Your phone is something you more than likely carry with you at all times and use to run every aspect of your day to day life. It’s fine to spend a little money on the perfect phone, but which phone is that? There are a ton of options, and it’s only getting increasingly complicated as more unlocked phones start hitting the market. As we do every month, let’s dive in and see which phones are available on your carrier of choice, and which of those might be best for you.
Carrier exclusives are mostly a thing of the past. There are occasional bespoke phones designed for one network or another, but the big flagship phones are usually available on all the major US carriers. I think your best overall option if you’re going through the carriers is still the Galaxy S6, which you can get on all of them for $20-30 per month on a payment plan.
The GS6 has a Super AMOLED panel, and it’s really just fantastic. It’s 5.1-inches and 1440p in resolution, which is small enough that most people should be able to use it comfortably one-handed. It’s a stunningly beautiful screen, and I have no doubt it’s the best you can get on a smartphone right now. This continues to be one of the primary selling points of this phone. There are devices you can get with better software or longer battery life, but none of them are as pleasant to look at.
Samsung also continues to impress when it comes to the camera. The Samsung Galaxy S6 has a 16MP shooter with optical image stabilization and an f/1.9 lens. This sensor continues to hold up well compared to other phones. The 2015 Samsung flagships have probably the best camera experience on a smartphone right now. I’m constantly floored by how well exposed images are, and the accuracy of colors in even poor light. I’ve actually started taking a lot of my review photos with a Galaxy S6 because it’s easier than dragging out my DSLR for a minor improvement in image quality.
The Galaxy S6 has an aluminum frame and Gorilla Glass front and rear panels. There aren’t any weird gaps or spaces in the casing as there have been with some past Samsung phones — it’s a solid little phone. The glass back panel is another thing to break, but I’ve dropped mine a few times and no catastrophic failures yet.
Inside, the Galaxy S6 has an octa-core Exynos chip with four Cortex-A57 cores do all the heavy lifting, and four A53s handle the small stuff. You also get 3GB of RAM, 32/64/128GB of storage, and 2550mAh non-removable battery. It’s very fast in daily use, but battery life is just average. You’ll be able to eke out 4-5 hours of screen time over the course of 18-20 hours, but it’s still the sort of phone you charge every day.
The software experience is where Samsung falters a bit. Comparing TouchWiz to stock Android, I think the stock experience wins in almost every way. TouchWiz is much less cluttered than it used to be, but the colors and unnecessary duplication of functionality are still an issue. Samsung has Android 5.1 rolled out to all variants of the GS6 now (AT&T just finally approved the update recently). It will get an update to 6.0, but it’ll probably take a few months.
So, the GS6 is best overall when it comes to the phones you can get from your carrier, but what about alternatives? If the GS6’s lack of modularity is a problem for you, the LG G4 is still out there. The price on this phone has come down on most carriers (T-Mobile often sells it for under $500 total). The G4’s LCD has a slight top to bottom curve. It doesn’t really seem useful to me, but it does look kind of neat. The screen is 5.5-inches and 1440p in resolution. LG has bumped up the brightness and colors compared to the LCD on the G3, which is a good thing.It’s a very good screen, but not great.
Inside, the G4 runs on a Snapdragon 808, which is a more modest version of the 810 with two fewer cores, meaning it doesn’t get as hot. It also has 3GB of RAM and 32GB of internal storage. The selling point for the G4 is that it has a removable 3000mAh battery and a microSD card slot. These are both under the back cover, which snaps on. Most G4s have a plastic cover, but there are leather covers as well, which I think don’t look particularly nice. It’s cheap leather that doesn’t age very well. The G4 doesn’t feel like a super-premium device like the GS4, but it’s not bad.
The LG G4 also has a 16MP camera with optical image stabilization, but the aperture is a slightly better f/1.8. It’s almost as good as the GS6 in my experience. HDR mode falls a little short, but it’s auto mode does fantastic things in indoor and outdoor lighting. The manual mode is a nice feature as well.
The G4 runs a version of Android 5.1, but LG’s Android skin still needs some work. It’s very drab, despite Android’s new focus on bright colors and animations. There are a fair number of bloatware apps in LG’s ROM as well. One thing to note about LG’s software is that it has a more conventional memory usage model than Samsung. Apps you leave open in the background will stay open. Samsung, for whatever reason, has opted to use very aggressive memory management that only keeps a few app processes running at a time. That means things will be closed in the background faster than you might be used to.
Motorola and the Nexus Onslaught
The Moto X Pure Edition and two new Nexus phones are now available for order. The Nexus phones aren’t shipping for another week or two, but Google will happily take your money. All three of these devices are unlocked, but universal. That means you can use them on GSM networks like AT&T and T-Mobile, but also CDMA networks like Sprint and Verizon.
The new Moto X Pure has a 5.7-inch screen. That’s half an inch larger than the 2014 Moto X. It’s also an LCD this year instead of AMOLED, and the resolution has jumped to 1440p (520 ppi). Some 1440p LCDs are dim and have muted colors, but from my time with the Moto X Pure, I’d say the screen if very good. It’s bright, crisp, and the black levels won’t bother you in Moto Display.
Moto X has a Snapdragon 808 just like the LG G4. That means reasonable performance and less heat output than the 810 or similar chips. I have had good luck with Motorola’s software optimization, so I think the 808 will be good enough. You also get 3GB of RAM and up to 64GB of storage.
Motorola’s camera this year is a 21MP Sony sensor with an f/2.0 aperture. It’s taken a few tries, but Motorola has finally gotten a good camera in the Moto X. It can take usable photos in dim light and there’s very little noise. I think the camera app still needs some work, though. The single tap to capture thing is nice, but I wish there was an option for true tap-to-focus. The sliding focus UI is awkward.
As always, one of Motorola’s big selling points is the software experience. The Moto X Style/Pure runs stock Android 5.1 with Motorola’s enhancements. Unlike the enhancements you get from Samsung or LG, these are actually useful. Moto Display wakes up the screen to show you notification content so you can open or dismiss without waking up the whole phone. You can even wave at the screen to wake it up and see the active notifications. This is consistently one of my favorite Android features. You also get Moto Actions to perform actions based on gestures, like the double chop to turn on the flashlight.
Motorola has just announced Marshmallow updates, and the Pure is on the list, no surprise. Although, some fairly new devices like the 2015 Moto E and carrier variants of the 2014 Moto X are not. This is disappointing, but I don’t think we can read too much into it yet.
There are also two Nexus phones you can order right now that will work on any carrier (what a time to be alive). The Nexus 5X is the more modest of the two and the Nexus 6P is more premium. The smaller nexus 5X is basically a homage to the original Nexus 5, which has been a favorite of many users for two years now. Well, this is the upgrade. It has a Snapdragon 808, 2GB of RAM, and 16-32GB of storage. Being a Nexus, there’s no microSD card slot. The screen is 5.2-inches and has a resolution of 1080p. That should be good enough at normal viewing distances, and it’ll be easier on the 2700mAh battery.
Around back, the Nexus 5X has a 12.3MP Sony image sensor along with laser autofocus. Google says this camera will be considerably better in low-light situations. There’s also a fingerprint sensor that ties into Android 6.0 for apps and system security. The larger Nexus 6P also has both of those features on the back, but its frame is all aluminum instead of plastic. The camera also has digital stabilization tech that isn’t supported by the 5X.
The Nexus 6P packs a Snapdragon 810, 3GB of RAM, and 32-128GB of storage. No microSD card slot here either. The display is a 5.7-inch Super AMOLED, and amazingly, it’s the latest generation panel from Samsung. That means it’s basically the same thing you get on the Note 5, which is the best screen on a smartphone right now.
Both Nexus phones will ship with Android 6.0 Marshmallow, which brings support for granular permissions, Google Now On Tap, and better control of background processes. The 6P starts at $99 for the 32GB and the 5X is $379 for the 16GB.
You can also still get a Nexus 6 online and from carriers. It has a Snapdragon 805, 3GB of RAM, and 32-64GB of storage. It has a huge 6-inch AMOLED screen at 1440p. The panel technology is a few years old here, so they won’t be as good as the GS6. It does look very nice overall, but there’s going to be some slight burn-in down the line.
There’s no microSD card slot and the battery is non-removable, though. The 13MP camera on the Nexus 6 is surprisingly good, though quite a bit slower than either the GS6 or G4. This phone will get Android 6.0 in the next week or two, making it an appealing choice for $350, or a bit more if you buy it from the carriers.
If you’re leaning in the direction of the Nexus or Motorola phones, you should wait a few weeks to see how the 5X and 6P perform in reviews. I have a feeling they’re going to be great, especially for the price. However, you can only get them through Google right now — US carriers are not expected to sell them. It’s a similar story with the Moto X. You have to go through Moto Maker to order it with customization, but a few default versions are on Amazon. There’s no carrier support, though.
For most buyers, the Galaxy S6 is still your best option at the moment. It has the best screen, form factor, and camera of any phone. The software is the only real pain point, and if that bothers you enough, there are plenty of alternatives.