In the third installment of what has become an annual State Bar of Wisconsin smartphone roundup, the field of potential devices vying for our cash is more competitive than ever. On offer is a smorgasbord of great Android phones and iPhones, both at the top end of the market, where devices are still pushing the speed and feature envelope, and in the mid-range and budget markets, where some devices are starting to look and perform very nearly on par with their high-end counterparts.
Within such a competitive atmosphere, the large number of excellent choices is definitely advantageous for potential buyers, most of whom by now are smartphone veterans looking to upgrade. But trying to pick from such a sea of solid devices can also make for a stressful decision process. This roundup will surely help, but ultimately, readers should know that, as difficult as it can be to pick the “best” phone for your needs, it is now even more difficult to make a “bad” decision. Therefore, read on with confidence – your next phone will be a good one.
Changes for 2017
This year, large phones are still the norm, but it does appear that size increases have finally (and fortunately) leveled off. In fact, many phones are now starting to shrink in physical size, while maintaining the same large screen sizes people have come to love and keeping or improving the battery capacities we’ve come to need during our busy days (through more efficient software and hardware, bigger batteries, or both).
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.
Another trend continuing from last year is the way people pay for their phones. Rather than subsidizing phones with a two-year service contract, which if you are looking for a new phone this year may be the only way you have ever known, carriers (and some manufacturers) are now pushing monthly financing plans and leases, which in effect transfer more of the cost of financing new purchases from them to you.
These plans cost more because consumers are no longer getting a discount on new phones or upgrades when they sign a two-year service agreement (which in the past was approximately $200), but many plans do allow customers to upgrade more often, or at least offer zero percent financing over the course of a new two-year contract. The “early” upgrades could be worth it for some, but many consumers have decided that, if carriers are unwilling to continue to subsidize their phone purchases with more than just zero percent financing, they would rather buy their phones outright, directly from the manufacturer or from stores such as Best Buy, which carry products from multiple carriers.
Note that some carriers, such as Sprint, have reinstated some two-year subsidization options, and Verizon does offer subsidized upgrades to existing customers, but it is harder and harder to get carriers to help pay for new phones – at least the ones that are worth buying.
Another trend has been feature convergence between the only two remaining phone operating systems that matter, Android and iOS. (By all means, continue to enjoy your current Windows Phone, but please do not buy a new one.) The latest iPhone operating system, iOS 10, is a bit more like Android, with much improved notifications and widgets, and a few glimmers of an increased willingness by Apple to open its historically closed platform (for instance, Siri can now work with some types of third-party apps).
Likewise, Android and its developer Google have crept closer to iOS and Apple in some ways (by finally releasing their own phone designs, for example, and by creating a more coherent ecosystem of products that are more tightly controlled and can be expected to work together more reliably). In the end, both Android and iOS now allow you to get to where you need to go, both personally and professionally. So take a look below, then take a look in person (always recommended), and choose whichever phone makes you happiest. Note that prices listed are full price.
Pick Your Winnning Smartphone Model…
Click on the table below to view an expanded version, or click here.
The Field: The Best
Apple iPhone 7 Plus ($769 – $969)
When rumors started to pour in that the latest generation of iPhones would eschew Apple’s established tick-tock release cycle (with major external upgrades to be expected every two years) and would in fact be keeping the same general look and feel that have been around since the release of the 6 and 6 Plus in 2014, much of the excitement and atmosphere that typically surrounds new iPhone releases seemed to dissipate straight up into the i-clouds. Despite somewhat muted expectations, however, the new iPhone 7 Plus has carried over enough excellence from the 6S Plus, and has brought with it enough new, functional improvements, that the ultimate result is (mostly) as impressive as it is big and boring.
First, the 7 Plus improves on the 6S Plus’s already decent battery life (though it is still not as good as the best Android phones) while continuing to be incredibly fast (blazing in fact – input lag has, at least for now, been effectively banished). In addition to speed and longevity, the 7 Plus also added better-sounding stereo speakers and water resistance (hurray!).
The biggest improvement, however, is to the Plus’s already very good camera. Now the 7 Plus has not one, but two 12 MP rear-facing cameras with “real” (optical not digital) 2 x zoom, which allows for more flexibility in shot framing, as well as impressive bokeh-effect options for portraits. The 7 Plus does not resolve as much detail as rivals like the Galaxy S7 Edge and Pixel XL, but with a more film-like color realism (which some, but not all, users prefer), great video, and superior portrait capabilities, the new cameras make the 7 Plus an on-the-go photographer’s dream. And, if one splurges for the now available 256 GB storage model, that dream can be filled with as many photos as anyone could possibly take in a reasonable amount of time.
Despite such improvements, the removal of one preexisting feature – the headphone jack – could turn off some buyers. In reality, this may not be as bad as it seems – removing the headphone jack makes water resistance easier and frees up room for other hardware – but still, it’s always hard to stomach when the removal of a feature is touted as progress. At any rate, if you don’t have Bluetooth or “lightning” headphones, you can still use standard headphones with a 3.5mm to lightning adapter.
Another negative is that the 7 Plus’s relatively low resolution 5.5-inch (but otherwise very good) screen is trapped in what these days is a rather bulky body. There is just a bit too much bezel for that screen size, especially given the 7 Plus’s very high asking price, and therefore, unlike other high-end 5.5-inch phones, such as the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge, one-handed use is difficult or impossible. So, make sure you try one in your own hands before you buy.
If you can deal with the size, you will have the best iPhone (and one of the best phones, period) ever released. If, however, it’s just too big (but you really want a large-screened iPhone), consider waiting until next fall – rumor has it that come September, Apple will wow us with a bezel-less work of glassy art that contains a much improved OLED screen and might even offer augmented or virtual reality.
Buy this phone if you want the best iPhone currently available (and can handle the size).
Apple iPhone 7 ($649 – $849)
Like the iPhone 7 Plus, the iPhone 7 may feel a bit dated, especially to those who already have a 6 or 6S. However, the now familiar form was well designed to begin with, and with many functional improvements over last year’s 6S, the 7 deserves serious consideration from those looking for a one-handed device.
As with the 7 Plus, improvements to the 7 include water resistance, a faster processor, stereo speakers, improved (but still middling) battery life, and double the storage for the price when compared to the 6S at launch (pricing is now for 32 GB, 128 GB, and 256 GB).
Unlike its larger sibling, however, the 7 has one rear camera, and although very good, with an improved sensor and added optical-image stabilization (making low-light performance especially improved over last year), it is not one of the very best in this roundup. Also, the 4.7-inch screen on the iPhone 7, despite slight improvements to brightness and color, keeps previous phones’ rather paltry 1334 x 750 resolution (only 326 pixels per square inch), which already seemed outdated last year. For some, the pixilation is noticeable (the “retina” moniker notwithstanding), but for many, this actually won’t be a big deal (if noticeable at all). So, be sure to check out the 7 in person before you write it off due to its display.
Despite its shortcomings, the iPhone 7 is a well-rounded and conveniently sized speed demon with a lot going for it.
Buy this phone if you want a great phone that offers speedy performance, is easy to use and hold, and integrates well into an Apple-centric life.
Samsung Galaxy S7 ($669) and S7 Edge ($769)
Samsung’s newest premium S line phones, the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge, are slim, smooth, and beautiful. The S7 Edge, with an increased 5.5-inch display size, now has slightly larger physical dimensions than does its 5.1-inch non-Edge counterpart, but both devices should still fit in your pocket, and both should still be relatively easy for most people to use one-handed. Both phones also have stunning AMOLED displays, which not only outclass current iPhones in resolution and “wow” but also are always on – showing a clock, a calendar, or even an image.
Even with always-on displays, battery life is stellar on the S7 and even (slightly) better on the S7 Edge (the Edge comes with a larger battery but must power a bigger screen). Both models should get you through an entire day or longer, and when you do need a charge, both models offer fast wireless charging. Piling on the goodness to already great devices, Samsung also brought back expandable microSD storage and water resistance, which were absent from last year’s S6 and S6 Edge.
Finally, both models sport superb cameras. They don’t quite produce the level of detail that is possible with the Google Pixel and Pixel XL, and they’re not quite as adept at taking portraits as the iPhone 7, but they are still considered by many to be the very best available, overall. All things considered, there is very little to not recommend about these phones, other than the fact that the new S8 and S8 Edge are expected as early as March or April. These new models might beat Apple to the bezel-less punch.
Buy one of these phones if you want one of the best one-handed Android phones available and can’t wait a couple of months to see what Samsung offers after its recent Note 7 fire-hazard debacle. The Edge version, with its larger screen, larger battery, and curved edges that seemingly disappear into the frame, is probably the better choice of the two, unless you have smaller hands or simply want to save a little money.
Google Pixel ($649 – $749) and Pixel XL ($769 – $869)
After several iterations of Google “Nexus” devices, which ran stock Android, but were produced and branded by manufacturers such as Motorola, Huawei, HTC, and LG, Google finally released its very own Pixel and Pixel XL (admittedly assembled by HTC, but designed, engineered, and branded by Google). Finally. Google phones.
So, what did they bring? In a word: Excellence. Both the Pixel and the Pixel XL offer crisp, colorful AMOLED displays (with the XL’s 5.5-inch display being just a bit sharper at 534 ppi than the Pixel’s 5-inch 441 ppi display), and, other than size, both share the same, very well built (if a touch conservative) design. They also share the same speedy processor, and the same cameras, which just happen to be among the best smartphone cameras on the market today (some say the best). The XL does have a bigger battery, but both offer good, if not quite excellent, battery life (better than iPhones but not as good as Galaxy S7s).
Perhaps most importantly, however, both phones offer an incredibly smooth, up-to-date, and pure Android experience (absolutely no software bloat). This includes the new “Google Assistant,” which is meant to replace the Google Now search of other Android phones, and which is far more conversational than other digital assistants such as Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, and Microsoft’s Cortana. Though it doesn’t always work, it is very impressive when it does, and as the assistant is very deeply integrated into Google’s world of databases and machine learning, it promises to have a very high ceiling when it comes to future improvements. The Pixel phones do lack water resistance, and they are expensive, but in short, Google’s “first” phones are fantastic – and definitely worth a look.
Buy one of these phones if you want the purest, most tightly integrated Android experience available, on a stellar device with the sharpest (best?) camera.
Moto Z ($699+) and Z Droid ($624+ Verizon only); Moto Z Play ($449) and Play Droid ($408 Verizon only), and Moto Z Force Droid ($720+ Verizon only)
With Moto Mods, physical devices that snap on to the back of any of the Moto Z family of phones and that can be bought separately, Moto’s conception of what a smartphone can be has certainly caught the eye of gadget lovers. Simply by adding these Mods, like the JBL SoundBoost Speaker, the Moto Insta-Share Projector, and Hasselblad True Zoom Camera – not to mention multiple battery pack and cosmetic options – Moto Z phones can transform into whatever “best” phone you need them to be. That’s a lot of customizability, for sure, but given the variety and quality of the base phone options, even the nonmodding gadget-averse would do well to consider these excellent devices.
How do they differ, you ask? Well, they all have beautiful 5.5-inch AMOLED displays, but the QHD resolution of the Moto Z and Moto Z Force is sharper than the HD display of the Z Play. The Z Play, however, is the only model that has a headphone jack (the others do come with included adapters), and its epic 50-hour battery (even without a Mod) is the absolute best around. The Z Force also has a very good battery, rated at 40 hours, and arguably offers the best camera and more durability with a shatterproof display (though all Z phones are well built), while the 30-hour battery life of the Z is not too shabby.
What the Z gets by giving up the bigger batteries and slightly better cameras is thinness. Extreme thinness. 0.2-inch thinness. And remember, with Moto Mods, you can beef up the battery and camera should the need arise. For the rest of the time, you’ll have the thinnest premium smartphone in the world.
Sure, the Verizon models come with a lot of unnecessary bloat software, and sure, you might never use the Mods, but in the end, all Moto Z models are recommended and worth an in-person look.
Buy one of these phones if you want the thinnest (Moto Z), the longest-lasting (Moto Z Play), or the most physically customizable (any of them) phones available.
OnePlus 3T ($439 – $479)
The OnePlus 3T is a flagship device for a slightly lower price. You will get incredible speed, high-class metal design (wood, bamboo, and other snap-on covers also are available), and excellent battery life. It has a quick-charging battery that stays cool and has clean software with minimal bloat. Both its 5.5-inch AMOLED display and camera are also very good.
So, what are you giving up at that price? Really, not much. The HD display resolution isn’t quite as high as a Galaxy or Pixel, and the camera isn’t quite as good as those phones either, but this mid-priced phone is decidedly high end. OnePlus is no longer new to the U.S. cellphone market, either, so take a look. You’ll be glad you did.
Buy this phone if you want the most bang for your buck.
Moto G4 ($199 – $229; can sometimes be found for less)
The Moto G4 has an HD 5.5-inch display, microSD expandable storage, and a solid battery and runs a nearly stock version of Android (this is a good thing) with no bloat. Oh, yeah, the G4 is also water resistant. Now, you can’t expect the display, camera, and overall design to dazzle like they would with an $800-plus phone, but the screen is bright (and higher resolution than an iPhone 7), the camera is perfectly serviceable, and the slender design is impressive, especially for the price. Basically, if you are short on cash, or would simply rather spend your money elsewhere, this is the phone to get.
Buy this phone if you want the best budget phone available.
The Field: Honorable Mentions
HTC 10 ($699 currently available at $499)
The HTC 10, much like the iPhone 7 and Google Pixel, offers premium build quality in a somewhat boring package – though it is available in multiple colors. It may not be quite the contender that it was when first released in May 2016, but with its sharp Quad HD 5.2-inch display, speedy performance, relatively unbloated take on Android, great camera, good battery life, good external speakers, adaptable microSD storage, and an impressive built-in 24-bit DAC and headphone amp (providing nice warm audio), the 10 is a return to form for HTC, and should still be considered one of the best all-around phones of last year – and a great value if you can find one at a discounted price. That said, the rumored HTC 11, which could be released as early as March or April, could bring improvements, such as a 5.5-inch curved screen, that will be worth the wait.
HTC Bolt ($600 Sprint only)
The HTC Bolt is essentially an upgraded HTC 10 that is only available through Sprint. I normally wouldn’t spend much time discussing carrier-exclusive phones (with the occasional Droid exception), but the Bolt offers cellular speeds of up to 250 megabits per second. This is extremely fast – roughly 10 times faster than a normal LTE connection, in fact – so if you are on Sprint, this carrier exclusive may actually be worth a look. Just make sure that you can actually get those speeds in your area. Wisconsin is not exactly known for great cell service from all carriers in all areas.
LG V20 ($672 – $829)
The LG V20 is a big premium phone with a big (5.7-inch) QHD display. While nice enough (and again, it’s big), that display isn’t quite as good as what can be found on most other top Android phones, because it’s LCD, not AMOLED. The V20 is also fast and is one of the first Android phones to ship with the latest Android 7.0 Nougat, but it also has a lot of software bloat and ultimately does not run as smoothly as, for example, the new Pixel phones (granted, not much does).
Still, the V20 does combine unique old features (a removable battery and expandable memory) with new ones (a second rear camera, an always-on small second display, and media-friendly software for multitasking) to create an enticing all-around phone. And, with advanced audio features like a built-in Quad 24-bit Sabre DACs and AptX HD streaming, which allows it to provide superior wired and wireless sound (actually, it sounds better even while streaming than some phones do with wired setups), the V20 should be a top pick for audiophiles.
iPhone SE ($449 – $499)
The iPhone SE, with its small, 4-inch display, may look exactly the same as an old iPhone 5S, but inside, it contains the same A9 chip, TouchID, and upgraded LTE and Bluetooth support that are found on the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus. The SE also sports the same 12 MP camera found on the 6S, which is a big improvement over the 5S’s 8 MP camera, but still lags behind most other cameras found in this year’s roundup. At its mid-level price, the SE is not exactly a bargain for its size, but the internals are relatively high end, and for fans of small phones, it’s nice to again have a powerful iOS option.
Xiaomi Mi Mix ($819 – $939)
If you are a tinkerer, are comfortable with importing electronics directly from Asia, and just can’t wait to get your hands on an edgeless display phone from the likes of Samsung or Apple, then Xiaomi’s Mi Mix, which boasts a nearly edgeless 6.4-inch display, may be worth your time. It’s really big (though not much bigger than an iPhone 7 Plus), the camera reportedly isn’t that great, and you’ll probably have to root the phone to get a usable version of Android working – but once you do, you’ll have a bit of the future in your hands to impress your friends and intimidate opposing counsel.
Last Year’s Top Models
Did travelling 584 million miles around the sun somehow make last year’s top phones suddenly turn into junk? No, of course not. Phones like the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus and the Huawei Nexus 6P are still really good phones and, with reduced prices, remain competitive.
Overall, the iPhone 7 Plus, the Google Pixel XL, and the aging Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge are arguably the “best” smartphones currently available, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are the best for you. The other models listed in this article are all very good at what they do, and many additional quality devices are available, including some that just missed the subjective cut that should cause their purchasers no regret or embarrassment. In the end, as I said in the beginning, your next phone is going to be a good one. So, relax and have fun!