The smartphone industry is set to grow by 10 percent in 2016 with more than 1.5 billion phones sold (source), but only one of those sales is important to you. We help you choose your new smartphone, with our guide to the 20 best phones you can buy in the UK in 2016.
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When we review smartphones we take into account their build quality and design, ease of use, features, performance and value, although the latter isn’t always such a big deal when it comes to a phone you are most likely to buy on a contract. Generally speaking a flagship phone will cost between £500- and £600, or between £40- and £50 per month on a contract.
Value becomes more important when you consider older-generation phones. For example, we still think the Samsung Galaxy S6 is better than many of the phones in this chart, especially when you consider that it’s now available under £400 SIM-free. However, we move all older-generation smartphones to our best old phones chart, and you’ll now find the Galaxy S7 and S7 edge sitting at the top of this best phones chart.
Best phone 2016: What are your options? Android vs iOS vs Windows
There are multiple mobile phone operating systems, but really only three worth talking about: Android, iOS and Windows. You’ll note that right now there aren’t any Windows phones in our top 20, but that could all change over the next few months thanks to the release of Windows 10.
The great majority of phones available run the Android operating system, with Marshmallowthe latest version (yet just 7.5 percent of Android devices were running Marshmallow at the beginning of May 2016). In 2015 Android held 82.1 percent of the global smartphone market share, and is expected to grow to 82.6 percent in 2016 (source).
While Apple’s iOS platform held a much lower market share of 15.8 percent in 2015 (expected to shrink to 15.2 percent in 2016), there are far fewer iPhone models in circulation, meaning that each individual iPhone holds a larger market share than each individual Android phone. That’s generally speaking, mind, since Samsung had a higher market share in Q4 of 2015 than did Apple, with 20.7 percent against its 17.7 percent (source).
Windows, meanwhile, held just 2.2 percent of the market in 2015, but with the release of Windows 10 for phones it is expected to grow to 5.6 percent by 2018. In common with iOS, there are far fewer phones running Windows than there are Android (source).
The figures aren’t what’s important here, though. More important is which mobile operating system is best for you, and to work that out there are several factors you need to take into account.
Apps and compatibility: Windows has always been criticised for the lack of apps available in the Windows Store, but the fact is all the biggest apps are present and, with the OS built on the same core as Windows 10 for laptops, the possibility of universal apps that work on phone and PC may mean we’ll soon see a lot more functionality on Windows phones.
Android and iOS are these days fairly level in terms of app support, with very few apps available on one platform and not the other. We say fairly, because there are still a few app developers who will prioritise getting their new features to iOS before Android.
Android tends to offer more free apps (although not all are high-quality), and makes it easy to sideload apps outside the Google Play Store (you will need to be careful not to download anything dodgy if you go down this path, however). By comparison, Apple prefers that you play only in the walled garden of its App Store.
Google has by far the best set of built-in apps – we’re talking about the likes of Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Maps, Google Photos and so on. These are all synched online, allowing you to access the same data on any device to which you are signed into your Google account.
If you’ve used an Android phone or iPhone before, it is possible to fairly easy move your contacts and other data from one to the other (see How to move from Android to iPhone and How to move from iPhone to Android). What you can’t move is paid-for apps, so keep this in mind if you’re considering a change of platform.
User interface: While Apple places shortcuts to all your apps on multiple home screens, Android hides them away in an app drawer and leaves it up to you which you want quick access to from the home screen. Windows has a very colourful and pretty, yet arguably less user-friendly tiled interface, with an alphabetical list of all your apps just a swipe in from the home screen.
Whereas both Android and iOS will present notifications on the lock screen, Windows fills its tiles with live information that mean you don’t always need to open an app to get the info you need. Android achieves a similar task with the use of widgets, and Apple is getting there with its Extensions.
Both Android and Windows let you swipe down from the top of the screen to access quick controls for the likes of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, while iOS offers a similar deal Control Centre.
Only Android lets you apply custom skins and themes, which is something you’ll either love or never use. Android phone manufacturers can also apply their own skins, the best known of which is Samsung’s TouchWiz.
Voice assistants: iOS’ Siri is famous for its humour, and Windows’ Cortana can be quite the comedian. Both are intelligent assistants that will respond to your spoken requests and do anything from setting an alarm or calling a contact to searching the web for information or telling you a joke. Android’s Google Now is a little different, as you would expect from the search giant, and is primarily focused on search, be that online or browsing the information stored in your emails, calendar and other Google apps. It also serves up cards throughout the day, for example telling you how long it will take you to get home at around the time you would usually leave work. (If you are missing the personal touch of Siri and Cortana, note that Samsung builds in its own S Voice assistant – see funny things to ask S-Voice.)
Best phone 2016: What makes a great smartphone?
A flagship phone specification will look something like this:
• Android 6.0 Marshmallow, iOS 9 or Windows 10
• Slim, lightweight metal frame
• 5-5.in high-resolution (full-HD or Quad-HD) IPS display with Gorilla Glass 4
• Apple A9/Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 quad-core processor or comparable octa-core chip
• 4GB of RAM (2GB for Apple devices)
• 32GB of storage (plus microSD support for Android devices)
• Fingerprint scanner
• 12Mp-plus primary camera with dual-tone flash, optical image stabilisation, laser autofocus and large apertures, plus support for 4K video recording
• 5Mp selfie camera
• 4G LTE Cat.9
• Dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi
• Bluetooth 4.2
• NFC, GPS, GLONASS, OTG
• Circa-3000mAh battery (half this for Apple devices)
Every single phone in our top 20 is here because we think it is an excellent device, with which few consumers will be disappointed. All are plenty fast for general tasks and gaming (see our benchmark results above and visit What’s the fastest phone 2016?), have nice screens and decent photography capabilities
For example, the LG G5 has a cool new modular design that lets you bolt-on accessories to expand its functionality, and it’s one of few flagship phones to feature a removable battery. The Samsung Galaxy Note 5 has a large screen with stylus support for enhanced productivity, while the HTC 10 supports Hi-Res audio, and the Sony Xperia Z5 ties into PS4 Remote Play. For the ultimate in screen quality, the Premium variant of the Xperia Z5 (not in this chart) has a crazy-high-resolution 4K screen. The Samsung Galaxy S7, S7 edge and Sony Xperia Z5 are all waterproof, while the two S7s and the LG G5 feature new always-on displays.
Of course, with all the best phones on a similar level of awesomeness, your choice may come down purely to how it looks – and that’s something we can’t help you with, other than to point out the build quality information not visible from the PR shots and our own opinion on how they look. Click on any phone in our list of the best phones to read our full reviews.
Best phone 2016: Smartphone material poll
We’re still only mid-way through 2016, and later this year we are expecting to see new Google Nexus phones (running all new Android N), the Samsung Galaxy Note 6, the OnePlus 3, and Apple’s new iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus.20 best phones 2016 UK – best smartphone reviews
20. Google Nexus 5X
- RRP: £299 inc VAT
Those looking to upgrade from a Nexus 5 will be happy and sad in almost equal measure. The 5X is a fantastic phone overall, with excellent cameras, a good turn of speed and an excellent screen. But it’s noticeably bigger than its predecessor despite the small increase in screen size, it has limited storage compared to the Nexus 6P and it lacks a couple of camera features due to the slower processor. The absence of wireless charging is another blow for some, but additions such as the fingerprint scanner will make it a great upgrade for others.
19. Honor 7
Honor has once again impressed us with a flagship smartphone at an outrageous price. For under £250 you get a lot of phone for your money. Performance is good with the main camera and fingerprint sensors being the highlights on the hardware side. Emotion UI isn’t our favourite Android skin but it’s perfectly usable and you can always change it if you like.
If you’re looking for a big screen phone, the Moto X Style is a great choice. It’s got great specs across the board and it cheaper than rivals like the Nexus 6P and Galaxy S6 Edge+. We love the screen, stock Android and cameras. However, it really comes stands out when using the Moto Maker to customise it which costs more. With a screen only slightly smaller and a fingerprint scanner the OnePlus 2 is the spanner in the works here at £289 for the 64GB model.
17. OnePlus 2
- Reviewed on: 8 March 16
- Buy for £249 64GB
The lack of NFC, a microSD card slot, a removable battery, and quick- and wireless charging means the OnePlus 2 is not a flagship killer. It does have some killer new features though, including USB Type-C, 4G dual-SIM support and some powerful hardware. At the reduced price of £249 (we don’t recommend the 16GB OP2), it’s an unrivalled deal.
16. Elephone P9000
- Reviewed on: 11 March 16
- Buy for 193.98 (plus import duty from China)
We’re very impressed with the Elephone P9000, which is a great all-round Android phone at an unbelievable sub-£200 price. It’s fast, battery life is good, it’s feature-packed and it even runs Marshmallow. Wireless- and quick-charging-, NFC-, USB-C-, dual-SIM- and microSD support are the icing on the cake. Recommended.
The Xperia Z5 Compact is the best small phone around, but then there’s not much competition in this area anymore and there are a number of phones offering decent specs for a lot less. Those looking for Z5 design and specs in a smaller frame will be pleased but it’s a shame about the chunky design with the sharp edges. The fingerprint scanner is a great addition and the Snapdragon 810 with almost stock Android provides slick performance. However, the camera isn’t as good as Sony makes it out to be.
14. Xiaomi Mi 5
- Reviewed on: 31 May 16
- RRP: £263.75 (plus import duty)
A fantastic Android flagship that comes in at an outrageously low price, the Xiaomi Mi 5 has the braun and the beauty to match the greats. Perhaps not a wise choice for first time Android users, but those comfortable in customising the setup will love the excellent-value, gorgeously designed Xiaomi Mi 5.
- Reviewed on: 13 July 16
- RRP: £169
Although the new Moto G4 is more expensive than the third-generation, Motorola is offering a Full HD screen, better processor, more storage and memory. Not everyone will enjoy the jump to 5.5in or the lack of full waterproofing but this is still a brilliant phone for under £200. Just bear in mind that the 3rd-gen Moto G is now a great buy at £149 and the Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 offers similar specs for just £125 (albeit SIM-locked).
12. Sony Xperia Z5
There’s no doubt that the Xperia Z5 is a solid flagship smartphone from Sony and an improvement on the Z3+. We certainly like the new frosted glass rear cover and the addition of a fingerprint scanner in that slim power button. The camera isn’t great compared to the best phone cameras out there though, and you can get a better phone for similar money. The price has dropped, and it’s now a decent-value waterproof flagship with a Micro-SD card slot. However, you can’t use it underwater, and there are newer rivals which are better value, take better photos and have better performance.
11. iPhone SE
The SE is what many iPhone fans have been asking for, and it’s a great upgrade if you’re still using an iPhone 5. For 5S owners, things aren’t quite as clear cut. If you’re not happy with the 5S’s performance, the SE should solve that problem. However, unless you really want to shoot 4K videos, you’re not going to notice a massive improvement in photo quality. There’s a much bigger jump in quality if you’re coming from an iPhone 5 (or earlier), however. Make sure 16GB is enough before you order: we’d recommend the 64GB version for most people.
10. iPhone 6S
We’re really impressed by the offerings of the iPhone 6s, especially the 3D Touch technology. If it catches on (and we think it will) 3D Touch will completely change how people interact with their iPhones, both in terms of browsing the web and social media as well as when gaming. The camera overhaul is definitely a welcome addition too, especially when you consider Apple hasn’t upped the resolution of its iSight camera since the iPhone 4s back in 2011. This works well with Live Photos, a new software feature that captures a gif-like video complete with audio when you take a photo – 1.5 seconds before the photo was taken, and 1.5 seconds after. It doesn’t just boast impressive new features, the boosted internals provide us with a much faster iPhone than we’re used to, and tasks that would take seconds on our iPhone 6 Plus took a split second on the iPhone 6s. We’re excited about the technology the iPhone 6s offers, and what it means for future smartphones.
- Reviewed on: 15 October 15
- Buy for £484.99
So, what do we think of the Galaxy Note 5? We’re very fond of just about every aspect of the Galaxy Note 5, from its curved and sleek design to its vibrant display and high-resolution camera. It can handle almost anything you can throw at it thanks to its CPU, GPU and 4GB of RAM and we experienced no lag during our testing. The only bad point is that the Note 5 would sometimes falsely detect the S Pen detaching – and to point out such a minor fault says a lot about the quality of the handset. With this being said, we’re both surprised and sad that the Galaxy Note 5 won’t be heading to UK shores any time soon.
8. Huawei P9
When comparing the P9 to other flagships, it’s important to remember the £449 price which makes it considerably cheaper than many of its rivals (but not the identically priced Nexus 6P that’s also made by Huawei). Overall, we’re impressed with the phone: it’s well built, feels good and looks good. The cameras aren’t the absolute best out there, it doesn’t top the charts in game tests and the screen isn’t Quad HD, but these minor quibbles are outweighed not only by the price but also because, unlike the Nexus, the P9 lets you stick in a microSD card to expand the storage. If you can afford it, the Galaxy S7 is a better phone overall, but this is a great choice if you can’t.
7. HTC 10
There’s a lot to like with the new HTC 10 including a number of hardware upgrades across screen, camera and audio, plus a Nexus-like stock Android experience. However, we’re not totally sold on the design and it’s tough at the top these days. While the HTC 10 is a solidly good phone and a respectible upgrade for M9 owners, it doesn’t blow the competition out of the water. The features which appeal the most are more niche than mass market.
6. OnePlus 3
- Reviewed on: 4 August 16
- RRP: £329 inc VAT
The OnePlus 3 is another amazing smartphone from the Chinese company as easily its best effort yet. It’s a little bit more expensive than its predecessor but it’s still a ridiculous price considering the design, build and hardware on offer which matches rivals but also beats them in some areas. There’s very little to dislike here unless you really need things like expandable storage and waterproofing. You don’t even need an invite any longer, either.
The iPhone 6S Plus is a remarkable phone, and it’s without doubt the best iPhone Apple has ever made. Just don’t buy the 16GB model which doesn’t have nearly enough storage. Few other phones are launching with screens under 5in which – if anything – makes the iPhone 6S look too small and the ‘giant’ 6S Plus normal. 3D Touch can sound gimmicky, but it’s absolutely not. It requires effort to force yourself to use it to begin with, but it quickly becomes second nature and it will be fascinating to see how app developers put it to use in apps and games. If you’ve already got an iPhone 6 or 6 Plus it’s hard to justify the upgrade for 3D Touch and the improved cameras. But for anyone with an iPhone 5S or earlier, there’s a world of difference and it’s a thoroughly worthwhile purchase.
- Reviewed on: 28 April 16
- RRP: From £449 inc VAT
Originally, Nexus phones stood out for being excellent value at a price that was low, but not the lowest. They weren’t an alternative to flagship phones, but they had the advantage of running stock Android and getting the next version more quickly. The 6P, though, is not only a flagship, but is arguably the best Android phone to buy at the moment. It won’t suit everyone due to its size, nor those looking for a phone with dual-SIM slots or a removable battery. There’s no support for wireless charging either. But the excellent screen, front-firing speakers, quick charging, great cameras, speedy performance and Android Marshmallow add up to make this a phone that’s a pleasure to use. And yes, it’s also cheaper than its rivals, so unless you think it’s worth shelling out extra on the Note 5, Galaxy S6 Edge+ or iPhone 6S Plus, the Nexus 6P is the one to buy.
3. LG G5
The LG G5 is one of the most radical phones to come along in a while and we’re glad the firm has shaken things up with the modular design. The G5 is innovative and interesting with unique features but it’s a shame the design and build feels unfinished in areas. It’s a top-notch device which can hold its own with the best phones in performance and cameras, but it’s LG’s modular design which is the real selling point here. There is bags of potential but the future of this is unclear so it’s hard to be definite right now. The G5 is one of the best phones around but for completely different reasons to the Galaxy S7.
The Samsung Galaxy S6 was the best phone of 2015 and, although it’s still early days, the Galaxy S7 is a serious contender for best phone of 2016. Samsung has taken into account what its fans want, addressing the three main areas of concern: removable storage, waterproofing and battery life. It’s also upgraded the core hardware and photography gear, added an always-on display and some useful software. Right now the Galaxy S7 is simply unbeatable.
The Galaxy S7 edge is no longer the semi-gimmick it was before. Although some of the main features are things from the Galaxy S5 – Micro-SD and waterproofing – Samsung has given fans what they want. It’s now a refined, sophisticated and highly desirable piece of technology. The battery isn’t removable but the phone lasts longer than before and has seriously powerful specs under the hood. It has almost everything you could want from a phone even though the IR blaster is gone. We’re also very impressed with the new camera and unless the screen is too big for you (despite some software features to help out) we think it’s worth getting the S7 edge for the extra £70 with its gorgeous looks and extra functionality. Right now, this is the best smartphone money can buy.
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