Best smartphone 2016 – buying guide & top mobile phone picks

Find your perfect smartphone from our list of Android, Windows and Apple handsets

Our smartphone is one of the most important devices we use on a daily basis, but picking the right one for your needs and budget can be tricky when there are so many different handsets lining the shelves. To help you make the right choice, we’ve sifted through all our reviews to bring you the definitive shortlist of the best handsets currently available and which ones are the best value for money.

Every smartphone on this list has been tested and benchmarked in full, but we’ll be updating this list regularly with new entries as and when they come in for review. Be sure to also check out our handy buying guide on page two to help narrow down your choice even further. We explain everything from which operating system you should go for to screen quality, battery life and performance, and how much storage you’ll need. We also explain whether you need 4G and the best ways to buy your new handset.

1. Samsung Galaxy S7

Samsung galaxy S7 display

The Galaxy S7 doesn’t look that much different from the Galaxy S6, but the number of improvements it’s received inside make it by far the best Android smartphone we’ve ever seen. Its battery life is incredible, its speed is unprecedented, and it rectifies lots of the problems we had with the S6, as the S7 now has a microSD slot to expand the phone’s storage up to 200GB, and it’s also dustproof and waterproof.

The curvy S7 Edge is arguably more attractive than flat S7, but this year it’s also much larger, making the the regular S7 a better fit for those who want something a little more hand and pocket friendly. For more details, see our full Samsung Galaxy S7 review and check out all of the best Samsung Galaxy S7 deals on uSwitch.

Processor: Octa-core 2.3GHz Samsung Exynos 8890 Screen Size: 5.1in, Screen resolution: 2,560×1,440, Rear camera: 12 megapixels, Storage: 32GB / 64GB, Wireless data: 3G, 4G, Size: 142x70x7.9mm, Weight: 152g, Operating system: Android 6.0.1

2. OnePlus 3

OnePlus 3

If you thought the OnePlus 2 was great value for money, think again, as it’s now been replaced by the even more outstanding OnePlus 3. Even better, you don’t need an invite in order to buy one, as OnePlus has finally ditched its restrictive invite system and made the OnePlus 3 available to all right from day one.

With a Snapdragon 820 and a huge 6GB of RAM, the OnePlus 3 is one of the fastest smartphones around, rivalling the LG G5 (also listed below), and it’s almost as fast as Samsung’s Galaxy S7 as well. Combine that with 64GB of storage as standard and a stunning aluminium chassis, and this £309 smartphone has plenty of ammunition to compete in the smartphone big leagues. For more details, see our OnePlus 3 review. Buy the OnePlus 3 now from OnePlus

Processor: Quad-core 2.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 820, Screen Size: 5.5in, Screen resolution: 1,920×1,080, Rear camera: 16 megapixels, Storage (free): 64GB (52.6GB), Wireless data: 3G, 4G, Size: 153x75x7.3mm, Weight: 158g,Operating system: OxygenOS (Android 6.0.1)

3. LG G5

LG G5 display side

LG’s done the impossible with the LG G5, as it’s managed to combine a full metal unibody and an interchangeable battery. How has it achieved this feat of technical wizardry? By making the phone modular. It may not be the prettiest phone in this list, but the ability to tap a button and simply slide out the battery gives it a huge advantage over its fixed rivals.

It’s also incredibly quick, and its graphics performance even surpasses the Samsung Galaxy S7 below. Its 5.3in display is superb as well, and its rear dual cameras give it plenty of flexibility when taking photos. The main 16-megapixel camera is excellent, but its wide-angle 8-megapixel lens is also a really fun addition, giving creative types plenty to get stuck in with. For more details, see our full LG G5 review and check out all of the best LG G5 deals on uSwitch.

Processor: Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 Screen Size: 5.3in, Screen resolution: 2,560×1,440, Rear camera: 16 + 8 megapixels, Storage: 32GB, Wireless data: 3G, 4G, Size: 149x74x7.7mm, Weight: 159g, Operating system: Android 6.0.1

4. Motorola Moto X Force

Motorola Moto X Force

The Motorola Moto X Force is truly the king of all smartphones. With its incredible shatterproof display, you never need to worry about breaking your phone’s screen ever again. We’ve hit it with a baseball bat, chucked it on the floor (concrete or otherwise) and it’s come out completely unscathed.

It’s an astonishing feat of engineering, and to make things even better, Motorola has also equipped it with a gorgeous 5.4in 2,560×1,440 AMOLED panel, a super fast octa-core processor, a fantastic camera and one of the largest batteries we’ve seen this year. Even if you’ve never dropped a smartphone in your life, you never know when that dreaded day might arrive. With the Moto X Force, you can just keep on rolling with the punches, making it our top smartphone of 2015. For more information, see our full Motorola Moto X Force review.

Processor: Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 Screen Size: 5.4in, Screen resolution: 2,560×1,440, Rear camera: 21 megapixels, Storage: 32GB / 64GB, Wireless data: 3G, 4G, Size: 150x78x7.6mm, Weight: 169g, Operating system: Android 5.1.1

5. iPhone 7 Plus

Apple iPhone 7 review

The iPhone 7 and its Plus-sized counterpart are the most expensive iPhones yet, but it’s the Plus that makes this list due to its dual 12-megapixel camera. The normal iPhone 7 doesn’t have a dual sensor, and thus misses out on the Plus’ 2x optical zoom feature. It also has better battery life than its little brother, making it more reliable over the course of the day.

Elsewhere, Apple’s made several improvements to the phone’s speed and overall build quality, but it’s not quite as big a leap forward as you might expect from a next-generation smartphone. The iPhone 7 Plus is still the best iPhone ever made, but iPhone 6S owners should probably hang on to their handsets for a while before they upgrade. For more details, see our full iPhone 7 Plus review.

Processor: Quad-core A10 Fusion, Screen Size: 5.5in, Screen resolution: 1,920 x 1,080 Rear camera: 2x 12 megapixels, Storage: 32GB, 128GB, 256GB, Wireless data: 3G, 4G, Dimensions: 158 x 78 x 7.3mm, Weight: 188g, Operating system: iOS 10.0

6. Moto G4 2016

Moto G4 display

Step aside, budget smartphones, you’ve just been made obsolete by the brand-new Moto G4 2016. If you thought the 3rd Gen Moto G was a great smartphone, then prepare to get your socks blown off by the Moto G4, as this packs in even more power for just £10 more than the original launch price of the 3rd Gen model. It’s truly astonishing what Motorola’s managed to achieve with the G4, as its specs rival that of several smartphones that are twice as expensive.

With an octa-core 1.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 617 chip at its disposal, it’s faster than anything else in its price range, and its 3,000mAh battery also gives it buckets of stamina. Provided you’re not put off by the size, though, the Moto G4 is an absolute masterpiece and a more than a worthy upgrade over the existing 3rd Gen Moto G. For more details, see our Moto G4 2016 review. Buy the Moto G4 now from Motorola

Processor: Octa-core 1.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 617, Screen Size: 5.5in, Screen resolution: 1,920×1,080, Rear camera: 13 megapixels, Storage (free): 16GB (10.8GB) / 32GB, Wireless data: 3G, 4G, Size: 153x77x7.9mm, Weight: 155g, Operating system: Android 6.0.1

7. Nexus 6P

Nexus 6P hands on

The Nexus 6P might be a bit old-hat now that Google’s announced its new Pixel and Pixel XL phones, but they’re also astronomically expensive, matching the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus in terms of price. As a result, you’d do well to pick up a Nexus 6P if you can still find one, as this was one of the best phones of last year. It’s also got one of the best cameras we’ve seen, too, making it a fantastic all-round package for those after something phablet-sized. For more details, see our full Nexus 6P review.

Processor: Octa-core 2.0GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 v2.1, Screen Size: 5.7in, Screen resolution: 2,560×1,440, Rear camera: 12.3 megapixels, Storage: 32GB (25GB) / 64GB / 128GB, Wireless data: 3G, 4G, Size: 159x78x7.3mm, Weight: 178g, Operating system: Android 6.0

8. Samsung Galaxy J5

Samsung Galaxy J5

The Samsung Galaxy J5 is an incredible budget handset. Not only does it have a gorgeous Super AMOLED display – a real rarity at this end of the market – but in our tests, its battery life even surpasses that of the significantly more expensive Galaxy S7. That’s a pretty impressive feat for a phone that doesn’t cost more than £200 SIM-free, and it shows you don’t have to spend a lot on a top-flight flagship handset to get the best a phone can offer.

In fact, it’s a pretty close run race between this and Motorola’s 3rd Gen Moto G for our favourite best budget handset, and a large part of it will come down to whether you prefer to use plain Android (as on the Moto G) or are happy with Samsung’s TouchWiz interface. The Moto G has the edge when it comes to camera performance, but the J5 is still a highly accomplished smartphone for its price, and is easily one of Samsung’s best budget handsets to date. For more information, see our full Samsung Galaxy J5 review.

Processor: Quad-core 1.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 410, Screen Size: 5in, Screen resolution: 1,280×720, Rear camera: 13 megapixels, Storage: 8GB, Wireless data: 3G, 4G, Size: 142x72x7.9mm, Weight: 146g, Operating system: Android 5.1.1

9. Samsung Galaxy A3 2016

Samsung Galaxy A3 2016

If you’ve been waiting for a Galaxy S6 Mini, look no further. While technically part of Samsung’s new metal-edged A series for 2016, the 4.7in Galaxy A3 is, to all intents and purposes, a miniature S6 in disguise. It’s definitely one of the most attractive smartphones you can buy for under £300, even if its specs aren’t quite as powerful as its other mid-range competitors.

That said, the A3 has something that most other Android phones could only ever dream of at this price, and that’s a gorgeous Super AMOLED display. It’s also got one of the best battery lives I’ve ever seen on a mid-range handset, and its 13-megapixel camera isn’t half bad, either. For more details, read our full Samsung Galaxy A3 2016 review.

Processor: Quad-core 1.5GHz Exynos Octa 7580, Screen Size: 4.7in, Screen resolution: 1,280×720, Rear camera: 13 megapixels, Storage: 16GB, Wireless data: 3G, 4G, Size: 135x65x7.3mm, Weight: 132g, Operating system: Android 5.1.1

10. Vodafone Smart Prime 7

Vodafone Smart Prime 7

Most handsets under £100 are pretty awful, but the £75 Vodafone Smart Prime 7 shows other cut-price smartphones how it’s done. While the 2nd Gen Moto E is still my favourite current sub-£100 smartphone, the Smart Prime 7 comes a very close second. It not only looks great, but its 5in, 1280×720 display is arguably even better than the slightly more upmarket 3rd Gen Moto G. It’s not the fastest smartphone in the world, but it’s still got plenty of oomph for everyday tasks.

Just don’t buy it on contract, as you can get the same entry-level 250MB data deal for almost half the price if you opt for one of Vodafone’s SIM-only plans instead. For more information, see our full Vodafone Smart Prime 7 review.

Processor: Quad-core 1.3GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 210, Screen Size: 5in, Screen resolution: 1,280×720, Rear camera: 8 megapixels, Storage: 8GB, Wireless data: 3G, 4G, Size: 144x72x7.9mm, Weight: 128g, Operating system: Android 6.0.1

11. Motorola Moto E (2nd Gen, 2015)

Moto E 2015 press shot

If you’re looking for extremely low-cost Android phone that you can buy outright, the 2015 edition of the Motorola Moto E should be top of your list. It’s extremely good value. Its 960×540 screen is a little low-res, but its quality is very good. Performance is also respectable, and its battery life of 13h 30m in our video playback test is also extremely good for a budget handset. For more information, see our full Motorola Moto E (2015) review.

Processor: Quad-core 1.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 410,Screen Size: 4.5in, Screen resolution: 960×540, Rear camera: 5 megapixels, Storage: 8GB, Wireless data: 3G, 4G,Size: 130x67x12.3mm, Weight: 145g, Operating system: Android 5.0.2

Smartphone buying guide

Smartphones are so useful that they’re already near-indispensable in our lives, but finding the right one for you and your budget can be tricky, especially when there are so many expensive contracts to sift through. To make things easier, we’ve rounded up everything you need to know about buying your perfect smartphone as well as what you need to know about picking out a contract.

Which smartphone operating system do I need?

The first, and probably most important, decision to make is which operating system you want your phone to run. This will dictate what the phone is like to use, which features it has as standard and the apps you can install on the phone to add to its capabilities. There are three main choices: iOS, Android and Windows. All are slick, modern operating systems, but each offers a very different user experience and the handsets available with each OS vary widely.

iOS is only available on Apple’s own smartphones. Its big rival Android has made some great gains in terms of smooth operation, but iOS still feels like the slickest OS, as the phone never seems to judder or slow down – something which can happen on even high-end Android handsets. Some argue that its interface is a bit simplistic, and it’s not as customisable as Android, but there’s no doubt it’s incredibly easy to use and the latest version made it more open than ever before. See our full iOS 9.2 review for more information.

Apple iOS is also still the best-supported OS with the widest range of apps, although Android is very close behind. Finally, Apple is very good at providing updates for older handsets, so you’ll very likely be able to download and install the latest version of iOS when it’s released.

Android is iOS’s biggest competitor and is by far the world’s most popular smartphone operating system, running on around 80% of smartphones. Any handset manufacturer is free to make a phone with Android, which leads to a huge choice of smartphones at a wide range of prices. For this reason, most people will end up choosing an Android smartphone, as all the choice means it’s easy to find one that exactly fits your requirements. There are many different versions of Android available, but Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean) or higher is recommended, as older versions are now outdated and may not have comprehensive app support.

On top of this, manufacturers customise their own version of Android, which means that the experience differs. For example, our Android 6.0 Marshmallow review explains how the latest version works, but the experience differs a lot between different manufacturers. Many phones are also still running Android 5.0 Lollipop. Our reviews, explain how Android behaves on that particular phone. These customisations mean that Android update process can be pretty painful, with the latest version of Android often taking months to arrive on a particular handset, as manufacturers have to make their operating system customisations work with the new Android version. If you’re wondering if your handset will get an upgrade, read our Android Marshmallow update guide for the full lowdown.

There’s a huge range of apps available in the Google Play store, and the number almost matches the number available in Apple’s App Store. Android app quality is also improving, but iOS apps generally still have the edge. Also, while app makers will almost always make a version of their app for iOS, not all apps make it over to Android.

The third main smartphone OS is Windows. This is also available on phones from different manufacturers, but Microsoft makes by far the most. Windows Phone is a highly accomplished OS, which is incredibly smooth and intuitive to use. We love its Live Tiles, which are large icons that display information from apps, such as your latest calendar appointments.

New Windows phones should now come with Windows 10 Mobile, but older handsets will still ship with Windows Phone 8.1. There’s not a huge difference between them, at least in terms of appearance, but Windows 10 is much neater and tidier overall. However, there are a couple of disappointments on Windows Phone, as there are nowhere near as many apps available for the platform as on Android and iOS. However, Microsoft is constantly updating the Windows Phone Store with new apps and services and the selection is improving rapidly. Before buying a Windows Phone handset, check that there isn’t an app missing from the platform which you can’t live without.

What should I look for in a smartphone display?

As most smartphones are controlled entirely with their touchscreens, the size and quality of a handset’s display is highly important. A larger screen will make everything easier to read and is particularly useful for web browsing, but a big display makes for a big phone which you may find harder to carry around.

Screen resolution is also important. The latest Android phones have Full HD (1,920×1,080) or above screens, so everything is incredibly detailed. However, this resolution isn’t strictly necessary: a 1,280×720 (or thereabouts) resolution still provides plenty of detail, while an 800×480 screen is fine for a budget model. A screen’s pixel density, measured in pixels per inch (PPI), will give you can idea of how clear and sharp text will appear on a screen; a smaller number of pixels stretched across a huge screen, for example, will lead to jagged edges.

Screen technology can be important, with Super AMOLED screens and LCD the two main technologies. In Super AMOLED screens, each pixel is self-illuminated, rather than filtering through light from a backlight as on LCD screens, so you get better contrast with deeper blacks, as well as lower power consumption. The disadvantage is that such screens use PenTile sub-pixel arrangements. In a traditional display, there are three sub-pixels per pixel (one red, one green and one blue), which combine to create a final colour; PenTile screens typically use two sub-pixels (one green and alternate red and blue). The result is that AMOLED screens may not have quite the colour accuracy of LCD models. Our reviews tell you how good each screen really is.

Performance and battery life

A modern smartphone is a proper computer, with most models having at least dual-core processors, if not quad-core. Some phones even have eight cores, with four lower-power cores dedicated to less-intensive tasks. The speed of a processor determines how fast each handset is, how slick the OS feels, and how the phone copes with complicated web pages, but you can’t tell this from specs alone. To test performance we run a web browser benchmark on each phone and also a 3D test to see how well a handset can cope with modern games.

One of the things that everyone wants from a smartphone is the best possible battery life, as it’s the one thing that has actually gotten worse over the years, with pretty much every single phone having to be charged at least daily. Here at Expert Reviews we test all of our phones at the same screen brightness, so there’s a level playing field. We test by playing back a video, which requires the screen to be on and the processor working quite hard. What this test gives us is a comparison between phones, so we can see which one has the best battery life overall. However, I should point out that this is a continuous stress test, with phones lasting for longer in day-to-day life.

Even so, being able to compare phones in this way helps you make the right decision about the handset that’s right for you, choosing the one with the longest battery life if you’re going to spend a lot of time away from a power socket. All of our main phone reviews have battery life scores in them, but if you want to see how all of the current flagship phones stack up (as well as all of the other models released last year), you need to read our best smartphone battery life article before you choose which handset to buy.

How much smartphone storage do I need?

Having enough storage space is vital. Apps, especially games, take up plenty of room, and you’ll also need space for your photos, videos and music. All phones have a certain amount of onboard storage, but a handset’s pre-installed apps can eat into that. Our reviews will tell you if there’s not much space left for you to use.

Some phones let you expand their storage with microSD cards. With 32GB cards costing less than £20, this is a cheap way to add more capacity. Generally speaking, a minimum of 8GB of onboard storage is fine if there’s a microSD card slot; 16GB should be the minimum otherwise. Some cheap phones only have 4GB of onboard storage, so you’ll definitely need to add a microSD card to get the most out of your smartphone.

Do I need 4G on my smartphone?

All smartphones support 3G, but only some models support 4G (LTE). 4G is incredibly fast, but 4G contracts can still be expensive. Prices are coming down, however. Bear in mind that all smartphones have Wi-Fi built in, which will help you cut down on mobile data use when you’re on your home or a guest network, as well as letting you take advantage of super-fast data speeds.

How should I buy a smartphone?

You can get smartphones from £80 all the way up to around £800, but this largely depends on how much you’ve got and how you want to pay. Generally speaking, buying a phone unlocked and SIM-free is the best option, as you can use any SIM you like and sell the phone when you want to upgrade, but you do have to have the money up-front. Don’t buy a PAYG phone, as you’ll end up paying the SIM-free price, but with your phone locked to a network (with the exception of on Three, which doesn’t lock phones). If you can’t stomach the up-front cost, then go with a contract, but work out the total cost of it over the period to make sure you aren’t getting ripped off: if you can afford a bit more up-front, you’ll most likely save over the contract’s length.

Contract or up-front?

While most of us buy our phones on contract, there has been a growing number of SIM-only deals, designed for people that have bought their phone outright. So, which one is the right way to do it? Well, it largely comes down to budget and how much up-front money that you’ve got. With a phone contract, you don’t have to put much money down up-front, instead paying the cost of the phone over a set period (24-months is usual). This increases the monthly price and means that you’re also paying interest on the phone purchase, but you can get the latest handsets without having to pay a huge amount for them.

With SIM-only you need a large lump sum, but you don’t pay interest on it, can sell and upgrade whenever you like and you have lower monthly payments. Expert Reviews investigated the SIM only vs contract question in greater deal, including resale values of handsets to help you make the right decision.

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