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Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Smart Phones

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Smartphones /

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Design

When you hold the Galaxy S8, you know there is no other phone like it. Its metal frame feels premium and is inviting to touch, and its display is simply remarkable. It’s taller, skinnier and more compact than most smartphones but still manages to fit in more precious screen real estate.

This display has a 18.5:9 aspect ratio that’s noticeably unlike the 16:9 screens that outfit almost every other smartphone today. This bezel-less display does what the LG G6’s 18:9 display could not achieve – make the phone look like you are holding just a screen. While the Galaxy S7 Edge’s 76-percent screen-to-body ratio was impressive, the new Galaxy S8 has an 83-percent screen-to-body ratio. For additional comparison, the 5.5-inch iPhone 7 Plus sits at just a 68-percent ratio.

The S8 is comfortable to hold and doesn’t feel slippery. This is coming from someone who hates large phones and prefers the 4-inch iPhone SE to any model with a “plus” in the name. The Galaxy S8 is the first big phone I didn’t feel like I was going to drop, even though it has an intimidatingly fragile glass body. I even felt confident operating it one-handed, although my thumb couldn’t reach the top of the screen. To compensate, Samsung added a one-handed mode – you can shrink the screen by tapping the home button three times.

This unique design put Samsung in a little bit of a bind. Not only did it have to ditch the physical home button, but it also had to move the phone’s fingerprint scanner to the back. The scanner is awkwardly placed, and because of this, the otherwise stunning smartphone picked up a lot of fingerprints and smudges in our tests. The marks were especially prominent on the midnight black version we tested, but they didn’t show up as much on the orchid gray unit we also reviewed.

In the grand scheme of things, the fingerprint scanner is a minor complaint, and Samsung made more wise design decisions than bad ones. The company kept several key design elements that made its past phones shine, including wireless charging, a MicroSD card slot and a water-resistant body. The AT&T model even touts a FM receiver. Unlike iPhone’s 7 and 7 Plus models, Samsung opted to keep the S8’s 3.5mm headphone jack and make the switch to USB-C for its charging port.

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Cameras

Smartphones / 3

Samsung didn’t really update the Galaxy S8’s rear camera, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sure, it would have been nice to see a dual-camera setup, but its onboard camera is still incredibly impressive – it has the same 12MP sensor with an f/1.7 optically stabilized lens as its predecessor. However, Samsung upped its software processing to be in the same vein as the Google Pixel’s HDR+ mode.

Essentially, the camera takes multiple pictures when you press the shutter, selects the best one, and enhances the image with extra details and info from the other photos. This leaves you with crystal-clear, bright and detailed photographs featuring rich, vibrant colors. We found that the Galaxy S8’s camera performs well both in bright environments and those with not-so-great lighting.

Samsung’s camera app is loaded with various modes for shooting panoramas, food photos and slow motion video, and it even has Snapchat- and Instagram-like stickers and filters. Conveniently, you can press the power button twice to quickly trigger the camera, no matter if your phone is locked or you are using a different app. The camera can also be operated with a single hand.

Additionally, the front-facing camera got a bit of an upgrade to up your selfie game. The Galaxy S8 sports a new 8MP camera with a wide-angle lens and auto focus. In beauty mode, you can slim your face, enlarge your eyes and adjust your skin tone. Pro users will appreciate the full-manual control, a feature that’s missing on the Google Pixel.

The S8’s camera shoots 4K video at 30 frames per second (fps) and slow-mo video at up to 240 fps at 720p. Videos are crisp and vivid, and the image stabilization comes in handy when you are moving and recording video simultaneously.

Smartphones / 4

Internal Specs

This smartphone is fast and incredibly versatile thanks to its onboard Snapdragon 835 processor. It also comes with 4GB of memory and 64GB of storage space. That’s twice the amount you get from base models of the iPhone 7, LG G6 and Google Pixel. And if you need more storage, you can just pop a MicroSD card in the expandable storage slot.

At Top Ten Reviews, we put every smartphone we review through at least 50 separate benchmarks, gathering over 300 individual data points. Our benchmark tests found that the Galaxy S8 is the most powerful Android phone, and one of the most powerful smartphones on the market. It’s a powerhouse, and we never experienced lag.

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Battery Life

Smartphones / 6

Tom’s Guide, our sister site, conducted an extensive battery test on the Samsung Galaxy S8. It determined that the Galaxy S8’s 3000 mAh battery lasts for 10 hours and 39 minutes, improving on the Galaxy S7’s eight hour and 43 minute time by nearly two hours – the screen may be larger, but it doesn’t affect battery life. These results were obtained with the phone’s resolution set to its max 2960 x 1440 pixels. The phone’s less-demanding 2220 x 1080 setting is enabled by default.

For comparison, the iPhone 7 has a nine hour and three minute battery life, and the Google Pixel lasted for eight hours and 16 minutes in the same test. However, the larger Google Pixel XL still reigns supreme with its 3450 mAh battery, which yields 11 hours and 11 minutes of battery life.

Features

Smartphones / 7

Samsung introduced Bixby, a new built-in assistant that doesn’t have voice functionality yet. For now, Bixby is sort of like Google Now, with information cards to let you know what’s trending online and give you a quick glance at your calendar, the weather and the news. There’s even a dedicated button on the left side of the phone to activate Bixby, though it would be nice if Samsung let users remap this button or at least disable it. Google Assistant, which the S8 also has, is much more capable and powerful. We aren’t much of a fan of Bixby, but to be fair, we aren’t fans of Siri either. Both have significant room for improvement.

The Galaxy S8 has Bluetooth 5.0, which has a longer range than previous standards and lets you play audio from two different devices simultaneously. This comes in handy for Bluetooth speakers and lets you listen to the same tunes as a workout buddy at the gym, as long as your friend has a pair of Bluetooth headphones.

While we’re on the subject of headphones, Samsung throws in a pair of AKG earbuds with every S8. These $99 headphones blow Apple’s EarPods out of the water. To make matters even better, you also get a Gear VR and controller with your Galaxy S8.

Summary

The Samsung Galaxy S8 is hands down the best Android smartphone. It beats all the competition in terms of performance, design, battery life and features. It’s obvious Samsung put a lot of time, effort and soul in creating this stunning device. Sure, the S8 has some minor shortcomings, such as an awkwardly placed fingerprint scanner and half-baked voice assistant, but with its vibrant display, excellent cameras, extensive battery life and speedy processor, we feel confident in giving it the top spot in our review.

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Apple iPhone 6s

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At this point, everyone in America has heard of the iPhone. It’s a cultural touchstone, an element of our society as pervasive as the smartphone itself. That’s no surprise, considering Apple pioneered much of what we consider smart about smartphones. Keyboardless input, multitouch screens, the idea of using your phone as your media player – before the iPhone, none of these had been considered, much less considered standard.

Yet the iPhone doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Google’s Android is, depending on whom you ask, a better mobile operating system; at the very least, it’s far more customizable. Samsung almost single-handedly defined the feature-first marketplace, where the best products have the biggest numbers and more checked boxes in smartphone reviews than anyone else. Apple’s phones don’t have the highest resolutions or the biggest batteries. They’re not water resistant, they can’t charge wirelessly without third-party accessories, and they still don’t offer expandable storage. So why do we care?

Because despite all the things the iPhone lacks, it still has a lot to care about. The iPhone 6s has one of the best smartphone cameras ever made, the fastest processors, and consequently, the smoothest user experiences. It offers the best selection of applications and accessories, and its metal and glass design defines the industry’s standard of elegance.

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Design

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We had more than a few nice things to say about the iPhone 6 when it came out last year, and to all but the most exacting eye, the iPhone 6s appears no different. It’s slightly bulkier and heavier than its older sibling, but this isn’t noticeable without a scale and ruler. This is an S year, after all, when Apple forgoes radical design changes and instead polishes what it released the year before.

As such, you get the same 750 x 1334 display as last year’s model, with the same 326 ppi pixel density. Next to the ludicrously high resolution screens of the competition’s top smartphones, you might think we’d be underwhelmed – after all, the Galaxy S6 packs an insane 577 ppi, which is almost 333,000 pixels per square inch. Still, we have zero qualms about the iPhone 6s’s screen. It’s rich, saturated and crisp, with nary a pixel visible to the naked eye. If you ever needed proof that high-resolution screens are more gimmick than improvement, it’s right here.

The latest release of Apple’s mobile operating system, iOS 9, continues to take cues from Android. After so long leading other innovators, the backseat Apple’s taken to software design feels unbecoming.

Siri is now slightly better at recommending apps and search results based on time and your location, but the recommendation engine remains inferior to Google Now. A contextual back button now appears in the top-left corner in place of the carrier signal pips, letting you head back to previous apps, but the implementation feels like an afterthought, and its position makes it all but impossible to use with one hand.

We’d be utterly nonplused were it not for the continued supremacy of the App Store. Not a big fan of the Mail app? There’s always Outlook or Google Inbox. Apple Maps does a poor job of routing you through traffic, but that’s what Google Maps is for. In truth, few of Apple’s native apps are worth your time, but thanks to the App Store, you needn’t use them. If there was a way to default Siri to Google Maps and Google Search, we’d be set for life.

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Cameras

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Nowhere is Apple’s smartphone supremacy more evident than in its cameras. The iPhone 6s continues the company’s long reign with newly improved lenses on both sides of the device. By the numbers, they’re still less impressive than what most other modern flagships can deliver, but in terms of pure quality, they’re unmatched.

The rear-facing camera now takes 12MP photos and shoot 4K video. Those extra megapixels don’t make the resulting photos much bigger, but when combined with Apple’s image processing, they supply even more clarity to already exquisite shots. Focus pixels, dual-LED flash and 240 fps slow-motion video all return, but the real value here is in the phone’s ability to capture superb shots without fiddling with settings.

The front-facing camera also received a sizable upgrade, jumping from a 1.2MP to a 5MP sensor. Selfies are far sharper and look noticeably improved in dim lighting, and Apple even tuned the phone’s display to act as a surrogate flash. Just like the dual-LED flash on the back, the front display lights up to match the color tones of the environment, and shines – according to Apple – three times brighter than the usual maximum screen brightness in a sort of faux-flash. The new 5MP lens does a great job of picking up exposure, so you don’t actually need the flash, but it’s nice to have in a pinch.

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Internal Specs

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Whether it’s because it has fewer pixels to push around that lower-resolution 750 x 1334 screen, or simply because it has some impressive silicon packed away, Apple’s new A9 chip decimated our benchmark tests. Its Geekbench 3 scores were solid, if not quite as impressive as what we’ve come to expect from Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 810 chips. Its 3D Mark scores, on the other hand, were several thousand points higher than the competition.

But the real stunners were the phone’s GFXBench scores, which skyrocketed at several times the number of rendered frames of the next best device, Samsung’s Galaxy Note5. You can take a look at a sampling of our benchmark results using the comparison tool at the top of the page, but the takeaways are simple:

  1. In terms of basic mathematical processing, the iPhone is about on par with what Samsung can dish out in its flagship phones.
  2. When it comes to graphics and gaming, nothing is comparable to the iPhone 6s; it truly stands in a league all its own.

The iPhone’s processor is impressive; its storage options, less so. Without support for microSD cards, you have to make do with the built-in storage that comes with whichever model of iPhone 6s you buy. The entry-level version offers a measly 16GB, which simply isn’t enough in this day and age, especially now that the 6s can shoot 4K video and take even bigger photos. Given how ridiculously cheap storage has become, keeping the entry-level phone at 16GB seems like a warrantless money grab. If you can afford it, upgrade to the 64GB version.

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Battery Life

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In order to make room for its new 3D Touch display, Apple decided to downsize the battery in the iPhone 6s. Last year’s iPhone 6 packed 1810 mAh of power storage; this year, you only get a 1715 mAh cell. Fortunately, the downgrade doesn’t have a negative effect on performance; to the contrary, the 6s managed slightly better in our longevity tests than its year-old brethren.

Our intensive-use tests were a different matter. Put through three grueling, processor-heavy churns meant to simulate maxed-out gaming and hard computation, the iPhone 6s managed an average of just three hours and 32 minutes. That’s not a lot – the Galaxy Note5 managed to last three times as long in the same test – but then, the Note5’s longevity test results weren’t much more impressive than the iPhone 6s’s.

Given how ridiculously well the 6s performed in our gaming benchmarks, we’re pretty sure the disparity in performance comes down to graphics processing. The iPhone can handle itself better during gaming sessions at the cost of battery life; in casual use, it performs admirably. Of course, without a swappable battery or quick or wireless charging, there’s no easy way to juice up: It took us almost an hour to bring an empty iPhone 6s back up to a 50 percent charge.

Features

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There are certain things you can expect a new iPhone to have, like Bluetooth 4.2 – an obvious necessity that Apple has again included in its latest device. Likewise, NFC support is a guarantee, seeing as Apple Pay relies on the technology to let you make contactless payments all across America. Then there are the features that set the iPhone apart: Touch ID and 3D Touch.

Touch ID

Apple wasn’t the first company to put fingerprint scanners on their phones, but they did it best. Having extensively used both the Samsung and Apple takes on fingerprint security, we’ve consistently been happier with Touch ID’s performance. It’s easier to cover the entire scanner with your finger, setup is more intuitive, we get fewer bad reads, and the speed of the new, second generation Touch ID is incredibly fast. In the time it takes to press the home button and turn the screen on, Touch ID manages to grab your print, verify it and unlock the device. There’s still a learning curve as you train a bit of muscle memory into your fingers, but it’s superior to the competition.

3D Touch

We have mixed feelings about 3D Touch. In case you haven’t heard of it, 3D Touch is a force-sensitive technology that measures the amount of pressure you apply to the iPhone’s screen. It’s a linear sensor, so the phone reacts to precisely the amount of force you apply. As you increase that force, iOS responds in kind. On the phone’s animated lock screens, for example, you can control the speed of the animation forward and backward by applying different amounts of pressure.

3D Touch is essentially a right-click for your phone. You can still tap on icons to launch apps, tap on photos to view them full-screen or tap on emails to read them as you always have. If you choose to push down instead, however, you get different actions. If you’re on the home screen and you push on an icon, you get a pop-up menu with shortcuts to various in-app functions, like “New Message” in the Mail app. If you’re already in an app, pushing down lightly lets you “peek” into something like a mail message or photo, giving you a preview that goes away as soon as you release your finger. Push a little harder, and the message or photo “pops” into place, letting you further manipulate it in full screen.

Peek and pop are the fundamental new paradigms of the iPhone 6s, and they work because they’re simple. Successful 3D pushes give a satisfying click from the phone’s new taptic engine, almost like you’re clicking on a laptop’s trackpad. If an app on the home screen doesn’t support 3D Touch – which is pretty common at the moment, considering only Apple and a handful of third-party developers have been able to implement support – it gives a quick triple-click response, like a parent wagging their finger.

So yes, 3D Touch works, and it’s surprisingly fun to use. But it’s also a bit of an annoyance. Even on the lightest feedback settings, we always had to use slightly more force than expected to elicit a response. With more than a few days’ practice and with the support of more apps, it could well become part of our everyday phone habits; for now, it’s merely a fun thing to show off to friends.

Summary

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Everyone’s heard of the iPhone, and everyone has an opinion. Some hate it simply because it’s from Apple – the massively profitable corporation that sells premium technology at equally premium prices. Others love it because it represents a level of polish and prestige that most manufacturers can’t achieve.

The rest of us just want to own one of the best phones out there, and right now the iPhone 6s fits the bill. Battery aside, it offers the finest mobile computing experience money can buy, from its best-in-class camera to its phenomenal graphics processor. But what really sets the iPhone 6s apart is polish: As has been the case since the first iPhone was released way back in 2007, everything here just works. That’s the way we like it.

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Google Pixel

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Pros / Between its pure, unadulterated take on Android and one of the best cameras in a smartphone, ever, it’s hard not to love the Google Pixel.

Cons / It’s little more than a shrunken version of the Pixel XL, with a trimmer battery and ever-so-slightly better performance.

 Verdict / Google’s Pixel is a brilliant phone. It might not be quite as impressive as its larger, longer-lasting sibling, but if you pick it over the XL, you probably prefer its smaller, more comfortable shape anyway.

Size aside, there’s not much difference between the Google Pixel and its heftier cousin, the Pixel XL. Both smartphones feature the same wonderful camera with some of the best built-in video stabilization we’ve ever seen. Both sport Snapdragon 821 processors, and in terms of performance, both are within a few percentage points of one another. Both pack crisp, clean versions of Android Nougat, have USB-C charge ports and top-tier fingerprint scanners, and both come standard with Google Assistant, the company’s sometimes-great, sometimes-disappointing digital concierge.

In our extensive review of the Pixel XL, we break down what it’s like to use a Pixel smartphone – what does and doesn’t work when you activate Google Assistant, what we love about that wonderful camera, and so on. Almost everything written there applies to the smaller Pixel, making what’s different far more notable than what’s shared. So let’s talk about those differences.

The most obvious one is, of course, the Pixel’s smaller size. The Pixel is to the Pixel XL as the iPhone 7 is to the iPhone 7 Plus; it nestles a little easier in the hand and slips a little more smoothly into pockets, but it’s not quite small enough for one-handed use. If you find so-called phablets overwhelming but still want the benefit of a decent-sized display, the Pixel will probably suit you perfectly.

Of course, with a smaller size comes a smaller battery. The device’s 2770 mAh cell lasted just 8 hours 16 minutes in our web browsing test. That’s decent, but when compared against the iPhone 7’s 9 hours 3 minutes, or the Pixel XL’s impressive 11 hours 11 minutes, the Pixel’s smaller battery size is clearly a drawback to longevity.

The other big difference between the Pixel and the Pixel XL is the smaller device’s screen. Instead of a 5.5-inch, 1440p display, the Google Pixel features only a 5-inch, 1080p display, with a significantly lower pixel density to match. Most people won’t notice the difference in clarity between the two screens, but there’s one place where that extra density can be crucial: mobile VR. Only a handful of devices are compatible with Google’s Daydream VR platform, and the Pixel is one of them. The lenses inside the Daydream headset are designed to focus in on your smartphone’s screen, so a lower resolution makes for a far grainier image than you’d get out of a 1440p display.

There is one benefit to the smaller screen: faster processing. The Pixel and Pixel XL share the same system-on-a-chip (SoC) under their respective hoods, namely Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 821, a top-tier, quad-core processor. While we’ve seen other phones with the same SoC perform better – the OnePlus 3T garners a lot of benefit from its 6GB of RAM, for example – both the Pixel and Pixel XL perform admirably. Yet despite its smaller size, the Pixel actually outshines the XL. With a lower-resolution screen, the Pixel’s SoC doesn’t have to do as much work to drive graphics to the display, which means it can keep more power in reserve for crucial moments. Granted, we’re talking about a difference of a few percentage points in our tests, but better numbers are better numbers.

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Summary

Most top smartphones these days are pretty big, their screens around 5.5 inches from corner to corner and their batteries commensurately large. The Pixel is a nod to the fact that many buyers don’t want such massive displays, but they still crave all the power that comes with big flagship phones. If you fall into that category, you’re in luck; the Pixel is the best 5-inch device you can buy right now.

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Samsung Galaxy S7

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Design

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Refinement was the watchword of Samsung’s approach this time around, taking the success it met in the Galaxy S6 and building on it with attentive care. The Galaxy S7 is a little prouder than its predecessor, a little bolder and fuller. Samsung stayed away from plastic parts, doubling down on their metal-and-glass construction process. The phone’s rim is all soft metal and graceful curves, while its glass front and back lounge warmly in your fingers. Oddly, the lack of sharp edges is almost a downside; more than one person we handed the phone to thought it was made of plastic, thanks to its rounded, slippery feel.

It’s definitely glass, though; the ever-present smudges are a testament to that. Samsung’s insistence on sticking to a glass back sets the Galaxy line apart from its competition, but it attracts fingerprints with apparent desperation. We know we’re nitpicking, but it’s a constant eyesore on an otherwise gorgeous phone.

The S7’s camera bump isn’t as pronounced as last year’s model, though that has more to do with the phone’s increased thickness than anything else. Its fingerprint-scanning home button is likewise a bit flusher than in previous years. Both are welcome changes that only add to the phone’s svelte appearance.

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We’ve never been fans of the tweaks companies insist on making to stock Android. They usually come prepackaged with a lot of bloatware. Historically, Samsung’s TouchWiz was one of the worst offenders, filled with features you probably don’t use and stuffed with inferior apps. That’s not always the case – Samsung’s camera app, for example, is rather wonderful, unobtrusive yet filled with great controls. Still, the S7’s setup process is full of bloatware requests.

Fortunately, it’s not all bad. Samsung has actually integrated some solid software additions, chief among them its new always-on display. Even when the phone’s screen is off, a few of the OLED display’s pixels remain active, showing you the time and basic notifications like missed calls and texts. You have to use Samsung’s included apps to get the full effect, but it’s a nifty feature nonetheless.

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Cameras

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You’ve probably heard Samsung’s marketing arm boasting about the S7’s camera. They’re tossing around terms like Dual Pixel Technology and phase-detect autofocus while making comparisons to DSLR cameras. No surprise; the smartphone camera has become America’s favorite point-and-shoot, after all.

It’s rare for final products to live up to marketing hype, but the Galaxy S7 does. Each of its 12 million pixels has its own twin photo diodes built-in. This means every single pixel can be used to refocus the lens, which greatly cuts down on focus time. You can double-tap the home button to instantly wake the phone to camera mode, find your focus and take a picture, all within the span of about a second and a half.

It’s worth noting that while the quality of the pictures the S7 takes has improved, they’re not that much better than those taken by the S6. The phone’s sensor is now just 12 megapixels, but thanks to an ƒ/1.7 aperture, it can handle low-light photography with far less distortion. Samsung’s ever-improving image processing nets some gorgeous photos, and of course, you can shoot video up to 4K resolution or in lower resolutions up to 240fps.

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Internal Specs

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At Top Ten Reviews, we put every smartphone we review through at least 50 separate benchmarks, gathering over 300 individual data points. This time around, we nearly doubled our usual number of tests, and it was all to learn one thing: The Samsung Galaxy S7 is the fastest, most capable smartphone we’ve ever held.

That’s to be expected, considering the phone comes packing Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon 820 processor and 4GB of RAM. We’ve listed a handful of our test results in the benchmark graph at the top of this page so you can see for yourself the numbers it’s capable of pushing around. Benchmarks aren’t everything, though, and there’s no substitute for pure experience; in ours, we never hit a single hiccup. The only other phone to come close was Apple’s iPhone 6s.

On the storage side, the Galaxy S7 is available in both 32GB and 64GB setups. There’s no 128GB option, but never fear; the microSD card slot, absent from last year’s Galaxy, has returned, and it can accept expansion cards up to 200GB in size. That’s more than enough storage for all your photo-, video-, music- and app-downloading needs.

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Battery Life

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We mentioned earlier that the Galaxy S7 is slightly thicker than the S6. The difference isn’t extreme – just .04 inch, in fact – but it gave Samsung enough room to pack in a significantly larger, 3000mAh battery. With an extra 450mAh of juice, you’d expect a relative increase in the life of the phone, but the S7 only lasted a few more minutes than the S6 in our battery test.

Given that a larger battery means a longer charge time, even with Qualcomm’s rapid charging feature, the overall battery experience with the S7 has diminished. If you like, you can disable the always-on display in Samsung’s settings menu. It doesn’t squeeze that much more life out of the device, but it helps.

Features

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When we first saw the Galaxy S7 at last month’s Mobile World Congress, we were surprised to note that, unlike the direction Google took with its Nexus phones, the S7 stuck with micro-USB instead of using USB Type-C. During the show, we asked Shoneel Kolhatkar, Samsung’s Senior Director of Product Marketing, why Type-C wasn’t included. The answer: Samsung wants to maintain backwards-compatibility with the Gear VR ecosystem.

A free Gear VR came bundled with every S7 preorder Samsung received, and the company hasn’t been shy about touting the headset whenever it can. Maintaining compatibility with it makes a lot of sense, but nonreversible plugs are showing their age. With all of Type-C’s other benefits – throughput, bi-directional charging and so on – Samsung’s bound to make the jump eventually.

The last big feature the S7 boasts is its IP68 rating; the phone is dust-tight and water resistant up to 1.5 meters for 30 minutes. Practically speaking, you can spill your drink on the phone, drop it in the sink, take it out in the rain or rescue it from a toilet without worry. We’d even venture to say you could bring it into the bath, but don’t leave it under hot water for too long – some watertight seals don’t like warmer temperatures.

Summary

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Refined, comfortable, speedy, waterproof, expandable and insanely quick to snap photos – the Samsung Galaxy S7 is the highest tier of top-tier smartphone you can buy. It’s also a fingerprint magnet, comes with its fair share of bloatware and costs $200 – $300 more than some very capable Android competitors. For all its advances and great inclusions, is the phone actually worth it?

If you crave the best of the best and don’t mind a few smudges, absolutely. There’s something tangibly exciting about having the finest tech on the block, and harbor no illusions, the Samsung Galaxy S7 is it.

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Google Pixel XL

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Google has done something amazing: They’ve made a smartphone that’s almost perfect.

Granted, there are degrees of “almost,” and smartphone perfection is in the eye of the beholder. If you prefer one-handed screens and easy pocketability, you’re probably willing to compromise on battery life. Still, it’s not hard to imagine what a perfect smartphone is: something comfy, long-lasting, easy and even fun to use, and packing all the little modern extras that make the huge price tag a tad easier to swallow.

The Pixel XL is almost – almost – there.

Here is a smartphone that should rightfully be on the Christmas list of just about every gadget lover. It runs the best version of Android ever, with a slick, low-key interface that never overwhelms. It has a ridiculously good camera, a delightfully long-lasting battery, and Qualcomm’s latest and greatest Snapdragon processor. It’s fun. It’s attractive. It’s the best Android phone in the world.

It’s also incomplete. Google Assistant, for all the software gets right, isn’t quite where Google implied it stood during the Pixel’s announcement event. The phone is priced against the iPhone 7 Plus and Galaxy S7, but it’s not waterproof. It has a headphone jack – thank the gadget gods – but it’s on the top rather than the bottom, so you might find yourself swatting the headphone cord out of the way of the screen or camera.

These are ridiculous, nitpicky concerns – tiny pebbles on an otherwise pristine beach of soft white sand. But it only takes one pebble in your shoe to stop you in your tracks. Can the love the Pixel XL engenders strip those pebbles away?

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Design

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From the front, the Pixel XL looks very similar to the iPhone 6s Plus. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean the bezels are a tad wider than they probably should be – on the top and bottom, as well as on either side of the screen. The phone’s rear cover is built from the same beautiful aluminum as Apple’s iPhones and even has those white plastic antenna lines cutting across the metal finish. Its edges are an obvious differentiator, as they’re beveled and have a few hard angles where the iPhone is all curves. I personally prefer the pristine grace of Apple’s take, but the Pixel XL is certainly attractive.

I thought I’d hate the glass panel on the Pixel’s rear cover; its addition seemed so very arbitrary, like Google threw it on the back face simply to stand out from other top smartphones. It’s nice to be wrong, though – the glass is just wonderful. As other reviewers have pointed out, the panel’s position on the upper third of the phone’s back cover helps you orient it in your hand, perfect when you’re pulling it from a pocket or purse while your eyes are on something else.

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I wasn’t prepared for how great the glass feels on your fingertips. It’s wonderfully glossy – I’ve used the term “luscious” to describe this sort of coating in the past, and it still fits – and its grippiness helps secure the phone in your hand. It doesn’t seem to pick up fingerprints very much, either, which is always a concern when you’re dealing with glass construction.

Many of the design elements you’d expect from a modern Android phone are here, including a reversible USB Type-C charging port, a top-tier fingerprint scanner on the back cover, and yes, a 3.5mm headphone jack. The phone’s chassis is ever-so-slightly thicker on top than it is on the bottom, which helps pack in the camera without resorting to an asymmetrical bump.

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Cameras

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We expect wonders from our smartphone cameras, perhaps more so than anything else in our phones. We take pictures with them every day – selfies, food photos, cat pictures, sharable moments – and we pass them constantly between friends and family. If there’s one thing a phone needs to get right to be a hit, it’s the camera. And Google nailed it.

We’ve been fans of DxOMark for quite some time, and were duly impressed when we heard their independent camera quality analysts had awarded the Pixel the company’s highest-ever rating: a score of 89. By comparison, the Samsung Galaxy S7 got a score of 88, and Apple’s iPhone 7 earned an 86 – and those are the two undisputed kings of the phone camera world. Once we got the Pixel XL in our hands, we confirmed DxOMark’s findings ourselves. This shooter really is fantastic.

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Granted, scores of 86, 88 and 89 are pretty close to one another, and it’s usually tough to pick a winner in side-by-side comparisons between the Galaxy S7, the iPhone 7 and the Pixel. All three capture rich, wide-gamut colors with thoroughly appealing accuracy levels. All three do a great job of nailing white balance, cutting through shadows to give you bits of detail without too much noise, and retaining sharpness without going overboard and introducing artifacts. All three take pictures quickly, offer rapid focus and fine exposure control, and let you record video up to 4K or in slow motion at up to 240 fps.

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They’re all great phones; the Pixel is just a tad better. It lacks some built-in features like full manual control for expert users, but those are easily acquired through a Play Store download. What you get automatically is the best built-in digital video stabilization we’ve ever seen. Movies you take with the Pixel are absolutely stunning. Low-light photographs capture rich detail without falling into a morass of grain and distortion, since every photo is post-processed behind the scenes to integrate HDR (unless you explicitly turn it off). And we think the colors of basic, outdoor, brightly-lit photos are just more pleasing to the eye.

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Internal Specs

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Between its Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 processor and 4GB of RAM, I honestly expected the Pixel XL to best every other Android phone we’ve benchmarked. Google’s phone put in a good showing, but it fell behind other competition like the HTC 10, the Galaxy S7 and the OnePlus 3. It didn’t come close to matching the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus benchmark results, but I didn’t really expect it to; Apple’s custom chips, lower screen resolutions, and top-to-bottom software and hardware integration make for stunning overall performance.

Not that the Pixel’s numbers aren’t impressive in their own right. With a 1440p display to run, its processor has a lot of work to do, so it’s not surprising the phone falls behind devices with lower resolutions. That said, a Geekbench 4 score of just 4,130 is a bit flagging when you compare it to the Galaxy S7’s 5,473.

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I ran the Pixel XL through over 60 different synthetic and real-world tests, gathering almost 400 data points in the process. Our results score is given as a percentage of the current leader among our smartphone reviews – in this case, the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, which are close enough to one another to each earn 100 percent. The Pixel XL comes in at a meager-seeming 76 percent, but keep in mind that the Galaxy S7 sits at just 79 percent.

Here’s the takeaway: The Google Pixel XL is really fast and optimized beautifully. You won’t notice any slowdown and won’t really see a difference between it and its competitors unless you run side-by-side benchmarks like we do. Rest assured that you would be buying a phone with flagship-tier capabilities.

Battery Life

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What good is an amazing smartphone without the longevity to use it anywhere? The Pixel XL’s battery is perhaps the best reason to go for Google’s bigger-model phone, rather than the 5-inch Pixel. It’s impressively long lived.

Technology has hit a roadblock in battery construction. For the moment, lithium-ion batteries – the sort you find in pretty much every modern phone – don’t last longer unless they’re bigger. Capacity correlates directly to size. Google can’t change this, so it’s packed the biggest battery it can into the Pixel XL: a whopping 3,450 mAh cell. By comparison, both the Galaxy S7 and the OnePlus 3 have 3,000 mAh batteries, while the iPhone 7 Plus has a 2,900 mAh cell inside.

Our web browsing battery test forces the smartphone to navigate through webpages over and over until the device shuts down. It’s light on processor usage (browsing the web is easy for a phone) but heavy on screen usage, so it reflects active, continuous use of a phone’s LTE connection. In our test, the Pixel XL managed a phenomenal 11 hours and 11 minutes. That’s 33 minutes longer than the iPhone 7 Plus and almost two and a half hours longer than the Samsung S7. It also doesn’t factor in systems like Doze or Battery Saver mode, which can greatly enhance your phone’s longevity.

The Google Assistant

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During Google’s announcement presentation for the Pixel and Pixel XL, company CEO Sundar Pichai explained that AI was going to be the next great driving force of smartphone technology. He then spoke of Google Assistant, an AI guide in the vein of Siri and Cortana. Google Assistant had already been soft-launched with Allo, Google’s new texting app, and it’s capable of better speech recognition than any of its peers.

The Pixel is the first phone to have Google Assistant fully integrated on launch, and it’s arguably one of the Pixel XL’s biggest selling points. It handled my first request beautifully: “Okay Google,” I asked, “how long would it take to get to Salt Lake City from here?” It’s a relatively straightforward question, but it requires the assistant to delve into Google Maps, query the system, map out the answer, and then get me the response – all without just assuming I wanted to start driving right now.

Google Assistant hit the nail on the head, returning how long the drive would take without actively starting the route. Excited, I headed out to lunch, ready to ask it all sorts of questions on the journey. I thought I’d start with something easy: “Okay Google, play my EDM playlist.”

This should have been a simple request, since I use Google Play Music every day and listen to my playlist titled “EDM” often. The app knows it and keeps it within easy reach at all times, so somewhere in the plethora of metadata Google has accumulated on me, it knows I like this playlist.

As expected, Google Assistant cheerily responded, “Okay!” It opened Play Music and started a playlist. But there was one problem: The playlist wasn’t mine. The assistant completely ignored my library of songs, instead hopping into the ether to find a random EDM playlist someone else had put together. Figuring that issues were to be expected, I tossed it another softball and asked, “Okay Google, what song is this?”

“I’m sorry, Dan, I can’t do that yet.”

Playing around with Google Assistant is a near-endless procession of experiences like this. Sometimes you get magical functionality. You feel like you could ask the phone anything and it would know the answer. Then you ask it to do something simple, something you could manage yourself with two taps of the finger, and it fails. The illusion falls apart. For an AI that supposedly has access to a staggering wealth of knowledge about its users, it’s bizarrely incapable of tapping into that knowledge to make your life a little easier.

Will Google Assistant eventually be everything we want it to be? Most assuredly. Right now, you can make reservations at a local restaurant through OpenTable; someday, you’ll be able to snap a photo and have it post to your Facebook timeline, complete with a grammatically correct comment, without ever touching the screen. But until then, it’s really not all that much better than Siri or Cortana, whatever Sundar Pichai might hope.

Summary

The only real caveat that should keep you from buying a Pixel XL is the cost. Google has priced its first true flagship phone against Apple’s and Samsung’s latest and greatest devices, and for many of us, that expense can be all too difficult to swallow, even accounting for monthly payment programs.

Yet whether you’re a gadget lover, a camera aficionado or just someone who really likes Google, there’s simply too much here that’s great to not fall instantly in love. The Pixel XL takes everything that’s wonderful about smartphones in general, and Android in particular, and purifies it.

True, it’s not perfect yet. Google Assistant’s iffy responses and the lack of waterproofing are definitive knocks. But someone told Google they had to go big or go home, and Google swaggered its way up to the plate with determination in one hand and the world’s best Android smartphone in the other.

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OnePlus 3T

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Back in January 2007, Apple released the original iPhone as an AT&T exclusive, and people switched carriers en masse for the chance to own the world’s first true smartphone. Ten years later, it’s rare for any device to be a carrier exclusive, and unheard of for a smartphone to be so good that its fans switch providers just to own it.

I wasn’t thinking about any of this when I started reviewing the OnePlus 3T, but I’m thinking about it now. Here is a smartphone that’s simple, elegant, comfortable, usable. It scored better in our benchmarks than any other Android phone on today’s market. It has a 16MP selfie camera. It has both a USB Type-C port and a 3.5mm headphone jack on the bottom of the device. It improves on its predecessor, the OnePlus 3, in virtually every way, and it does it all at an MSRP that’s hundreds less than comparable devices from Apple, Samsung or Google.

Having spent dozens of hours with the OnePlus 3T, I am seriously considering a switch away from Verizon, our pick for best cell phone provider, just so I can buy myself one. It’s a simply wonderful phone.

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Design

Admittedly, the OnePlus 3T’s aesthetics won’t win any awards. From the outside it looks exactly like the OnePlus 3, and bears all the same external components – the same 5.5-inch, 1080p display; the same 16MP camera with 4K video, phase-detect autofocus and an f/2.0 aperture; the same antenna lines and three-notch notification switch. In fact, there’s no easy way to tell the 3T from the original OnePlus 3 without turning it on and running it through its paces.

There’s a downside to this similarity: Certain failings of the original OnePlus 3 haven’t been fixed. Its edges, for example, are still slightly sharp, which means you may prefer the feel of the phone when it’s snug in a case. Fortunately, OnePlus’s official cases are stylish and relatively comfy, without adding noticeable bulk.

Much of what makes the OnePlus 3T so great comes down to its software, a custom Android 6.0.1 overlay called OxygenOS. I’m not usually a fan of Android skins because manufacturers so often add unnecessary bloat or ugly theming in a vain attempt to differentiate. OxygenOS is one of those rare exceptions that add to Android rather than subtract from it. It’s almost identical to the stock operating system, but has a few nice extras – tap-to-wake gestures, hardware controls and customization, and so forth – that add to the overall experience. The level of polish even extends to the pleasing vibrations that fire every time you tap a button on its virtual keyboard – vibrations that are comfortable, understated and honestly add to the overall typing experience.

The biggest failing of OxygenOS is the slow pace at which the software gets upgraded. Google has already released Android 7.1 for smartphones, but as of our testing, OnePlus has yet to release an updated version of its software. Fortunately, the company promises a non-beta, Android Nougat edition of OxygenOS is rapidly forthcoming, so you shouldn’t have to wait too long to get all of Android’s latest core features.

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Cameras

Not much about the rear-facing camera changed between the OnePlus 3 and the 3T. The 3T uses the same 16MP sensor, f/2.0 aperture and single-LED flash. Its phase-detect autofocus isn’t as fast as the Galaxy S7’s shooter, but it still lets you quickly refocus on the fly and can handle landscape shots particularly well.

One great addition: electronic image stabilization, or EIS. The OnePlus 3T already has optical image stabilization, or OIS, which helps reduce the blurring effect that can come from shaky hands as you’re trying to take a picture. EIS takes this principle a step further, applying it to video. As you’re capturing a movie, the phone uses its internal gyroscope to monitor how the camera shakes in real time, then compensates for it. The resulting videos aren’t always perfectly smooth, but they’re surprisingly fluid, even if you’re walking along the road or sitting in the passenger seat of a moving car.

While EIS is the only major addition to the OnePlus 3T’s rear-facing camera, its front-facing camera has gotten an overhaul, having been bumped up from 5MP to a massive (for a selfie camera) 16MP, mirroring the rear-facing shooter. The selfie cam doesn’t have OIS and can’t take 4K video, but with all those extra pixels to work with, its pictures are significantly improved over its predecessor’s.

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Internal Specs

One of the biggest improvements made to the OnePlus 3T comes in the form of its processor, known in the mobile world as the system-on-a-chip, or SoC. Like most Android manufacturers, OnePlus turned to Qualcomm and their Snapdragon SoCs for its latest phone. Where the OnePlus 3 used a Snapdragon 820 chip, the 3T uses a Snapdragon 821.

The difference between these two chips is pretty minor. We run each phone we get through dozens of benchmarks, and the 3T only eked an extra 3 percentage points of performance out of its newer processor. The real boon comes in heat reduction. The 820 chip was an overheating mess, notorious for getting hot and staying hot through even simple tasks. The Snapdragon 821 doesn’t suffer from the same malady, which means your phone stays cooler longer.

In addition to the new 821 processor, the OnePlus 3T boasts 6GB of onboard RAM and either 64GB or 128GB of internal storage, depending on which model you spring for. Keep in mind when making your decision that it doesn’t support SD cards, so you can’t expand your storage options beyond that initial allotment.

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Battery Life

There are two factors to consider when thinking about a smartphone’s battery: life and charge time. The OnePlus 3T’s battery life is solid, but relatively average for a device of its size, clocking 10 hours 27 minutes in our web browsing test. That’s just 11 minutes shy of the iPhone 7 Plus’s performance in the same test, and is a tremendous improvement over the OnePlus 3, which only managed 8 hours 33 minutes. Squeezing an extra two hours of life into the exact same chassis is no easy feat, and should delight any OnePlus fan.

Almost as important as battery life, of course, is charge time. OnePlus has been delightedly marketing the 3T with the tagline, “a day’s power in half an hour.” Obviously the veracity of that claim depends on your usage patterns, but we’ve found it pretty accurate. Within a half hour you’ll get well over a 50% charge, and you’ll be able to hit 100% from empty in under 90 minutes. Even if you’re a very heavy user, if you can find 20 minutes to charge up halfway through the day, you’ll likely make it to bedtime without trouble.

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Features

In almost every way, the OnePlus 3T improves upon its predecessor. It has either identical or better components compared to the OnePlus 3 in all but one respect: For whatever reason, OnePlus decided to drop the 3’s internal barometer, leaving with 3T without a means of accurately judging altitude.

In all fairness, barometers don’t see much use. While top smartphones tend to have them, they’re usually included for somewhat esoteric reasons – a good barometer can track how many flights of stairs you’ve climbed, for example, but few people will otherwise need to know precisely how high they are above sea level.

Aside from the missing barometer, the 3T has all the same ports and sensors as the OnePlus 3. The fingerprint scanner is as reliable as what you’ll get from an Apple or Google phone; you can use Google Pay to charge purchases with contactless payments; and yes, there’s a headphone jack on the bottom of the device, which means the cord won’t flip in front of the screen when you’re trying to switch songs, or in front of the camera while you’re trying to snag that surprise photo. The only major feature I wish were present is water resistance, but given its mid-tier price point, that’s easily overlooked.

Summary

The OnePlus 3T is a GSM phone that you buy unlocked from the manufacturer. This means here in the U.S., it will only work on one of the country’s two GSM networks: AT&T or T-Mobile. If you’re a Verizon or Sprint customer, the 3T isn’t an option; it can’t even see their cell towers, much less connect to them.

If you’re already an AT&T or T-Mobile customer and you’re looking to buy a new phone, the OnePlus 3T demands your consideration. It’s one of the best Android smartphone around, and that’s before you consider how affordable it is, available for $200 to $300 less than its immediate competition. It’s not impeccable – the lack of waterproofing and its 1080p screen in an age of 1440p displays are both clear cost-cutting measures – but it’s darned close.

Should Verizon or Sprint users switch carriers just to buy it? That’s a much harder question to answer. For whatever it’s worth, were I not on my family’s Verizon plan, I’d probably have already made the jump. The OnePlus 3T is almost too good to miss.

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Motorola Moto G5 Plus

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The thing that makes the Motorola Moto G5 Plus ($299.00 at Amazon.com) the best budget phone on the planet is that, for the most part, it doesn’t feel like one at all. It looks, feels and operates like a much pricier phone, which means that wallet-watchers are getting a great deal.

This is just Moto continuing its trend of providing more features than other inexpensive Android phones. This year’s model improves on last year’s Moto G4 Plus with a modern, metal body; more storage; Android 7.0 Nougat; Google Assistant; new Moto gestures; NFC (in the UK model); a really good camera and 4K video: all while remaining delightfully affordable (prices below).

But this generation of the Moto G ($359.00 at Amazon.com) family also includes the slightly cheaper Moto G5. Both phones have a similar metal body design, but the G5 has a smaller screen, half the storage and a weaker processor. The G5 isn’t offered everywhere, for example it won’t be sold in the US. But even if it were, the G5 Plus would be the better value.

Lots of Moto models

The Moto G5 Plus costs $229 (32GB), $299 (64GB) or £249 (32GB), depending on the model. Each model differs slightly when it comes to storage, RAM and NFC. Motorola hasn’t yet announced an Australian model, but the US price converts to AU$300 and AU$390.

Moto G5 Plus US and UK models and pricing

Price Storage RAM NFC Amazon Prime Price
(UK) £249 32GB 3GB Yes NA
(US) $229 32GB 2GB No $185 + lock screen ads
(US) $299 64GB 4GB No $240 + lock screen ads

Since the G5 Plus is a universally unlocked phone, it will work on all major US and UK carriers. It’s worth checking compatibility with your carrier if you’re unsure. The dual-SIM option on Moto G5 Plus is only available in select regions globally in Latin America, Europe and Asia.

The magic touch of one-button navigation

One of my favorite features is the G5 Plus’ fingerprint sensor. It’s on the front below the display and works as well as Apple’s Touch ID on the iPhone. But Motorola did something really cool: it added a handful of shortcut gestures that turn the fingerprint sensor into a mini touchpad, a feature it calls One Button Nav.

Once you turn it on in the Moto app, tapping the fingerprint sensor brings you home. If you swipe left, it shows your recent apps. If you swipe right, it goes back. If you long press, you lock the phone and if you tap and hold, Google Assistant pops up.

It’s all quite easy and intuitive and I like that I didn’t need to make any extra moves reaching for separate onscreen buttons. In fact, after using the Moto G5 Plus, it was difficult not to instinctively try Moto’s shortcuts on other phones.

Peppy performance across the board

The Moto G5 Plus has a 2GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 625, which is also inside the Moto Z Play. My review unit had 4GB of RAM (some have 2 or 3GB). The G5 Plus supports both 2.4GHz + 5GHz band Wi-Fi. In use, the phone was fast and responsive. The camera was peppy, playing games like Super Mario Run was smooth, and social media apps like Instagram and Snapchat worked without a hiccup — even when adding filters.

The battery lasted 13 hours and 22 minutes in our looped video battery drain test: 2 minutes longer than last year’s Moto G4 (13 hours 20 minutes) and 1 minute longer than the new, premium LG G6 (13 hours and 21 minutes).

Good camera with a dark side

The camera uses a 12-megapixel sensor similar to the one in the Samsung Galaxy S7 and S8 (it’s a dual-pixel sensor if you’re following along) — that makes autofocusing fast and accurate. In most situations, I got good sharp photos. But in darker locales, for example inside a bar, the autofocus slowed and I started to see noise in the pics (blurry specks and sprinkles).

Take a look at some of the snaps I got with the Moto G5 Plus in the gallery below.

Motorola Moto Z2 Play

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The more time I spend with the Moto Z2 Play, the more I like this midrange phone.

It’s certainly the most interesting handset in its price range. Those magnetic Moto Mods and a ton of software features and shortcuts take it way beyond what most $500 phones can do. The hardware gets the job done, and there are a lot of little touches I appreciate. 

Go ahead and laugh, but the timer is the best of the four phones I’ve currently been using, including the Samsung Galaxy S8, HTC U11 and the iPhone. A timer may seem inconsequential, but since I’ve been using three times a day as part of an exercise routine, I really start to notice. (If you really want to know, the Moto interface lets you tap the time widget on the home screen to open the clock, plus you can save multiple timers, say for 1 minute and 2 minutes. The other phones have you open the clock app first and don’t save timers, so I’m scrolling a lot to switch duration.)

Anyway, I like this phone, and I’m eager to see how it compares to the upcoming OnePlus 5, which will launch June 20. The 3T earned CNET’s Editors’ Choice award for its midrange prowess, so the OnePlus 5 should present some pretty stiff competition. 

(P.S. This review is based on near-final software. Motorola says a final version of the phone’s software will be pushed out before the phone ships to consumers in July.)

In the US, eager buyers can get it from Verizon in early July, or buy it unlocked from Motorola.com.

Amazing battery life, promising voice trick

I have good news and bad news. The good news is that the best thing about the Z2 Play is its battery life. In our looping video drain tests, the Z2 Play ran an average of 17 hours, which is pretty great for a phone that costs a fistful less cash than tier-toppers like the Galaxy S8 ($649.88 at Amazon Marketplace) and LG G6. Those guys ran for 16 hours and almost 13.5 hours, respectively, in the exact same test.

In real life, you should be able to easily go a day and a half or even two days with some heavy use. I streamed 45 minutes of YouTube video without making much of a dent. (Motorola claims the battery will last up to 30 hours total.)

Are you ready for the bad news? It’s that last year’s Z Play ran for 23 hours in our video playback test, so this year’s attempt isn’t as much a marathoner. If you’re looking for a new phone though, this is still very good.

So that was the Z2 Play’s best feature. Its most clever feature — and its most promising — is actually a voice command that opens apps when you simply say “show me.” That’s right: no wake word like “Siri,” “Alexa” or “OK, Google” to call out before telling the phone what you want it to do. Just “Show me YouTube,” “Show me Maps” — you get the idea.

You just slide the shade that pops up and you’re in. Or, in the case of the calendar and weather, the information floats on screen before fading off. Best yet, you can configure “show me” to work from the lock screen when it recognizes your voice.

OnePlus 5

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The OnePlus 5 is simply stellar.

It delivers a grade-A experience and nearly all the specs you demand in a flagship phone for hundreds of dollars less than the Samsung Galaxy S8, Google Pixel and Apple iPhone 7.

This is the fourth major phone from Chinese phone maker OnePlus, which has earned a reputation for creating cheap, quality Android phones that undercut the competition. While OnePlus doesn’t have the volume or pure brand clout as Samsung, Apple and even Huawei, it has garnered a loyal following through flash sales and word-of-mouth recommendations.

The OnePlus 5 excels at serving high-performing hardware, like the latest Snapdragon chipset and an enduring, fast-charging battery. It’s also on trend with a dual-lens rear camera that takes artsy portraits and can hold its own against the iPhone 7 Plus.

But it doesn’t have super-slim bezels or the water-resistant body that so many top-tier phones do. And its price, while still hundreds less than its top-tier competitors, inches closer to them than years past due to its more expensive features. As a result, the phone isn’t quite the deal it once was. But, rest assured, the trade-off is more than fair.

Editors’ note: This review has been updated on July 12, 2017, with additional benchmark tests.  

Pricing and where to buy

The OnePlus 5 will come in two storage capacity variants (both have no expandable storage) and you’ll need to buy direct and unlocked since it’s not available through major carriers. It will also only work on GSM networks, like AT&T and T-Mobile in the US (and not Verizon and Sprint). There will be an online “early drop sale” the day of its announcement on June 20. The day after, on June 21, OnePlus will host one-day pop-up shops for the phone in London, Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam, Helsinki and Copenhagen. Finally, on June 27, the device will be available globally on its site for open online purchase.

OnePlus 5 pricing

USD GBP AUD (converted) EUR
Gray (64GB/6GB RAM) $479 £449 AU$750 €499
Black (128GB/8GB RAM) $539 £499 AU$830 €559

One of the best cameras around

The OnePlus 5 hopped aboard the dual-camera trend and has two rear shooters. Unlike other phones that have two cameras for wide-angle or monochrome purposes, the phone has a standard 16-megapixel shooter and a secondary 20-megapixel telephoto lens. This enables it to take “bokeh” images that have a shallow depth of field and blurred backgrounds (as if you took the photo with an DSLR camera).

The effect turns my run-of-the-mill photos of my friends into something more artsy and dramatic, and it works the same way the 7 Plus’ cameras do. You need to stand 1-6 feet away from your subject to use the effect, and there were times when the camera didn’t recognize or “catch” the subject initially. But when it worked, my pictures looked great. Due to its longer focal length, the telephoto lens has a fixed optical 1.6x zoom (it then adds digital “multi-frame technology” to bring it up to 2X), so you can toggle between the standard lens or zoom in on distant objects clearly and steadily with the telephoto.

The effect doesn’t always work perfectly every time on both the OnePlus and the iPhone. It can be patchy around objects with tricky outlines (like with stray hairs and such). But the iPhone did a slightly better job at reading these situations and determining where best the blurring should start and end. The iPhone’s bokeh effect also looked softer and more natural at times. In some of the OnePlus’ portraits, the foreground looked too harshly contrasted with the blurred background, and the effect looked too digitally rendered. (Check out CNET’s full OnePlus 5 vs. iPhone 7 Plus camera comparison here.)

Portrait mode on the OnePlus 5 (left) and iPhone 7 Plus (right).


Lynn La/CNET

The OnePlus 5 takes excellent low-light pictures, better even than the pricier Pixel at times. That’s due to a combination of better processing technology from OnePlus and a slightly wider aperture (f1.7 versus f2.0 on the Pixel), which lets in more light. And in photography, light is everything. Many of the OnePlus’ photos were clearer and sharper (with less digital artifacting) than the Pixel. White balance was also more accurate, since the Pixel gave off a slight greenish hue with some of my dark, indoor shooting.

Shooting in low light with the OnePlus 5 (left) and Pixel (right).


Lynn La/CNET

In general, the OnePlus 5 has a superb camera (and its 16-megapixel front-facing shooter takes sharp selfies as well), if not one of the best camera phones around. When it comes to regular day-to-day shooting, though, personal preference comes into play — especially when all premium phones carry first-rate cameras.

For instance, in a few photos, the OnePlus had deeper reds and purples than the Galaxy S8. This gave objects more vibrancy and depth, while the S8 came off flatter. At the same time, however, the OnePlus rendered skin tones darker and more orange, whereas on the S8 (and the iPhone too, actually), people’s complexions looked more true to life. The S8 also had a more accurate white balance indoors, with whites being much more purer and brighter. (Check out CNET’s more extensive camera shootout with the OnePlus 5, the Galaxy and Google Pixel here.)

While there were some situations when the iPhone, S8 and Pixel had an edge, all of them have their own strengths and weaknesses. The OnePlus 5 is the only phone that we know that has two cameras for the bokeh effect with that high of a megapixel count. What’s more, while the camera is competing neck-and-neck against these rivals, keep in mind it’s doing it at hundreds of dollars less than the others.

Other camera features

  • “Pro mode” gives more manual control for photographing and OnePlus included new tools like a histogram for adjusting ISO levels and white balance, and a leveler. Click here for more about getting the most out of your OnePlus 5’s camera.
  • Camera still has time-lapse, slow-motion and panoramic shooting.
  • The camera does not have optical image stabilization, but it does have electronic image stabilization for video only.
  • On top of the 2x telephoto optical+digital zoom, you can digitally zoom up to 8x.

Comfortable but not waterproof

Though the 5 is still wider than my petite hands prefer and its bezels aren’t as sexily thin as the S8 and LG G6, its softer edges make it more comfortable to hold than last November’s 3T predecessor. I also dig the smaller and flatter camera footprint.

Apple iPhone 7 Plus

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Editors’ note (March 21, 2017): Apple has unveiled new editions of its flagship iPhone 7 and 7 Plus as part of the (Red) program, which funds programs that combat HIV and AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. The special edition models will come in 128-gigabyte and 256GB configurations, starting at $749 (£699). The company has also doubled the storage capacity of its budget iPhone SE, which starts at $399 and is now available with 32GB or 128GB of storage. The company is expected to unveil the next-generation iPhone 8 in September 2017.

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The iPhone 7 and 7 Plus get a new vibrant color.


Apple

The original iPhone 7 Plus review, published in September 2016 and updated since then, follows.

Phone cameras are getting really damn good.

Samsung’s Galaxy S7, the Google Pixel, and the iPhone 7 all take photos that sometimes border on astonishing. In that sense, the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus aren’t as distinctive as phones anymore. They’re excellently made, superfast, and this time they’re water-resistant, too. They’re great phones, but we already knew that about the iPhone.

When Apple first made the larger Plus phones back in 2014, the appeal was always about screen size, battery life, and to a small extent, the camera. Really, all the larger 5.5-inch model had that the standard 4.7-incher didn’t was optical image stabilization (OIS). This year, the iPhone 7 finally gets OIS — great for smoothing out shaky-handed pics and videos.

That’s just one of the many similarities between the 7 and 7 Plus. Really, they’re two variants on the same phone:

  • Both are water-resistant.
  • Both have the same fast A10 Fusion processor.
  • Both have optical image stabilization on the rear camera for better low-light photos.
  • Both lack headphone jacks.

The iPhone 7 Plus has a few distinct advantages:

  • Two rear cameras — one wide angle, one telephoto — that can zoom in at 2x or even further digitally. And it can create depth-of-field blur effects, or “bokeh” type effects, with portrait photos in a unique camera mode.
  • Better battery life, but not by a huge amount.
  • Larger 5.5-inch 1080p display.
  • 3GB of RAM, instead of 2GB
  • It’s heavier and bigger.
  • And, of course, it costs more.

After several months trying both phones, I prefer the 7 Plus. But I spend my life on my phone and run around shooting photos and videos for work-related posts. For me, it’s an essential tool, and I justify the extra camera quality.

For a lot of others, the Plus will seem unnecessary. Pick the phone that you can afford, and go with battery packs for charge-ups. But I still feel like I miss that headphone jack, even though I honestly don’t find many instances anymore where I need it.

Two iPhones, straight outta Brooklyn.


CNET

Put another way: Everything we like — and dislike — about the smaller iPhone 7 applies to the 7 Plus model, too. (Read the iPhone 7 review here.) Just know that you’re paying a premium of $120, £120 or AU$190 when you step up to the 7 Plus at each storage capacity. (Yes, the price has crept up a bit from last year.)

But if you like shooting photos with your phone, it’s totally worth it.

Editors’ note: This review was originally posted in September 2016. It has since been updated with performance charts, battery life, and tests done with iOS 10.1, as well as comparisons to the Google Pixel camera.

The iPhone 7 Plus is Apple’s most advanced phone to date.


CNET

It’s big, though

Samsung and other manufacturers are doing a far better job folding identical 5.5-inch or larger displays into bodies that feel smaller and better in your hand, like the S7 Edge‘s. But now with cameras that can truly differentiate it from its smaller sibling, the 7 Plus finally has an easy justification for that jumbo size. It’s finally the step-up experience the larger phone needed.

But keep in mind that next year’s iPhone may solve the size problem, and fold more screen into a smaller body. You might want to consider holding out and seeing what happens in 2017 with that new design.

Did we mention it’s water-resistant?


CNET

How the dual cameras up the ante

I’m not a pro photographer, but I’m trying to get better. James Martin, a senior photographer at CNET, is. He shot with the 7 Plus in the Bay Area, while I took it around and used it for everyday life in New York and New Jersey.

Compare and contrast James’ photos from the 7 Plus to 6S Plus to the Samsung Galaxy S7 here.

The dual cameras don’t actually zoom, like a point-and-shoot camera with a protruding lens. Instead, the phone switches between the wide-angle camera and the telephoto, from 1 to 2x. From there, the camera app can digitally zoom up to 10x versus 5x on the iPhone 7. For video, it’s 6x.

The camera made these nosebleed seats look good.


Scott Stein/CNET

Digital zoom works better than it used to, but zooming in too far still results in blurry, digitized pics. It can’t work miracles. But adding the 2x optical helps frame photos: I found many landscape shots transformed.

I went to the New York Jets’ season opener and sat in the cheap seats. And being able to zoom in closer to the game action with less loss of detail was a great change — all without a big, heavy camera around my neck.

Note, too, that the camera equals the low-light performance of its smaller sibling, which is an improvement over the 6S/6S Plus models. But also note that the Google Pixel’s low light capabilities are even better. To compare Pixel vs iPhone 7 Plus, check out this in-depth comparison.

It takes better low-lighting photos than the iPhone 6S.


James Martin/CNET

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