In the 2015 Smartphone Lineup, we learned that there is no “triple-crown winner” in today’s smartphone landscape – no one “best” phone for everyone and every situation. This was (and remains) especially true for attorneys, who exhibit a very wide range of work (and play) styles. And though there is no “one phone to rule them all,” manufacturers attempted to be the best for certain individuals by differentiating their phones with minor feature variances and specializations. The market also saw an increase in the number of “phablet” offerings (larger phones with 5.5-inch screens or bigger) as well as the emergence of “premium-budget” options, which offered near-flagship specs at affordable prices. As far as operating systems go, there are two main players: Android and Apple iOS – with Windows Phone, BlackBerry OS, and others lagging far behind.
What’s Changed for 2016?
In 2016, large phones are no longer a subcategory or novelty – they are the norm. And, combined with increasingly available (and easy to use) professional applications, the increase in screen real estate has allowed smartphones to establish themselves as legitimate productivity tools. Android continues to dominate the smartphone market overall (which itself grew around 10 percent in 2015, down from around 25 percent growth in 2014), and Samsung has regained its crown from Apple as the single biggest smartphone vendor worldwide – but Apple has held very steady with its popular iPhones and is still the top maker nationally. Windows Phone and BlackBerry OS, meanwhile, continue to decline deeper into irrelevancy, at least in the United States. (Note: BlackBerry now makes Android phones, and Microsoft is making good software that is available on both Android and iOS.)
Another major change from years past is in the way people pay for their phones. Rather than subsidizing phones with a two-year service contract, carriers are now pushing monthly financing plans and leases. These new plans come in many forms, but essentially, they serve to transfer the cost of financing new purchases from carriers to customers. Still, most of them allow consumers to update their phones more frequently than the old two-year cycle, and may be the best option for some of us.
Tison Rhine is the advisor to the State Bar of Wisconsin Law Office Management Assistance Program (Practice411™). Reach him at (800) 444-9404, ext. 6012, or by email.
If financing isn’t for you, however, or you want true freedom from your carrier, you can be one of the increasing number of smartphone purchasers now buying their phones outright – at full price and often directly from the manufacturer. Outright purchase has always been an option, but it has recently become more common as lower priced (but still premium) phones from the likes of Motorola, One Plus, Google (built by third parties), and others have become more widely available. In fact, with last year’s slew of good, reasonably priced phones (among other economic factors, like the aforementioned slow down of smartphone growth worldwide), there should be enough downward pressure on prices to encourage even more manufacturers and carriers to take notice in 2016 (though you should expect the top Apple, Samsung, and Sony models to continue to fetch a premium).
Finally, the attempts by phone makers to differentiate themselves in a saturated market have finally begun to produce some more-than-minor new and exclusive features – like Force Touch from Apple (see below), a second info display from LG, and curved screens from Samsung. Even so, just like last year, there are many good phones out there with more similarities than differences. Those small differences, however, are why you are reading this article. So, once again, sit back, relax, and read on to find out which of the day’s top smartphones may be the best option for your particular (and seemingly, increasingly small) hands. Note that prices listed are full price.
The Field: Phablets
Apple iPhone 6S Plus ($749 – $949)
The 6S Plus, Apple’s second generation of large phone, is 20 grams heavier and 0.2 mm thicker than the original, but it uses stronger materials and has more RAM, a significantly faster processor, always-on Siri, a higher resolution camera, a much faster (almost instant) “Touch ID” fingerprint sensor, and a pressure-sensitive screen with haptic feedback, which Apple is calling “Force Touch.” These features, among others, combine to make this “S” update much more substantial than years past (usually iPhone “S” models have only minor updates). Force Touch, in particular, is a potential game changer – allowing you to apply varying force to your screen presses to bring up quick-menu items, preview pictures and links, and much more as third parties add functionality. It is quite useful.
At 5.5 inches, the screen is a little smaller than Android phones with the same overall dimensions (iPhones sure do have large bezels), and the resolution and pixel density are no longer impressive, or even average, but it is still a very good-looking screen and much better than the smaller 6S’s paltry 326 pixels per square inch. Other phone manufacturers have really upped their camera game, too, so the 6S Plus’s slightly improved camera may no longer be the best in the industry. But with optical image stabilization (OIS) and superb processing, it is arguably still in the running for that top honor.
Buy this phone if you have the money, like Apple’s closed (but reliable and intuitive) ecosystem, and want a larger screen for increased productivity; or if you want the best camera and battery life available on an iPhone.
Huawei Nexus 6P ($499 – $649)
Google’s latest big Nexus phone – the purest embodiment of Android – is slightly smaller than last year’s Nexus 6 (from Motorola), but it is still a relatively big phone: a beautiful, well-made, and fast big phone with a good camera (finally!). With an excellent 5.7-inch 2K AMOLED screen, you can get some serious work done, and with pure Android Marshmallow (Google’s latest) right out of the box, it is a customizable Android dream. For most people, one-handed use may prove difficult in more than a few instances (something the 6P shares with the other phones in this category), but it seems most people can get used to the phablet’s size in about three days. The 6P also has a fingerprint scanner, and unlike previous Nexus devices, the camera is finally good (actually it is excellent, though it doesn’t have OIS).
Buy this phone if you are an Android purist who wants a very capable camera and a great screen; or if you just want the best large Android phone out there (although the Samsung Galaxy Note 5 comes close).
Samsung Galaxy Note 5 ($699 – $799)
Sure, the Note 5 loses the removable battery and SD card slot from last year’s Note 4, but these are features most of us really don’t need these days, and with all of the Note 5’s improvements, you won’t miss them. These improvements include a significant performance boost (without compromising the Note’s excellent battery life), an even more refined S Pen, fewer unnecessary added TouchWiz software features than previous Samsungs, and beautiful all-new hardware that makes this 5.7-inch screen phone almost as easy to hold as a non-phablet. Really, if you are averse to large phones, go hold this one before you make up your mind.
The Note 5 also continues to have possibly the best screen available (a gorgeous 518 ppi Super AMOLED) and a fantastic camera (you’ll notice that most of this year’s phones have excellent cameras, which is good for all of us). Some Android purists will still be put off by some of the TouchWiz features, but a few of the additions are useful, and the (now improved) S Pen stylus experience continues to make the Note 5 unique. However, the pixel density of the Note 5 is designed to allow you to have more things on your screen of the same size as those on the smaller Galaxy S6 – not to have larger objects on the screen – so, this is not the phone to buy to accommodate poor eyesight.
Buy this phone if you want a productivity powerhouse with a premium design and big, beautiful screen, but need something a little easier to hold and do not mind the price.
LG G4 ($579, but can often be found for $479)
The LG G4’s 5.5-inch 2560 x 1440 (538 ppi) IPS Quantum Display may use different technology than Samsung’s excellent Super AMOLED’s, but surprisingly the results are just as stunning. Don’t ask me how LG managed to make an IPS LCD display seem as bright and vivid as an OLED display – but it did, and then it put that display in a fairly well-designed phone. It is not quite as premium feeling as a Samsung, Sony, or Apple, but it has a thin bezel and a slightly curved, removable back that is available in leather (you want the leather version, not plastic – trust me). The end result is a phablet that is lightweight, ergonomic, and doesn’t feel too big.
Oh yeah, not only is the G4’s camera one of the best of the year, it also has an impressive manual mode and can take RAW images (the camera does, however, take a little longer to launch than one would like). Its front-facing “selfie” camera is also one of the best, even rivaling the main rear cameras of many of last year’s phones.
Buy this phone if you want a large phone that doesn’t seem all that large, if you take phone photography seriously, or if you are a power user who really wants a removable battery and micro SD card slot.
LG V10 ($699)
The LG V10 is similar to the G4, but adds a fingerprint sensor, a second front-facing camera (for wide-angle selfies), a better audio processor (for Hi-Fi usage), manual video mode, and most notably, a small “Second Screen,” which provides useful information like notifications, battery percentage, weather, and app shortcuts. The phone is also a little sturdier.
Buy this phone if, to you, these extra features are worth the difference in price from the G4.
Motorola Moto X Pure Edition ($399 – $524)
Once again, Motorola has enlarged its flagship Moto X, this time from a 5.2-inch screen to 5.7 inches, which matches this year’s largest phones, and moves the phone into the phablet category. It is a bit smaller than last year’s Nexus 6, but it is still quite thick – thicker than this year’s competition. If the size does not bother you, though, you still get that great Moto Maker customization of color combinations, back types (plastic, leather, wood), engravings, and more. You also get an almost pure edition of Android for which the only additions, like Moto Voice, Moto Actions, and Moto Display (my favorite notifications system of any phone), are actual improvements. The screen is now LCD (not AMOLED like last year), which is a bit disappointing, but it is decent enough. Battery life remains merely okay as well, but the camera is much improved and there is now a micro SD slot for expandable storage. All in all, the Moto X remains an enticing option, especially at that price.
Buy this phone if you want a great deal on the best out-of-the-box Android software experience available.
The Field: “One-handed Flagships”
Apple iPhone 6S ($649 – $849)
Is the new iPhone 6S the “best iPhone ever”? Well, no, actually, I think the 6S Plus is better. But, like the Plus, this year’s “S” update of the smaller Apple option offers a significant performance boost, always-on Siri, nearly instant fingerprint reading (great for encouraging people to actually use their security features), a slight improvement over an already good camera (though it still doesn’t have OIS and isn’t as good as the Plus or this year’s top Android phones), and of course, the new Force Touch Display (see 6S Plus above). These are impressive additions to a great phone, but the battery life is still mediocre and the 4.7-inch screen not only seems small compared to its competitors (especially for the phone’s body size), it also has relatively poor resolution, at 1334 x 750. (326 ppi? Come on, Apple! I can see your pixels showing!) Still, Apple’s iOS mostly “just works,” and if the 6S Plus is too big for you, this is your best iPhone option.
Buy this phone if you want a solid phone that is easy to use, your friends and family already use iOS, or the Plus is too big (and it is quite big).
Samsung Galaxy S6 ($579 – $829) and S6 Edge ($679 – $914)
With the glass and metal Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge, Samsung’s premium one-handed flagship phones not only look premium but finally feel premium, too. The newly beautiful phones are slim and smooth, and feature fantastic 5.1-inch Super AMOLED screens (with an impressive 577 ppi). They no longer have removable batteries, expandable storage, or waterproofing, but they do retain heart-rate monitors and wireless charging. They also have much better fingerprint sensors, improved speakers (now bottom mounted, not rear), and some of the best cameras around. All this, and they can be used with one hand.
The “Edge” version has curved edges that seemingly disappear into the frame. Not only do the curved side pixels add software functionality (like a place for additional buttons and info), the curves also serve to make normal side swiping just a little smoother and easier.
Buy this phone if you want the best one-handed Android phone available.
The Field: “Capable Budget Phones”
Motorola Moto G (3rd Generation) ($179 – $219)
The 5-inch Moto G lacks the high-end specs of the Moto X, but it still feels like a premium phone. It has IPX7 water resistance, a quad-core processor, and expandable memory and can now, like the Moto X, be customized using Moto Maker. The Moto G is once again my pick for the best Android option on a budget.
Asus ZenFone 2 ($199 – $269)
The Asus ZenFone 2 features a 5.5-inch 1080p display, and 4 GB RAM option (which is a lot for a phone at any price), and a surprisingly premium feel. The $269 option is very snappy and my pick for a large phone on a budget.
iPhone 6 (from $549) and iPhone 6 Plus (from $649)
Don’t need the performance boost, always-on Siri, or Force Touch of this year’s Apple offerings? Save a few bucks (though I admit, it’s still a stretch to put this in the Budget Phone section) and get the iPhone 6 or 6 Plus.
BlackBerry Priv ($699)
The new BlackBerry Priv is actually an Android phone, and a fairly good one at that. It features a physical slide-out keyboard (which you probably love or hate) and the excellent security features one would expect from BlackBerry. It is a little bulky, but it is made well and is really the only decent option out there if you want a modern phone with a physical keyboard. At the very least, it seems to be a step in the right direction for those corporate types who miss the BlackBerry days.
Sony Xperia Z5 ($593), Z5 Premium ($669), Z5 Compact ($547)
Sony’s Xperia line didn’t quite do enough this year to stay competitive with the very best Android phones, but they are still very good. The Z5 is IP68 dustproof and water resistant, takes particularly good outdoor pictures and selfies, and runs smoothly thanks to good specs and a fairly close to stock Android experience. It has a decent 5.2-inch IPS display at 1920 x 1080 resolution (424 ppi), but if you bump up to the Z5 Premium, you get a 4K 5.5-inch display with a whopping 801 ppi (as well as a bigger battery and a bigger overall phone). If you want a smaller phone (even smaller than the iPhone 6S) instead, the 4.6-inch Z5 Compact is still a solid choice – though unfortunately, it was not officially released in the United States and you will have to try your luck online to pick one up.
A Note on Sound Quality
You may have noticed that none of these mini reviews mention call quality. This is partly because no cell phone that I know has particularly excellent call quality (especially compared to a land line), partly because only a small portion of smartphone use these days is as an actual phone, and partly because I don’t have the ability to test them all. Mainly, however, it is because call quality is heavily dependent on your carrier. If call quality is of particular concern for you, I recommend contacting your carrier to see if they offer HD Voice, which can improve sound quality significantly, in your area. The person on the other end will need it too, to get the full benefit, but carriers are expanding coverage and most phones sold in 2016 (and some older phones, too) now support it.
2016 is a good year to get a new phone. Cameras have improved, phablets have become more usable, and good phones at reasonable prices have never been more widely available. We even saw some interesting hardware innovation. I can’t tell you which of these phones will be the best for you, but with a little thought, and maybe a trip to a store to hold a few in your hand, I am confident that you will find what you are looking for in this list.