Smartphones aren't cheap, but if you're looking for a holiday gift that toes the line between exciting and practical, they could be the answer. Read on for New Atlas' take on the best smartphones of 2016.
Honorable mention and best value: OnePlus 3T
US$439 scores 64 GB of storage, fingerprint sensor, headphone jack, 6 GB of RAM, 2.35 GHz Snapdragon 821 processor, fast charging, one of the longest-lasting batteries out there and 16 megapixel-resolution in both its front and rear-facing cameras. Plus, its good-looking aluminum build and 5.5-inch display don't scream "off brand."
But remember – specs are moot if the phone doesn't work on your network, so double-check compatibility before you buy or gift this one. OnePlus 3T does not work with CDMA networks like Verizon or Sprint in the US.
Honorable mention and pick for gadget lovers: Moto Z
If you've got a loved one with a gadget addiction that can only be appeased with pure gizmos, consider the Moto Z or Moto Z Force ($624 and $720, respectively). On their own, these 'droids have looks and internals to match any high-end flagship, but their modular accessories turn them into much more.
Moto Z's mods snap on and off the back of the camera via small, powerful magnets for a snug, quality fit. Each one adds a unique function, but they are sold separately, so allot an ample budget to provide the full experience.
The Hasselblad True Zoom accessory ($300) gives the smartphone camera 10x optical zoom, Xenon flash, and ability to shoot in RAW. The JBL Soundboost Speaker ($80) adds on high-quality audio plus a kickstand and additional battery. The Incipio Power Pack ($60) provides up to 22 hours of extra battery life. There's also an Insta-Share projector ($300) for projecting photos and videos against a wall or screen, and several style shell options starting at $20.
Honorable mention and all-around contender: HTC 10
Before the Pixel was released, we thought the HTC 10 was the most subtly awesome phone out there. It boasts an incredibly clean, near-stock Android experience, speedy performance, adoptable microSD storage, an excellent camera and a number of color variants. It's one of the only phones we reviewed this year with hi-res audio support too, so it's also a great all-around pick for music lovers.
With a launch retail price of $699, you had to pay slightly more than you would have for an entry-level iPhone or Galaxy S7, but it's often on sale these days (usually $650 or less).
Runner-up and pick for the trendy: iPhone 7 and 7 Plus
Let's be honest – there are many Apple fans that won't be happy with anything but an iPhone. As far as 2016 flagships go, we choose the iPhone 7 Plus over the smaller iPhone 7, mostly for its camera.
The iPhone 7 Plus' dual-lens camera gives it major advantages over the 7, namely optical zoom with improved digital zoom and a bokeh-inducing Portrait mode. The phone itself also has better display resolution and a bigger battery.
But if the iPhone 7 Plus' hulking size or larger price tag are deal-breakers, the iPhone 7 is still worthy. Both phones have a gorgeous IP67 water resistant build, iOS 10 with the adventurous messaging graphics and 3D Touch technology to match, with characteristic silky-smooth Apple performance. iPhone 7 Plus starts at $769; iPhone 7 starts at $649.
Runner-up and top choice for audiophiles: LG V20
Will said it best in his LG V20 review: "Apple is killing the headphone jack. LG is pumping some of the most mesmerizing audio you've heard through it." Indeed, if you have high-quality audio files and capable headphones, LG V20 is the best phone to do them justice.
The V20 is clearly multimedia-focused, with other features like a large QHD display and a software-driven addition called Second Screen, which shows shortcuts and notifications without interrupting the main display.
These are backed up by capable internals and worthy camera, though this phone doesn't quite hit the buttery-smooth extremes of the new Pixels. Depending on carrier and payment plan, expect to pay anywhere from the mid-$600s to mid-$700s.
Runner-up and longtime Android leader: Samsung Galaxy S7 or S7 edge
We hope the Note 7's fiery reputation doesn't overshadow the sophisticated qualities of this year's other Galaxy S7 flagships. Both the S7 and S7 edge have sleek curved glass builds, the best water resistance on the market, killer AMOLED displays, great battery life, fast/wireless charging and expandable storage.
They also support the Gear VR headset, which presently provides the best mobile virtual reality experience out there. In fact, Gear VR would make a good holiday gift for any VR-curious Galaxy (S6 or newer) owner.
If you're thinking of going Galaxy, the only caveat we can caution is that Samsung releases their new phones around March of each year. That means there's only a few months until a new-and-improved version comes out.
Overall winner: Google Pixel and Pixel XL
We're not alone in thinking it: The first made-by-Google phones present Android at its very best.
Like many other Google products and services, Pixel phones put performance over presence. But the longer you use them, the more you appreciate their lightning speed and harmonious hardware and software experience, which is refreshingly devoid of overzealous manufacturer personalization.
We also consider Pixel's camera the best of any smartphone we've tried, even though others might have it trounced if you compare specs alone. Check out the photo samples in our Pixel and Pixel XL reviews to see for yourself.
Software advantages alone are a major sell for the Pixels. They're first-in-line for future software and security updates, and they're the first to have built-in Google Assistant (Android's answer to Siri and a fully matured version of Google Now). They also are also Google Daydream View-ready, the newly released mobile VR headset that we expect to give Gear VR a run for its money somewhere down the line.
Beyond size, Pixel and its bigger, more expensive phablet brother the Pixel XL have near-identical specs. Their main differentiator is the display: Pixel has a 5-inch display with 1,920 x 1,080 resolution; Pixel XL has a 5.5-inch display with 2,560 x 1,440 resolution. The Pixel XL also has a larger battery.
Our main disappointment is that Pixels aren't water resistant, a feature that's fairly new to smartphones but makes a big difference to anyone that's ever lost a phone to watery grave. We also are slightly skeptical of the iPhone-identical price tag, which is a far cry from the budget pricing of the Pixel's closest relative, the Nexus 6P. Still, we think the Pixel phone is a game changer, and we look forward to seeing how Google grows as a manufacturer.
Learn more about our top smartphone picks of 2016 either through this handy comparison or individual reviews:
For more help getting through the holiday season, check out our 2016 coverage: