Let me just say something right off the bat: I really hate mobile device rankings.
You know the drill: "It's the end of the year, so we're going to create a list that orders the current Android phones in terms of" -- hell, I don't even know what. And I think that's the problem: Trying to make an ordered list of the "best" this-or-that usually feels like an arbitrary and forced effort. At the end of the day, what it's like to use a particular smartphone just isn't something you can quantify and represent with a number.
So let me assure you that what you're about to read is not one of those efforts. This is not a list for the sake of having a list, nor is it some kind of attempt at a weird Battle of the Egos awards show. This is simply a small collection of personal recommendations from a guy who's used and reviewed all the high-profile Android phones of the year -- nothing less, nothing more.
Why bother with such a collection? Because picking out an Android phone isn't easy. There are tons of choices, and trying to sort through the madness and find the most sensible option can get really overwhelming. It's no wonder everyone I know is always asking for a recommendation.
Here, then, is my answer -- in its most stripped-down, straight-forward, and undiluted form. I'm not going to try to be diplomatic; I'm just going to be honest.
After living with all the various Android devices released over the past several months, these are the phones I recommend to my own friends and family -- and the phones I would buy (and have bought) myself.
The best all-around Android phone for most people
The Nexus 6P is my default recommendation for anyone who just wants an excellent all-around phone that's a pleasure to use. And for good reason: The device is beautifully designed and constructed, with an aluminium body that's premium as can be and build quality that's up there with the best of 'em.
The list keeps going: The Huawei-made 6P has a stunning AMOLED display; one of the best cameras in a smartphone today (even in tricky low-light conditions); solid battery life; a superb fingerprint sensor; support for the next-gen USB Type-C charging standard; good-sounding dual front-facing speakers; impeccable performance; and full compatibility with any U.S. carrier -- including Google's unusual new multi-network Project Fi service.
And that's all just the foundation. The real star of the show is the Nexus 6P's software, which is a pure and unadulterated version of Google's Android 6.0 Marshmallow OS -- straight from the source, with none of the arbitrary visual changes or redundant service-adding silliness most manufacturers barf into the mix. The result is a cohesive end-to-end experience that's rare on Android devices and a true delight to use.
As I said in my real-world review:
The diversity stemming from Android's open nature has been critical to the platform's growth and success -- but at this point, a holistic package with a single unified vision simply makes for a better user experience.
Equally significant, the fact that the phone comes from Google means you'll actually get fast and reliable ongoing upgrades -- both with full OS releases and monthly security patches. I really can't emphasize the importance of that enough. Especially with the once-reliable Motorola losing all credibility on the upgrade front (and staying insultingly silent on the subject), if you want an optimal software experience with a proven guarantee of timely and ongoing upgrades, an unlocked Nexus phone is the only way to go.
And then there's the value part of the equation: The Nexus 6P starts at just $499 unlocked and off-contract -- a full $200 to $300 less than most traditional high-end flagship phones.
Plain and simple, the Nexus 6P is Android at its best in 2015. As long as you can deal with the not-so-compact (but surprisingly manageable) size, this is the Android phone to get right now.
If you want something a little smaller...
You can basically think of the Nexus 5X as a "Nexus 6P Lite": It has the same software, upgrade guarantee, camera setup, fingerprint sensor, USB-C support, and universal carrier compatibility (including, once again, the option of using Google's Project Fi service) -- only in a smaller and less premium form that also packs less horsepower.
In short, if you can stomach the larger size, the 6P is going to give you the better overall user experience. If you really prefer something smaller, the LG-made Nexus 5X is going to give you many of the same benefits -- with a few noteworthy caveats. (I broke them all down in a detailed hands-on comparison, if you want the full scoop.)
For some personal perspective, after reviewing the 5X and 6P together, I decided to get a 6P for myself. As much as I've resisted plus-sized phones in the past, its form really is quite usable -- and as a techie and smartphone enthusiast, the hardware-based advantages it offers over the 5X turned out to be quite meaningful to me in day-to-day use.
My wife tried out both phones and quickly determined she didn't care so much about those same factors. For her style of usage, the smaller size of the 5X was more important than the differences in areas like display quality and performance (which she could certainly notice, when I pointed them out; she just didn't find them to be terribly impactful in her own personal use). And as far as the 6P's more premium materials, she found she actually preferred the warmer and lighter feel of the 5X's plastic -- premium or not. My brother and a few other friends have since made the same decision for similar reasons (mainly the size part).
Like so many things, it ultimately just comes down to a matter of preferences and priorities. If a smaller size is a top priority for you, I'd look closely at the 5X. Otherwise -- especially if you consider yourself more of a power user or enthusiast -- I'd go with the 6P. And if you still aren't sure, click over to my real-world decision-making guide to figure it out.
If you want something even more affordable...
When it comes to the budget smartphone realm, you really can't do much better than Motorola's 2015 Moto G. The phone costs a mere $180 unlocked and off-contract -- or $220, if you want to double the RAM and storage (to 2GB and 16GB, respectively), which I would definitely recommend doing.
Either way, you're getting a well-built phone with a customizable design. It's simple and modest, to be sure, but sturdy -- water-resistant, even -- and quite attractive for its class. It's reasonably sized, too, which makes it refreshingly comfortable to hold and use in a single hand.
Most of the Moto G's hardware is best described as "pretty decent" -- which, for a couple hundred bucks, is pretty darn commendable. The phone's performance is fine for most casual use (especially if you go with the higher-RAM $220 version); its display is crisp and easy to see (even if not "ooh"-and-"ahh"-inducingly gorgeous); and it has a microSD card slot that lets you supplement the low onboard storage without much extra cost.
A couple of areas are really good -- not just for the price, but in general. The phone's stamina is one: During my time with the device, the 2015 Moto G consistently got me through full days of use without ever dipping below the 50% mark (and I'm not one to use a phone lightly). The camera is another; I'll let the samples I posted in my review speak for themselves, but suffice it to say, you'll have no problem getting great-looking images from this device -- as long as the lighting is good.
Last but not least is the software, which is Motorola's usual "stock-plus" approach and is more or less unmatched in the land of budget phones. And while Motorola's upgrade commitment ain't what it used to be, it's still about the best you're gonna get in the budget range (and the company has said it plans to update the 2015 Moto G to Marshmallow at some point in the foreseeable future, for what it's worth).
All in all, you're looking at a very respectable experience -- one that's perfect for someone like my mom, who doesn't care about the niceties of a higher-end device and just wants a solid phone that's comfy to carry and easy to use (and yes, she does actually have this phone -- I meant it when I said these were the same recommendations I give to my own family!).
If you're looking to spend around 200 bucks, this is the one you want.
Wait -- that's it?!
Hey, I told you: This isn't a comprehensive ranking or a red-carpet-worthy awards show. These are just the Android phones I'd recommend for most people looking for great overall user experiences right now.
Make no mistake about it: There are plenty of other good phones out there, and I'm certainly not saying no one should buy them. Samsung's Galaxy Note 5, for instance, is a fantastic device and easily the company's best effort to date.
The problem is that the Note doesn't exist in a vacuum -- and in the big picture, it costs significantly more than the Nexus 6P while its software, user experience, and upgrade situation are all meaningfully worse. With most of its other qualities being more or less on par with the 6P (including, in my experience, its camera), that makes it difficult to recommend for most people. If you really enjoy having a stylus (the Note's is first class!) or simply adore the Note's design or Samsung's approach to Android (and don't mind paying a hefty premium to get them), you might be an exception.
That same sort of comparison is what makes it difficult for me to recommend Motorola's Moto X Pure Edition in the current Android landscape. At $450 for a 32GB phone, it's just too close in price to the Nexus 6P and not nearly close enough in quality -- whether we're talking display appearance, performance consistency, camera versatility, upgrade reliability, or availability of next-gen hardware features like fingerprint sensing and USB-C support.
Here's the bottom line: If you use or like a phone that isn't on this list, that's A-OK. Brand loyalty, feature priorities, and personal preferences are always going to affect our buying decisions. That's why we have so many choices in life and in technology. If you already know what you like, by all means buy it and enjoy it.
If you're looking for a recommendation, though -- one from a guy who lives and breathes Android and has spent months getting to know all the noteworthy options available -- these are the phones I'd steer you toward. They'll give you the best real-world experiences and values you can find on Android today, and in my book, that's what counts the most.