). However, it’s important to note that the Galaxy S8 will likely arrive in March, so if you’re not in a rush, you may want to wait or go with another phone from our list.
The best small Android phone
Why should you buy this: It’s the best small Android phone you can buy
Who’s it for: Android lovers who want a small phone
How much will it cost: $650+
Why we picked the Google Pixel:
Small and mighty Android phones are hard to come by these days. The Google Pixel stands alone in a sea of jumbo-sized phablets as the most powerful, small Android phone you can buy. Its 5-inch, 1080p screen is hardly petite when you compare it to the bite-sized iPhone SE, but it looks positively adorable next to its bigger brother, the Pixel XL.
The Pixel’s aluminum body is offset by a flashy glass panel at the top that will catch your eye (and your fingerprints). It is easy to hold and use one handed, and the fingerprint sensor on the back of the device adds security and the convenience of mobile payments.
However, the real appeal of the Pixel isn’t its design, but rather, its software. Google designed both the Pixel’s hardware and software from the ground up, so this is the smoothest and fastest Android has ever been. The slick new Pixel launcher streamlines Android by replacing the giant search box with a subtle G logo and removing the app drawer icon. You can still see all your apps in the drawer by swiping up from the bottom of the screen. It’s absolutely flawless.
Google’s artificially intelligent bot Assistant is just icing on the cake. Assistant replaces Google Now, and you can access her with a long press of the home button. Assistant can read your daily schedule, play music, answer queries, and so much more. It’s also integrated into the rest of Google’s new products, so you can use Assistant to control your smarthome, Chromecast, and more.
Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 821 chip, the 4GB of RAM onboard, and Google’s software optimization result in the highest-performing Android phone ever made. While most small phones skimp on performance, the Pixel surpasses the competition, including the Galaxy S7 and LG G5.
Its 12.3-megapixel camera takes stunning photos that are on par with the Galaxy S7, LG G5, iPhone 7, and other leading phones. There’s even a neat lens blur effect that’s powered by software and the ability to create GIFs. Battery life is a solid day, and you can quick charge it up to full in 15-30 minutes with Google’s charger.
Best of all? The Pixel gets automatic software updates directly from Google, so your phone will always be up to date and perfectly safe. Google also offers 24/7 customer support right in the settings menu, so you can reach out to Google immediately if you have a problem.
The best small iPhone
Why should you buy this: Big phones aren’t for everyone, and this small iPhone is great
Who’s it for: Apple fans who don’t want a giant phone
How much will it cost: $650+
Why we picked the iPhone 7:
Apple is now one of the few manufacturers that is still making a phone that’s smaller than 5-inches. The iPhone 7 is a better phone than the iPhone SE, sports the same 4.7-inch, 1,334 x 750 pixel Retina screen as the 6S, and comes wrapped in a very slim aluminum body. The biggest difference is that this year’s iPhone 7 is water-resistant with an IP67 rating. In other words, you can drop it in 1 meter of water for 30 minutes and it’s safe from dust particles. There are even two new black finishes for those who want a darker look.
Apple also upgraded the rear camera to a 12-megapixel shooter with a larger sensor and aperture. The front-facing shooter got an upgrade to 7 megapixels, too, so your selfies will look better than ever. The speedy A10 processor and 2GB RAM keep things moving, and iOS 10 is a revelation for iPhone users. It takes 3D Touch to another level and notifications are now interactive. It’s a truly incredible device for iOS users who still want a slightly smaller phone.
Battery life is slightly better on the iPhone 7 than it was on the iPhone 6S, but it will only last you a day, so you may want to pick up a battery case. Sure, the case will add some bulk to your phone and it’s not ideal, but if you’re desperate for more battery, you’ll want one.
Be forewarned that it doesn’t have a 3.5mm headphone jack, though, so you’ll have to use wireless headphones, the included lightning earbuds, or the 3.5mm headphone jack to lightning cable adapter that’s in the box.
Nonetheless, the iPhone 7 is the best small iPhone you can buy, so if you’re not into phablets, but still want an iPhone, this is our pick for you.
The best $400 phone
Why should you buy this: You’re an adventurous Android fan who refuses to spend $650 on the Pixel
Who’s it for: Android fans who want killer specs for less
How much will it cost: $400+
Why we picked the ZTE Axon 7:
ZTE has done it again with the Axon 7. This all-metal device borrows a few specs from its predecessor, the Axon Pro, such as its 5.5-inch AMOLED screen and a 2,560 x 1,440-pixel resolution, but it improves on it in almost every other way. You’ll find it powered by a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor with 4GB RAM and a whopping 64GB internal storage. Thanks to MicroSD card support, you’ll also be able to upgrade to an additional 128GB of space.
It’s a high-powered flagship for a fraction of the price. The performance is faultless, which is in part thanks to the nearly pure Android software onboard. ZTE added a few extras with MiFlavor UI, but the overall experience is similar to Android on a Nexus. ZTE says it’s committed to updating the Axon 7 from Android Marshmallow to Nougat in time for Google’s DayDream VR, because the Axon 7 is the first phone that was built with Google’s new standards in mind.
The Axon 7’s 3,140mAh battery should last you a day, and ZTE has gotten rid of the dual-camera setup from the Pro and replaced it with a 21-megapixel rear camera and an 8-megapixel selfie cam. The cameras take solid pics that are nearly as good as the ones you’ll take with a Samsung Galaxy S7. The Axon 7 also boasts stellar audio capabilities with two front-facing stereo speakers and Dolby Atmos technology. It’s one of the best sounding phones you can buy with those speakers and hi-res audio support. These extra features are what put the Axon 7 over the top to edge out the great OnePlus 3 for our top pick in the $400 phone range.
The Axon 7 also boasts stellar audio capabilities with two front-facing stereo speakers and Dolby Atmos technology. It’s one of the best sounding phones you can buy with those speakers and hi-res audio support. These extra features are what put the Axon 7 over the top to edge out the great OnePlus 3 for our top pick in the $400 phone range.
The only downside is that you can’t buy it at your carrier, so you’ll have to grab one online from ZTE. ZTE does offer an installment payment plan, so you can pay about $20 a month for a few years to own the Axon 7 — just like you would at your carrier.
The best $200+ phone
Why should you buy this: You’re on a strict budget, but you still want a powerful phone
Who’s it for: Bargain buyers who want a steady Android phone
How much will it cost: $200-$250
Motorola’s Moto G series has been widely popular thanks to its sub-$200 prices. The new G4 is the first to makes its debut after the Lenovo acquisition, and while it’s a little pricier, it certainly can’t be left off this list.
For $200, the Moto G4 offers a 5.5-inch, 1080p screen, a Qualcomm Snapdragon 617 processor, and 2GB of RAM. You can opt for 2GB of RAM and 32GB of storage, or upgrade to the Moto G4 Plus with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of internal storage, but that prices you out of the $200 category. Thankfully, if storage is an issue ,you can upgrade it via the MicroSD card slot.
The base Moto G4 doesn’t come with a fingerprint sensor, and it has a lower 13-megapixel rear camera, but it features the same 5-megapixel selfie camera as the G4 Plus. It also comes with a 3,000mAh battery, which should be more than enough to last you a day.
The better camera and fingerprint sensor, which adds security and convenience, put the G4 Plus ahead of the Moto G4 in our books. However, when you’re really on a tight budget, $50 makes a big difference. That’s why we’ve included both the Moto G4 and the G4 Plus. The Plus is our preferred Moto G4, but if you really can’t spare the extra $50, the Moto G4 will serve you well, too.
Should you buy now or wait?
Now is a good time to buy a phone, unless you want a Samsung phone. The iPhone 7, Google Pixel, and LG V20 just launched, so you’ve got some great options on the table. However, if you want a Samsung phone, it’s best to wait for the Galaxy S8 to arrive this spring in March.
If your phone is two or more years old, it’s time for a new one. You should definitely consider grabbing a new phone at this point. Since you’re about to start over fresh and carriers no longer offer two-year contracts or subsidized phone pricing, it’s best to buy your phone unlocked if possible. Unlocked phones can be used on any network, so you’ll be able to switch carriers and keep your phone if you want.
Buying your phone unlocked also means you’ll avoid carrier bloatware like extra apps and services you don’t need. If you are an Android user, it also means the carriers can’t hold back your software updates.
If your phone is just a year old or less, you really don’t need to get a new one (unless you have a Note 7 — Return it now!).
Which OS is best for you?
This is where things get personal. Picking a smartphone operating system is a huge deal. You’re buying into an entire ecosystem of apps and compatible products when you choose between Android and iOS.
Apple’s iOS is a beautiful, simple operating system and the App Store offers the best app selection imaginable. Each and every aspect of iOS is curated by Apple, and it shows. Android is more open and it has less rules, but that means that manufacturers and app makers can willfully ignore Google’s Material Design language and do whatever they want, sometimes rendering Android unrecognizable and ugly. Pure Android is gorgeous, but you don’t often see it. Only Google’s Pixel and Nexus phones run a pure version of the operating system. iOS is always beautiful and a pleasure to use on every iPhone because Apple has complete control over the OS.
Since Apple is the only company that makes iPhones, it also has complete control over software updates. As such, iPhone users always get the most recent and best iOS experience possible. The vast majority of iPhone users are already on iOS 9, and nearly 15 percent immediately updated to iOS 10 just one day after its launch. If history is any indication, the remaining 75 percent of iOS users will soon follow and download iOS 10 in the coming weeks and months. Currently, there are nearly more users on iOS 10, which was just released in mid-September than there are people on last year’s version of Android, 6.0 Marshmallow, which launched in October 2015. And at this point, the percentage of users on the just released Android 7.0 Nougat is negligible, and it’s been out since the end of August.
Android users don’t have that luxury. Unless you own a Pixel or Nexus device — and very few of Android users do — you will have to wait months if not years to get software updates. That’s why a mere 18.7 percent of Android users are currently running last year’s version of the OS on their phones. In fact, there are more Android users running KitKat, which is from 2013, than there are users running last year’s version of Android 6.0 Marshmallow. It’s absurd.
Software updates contain security updates, which keep your phone safe from malware, viruses, and hackers. Android is the most heavily targeted mobile OS, so it is attacked by the worst bugs, like Stagefright and Heartbleed, both of which remain unpatched for millions of Android users. Google now issues a security patch every month, but many manufacturers don’t push them to users in a timely fashion, if ever.
In contrast, Apple can immediately patch security flaws and send the updated software to all iPhone users immediately. Since most users update their software when prompted, most iOS users are protected from these very real threats. There is no denying that iPhone users are safer. Apple’s iOS also offers full encryption with no compromises. The company even went to war with the U.S. government and the FBI to guarantee the right to encryption for its users. If you care about your security, you should buy an iPhone.
How we test
A phone is so much more than its spec sheet. Your entire life is stored on it, from your photos and contacts to your music and your favorite apps. There is no device more personal than your smartphone, so it’s with great care that we review phones to recommend that you buy only the best ones out there.
We use each phone we review as our daily driver for an extended period of time to test out all the features. We do benchmarks, play games, take photos, plunge them in water, and use them until their batteries expire. Then we charge ’em up and do it all over again. We test devices like real people use devices. We’re not in some stuffy lab during obscure tests. We’re running around the cities we live in using these phones just like you use your phones.
Then we think about each phone in comparison with its competitors to come to a decision: Should you buy this phone or something else? If the answer is “something else,” we tell you what to buy instead.
Smartphone innovation has peaked, and the number of radical new features that come out each year is shrinking. As such, when you’re buying a phone, you’re buying a device that will be with you 24/7 for several years. It’s a big choice, and things like apps, a product ecosystem, customer support, and security should become important factors in your buying decision.