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The 5 Smartphones of Christmas

If you’re smartphone shopping this holiday and wondering what to buy, my primer can assist—with caveats. I focus solely on Androids that are higher end but affordable, and I ignore iPhones. No slight against Apple devices is intended. I figure that people who want an iPhone won’t likely consider an alternative. Also: The differences aren’t as pronounced. For example, the major benefit choosing 6s or 6s Plus over the two previous models is slightly lower price (3D Touch is an unnecessary gimmick). The major benefit picking 5s over the 6 or 6 Plus is again price but also smaller size.

Among Androids, differences abound—and many, such as older OS versions or custom UI skins, are carrier or manufacturer imposed. That’s without considering the bloatware that either or both parties might impose. I intentionally focus on devices that offer the most value for price paid, which includes upfront or payment-plan purchased unlocked. 

No one should be compelled to take any kind of cellular contract. These obligations let you get a good phone cheap (during holiday deals often for under $100 if not free) but limit options later on—such as carrier choice or affordable service plans. So my buying guide also slants in favor of devices for which obligation is one: Price you pay to buy, whether upfront or installments.

Nexus 5X
My first of two top value-picks for Holiday 2015 is the LG-manufactured, Google-branded Nexus 5X—with 32GB storage. I wouldn’t recommend that anyone buy a 16GB smartphone, particularly if storage is not expandable. Google directly sells the handset, which is discounted $80 through Cyber Monday. Buy now and pay $349 rather than $429.

Nexus 5X and Droid Collectible

Major benefits:

  • Excellent display (5,2 inches; 1920 x 1080 resolution; 423 pixels per inch)
  • Best-of-price digital cameras (12.3 megapixel f/2 back; 5MP front)
  • Fingerprint reader (on back) for easy and secure unlocking
  • All-carrier support, including Verizon
  • Android 6 Marshmallow
  • Snappy performance
  • Shoots 4K video
  • Slo-mo 120fps
  • Battery life
  • Unlocked

As I often say, the best devices aren’t about features but how they balance to deliver meaningful benefits. By the specs, some other smartphones seem better for the price paid. I highly recommend this phone, which with Marshmallow meets or outclasses any iPhone in similar price category, and that would be the two-year-old 32GB 5s, which Apple sells for $499.

Simply stated: Nexus 5X does everything it needs to well. The fingerprint reader on the back is life-changing, as are some of Android 6 capabilities—Now on Tap tops the list. For more expansive view of specs and benefits, see my Nexus 5X review.

Nexus 6
Think of the 2014-released, Motorola-made, Google-branded phablet as last year’s model for tomorrow’s price. For what you get, compared to what you pay, this overstuffed smartphone (hey, it’s a 6-inch display) offers exceptional value. Briefly on Black Friday, before stock sold out, Amazon offered the 32GB Midnight Blue variant for a sweet $199.99. What a steal!

You may not find anything close to that again, but even current prices are astounding. As I write, Amazon stocks the 32 gigger for $339.95 and the 64GB variant for $399.99. For the specs, and they’re as big as the phone, Nexus 6 is the value-pick of the season. I would watch for even better prices as Christmas approaches.

But be warned: This beauty is huge! It measures 159.3 x 83 x 3.8-10.1mm (6.27 x 3.15 x .15-.39 inches) and weighs 184 grams (6.49 ounces). Length is slightly greater than iPhone 6 Plus, which measures 151.8 x 77.8 x 7.1mm (6.22 x 3.06 x .28 inches) and weighs 172 grams (6.07 ounces). My mom and one of my sisters both use Nexus 6, and neither is a geek.

Nexus 6 Charlie Brown

Major benefits:

  • Overly-large display (5,96 inches; 2560 x 1440 resolution; 493 pixels per inch)
  • Category-leading digital cameras (13 megapixel f/2 back; 2MP front)
  • Large enough to functionally replace a 7- or 8-inch tablet
  • Android 6 Marshmallow upgradeable
  • All-carrier support, including Verizon
  • Turbo Charging tops off battery fast
  • Front-facing speakers
  • Snappy performance
  • Bang for the buck
  • Shoots 4K video
  • Battery life
  • Unlocked

For more expansive view of specs and benefits, see my Nexus 6 review.

Moto X Pure Edition
Lenovo’s U.S. subsidiary makes the list twice, largely for value and customization. Motorola lets you design your own phone, with trim and enclosure accents that express your style. Pure Edition starts at $399.99 for 16GB (capacity not recommended) and moves up to $449.99 (32GB), then to $499.99 (64GB). Those prices fluctuate depending on how you personalize. For example, wood or leather backing adds $25.

Major benefits:

  • Excellent display (5,7 inches; 2560 x 1440 resolution; 520 pixels per inch)
  • Best-of-price digital cameras (21 megapixel f/2 back; 5MP front)
  • Personalized design using Moto Maker
  • All-carrier support, including Verizon
  • Turbo Charging tops off battery fast
  • microSD expandable up to 128GB
  • Front-facing soeakers
  • Snappy performance
  • Shoots 4K video
  • Unlocked

My gripe against Moto X PE is the operating system: Android 5.1.1 Lollipop. I would expect Marshmallow in a smartphone sold unlocked like the Nexuses. That said, memory is expandable, a feature for which Marshmallow hugely improves (well, when available). For expansive view of specs and benefits, see Android Authority’s review.

Nexus 6P
Huawei makes the phablet for Google, which, like newer iPhones, tops out at 128GB storage. But the cost is considerably less ($649 compared to $949). Among higher-spec smartphones, the 6P is exceptional value for the price. Google directly sells the large smartphone, starting at $499 for 32GB (the 64 gigger is $549). You won’t find many high-end handsets in this class unlocked for such affordable price.

Nexus 6P Sensor and Camera

Major benefits:

  • Superb screen (5,7 inches; 2560 x 1440 resolution; 518 pixels per inch)
  • Excellent digital cameras (12.3 megapixel f/2 back; 8MP front)
  • Fingerprint reader (on back) for easy and secure unlocking
  • All-carrier support, including Verizon
  • Android 6 Marshmallow
  • Front-facing speakers
  • Snappy performance
  • Shoots 4K video
  • Slo-mo 240 fps
  • Battery life
  • Unlocked

Like other Nexuses, the 6P balances benefits superbly. The finish is a bit too smooth for my taste, making it a greater drop risk than all other smartphones on this list, But gripability is better than 6 or 6s series iPhones, for which I highly recommend a back-fitting case at the least.

For more expansive view of specs and benefits, see my Nexus 6P review.

Addendum
To reiterate, my holiday primer deliberately focuses on higher-end smartphones that are unlocked and in one device available for all carriers. The iPhone 6 and 6s series easily qualify, and if the iOS ecosystem is your thing and you don’t mind paying more, Apple gives good. See my iPhone 6 and 6 Plus reviews—and I have used the 6s Plus, too. Few people will be disappointed with the benefits.

But there are some other Androids that deserve mention, namely the LG G4 and V10, along with Samsung Galaxy Note 5. The smartphones’ crime is confined carrier distribution in the United States.

G4 and V10. The two LG handsets offer the best camera experience on any handset at every price, including image quality and additional benefit of manual controls. As a measure of balanced benefits, the LG V10 is the best smartphone available anywhere this holiday season.

Want to selfie with friends? There are two front-facing cameras, one of which is for wide-angle shots. T-Mobile’s V10 price is best among major carriers: $599.99, with 64GB storage. I hope to review this exceptional smartphone in the near future.

Galaxy Note 5. This exceptional phablet is best-of-class in every way imaginable except U.S. carrier distribution limitations. Screen, camera, build quality, and unquestionably the stylus make the handset among the finest sold anywhere. I’m not a big fan of Samsung’s bloatware but on any Note the extras are big-bang benefits when using the S-Pen.

That’s a wrap. Good Luck, Shoppers!

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