TR’s fall 2015 mobile staff picks

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Welcome to the October 2015 edition of The Tech Report’s mobile staff picks, where we recommend our favorite tablets, convertible PCs, laptops, and phones.

This time around, the biggest changes come from the phone arena. Since our last guide, Apple refined its iPhone 6 from top to bottom. The result of that work is the iPhone 6S (and its bigger-screened sibling, the iPhone 6S Plus). These refreshed iPhones get a blazing-fast A9 SoC, a new interaction method called 3D Touch, higher-resolution cameras, and a much-needed 2GB of RAM.

Google didn’t stand idle with its Nexus devices, either. After the coolly-received and expensive Nexus 6, the Nexus line-up has come roaring back with the affordable Nexus 5X by LG and the higher-end Nexus 6P by Huawei. Both of these phones wrap high-quality camera modules and stock Android 6.0 Marshmallow into appealing packages. Like other Nexus phones, the 5X and 6P also get a direct line from Google for Android software updates.

Nor has Samsung been twiddling its thumbs. After the introduction of its radically reimagined Galaxy S6 earlier in the year, the company gave the same metal-and-glass treatment to its iconic Galaxy Note, now in its fifth iteration. The Note 5 includes the same huge screen and S Pen we’ve come to expect from this flagship phablet in a sleeker body than its predecessors, and it appears to uphold the Galaxy Note’s reputation as a productivity powerhouse.

Last time we looked at laptops, Intel’s quad-core Broadwell CPUs were just starting to make their way into notebooks. Now, Skylake chips are the stars of the show. These sixth-generation Core processors come with improvements in integrated graphics and general performance, and manufacturers are updating their notebook lineups with these mobile CPUs as we write. Some of our notebook recommendations have already gotten these new chips, and we’ll call them out for easy reference.

Microsoft has also jumped into the high-end laptop market with its Surface Book. This 13″ Windows convertible packs Skylake Core i5 or i7 processors into a slim all-metal body along with a 3000×2000 3:2 display. The Book’s screen can detach entirely to become a tablet, and its innovative hinge lets the machine morph into a pen-friendly mode with a 180-degree flip of the screen. If that’s not fancy enough, buyers can add a discrete GeForce graphics chip for more pixel-pushing power. No, the Book isn’t cheap, but it’s not the average Windows notebook, either.

As with our main system guide, our staff picks update is sponsored by Newegg. We’ll be using links to their product pages throughout this guide when it’s possible. You can (and should) support our work by using these links to purchase the products we recommend. A big thanks to Newegg for their continued support. If Newegg doesn’t stock an item we want to recommend, however, we’ll link to other sources as needed.

If you like this article, don’t miss the rest of our guide series: our main System Guide, in which we detail the best PC components and explore some custom builds; our how-to-build-a-PC guide, where we walk folks through the PC assembly process; and our peripheral guide, where we pick the best monitors, mice, keyboards, and accessories to make your PC experience even better. 

Without any further ado, let’s get down to business.

Tablets

Product Specs Starting price

Asus ZenPad S 8.0 (Z580C)
Operating system: Android 5.0 with Asus ZenUI
Display: 8″ 2048×1536 IPS LCD
Processor: Intel Atom Z3530
RAM: 2GB
Storage: 32GB
Battery life: 8 hours
Connectivity: 802.11n, Bluetooth 4.1, GPS
Thickness: 0.27″
Weight: 0.7 lbs
$199.99

(32GB)


Dell Venue 8 7000
Operating system: Android 5.0.2
Display: 8.4″ 2560×1600
Processor: Intel Atom Z3580
RAM: 2GB
Storage: 16GB or 32GB
Battery life: 9.8 hours
Connectivity: 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0
Thickness: 0.24″
Weight: 0.67 lbs
$349.99

(16GB)


Apple iPad mini 4
Operating system: iOS 9
Display: 7.9″ 2048×1536
Processor: Apple A8
RAM: 2GB
Storage: 16GB, 64GB, or 128GB
Battery life: 10 hours (Wi-Fi), 9 hours (LTE)
Connectivity: 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.2 (LTE optional)
Thickness: 0.24″
Weight: 0.65 lbs
$399.99

(16GB, Wi-Fi)


Apple iPad Air 2
Operating system: iOS 8
Display: 9.7″ 2048×1536 (264 ppi)
Processor: Apple A8X
RAM: 2GB
Storage: 16GB, 64GB, or 128GB
Battery life: 10 hours (Wi-Fi), 9 hours (LTE)
Connectivity: 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0, LTE
Thickness: 0.24″
Weight: 0.96 lbs
$499.00

(16GB, Wi-Fi)

Asus ZenPad S 8.0 (Z580C)

Take a moment to mourn the Nexus 7, folks. We can’t responsibly recommend Asus’ cheap Nexus tablet anymore. Google has said it won’t be making any more updates for the mini-slate, and the hardware is getting up there in years. We’ve searched high and low for a device to take the Nexus 7’s place in our staff picks, and we think Asus’ own ZenPad S 8.0 is a good bet for $200. This tablet combines Intel’s Atom Z3530 SoC with 2GB of RAM, 32GB of onboard storage, and an 8″, 2048×1536 IPS LCD screen. The only fault with this ZenPad may be Asus’ overzealous modification of the stock Android experience with its “ZenUI” skin, but it’s hard to find an unbesmirched Android tablet in this price range these days.

If you want to step up to a beefier tablet without going all the way to Dell’s Venue 8 7000, Asus also offers a Z580CA model of the ZenPad S 8.0 with a faster Atom processor, 4GB of RAM, and 64GB of storage for $299.

Dell Venue 8 7000

Our high-end Android tablet pick remains Dell’s Venue 8 7000. We praised the Venue’s build quality, screen, battery life, and responsiveness in our review. Dell has since updated this super-slim slate to Android 5.0.2 Lollipop. Intel’s RealSense camera is just OK, but so are most tablets’ cameras, to be honest. Either way, the Venue 8 7000 provides a premium Android experience for a reasonable $350 with 16GB of onboard storage. The 32GB version is only available with a bundled keyboard cover now, and its price has jumped to $450 since our last guide. Both versions have a microSD slot for extra storage capacity.

iPad mini 4

At its most recent event, Apple gave the iPad mini 4 just a few seconds in the spotlight. That’s a shame, since this mini contains some of the most significant updates the smaller iPad has ever received. Compared to the lackluster iPad mini 3, this slate gets the A8 CPU from the iPhone 6, 2GB of RAM, and an improved screen with better coverage of the sRGB color gamut. That means it can take advantage of iOS 9 features that used to be exclusive to the iPad Air 2, like full split-screen multitasking.

If those upgraded specs aren’t convincing enough, Scott was so taken with the mini 4 when he first held it that he ended up buying one for himself. One caveat, though: skip the 16GB base model unless it’s all you can afford. It’s no use having a powerful tablet like this one if you don’t have any space for apps and media. $100 more for the 64GB model is a worthy upgrade.

iPad Air 2
Apple’s iPad Air 2 is the biggest and most powerful iOS device you can buy right now. We also think it’s the best high-end tablet out there, bar none. Between the slim body, the beautiful Retina display, the fast-acting Touch ID fingerprint sensor, and unparalleled app ecosystem, we think your dollars are best spent here if you’re shopping for a high-end slate. The Air 2 is among the more expensive tablets out there, starting at $500 for the 16GB version, but we think the premium is worth it. As with the iPad mini 4, though, skip the 16GB model and head on up to the 64GB version.

What about the iPad Pro and Google’s Pixel C tablet? These ultra-high-end devices are coming soon, but aside from some scattered hands-on experiences, reviewers haven’t been able to sink their teeth in just yet. Both devices seem more specialized than the average consumer tablet, as well, so we’ll hold off on a verdict until we know more.

 

Convertibles

Need a PC that can serve double duty as a notebook and a tablet? The burgeoning convertible market has you covered.

Product Specs Starting price
Asus Transformer Book T100HA Operating system: Windows 10 Home
Display: 10.1″ 1280×800
Processor: Intel Atom x5-Z8500
RAM: 4GB 
Storage: 64GB eMMC SSD, microSD slot
Battery life: 12 hours 
Connectivity: 802.11n, Bluetooth 4.0
Thickness: 0.72″ (tablet and dock)
Weight: 2.3lbs (tablet and dock)
$294.99

Microsoft Surface 3
Operating system: Windows 10 Home
Display: 10.8″ 1920×1280
Processor: Intel Atom x7-8700
RAM: 2GB or 4GB 
Storage: 64GB or 128GB SSD
Battery life: 10 hours 
Connectivity: 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0
Thickness: 0.34″
Weight: 1.4 lbs
$499.99

(64GB, 2GB RAM)


Asus Transformer Book T300 Chi
Operating system: Windows 8.1 (with free upgrade to Windows 10)
Display: 12.5″ 1920×1080
Processor: Intel Core M-5Y10
RAM: 4GB
Storage: 128GB SSD
Battery life: 8 hours
Connectivity: 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0
Thickness: 0.3″ (tablet mode), 0.65″ (docked)
Weight: 1.6 lbs (tablet mode), 3.2 lbs (docked)
$699.99


Microsoft Surface Pro 4
Operating system: Windows 10
Display: 12.3″ 2736×1824
Processor: Intel Core m3, i5, or i7 (Skylake)
RAM: 4GB, 8GB, or 16GB
Storage: 128GB, 256GB, 512GB, or 1TB + microSD slot
Battery life: 9 hours
Connectivity: 802.11n, Bluetooth 4.0
Thickness: 0.33″
Weight: 1.7 lbs
$899.00

(128GB SSD,

4GB RAM, Intel Core m3 CPU)

HP Spectre X360 Operating system: Windows 10 Home
Display: 13.3″ 1920×1080 (2560×1440 optional)
Processor: Intel Core i5-6200U, Core i7-6500U
RAM: 4GB or 8GB
Storage: 128GB, 256GB, or 512GB SSD
Battery life: 12 hours
Connectivity: 802.11ac, Bluetooth
Thickness: 0.63″
Weight: 1.6 lbs

$999.99

(Core i5 CPU, 256GB storage, 8GB RAM, 1080p screen)

Microsoft Surface Book Operating system: Windows 10 Pro
Display: 13.5″ 3000×2000
Processor: Intel Core i5 or Core i7 (Skylake)
RAM: 8GB or 16GB
Graphics: Nvidia discrete GPU, 1GB RAM (optional)
Storage: 128GB, 256GB, or 512GB SSD
Battery life: 12 hours
Connectivity: 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0
Thickness: 0.9″
Weight: 3.5 lbs
$1,499.99

(Intel Core i5 CPU, 8GB RAM, 128GB SSD, no discrete graphics)

Asus Transformer Book T100HA

For those who want an entry-level Windows tablet that can serve double duty as a laptop when needed, Asus’ Transformer Book T100HA looks like a good bet for just $295 or so. This convertible comes with a Cherry Trail Atom x5-Z8500 quad-core CPU, 4GB of RAM, and 64GB of onboard storage. The 10.1″, 1280×800 screen isn’t as high-density as the panels in some other tablets, but we like the 16:10 aspect ratio—and the affordable price tag.

Microsoft Surface 3
With its Surface 3, Microsoft sheds the hobbled Windows RT and ARM CPUs of the Surface and Surface 2 for full-fat Windows and an Intel Cherry Trail Atom CPU. This slate is a lot like a shrunken Surface Pro 4, and that’s a good thing. It inherits the 3:2 aspect ratio display from its larger, more powerful sibling, as well as the built-in pen digitizer. The Atom CPU isn’t going to break any speed records, but it should be more than adequate for most day-to-day work in Windows. Unfortunately, the $500 base price doesn’t include a Type Cover keyboard or Surface Pen–those are $130 and $50 extras, respectively.

Asus Transformer Book T300 Chi

One slightly frustrating fact of the convertible world is that the base price of many of these systems doesn’t include a keyboard dock. Not so with Asus’ Transformer Book T300 Chi. This Transformer offers Intel Core M power, a high-quality keyboard, and a gorgeous screen for only $700. You do give up the Surface 3’s pen digitizer in exchange for the more powerful CPU, but that’s probably a reasonable tradeoff for most. 

Microsoft Surface Pro 4

Alongside the debut of the Surface Book, Microsoft unveiled its Surface Pro 4 with Skylake CPUs, a higher-resolution “PixelSense” display with better touch and pen tracking, and a slightly-improved Type Cover keyboard with a better trackpad. The Pro 4 is a refinement of the Surface Pro 3, not a revolutionary update. If you’re already sold on the formula and haven’t bought in yet, though, this is the machine you’ll probably want. The base Surface Pro 4 starts at $899.99 with a Core m3 CPU, 4GB of RAM, and a 128GB SSD. Microsoft now throws in the Surface Pen for free, but buyers will still have to pick up the Type Cover for an extra $130.

HP Spectre X360

Don’t want a convertible machine with a detachable keyboard, but still want more flexibility than a traditional laptop offers? HP’s Spectre X360 could be just the ticket. This machine can convert from a regular laptop to “tent,” “stand,” and “tablet” modes. Reviewers praise this machine’s solid, all-aluminum body, gorgeous high-resolution screen, and lengthy battery life, so we think it’s a solid choice if the form factor appeals to you. HP offers a range of CPU, storage, and screen resolutions for the Spectre on its website, but the $1,149 Microsoft Store “Signature Edition” looks like the one we’d buy. This machine combines a Core i7-6500U CPU, a 256GB SSD, and the 1080p screen choices with an assurance of a pure Windows 10 install. If that’s too expensive, Best Buy has a version with the Core i5-6200U CPU for $200 less.

Microsoft Surface Book
Microsoft’s Surface Book is by far the biggest splash this segment of the mobile marketplace has seen in some time. It’s an unabashedly high-end convertible with a detachable screen, all-metal construction, Core i5 and i7 CPU options, and an optional GeForce discrete graphics card. The Book’s screen can pop off to enter what Microsoft calls “clipboard mode,” and an included Surface Pen lets owners sketch and take notes as they would on a Surface tablet. The screen can’t fold all the way over as it can on the Spectre X360 above, but it can be flipped around on the hinge to achieve similar positions.

Some early adopters are reporting issues like flickering screens with their Surface Books, but those problems appear to be software-related and could be smoothed out with time. Even so, we think the Surface Book is worth checking out if you’re in the market for a high-end Windows notebook that can do it all. The Surface Book starts at $1,499 with a Skylake Core i5 CPU, 8GB of RAM, a 128GB SSD, and no discrete graphics chip.

 

Laptops

Tablets and convertibles may be enticing for some, but others prefer a good old clam-shell laptop. If you’re among that number, we think these are the ones most worth your while.

Product Specs Starting price

Asus X551MAV
Display: 15.6″ 1366×768
Processor: Intel Celeron N2840
RAM: 4GB
Storage: 500GB mechanical hard drive 
Battery life: 4 hours
Connectivity: 802.11n
Thickness: 1.2″
Weight: 4.7 lbs
$249.99

Asus ZenBook UX305
Display: 13.3″ 1920×1080
Processor: Intel Core M-5Y10
RAM: 8GB
Storage: 256GB SSD 
Battery life: 8 hours
Connectivity: 802.11n, Bluetooth 4.0
Thickness: 0.5″
Weight: 2.6 lbs
$699.99

Dell XPS 13
Display: 13.3″ 1920×1080 or 3200×1800
Processor: Intel Core i3-5010U, i5-5200U, or i7-5500U
RAM: 8GB
Storage: 128GB or 256GB SSD
Battery life: 15 hours
Connectivity: 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0
Thickness: 0.6″
Weight: 2.6 lbs
$799.99

(Core i3 CPU,

128GB SSD,

1080p screen)

Dell XPS 15 Display: 15.6″ 1920×1080 (3840×2160 touch optional)
Processor: Intel Core i3 dual-core, Core i5 and i7 quad-core (Skylake)
RAM: 8GB or 16GB
Storage: 500GB or 1TB hard drive, 256GB or 512GB PCIe SSDs
Battery life: 17 hours
Connectivity: 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.1
Thickness: 0.66″
Weight: 3.9 lbs
$999.99

(Core i3 CPU, 8GB RAM, 500GB hard drive + 32GB SSD)


Apple MacBook
Display: 12″ 2304×1440
Processor: Intel Core M 
RAM: 8GB or 16GB
Storage: 256GB or 512GB PCIe SSD
Battery life: 9 hours
Connectivity: 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0
Thickness: 0.5″
Weight: 2 lbs

$1299.99

(256GB SSD,

1.1GHz CPU,

8GB RAM)


Apple MacBook Pro 13″
Display: 13.3″ 2560×1600
Processor: Intel Core i5 and i7 dual-core (Broadwell)
RAM: 8GB or 16GB
Storage: 128GB, 256GB, or 512GB PCIe SSDs
Battery life: 10 hours
Connectivity: 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0
Thickness: 0.7″
Weight: 3.5 lbs
$1299.99

(128GB SSD,

2.7GHZ CPU,

8GB RAM)

Asus X551MAV

For those with modest needs and modest means, the $250 Asus X551MAV looks like a good bet. This notebook comes with 500GB of mechanical storage, 4GB of RAM, and a Bay Trail Celeron N2840 CPU. The 1366×768 screen is a bit underwhelming, and you’re not going to be playing Crysis on this thing, but hey: it’s only $250, and you get full-fat Windows 8.1. Hard to argue with that value.

Asus ZenBook UX305
Asus’ ZenBook UX305 might be all of the computer most people ever need. It’s wafer-thin, it features a gorgeous 13.3,” 1080p screen, and it comes with 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD. With completely passive cooling, this system has no moving parts, much like a tablet. The all-aluminum body only weighs 2.6 pounds, too. Scott loves his UX305, and it’s pretty amazing that all of this Core M-powered goodness only rings in for $700.

Dell XPS 13
Dell’s XPS 13 has been making waves in the notebook market since its release, as well. Its signature feature is a nearly-borderless “infinity display” that packs a 13.3″ screen into a chassis that’s no bigger than many 11″ laptops. The XPS 13 can also be had in several configurations, packing 1080p or 3200×1800 displays and Broadwell Core i3 or Core i5 CPUs. If you want more room for customization than the ZenBook UX305 offers and don’t mind spending a bit more to get there, the XPS 13 seems like a fine pick at $800 and up.

Dell XPS 15

For those who need extra graphics power out of their Windows laptop, or just prefer bigger screens, Dell’s newly-updated XPS 15 looks like a good place to start. The company has updated this 15.6″ machine with the same ultra-thin bezel design as its 13″ counterpart, along with Intel’s Skylake CPUs. The base model starts at $999 with a Core i3-6100H processor, 8GB of RAM, and a 500GB hard drive. We’d step up to the $1,399 model with a Core i7-6700HQ quad-core CPU, 8GB of main memory, a GeForce GTX 960 graphics card with 2GB of RAM, and a 256GB PCIe SSD, though.

Apple MacBook

Readers, please put down your flamethrowers. We know Apple’s latest MacBook is polarizing. Hear us out. At only half an inch thick and a breath over two pounds, the MacBook is barely a tangible thing, yet Apple somehow managed to cram a 12″ Retina display (re-engineered to be thinner, brighter, and more efficient) and a full-sized keyboard in there. The Force Touch trackpad is slimmer than traditional clickpads, but feels a lot like one thanks to a clever electromagnetic haptic feedback system. Meanwhile, the system’s battery life stretches beyond eight hours, thanks in part to the display’s ability to let more light pass.

The MacBook’s Core M processors aren’t going to set any speed records, but they should be plenty of CPU for the average user. The one true pain point might be the lone USB-C port, which handles everything from charging to peripheral I/O to display output. That’s a nice vision for the future, but it does mean living in a dongle-filled present. Some folks may be willing to tolerate these limitations for a taste of tomorrow today. The new MacBook starts at $1300. 

Apple MacBook Pro 13″

If your computing needs include more demanding apps like Photoshop or Final Cut Pro, and you prefer OS X, the newest 13″ MacBook Pro makes the most sense to us. You get the same Force Touch trackpad as in the MacBook, a slightly bigger and higher-res Retina display, beefier dual-core Broadwell processors with Iris 6100 graphics, and more ports for $1300 and up. 

Gaming laptops

Here’s another case where you’ll need to hear us out. Yes, gaming laptops are still sort of a crazy idea, but not everybody interested in PC gaming wants to haul around a desktop and its associated peripherals. The world of PC gaming laptops just got to be more interesting now that some systems are available with Nvidia’s G-Sync variable-refresh-rate display technology. G-Sync can help provide buttery-smooth gameplay even on more thermally constrained mobile PCs.

No, these laptops won’t last anywhere near as long on a battery charge as saner notebooks, and they weigh several times as much. Those are tradeoffs that gamers on the go will have to accept.

Product Specs Starting price

Asus ROG G752
Display: 17.3″ 1920×1080
Processor: Intel Core i7-6700HQ
Graphics card: 3GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 970M 
RAM: 16GB
Storage: 1TB mechanical drive, 128GB SSD
Connectivity: 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0
Thickness: 1.5″
Weight: 8.8 lbs
$1,799.99

Aorus X5
Display: 15.6″ 2880×1620
Processor: Intel Core i7-5700HQ
Graphics cards: 2 x 4GB Nvidia GTX 965M in SLI
RAM: 16GB
Storage: 1TB mechanical drive, 512GB SSD
Connectivity: 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0
Thickness: 0.9″
Weight: 5.5 lbs

$2299.99

Asus ROG G752

If “big and bulky” isn’t a turn-off for you in a gaming notebook, we think Asus’ ROG G752 is worth a look. Asus’ past 17.3″ notebooks are well-liked for their solid builds and relatively quiet cooling systems, and the G752 looks to continue that trend. The G752 we’ve chosen pairs a 1080p G-Sync display with a GeForce GTX 970M graphics card with 3GB of RAM. Intel’s Core i7-6700HQ CPU, 16GB of RAM, and a 128GB SSD paired with a 1TB mechanical hard drive make this machine a true desktop replacement.

Aorus X5

For those with deeper wallets who also want a more compact machine, the G-Sync-enabled Aorus X5 (made by Gigabyte) might also be worth a look. This newcomer pulls out all of the stops: its 5.5-pound, 0.9″-thick body contains twin 4GB GTX 965M graphics cards in SLI driving a 15.6,” 2880×1620 IPS panel. The X5 features a Core i7-5700HQ CPU with 16GB of RAM. 512GB of solid-state storage and a 1TB hard drive round out this $2300 package.

A note on Chromebooks

No, we’re still not recommending Chromebooks. The prices may be tempting, but compared to the $250 Asus laptop with Windows we’ve selected, Chromebooks are more limited in pretty much every way. Unless you’ve carefully studied the restrictions of Chrome OS and concluded that it’s something you can live with, we would continue to steer clear.

 

Phones

Product Specs Starting price

Asus ZenFone 2
Operating system: Android 5.0 (Asus ZenUI)
Display: 5.5″ 1920×1080 IPS LCD
Processor: Intel Atom Z3560 or Z3580 SoC
RAM: 2GB or 4GB
Storage: 16GB or 32GB, microSD slot up to 64GB
Battery: 3,000mAh
Connectivity: LTE, 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0
Thickness: 0.43″
Weight: 6 oz
$199.99

(16GB)

Google Nexus 5X Operating system: Android 6.0
Display: 5.2″ 1920×1080 IPS LCD
Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 SoC
RAM: 2GB
Storage: 16GB or 32GB
Battery: 2,700mAh
Connectivity: LTE, 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.2
Thickness: 0.31″
Weight: 4.8 oz

$379.99

(32GB)

Google Nexus 6P Operating system: Android 6.0
Display: 5.7″ 2560×1440 AMOLED
Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 v2.1 SoC
RAM: 3GB
Storage: 32GB, 64GB, or 128GB
Battery: 3,450mAh
Connectivity: LTE, 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.2
Thickness: 0.29″
Weight: 6.28 oz
$499.99

(32GB)


Samsung Galaxy Note 5
Operating system: Android 5.1 (TouchWiz)
Display: 5.7″ 2560×1440 AMOLED
Processor: Samsung Exynos 7420 SoC
RAM: 4GB
Storage: 32GB or 64GB
Battery: 3,000mAh
Connectivity: LTE, 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.1
Thickness: 0.33″
Weight: 6.2 oz
Varies by carrier

Samsung Galaxy S6
Operating system: Android 5.0 (TouchWiz)
Display: 5.1″ 2560×1440 AMOLED
Processor: Samsung Exynos 8-core SoC
RAM: 3GB
Storage: 16GB or 32GB
Battery: 2,600mAh
Connectivity: LTE, 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.1
Thickness: 0.27″
Weight: 4.9 oz

Varies by carrier


Apple iPhone 6S and 6S Plus
Operating system: iOS 9
Display: 4.7″ 1334×750 (iPhone 6S), 5.5″ 1920×1080 (6S Plus)
Processor: Apple A9 SoC
RAM: 2GB
Storage: 16GB, 64GB, or 128GB
Connectivity: LTE, 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0
Thickness: 0.28” (iPhone 6S), 0.29″ (6S Plus)
Weight: 5.04oz (iPhone 6S), 6.77 oz (6 Plus)

iPhone 6S: $649.99

(16GB)

iPhone 6S Plus:

$749.99

(16GB)

Asus ZenFone 2

For a budget Android phone, we think it’s hard to argue with Asus’ ZenFone 2 right now. For $200 unlocked and off-contract, you get a quad-core Intel Atom Z3560 SoC, a 13MP camera with a dual-color flash, 2GB of RAM, and 16GB of internal storage, plus a microSD slot. Android 5.0 Lollipop runs the show (albeit under Asus’ ZenUI skin), and the action happens on a 5.5,” 1080p display.

If you need more power, it’s worth noting that Asus has a higher-specced ZenFone 2 for $299, too. This more powerful ZenFone 2 has an Atom Z3580 SoC, 4GB of RAM, and 32GB of storage onboard. It also comes with a fast charger that can return the phone to a 60% charge in about 40 minutes.

What about the wallet-friendly offerings from OnePlus? The company’s phones are certainly appealing and affordable, but it continues to insist on a frustrating invite-only purchasing system. If you’re happy to wait for your number to be called, we see no reason to avoid a OnePlus 2 or the just-announced OnePlus X, but the smartphone landscape has changed a lot since the OnePlus One first hit the scene. Similar phones can be purchased without tedium for not a lot more money, and we’re giving those devices the nod in our recommendations.

Google Nexus 5X

After last year’s huge, expensive, and not-well-liked Nexus 6, Google is taking the Nexus line-up back to its roots a bit with two phones: the midrange Nexus 5X and the higher-end Nexus 6P. The Nexus 5X, made by LG, is sort of a revival of the popular, affordable Nexus 5 from two years ago. Its 5.2″, 1080p display looks manageable for one-handed use, and it gets the same Sony-sourced 12.3MP camera module and f/2.0 lens as its more expensive stablemate. A high-quality fingerprint sensor and pure Android 6.0 Marshmallow round out the package.

This phone’s internals won’t win any spec wars, but specs aren’t its trump card. Instead, the Nexus 5X might be most desirable because of its direct line to Google for Android software updates and security patches. Google promises that it’ll make those updates available for at least two years of the device’s life. Given the recent spate of major Android vulnerabilities and the sluggish pace of updates from phone manufacturers, we think Android phone buyers should give the latest Nexus devices a long, hard look for that reason alone.

Google Nexus 6P
Google’s Nexus 6P, built by Huawei, is the high-end side of the Nexus coin this time around. The 6P offers a bigger screen with more pixels than the Nexus 5X, along with an all-metal body and faster components. The rear camera is the same unit as the Nexus 5X’s, but the 6P’s higher-resolution selfie shooter and bigger battery are perks the cheaper Nexus can’t match. Like the 5X, the 6P will receive software and security updates direct from Google for at least two years of its life.

Samsung Galaxy Note 5

Are you a scribbler, a doodler, or a note-taker? Samsung’s Galaxy Note 5 and its S Pen have you covered. The Note 5’s 5.7″, 2560×1440 screen is so good that the folks over at DisplayMate call it the best smartphone screen ever, and who are we to argue? An octa-core Exynos SoC with 4GB of RAM doesn’t hurt, either. To put that gorgeous screen to use, Samsung has thrown in some Note-specific apps and optimizations for its TouchWiz-skinned take on Android 5.1. Perhaps the neatest among those is the ability to pop out the pen and immediately begin writing on the Note’s screen without waking it up (ah, the wonders of OLED). Just don’t put the pen in backward, and life with the Note 5 should be dandy.

On the downside, Samsung’s Galaxy S6-esque redesign of the Note 5 means power-user-friendly features like interchangeable batteries and a microSD card slot are no more, but wireless charging support and fast charging from a socket or wireless base could make up for it. Check with your carrier for Note 5 pricing and availability.

Samsung Galaxy S6

We’d be remiss not to recommend the Galaxy S6, Samsung’s latest and greatest from its Galaxy S series of flagship handsets. The S6 marks a departure from Samsung’s past top-of-the-line phones. It trades a removable plastic back, user-replaceable battery, and microSD slot for a more iPhone-esque metal-and-glass construction, a permanent battery, and fixed internal storage. Android enthusiasts might not be pleased with these changes, but it’s hard to find a reviewer who doesn’t rave about the S6. Some have even given the edge to this phone’s updated camera in the ever-raging battle between the iPhone and everything else. As with the Note 5, Samsung sells a variety of Galaxy S6 models tailored to different carriers—check with your service provider to get the right phone.

While we’re on the topic of Samsung devices, you may have noted that we’re not recommending the Galaxy S6 Edge or Galaxy S6 Edge+. These devices’ screens curve away at the edges for some extra visual flair–and that’s about all they do, aside from a couple of novel Samsung Android widgets that take advantage of the design. If you’re really taken with the Edge look and don’t mind the extra cost, go for it, but we don’t think these devices are the best choice for most people.

Apple iPhone 6S and 6S Plus

Apple’s tagline for its iPhone 6S and 6S Plus—”the only thing that’s changed is everything”—might sound cheesy to some, but aside from a similar external design to the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, the company’s most recent iPhones really are different. Apple’s custom A9 SoC brings a nice performance bump over the already-speedy chips inside the iPhone 6, and the 2GB of RAM in the latest phones is a sorely needed improvement that we’ve wanted from our iOS devices for a long time.

Another 6S-exclusive feature is 3D Touch, a pressure-sensitive sensor layer beneath the screen that iOS 9 uses for some nifty tricks. Apple pushed the 6S’ camera to 12MP and added 4K video recording, as well. These additions might not compel iPhone 6 owners to upgrade, but if you’re in the market for a new iPhone, two TR staffers have already taken the plunge on the iPhone 6S Plus and like theirs a lot. Come on in—the water’s fine. As with other iOS devices, we’d suggest skipping the 16GB model, though.

What’s next

Before we wrap up this edition of our mobile staff picks, let’s take a look at what’s to come in the worlds of mobile hardware and software. 

Now that Intel’s Skylake CPUs are on the market, we’d expect to see these chips in more and more mobile systems over the coming months. Intel doesn’t seem poised to release a new CPU architecture for some time, so Skylake-based systems should be a safe bet for a long while yet.

Apple, Google, Samsung, and OnePlus have all held what we think will be their biggest marquee launch events for a while, so we should have a pretty good picture of what the phone landscape will look like for a few months, at least. At the component level, Qualcomm’s upcoming Snapdragon 820 SoC is an intriguing chip that could offer more compelling performance than the somewhat disappointing Snapdragon 810, but it’ll be some time before we see the 820 in shipping hardware. For now, it’s probably safe to pick a phone if you want to upgrade.

On the mobile software front, iOS 9, Android 6.0 Marshmallow, and Windows 10 are all available now. As with hardware, we don’t expect any big changes in the most popular mobile software platforms for a while, either. Android users may have to wait a while—or grab a Nexus device—to get Google’s latest and greatest, though.

With that, we bring this edition of the Mobile System Guide to a close. If you found one of our recommendations useful, please support our work by purchasing that item through our link to Newegg’s product page. You should also consider becoming a TR subscriber, if you haven’t already. Subscribers get exclusive perks, and your support allows us to continue producing time- and research-intensive pieces like this one.

Comments closed
    • tbone8ty
    • 4 years ago

    completely failed on the gaming laptop section…. not all of us can afford $1500 plus gaming laptops. MSI, Lenovo, and Acer all make great gaming laptops for under $1000. I’m sure there are a ton more options as well.

    here is a good example.

    [url<]http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=9SIA3FA3JN3125&cm_re=acer_gaming-_-34-315-129-_-Product[/url<]

    • NTMBK
    • 4 years ago

    Those phones are all enormous. 🙁 I miss sub-5″ phones. Original Moto G is the perfect size for a phone, I don’t want these phablets.

      • internetsandman
      • 4 years ago

      Unless you have tiny pockets, I don’t see the dislike towards large phones. I recently got a 5.5″ phone, and I couldn’t go back to anything smaller. The only complaint is the lack of one handed typing, and that’s solved with a third party keyboard anyway.

        • Chrispy_
        • 4 years ago

        If you put a phone in a back pocket there’s the risk you’ll sit on it and crack the screen.

        If you have jeans where the pockets are on the front of the thigh rather than the side, you don’t want a large phone as it’ll restrict your movement.

        For anything with front pockets accessed at the side rather the front like jeans, 6″ phones aren’t such a big problem, but like 98% of people in the western world wear jeans at some point, some of them more than any other garment.

          • rxc6
          • 4 years ago

          I am a short guy who wears jeans all the time and I never had issues with my Lumia 1520. Maybe it has something to do with my dislike of skinny jeans?

          • internetsandman
          • 4 years ago

          I wear jeans with front-accessed pockets, and they’re not loose either. Perhaps I’m an anomaly, but having my phone in my front pocket doesn’t cause any restriction or discomfort. The only problem I have is fishing my phone out of my pocket when I’m sitting down, but the same can be said of my music player which is probably half the size in both length and height.

    • internetsandman
    • 4 years ago

    Are those the only gaming laptops you’d recommend? What about those from the likes of MSI? Or other high end/boutique manufacturers?

    • Gippy
    • 4 years ago

    Really? Recommending a $250 Asus laptop? No computer without an SSD should be recommended these days. If you only have $250, save a few more bucks or buy used.

    • Chrispy_
    • 4 years ago

    No love for any of the cheaper Optimus laptops, Jeff?

    I’ve always thought expensive gaming laptops were insane, because their GPUs are often outdated in 18 months, yet the GPU is the only real advantage over a non-gaming laptop for half the price. Quite frankly, the difference between high and ultra is not worth having to pay double/triple for a laptop whilst simultaneously making the laptop undesirable for anything else because it’s too big and bulky for everyday travel.

    How about an option 1/2 to 1/3 of the cost of a gaming laptop, except that you can still run modern games at high detail settings, only you can justify upgrading them twice as often owing to the difference in price, and they’re “normal” enough to use as a regular laptop away from the mains socket and in places like, uh… your lap 🙂

    I’m not saying examples like [url=http://www.eurocom.com/ec/configure(1,335,0)ec<]this[/url<] or [url=http://www.pcspecialist.co.uk/notebooks/cosmosIII-15/<]this[/url<] should be TR recommendations but for me, these laptops comfortably support AAA gaming without being undesirable for every other purpose.

      • NoOne ButMe
      • 4 years ago

      Uh, the PCSPEIALIST, which is the only link that worked for me, is underpowered. A GTX 950m CAN be fast, but, that’s a DDR3 variant, you’re likely 20% slower than a 750.

      Dunno about the UK or Europe, but, in the USA, well. I can get a 980m laptop with a Haswell i7, so, a few hundred Mhz slower, for $1799 and that’s configured to a 1TB SSD. Or cut just under $300 to get the same specs, sans the CPU.

      To keep as Skylake + 970m, for 3 dollars more (that’s 1802 dollars) 512 mSATA SSD + 2TB main and even with a blu-ray player thrown in. Or you could cut over $300 off that price.

        • sweatshopking
        • 4 years ago

        eurocom’s m4 is 1100$ CAD (like 800USD) and has an 860m and quad core haswell. that’s almost half the price of the your build, but fast enough for any non-batman game on the market.

          • NoOne ButMe
          • 4 years ago

          I can buy a sub $800 i7+960m in the USA here also.

          Both are where I would say a gaming notebook can really “shine” as an actually semi-affordable portable gaming.

          • Chrispy_
          • 4 years ago

          Heh, and there’s nothing that’s fast enough for a batman game since even with a 980Ti SLI setup on the desktop it still runs badly 😉

    • dodozoid
    • 4 years ago

    no love for [s<]IBM[/s<]Lenovo Thinkpads?

      • BIF
      • 4 years ago

      Go “fish”.

        • dodozoid
        • 4 years ago

        Isn’t that idepad issue?
        ThinkPad division is pretty much separate from the consumer laptop part. Od was it affected aswell?

          • BIF
          • 4 years ago

          You ask a good question, which I don’t know the answer to (yet).

          But before I look it up, I ask you this: When it comes to corporate image and the market’s feeling of betrayal…does it REALLY matter? Do you REALLY think that people will keep buying gasoline Volkswagens when (so far as we know) only the diesel-powered models were gamed? I’m not planning to buy one anytime soon, that’s for sure.

          The Lenovo issue was not just a mere self-inflected flesh wound. I think it was a full-out shot in the foot, and will result in blood-loss for the whole body for quite some time. I’ve already mentioned it to a couple of friends who are in the market for new laptops. “Best to hold off on Lenovo/Volkswagen until we know how deep this really went.”

            • sweatshopking
            • 4 years ago

            Outside of the microsoft store (which wasn’t affected) i wouldn’t buy a lenovo machine.

            • bill94el
            • 4 years ago

            If I was in the market for a VW I’d want the one that was “gamed”. More power is a selling point.

            • BIF
            • 4 years ago

            Good point. Maybe I should have used “New Coke” as an example instead. 🙂

    • Ninjitsu
    • 4 years ago

    OnePlus 2, Moto G (3rd Gen), OnePlus X?

    And good call on the Surface Book without discrete graphics. BTW for ~$2300 I think you can get a version of the Asus RoG with 8GB+ RAM, and 970Ms or better.

    • NovusBogus
    • 4 years ago

    Thus far I’ve been pretty impressed with Skylake laptops. Better build quality and features (i.e. dGPU) across the board. Also, the i5-6300HQ brings the desktop’s sweet-spot 4/4 cores/threads combo to the mobile space. Still haven’t made my decision pending a refresh of HP/Dell/Lenovo business stuff but there’s already three strong contenders which is three more than there were six months ago.

    • JMccovery
    • 4 years ago

    Is it bad that after purchasing a $200 11″ Windows tablet, that no Android tablet or iPad at any price interests me? Having something that runs the same apps as a desktop/laptop can, and can be carried around is far more useful to me.

    What is the difference between Asus’ X551MA and X551MAV? The label on the bottom of my laptop says its a MA, but the MAV looks the same and has the exact same specs.

      • sweatshopking
      • 4 years ago

      WELCOME TO THE COLLECTIVE.

    • NoOne ButMe
    • 4 years ago

    Uh. Samsung’s phones recommended but no high end nice looking phones like the V10 from LG? Which, I’m convinced is currently the steal of the high end market. $600 from Tmobile with an extra battery and a 200GB micro SD card?

    Even normally, $600-700 (600/672/700 from Tmobile/Verizon/ATT) for a premium, high end, drop resistant phone with stock 64GB of storage and an SD card slot. And a removable battery.

    The note 5 for an extra $120+ dollars for a feature set that is at best equal for most people. If not worse. Or a “mere” extra $100 for half the storage and no mSD card slot.

    Everything else seems fine, I gotta look into a few products listed here myself, I would find a cheaper gaming laptop to recommend however. There’s a sweet spot of around 1100-1300 right now for 965m and 970m laptops. Having one you could recommend in that price range probably would help more people.

    • NTMBK
    • 4 years ago

    Thanks for the roundup, guys 😀 Who do we need to email at Dell/Microsoft to get them to send you a few review samples? I’d love to see some Inside the Second love for the convertibles- the cooling system makes a massive difference to gaming performance, but no-one who reviews these things seems to do any gaming testing beyond running 3DMark 🙁

      • rootheday3
      • 4 years ago

      Take a look at YouTube user josher14 – he has the new Surface Pro 4 (i5, HD 520 graphics) and has posted a bunch of videos of game play with frame rate, etc. No inside the second but better than 3dmark.

    • setbit
    • 4 years ago

    What, no love for Windows Phone options?

    I’m certain that TR has threes or even fours of readers just like myself who are dedicated to this platform.

    That’s more people than are committed to the platform working at Microsoft!

      • NoOne ButMe
      • 4 years ago

      Nothing that is shipping that you can buy from Microsoft now makes to much sense. I say that as someone who loves Windows Phone.

      Next Quarter or time when they roll one of these outs I expect either the 950 or 950xl to make it to the list.

        • sweatshopking
        • 4 years ago

        Expect them to make the list here? I doubt it.

          • NoOne ButMe
          • 4 years ago

          outside of stupidity in “Windows is bad” I fully expect the 950 to be on a number of lists with the caveat “if the applications you need are on Windows Phone or if you can port them yourself”.

          It offers very nice hardware, promise of good support and the ability to force updates without carriers getting in the way. It may even be the best camera in a phone for a time. I don’t include the 808/1020 because those cameras come with huge compromises.

      • Zizy
      • 4 years ago

      Uhm, what should they say? That you can buy 640, which is the only WP thingy on the market now that makes sense? There is nothing to select, compare, consider or anything. Want WP *now*? Get 640. Want WP flagship? Wait for 950.
      Want comparison with Android devices? Hardware is nice for the price (good build quality, camera, antennas, speakers etc, but merely OK SoC). Software is WP, which is between great and useless, depends on the user. Usually the whole spectrum at the same time.
      Should you get 640? Up to you. I will. I don’t trust Lenovo since fish and nothing else <200e from Android convinced me.

      Pointless to discuss WP really as the selection of devices is so slim. If you like WP, grab whatever device fits in your price range, you cannot choose. If you don’t like WP, well, don’t get WP then.

        • setbit
        • 4 years ago

        Yes, all us long-suffering fans of Windows Phone are [i<]painfully[/i<] aware that the device availability situation is a joke. That was kind of the point of my post. However, now that you mention it, I think "[b<]you can buy 640, which is the only WP thingy on the market now that makes sense[/b<]" would actually make a great addition to the recommended phone list. A no-contract Lumia 640 can be had for $60-$100. Add a MicroSD card, and it's easily the best entry level smartphone available (if you don't mind the uneven game selection).

    • mad_one
    • 4 years ago

    The Android device market has been frustrating for me recently. Apple does make nice hardware, but the iPhone 6s is still not very appealing (too large due to the typical large frame around the display) and I am not willing to spend 700+€ on a phone. Their tablets might be an option if the Pixel C doesn’t turn out all that great.

    The Z4 tablet looks pretty good as a 10″ Android tablet (which is what I want), it even has my preferred 16:10 display format (nicer for movies and streams, not as good for browsing), but it’s very pricey for what it offers.

    With phones I like compact devices, since I don’t browse on the phone very often and don’t actively use it for more than ~20 minutes a day, so something compact that’s easy to put in your pocket is a better tradeoff (and nicer to use in many situations, though definitely worse in others).

    I still don’t want to wait a minute every time I go to another app, so I want at least mid range specs. The only devices on the market that fit the bill are the Z3 and Z5 compact series from Sony and both have a very bad reputation for quality (though the Z3 has a great reputation in other regards).

    The Galaxy Alpha did not get a successor and is disappearing from the channel.

    Guess I’ll keep using the S4 mini with a flaky modem (crashes pretty often when browsing on 3G) until it falls apart.

      • weaktoss
      • 4 years ago

      I’m on the Z3 compact myself. What reports of bad quality are you referring to? I’ve heard about the back glass cracking, but that’s about it.

        • mad_one
        • 4 years ago

        Yes, for the Z3 compact it’s almost always the back glass. It seems to be fairly frequent, accounting for a third of the reviews on German Amazon. People are still buying it, but only with insurance. That alone shows how much people want a phone like that. The S4 mini was also wildly popular.

        Seems to be a great phone otherwise, at a very fair price (though insurance will eat into that). Had any problems with it?

        Have not heard reports of that problem on the Z5 compact, but they seem to struggle with the Snapdragon 810 and misaligned camera lenses.

          • weaktoss
          • 4 years ago

          Had it about 6 months and no major complaints yet. Slapped a vinyl skin on the back as soon as I got it, so ignorance is bliss as far as the back glass cracking. There’s a sizable amount of bloatware, but one pass through uninstalling and disabling the cruft left the phone in a reasonable state. Sony’s software update cadence hasn’t been too horrible relative to some others, and the battery life far outstrips anything I’ve had in the last 5 years.

          So on the whole I’ve been quite satisfied. If I were in need of a new handset the Z5C would definitely be up for consideration.

      • NoOne ButMe
      • 4 years ago

      The iPhone 5S is still competitive in terms of performance excluding anything beyond basic multitasking.

      It’s also quite fluid to move inbetween applications, sadly, this is partially thanks to being aggressive about kicking things out of RAM.

      It should have solid support up until at least the iPhone after next.

        • mad_one
        • 4 years ago

        I really liked the design and form factor on that one, though I agree with Apple that the current display sizes are a better choice for the general market.

        But if I buy a new phone, I do want it to be a significant upgrade and the 5S would only be a small upgrade (much better camera though and you can’t underestimate a modem that actually works).

        In terms of price performance the 6s is simply better, because it’s going to last much longer. Still too expensive, despite Apple’s good software support (I’m not holding my breath for Android to ever get there except for Nexus devices).

          • NoOne ButMe
          • 4 years ago

          Dunno where you live, but, you can pick up a used good-or-better condition 5s for under $300, under 250 if you are willing to fall more onto the “good”.

          If you need a replacement that will be fast a 5C used also runs like 120-150 USD for good condition. Just to use until hopefully a real good small phone comes out.

            • mad_one
            • 4 years ago

            I guess I should convince my sister’s husband to buy a 6s, so I can buy his used 5 and try out the dark side*.

            *) Choosing a dark side from Apple, Google and Microsoft is pretty arbitrary

            • NoOne ButMe
            • 4 years ago

            All the sides are pretty much the same. I personally have ended up prefering the “closed” OSes mostly because Android lets the carriers walk over almost all the devices in the wild. I’ve also not had an Android phone can be rooted, but, that probably would help my opinion.

            You can always try to see if the Android phone you get an install Jolla as the OS! 🙂

    • lezmaka
    • 4 years ago

    I thought Surface 3 being an Atom based system used eMMC not an actual SSD?

    • MarkG509
    • 4 years ago

    I’m writing Santa a note trying to convince him that I’ve been good enough this year to deserve a stuffed XPS 15 Developer Edition for Christmas.

    • Peldor
    • 4 years ago

    Anyone here actually use the ZenPad S for a while?

    I have ASUS’ older Atom-powered Transformer Pad TF103c and it is by far the least reliable Android device I’ve used. Crashes often. Touchscreen gets unresponsive. Generally awful even for light use. OTOH, their very similar TF100 Windows convertible has been very good to me. Which way does teh ZenPad go?

    • sweatshopking
    • 4 years ago

    You made microsoft sad by putting the surface book in the convertibles rather than the laptop section.

      • derFunkenstein
      • 4 years ago

      Maybe they should have made a laptop instead of a convertible.

        • sweatshopking
        • 4 years ago

        WHO’S TEAM ARE YOU ON? YOUVE CHANGED, MAN. 😉

          • derFunkenstein
          • 4 years ago

          I’m on Team Ben. Every man for himself! AAAAAHH

        • rxc6
        • 4 years ago

        But they did… they made the ultimate laptop!!! 😛

      • the
      • 4 years ago

      Not as sad as Intel, HP and Dell as it took a primarily software company to show the hardware makers how to build a modern portable.

      • NoOne ButMe
      • 4 years ago

      But, it’s a convertible… The screen detaches… Even if that’s not what it’s selling point is based on, it is a convertible.

      • Zizy
      • 4 years ago

      MS made everyone sad by making a convertible which is better laptop than most (perhaps even all?) laptops.

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