Best Android Phones: Q1 2017

Best Android Phones: Q1 2017

Flowers are blooming and temperatures are rising, which means it’s time for our Q1 2017 Best Android Smartphones guide. There’s been a flurry of phone announcements over the first few months of the year. HTC launched its new U series phones, including the flagship HTC U Ultra, which has a 5.7-inch IPS display with a secondary 2.0-inch ticker display along the top, and the smaller, less-expensive 5.2-inch HTC U Play that comes with a MediaTek Helio P10 SoC. We also saw several new phones announced at MWC 2017, including Huawei’s P10, which shares much of its internal hardware with the larger Huawei Mate 9, and LG’s redesigned G6, which seems to correct some of the G5’s shortcomings while adopting a new, elongated 18:9 aspect ratio for its display that provides some extra screen area without making it more difficult to hold by increasing the phone’s width. Samsung took a similar approach with the recently announced Galaxy S8 and S8+ that also come with taller, 18.5:9 displays with rounded corners.

There were a number of mid-range and low-end phones announced too. At CES 2017, Huawei announced the $250 Honor 6X, which comes with a 5.5-inch IPS display and has a much better look and feel than the Honor 5X. Motorola unveiled the similarly priced Moto G5 Plus at MWC, and ZTE announced a trio of phones in its Blade V8 series: Blade V8 Pro ($250, 5.5-inch, Snapdragon 625), Blade V8 Mini (5.0-inch, Snapdragon 435), and Blade V8 Lite (5.0-inch, MediaTek MT6750).

Not all of these phones are shipping yet, though. And with our current resource shortage, we were not able to look closely enough at those that are available for them to be considered in this Q1 guide (we only include phones that we’ve reviewed). With that disclaimer out of the way, here are the Android phones we currently like.

Best Android Phablet: Huawei Mate 9

There’s a lot of options to choose from when shopping for a phablet considering the disproportionate number of Android phones having a screen size of 5.5-inches or larger. A number of these fall into the mid-range category, which we cover below. For people living outside of North America there are even more, usually less-expensive, options to consider too. But for this pick, we’re sticking with globally-available flagships.

With its 5.9-inch IPS display, Huawei’s Mate 9 is a true phablet. Its sturdy aluminum chassis with polished accents give it a solid feel and a classy look, and its good balance and rounded corners make it less unwieldy to hold than you would expect. Its $600 US price is not cheap, but it’s still less than many other competing flagships.

Inside is a Kirin 960 SoC, 4GB LPDDR4 RAM, and 64GB of UFS 2.1 storage that’s expandable via microSD card. Combining this hardware with the F2FS filesystem and other software optimizations gives the Mate 9 excellent in-app performance. Apps launch and install quickly too, and the UI feels responsive.

The Mate 9 also gets excellent battery life as long as you do not lean on the GPU or big CPU cores too hard. The Kirin 960’s power efficiency is not as good as the Kirin 950’s in the Mate 8, but Huawei was able to save power elsewhere (display), ultimately helping the Mate 9 and its 4000 mAh battery outlast the previous generation.

The dual rear camera that Huawei co-developed with Leica captures excellent, natural looking images, with consistently good exposure, gamma, and white balance. Its HDR mode is pretty weak, however, and its images do not show as much fine detail as those from Google’s Pixel XL and Samsung’s Galaxy S7 edge.

I was also extremely impressed with the Mate 9’s fingerprint sensor, which is by far the fastest and most accurate I’ve used. Its single, downward-firing speaker gets plenty loud, with the earpiece providing high frequency support for a pseudo-stereo effect. Huawei’s redesigned EMUI 5.0 software looks cleaner and is easier to navigate too, with a look that draws less inspiration from Apple’s iOS (there’s even an optional app drawer now).

The one area where the Mate 9 falls short of its peers is display quality. It gets very bright and has excellent black levels for an IPS panel, but an overly cool white point, imperfect gamma, and lack of a proper sRGB mode conspire to reduce grayscale and color accuracy. Viewing angles are not up to flagship standards either.

Best High-End Android Smartphones: Samsung Galaxy S7 edge and HTC 10

The Galaxy S7 edge improves upon the design and features of the popular Galaxy S6 edge. The design is very similar, but Samsung has tweaked the curvature of the back, edges, and cover glass to make the phone significantly more ergonomic. The chassis does get thicker and heavier, but this allows for a significant reduction to the camera hump and an increase in battery capacity.

Its 5.5-inch 2560×1440 SAMOLED display is among the best available. The 12MP rear camera with OIS and an f/1.7 aperture captures great pictures, especially in low-light, and the dual pixel PDAF is extremely fast. Battery life is pretty good thanks to a 3600mAh battery. The rest of its hardware and features are shared with the smaller Galaxy S7, including IP68 dust and water protection, fast charging, and wireless charging.

Depending on where you live you'll either get Qualcomm's Snapdragon 820 or Samsung's Exynos 8890 SoC, both of which use custom ARM CPU cores, along with 4GB of LPDDR4 RAM and either 32GB or 64GB of UFS 2.0 NAND with support for microSD cards. Performance is generally good, but the UI can stutter or stall occasionally.

The other phone worth discussing at the high end is the HTC 10, which manages to best the Galaxy S7 edge in at least a few areas. In terms of audio quality, design, OEM UI, and other areas like perceptual latency I would argue that HTC is just clearly ahead of Samsung. HTC also has proper USB 3.1 and USB-C support, which does make the device more future-proof than the Galaxy S7 edge’s microUSB connector in that regard. The front-facing camera is also just clearly better on the basis of having OIS and optics that can actually focus on a subject instead of being set to infinity at all times.

However, Samsung is clearly ahead in display and its camera is clearly the fastest I’ve ever seen in any phone, bar none. Samsung is also just clearly shipping better Wi-Fi implementations right now in terms of antenna sensitivity and software implementation, along with IP68 water resistance and magstripe payments for the US and South Korea.

To further muddy the waters, there are areas where HTC and Samsung trade blows. While Samsung’s camera is clearly faster, HTC often has better detail in their images, especially at the center of the frame, but the Galaxy S7 edge has better detail at the edge of the frame. Noise reduction tends to be a bit less heavy-handed and sharpening artifacts are not nearly as strong as they are on the S7 edge. HTC’s larger sensor also means that it’s possible to get actual dSLR-like bokeh with macro shots.

Overall, I think it’s pretty fair to say that the HTC 10 is a solid choice. If I had to pick between the two I would probably lean towards the HTC 10, but this is based upon personal priorities. I don’t think you can really go wrong between the two. The HTC 10 with 32GB of internal storage is currently $699 USD when bought unlocked through HTC and comes in Carbon Gray and Glacial Silver.

Best (Upper) Mid-Range Android Smartphone: OnePlus 3T

The OnePlus 3T is a mid-cycle update to the OnePlus 3 that launched last summer. The two phones are the same size and weight, have the same excellent build quality, use the same 5.5-inch 1080p AMOLED display, come with 6GB LPDDR4 RAM, and offer the same connectivity options, including 802.11ac Wi-Fi, BT 4.2, and NFC. They also share the same 16MP Sony IMX298 rear camera with PDAF and OIS, which is capable of taking decent photos.

For the 3T, OnePlus replaces the Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 SoC with the updated Snapdragon 821, although the actual performance gain is negligible. The switch to the F2FS filesystem significantly improves storage performance, and OnePlus adds an additional storage tier, providing a choice between 64GB or 128GB, which is good because the 3T does not support microSD cards. The other notable improvement is a 13% increase in battery size from 3000 mAh to 3400 mAh. The 64GB model costs $439, while the 128GB model costs $479.

The Motorola Moto Z Play Droid costs $408 (the unlocked version costs $450) and includes a nice display, a good camera, and a large, long-lasting battery—not to mention support for Moto Mods such as the Hasselblad True Zoom Mod—but its eight Cortex-A53 CPU cores and Adreno 506 GPU cannot offer the same level of performance as the OnePlus 3T’s Snapdragon 821 SoC. The Moto Z Play Droid also comes with less RAM (3GB), less internal storage (32GB), and lacks 802.11ac Wi-Fi. Its little brother, the Moto G4 Plus costs less than the OnePlus 3T—$299 for 4GB of RAM and 64GB of internal NAND—but again falls short of the OnePlus 3T’s overall user experience.

Huawei’s Honor 8 is another contender that costs about same as the OnePlus 3T ($400) and is available in the US and internationally. It also has a smaller 5.2-inch display, giving it a smaller footprint than the OnePlus 3T, although its heavily blue-tinted screen may turn some people off. General system performance is on par with the 3T, but its Mali-T880MP4 GPU cannot match the Adreno 530’s peak performance.

Best Budget Android Smartphone: Xiaomi Redmi Note 3 Pro

While the rest of the planet is awash with lower-cost phones containing decent hardware, it’s difficult to recommend a budget smartphone for the US market. Take the Xiaomi Redmi Note 3 Pro, for example. Its Snapdragon 650 SoC contains two high-performance Cortex-A72 CPU cores running at up to 1.8GHz and four Cortex-A53 cores at up to 1.4GHz, which easily outperforms the standard octa-core A53 SoCs common at this price point. Its performance is really quite remarkable, rivaling some upper mid-range and flagship devices. The Adreno 510 GPU supports the latest graphics APIs, including support for tessellation, and is fast enough to play most games currently available. Battery life is excellent too, thanks in part to a large 4050 mAh battery. There’s even an infrared blaster and support for 802.11ac Wi-Fi and FM radio.

Of course some sacrifices need to be made to reach such a low price. The Redmi Note 3 Pro’s weakest component is its 5.5-inch 1080p IPS display, whose poor black level and inaccurate white point and gamma calibration hurt image quality. The panel’s backlight does not fully cover the sRGB gamut, which further reduces color accuracy. While not perfect, it clearly moves the bar higher in this segment and raises our expectations for future lower-cost phones.

Unfortunately, the Redmi Note 3 Pro, like most phones made by Chinese OEMs, is not sold in the US and does not support the LTE frequencies used by US carriers. Because we have not been able to keep up with this category like we should, we have no budget recommendation for US consumers right now.