Best Android Phones: Holiday 2015

As we hit the middle of November, the holiday shopping season is starting up. As we have for the past several years, this year we are putting together a series of holiday guides with recommendations for various product categories and some quick links to those products. These holiday guides also act as a way for us to look over all the devices that have been released in a given year to see which still hold up.

We’ll be starting things off this year with smartphones. Smartphones are an enormous market, and the average phone lifetime still being only 18-24 months, many gifts given this holiday season are going to be smartphones. So let’s take a look at what we believe to be the best Android phones that you can buy this holiday season.

Best Android Phones: Holiday 2015

Best Android Phablet: Samsung Galaxy Note5

The term phablet is a bit silly in my opinion, but it has become a fairly common term to describe smartphones with very large profiles. The definition of a phablet is not exactly concrete, and it mainly has to do with a device’s chassis size. For example, the Nexus 6 and Galaxy Note5 are clearly phablets, and it’s fairly safe to say that the iPhone 6s Plus is one too. However, I don’t know if I would describe the LG G4 as a phablet. It has the same screen size as the iPhone 6S Plus, but the use of on-screen buttons and smaller overall chassis size mean that it ends up straddling the line between your standard smartphone and a phablet. When looking at which devices are available in many regions, I think it’s pretty clear which phablet offers the best value at the absolute high end, and which offers the best value for someone who is looking to spend less than what they would on a typical flagship.

Best Android Phones: Holiday 2015

I don’t think it would be wrong to say that Samsung really pioneered the phablet category. The original Galaxy Note was laughed at by many, but as time has gone on Samsung has improved on it, and now every vendor offers a similarly sized device. With that in mind, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Galaxy Note5 is my recommendation for a high end phablet. It comes with everything that makes the Galaxy S6 a great phone, but in a larger size and with some additional improvements. Just as an overview, you’re getting a 5.7″ 2560×1440 AMOLED display, Samsung’s Exynos 7420 SoC, 4GB of LPDDR4 RAM, and 32, 64, or 128GB of internal NAND. Some differences from the Galaxy S6 apart from simply being larger include improved camera image processing, making it a serious contender for the title of best smartphone camera, and the inclusion of Samsung’s S-Pen for navigation and drawing.

The Galaxy Note 5 costs $699 for the 32GB version in the US. There are often deals that can help bring the price down a bit, such as a recent $50 off offer from T-Mobile. The 64GB model bumps the price to $779. It’s worth noting the prices for the Galaxy S6 Edge+ as well, which is to the Galaxy Note5 what the Galaxy S6 Edge is to the standard Galaxy S6. It starts at $779 for 32GB, and $859 for 64GB. I personally think the edge design looks cool, but there’s definitely a trade off in terms of ergonomics, and I don’t think it’s worth the additional cost unless you really want to own Samsung’s absolute highest end phone.

Best Android Phones: Holiday 2015

For buyers who aren’t fans of the Galaxy Note5, or who are looking for something that isn’t quite as expensive, the Nexus 6P is definitely worth considering. Like the Galaxy Note5 it has a 5.7″ 2560×1440 AMOLED display, but inside you get Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 810 paired with 3GB of LPDDR4 RAM and 32GB of NAND.

Some highlights of the Nexus 6P are the camera and the chassis. While we haven’t published our Nexus 6P review yet, it uses the same sensor and lens arrangement as the Nexus 5X which I felt has one of the best cameras of any smartphone. The aluminum chassis of the 6P may also be more appealing than the metal/glass design of the Note5, although I didn’t feel that the design and ergonomics were at the same level as devices like Huawei’s own Mate S or the iPhone 6s Plus.

Of course, the biggest appeal of the Nexus 6P is its price. At $499 for 32GB, it undercuts most flagship phablets by $200 or so, while being competitive in many other respects. You definitely lose out on the performance of Samsung’s Exynos 7420 SoC, but there are obviously tradeoffs that are made when targeting a lower price. The promise of software updates along with a great camera, an aluminum build, and a great fingerprint scanner make the Nexus 6P a very worthwhile choice for a phablet at a lower price than the latest and greatest flagships. European customers will notice that they get charged a significant premium for the Nexus 6P, with the 32GB model priced at around 700€. At that price I would probably consider other devices unless one is determined to stay with a Nexus phone for the support and updates.

Best High-End Android Smartphone: Samsung Galaxy S6

While phablets have grown immensely in popularity, the normal flagship devices from the players in the Android space tend to be smaller than the 5.7-6.0″ displays that ship on phablets. Not having to push a large size also opens up more opportunities to offer a great device at a lower price than the competition. Taking that into consideration, I think there are two key flagship devices that are worth considering if looking for a flagship phone in a typical size, along with one clear winner for a smartphone that offers a lot for a lower price than flagship smartphones.

Best Android Phones: Holiday 2015

The Galaxy S6 really needs no introduction. Along with the Note5 it’s really the only Android phone this year that was able to push the performance of Android devices forward, courtesy of its Exynos 7420 SoC. Along with still being the fastest Android phone around, the Galaxy S6 comes with a top notch 5.1″ 2560×1440 AMOLED display, 3GB of LPDDR4 RAM, 32, 64, or 128GB of NAND, and the same 16MP camera that the Galaxy Note5 uses.

It is a bit disappointing that the Galaxy S6 is still the fastest Android phone out there many months after it was released. While some may feel it’s actually best to wait for the next generation Galaxy phone from Samsung, such a launch is still one or two quarters away, and if someone is looking to get the most powerful Android smartphone for the holidays the Galaxy S6 is definitely it. As far as the price goes, the fact that the S6 is a bit older now means you can find some appealing discounts. Right now on T-Mobile USA you can get the 32GB model for $579, and at $659 you get 128GB which is a pretty great deal. Like the Note5, I wouldn’t recommend paying the extra money for the Edge version of the phone unless you really want the more unique design, as the ergonomics are honestly a downgrade.

Best Android Phones: Holiday 2015

If you’re looking for something a bit larger, or less expensive than the Galaxy S6, the LG G4 is definitely worth considering. Although it has a 5.5″ display, it’s much smaller than a phone like the iPhone 6s Plus due to its small bezels on all sides, and the use of on screen buttons. In my experience it’s still a bit too big to be used comfortably in a single hand even with affordances like the back-mounted volume rocker, but it’s not really a phablet either. As far as its specs go, you get Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 808 SoC, 3GB of LPDDR3 RAM, 32GB of NAND, and a 16MP Sony IMX234 rear-facing camera. It also has microSD expansion and a removable battery for the users who were upset with Samsung’s removal of those features on this year’s Galaxy flagships.

Price wise, the LG G4 sells for around $479, which is about $100 less than you’d pay for the Galaxy S6. The size of the phone is definitely worth considering in addition to the price, as the S6 is much easier to use with a single hand, but if you want a phone with a larger display without moving completely into phablet territory the G4 is definitely a phone to heavily consider.

Best Mid-Range Android Smartphone: Google Nexus 5X

Best Android Phones: Holiday 2015

Next we come to the lower cost high end, and here’s there’s only one real Android device worth mentioning, the Nexus 5X. This is actually my personal favorite Android device from this year, and I published my review of it last week. In many ways it’s similar to the LG G4, which isn’t surprising when you consider that it’s made by LG. It has a Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 SoC, 2GB of LPDDR3 RAM, 16 or 32GB of NAND, and the same great 12MP camera that you get in the Nexus 6P.

To sum up my thoughts on the Nexus 5X from my review, I’ll say that it’s imperfect, but I think it’s unbeatable at $379. Snapdragon 808 doesn’t deliver the performance jump that you’d expect from two years of technological advancement since the Nexus 5, but you still get a great display, an amazing camera, good battery life, a quick and simple fingerprint scanner, and a plastic but very solid chassis. The fact that the 5X includes the same camera as the Nexus 6P at its $379 price is really what gives it an edge, and if you’re looking to get something smaller than a phablet without paying the $600-700 commanded by flagship phones I don’t think you can go wrong with the Nexus 5X. Like the 6P, the 5X is unfortunately more expensive in Europe, coming in at around 449€, and so in those markets it may be best to consider some other options.

Best Budget Android Phone: Motorola Moto G (2015)

The last category on the list is the budget phone, which to me includes anything from $250 down, although $250 is certainly pushing it. There are certainly a large number of Android devices that fit this category, and I’m sure some people will feel that it makes the most sense to look at importing phones from Xiaomi rather than buying a phone from a more global brand where you may not get as much for your money. I can only really speak from experience, and I think importing comes with its own issues regarding the warranty, customs fees, and carrier compatibility. There was only one budget device from the big Android players that I looked at this year and feel is really worth considering, and it’s the 2GB version of the 2015 Moto G.

Best Android Phones: Holiday 2015

The 2015 Moto G comes in two versions. Both have a Qualcomm Snapdragon 410 SoC, a Sony IMX214 13MP camera, and a 1280×720 IPS display. However, while $179 gets you a version with 8GB of NAND and 1GB of RAM, $219 doubles both of those to 16GB and 2GB respectively. With the amount of RAM overhead created by Java applications that use garbage collection I really don’t think 1GB is a usable amount of memory on an Android device unless you’re shopping in the sub $100 range where you’re not likely to be using many apps at all. For that reason, I think the 2GB model is the best budget smartphone, as it includes a relatively good camera for its price, has enough RAM, and should be fast enough for the needs of anyone shopping for a smartphone at this price. It’s also waterproof, and has an extremely long battery life.

While there are other budget Android phones, you end up having to pay significantly more than the Moto G to get any significant improvement, and dropping the price even lower ends up coming with a number of compromises that aren’t worth the money you save.


5 thoughts on “Best Android Phones: Holiday 2015

  1. Do you think the Moto G3 is a good upgrade from something…let's say…a Nexus 4?

  2. I've used both and have the Edge and it's a clear downgrade for ergonomics. I don't use cases on any devices though.

  3. I don't know if the ergonomics are worse for the Edge vs non-Edge S6 since I've never used a regular S6, but with a case on the phone I get the best of both worlds – nice comfortable grip, and the pop-up / 3D feeling of the rounded screen edges.

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