The top performers in our review are the Gold Award winning Samsung Galaxy Note5, the Silver Award winning Samsung Galaxy S6, and the Bronze Award winning HTC One M9. Here’s more on choosing a smartphone to meet your needs, along with details on how we arrived at our rankings of the 10 best devices.
We've long since passed the point when people choose between smartphones and feature phones – dumb phones, as they've come to be called. Every major carrier and minor cell phone provider offers phones with touch screens and internet connectivity at virtually any price point – $600, $200, even $50. The question is no longer, "Should I buy a smartphone?" Rather, we now ask ourselves, "Which smartphone is best for me?"
With rigorous testing and our trademark side-by-side comparisons, we've identified 2015's best smartphones and ranked them for their processing power, battery life, camera quality and that almost intangible but extraordinarily important quality: design.
Whenever a major manufacturer comes out with a new smartphone, we put it through its paces with an intense sequence of performance benchmarks. The phone's display, processor, camera, battery life and unique features are each tested multiple times under identical conditions. Once we have our results, we compile them by Olympic average and aggregate them in the grades and scores you see above.
Of course, while synthetic benchmarking can reflect the capacity of a smartphone, it doesn't always reveal real-world performance. Consequently, we also run a series of real-world tests that simulate, as closely as possible, the experiences of a typical consumer.
To obtain each smartphone in our comparison, we either received them on temporary loan from the manufacturers or purchased the phones outright. Manufacturers had no input or influence over our evaluation methodology nor was it provided to any of them in more detail than is available through our reviews. Results of our tests were not provided to the companies in advance of publication.
The first decision you need to make when picking a smartphone is probably the easiest: Which operating system should you choose? Whatever their die-hard fans might say, Android isn't better than iOS, and iOS isn't better than Android. Both platforms have powerful advantages and some nitpicky disadvantages, and your choice comes down to personal preference. Do you want everything on your phone to just work, and are you willing to pay a bit of a premium for that? Go iOS. Do you like customization and buying on a budget? Pick Android. Already have a preference? It's not wrong, so embrace it!
Windows Mobile, recently rebranded by Microsoft from Windows Phone, is the odd platform out. The OS is about to see some extreme revamping thanks to the impending release of Windows 10, and once that happens, it could well be a serious contender in the market. Until that time comes, however, Windows Mobile isn't as functional or reliable as Android or iOS. It takes more time and taps to do anything on a Windows Mobile device, and its app marketplace is dreadfully underwhelming.
There are essentially three tiers of smartphones available from the major providers. Flagship phones are the top-tier, brand-defining devices you see ads for. They have impressive specifications and tons of raw power under the hood but are usually rather expensive off-contract, clocking in at around $600. Samsung's Galaxy S series, HTC's One series, and Apple's iPhones are all flagship product lines.
Budget phones are on the opposite end of the spectrum. Often available from prepaid cell phone providers, these devices can range anywhere from $0.99 to $100 but are usually around $40 or $50. They overwhelmingly run the Android operating system, though usually a generation or two behind the most recent version of the platform. Budget phones are functional: They have cameras, internet connectivity and the ability to stream music and video, but they often chug under heavy app loads and don't have the same build quality as more expensive options.
Mid-tier devices split the difference between flagship and budget. They range from $150 to $400 off-contract and run either Android or the Windows Mobile operating system. Mid-tier phones are what you want of when you say to yourself, "I don't need the latest and greatest, just a phone that does what I need it to do." A few phones, like Google's Nexus line or Motorola's Moto X, are priced as mid-tier phones but deliver the power of flagships.
There are dozens of recent smartphones on the market and well over a hundred once you account for older models still being sold. Picking the best for you can be a trying task, but we've made things easy. Here are our top recommendations:
The Best Flagship Smartphone: Samsung Galaxy S6
If you're looking for the best of the best, regardless of operating system or price, Samsung's Galaxy S6 is it. A sea change from the creaky, plastic designs of iterations past, the Galaxy S6 offers a stunning screen, great battery life and a furiously fast processor that stormed our benchmark tests, setting a new bar of excellence. Depending on what you value from your photos, you could even argue it has the best smartphone camera on the market.
The lone downside to the Galaxy S6 is its design. The physical phone takes a few too many cues from the iPhone 6 for our tastes, while Samsung's TouchWiz software remains one of our least-favorite Android skins. These are nitpicks; right now, the Galaxy S6 offers the most raw power in the palm of your hand.
The Best iOS Device: Apple iPhone 6
There aren't many choices when it comes to iOS phones. If you're a fan of Apple and are already invested in its ecosystem, you have your pick of two modern smartphones or one of the company's older models. Between the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, however, we pick the iPhone 6 every time. True, the 6 Plus has better battery life and a bigger screen, but it's not as comfortable to use day-in and day-out.
The iPhone 6 offers a nigh-perfect balance of design quality and pristine usability, and despite Samsung's usurping of its crowning position atop our lineup, we remain tremendous fans of the phone. If you can afford Apple and prefer user-friendliness over customizability, it's your very best bet.
The Best Phablet: Samsung Galaxy Note 4
Deftly straddling the line between tablet and smartphone, phablets are big-screen devices you can use as a phone but are even better for browsing websites and watching videos thanks to their huge displays. Despite being about a generation behind current flagships, the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 is still the best in its class. Its included stylus is great for taking notes, and it offers split-screen app support so you can use two apps at once.
If you're still having trouble choosing the right device for your needs, try reading some of the articles on smartphones we've written up. Between them and the comparison chart above, you should have no problem picking a phone to be your in-pocket companion for the next couple of years.