Choosing a new smartphone can be a chore. Not only are you hammered with hyperbole from all directions, with each company insisting its product is Elvis, Jesus and Chuck Norris rolled into one, but there are almost as many different software/platform combos as there are phones. Let New Atlas help, as we line up our picks for the 10 best high-end smartphones of 2016 – to compare their features, specs and harder-to-define intangibles.
For this late 2016 edition of our Smartphone Comparison Guide, we’re looking at 10 handsets:
We also skipped some major flagships like the LG G5 (its modular design fell short, and was eclipsed by its more-recent successor, the V20) and the Moto Z’s sibling, the Moto Z Force (thicker, heavier and more expensive than the capable standard model).
The LG V20 is the biggest phone in this bunch, but the iPhone 7 Plus (which has a smaller screen) isn’t far behind.
The iPhone 7 is smallest, but the Galaxy S7 is only a slightly bigger phone with a significantly bigger screen.
At some point razor-thin phones went out of style, as phone-makers tried to find a better balance of thickness, battery life and screen resolution. The only handset in this bunch pushing that boundary is the super-svelte Moto Z, though you may prefer to use it with one of its modular add-ons, which will make it beefier.
The Moto Z is also ludicrously light, tipping the scales lighter than the much smaller iPhone 7.
Aluminum makes an appearance on all 10 phones, though Samsung only uses its metal frames to bind glass fronts and backs.
Each phone gives you some degree of choice in colors.
The asterisk next to the jet black iPhone 7 and 7 Plus? That’s because Apple snuck in an upsale technique (a trick growing more common under Tim Cook’s Apple), only offering that none-more-black option in the more expensive 128 GB and 256 GB models.
The iPhone 7 is the only handset in this bunch that drops below the 5-inch display threshold. You could say that makes it a little better for folks who don’t want a huge handset, but keep in mind the Galaxy S7 gives you an 18 percent bigger screen in only a slightly bigger phone.
The 5.7-inch LG V20 has the largest screen in this rogue’s gallery, giving you 7 percent more area than the five 5.5-inch phones.
The iPhone 7 is also the only phone in this bunch to fall short of 400 pixels-per-inch, but Apple paid enough attention to details that won’t show up on spec sheets – color range, brightness, contrast, richness – to keep its screen looking close to top-notch.
The AMOLED vs. IPS breakdown comes out 6-4 in favor of AMOLED.
Apple is still the only major smartphone-maker bothering with pressure-sensitive displays, with its 3D Touch tech. It’s essentially the mobile right-click, bringing up various shortcuts and previews by pressing harder on the screen.
LG is one of those delightful Android-phone-makers that’s always throwing wacky new stuff against the wall. Following last year’s V10, the updated V20 has a small strip of screen sitting above the main display that shows various shortcuts and alerts without trespassing on your main screen’s turf.
After the fiery Note 7 was recalled and discontinued, that left the Galaxy S7 edge as Samsung’s only current-gen phone with a curved-edge display. It’s mostly a cosmetic addition, though it can also do many of the same things as LG’s Second Screen, only vertically (with the major difference that, in Samsung’s case, that strip steals space from the main display).
Megapixel counts, once past a certain threshold (which all of these are) don’t mean much. But we can say anecdotally that our tests showed the Google Pixel and Pixel XL providing the best photography of the year. The LG V20, iPhones and Galaxies all came somewhat close.
Camera aperture (rear)
The logic goes that wider aperture means better low-lit photography – and if you’re looking only at physical sensors, then that’s probably going to hold true. But Google’s HDR software algorithms give the Pixel phones the best low-lit smartphone shots we’ve ever seen, despite having a mere ƒ/2.0 aperture.
Dual-lens camera (rear)
The iPhone 7 Plus and LG V20 both have dual rear cameras, but they each serve different purposes.
The iPhone’s second lens is a telephoto/zoom one, letting you jump between standard and 2x shots with the push of a button. The two cameras also combine to enable a new Portrait Mode that simulates (with hit-or-miss quality) the bokeh/blurred-background effect of a DSLR or mirrorless camera.
LG’s second sensor shoots wider landscapes instead, and lacks any kind of faux-bokeh effect.
The Pixel phones stand as evidence that great camera software can transcend camera spec sheets. Not only do they have the smallest apertures in this bunch, they also lack Optical Image Stabilization. Yet they have not only the best low-lit photography, but also the most stable and least-blurred shots of moving subjects that we’ve seen in a phone.
The Galaxy S7 edge has the biggest (highest-capacity) battery in this bunch, but many other factors play into real-world battery life (keep reading).
Battery benchmark (lower is better)
In our own battery benchmark, where we stream video over Wi-Fi with screen brightness measured at a consistent luminance, the Samsung phones and OnePlus 3 had the best scores – dropping just 9 percent per hour.
While the larger Google Pixel XL fared pretty well, the smaller Pixel lost a disappointing 14 percent per hour.
Over two years after fast-charging tech started popping up in Android flagships (and has improved incrementally since), Apple has yet to offer its own version of this handy feature.
The LG V20 harkens back to older Android flagships, with its removable battery. If you pick up a spare, you can skip the bulky battery cases or clunky portable chargers, and simply swap that out during an unusually long day.
Only Samsung built wireless charging into its phones, but you can buy a battery mod (read on) for the Moto Z that adds the same functionality.
Some models of the LG V20 can add wireless charging, if you buy a replacement backing that supports it.
You’re getting a fast phone no matter which you pick, but in our experience, we found the iPhones and Pixels to provide the smoothest, most real-time feeling in day-to-day performance.
RAM isn’t always a perfect predictor of real-life multitasking performance (the iPhone 7, for example, still fares very well there), but for those keeping score, the OnePlus 3 has the most.
For internal storage, most phones give you several different pricing tiers to choose from. LG and OnePlus are the most generous in their base tiers, with a spacious 64 GB.
Only half the phones, though, let you expand/augment that internal storage by popping in a microSD card. These relatively cheap solutions can add up to 2 TB.
The V20 has the best all-around storage setup, with 64 GB internal as standard and microSD support.
Samsung and Apple both added water resistance to their 2016 flagships, but the Galaxies have the higher rating (their IP68 means they can be immersed continuously, while the iPhones’ IP67 allows for 1 m/3.3 ft of water for up to 30 minutes).
The asterisked phones have some light water resistance (usually just splash protection), but not enough to warrant a full “yes.”
If you’re an audiophile, or at least have a high-quality pair of headphones (think more Sennheiser, Sony or Bose’s latest, less Beats), then the LG V20 and HTC 10 can give you outstanding audio without needing to buy any extra DAC accessories.
The V20 gets the edge here, though, with its “Quad DAC” for headphone use (the HTC 10 has a standard built-in DAC too) and AptX HD support for wireless listening (the HTC 10 supports last-gen AptX, not the newer HD variant).
With Hi-Fi audio files (or Hi-Fi streaming from Tidal) and the right pair of cans, both phones will produce much better sound than anything else in this group. Apple likes to brand itself as a company that “loves music,” but it’s less concerned than LG or HTC with making that music sound as good as possible.
Apple made headlines when it killed the headphone jack in the 2016 iPhones, but Lenovo beat Tim Cook and Co. to the punch by a couple of months with the Moto Z.
For nearly two years (if you count the Innovator Edition dev kits), Samsung phones were the only place to get high-quality virtual reality on your phone. That’s set to change with the coming arrival of Google Daydream, which, at launch, will only work with one headset (Daydream View) and two handsets (the Pixels).
Samsung’s and Oculus’ Gear VR, though, still has the best selection of mobile VR content by a wide margin. Daydream’s library will likely take some time to catch up.
Daydream View has one potential advantage in the inclusion of a single motion controller: a far cry from motion controls on higher-end VR setups, but still something the Gear VR doesn’t yet have or support.
The Pixel phones mark the debut of Google Assistant, a more evolved version of the old Google Now, which runs on all the other Android phones. The tech giant wants Assistant to serve as a more worthy foe to Apple’s Siri, and our testing shows that it more than holds its own.
In 2016, the question is no longer whether a flagship phone has a fingerprint sensor, but whether it’s on the phone’s frontside (in the home button slot below the screen) or backside (just below the camera).
Lenovo swung for the fence with the modular Moto Z, which snaps various “Mods” into place using built-in magnets. Most of them are gimmicky (things like a speaker or projector), but the battery mod is the most elegant solution we’ve seen to adding battery life to a phone. Well, except, perhaps, for the LG V20’s removable battery.
With the Note 7 disappearing in a cloud of smoke (in some cases, literally), we’re left without any major flagships with integrated stylus support.
Every phone here that isn’t an iPhone runs some version of Android, but not all are created equal. The Google Pixel’s OS is the best of the Android bunch, with a pure version of the new Android Nougat that’s intertwined with the hardware to a degree that you don’t typically see on Android.
OnePlus and Motorola come close to using stock Android, with no egregious UI changes, but their flagships are currently stuck on Google’s 2015 OS release, Marshmallow. Samsung, LG and (to a lesser degree) HTC add their own UI customizations and marketing-focused features to the Android base.
For more on iOS 10, running on the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, you can check out our full review.
The oldest phones in this group are the Galaxy S7 and S7 edge, which means they’re likely to be replaced by successors the soonest, with HTC not far behind.
Starting price (full retail)
You may have noticed that the OnePlus 3, while holding its own throughout this comparison, didn’t have any standout categories. Well, here it is: You can order the phone for a mere US$399 full retail, nearly half of what you’d pay for its best rivals.
The rest of the phones have more traditional (you could say “iPhone-like”) premium pricing. The V20 gets an asterisk, though, since its full-retail price varies wildly, from $672 (Verizon) all the way up to $830 (AT&T).