Smartphones have been really good lately. There are so few clunkers, it’s tough to figure out which to get. In late 2015, it’s particularly tough, as there are three excellent Android handsets available: the Samsung Galaxy Note5, Samsung Galaxy S6 edge+, and the Motorola Moto X Pure Edition. Yes, there are other new and flagship-level phones on the market, like the OnePlus 2 and there are two new Nexus devices, but these three handsets have been widely available for a few months. This means bugs have been ironed out and new features launched.
Read our reviews and you’ll see that they are all good. So which is the best? It turns out that the better questions is, who’s buying?
Build and Design
These phones are all big, measuring about 6 x 3, and range between .43 (Moto X) and .27 (S6 edge+) inches thick. Each weigh less than .4 pounds, meaning that any difference is insignificant. They take up the same footprint.
The Note5 and edge+ are stunning smartphones. They look high-end, with Gorilla Glass back panels and aluminum frames. The edge+ is the slicker of the two owing to its curved display. Unfortunately, both are also fingerprint magnets, and both lack a microSD card slot and a removable battery.
The Moto X Pure Edition looks like a run-of-the-mill smartphone. It’s nothing special, but Motorola lets users customize the back panel, accents, and display trim colors, as well as back panel material (leather, wood, or textured plastic). It also doesn’t have a removable battery, but it does have a microSD card slot, which is inconveniently located alongside the SIM card, meaning you have to eject the SIM to swap the card. It’s annoying, but better than nothing.
Motorola claims the Moto X is water repellant, while Samsung makes no such assertion. We can’t say just how much more water the Moto X can resist before failing, so we’re wary about taking any of the three out in the rain.
These smartphones aren’t rugged, and you’ll want a case to protect against drops, especially for the Note5 and edge+. Their glass backs are slick. The Moto X ships with a clear plastic edge case, which we love. While it’s only a cheap piece of plastic that doesn’t replace a full-on protective case, it’s also an extra that gives us a little peace of mind while we pick out a better option. Kudos to Motorola for the consideration.
Bottom Line: The Galaxy smartphones are two of the best built and best designed smartphones we’ve ever seen. The Moto X has more utility and some robust customization offerings. We say it’s a wash.
The Samsung Galaxy Note5 has a 5.7-inch Gorilla Glass 4 Super AMOLED display with a 2560 x 1440 resolution, giving it 518 pixels per inch.
The Samsung Galaxy S6 edge+ has the same, but with sloped edges.
The Motorola Moto X Pure Edition has a 5.7-inch Gorilla Glass IPS TFT LCD display, also with the same resolution.
The Moto X display is good. The Samsung Galaxy smartphone displays are the best we’ve seen to date. We seem to say that with every new Samsung smartphone, and it’s because the Super AMOLED technology Samsung uses to build the display is noticeable superior to LCD. The colors are more vibrant and the blacks are deeper.
Of the two Samsung Android smartphones, the Galaxy S6 edge+ gets the, ahem, edge. The sloped sides provide limited utility, but they create the illusion that apps and content are floating over the display. This is the kind of display you’ll watch anything on, just to see how cool it looks.
Bottom line: The Moto X is good, and it shrugs off glare from overhead light and sun well. Both Samsung smartphones are better, and also do very well outdoors. The Note5 would be the best we’ve seen to date if not for the S6 edge+ and its curved edges.
No matter which you chose, it sports a microUSB 2.0 port and 3.5mm audio jack. We expect USB C to replace 2.0 very soon, and these could be the last flagships to ship with it.
As mentioned, the Moto X has a microSD card slot, and no onscreen buttons. It also has a power button and volume rocker, which we complained were easy to confuse by touch alone, even though the power button is slightly textured.
The Samsung Galaxies have a home button that doubles as a fingerprint scanner, sitting between two capacitive softkeys, back and all apps. Volume control is split into two buttons, and they sit on one side opposite the power button. Both have a heartrate sensor just under the back camera.
We prefer the Galaxy layout as it eliminates any potential volume/power confusion. We also like the home button as it is more satisfying to push or click something than tap an icon. It’s easier to find without looking as well. Samsung also gets credit for the fingerprint scanner. It works consistently enough that it’s not a liability, and we appreciate the convenience of a quick thumb press to unlock in lieu of PIN code or password. Smartphone heartrate sensors exemplify feature creep in our experience and are unnecessary. But since they don’t distract from the designs here, they are easy to ignore.
The Samsung Galaxy speakers are bottom mounted, while the Moto X has front-facing speakers. Samsung loaded up granular audio controls and audio upscaling, which has a more profound effect on local media than it does streaming. The Moto X speakers are a bit louder and fuller by default, but the difference is slight.
Bottom Line: Samsung nails it with button placement and the fingerprint scanner. But give Motorola credit for the microSD card slot. The Moto X also has better sound output overall. These three Android devices have better speaker performance than most others, but we’d sooner flip a coin to make a buying decision than rely on smartphone speaker quality.
The Samsung Galaxy Note5 is the only one of the three with stylus support. Even though it’s a Samsung smartphone, the S6 edge+ does not work with the S Pen. We’ve found older S Pens work with the Note5, though don’t fit into the smartphone’s receptacle.
The S Pen docks within the Note5, and the smartphone has some excellent software tweaks to take advantage of it. Note mainstays like Action Memo, Smart Select, and S Note are on board, but we especially like the ability to actually edit and not just write over PDFs. The lock screen scribble pad is also a great addition, but we really love the way it has all been implemented on the phone. The S Pen features feel more accessible and almost native to Android rather than tacked on. More than any previous Note, the S Pen features are easier to incorporate into workflows.
Both Samsung Galaxies sport an octa-core Exynos 7420 chipset (64-bit, 2.1GHz Quad + 1.5GHz Quad) and 4GB of RAM. The Moto X Pure Edition sports a hexa-core Snapdragon 808 processor (1.8GHz), which includes a 600Mhz Adreno 418 GPU, and various cores dubbed the Motorola Computing System dedicated to natural voice processing and motion-based controls and triggers, along with 3GB of RAM.
The Note5 and S6 edge+ are more powerful, which shows in the benchmarks.
Using all three side-by-side-by-side, it’s tough to discern which is the best performer. However, the extra GB of RAM helps the Samsung smartphones with multitasking, and the demands of the various TouchWiz features Samsung adds to Android. Many of these, like Multi Mode, necessitate decent horsepower.
Bottom Line: The Moto X isn’t bad, but it can’t keep up with the Samsung Galaxy Note5 and S6 edge+.
All three smartphone run Android 5.1.1 Lollipop, and are a lock for an Android Marshmallow update. Given the companies’ histories with updates, we expect they will also receive the Android N update as well, but we are a bit more confident in Motorola’s ability to more quickly roll it out.
The Motorola Moto X has a near stock version of Android, coupled with Motorola’s genuinely useful software tweaks. We especially like Moto Actions and Moto Display, and we love the fact that it’s available unlocked from Motorola and supports the four major US carriers. This means that it’s free of carrier bloatware like NFL Mobile and redundant navigation apps.
Though it’s scaled back things with recent Galaxies, Samsung still has some of the heaviest Android additions thanks to its TouchWiz. Most tweaks, like Multi Mode, prove useful, and others are necessary differentiators like the S Pen features and the Apps Edge. Thankfully, Samsung no longer preloads an absurd amount of bloatware, but rather keeps them available through its Galaxy App store. Instead, it preloads Microsoft Office apps and quality utilities like SideSync, which can’t be deleted, only disabled.
The Samsung Galaxy Note5 and Samsung Galaxy S6 edge+ differ only in that the Note5 has the S Pen and its respective pen software, while the edge+ has the Apps Edge and People Edge, which features shortcuts and colored alerts on the sloped sides.
We tested the 32GB versions of all three devices, and each shipped with about 23GB to 24GB of space available out of the box.
Bottom Line: The Note5 and Edge features undoubtedly add to the devices, and are fine Android tweaks. Compare the rest of Samsung TouchWiz to the clean Moto X and the Motorola Android smartphone gets the win. The closer to stock Android the better.
Android Pay, Google’s NFC payment system, is similar to Apple Pay in that in requires specialized hardware on the retailer’s end to process payment, and it’s on all three phones. Many major outlets accept it, but not all, and small mom-and-pop shops are less likely.
The Note5 and S6 edge+ are also Samsung Pay devices. Because Samsung Pay supports magnetic secure transmission (MTS) technology, it can be accepted just about anywhere that accepts credit cards. MTS has its limits (some card readers require a physical trigger, like those found at gas stations), but Samsung Pay is clearly accepted at more retailers than any other mobile payment.
Bottom Line: Samsung is the clear winner here.
All three smartphones have a sizable 3,000mAh battery, but the Galaxy Android phones have much better battery life. The Moto X Pure Edition lasted 5 hours streaming Netflix over Wi-Fi with the display brightness maxed out. The Galaxies both lasted approximately 7 hours and 10 minutes. That’s impressive. The Galaxies likely owe their longevity to a processor capable of managing power effectively, and their AMOLED displays, which require less power than the Moto X’s LCD.
Both feature some sort of fast charging technology that power up a dead battery to 50% in about 20 to 30 minutes, and fully charge it in the hour, with the Moto X being a few minutes faster than the Galaxies.
Both the Note5 and S6 edge+ support PMA and WPC wireless charging technologies out of the box, while the Moto X does not. In fact, it doesn’t support any wireless charging technologies.
Bottom Line: The Moto X charges a bit faster, but the Galaxies last longer and can be wirelessly charged. They win.
These are LTE smartphones, with the Samsung Galaxies featuring LTE Cat. 6 and 9, along with dual-band 802.11 b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth v4.2 LE. The Moto X Pure Edition is an LTE Cat. 6 device, with the same Wi-Fi spec, and Bluetooth v4.1 LE.
LTE Cat. 9 promises absurdly fast speeds, but it’s tough to find in the US. Users probably also won’t notice the difference in Bluetooth either. The 4.2 standard is technically faster and has a greater capacity along with increased security, but those features were added with the Internet of Things in mind. For smartphone users, keyboards, smartwatches, and other Bluetooth accessories will function just about the same on all three devices.
Bottom Line: Technically, the Samsung smartphones are better. In real-world usage, any difference is tough to discern.
The Moto X has the Galaxies beat on the megapixel count, with its 21-megapixel rear shooter and 5-megapixel front camera, compared to 16 megapixels and 5, respectively. But the Galaxies have f/1.9 lens and optical image stabilization, while the Moto X has an f/2.0 and no OIS.
On paper, the strengths and weaknesses here should balance out, but in the world these smartphones occupy, the Galaxy Android handsets are the superior cameras. They are actually some of the best available (if not the best), and rival the output of any point and shoot. They especially excel in more challenging shooting situations, delivering clarity, detail, and balance.
The Moto X camera is decent, and is definitely a step up from the previous Moto Android offerings. We like the quick launch action and the camera app’s simplicity. But it’s clearly one of the weakest compared against other flagships in 2015.
All three cameras can shoot 4k video, but the Galaxies are the only that support RAW image files (a huge plus for serious photographers that like to tinker in Photoshop). Plus, the Galaxies are the only smartphones that enable YouTube live streaming. This process is surprisingly cumbersome using a laptop or desktop, as of this writing, so it’s a great exclusive. But Google owns YouTube, so it probably won’t be long before the feature becomes baked into the YouTube app for Android. Note5 users can also annotate photos with the S Pen.
Bottom Line: The Samsung Galaxy Note5 and S6 edge+ have two of the best smartphone cameras on the market. The Moto X isn’t bad, but it’s a long way from being equal.
Samsung Galaxy Note5 and S6 edge+ prices vary by carrier, but off contract they both run about $700 for the 32GB version and $800 for the 64GB version.
Here’s where the Moto X Pure Edition shines. It starts at $400 for the 16GB version, going up to $450 and $500 for the 32GB and 64GB versions, respectively.
Bottom Line: The Moto X Pure Edition is the best value at the high end of the smartphone market. Samsung can’t compete.
The Best Android Smartphone
A superb display, camera, processing power, and Samsung Pay make the Samsung Galaxy Note5 and Samsung Galaxy S6 edge+ the best smartphones in this bunch, and likely the best Android smartphones of 2015. Of the two, the edge+ is a slicker device, but we prefer and recommend the Note5 for its handy S Pen. Samsung did a great job incorporating the S Pen features into the device, and even casual users will benefit from it.
That said, we can’t dismiss price, and the Samsung hardware is prohibitively expensive. If the money is coming out of our pockets, we’re going with the Moto X Pure Edition. As we stated in the review, it has a “just right” balance of price and performance, with an excellent Android implementation, and fun design choices.
Bottom Line: If someone else is buying, go with the Samsung Galaxy Note5. If you’re picking up the tab, the Moto X Pure Edition is much better than good enough.