There have already been some big device launches this year, and several of 2015’s Android flagships are starting to get a bit long in the tooth. So, what are you supposed to do if the time has come to upgrade? You can get something a bit older that costs a bit less and appeals to you more, or pick up the latest and greatest. And of course, there’s always something big just around the corner. Let’s get the lay of the Android land.
On the carrier side, I think there are only two devices to seriously consider; the Galaxy S7 and the HTC 10. If you’re on AT&T, that decision is even easier, which I’ll get to shortly. First, the Galaxy S7 has some strong points regardless of the carrier you’re on.
Samsung is using a metal and glass unibody design for the GS7, which feels extremely solid. However, you will collect fingerprints like mad and you could damage the body of the phone if you drop it. The designers took an unusual step this year. Samsung made the GS7 about a millimeter thicker than the GS6 so the camera hump is flush with the back, and there’s more room inside for a bigger battery. The glass panel on the back also has curved edges to make it more comfortable in your hand.
The slightly thicker frame means the regular GS7 has a 3000mAh battery, and the GS7 Edge has 3600mAh. Both phones are also water resistant, which is a feature Samsung dropped from the GS6. There’s also a microSD card slot in these phones, another improvement over the Galaxy S6, but it doesn’t support adoptable storage in Android 6.0.
The Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge have new Super AMOLED panels at 2560×1440 resolution. The GS7 is 5.1-inches, while the Edge variant has a larger 5.5-inch display. The Edge, of course, has a screen that curves down on the left and right edge. The Edge phone does look very nice, but it’s not as comfortable to hold thanks to the larger size and narrower metal band around the perimeter due to the Edge screen. None of the software features that are supposed to take advantage of the Edge display really do anything special. Most of them would work on the regular phone too. It’s just an arbitrary attempt to justify the design.
Samsung is using a Snapdragon 820, which is a quad-core 64-bit SoC that’s easily as fast as last year’s qcta-core parts. Note, there’s an international version of the GS7 that has an updated Exynos instead of the Snapdragon. The GS7 also has 4GB of RAM, and it multitasks much better than the GS6.
Samsung is using a 12MP camera sensor this year, which is lower than some phones. However, the low-light and color accuracy can’t be beat. Samsung continues to make the best cameras in Android. Samsung also implemented an autofocus technology that lets it use all the available pixels to locate the subject. It’s even faster at focusing than phones that have fancy laser autofocus sensors.
The Galaxy S7 is launching with Android 6.0 Marshmallow and a slightly cleaned up version of TouchWiz. There’s not a whole lot to say about this. It’s still TouchWiz, but a few mediocre features have been dropped. Samsung also has an always-on screen feature this year that displays the time and basic notification information. Annoyingly, it only shows notification icons for Samsung’s built-in apps. No hangouts, Gmail, and so on. The real issue with the software is how long it’s going to take to get the phone updated once Android N comes out.
You’ll probably pay about $30 per month on a payment plan for the GS7 and a little more for the Edge. Off-contract, they’re about $700 and $850 respectively. The G5 is priced very similarly, and you know how I feel about that phone. Let’s just say it’s not as good as the GS7, and the only reason you should consider it is if you absolutely need a removable battery.
That brings us to the HTC 10, which is probably the best carrier-branded alternative to the Galaxy S7. Well, it’s an alternative on most carriers. You’ll only be able to get the HTC 10 direct from Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile. On AT&T, you can’t get this phone directly from the carrier. There’s an unlocked version, but you need to pay full price or finance through HTC. That makes it a bit of a hard sell.
So, is the HTC 10 worth it? The HTC 10 is the followup to last year’s disappointing One M9, but this phone is definitely not a disappointment. It’s actually a very impressive phone that’s almost as good as the Galaxy S7. That’s a huge turnaround for HTC.
The HTC 10 has an all-aluminum frame with a more striking profile than the rounded, uninspired M9. There’s an aggressive chamfer on the back that makes it comfortable to hold, while retaining the same smooth shape. Inside is a 3000mAh battery, a Snapdragon 820, 32GB of storage with a microSD card slot, and 4GB of RAM. That matches the other flagship phones to be announced so far this year.
On the bottom is a USB Type-C port with support for Quick Charge 3.0, so it’ll charge faster than the GS7, which is only QC 2.0. However, you’ll need new cables since this is Type-C. There’s also a speaker on the bottom, along with another in the earpiece. The stereo speakers on the 10 are better than the single speakers in the GS7 or G5, but it’s not a huge difference, and they aren’t as good as HTC’s past front-facing speakers.
HTC has used 1080p displays in most services recently, even as 1440p has become the standard. With the 10, HTC is getting with the program, upping the display to 5.2-inches and 1440p in resolution. This is an LCD panel, but the colors have been artificially pumped up to look more like an AMOLED. It looks too warm to me, and even after making some tweaks, it’s not nearly as accurate as the GS7’s screen. The 10 also has a strange warm shift when viewed off-axis. It’s not a bad display, but it doesn’t seem like something I’d expect on a $700 phone.
On the speed front, the HTC 10 is not wanting. Apps open quickly, and there are no issues with multitasking. The battery life with that 3000mAh battery and Android 6.0 enhancements is slightly above average as well. I’m also quite impressed with the quality of the front-facing fingerprint sensor in the home button. It’s a capacitive button like the A9 had, but there aren’t on-screen buttons at all. Instead, there are glowing capacitive keys on either side. The sensor is faster and more accurate than the Galaxy S7’s, and the setup process is much cleaner. It’s second only to the new Nexus phones’ sensors.
I’m frankly relieved that HTC managed to get a solid camera in this year’s phone. The last few One phones had terrible cameras. After a few updates, HTC’s camera can keep up with the G5 or GS7, but not consistently. The HTC 10 tends to get noisy and warm in low-light, and exposures are hit-and-miss. The laser autofocus is also very touchy. On the plus side, both the front and rear cameras have optical stabilization. A lot of the photos taken with the HTC 10 do look very nice, though.
On the software side, the HTC 10 ships with Android 6.0 and a new version of Sense. HTC has used a few more stock Android UI elements (like the quick settings and status bar icons), and even decided to drop some of its custom apps. The Sense home screen is snappy and there are some cool new features like Freestyle mode, which allows you to use stickers to create a more picturesque home screen rather than a grid of icons. I actually like this feature more than I thought I would. It’s not something I’d use all the time, but it’s really well-implemented.
Getting a phone from your carrier is certainly convenient, but it costs more than it should in the long run. You’re also at the mercy of the carrier when it comes to OTA updates. Maybe an unlocked phone is more your speed, and the prices aren’t as crazy as they once were. Many unlocked phones even work on all major carriers including AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, and Sprint in the US.
The problem right now is that many of the top unlocked devices are getting old. New Nexus and Motorola phones are expected in the not too distant future. So, what’s worth getting? I think the Nexus 6P is still a safe buy. Even if it’s replaced soon-ish, it has power to spare and will remain a good phone for a long time to come.
The Nexus 6P has a Snapdragon 810, 3GB of RAM, and 32-128GB of storage (depending on the version you want). The 32GB starts at $500 from Google, but it’s often cheaper elsewhere. There’s no microSD card slot or removable battery, though. The Snapdragon 810 was widely derided for its heat issues, but that was mostly solved by the time Huawei got around to making the 6P. The display is a 5.7-inch 1440p Super AMOLED made by Samsung with very similar qualities compared to Samsung’s 2015 devices. It’s extremely bright and the colors are great.
The Nexus 6P has a 12.3MP Sony image sensor along with laser autofocus. Low light performance is very good and there’s electronic image stabilization and smart burst. It’s the best camera ever on a Nexus phone, and compares well to other flagship phones. It’s slightly behind Samsung’s camera tech and very similar to the LG G5. the main issues with this camera are slow captures in dim light and the clear inferiority of electronic image stabilization compared to optical. I will note, however, the HDR+ mode produces some of the nicest outdoor photos I’ve seen from a phone.
The rear-facing fingerprint sensor ties into Android 6.0 is still my favorite of any Android phone. It’s in the perfect spot for your finger when you hold the phone. It’s incredibly fast and accurate, as well. Just a tap and the phone wakes up and unlocks, plus there’s a dedicated power button on the side of the phone if you just want to see the lock screen.
I still think the Nexus 6P the best overall Android device you can get right now. The main problem is the size. If you don’t like phablets but still want a Nexus, there’s the $300 (16GB) Nexus 5X. I would caution anyone considering this phone right now. As the less powerful of the two Nexus phones, it might not age as well. We are expecting new Nexus hardware over the summer, so maybe you want to step up to the 6P or wait it out.
If you need a smaller unlocked phone right now, the 5X will do well enough. The screen is 5.2-inches with a resolution of 1080p. That should be good enough at normal viewing distances, and it’ll be easier on the 2700mAh battery. It’s a really good size for people who don’t want a phablet, and it’s incredibly light. It has a Snapdragon 808, 2GB of RAM, and 16-32GB of storage. Being a Nexus, there’s no microSD card slot. It’s not quite as fast as the 6P, but still better than many other devices.
Keep in mind that both Nexus phones have USB Type-C ports, which means you’ll be replacing all those microUSB cables you have around. The chargers are also the only ones that will support full-speed fast charging. They don’t use the standard Qualcomm quick charge platform, relying instead upon the Type-C power delivery spec.
Both Nexus phones ship with Android 6.0 Marshmallow, and they will get fast updates for two years with another year of security patches. Android Marshmallow includes support for granular permissions, Google Now On Tap, and better control of background processes. Battery life is dramatically better in Android 6.0 thanks to doze mode and app standby.
You might also consider the unlocked HTC 10 as a smaller phone. Most OEMs don’t even sell unlocked versions of their flagship phones in the US, so at least HTC is giving us the option. The main issue is the price, which is a few hundred higher than the Nexus phone. It’s also only for AT&T and T-Mobile, no CDMA support.
I’ve also recommended the Moto X Pure in the past, but the time has come to stop buying that one. New Motorola hardware is being announced in just a few days, so this is the worst time to buy the Moto X. If you wait until after the unveiling, the Moto X price will probably drop and you can pick one up if you prefer it to the new model.
For the moment, the Galaxy S7 is still the best purchase you can make when you go through your carrier. The camera and screen are the best out there, and the build quality is better than most other phones. The HTC 10 is a close second thanks to the excellent design and solid build of Android. However, the camera and screen are lacking compared to the GS7. Annoyingly, you can’t buy it from AT&T. The unlocked version is too expensive as well. The fact that LG has been completely unable to justify the G5’s modular design with more “friends” has left me even more pessimistic about it. The only reason to pick this phone up is if you value a removable battery above all else.
On the unlocked side, the Nexus 6P is the best choice if you are cool with big phones. Even if you’re not sure about the whole phablet thing, you should still look at the 6P first. The Nexus 5X is nice as well, but new round of Nexus hardware will probably be much better than this device.