Rarely is it so easy to name a very best of anything, but when it comes to smartphones, the Samsung Galaxy S6 (Est. $600 and up) is a slam-dunk choice. It earns top scores across the board from nearly all expert reviewers, including Editors' Choice awards at CNET, PCMag.com, MobileTechReview.com and elsewhere. Tom's Guide and Gizmodo each name it the best phone overall, while TechRadar.com qualifies that a little by saying it's the best Android phone right now. Phone enthusiasts are bummed by the fact that, unlike earlier Galaxy S phones, the battery is no longer removable and that you can't add additional memory via a microSD card, but users are a happy bunch on balance, and the 4.3-star rating it earns at Amazon.com is typical of what we see at most user-review sites.
The Galaxy S6's usability is judged to be excellent. Samsung's much-maligned TouchWiz UI has been scaled back to provide a cleaner interface that doesn't bog down performance -- though on most carriers, there's still a ton of non-removable bloatware to contend with. For those who find the interface needlessly busy or confusing, there's a configurable Easy mode built in that simplifies things to just the apps and features you regularly use -- and switching between the Easy mode and the standard mode is simple.
The 5.1-inch display is a standout. The Quad HD (QHD) 2,560 by 1,440 pixel AMOLED display is described as "so crisp it hurts" by CNET. However, Jessica Dolcourt admits that the Galaxy S6's high resolution only allows for a tiny improvement in apparent quality when compared to other flagship phones -- even good but lower-resolution displays such as what's found on the Apple iPhone 6 (Est. $650 and up) (covered in the section on Best iPhones). Android phone cameras have always lagged in quality compared to those found on the iPhone, but the 16 megapixel back camera and 5 megapixel front camera lose out to the iPhone 6's cameras by only a nose, says PCMag.com
Performance is excellent as well. Samsung chose to go with its own Exynos processor for the Galaxy S6 phone rather than the Qualcomm 800-series Snapdragon processors found in many flagship phones, and to good effect. For example, Exynos beats the Snapdragon 810 (used in the HTC One M9, profiled below) in some benchmarks at MobileTechReview.com notes Lisa Gade, though she adds "honestly both are much faster than necessary for most tasks."
Fast performance and a high-resolution screen do exact a price when it comes to battery life, but the Galaxy S6 seems to hold its own in that regard. Experts say to expect a full day, but not a full night as well, from a single charge -- especially if you do a lot of video streaming or game play. If you need to top off your phone, wireless charging and a quick charge option are part of the lineup.
Rounding out the list of pluses is the design of the Galaxy S6. Samsung dumped the previous mostly plastic esthetic in favor of a glass and metal case that many say borrows (steals?) heavily from the iPhone, including the new one-piece glass back. The front is distinctly Samsung, however, with its rounded corners and physical home button on the center bottom. Color options include black, white, gold and blue topaz. It's supported by all major carriers and is available in versions with 32 GB, 64 GB and 128 GB of memory.
If the Samsung Galaxy S6 isn't snazzy enough -- or pricey enough -- for you, there's the step up Galaxy S6 Edge (Est. $820 and up). "The S6 Edge earns its right to be called the designer version of the S6, and you'll pay a premium for it," says CNET's Dolcourt. The key design difference is a screen that wraps around the edges of the phone to reach to its back. The look is stunning; "The higher-end variant of Samsung's superior new smartphone is undeniably gorgeous with its sloped sides, says PCMag.com's Sascha Segan.
However, reviewers wonder whether the improved aesthetics are worth the premium price. Aside from a slightly beefier but still non-replaceable battery, the phone's specs are identical to the base S6, and performance is largely identical as well. The Edge screen can be used to view notices (emails, missed calls, etc.), favorite contacts, and the like, but reviewers find it only somewhat useful. "Buy it for its looks, not because it's any more functional," says Engadget.com's Chris Velazco. Like the Galaxy S6, the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge is available in versions that will work on virtually all networks. Available memory capacities are identical. Green emerald replaces the base S6's blue topaz, but the three other available colors are the same.
The LG G4 (Est. $600) and HTC One M9 (Est. $550) play second fiddle to the Samsung Galaxy S6 at most expert review sites, though some of the differences between the phones might be enough to tip the scale toward one or the other, at least for some buyers. The Google Nexus 6 ($490 and up), which is made by Motorola, is an intriguing phablet, especially for smartphone enthusiasts, but it isn't for everyone.
Looking first at the LG Smartphone, the G4 bucks the trend by continuing to offer both expandable storage (via a microSD card) and a replaceable battery. That last point is a good thing for power users as battery life isn't a stand out -- if you game or stream video all day, you might want to tote around a spare battery so that you don't run out of juice between trips to the charger. Testing at various sites reveals run times that averaged an hour or two lower than the S6, though less-demanding users should find that power will last the day. However, the wireless and quick charging options available on the S6 are missing here.
The LG G4's performance is excellent, but not a world beater. Powered by a Snapdragon 808 processor, and with 3 GB of memory, it's edged out by the S6 and HTC One M9, in benchmark testing. But it's still more than powerful enough to handle anything thrown at it with ease in real world usage. "It never feels as blisteringly quick as the S6 or One M9, but I only noticed that when comparing the phones side by side É I didn't have any notable performance issues with it. (For the record, that's how every smartphone should be in 2015.)," says Dan Seifert at The Verge. The phone is only available with 32 GB of memory, but as noted, that can be expanded with microSD cards. PCMag.com complains that its test unit ran unacceptably hot, but that complaint is not echoed elsewhere.
Like most makers, LG lays its own user interface on top of basic Android, but it garners few complaints. "Bright, colorful and more in tune with Android's Material Design aesthetic, UX 4.0 is LG's most refreshing UI yet," say CNET's Lynn La and Andrew Hoyle. "It's easy to navigate and to understand -- we especially liked the fun animations on the lockscreen, the charming app icons and the clean simplicity of the dialer and settings menu shade."
As on the S6, the 16 megapixel rear camera on the LG G4 is well regarded. Most experts give the tiniest of edges to the S6 when it comes to camera performance, but that's not universal by any means. "Looking at the camera holistically, I would still give a slight edge to the G4 over the Galaxy S6 due to my personal emphasis on still image quality over video," says Joshua Ho. Those who want to do more than point and shoot should enjoy the plethora of adjustments available in the camera's manual mode, and the G4 is among the first Android cameras to offer RAW mode support (allowing for increased editing options using an image editing application). Though not available at release, the S6 has also begun to receive support for RAW images via updates. If you are a selfie taker, the front camera earns raves as well. "I don't take a ton of selfies, but I now wish all of mine looked as good as the ones I captured with the G4's 8-MP front shooter," says Michael Andronico at Tom's Guide.
At 5.5 inches, the G4 offers a more expansive display than the S6, but that also results in a bigger phone (5.87 by 2.96 inches versus 5.65 by 2.78 inches for the Samsung smartphone) that moves into what some consider to be phablet territory (a phablet is a mobile device the blurs the size distinction between a phone and a tablet). The G4 sports a QHD 2,560 by 1,440 pixel display, same as the S6, but is one of the first smartphones to use Quantum Dot technology to improve color accuracy and performance. "It's bright, perfectly visible in direct sunlight, has great color that's not oversaturated, and is just a pleasure to look at," says Seifert. (See this article at CNN for more information on Quantum Dots.)
The design of the LG G4 doesn't break new ground, though the available black or brown leather backs add a touch of class to what's otherwise a pretty staid plastic phone. The LG G4 is supported by all major carriers.
The HTC One M9 also draws respect from reviewers. However, many note that upgrades over last year's HTC One M8 are modest, and that's a problem given some of the gains posted by competitors, such as the S6. For example, the all metal body put last year's M8 above its mostly plastic Android competition of 2014, but looks pretty boring on the M9 when compared to the glass and metal creations Samsung has introduced this year.
Still, the metal body on the M9 imparts the look of a well-made phone -- so well-made that HTC will replace the phone one time for free if you break the screen or if the smartphone suffers water damage. They'll also get you a new device if you switch carriers and need a different version. There are some subtle design changes compared to last year, but the one most noted is a slightly tackier finish that makes it less likely that the phone will slip out of your hand. Colors available include grey, gold, and two tone (silver and gold).
The M9's display is full HD, but that pales compared to the Quad HD displays found on the S6 and G4. Does it matter? Not so much, reviewers say. Most are challenged to see any real deficit in sharpness compared to this HTC smartphone's more pixel-dense competitors and have few bones to pick with overall image quality. "The screen is color accurate and bright enough for outdoor use," says Seifert.
In hands-on and benchmark testing, the HTC smartphone proves to be a solid performer. Under the 5.1-inch display, you'll find a Snapdragon 810 processor, 3 GB of ram and 32 GB of storage, which can be expanded with a microSD card. Battery life isn't exceptional, but it should get typical users through the day and this HTC smartphone supports both quick and wireless charging. The battery is not replaceable, however.
Smartphone makers can't seem to help themselves when it comes to monkeying around with the basic Android UI, and in most cases, the nicest things reviewers have to say is that their interfaces don't get in the way too much. However, reviewers seem to find that the Sense 7 UI on the HTC One M9 actually improves the overall experience. "HTC's Sense 7, running atop Android 5.0.2, is tasteful and speedy, with some useful tricks that you won't find in stock Android," says PCMag.com's Eugene Kim.
If there's an Achilles heel on the HTC M9, it's the camera -- though Hoyle notes that software updates since the first reviews were published have improved performance somewhat and added RAW image support. However, he adds that even now, "Low-light photos, noise reduction and selfies (from the front camera) are problematic, and the M9's overall image quality lacks that of the Galaxy S6 and iPhone 6." Like all flagship phones, carrier support is nearly universal.
Finally, the Google Nexus 6 is a phablet-class device and its 5.96-inch screen is among largest you'll find on a smartphone. The thin bezel helps keep the overall size somewhat manageable, and its 6.27 inch by 3.27 inch dimensions are actually a few tenths of an inch smaller than the iPhone 6 Plus (Est. $750 and up), which sports a relatively small 5.5-inch screen -- same as the aforementioned G4. Still, it can be a tight -- or near impossible -- fit in tight pants pockets.
When released, the Nexus 6 carried a $650 price tag that reviewers said was as big as its screen, and it's one reason that some had a hard time giving it a whole-hearted recommendation. Still, the Nexus 6 earned Editors' Choice recognition from PCMag.com, spots on best phone lists at Gizmodo and TechRadar.com, and generally high ratings overall. Even better, a $150 price cut has evened out the playing field when it comes to value, and the Nexus 6 is currently priced below other premium devices.
Size isn't the only thing that sets the Nexus 6 apart. Where other phones layer on modified skins on top of the Android operating system, the Nexus 6 is pure Android all the way, and about the only mainstream smartphone that can make that claim. Google favors it by rolling out the latest versions of Lollipop to that phone first, before all other handsets (though some carriers are slow to pass that on to their subscribers). It's the only handset that can run the beta version of Android M, and is expected to be the first phone to get that next-generation of Android when the release becomes official later in 2015 (and renamed to something else in the food-nickname chain that Google favors for its operating system). Google has also promised to keep the phone updated to the latest versions for at least two years, something that can't be said for other phones from other makers. It's also the first -- and so far only -- smartphone that's supported by Google's Project Fi, a new, invitation-only prepaid cellphone service that simultaneously rides on both T-Mobile and Sprint, switching back and forth between those depending on which carrier provides the better service in a specific location.
The Nexus 6 is designed to be a near-universal phone. You can buy it from all major carriers, or from Google, Motorola or a variety of third-party retailers and get essentially the same device, give or take some carrier-added software and personalization. Because it has all the radios for all carriers and all U.S. (and most international) cell phone frequencies, it's relatively easy to move the phone from one carrier to another (as long as the device is fully paid for). Enthusiasts love the phone because it is one of the easiest devices to modify with custom firmware.
Powered by a Snapdragon 805 processor and with 3GB of system memory, performance is generally superb, though newer processors found in some newer phones (the Nexus 6 rolled out in late 2014) benchmark better. Still, PCMag.com notes that at the time it was new, the Nexus 6 "crushed" its benchmark tests. "Anecdotal use confirms those results with universally excellent performance for any task I threw its way," Kim adds. The QHD (2,560-by-1,440-pixel) AMOLED display draws praise from experts -- "Vibrant, razor sharp, and immersive, the phone serves up nearly six inches of media-viewing goodness," says CNET -- though we did spot some isolated user complaints of screen tinting at the lowest brightness levels.
The Nexus 6 is available with 32 GB or 64 GB of memory, and that's that as you can't add more via a memory card. The battery is also non-removable. On the plus side, the big phone allows for a bigger battery and testing shows a device that will get users through a day and then some even with heavy use. The phone is wireless charging compatible and ships with a fast USB charger for speedy top ups. The 13 megapixel rear camera draws expert raves and is notably better than found on previous Nexus devices "Shots taken with the rear-facing camera look incredibly detailed, evenly exposed, and accurately rendered," Kim says. At 2 megapixels, the front camera doesn't keep up with the resolution of some of its competitors, but still is fine for selfies and similar uses: "good both indoors and out, with faithful color representation and enough detail to satisfy without realizing every facial cranny and nook." say CNET's La and Dolcourt.
While the Nexus 6 doesn't use premium materials, like the Galaxy S6, build quality is generally considered to be top notch. The big factor in terms of design is the large size. "Living with a giant-screened phablet takes some getting used to, but it's nearly impossible to go back once you do," says Dieter Bohn at The Verge. "It's easier to show stuff on your phone to other people, it's easier to turn it into a reading and movie-watching gadget, and it's way easier to type on," he adds. Available colors are midnight blue and cloud white.