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The Best High-End Smartphones for Travellers

In Phones by David Dean9 Comments

Long gone are the days of needing to spend the thick end of $1000 to get an unlocked phone worth having. With good budget smartphones for under $200, and some truly impressive mid-range versions for under $500, a phone really has to be something special to justify spending that kind of cash these days.

When you’re paying this much for a high-end smartphone, it needs to be truly excellent, with a minimum of compromises. The screen has to be bright and responsive, the phone has to be powerful and fast no matter what you throw at it, and the camera has to be top of the line.

It needs to be durable and reliable, with good battery life and plenty of the extra features you don’t find on cheaper devices.

For the purposes of this roundup, a “high-end smartphone” is one that costs over $500 USD, off-contract and unlocked for use with local SIM cards around the world. I’ve deliberately left out Windows phones, simply because app support is still very limited compared to iOS and Android.

To make the cut, a phone had to come with at least 32GB of storage, ideally with a way to add more via a microSD slot or at time of purchase. Storage is vital for travellers, who tend to use their device for entertainment and taking photos and video. Anything under 32GB isn’t acceptable in a flagship phone.

If you’ve got the cash to spare, these are the three best high-end smartphone options for travellers right now.

Apple iPhone 6+

iPhone 6+
You can’t talk about premium smartphones without mentioning an Apple product. Ever since the first iPhone arrived on the scene in 2007, they’ve largely defined great design, ease of use and top of the range features.

They’ve also defined just how much money people are prepared to pay for an unlocked smartphone, always being at or near the most expensive choice on the market.

There’s plenty to like about both the iPhone 6 and its larger sibling, the 6+. They both come with excellent cameras, although the image stabilisation in the 6+ makes for sharper photos in low light.

You’ll also get significantly better battery life out of the larger model — much of that extra space is used for a higher-capacity battery.

On the downside it’s noticeably heavier, you’ll pay an extra hundred dollars, and the larger size is far from ideal for those with small hands or small pockets. There’s nothing discreet about a phone this size, which is something to bear in mind if you’re flashing it around in certain parts of the world.

The battery life and camera on the 6+ make it our pick, but if you’d rather have a smaller, somewhat-cheaper phone, you won’t be disappointed with the iPhone 6 instead.

What we like:

  • Great design, made from premium materials
  • Excellent LTE support
  • Excellent battery life
  • Good rear camera, especially due to image stabilisation
  • Speedy processor
  • Storage options up to 128GB
  • Arguably a better selection of apps than Android
  • Excellent warranty support if you’re in a city with an Apple store
  • Fingerprint scanner
  • Apple Pay
What we don’t like:

  • A bit large for many travellers. If this is you, choose the iPhone 6 instead.
  • Lack of dual SIM, removable battery or microSD options
  • No impact, weather or water resistance.
  • Poor front-facing camera (1.2MP)
  • No 32GB option
  • Very expensive ($849 for iPhone 6+ with 64GB storage, $749 for iPhone 6)

The specs that matter:

  • 5.5″ 1080p display with toughened glass display
  • Apple A8 processor
  • 1GB RAM
  • 8MP rear camera / 1.2MP front camera
  • 2915 mAh battery
  • 64GB storage (128GB also available)
  • Single SIM slot
  • iOS 8

Buy from Apple


Samsung Galaxy S6

Galaxy S6Samsung’s flagship Galaxy S6 has been getting praise from reviewers ever since it came out, with many calling it the best smartphone you can buy in 2015.

While we’d prefer the S6 Active for its impact and water resistence and better battery, Samsung has decided to make it annoyingly difficult to buy. The phone is currently an “AT&T Exclusive”, which makes it hard to get unlocked and off-contract in the US, and almost impossible anywhere else in the world.

Until that situation changes, we recommend the Galaxy S6 instead. The standard model is thin and light, with a glorious screen, one of the best smartphone cameras around, and performance that blows most other smartphones out of the water.

It includes wireless charging, which isn’t that interesting for travellers, and fast charging (50% in half an hour), which definitely is.

Lack of a removable battery or SD card are a disappointment, especially compared to previous models in the Galaxy S range — but it’s sadly becoming the norm, even in high-end phones.

Pricing is reasonable, at around $599 online for the unlocked 32GB model.

What we like:

  • Plenty of RAM and storage
  • One of the best smartphone displays out there
  • Excellent camera, including image stabilisation
  • LTE support
  • Fast charging
  • Speedy processor
  • Fingerprint scanner
  • Thin, light and a useful size
What we don’t like:

  • Battery life is only average
  • Speakers are ok, but no more than that
  • No impact, weather or water resistance. Make the Active version available to all, damnit!
  • Still too much crapware that can’t be uninstalled — a common Samsung complaint

The specs that matter:

  • 5.1″ 1440×2560 pixel display with Gorilla Glass 4
  • Exynos 7420 processor
  • 3GB RAM
  • 16MP rear camera, 5MP front camera
  • 2550 mAh battery
  • 32GB storage,
  • Single SIM slot
  • Android 5.0


LG G4

LG G4
South Korean manufacturer LG has been quietly churning out some very good phones over the years, and the G4 is arguably the best of the lot. It’s a well-performing, attractive smartphone, with a truly exceptional camera.

For those serious about photography, being able to take shots in RAW format could well be a reason to buy this phone by itself.

Despite the same large screen, it’s a noticeably smaller, lighter device than the iPhone 6+ and other phones with 5.5″ displays. The rear button also helps with usability — it’s much easier to find and use than side or top-mounted buttons.

The body is brushed plastic, rather than metal — this helps keeps the price down versus the competition, at the expense of a truly premium look and feel. For a little extra, you can get a leather-backed version instead.

With a sharp, bright high-res screen, removable battery and SD card slot, and very sharp pricing for a flagship device, there’s a lot to like about the G4. You’ll only pay a touch over $500 for an unlocked 32GB version — and you might even find it a little cheaper at times.

What we like:

  • Excellent rear camera with image stabilisation, and good front one as well
  • Large screen without being impossible to use one-handed
  • Removable battery
  • SD card slot
  • Good pricing
  • Fast charging (albeit with a separate charger)
  • Better speaker than most phones
  • Gesture control
What we don’t like:

  • Plastic suggests lower quality, even if it’s not
  • Average battery life
  • No impact, weather or water resistance

The specs that matter:

  • 5.5″ 1440×2560 pixel display with Gorilla Glass 3
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 processor
  • 3GB RAM
  • 16MP rear camera / 8MP front camera
  • 3000 mAh battery
  • 32GB storage, with microSD slot
  • Single SIM
  • Android 5.0

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The Final Word

For travellers in particular, when you can find very good phones for under $500, it’s getting harder to justify spending hundreds more on a device that isn’t that much better. With the risk of theft and breakage higher than in day-to-day life, the cost/benefit equation looks quite different if you’ll be on the road for a while.

That said, if you’ve got the money to spend and want the best phone out there, what should you go for? If you’re already part of the Apple ecosystem, you’ve probably already made your decision: get the latest iPhone. Despite the eye-watering price, the 6+ is the model to go for if you don’t mind its size, due to the exceptional battery life and better camera.

If you don’t mind whether you use iOS or Android, though, it’s a tougher decision. With the best option (Galaxy S6 Active) hard or impossible to buy unlocked and off-contract, it’s a very close battle between the standard S6 and the LG G4.

They both have extremely good cameras, good performance, quality screens and fast charging, and aren’t that far apart when it comes to price either. In reality, you’ll probably be happy with either.

If you’re very serious about your photography, go for the LG. If I had $600 to spend on a phone right now, though, I’d (just) pick the Samsung. It’s faster, looks and feels better, has a few extra useful features including fast charging built right in, and  the 5.1″ screen size feels a better size for using one-handed and fitting into small pockets.

Overall, it’s the best high-end smartphone available right now, and takes our top spot.

Note: This list only includes devices easily available for purchase in the US and Europe.

So those are our high-end smartphone picks in mid-2015. Do you think we left something out? Sound off in the comments!

Main image via Sjoerd Lammers, other images via manufacturers.

About the Author

David Dean

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Founder and editor of Too Many Adapters, Dave has been a wanderer for nearly 20 years and a geek for even longer. When he's not playing with the latest tech toy or working out how to keep his phone charged for just a few more minutes, he can probably be found sitting in a broken down bus in some obscure corner of the planet.

Comments

  1. What about the OnePlus One, or the soon to be released next version?

    1. Author

      It was included in the mid-range smartphones piece I linked to from a few weeks ago, since it’s under $500. That phone, and the others in that post, are the main reason why I said it’s really hard for most travellers to justify dropping the cash on a high-end (or at least, high-priced) smartphone — there’s just no need! 🙂

  2. These are all great phones. How would you compare the Galaxy S5 to the Galaxy S6 you suggested in your post?

  3. This fall I will be traveling to Romania and I will be taking my unlocked AT&T Galaxy Note 4 with me. In Romania they use the following frequencies: 900 and 1800 MHz for 2G, 900 and 2100 MHz for 3G and 1800 MHz for 4G LTE. My Note 4 has all these frequencies available except for the 900 MHz 3G frequency. Considering this, as well as the fact that 4G LTE covers only a limited part of Romania, how well should I expect my Note 4 to serve me over there when it comes to both voice and data service?

    1. Author

      You’ll have no problem with voice, and likely little problem with 2G and 3G either. LTE, as you say, seems limited to half the country or less, depending on provider.

      You may get spottier data coverage due to the lack of 900Mhz support, but without knowing exactly how the various operators have deployed their network, it’s hard to be more precise than that.

  4. Hello,
    Nice article but i really expected to discover an underground phone could be perfect for us :p.
    Apple / Samsung, it’s just classic each year the next version lol.

    Just take a look to the blackberry Passeport, this is the best for me.
    – Blackberry hub to manage all your text/email/twitter/facebook/linkedin/whatsapp/etc.. account
    – Battery life just incredible
    – Blackberry protect to find or swipt you phone if you lost it
    – Blackberry blend to manage your phone from your computer/tablet
    – Can install Android App
    – Sensitive Keyboard
    – Strong, very strong
    – Very Good camera (i’m not an expert)
    – Square…. ok it’s weird but very confortable with maps, excel, word, pdf, etc..

    As a nomade digital i really think he can be easily on this list ^^.

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