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TR’s fall 2015 mobile staff picks

Renee Johnson
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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.

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