The Tech Report’s summer 2016 mobile staff picks

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Welcome to the July 2016 edition of The Tech Report’s mobile staff picks, where we recommend our favorite tablets, convertible PCs, laptops, and phones.

In the time since our last mobile staff picks, Samsung has updated its flagship Galaxy S phones for the seventh time. The Galaxy S7 and S7 edge feature Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon 820 high-end SoC in the USA, and they bring back the microSD slots and water-resistant features that many folks missed in the Galaxy S6. Those changes have rekindled competition at the top end of the Android handset market, where Google’s Nexus phones and high-end devices from HTC and LG also play.

We’re recommending a couple of Chromebooks for the first time in this round of staff picks, to. Our recent experience with Asus’ Chromebook Flip has shown us that Chrome OS is fast, stable, and plenty capable even on low-end hardware. Chrome OS will soon be getting even more useful with Google’s Play Store and its attendant raft of Android apps, though not all Chromebooks are guaranteed to get access to the Play Store. Regardless, we’ve picked out a couple Chromebooks that look appealing.

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. 

Like the rest of our guides, our mobile staff picks are sponsored by Newegg. We’ll be using links to Newegg product pages throughout this guide. You can (and should!) support our work by using these links to purchase the products we recommend. If Newegg doesn’t stock an item we want to recommend, however, we’ll link to other resellers as needed. Despite its sponsorship, Newegg exercises no control over the products that appear in this article. Our picks are entirely our own.

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

Tablets

Product Specs Starting price

Nvidia Shield Tablet K1
Operating system: Android 6.0
Display: 8″ 1920×1200 IPS LCD
Processor: Nvidia Tegra K1
RAM: 2GB
Storage: 16GB with microSD slot
Battery life: ~7 hours
Connectivity: 802.11n, Bluetooth 4.0, GPS
Thickness: 0.27″
Weight: 0.7 lbs
$199.99

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
Thickness: 0.24″
Weight: 0.65 lbs
$399.99

(16GB, Wi-Fi)


Apple iPad Air 2
Operating system: iOS 9
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
$399.00

(16GB, Wi-Fi)


Apple iPad Pro 9.7″
Operating system: iOS 9
Display: Wide-gamut 9.7″ 2048×1536 (264 ppi)
Processor: Apple A9X
RAM: 2GB
Storage: 32GB, 128GB, or 256GB
Battery life: 10 hours (Wi-Fi), 9 hours (LTE)
Connectivity: 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.2, LTE
Thickness: 0.24″
Weight: 0.96 lbs

$599.99

(32GB, Wi-Fi)

Nvidia Shield Tablet K1

If you’ve gotta have an affordable Android tablet, we think one could do far worse than Nvidia’s Shield Tablet K1. This slate wraps the internals of the original Shield Tablet inside a slightly restyled frame for less money. That’s a winning formula for a device with a serious SoC and a gaming software ecosystem to match. The Tegra K1 chip remains competitive in the graphics department, and buyers will find plenty to run on it thanks to Nvidia’s GeForce Now service and a wide variety of curated Android games. The Shield is also a great choice for a tablet thanks to its largely unmolested Android installation, which Nvidia regularly updates to keep pace with Google’s upstream developments. All of those things are quite nice to get in a device that’s just $200.

We would normally recommend a higher-end Android tablet here, but the sad truth is that the Android tablet market—and the tablet market in general—has been declining over the past few months. Even Apple’s iPad has posted multiple quarters of double-digit year-on-year sales drops. Thanks to those unfavorable market conditions, Dell has discontinued its Venue 8 7000 tablet, and we’re left wanting for a device that can fill its spot in our picks.

The reason we’re not looking too hard to fill this space is that Android apps barely do anything special on tablets anymore, as we understand it, so users just end up looking at blown-up phone apps most of the time. Honestly, if you need a high-end tablet, Apple’s iPads seem like better buys to us than most anything in the Android space unless you’re already heavily invested in Google’s ecosystem.

iPad mini 4
Apple’s iPad mini 4 remains our entry-level iPad pick. 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, one TR staffer 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 has been superseded by the iPad Pro at the top of Apple’s tablet lineup, but we still think it’s a good high-end tablet pick. Between the slim body, the beautiful Retina display, the fast-acting Touch ID fingerprint sensor, and Apple’s unparalleled app ecosystem, we think your dollars are best spent here if you’re shopping for a high-end slate. Since our last staff picks, Apple dropped the price on the Air 2 to $499 for the 64GB version, making it an easy recommendation. Skip the 16GB base model—the limited storage space in that model makes it a poor deal.

Some people are increasingly able to do most of their work on an iPad rather than a traditional PC. For demanding folks who fancy an iPad as their sole computing device, the iPad Pro is built around Apple’s most powerful SoC right now: the A9X. The 9.7″ version of this tablet also has a wide-gamut screen and the same excellent camera as the iPhone 6S. Folks who want the largest possible canvas for iOS can step up to the 12.9″ iPad Pro, but that move comes with a slightly worse camera and a less-colorful screen. Both Pros support Apple’s Pencil for sketching and drawing, along with the Smart Cover keyboard. Unless you need those specific features or you’re super gung-ho about putting as much power behind iOS as possible, though, the iPad Air 2 is probably a saner choice.

Chromebooks

We’ve long warned against PCs running Google’s Chrome OS in our mobile staff picks, but we recently spent some time with Asus’ Chromebook Flip and came away impressed with what the cloud-centric platform can do. Unless you need Windows in a truly low-end machine (that is, sub-$350 territory) for some reason, we think Chromebooks can serve as a great way to do basic computing tasks on an inexpensive PC that doesn’t require a lot of care and feeding.

Product Specs Starting price

Asus Chromebook Flip
Operating system: Google Chrome OS
Display: 10.1″ 1280×800 IPS LCD
Processor: Rockchip 3288C SoC
RAM: 4GB
Storage: 16GB eMMC
Battery life: 9 hours
Connectivity: 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0
Thickness: 0.6″
Weight: 2 lbs
$265.00

Acer Chromebook 15 C910-C37P
Operating system: Google Chrome OS
Display: 15.6″ 1920×1080 IPS LCD
Processor: Intel Celeron 3205U
RAM: 4GB
Storage: 32GB SSD
Battery life: 8 hours
Connectivity: 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0
Thickness: 1″
Weight: 4.9 lbs
$343.00

Asus Chromebook Flip
Asus’ Chromebook Flip is a surprisingly capable PC for less than $300. It’s got an all-aluminum body, a great keyboard, and a handy screen hinge that lets the machine morph into a tablet or two different “stand” modes. If you’re willing to live on the bleeding edge of Chrome OS’ capabilities, the Flip is among the first systems to get access to the Google Play store, too. The machine has a relatively pokey Rockchip ARM SoC inside, but we never felt terribly held back by it. Just make sure to get the version with 4GB of RAM. 

Acer Chromebook 15 C910-C37P

If you want some more oomph behind Chrome OS, Acer’s Chromebook 15 C910-C37P trades an ARM SoC for a more powerful Broadwell Celeron 3205U CPU from Intel. This Chromebook also offers a 15.6″, 1920×1080 screen, 4GB of RAM, and 32GB of onboard storage, all relatively serious specs for a Chrome OS machine. Google has indicated that the Chromebook C910 family will get access to the Google Play store eventually, as well. This PC’s $343 price tag is about as much as we’d want to spend on a Chromebook before moving up to a Windows machine. If you’re interested in a budget Windows laptop, skip ahead to our section on those PCs.

 

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 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: 802.11ac, 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

$1149.99

(Core i7 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 Pro 4
Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4 refines the company’s do-it-all tablet formula 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 $1,160 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.

Microsoft Surface Book
Microsoft’s Surface Book is 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, but it can be flipped around on the hinge to achieve similar positions.

Since we last wrote about it, Microsoft has issued a number of firmware and driver updates for the Surface Book meant to smooth out a wide range of minor issues with the hardware that arose after its launch. 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 clamshell laptop. If you’re among that number, we think these are the ones most worth your while.

Product Specs Starting price

Acer Aspire E 15 (E5-574G-54Y2)
Display: 15.6″ 1920×1080
Processor: Intel Core i5-6200U
RAM: 8GB
GPU: Nvidia GeForce 940M
Storage: 1TB hard drive
Battery life: 6 hours
Connectivity: 802.11ac with MU-MIMO, Bluetooth 4.0
Thickness: 1.2″
Weight: 5.3 lbs

$479.99

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)


HP Spectre
Display: 13.3″ 1920×1080 IPS
Processor: Intel Core i5 or Core i7 dual-core (Skylake)
RAM: 8GB
Storage: 256GB or 512GB PCIe SSD
Battery life: 9 hours, 45 minutes
Connectivity: 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.2
Thickness: 0.5″
Weight: 2.5 lbs
$1169.99

(Core i5 CPU, 256GB SSD,

8GB RAM)


Apple MacBook
Display: 12″ 2304×1440
Processor: Intel Core M (Skylake)
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)

Acer Aspire E 15 (E5-574G-54Y2)

Acer’s Aspire E 15 kicks off our traditional laptop picks at the budget end. Despite its low price, this machine doesn’t have any lines on its spec sheet that make us blanch. It offers a 1920×1080 display powered by a GeForce 940M discrete graphics processor, a chip that might even allow some recent titles to run with reasonable frame rates at low settings. The E 15’s Core i5-6200U CPU should offer plenty of grunt in productivity tasks, too. 8GB of RAM and a 1TB hard drive seem perfect in a machine at this price point.

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. Asus updated this machine with Skylake Core M CPUs a while back, but even with that upgrade, the UX305 still rings in for just $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 XPS 15 looks like a good place to start. The company has updated this 15.6″ machine with the ultra-thin display bezel from 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.

HP Spectre

The thinness wars continue in all corners of mobile computing hardware, and HP’s Spectre is one of the most extreme salvos yet. This 13.3″ machine is only 0.4″ (10.4 mm) thick, but what it lacks in heft is made up for by the punchy looks of its black-and-gold exterior. Despite the ultra-thin chassis, HP stuffs full-fat Core i5-6200U or Core i7-6500U CPUs inside, along with speedy NVMe SSDs. This machine is also ready for next-generation peripherals thanks to a trio of USB Type-C ports, two of which support Thunderbolt 3 and USB 3.1 Gen2 transfer speeds. If you want a fashionable machine with high performance to match, the Spectre appears to be the way to go in Windows notebooks right now.

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 through its pixel matrix.

The MacBook now uses Skylake Core M CPUs. They still 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: Wait and see

Although we’ve tested and enjoyed several gaming laptops over the past couple months, it’s not a good time to purchase one of these expensive, hard-to-upgrade machines. Several companies strongly hinted that their future products will be shipping with as-yet-unannounced Nvidia Pascal mobile graphics chips at this year’s Computex, and we know those chips offer a level of performance above and beyond anything that’s come before in their high-end desktop configurations.

Our best guess is that Nvidia will try to have these chips on the market before the USA back-to-school season really takes off toward the end of August, so unless you need a high-end mobile gaming rig for some major emergency, we’d sit tight and see what the rest of the summer brings. It’s also possible that AMD’s Polaris GPUs will begin making their way into low- and mid-range gaming notebooks around the same time, so even if your budget doesn’t stretch to the $1500-and-up price brackets that powerful gaming notebooks typically inhabit, it may turn out that a new category of affordable mobile gaming machines is about to emerge. Whatever the future may hold, we think waiting is the best option.

 

Phones

Product Specs Starting price

Huawei Honor 5X
Operating system: Android 5.1.1 with EMUI skin
Display: 5.5″ 1920×1080 IPS LCD
Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 616 SoC
RAM: 2GB
Storage: 16GB  (with microSD slot)
Battery: 3,000mAh
Connectivity: LTE, 802.11n, Bluetooth 4.2
Thickness: 0.32″
Weight: 4.8 oz
$194.99

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)


OnePlus 3
Operating system: Android 6.0 (with OxygenOS skin)
Display: 5.5″ 1920×1080 Optic AMOLED
Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 820
RAM: 6GB
Storage: 64GB
Battery: 3,000mAh
Connectivity: LTE, 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.2
Thickness: 0.28″
Weight: 5.6 oz
$399.99

(64GB)


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 with TouchWiz skin
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

$629.99

(unlocked, 32GB, GSM)


Samsung Galaxy S7
Operating system: Android 6.0 with TouchWiz skin
Display: 5.1″ 2560×1440 AMOLED
Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 (USA)
RAM: 4GB
Storage: 32GB (with microSD slot)
Battery: 3,000mAh
Connectivity: LTE, 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.2
Thickness: 0.31″
Weight: 5.4 oz
Galaxy S7:
$669.99 (unlocked, 32GB, GSM)

Galaxy S7 edge: $749.99

(unlocked, 32GB, GSM)

 


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
Battery: 1715mAh (iPhone 6S), 2750mAh (6S Plus)
Connectivity: LTE, 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0
Thickness: 0.28” (iPhone 6S), 0.29″ (6S Plus)
Weight: 5.04oz (iPhone 6S), 6.77 oz (6S Plus)

iPhone 6S: $649.99

(16GB)

iPhone 6S Plus:
$749.99

(16GB)

Huawei Honor 5X

Asus’ Zenfone 2 is no more, so Huawei’s Honor 5X is taking over the budget phone spot in our picks—not that you’d know it was a budget phone by looking at it. Huawei clads this phone’s Qualcomm Snapdragon 616-powered internals in an aluminum shell with a rear-mounted fingerprint sensor. A 5.5″, 1080p IPS display and a 13MP rear camera are both appealing things to find in a phone this cheap, as well. This phone does come with Huawei’s extensively-customized EMUI 3.1 skin on top of Android 5.1.1, but we think it’s probably going to be pretty hard to find a phone in this price range without some kind of custom Android distribution.

Google Nexus 5X

Since our last mobile picks, Google’s Nexus lineup has soldiered on 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 years past. 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.

OnePlus 3

Flagship slayer OnePlus is back with its third take on an affordable yet high-end phone. Like past OnePluses, the OnePlus 3 has internals as powerful as any you’ll find in much more expensive devices these days. Qualcomm’s highest-end Snapdragon 820 SoC, 6GB of RAM, and 64GB of storage cover the basics. A 16MP rear camera with optical and electronic image stabilization, plus full manual control and raw shooting, should let even the most demanding mobile shutterbugs get the shot they want. OnePlus does load the 3 with its own version of Android 6.0, called OxygenOS, but the company’s changes to the base experience seem to be minimal.

Reviewers who have gotten their hands on a OnePlus 3 have just one major complaint. The phone’s AMOLED display targets the uncommon NTSC color gamut out of the box, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of content is made with sRGB in mind. A recent OnePlus software update adds an sRGB mode to the phone’s display options, and we would strongly encourage enabling this mode as soon as you turn on your OnePlus 3.

The best thing about the OnePlus 3 may be that customers can simply hand OnePlus $399 and receive a phone in return. The loathsome invite system that the company used to rely on to sell its devices is no more, and we hope that’s a permanent change.

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 called 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 S7 and S7 edge

The Galaxy S series has been the king of the hill in Android smartphones for as long as we can remember, and the seventh iteration of these phones isn’t letting go of that position. Samsung’s latest update to its flagships brings back some features that went missing on the Galaxy S6, like a microSD slot and water-resistant innards. Users still can’t replace the battery on these devices, but quick-charging and wireless charging support

While those changes are sure to be the most welcome for Android diehards, Samsung completely refreshed the insides of its flagships to keep up with the spec sheet wars, too. Each Galaxy S7 model (in the USA, at least) is powered by Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon 820 high-end SoC, and that chip is paired with 4GB of RAM. The rear camera drops back to 12MP, but it features a full-sensor phase-detection autofocus array and a fast f/1.7 lens for high performance in low light.

Whether you prefer the slab-fronted Galaxy S7 or the curvier Galaxy S7 edge, we’re recommending unlocked GSM versions instead of carrier-locked phones. These unlocked handsets don’t come loaded down with annoying carrier bloatware, and it’s possible that they’ll have a quicker path to Android updates than locked devices. If you’re a Verizon subscriber in the USA, though, it appears you’ll still need to work with your carrier to get an S7.

Apple iPhone 6S and 6S Plus

Apple’s introductory tagline for its iPhone 6S and 6S Plus—”the only thing that’s changed is everything”—might sound cheesy, but aside from a similar external design to the prior 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 chip 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 capabilities with 12MP still shooting and 4K video recording, as well. These changes might not compel iPhone 6 owners to upgrade, but if you’re in the market for a new iPhone, TR staffers who have moved up from older devices to the latest hotness love their 6Ses. Come on in—the water’s fine. The biggest choice to make is whether to go for the hand-friendly 4.7″ iPhone 6S or the 5.5″ iPhone 6S Plus. As with other iOS devices, we’d suggest skipping the 16GB versions of each 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. 

Intel’s Skylake mobile CPUs have more or less taken over the mobile CPU market outside of the cheapest laptops around. The third generation of CPUs built on the company’s 14-nm process, Kaby Lake, is supposed to begin arriving later this year. We don’t expect revolutionary performance increases from this generation of products, so Skylake-powered systems are still a safe bet for the moment.

New mobile graphics chips from AMD and Nvidia are on their way, judging by the rumor mill and our conversations with hardware manufacturers. As we’ve already noted, we think anybody interested in a gaming laptop right now would be best served by waiting a month or two and seeing what the move to next-generation silicon process nodes brings for mobile GPUs.

Samsung and OnePlus have both introduced new high-end phones in the recent past, but we’re nearing the end of a refresh cycle for Apple’s iPhones and Google’s Nexus phones. If you need a new iPhone today, the iPhone 6S family is still excellent, but keep in mind that Apple will likely introduce a refreshed hardware lineup in the next couple of months. Google’s Nexus refresh tends to take place around September, as well.

Mobile operating system updates don’t tend to sell phones one way or another except to those already invested in a particular ecosystem, but iOS 10 and Android 7.0 Nougat will both be hitting the airwaves soon. Neither release should herald major changes for either platform, but you can run through Apple’s iOS 10 preview and Google’s Android Nougat guide to see what’s coming. Android users that want the quickest access to Android N should grab a Nexus device, though.

With that, we bring this edition of our mobile staff picks 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. Enjoy your new laptop, phone, or tablet, and thanks for your support.

Comments closed
    • richardjhonson
    • 3 years ago
    • ronch
    • 3 years ago

    In my experience, a lot of companies can put glass, metal and plastic together but few can really write robust code that doesn’t break when the going gets tough. So hopefully all the devices listed here are really robust, and not just hype or flashy packaging or paper specs.

    • NTMBK
    • 3 years ago

    [quote<][b<]Apple MacBook[/b<] Readers, please put down your flamethrowers. We know Apple's latest MacBook is polarizing. Hear us out. [/quote<] *patiently puts down flamethrower* *reads paragraph* *picks flamethrower back up* It's an underpowered, dongletastic mess, which is slower than most people's previous laptop.

      • tipoo
      • 3 years ago

      I’d push nearly everyone to the 13″ Pro, the extra pound shouldn’t even be noticeable unless you have a terrible disease. Similar cost when spec matched, more ports, more performance, same great Retina taste. And a keyboard that feels less like slapping your fingers on a wood desk. Maybe I’m biased; you’ll take my 15″ from my cold dead hands, and I lugged a 6 pound Dell Studio 1555 and pound charger to university every day for 4 years on my back…

      Anyways, The Air, I want to like, but I can’t fathom recommending a 1440×900 TN in 2016, for over a grand no less. Even macOS has gotten less optimized for non-retina in font choices.

        • BIF
        • 3 years ago

        Still underpowerd and dongletastic. You couldn’t pay me to take a tiny screen.

          • DancinJack
          • 3 years ago

          Just because not everyone needs a 17″, eight pound behemoth doesn’t mean the 13″ MBP is underpowered and dongletastic.

            • BIF
            • 3 years ago

            That’s what the MBA is for.

            I’m referring to the laptops and desktops that are ostensibly for people who do need MORE.

            These “so called “power machines” really do need more peripherals attached just to be decently powered and have fair disk capacity.

            Tim Cook owes us all an explanation about why he hates us so much.

          • tipoo
          • 3 years ago

          I’d want three myself, but two USB 3.0 ports, HDMI, SD, and the microphone jack alone are likely enough to prevent dongle hell for the vast majority of people, unless it’s a work laptop somewhere that still uses VGA or DVI or something. Ethernet hasn’t been a concern for me personally in my year with the 15″.

          Even if you use all those things, it’s *less* dongle hell than the 12″ at least.

      • BIF
      • 3 years ago

      “It’s an underpowered, dongletastic mess, which is slower than most people’s previous laptop.”

      ^this!

        • travbrad
        • 3 years ago

        but it has an Apple logo on it. Isn’t that what really matters?

    • brucethemoose
    • 3 years ago

    What, no HTC 10?

    Sure, it’s not waterproof like the S7, and the screen isn’t quite as good. But it has a much better sound system, and more importantly, Sense is 100x better than TouchWiz.

    • Duct Tape Dude
    • 3 years ago

    Sad to see that no Android phones with <5″ screens are worth recommending. Every small phone appears to be heavily nerfed with the exception of the iPhone SE.

      • nerdrage
      • 3 years ago

      The upcoming 2016 Nexus will purportedly be available with a 5.0″ screen. Not my ideal 4.7/4.8″, but close enough to be tolerable, and the rumored specs seem good. It’ll be my next phone if the rumors are true.

    • EzioAs
    • 3 years ago

    That Acer laptop seems really really nice considering its price. Sure wish I noticed it when I was searching for a laptop.

      • w76
      • 3 years ago

      No. Friends don’t let friends be “penny wise, pound foolish” with Acer. Whatever you got, unless it was a no-name Chinese mystery box off Alibaba, is probably higher quality. Not just my word on it, I believe Consumer Reports found them among the least reliable if I recall that right based on surveys of owners.

        • EzioAs
        • 3 years ago

        I’ve only bought two laptops over the course of my life and both of them are Acer’s. The first (old) one clearly had a pretty low build quality, with the poor keyboard and the terrible speakers. The second one, the one I’m using now has a much better body and more robust keyboard.

        I’ll be honest, when I was looking for a laptop this year, I wanted to avoid Acer because of my experience. However, after considering the fact that most laptops in the price range aren’t really that much better regardless of manufacturer, I went with Acer again. I mean, I’ve looked at Lenovo, Asus and HP and none of them seem more reliable than what Acer has. As far as I can tell, Lenovo laptops have the worst build quality (though they do come with better spec) , Asus has pretty terrible service (based on a couple of friends who had to contact their support center for support) and HP doesn’t really offer anything better too.

        • cynan
        • 3 years ago

        If you don’t have the pounds to spend, and still need a laptop, you can hardly be “pound foolish”.

        Those 15.6″ Acer E-574 laptops are getting recognition as decent bang/$. Acer is like most other larger OEMs. They have run the entire quality gamut, with the exception that perhaps Acer has historically offered more products in the budget range, so perhaps has had more “crap” models overall, but not relatively more considering the segments they’ve targeted.

        I recommended this laptop (with a core i3 instead of i5, as in the one listed) to someone looking to spend around $400 on a “workstation” laptop that would be used for nothing too intensive as it provided, by far, the best value and looked to be at least as robust and better specced relative to what HP or Lenovo, etc, was offering within $200.

          • w76
          • 3 years ago

          You can all have your anecdotal evidence, I’ll be content to wait for consumer surveys to turn a corner. I believe 2015’s CR survey still had Acer near the bottom. In my personal experience with them, where I sent in the same machine 3 times for repair and ultimately gave up, they never fixed it; they didn’t seem to even care to figure it out before swapping a random part, or pretending to, and shipping it back. At least, that appears to be the case, since a thorough burn-in test prior to sending it back would’ve revealed the issue to be unresolved. So yes, it cost me money directly and in productivity more than that Acer laptop saved me in cost. There’s a reason that saying exists, and persists. “False economy” works as well.

          I suggest, instead, literally any of the other contenders in TR’s listing, which all have better reputations for reliability, upon which I place high value since I’m no longer 15 and don’t have time to play games with Acers support staff. To each their own.

            • cynan
            • 3 years ago

            Well, one problem with something like Consumer Reports simply grouping laptops by brand is that, again, Acer has had a tendency to offer more products in the the budget segment than many other brands. As such, you’d probably expect somewhat poorer reliability overall. (Never mind the fact that CR often gets it’s reliability info from their subscribers word of mouth and not actually through any of their own testing).

            Take an extreme example in the other direction. CR also, based on subscriber reports, has rated Apple laptops the most reliable. Is that really a surprise when Apple doesn’t sell any laptops < $1000, while all the comparison companies do?

            CR rating Acer, as an overall laptop brand, to have lower reliability really provides the consumer with very little information as to whether the Acer here (E5-574) would be likely to be any more or less reliable, and definitely nothing of overall value, compared to Dells or HPs, etc, targeting a similar price bracket.

    • flip-mode
    • 3 years ago

    Seems late in the cycle for some of those phones. Having said that, as a nexus 5x owner it has been a joy. The camera is legit fantastic. The size is about perfect. The screen is great. The finger print reader is flawless. The battery lasts a good long time. And then there is stock android.

    • DrDominodog51
    • 3 years ago
    • DrDominodog51
    • 3 years ago

    I can attest to the Surface Pro 4 being amazing. I would recommend it to almost anyone.

      • sweatshopking
      • 3 years ago

      WHAT ABOUT MY MOM? WOULD YOU RECOMMEND IT TO HER? IN THE RAIN, ON A TRAIN? IN A BOX, WITH A FOX?

        • DrDominodog51
        • 3 years ago

        YES; YES; YES; YES; IT DEPENDS ON HOW LARGE THE BOX IS; YES

    • End User
    • 3 years ago

    We are too late into the model life of the 6S and 6S Plus to have them on the list.

      • flip-mode
      • 3 years ago

      The same could be said for the nexus phones at this point. This coming from a n5x owner.

        • sweatshopking
        • 3 years ago

        Yes. But they should come with that caveat. They’ll be replaced shortly

    • tipoo
    • 3 years ago

    2015 Toshiba Chromebook 2 is still my Chromebook pick, 1080p and IPS like the suggested 15″ there, but in a 13″ form factor (which also means higher PPI, in addition to lighter), and similarly with the full on Broadwell cores. Sounds like despite both being IPS the screen edges out the 15″ Acer there which is sometimes described as having a dull screen. The speakers are actually really good, keyboard is good, trackpad is good, not a whole lot to complain about.

    The only thing with that and the 15″ recommendation is that neither are touchscreen, and with Android apps coming to ChromeOS its about to matter more if you’re into that sort of thing.

    Also I recently tried my 6S with Google Cardboard – that was icky, it was like sitting right in front of a SD TV from the 90s, I heard it was grainy but halving the pixels per eye as well as putting it that close and having the lenses distort the pixels outwards, all together that’s where 2K phone screens will stop seeming stupid. But that depends more on Google Daydream, as Cardboard is rather limited.

      • w76
      • 3 years ago

      I’m probably getting my 73yr old mom a 15″ Chromebook for Christmas — PPI matters to me, not so much at her age, but it’s great hearing you, TR and others are happy with these things. I’m frankly tired of supporting her on a full Windows machine, these things appear to be far simpler and do everything necessary.

        • tipoo
        • 3 years ago

        Yeah I was thinking about them for parent machines more than anything.

    • Neutronbeam
    • 3 years ago

    My OnePlus 3 was delivered today and I will be setting it up tonight–and I appreciate the advice on the color settings.

      • Gyromancer
      • 3 years ago

      My Oneplus 3 arrived a few days ago as well. Unfortunately the sRGB setting is part of the Oxygen OS 3.2 update which has been delayed for a little while due to installation problems, so you’ll have to wait a bit.

        • Neutronbeam
        • 3 years ago

        Thanks for letting me know!

    • DrCR
    • 3 years ago

    Anyone using the 2016 XPS 13 Ubuntu Developer Edition?

    (I was eyeing the 2015 version, but that seemed to have some serious issues, so I put my next laptop buy on the back burner.)

      • DancinJack
      • 3 years ago

      I’ve heard it’s a really, really nice machine from a few devs at work. I think there was a review on Ars….

      [url<]http://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2016/06/the-xps-13-de-dell-continues-to-build-a-reliable-linux-lineage/[/url<]

      • oldog
      • 3 years ago

      Unbuntu, no; but the Win 10 version rocks!

        • DrCR
        • 3 years ago

        The whole point for me is a no-compromises Linux laptop (aside from firmware). This is actually hard to come by these days.

    • selfnoise
    • 3 years ago

    In terms of the Huawei Honor 5X:

    [quote<]This phone does come with Huawei's extensively-customized EMUI 3.1 skin on top of Android 5.1.1, but we think it's probably going to be pretty hard to find a phone in this price range without some kind of custom Android distribution.[/quote<] I currently have a Moto G4 preordered for exactly this reason: stock Android 6, instead of custom Android 5. So that might be worth looking at (it releases in the US in a week).

      • mnemonick
      • 3 years ago

      I came here to post this more or less, though in my case I already have a Moto G3. 🙂

      My only complaint about it is it has no gyro, so no VR capability. I got the 16GB / 2GB version and it does everything I need quite snappily.*

      * [sub<](snappily? Is that even a word?)[/sub<]

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