Best Tech of 2015: Smart Phones

Posted on December 2, 2015 by Paul Thurrott in Android, Hardware, iOS, Mobile, Windows Phones with 0 Comments

Best Tech of 2015: Smart Phones

When you consider that over 1.5 billion smart phones will be sold in 2015—over the triple the number of PCs and tablets combined—it’s very clear that this is the most important personal computing product of the year. So let’s start my annual peek at the best tech products of the year at the top.

Best smart phone overall: Apple iPhone 6S/6S Plus

While Apple’s walled garden approach, heavy-handed business tactics, and the hubris of its most dedicated fans are a turnoff, the firm has made major and important changes to both its iPhones, and, as important, the iOS software that drives them, over the past few years under Tim Cook.

And on that note, the iPhone 6S, and its phablet-class sibling, the iPhone 6S, are collectively my choice for the best smart phone for 2015. For a number of reasons. But it boils down like so: The iPhone 6S and 6S Plus perform better, and more consistently, than any smart phone I’ve used this year, and I’ve used tons.

A few recommendations. First, skip the 16 GB entry-level model and go for the 64 GB mid-level model, regardless of which iPhone you buy. If you can handle the larger size of the iPhone 6S Plus, go for it: That model has a higher resolution (and more pixel-packed) screen, a slightly better camera with optical image processing capabilities for removing the shakes, especially from video, and gets better battery life. But both devices are near perfect for their class, though many will ruin the experience by purchasing an all-too-necessary protective cover. (Apple fixed the “Bendgate” issues with the previous generation iPhone 6 in particular by switching to a stronger aluminum alloy and adding internal structural rigidity.)

I do realize that my choice of the iPhone will be somewhat controversial, especially among Windows phone fans. But let’s be honest here: The iPhone has the biggest and best app store, the biggest and best ecosystem support, and these phones are, physically, superior to anything else on the market. Apple has improved iOS immeasurably since iOS 7, and the iPhone has the nicest mobile payment system, and the best fingerprint reader by far, speeding both sign-ins and payments. Ultimately, I feel that the iPhone is a no brainer, but for one factor: Cost. These are flagship devices and you will pay a premium.

If you want to save some money, consider purchasing a previous generation iPhone 6 or iPhone 6S, which are both still offered by Apple as new devices. What you’ll miss out on is some structural rigidity (though I never had any issues with my 6 Plus), the rose gold color option, and 4K video capabilities. In my own testing, I see no major differences between the camera quality on the iPhone 6 Plus and the iPhone 6S Plus, and that should factor into your deliberations.

Of course, the iPhone isn’t perfect. Even the older devices are expensive. All models lack memory expansion. There’s no wireless charging, and no fast charging with USB-C. And some people just don’t like Apple or its products. Fortunately, there are Android handsets and Windows phones from which to choose as well.

Runner-up: Motorola Moto X Pure Edition

The Moto X Pure Edition is an excellent Android flagship that offers some important advantages over any iPhone. It’s less expensive, though you can only buy it off contract, so you will need to cough up $400 or more at the time of purchase. It is completely configurable at the time of purchase—you can configure the basic color of the device, customize the back with a variety of soft grip colors or, better still, real wood or genuine leather options, choose an accent color, and there are 16, 32 and 64 GB internal storage choices—a truly unique capability. The storage is expandable with microSD, and Motorola provides a “pure” Android experience that is mostly devoid of crapware. And Moto X uses USB-C for fast charge times, a capability missing on iPhone.

What keeps Moto X out of the top spot is its lack of a fingerprint reader: Despite being a late 2015 flagship handset, this phone still requires you to enter a PIN to sign-in, and there’s no tap-to-wake functionality either. The camera is middling, and doesn’t approach the excellence of iPhone or high-end Lumia handsets.

Runner-up: Google Nexus 5X (and 6P)

I’ve only just started testing the Google Nexus 5X, but this handset is clearly a winner, and the metal-bodied Nexus 6P will likely perform similarly for phablet fans (I’ve not reviewed it). What sets the Nexus phones apart from iPhone are their low pricing—$380 and up for the 5X—USB-C connectivity, and pure Android 6.0 experience (with the promise of instant updates in the future). Compared to the Moto X, the Nexus devices offer a superior fingerprint reader for instant sign-in and payments, a better camera, and lower prices.

But the Nexus 5X lacks microSD expansion and there is no way to configure one with more than 32 GB of storage. And it’s a bit too new for me to accurately determine its place next to the iPhone.

Runner-up: Microsoft Lumia 950 (and 950 XL)

I wish I could more broadly recommend the Lumia 950 (and its phablet-class sister, the Lumia 950 XL), but as things stand here in late 2015, it’s an also-ran thanks to its lackluster app store and ecosystem support, and the absence of any viable mobile payment scheme. And it’s simply too expensive at $550 unlocked. The 950 XL is even worse at $650. These prices are unsustainable.

Too, some will harp on the device’s cheap-feeling polycarbonate back, though I will argue that this is a benefit resulting in a lower weight, and accessibility to the battery (something lacking on all of the other devices I’ve mentioned), microSD card, and SIM card(s). Plus you can buy high-quality replacements if you’re into leather and other high-end materials. Cool.

Where the Lumia 950 really excels is with its excellent 20 megapixel camera, its high-end specs (a hexacore processor, a stunning 5.2-inch QHD (2560 x 1440, 564 ppi) display, 3 GB of RAM, and 32 GB of storage), and its peek-at-the-future Continuum feature, which lets the phone pretend to be a PC and connect to a display, keyboard, and mouse, and with future-leaning USB-C connectivity, which provides fast charging capabilities. The Window Hello feature is not useful, as it’s too slow.

Ultimately, the Lumia 950 is recommended for well-heeled Windows phone fans only. I love it, but it’s not for everyone.

Best smart phone value: Lumia 640

While lower-cost flagships like the Moto X Pure Edition and Nexus 5X offer big savings over iPhone, they’re still too expensive for many. So here’s a killer alternative: The Microsoft Lumia 640 (AT&T, no contract).

Why? It costs just $60.

Now, don’t get me wrong. You will give up a lot by opting for this phone. It’s a Windows phone, so the app and ecosystem support is lackluster compared to Android or iOS. The camera is middling at best, and nothing like the wonderful PureView units on high-end Lumias. There’s no wireless charging, or fast charging, or mobile payments. And it’s tied to AT&T—which I don’t see as an issue, but some may.

But.

It’s only $60. The storage is expandable. It works with the Microsoft Band, my favorite wearable. It has a large 5-inch display, and is light and thin. And it’s only $60.

Runner-up: Moto G. This 5-inch, completely unlocked device costs just $180 and up, includes a 13 MP camera and expandable memory, and runs a recent (but not the newest) Android version. It’s better than the Lumia 640, but three times as expensive.

Smart phone tech that matters

I’ve touched on some of these items above, but if you are buying a new smart phone you should consider some of the following features and technologies.

App selection. Apps matters. Apple’s iPhone (iOS) has the biggest and best app selection, though Android is catching up quickly. But some apps and games are still iOS-only or iOS-first.

Ecosystem. Both iPhone and Android are supported by all major content ecosystems—Amazon Kindle and Audible, Google Play, Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, and so on—so you’ll do well in either case. There is one wrinkle on iPhone, however: Because Apple unfairly charges app makers a 30 percent vig for any in-app purchases, you will not find the stores for other ecosystems in the iPhone apps. So you’ll need to find content on your own.

Camera. The phrase “the best camera is the one you have with you” is about as tired as they come, but many modern smart phone flagships have cameras that are good enough to capture important memories like vacations, birthdays, and other holidays. I have used various high-end Lumias, iPhones and Android handsets as my own camera for years, and the results speak for themselves. No, a smart phone camera is not as good as a DLSR. But most people do not want or need a DSLR either.

Mobile payments. Apple’s iPhones (Apple Pay), Samsung’s flagships (Samsung Pay) and many Android phones (Android Pay) all offer excellent mobile payment options, and they work with compatible wearables too. Windows phones do not offer this option, unless you consider paying at Starbucks only a mobile payment option (which requires a Microsoft Band).

Biometric sign-in. Apple’s iPhones offer the best and easiest sign-ins of any phones thanks to the excellent Touch ID sensor on the home button. But Samsung’s newer flagships are a close second, and the fingerprint reader on the back of the Nexus 5X/6P is likewise excellent (though those with bigger hands may find themselves pressing on the camera lens by mistake). The IR camera-based Windows Hello system on the Lumia 950 sounds great but works poorly.

Storage. If you are buying a device with no storage expansion, this is not an area in which to save money: Go big at the time of purchase, and op for at least 32 GB or 64 GB of storage. Otherwise, if microSD expansion is available, 16 GB or more is fine.

Charging/battery. Smart phone battery life continues to lag behind that of other digital devices, most likely because we use them all day long. But any modern smart phone should make it through a full day. And you can help things along with a USB-C-based smart phone, which will charge much more quickly. Some phones also support wireless charging, though I find that to be less reliable than a cable.

Off-contract and unlocked. If you can afford to do so, purchase an unlocked, off contract phone. This gives you portability between wireless carriers—you can switch at any time—and the ability to use an international SIM—for much lower data, phone and text costs—when traveling. It’s time to end the tyranny of the two-year contract, especially here in the US.

Go VR. While Microsoft putzes around with its expensive and lackluster HoloLens technology, those with Android handsets and iPhones can use inexpensive virtual reality (VR) add-ons that really work, and work now. I’ve only tried Google Cardboard, but it’s amazing, and even more immersive than HoloLens. And Samsung has its own inexpensive offering too.

 

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