Right now is the single best time of the year to buy a smartphone.
It may sound like something you’d read in a weekly circular, but it’s true: All the smartphone makers have released their best wares in preparation for the big holiday buying season. Some can be found at their lowest prices, especially this Friday and Monday.
And for anyone worrying about something better coming along right away, don’t. The next major phone launch isn’t until the spring.
Now there’s just this teeny-tiny problem of picking one of the seemingly identical black big-screened slabs. Choose wrong and you’ll be stuck with a dud of a phone for the next two years. Happy holidays!
But I’ve got you covered. After gathering and testing 25 current smartphones, evaluating everything from battery life to call quality to camera performance, I’ve come up with a list of winners. These are the only phones you should consider.
Best Overall Smartphone: iPhone 6
It may sound cliché, but the newest iPhone is still the most well-rounded smartphone money can buy.
It has a polished, aluminum hardware design, an enlarged 4.7-inch screen, superior camera performance, good call quality, a great selection of apps and strong battery life. All that made me feel confident—more so than any other phone—that I was buying a phone that could get me through the next two years. Two months in and I have no regrets.
The 8-megapixel camera, in particular, is the main reason I recommend Apple ’s flagship over any other. It consistently takes crisper and better low-light shots than any top Android phone. (In my most challenging photo test, a very poorly lit still life with flowers, only the iPhone 6 Plus and the Nokia Lumia 830 Windows Phone captured a better shot.)
A quick camera reminder: Looking at the megapixel numbers when comparing phones won’t help you at all. An 8-megapixel camera with a superior sensor can take far better photos, even more detailed ones, than a 21-megapixel camera with an inferior one.
Best Android Phone: Moto X
So I may have bought an iPhone, but that doesn’t mean I prefer iOS to Android, especially lately. I’ve fallen deeply in love with the new, exceptionally well designed Android 5.0 Lollipop, while I’ve been a little irritated by some iOS 8 bugs. If any Android phone had as good a camera as the one in an iPhone, I would be very torn between the two.
In the meantime, no, I don’t recommend Samsung ’s Galaxy S5 or even the HTC One, which I loved so much back in the spring. The Moto X is currently the best Android phone.
Motorola’s flagship has a comfortable rounded back and 5.2-inch HD screen, and you can customize the phone’s back cover with everything from leather to wood. It’s an incredible choice, especially when you consider it starts at $100 with a two-year contract.
There’s more. Unlike the competition, Motorola was wise to keep its version of Android uncluttered. Better still, Motorola is offering that beautiful new version of Android for the Moto X.
If only the X had a better camera. The 13-megapixel is fine outdoors or when there’s natural light, but in a dimly lit restaurant without the flash, I couldn’t make out my friend’s eyes or nose through the viewfinder.
Best Smaller Android Phone: Galaxy Alpha
Since most Android phones now have screens that measure over 5 inches, the 4.7-inch screen on the iPhone 6 is basically “small.” Those looking for the best Android phone that fits as comfortably in a hand should consider Samsung’s Galaxy Alpha.
Unlike Samsung’s generally plastic phones, the Alpha has a metal frame and a thin screen bezel that makes it even more of a pleasure to grasp than the iPhone 6. It also delivered the best call quality of any Android phone and its battery lasted over seven hours in a punishing streaming-video test.
However, this recommendation comes with a warning: You may, like me, have a terrible reaction to Samsung’s version of Android. The graphical tweaks are downright ugly and digging through its menus and screens is like trying to pick your way through a cluttered garage.
Best Phablets: iPhone 6 Plus and Galaxy Note 4
This was the year of the phablet (phones with a screen 5.5 inches or bigger) but not just because Apple joined the category.
No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t decide if I liked the iPhone 6 Plus or Samsung’s Galaxy Note 4 better. (The Nexus 6, despite having the new, eye-pleasing version of Android, was simply too big. The 5.5-inch LG G3 is more compact but its software and rear buttons hold it back for me. And both phones’ cameras don’t match up to the winners.)
All phablets have great battery life, but each has a benefit that the other doesn’t. The 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus’s camera took better pictures—in fact, the best photos of any phone tested. Ironically, those photos look far better on the Galaxy Note 4’s beautiful, higher-resolution 5.7-inch display, which is so pixel dense, it looks closer to a printed photograph than any other phone out there.
And unlike Apple’s iOS (or even the Nexus 6’s untarnished version of Android), Samsung’s multitasking software takes advantage of the screen. I may have a strong aversion to Samsung software interfaces, but being able to view two apps side by side makes the Note less of a smartphone and more of a pocket computer.
Best Low-Cost Smartphone: Moto G
If you don’t need the latest and greatest (and biggest), get a Moto G.
For just $199 unlocked (or basically free with a two-year-contract) you get a phone that feels as substantial as ones that cost double the price. It only has a lower-resolution, 5-inch display and last-generation processor, but of all the phones I tested in the cheap category, it had the best mix of camera performance, software interface, call quality and battery life.
That’s not the best smartphone deal on the planet, however. For $299 without a contract, there’s the OnePlus One, which runs a modified version of Android. You get a laundry list of top-of-the-line specs—a 5.5-inch HD display, one of the fastest mobile processors and even a solid camera.
When you hold the nicely designed handset, you assume there has to be a catch, and there is: It’s very hard to come by. You need to receive an invite from OnePlus or put your name on a waiting list. However, starting this Friday, the company will hold a special three-day sale of the phone on its website.
And if you specifically want a cheaper iPhone, please splurge for the iPhone 5S ($99 with a two-year contract and much cheaper on Friday). Its camera, software performance and fingerprint sensor make it a far better choice than the free-with-contract iPhone 5C.
The Best of the Rest
Missing from the winners’ circle are BlackBerrys and Windows Phones. The HTC One with Windows Phone and the Lumia 830 are both decent devices, but their platform, while sleek and feature-packed, doesn’t offer any necessity not found on iOS and Android.
And as for BlackBerry, the only reason to get one would be if you need—I mean really, really need—a physical keyboard. But hold out for the BlackBerry Classic, which will arrive in mid-December.
Or you could just connect the $100 Typo2 Bluetooth keyboard case to an iPhone 6, and type with physical keys on the most well-rounded smartphone out there.