The past few years have been modest in the mobile phone space, and 2016 was no exception. There weren’t any out-of-this-world innovations that we haven’t already seen, but instead we got products that refined upon their predecessors, with all the newest specifications. Even so, as we look back at the hundreds of mobile phones we tested, there were some that stood out more than all others. Today, we celebrate these handsets for their excellence in overall experience, scoring a 9 out of 10 on our Gadgets 360 ratings scale.
Predictably, that means a lot of flagship phones, but the good news is that this doesn't necessarily mean you have to spend over Rs. 50,000 to get the very best experience anymore - there are more affordable flagships in the market as well. Here are the very best smartphones from the year 2016.
Check out our other year in review coverage:
1) Google Pixel XL
The Google Pixel and Pixel XL have been heavily criticised for mimicking the price tags of the Apple iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus, respectively. Although we don’t approve of companies trying to fleece customers by charging whatever they feel like, we also cannot ignore Google’s attempts to justify that price tag.
For instance, both phones offer unlimited backups of photos and videos taken at full resolution. They seamlessly back up in the background when the phone’s connected to Wi-Fi. This itself is a godsend that not only adds peace of mind by safekeeping your every precious memory, but also makes buying the 32GB base model an acceptable proposition, considering a lot of space on most of our phones is taken up by media.
Then there’s Google Assistant - probably the best virtual assistant you can get today. It’s not just got Google’s class-leading voice recognition, but it also has the ability to use the entire publicly-available Internet to find exactly what you’re looking for - from nearby restaurants to the timings for movies, and much more. And you can bet the Assistant is only going to get better once third-party developers get access to it.
Aside from these features, as you'd expect from phones at this price, the two Pixels deliver strongly in terms of camera performance, battery life, and overall performance. However, it's worth pointing out that although the phones we used fared very well indeed, more than a few customers have reported problems with the device, so weigh the pros and cons before buying.
2) iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus
Before the phones were released, the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus were called out as ‘boring’, based on rumours and leaks, owing to a dated design that hasn't changed since 2014. To be fair, this year’s iPhones did bring the popular Black and Jet Black colour options. But what’s more important are the considerable improvements on the inside - everything from the fast A10 chip, water resistance, stereo speakers, dual camera setup (on the 7 Plus), the wide colour gamut display, improved battery life, improved taptic engine feedback, and more.
On the software side, iOS 10 brought useful features like integrated VOIP call management, improved 3D Touch features, third party support for iMessage and Siri, universal copy-paste, and more. The two combined have made a satisfying leap in the iPhone experience, which now has enough features in its spec sheet to go toe-to-toe with any Android.
Even if Apple’s tenth-anniversary iPhone will sport a hugely refreshed design, it’s going to be hard for Apple to match or exceed the number of improvements it delivered with the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus.
3) OnePlus 3/ OnePlus 3T
The OnePlus 3T is the go-to recommendation for anybody wanting premium quality experience at a reasonable price. A slight update over the already good OnePlus 3, it retains the same great build quality. Every inch of the phone feels as premium as a Rs. 70,000 iPhone. You get everything and the kitchen sink with this phone - a top-line Snapdragon 821 chip, 6GB RAM, 64GB internal storage, a large 3400mAh battery, a fast fingerprint scanner, ‘Dash Charge’ fast charging, and a subtly-tweaked version of stock Android, dubbed Oxygen OS.
Usually with the value-for-money variety of smartphones, there generally are a couple of things that break the overall experience. Not with the OnePlus 3T - it ticks almost every box, with only sub-par low light photography being the only flaw, which is forgivable given the price. Now that’s an impressive feat; how many other well-balanced phones you can find at the Rs. 30,000 mark today? That’s what makes it our pick for one of the best phones of 2016.
4) Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge
Samsung lost the plot back in 2014, when the Galaxy S5 came out. The Korean company course-corrected the next year with the Galaxy S6 series. It focused on an inspiring design, instead of just filling it up with a truckload of features to compete with the iPhone. But this clean-slate approach meant that some crucial features that mattered a lot to Samsung users, had to be removed. Some of the features that were lost included microSD card support, a removable battery, and water resistance, which were all present in the Galaxy S5.
The Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 Edge this year brought back the missing pieces to Samsung's flagship. If you hold previous years’ Galaxy phones next to these two, differences can be hard to tell. But everything from the way the bodies gently curves on both sides, making them easier to hold, to the reprise of the microSD card slot and water resistance, made the Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 Edge fantastic all-rounder smartphones in the year 2016. Without removing any features, both models improved on the already excellent camera, battery life and performance of their predecessors. Between the two, the S7 Edge’s curved display may not provide much functional benefit, but the bigger 3600mAh battery certainly makes it comfortably run beyond a day with normal use. The smaller Galaxy S7 has reasonably good battery life too, with the 3000mAh unit.
5) Xiaomi Mi 5
The Xiaomi Mi 5 may have had its thunder stolen by the OnePlus 3, which launched just two months later, but the phone is still rightly one of the top rated phones we used in 2016. To begin with, it had a nice design, with the use of glass instead of the now-typical aluminium. Next, with a 5-inch display, the Xiaomi Mi 5 was one of the few phones released in 2016 that was easy to operate with one hand. It packed the features that a Rs. 50,000 Samsung Galaxy would carry, for less than half the cost.
An under-appreciated feature that the smartphone world is losing is the IR blaster, which is still present on the Mi 5. This, along with the pre-bundled remote app, meant controlling any electronic appliance - be it a TV, music player, air conditioning, and so on - was a breeze.
At the same time, the phone got excellent ratings for its performance and battery life, justifying the 9 out of 10 rating that we gave it at the time.
6) Huawei Honor 8
The Honor 8 is yet another highly-rated phone from this year that won many hearts. Slippery body aside, the glass covered front and back did help the appealing colours of the Honor 8 stand out. It’s unique feature - a colour and monochrome lens combination, to help capture better detail in photos - helped deliver better quality photographs.
The Honor 8 also had some cool features up its sleeves - the fingerprint scanner also doubled up as a customisable button to perform actions like toggling the flashlight, camera etc. It even has a power-saver mode where the 1080p capable display changes resolution to 720p. All these reasons, alongside a stellar display, great performance, and user-friendly software customisations, make the Honor 8 a consistent winner in our books.
7) Asus ZenFone 3 Deluxe (ZS570KL)
The ZenFone 3 Deluxe one-upped the already premium ZenFone 3 Ultra that too was launched by the Taiwanese electronics giant this year. As the pricing of this phone goes toe-to-toe with this years iPhones and Pixels, it’s obvious to expect the world from it. Its metal body is firm and of a premium build, and has no visible antenna lines, which is a fine engineering effort. The only bone to pick with this phone is the full-HD display, and the awkwardly-designed fingerprint scanner. It packs a Snapdragon 821 chip and 6GB of RAM, and the high-end SKU comes with a whopping 256GB of internal storage.
Asus’s ZenUI although not our favourite in terms of design, comes with some useful features. Multimedia is this phone’s strong suit, as the cameras perform very well and the phone has high-rated audio quality. QuickCharge 3.0 support gets the battery juiced from 0 to 65 percent in just 30 minutes! All in all, the ZenFone 3 Deluxe has a lot more to like than dislike, which is what puts it in our list of the best phones of 2016.
These were the phones with the best review scores in 2016 - the best of the best that 2016 had to offer. Which phone would you pick amongst these? Let us know, via the comments.