10 best smartphones for the 2016 holiday season

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Image: CNET

With the Google Pixel announcement made earlier this week and no major smartphone announcements expected for the next few months, it’s time to consider which device is best for this upcoming holiday season.

There are some fantastic options in the $400 range this year with three of them making my top 10 list. I’m still partial to the expensive flagship devices, but any of these ten phones could easily satisfy just about anyone until the next new phones appear in 2017.

You won’t find a BlackBerry or Nokia phone on my list this year, but Motorola and HTC are still competing well with others. I tested all of these phones, except for the Google Pixel and ZTE Axon 7.

If there were no battery concerns, the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 would be number one on my list, but given the battery fiasco and the possibility that there may be issues with replacement devices I just couldn’t include it at the top of my list as I would hate for someone to purchase one and then have to go through a recall or replacement process (or bodily injury). I placed it in the bottom spot, but once we are all assured the battery issues have been resolved please consider it my number one choice.

1. Apple iPhone 7/7 Plus

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While the Apple iPhone 7/7 Plus may visually appear to be a slight upgrade over the 6s/6s Plus, the improvements are enough to make the new iPhone an easy choice for millions. Water resistance, improved cameras, more RAM, a larger capacity battery, a faster processor, and stereo speakers are all compelling updates.

Apple has always done well with the larger phones in the battery life area and my 7 Plus is stunning. I can go for many hours without worrying about charging it up and only the Moto Z Force Droid has lasted me longer.

Water resistance is becoming one of my core requirements for smartphones, especially for phones I like to carry out running in the rain with me. The iPhone 7 and 7 Plus add IP67 water and dust resistance.

One controversial change is the removal of the headphone jack. I personally have had issues with a couple headsets, but Apple includes an adapter and a pair of Lightning earbuds so it’s tough to complain.

The larger iPhone 7 Plus has an additional rear camera for telephoto and bokeh pictures, but the software to enable the portrait bokeh effect has not yet been released.

Check out the my full review of the iPhone 7 Plus (9.3 rating) and Jason’s iPhone 7 review (9.0 rating). CNET also has reviews of the iPhone 7 Plus (8.8 rating) and iPhone 7 (8.7 rating).

2. Google’s Pixel and Pixel XL

Google just announced the Pixel and Pixel XL and these are the only devices on my list that I have yet to test out. However, they are the newest phones from Google, built by HTC, and have already done well with some initial camera testing and hands-on experiences.

Google Pixel and Pixel XL smartphones

Google Pixel and Pixel XL smartphones


Google

Google did something that no one else has with a large and small device — it included the same exact specifications with the only differentiator being the size. I wish Apple would use this strategy, rather than always limiting the smaller form factor device. Due to availability, I actually ordered the smaller size Pixel for myself yesterday.

The Pixel has a 5 inch display while the Pixel XL has a 5.5 inch display. Both are the only devices launching with a Qualcomm 821 processor. Other key specs include 4GB of RAM, 32 or 128GB of internal storage, 12.3 megapixel camera and 8 megapixel front facing camera, and Android 7.1 Nougat.

The Android 7.1 Nougat operating system on the Pixel phones include Google Assistant and will have some unique features not found on other Android 7.1 devices.

The Google Pixel is priced at $649 and $749. The Google Pixel XL is priced at $769 and $869. It’s interesting to see Google launch these phones at prices rivaling the iPhone and Galaxy devices and I’m looking forward to testing one out.

3. Samsung Galaxy S7/S7 Edge

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While the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 may be the ultimate Samsung flagship, the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge are still fantastic smartphones that won’t be upgraded for another six months or so. These smartphones have industry leading specifications, refined design, and capabilities that had me almost awarding it a perfect 10 in my review. The only con I could come up with for the S7 was that it is a fingerprint magnet and for the S7 Edge that the edge screen sometimes facilitated inadvertant screen presses. This is no longer an issue on the Note 7, thanks to the design of the sides.

The Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge have extremely fast cameras that take incredible photos and video, responsive fingerprint scanners and advanced Samsung Pay support, water resistance without the fuss of ports, elegant refined design with the use of metal and glass, and it also launched with sweet offers from US carriers and Samsung.

While wireless charging is just a convenience, Samsung has everything you could want in a phone in the S7 and S7 Edge to make using one a sheer joy.

CNET also awarded the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge an Editor’s Choice award so there’s little doubt that Samsung has one of the best smartphones available today.

4. Moto Z/Z Force Droid

It’s been a while since I’ve been impressed by a Motorola phone, but the Moto Z and Moto Z Force Droid look great, feel great, and perform well. These phones incorporate a modular design that actually makes sense and works well.

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The Moto Z is available as a GSM unlocked phone for $699 with the Moto Z Force Droid coming out as a Verizon exclusive, available for $720 (32GB) and $770 (64GB).

The Z Force Droid edition adds a shatterproof display, which is something we don’t see often today. Both phones have high resolution displays, leading internal specifications, a water repellent nano-coating, and battery life that lasts longer than an iPhone 7 Plus.

The Moto Mods are priced from $19.99 (shell) to $299.99 (projector and camera), but they snap on and off easily and are very functional. Hopefully we will see more mods added to the collection.

Check out my full Moto Z Force Droid review and the one from CNET.

5. LG V20

LG doesn’t get much respect in the mobile space. I label them the Rodney Dangerfield of smartphones, but thankfully the upcoming LG V20 takes the best of the LG G5 and LG V10 to offer a powerful enterprise smartphone with a removable battery, microSD expansion card slot, and IR transmitter in a phone with a metal back and integrated drop protection.

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The LG V20 has a larger unique secondary front display similar to the V10, a second wide-angle rear camera, the ability to take standard and wide-angle selfies, a rear fingerprint scanner, and solid metal and glass construction. It’s the first non-Google phone to launch with Android 7.0 Nougat so unlike Samsung you won’t have to wait months to see the upgrade to the current version of Android.

LG continues to provide an IR transmitter in its phones so you can control your TV and other media right from the phone. The camera on the LG V20 still stands out above the crowd with manual video recording capability that gives you full control over the mics and other advanced recording settings.

There are not yet any LG V20 retail units out for full reviews, but you can check out my preview of an early pre-production device. Pricing has not yet been revealed, but the phone should be launching later this month.

6. OnePlus 3

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OnePlus has made a few phones over the past couple of years, but each has disappointed me in some way. I purchased the OnePlus 3 in June and was completely satisfied. It is available for just $399 and for that price you aren’t likely to find such a powerful smartphone.

It feels much like an HTC 10, but the customization, more RAM, and longer battery life make it compelling. It does have a 1080p display so the resolution is not as high as an HTC 10, but it is priced significantly lower.

OnePlus has shown it can update the phone regularly as well with a few updates already made since its release. It has some awesome customization options and is one of my favorite low price smartphones.

Sandra Vogel gave it a 9/10 rating in her ZDNet review. CNET awarded the OnePlus 3 an 8.9/10 in its review.

7. Honor 8

Huawei makes some amazing smartphones, but most Huawei-branded devices are not available in the US. Huawei recently launched its first Honor-branded device in the US with the Honor 8 and it’s an incredible smaller Android smartphone.

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The Honor 8 is powered by a Kirin 950 processor with 4GB of RAM. It has a 5.2 inch 1080p display, 32GB of internal storage, a microSD card slot, dual rear 12 megapixel cameras, and an IR port.

There are plenty of customizations in the software, including Knuckle Sense technology. The dual cameras help you capture some unique photos too.

The Honor 8 feels amazing in your hand and at just $400 it is tough to beat. I awarded the Honor 8 a 9.3/10 in my review and it continues to get better.

8. HTC 10

After testing the HTC 10, I purchased my own black model. It has since been passed to my wife since I’m not that enthusiastic about its camera performance or limitations on customization.

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No other phone can match the audio experience of the HTC 10. If you use your phone for music or videos and like having a pocketable device that is built to withstand life’s daily movement, this phone is for you.

HTC has come a long way with the cameras, introducing the first front-facing camera with OIS. The rear 12 megapixel UltraPixel 2 camera with OIS is its best yet, but there are still a few software tweaks to be made to beat out the Samsung Galaxy S7 and LG G5. My wife is perfectly happy with the camera, but I see too much light blow out in most photos.

The price continues to drop on the HTC 10, making it a more attractive option. It is currently priced at $549, which is $150 less than the retail price.

I awarded the HTC 10 a a 9.5/10 in my review, but I think that was a bit high after testing out the latest Samsung and Apple phones.

CNET review: HTC 10 brings the noise, but it’s not a Galaxy killer

9. ZTE Axon 7

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Image: ZTE

Reasonably priced Chinese smartphones are making their way to the US and ZTE offers up a compelling solution with its Axon 7 device. I haven’t had the chance to try one so cannot share my own experiences with this large $400 smartphone.

The Axon 7 improves upon previous Axon devices and has many of the same specifications as the OnePlus 3 and HTC 10. It includes a 5.5 inch 1440p display, 20 megapixel camera, full metal unibody design, Snapdragon 820 processor, 4GB of RAM, microSD expansion card slot, and more.

The Axon 7 is focused on the media experience with hi-res audio support, dual front-facing stereo speakers, and good camera performance. It’s not the best Android smartphone around, but it offers plenty in a $400 package.

CNET awarded the Axon 7 a 7.9/10 in its review.

10: Samsung Galaxy Note 7

Samsung suffered major losses as a result of the battery failure and recall fiasco. I stuck with the company because I absolutely love the Galaxy Note 7 and continue to use it today. However, given a recent report of a possible replacement device failing I just didn’t feel right putting the Note 7 at the top of my list.

Assuming the Note 7 has no recurring battery issues, nothing else in the mobile space can beat it. It has more innovation than Apple, offers the leading camera experience, has an incredible build quality and in-hand feel, has every charging technology you could hope for, and has a Samsung software experience that leads to daily discovery of new features and functions.

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The S Pen is a wonderful tool for productivity on the Note 7 and once you force yourself to start using it, it’s tough to stop. While you can use it for text input, you can also use it to help with translations, maneuver around the Note 7, and more.

I exchanged my recalled black unit for the coral blue one and am impressed by the color that is attractive and unique.

Check out my review of the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 where I gave it an almost perfect rating. CNET had an earlier high rating for the device, but has since pulled the rating until it is sure the battery issues have been resolved.

While it’s always fairly clear which devices are in the top five, the second five are a bit tougher and some devices get left off the list. What other devices would you recommend for this top ten list?

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