Last updated: 5 September, 2016.
For many travellers, their smartphone is the most useful, if not the only, electronic device they’ll carry. It can replace everything from flashlight to camera, guidebook to diary and more. It’ll also let you stay in touch with loved ones, book flights and accommodation, convert currency and deal with many other of the inevitable tasks that crop up on vacation.
There’s a huge difference between devices, however, and price isn’t always a guide to quality. The good news is, though, that no matter how much you have to spend, it’s possible to get a good smartphone to make your trip much easier and more enjoyable.
These are the best smartphones for travellers to buy in 2016, broken down by price range.
Note: all prices are for the outright purchase of an unlocked phone. This ensures you can use local SIM cards around the world for inexpensive calls, text and data.
Best Budget Smartphone
If you’re after a new smartphone for your travels but don’t have a big budget, don’t despair. Budget phones have become a lot better in recent years, and you can now pick up a perfectly-good device for under $250. You won’t get top of the line specifications or amazing camera quality, but if you pick the right phone, it’ll serve you well for even extended trips.
Even at this lower price point, you shouldn’t accept anything less than 16GB of storage space, and more is much better. Battery life won’t necessarily be great, but a few budget phones do manage to last a full day. LTE isn’t always included, especially for regions outside wherever you purchase it. Bear that in mind if you really need super-fast cell data.
Motorola Moto G (2016)
In some ways, Motorola invented the “budget smartphones that don’t suck” category with the first version of the Moto G back in 2013. The company has been at the front of the pack ever since.
The fourth iteration doesn’t disappoint, sporting many of the same features you’ll find in phones costing far more, with surprisingly few missteps. LTE support comes as standard, for at least for the region you purchased the device in.
There’s 2GB of RAM for snapper performance, and dual SIM slots on the European model.
The Moto G comes with a 13MP camera that, while it won’t blow you away, is better than almost everything else you find at this price point. Outdoor shots are detailed and have good colour accuracy, but it’s less impressive in low light. Still, the HDR mode fixes many exposure problems without making the picture look artificial, and it even does a decent job of macro shots.
Battery and Charging
Motorola claims the phone has “all-day battery,” whatever that means. The battery size has noticeably increased from the previous model, but then again, so has the screen size and resolution. Unless you’re binge-watching TV shows or playing intensive games to while away a long layover, though, you shouldn’t have to look for a power socket until the end of all but the longest travel days.
If you do need to add more juice, a welcome addition with the latest model is fast charging. The “TurboPower” charger adds up to six hours of use in just 15 minutes of charging, via a standard micro-USB port.
Capacity and Durability
The phone comes in two capacities, 16GB and 32GB. Given the small price difference between the two, we’d strongly suggest going for the extra storage. There’s also a micro-SD slot that can take anything up to a 128GB card, so you shouldn’t run out of space any time soon.
Rarely found in a device this cheap, the Moto G is also water-resistant. Don’t plan to go swimming with it, but rain or a quick dunk in the toilet shouldn’t cause a problem. That’s very reassuring when you’re travelling.
Best Mid-Range Smartphone
With an increase in price comes an increase in expectations. Mid-range smartphones typically fall in the $250-$500 price range. For that kind of money, you should see a significant step up from even the best of the budget range.
Cameras need to take good photos, at least outdoors and preferably in more challenging conditions too. Storage space should be at least 32GB, ideally built into the phone. You need to be able to get a full day of moderate to heavy use from the phone, to deal with long travel days away from charging points.
Google Nexus 5x
Coming in at the lower end of the price range, Google’s Nexus 5x is a very good, underrated mid-range smartphone. While the processor and memory specs aren’t top of the line, it’s still a fast device in everyday use.
The 12MP camera is excellent, especially for the money. Although it lacks image stabilisation, it’s otherwise the same as that in the more-expensive Nexus 6P, and takes fantastic daylight shots. It’s surprisingly good in low light, too, and when the recommended HDR+ setting is enabled, manages to take usable photos in very challenging conditions.
Battery and Charging
Even though it only sports a 2700mAh battery, the 5.2″ screen and mid-level processor don’t drain too much power. It’s possible to get a full day of light to moderate use, and if you do find yourself running out of juice, the quick charge function soon gets you up and running again. I charged mine from 30% to full in under an hour, using the special charger that came with the phone.
It uses the new USB-C charging port, which is both a blessing and a curse. On the upside, the plug is reversible, so no more fumbling around in the dark trying to get it connected. On the downside, until the rest of your electronics catch up, your existing cables and accessories won’t work with this phone unless you buy an adapter.
Security and Updates
I’ve become enamoured with the rear-mounted fingerprint scanner. It’s accurate and super-quick, unlocking the screen in well under a second. It’s also used for Android Pay, and third-party apps can also take advantage of it for authentication.
Finally, being a Google phone, the Nexus 5x will be one of the first to receive updates to the Android operating system. Having waited for months (or in some cases, forever) for new versions to hit other phones, this is a great feature.
The Nexus 5x comes in both 16GB and 32GB versions — opt for the higher capacity, especially since it’s not expandable. Read our full review here.
While OnePlus is still a relatively new phone manufacturer, it’s been making waves from day one by putting out high-spec phones at low-spec prices. Until now, the biggest problem with the devices has been actually buying one. Supply was very tightly managed, and you needed an invitation to even have the chance of handing over your cash.
That’s all changed with the OnePlus 3 — you can now buy it direct from the company, no invite required. That’s fortunate, really, since it’s also the best phone the company has ever made, at a price that makes it impossible to ignore.
Speed and Capacity
There’s no doubt about it, the specs of the OnePlus 3 are impressive. With a Snapdragon 820 processor and 6GB of RAM, you get more raw power for your money than with many phones priced far higher. Apps open in the blink of an eye, and the phone ranks near the top of benchmark tests.
There’s no microSD slot, but with 64GB of storage as standard, that’s hardly a glaring omission. This is one device that isn’t going to be obsolete a year after purchase, even for the most demanding users.
That said, OnePlus made a very odd decision with its memory management. The phone forcibly closes background apps long before the phone gets anywhere near hitting its memory limits. There’s been a lot of talk about this supposedly battery-saving feature, and future updates seem likely to make this aspect less aggressive. For now, though, be aware the 6GB of RAM is more useful on paper than in the real world.
The 16MP rear camera on the OnePlus 3 falls into the “good” rather than “great” category, but if most of your shots will be in daylight, you’ll have no complaints. Colours are accurate, details are sharp, and it’s snappy and responsive to use.
The only issue — as it is with many phone cameras — is in low light. That’s when you’ll see a noticeable difference between this phone and best of breed cameras like those on Samsung Galaxy S7 or the Google Nexus 5x and 6p. If you’re not super-fussy about your low-light photos or you’re travelling with a dedicated camera, though, you’ll be happy.
Battery and Charging
There’s a non-swappable 3000mAh battery built in, which is pretty much what you’d expect from a phone of this size. It ranks right in the middle of the pack in rundown tests, which means you’ll be able to get a day’s use out of it unless you’ve got the screen on for hours.
OnePlus has duplicated much of the phone’s power management system in a special “Dash” charger. Why would it do such a thing? To move heat generation away from the phone itself, which means it stays cooler and can keep charging even under heavy use or in hot weather.
Depending on how you use and charge your phone, that may or may not be useful, but either way, it also means the phone can go from 0 to 60% in half an hour. Now even the tightest of layovers should give enough time to charge your phone for the rest of the day.
Like the Nexus devices and a few others, OnePlus has jumped from microUSB to USB-C, with the benefits and pitfalls that go with that. There’s no wireless charging, though.
Display, Size and Other Features
The OnePlus 3 has an attractive aluminium body, which looks good and lets it stand up to more abuse than the plastic versions from previous models. It has a 5.5″ 1080p display, but some corners have been cut with it, and by default, the colour accuracy is pretty terrible. Like the memory management, this is something that looks like it will be fixed (or at least, configurable) in future updates.
There’s always a trade-off between screen quality and battery life, so this isn’t necessarily the end of the world. If having accurate colours is important to you, though, you may want to try one of the phones in person before you buy.
The fingerprint scanner is fast and reliable, and there’s also NFC if that’s something you care about. More importantly, the phone comes unlocked and has dual SIM slots. If you want to take advantage of the cheap rates of a local SIM card, while still keeping your home SIM in place to get texts from your bank (or your mum), you can.
All in all, this is a hell of a phone for $400. A few compromises have been made, but none that would stop most people from buying. If you’re looking for an affordable smartphone that is super-fast, has loads of storage, takes good photos most of the time and has travel-friendly features like fast charging and dual SIMs, you’ve found it in the OnePlus 3.
Best High-End Smartphone
Once you’re paying over $500, you’re in the premium smartphone category. These devices need to have the sleekest designs, best cameras, and ample storage. They have to be fast and reliable, with plenty of useful extra features. Given how good cheaper phones have become, there needs to be a good reason to drop the cash for a high-end version.
In short, at the top end of town, you should be making very few, if any compromises.
Samsung Galaxy S7
Samsung’s Galaxy S7 is the latest, and best, in a long line of premium devices from the South Korean manufacturer. It listened to its customers by bringing back much-loved features dropped from the previous model, and the phone has received rave reviews as a result.
There are two variants — the S7 ,and the larger, pricier S7 Edge. The latter has a fancy, sloped edge on one side that displays news tickers, a clock, various shortcuts and more. It’s somewhat useful, but doesn’t justify the extra cost and bulk of the Edge for travellers.
Speed and Capacity
Put simply, the Galaxy S7 is incredibly quick. With 4GB of RAM and a super-fast processor, it tops the charts in both benchmark and real-world testing. You’ll never be waiting for it to load or switch between apps, and it handles the most demanding tasks easily.
Storage depends (a lot) on where you buy the phone. In North America and Europe, the S7 is limited to 32GB of internal capacity, while in Asia you can get as much as 128GB onboard. Fortunately, it’s not a huge limitation, as the company decided to reintroduce a micro-SD slot that can handle anything up to 200GB cards. If you’re using more than that, perhaps it’s time to store your entire movie collection somewhere else…
The Galaxy range has long had some of the best smartphone cameras, and the S7 is no exception. It’s fantastic for food, macro and low light shots, in a way that most phone cameras aren’t. Outdoor photos are very good as well, especially given the S7 has a wider-angle lens than most.
There’s great colour saturation and white balance in almost any conditions. Despite having “just” a 12MP sensor, the camera has a f1.7 lens and larger pixels than usual, so it’s rare to find conditions it can’t handle.
Battery and Charging
One of the criticisms of the previous models was unimpressive battery life, and the company paid attention. The 3000mAh battery in the S7 is nearly 20% larger than the S6. That means longer life and less anxiety about finding a power socket during long layovers.
As you’d expect, the phone supports fast charging. It uses the industry-standard Qualcomm approach, so as long as you’re using the included charger, even 30 minutes plugged into the wall will keep you going for several more hours.
Display, Size and Other Features
With its 5.1″ screen, the Galaxy S7 bucks the trend towards massive phones (or at least, leaves it for the 5.5″ Edge model). The display has great colour calibration, with plenty of brightness for viewing in direct sunlight.
Samsung decided to bring back water and dust resistance for this model, which is very welcome for travellers. You can leave the S7 in up to five feet of water for half an hour and it’ll keep going strong. While I wouldn’t recommend testing those limits, you should have no problem with rain, water splashes and other liquid spills.
Due to the larger battery and extra durability, the phone is actually a little heavier than the previous model, but still easy to hold in your hand. The glass back does make things a little more slippery, however. Given that and the high price tag, a thin rubber case would be a useful addition.
The Samsung Galaxy S7 is not a cheap phone, no matter which configuration you buy. If money is no object and you’re not inclined to make compromises, however, it’s the best high-end Android smartphone you can buy right now.
All product images via respective manufacturers. Main image via Samsung.