Galaxy S7 in hotel room

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 2017, 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 5 Plus

Moto G4

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 fifth iteration doesn’t disappoint, at least if you buy the “Plus” version. It’s only slightly more than the standard model, with better specifications, and sports many of the same features you’ll find in phones costing far more. LTE support comes as standard, for at least for the region you purchased the device in.

There’s 2GB of RAM for snapper performance, dual SIM slots on the European model, and a fingerprint sensor for faster unlocking.

Camera

The Moto G 5 Plus comes with a 12MP camera that, while it won’t blow you away, is decent enough, and at least on par with 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. Since the screen size actually dropped slightly from the previous model (5.2″ instead of 5.5″), you’ll get a little longer out of each charge. Unless you’re binge-watching TV shows or playing intensive games to while away a long layover, 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, the fast charging feature is a welcome addition. The included “TurboPower” charger adds up to six hours of use in just 15 minutes, via a standard micro-USB port.

Capacity and Durability

The phone comes in two capacities, 32GB and 64GB. The extra storage also comes with more RAM (4GB instead of 2GB), which will improve performance. It’s a reasonable upgrade, but since there’s a micro-SD slot that can take anything up to a 128GB card on both versions, you won’t run out of space either way.

Rarely found in a device this cheap, the phone is also water-resistant. Don’t plan to go swimming with it, but a bit of rain shouldn’t cause a problem. That’s very reassuring when you’re travelling.

Overall, there’s a lot to like about this device, especially given the price tag. If you want a decent smartphone but don’t want to drop a lot of cash to get it, the Moto G 5 Plus should be right at the top of your list.

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.

OnePlus 3T

OnePlus 3 lifestyle

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 3T — 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 3T are impressive. With a Snapdragon 821 processor and 6GB of RAM, you get more raw power for your money than most 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.

Camera

The 16MP rear camera on the OnePlus 3T 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 iPhone, Samsung Galaxy S7 or Google Pixel. If you’re not super-fussy about your low-light photos or you’re travelling with a dedicated camera, though, you’ll be happy.

The front camera is also 16MP, which is far higher than most. How much benefit you’ll get from that once you’ve applied your Instagram filters or Snapchat dog-ears is debatable, really, but it’s there if you care.

Battery and Charging

There’s a non-swappable 3400mAh battery built in, which is as good or better than most other phones this size. As a result, it ranks highly in battery rundown tests, and you’ll be able to get a full 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 many other manufacturers, 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 3T has an attractive aluminium body, which looks good and lets it stand up to more abuse than the plastic versions from previous models, and a 5.5″ 1080p display.

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 lot of phone for under $450. 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 3T.

Buy from OnePlus

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 S8

Samsung Galaxy S8

Samsung’s Galaxy S8 is the latest, sexiest, and best, in a long line of premium devices from the South Korean manufacturer. With its curved ‘infinity’ display, it instantly made every other smartphone on the market look old and boring when it came out in April.

It’s not just good looks that make it stand out, though.

Speed and Capacity

Put simply, the Galaxy S8 is incredibly quick. With 4GB of RAM and a super-fast processor, it right near the top of 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.

The phone comes with 64GB of storage. It’s nice to see high-end devices come with extra space like this — if you’re paying this much for a smartphone, running out of room should be the last thing you need to worry about. Even better, there’s a micro-SD slot that can handle anything up to 256GB cards. If you’re using more than that, perhaps it’s time to store your entire movie collection somewhere else…

Camera

The Galaxy range has long had some of the best smartphone cameras, and the S8 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 S8 has a wider-angle lens than most.

There’s great colour saturation and white balance in almost any conditions. Despite the rear camera having the same 12MP sensor as the previous model, the camera has a f1.7 lens and larger pixels than usual, so it’s rare to find conditions it can’t handle. The front camera has had an upgrade, though, now sporting 8MP and auto-focus.

Battery and Charging

The 3000mAh battery in the S8 is the same as the previous Galaxy S7, but the company says a new design will allow it to keep its capacity for much longer. That’s important — too many smartphone batteries are good when you first buy them, and terrible six months later. Of course, we’ll need to wait until the end of the year to know how much difference this actually makes in practice.

As you’d expect, the phone has a USB-C port, and supports fast charging. It uses the industry-standard Qualcomm Quickcharge 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. There’s wireless charging as well, although it’ll take longer to do its thing.

Display, Size and Other Features

That stunning ‘infinity’ display means many of the phone’s most noticeable features relate to its screen. It’s longer and narrower than most other phones, which means the standard diagonal size measurement (5.8″, in this case) doesn’t mean all that much. In real terms, the Galaxy S8 has basically the same dimensions as an iPhone 7, but with vastly more screen to play with.

That screen is simply stunning, by the way. It’s extremely sharp, with vibrant colours, and plenty of brightness for viewing in direct sunlight.

Despite its size, the Galaxy S8 is easier to use than you might expect. The narrower body, and curved edges, make it easier to hold than most other large smartphones, although there’s a bit of finger gymnastics required to pull down the notifications tab, or reliably hit the oddly-placed fingerprint sensor on the back.

Samsung decided to retain water and dust resistance for this model, which is very welcome for travellers. You can leave the S8 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, or your friend knocking a beer over it at the bar.

The Samsung Galaxy S8 is not a cheap phone. 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.

Comments

  1. Hi again. I’m going to make a purchase this year so I’ve been looking. Any thoughts about ASUS ZenFone, Xiaomi, other Samsungs ( A9 Pro is looking pretty good, as well as Note5), Huawei. I found something called Yu Yureko, a 6″ phone with specs, for $120 approx., with good reviews. I’m currently using a ZenPad 8 with double sim. It’s actually holdable as a phone,fits in my pocket, albeit a bit heavy and bulky. 8″ is a great all in one travel size. True 10″ better at home, a phone better on street, but hey, $220.

    1. Author

      I actually used to recommend one of the Zenfone phone models, and you wouldn’t go too far wrong with the higher-spec versions. I only include phones that are easily available for purchase in both the US and Europe, which unfortunately rules out many of the Chinese manufacturers.

  2. I have two unlocked iphones and am visiting Vietnam (Hanoi) in a little over a week…will these work if I walk into vinaphone and ask them to asctivate/purchase a sim? Is it the same price or more expensive to use an iphone?

  3. Hi, I’ve read there are issues with limited frequencies/bands on the oneplus 3, what do you think about that?

    1. Author

      It guess it depends on what you’re comparing it to. There are three models of OnePlus 3T (Europe/Asia, North America, and China), each with somewhat different LTE band support. This means you’ll typically get 3G coverage pretty much anywhere it’s available, and LTE mainly in that particular region. A region-specific approach is common from most manufacturers — Apple has four different versions of the iPhone 7, for instance, although its 1778 model has pretty wide-ranging global support.
      That said, all versions of the 3T definitely support fewer frequencies than (eg) high-end devices from Samsung and Apple, so you’ll be a little more restricted as to which countries and carriers you can get LTE speeds in. How much that matters is really an individual issue.
      As an example, the phone I use (currently a Nexus 5x) is the North American model, meaning I rarely get LTE coverage elsewhere in the world. Personally I’ve never found that to be a problem — 3G speeds are fast enough for me, and LTE burns through my data allowance and battery much faster, to the point where I usually turn it off even if it is available! If getting LTE speeds in as many places as possible is especially important to you, though, you may need to spend the extra money for a Samsung, Apple, or other phone with greater band support than the 3T.

  4. Hi Dave

    Do you think there’s any advantage to choose the S8+ over the S8, obviously apart from the bigger screen

    1. Author

      The only other reason is a bigger battery – it jumps from 3000mAh to 3500mAh. That’s nearly 20%, which is significant. Is that worth the extra cost and weight? For some people, maybe, but if you pack a portable battery anyway, probably not.

  5. Hello Dave,

    I am suffering from my iPhone 7 256GB heat and slowness specially Whatsapp and other apps. I’m too hungry photographer and my camera-roll is holding over 40K photos and videos BUT the free space is still over 100GB. I’m upset because the free space isn’t tight and iPhone performs slow! Is there a recommended smartphone that can handle my heavy use and photography media OR I just have to free up my iPhone as everyone recommends 🙁

    Thank you.

    1. Author

      If you’ve got 100GB of free space, that’s definitely not the issue. It’s likely either a problem with a particular app, or the phone itself. If it was me, I’d back everything up (and then double and triple-check I’d got everything!), then do a factory reset and only reinstall the apps I absolutely needed. I’ve done that on a couple of Android phones when they started showing similar symptoms, and it made a world of difference.

      If it doesn’t help, and the phone’s still under warranty, it’s time for a trip to an Apple store.

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