5 of the best underrated Android phones

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Whether you’re a power user, enthusiast, or a mainstream consumer, there’s a strong chance that the Android phone in your pocket is one of the last couple generations of Samsung, LG, HTC, or Sony flagships. In fact, statistics indicate that there’s more than a one-in-five chance that any smartphone user — whether he or she is using Android, iOS, or Windows Phone — owns a Samsung Android phone. So clearly, the Android smartphone market is dominated by flagships produced by the companies I mentioned above and a small number of others you might expect.

But there’s a new trend we’ve been seeing over the past couple years. We can now find flagship-level quality in mid-range devices. In other words, it’s no longer necessary to spend upward of a thousand dollars to get much of what the Samsung Galaxy S8 has to offer. Companies like Huawei, OnePlus, ZTE, and Lenovorola are leading the charge when it comes to making Android phones we would’ve snubbed just a few short years ago that can actually compete with the industry’s best-selling flagships.

In tribute to those devices that are often overlooked in favor of the big flagships, here are five of the best and most underrated Android phones, as well as what makes them so great.

Vivo V5 Plus — the unsung selfie hero

Every now and then, I like to look up the top OEMs for smartphone sales. At the top of the list, you always see Samsung, followed distantly by Apple. Beyond those two, there are a number of top-selling OEMs that are virtually unknown in the U.S., one of which is Vivo. Only appearing among the top-selling OEMs occasionally, Vivo is arguably most well-known for the Xplay 3S, which was the first smartphone with a 1440p QHD display. While Vivo hasn’t made too many headlines since then, the company still makes great smartphones. Interestingly, many of Vivo’s smartphones focus on one specific feature or set of features. In the case of the Vivo V5 Plus, that would be selfies.

Let’s face it: As painful as they can make browsing our social media feeds, selfies are an important smartphone feature for a lot of people. According to statistics, about 17 million selfies are uploaded to social media each week, and that’s just by millennials between the ages of 18 and 24. And if you’ve ever taken a selfie, you know that it can take dozens of shots before you get the perfect “duck face”, so we can safely assume that far more than 17 million selfies are actually taken. Meanwhile, Google says that more than 24 billion of users’ selfies are uploaded to Google Photos. Let that sink in for a minute.

With more than 24 billion of selfies uploaded to Google Photos, a top-notch front facing camera clearly meets consumer demand.

For all your selfie aficionados out there, the Vivo V5 Plus is a device you may want to consider. It has 16 MP shooter on the rear, but that’s not where the V5 Plus shines. On the front is a dual-camera setup with a primary sensor at 20 MP and an 8 MP secondary to bring in additional depth-of-field information. In other words, you get incredible sharpness and rich detail due to the primary’s higher-than-average pixel count, and the secondary sensor allows you to achieve that highly-desirable bokeh effect, which is how you get that creamy blurred background behind a subject that’s perfectly in focus.

Aside from the impressive selfie capabilities, the Vivo V5 Plus has an aluminum unibody design that’s more than reminiscent of the iPhone with a 5.5” display, a Hi-Fi audio chip, and Vivo’s own Funtouch 3.0 Android skin. After a quiet launch in January of this year, the V5 Plus is available for around $400, but the cost of importing may drive up that cost considerably since it’s not officially available in the US at this time. It may not be worth the trouble with its slightly unimpressive specs, but in the hands of someone with selfie addiction, the Vivo V5 Plus is priceless.

Xiaomi Mi Note 2 — where power, design, and shamelessness converge

Notice how both the front and back glass curve to meet the aluminum chassis in perfect symmetry, how there’s a complete absence of side bezels, how the only materials present in the construction of the device is glass with a bit of metal. Xiaomi’s phablet is more than just reminiscent of another company’s design language; before you even hold it in your hand, Xiaomi’s Mi Note 2 is sure to trigger a sense of déjà vu, evoking memories of the brief time we spent with the late Samsung Galaxy Note7. Were it not for the Note7’s tragically short lifespan, we surely would’ve seen the Mi Note 2 as just another Asian clone. As it stands, the Mi Note 2 is as overlooked as it is impressive, and (at least for the time being) it happens to also be the best way to fill that Note7-shaped hole in our hearts.

Fortunately, the Mi Note 2’s resemblance to the Note7 is more than just skin deep. Unfortunately, Xiaomi opted for a 5.5-inch 1080p FHD OLED rather than going QHD like the Note7, but the Mi Note 2 runs on a Snapdragon 821 CPU, Adreno 530 GPU, 6 GB of RAM, and 128 GB of built-in storage. Our own benchmarks show the Mi Note 2 as an outstanding performer, meaning that the power users among us should have no issues running the latest apps and games. It can appease photography enthusiasts, too, with a 22.5 MP rear camera and a somewhat less impressive 8 MP front-facing camera.

One of the most polarizing features of Asian-made Android phones is the… distinctive software. Many Asian OEMs put iOS-like skins over Android and Xiaomi’s MIUI is no exception. While the consensus seems to be that MIUI has been getting better over time, the development community has gained root access on the Mi Note 2, so you’re not stuck with Xiaomi’s skin necessarily. Also like other Asian-made Android phones, the main issue with the Mi Note 2 seems to be access. Since it’s not officially offered in the West, you’ll need to be motivated to get your hands on the Note7 look-a-like, but for those who put in the leg work, the Mi Note 2 features LTE bands that make it usable in virtually any market.

HTC 10 — still a great multimedia experience

Yes, I consider last year’s HTC flagship to be one of the most underrated Android smartphones, and I’ll tell you why. First, there’s the fact that the HTC 10 was barely a blip on the 2016 smartphone-market radar. Leading up to the 10, most would agree that HTC was having a rough go of it, but the 10 could’ve been the device that turned things around. It had an impressive all-metal build with a dramatic chamfer that lent to a more dramatic appearance as well as a great in-hand feel and usability. For those who find “phablets” to be too unwieldy, the HTC 10’s 5.2-inch QHD display hit the sweet spot. But what made the HTC 10 a compelling option in 2016 — and what continues to make HTC 10 a viable contender — is the multimedia experience it offers.

HTC has become synonymous with BoomSound, which, historically, came in the form of two front-facing speakers embedded in a device’s top and bottom bezels. However, one of the things that probably put many would-be buyers off the 10 was HTC’s decision to do away with the two front-facing BoomSound speakers that we’d come to know and love, and, instead, go with a bottom-facing primary speaker/woofer with the device’s earpiece doubling as a tweeter; it’s a similar setup as we eventually saw on the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus. To be clear, this new iteration of BoomSound still put every other smartphone’s built-in audio to shame, but it was a tougher sell because it was technically a step backward.

The HTC 10 is still a solid all-around contender, especially when you can pick it up for half (or even less) its original retail cost.

In addition to the BoomSound speaker setup, the HTC 10 offers Hi-Res audio processing with a 24-bit DAC. Coupled with display resolution of 1440p, the HTC 10 is a beast when it comes to multimedia. Whether you’re listening to music, watching movies, or even just perusing YouTube, you can really see all the time and effort HTC put into the 10. And let’s not forget that the 10’s primary camera ranks among the top smartphone cameras to date, receiving the same score as the brand new Samsung Galaxy S8 and being beaten only by the Google Pixel and the new HTC U11.

While its initial retail cost of $699 wasn’t unreasonable, the multimedia powerhouse was stifled by the highly-acclaimed Galaxy S7 line as well as super-competitive “budget flagships” like the OnePlus 3. Then Google’s Pixel phones (which are notably produced by HTC) came along and were yet another nail in the proverbial coffin. In fact, T-Mobile dropped the HTC 10 just two months after its launch due to extremely poor sales. But despite being outshined by increasingly stiff competition, the HTC 10 is still a solid contender, especially when you can pick it up for half (or even less) its original retail cost.

Meizu Pro 6 Plus — a Jack of a trades

Those of us who closely follow smartphone tech and reviews know that the best smartphones are the ones that tick the most boxes. We want to see smartphones that have great cameras, plenty of battery life, high-quality displays, and strong performance with unique and attractive designs. Meanwhile, each of us have certain boxes that are more important than others; for instance, you might need enough battery life to go at least two days between charges while I prefer a smartphone with a top-performing camera. Therefore, those that are strong performers in most categories without being mind-blowing in any of them are easy to overlook, which is the case with the Meizu Pro 6 Plus.

Unless you live in Asia, China-based Meizu is probably another unfamiliar OEM, but the company has been seriously upping its smartphone game. The aforementioned Pro 6 Plus earns both the “pro” and “plus” in its name with its 5.7-inch QHD display and octa-core Exynos 8890 CPU; yes, that’s the same chip that’s in the international variants of the Samsung Galaxy S7, S7 Edge, and ill-fated Note7. As well, the Pro 6 Plus utilizes the Sony IMX386 sensor as its 12 MP rear shooter, which also happens to be the primary sensor in the Honor 6X’s dual-camera setup.

Considering that it’s running one of the top CPUs of last year, it goes without saying that the Meizu Pro 6 Plus is a strong performer. And rather than being another iPhone ripoff in terms of design, it’s almost like Meizu took a more Frankensteinian approach, borrowing design cues from a number of different devices. For instance, the vertically-oriented rear camera and circular LED flash are reminiscent of the Axon 7, but the aluminum unibody design evokes the OnePlus 3 while still being faithful to the design of Honor’s other devices. Since its release last fall, the Pro 6 Plus has been available in Asian markets for just over $500, but as with other entries on the list, it’s not too difficult to have one shipped into the U.S. from abroad.

Lenovo P2 — the Android Energizer

If any of us felt pangs of worry when Lenovo bought Motorola from Google a few years ago, there’s surely no need to worry anymore. Virtually every Motorola device that’s come out since the acquisition has been well-received, from the budget-minded Moto G and X series to the higher-end Z series. But what about Lenovo’s own smartphones? Aside from launching the first Tango-enabled smartphone, Lenovo has seemed keen to let Motorola bear the brunt of the company’s smartphone sales, which is why it was so easy to overlook the Lenovo P2, a real diamond in the rough.

At a glance, the Lenovo P2 is nothing if not unassuming. Its design isn’t exactly memorable, its Snapdragon 625 CPU isn’t going to win any speed tests, and a 5.5-inch 1080p display is barely average by today’s standards. In short, the P2’s specs list is the epitome of humdrum… that is, until you see there’s a whopping 5100 mAh battery behind the scenes. No, that’s not a typo. Considering that it has a 1080p display and wasn’t designed to be a workhorse, the P2 would’ve had excellent battery life even with a normal-sized battery, but the Lenovo smartphone can offer an unprecedented three-day battery life. If you don’t really need that kind of longevity, Lenovo also suggests using the P2’s 5100 mAh battery a portable power bank for your wearables and Bluetooth headsets.

The P2 would’ve had excellent battery life with a normal-sized battery, but Lenovo recommends either enjoying the three-day battery life that 5100 mAh can offer or using a P2 as a portable power bank.

If there’s a lesson to be learned from the Lenovo P2, it’s that our perception of a device can change dramatically when there’s one particular feature that stands out from the crowd. It helps, too, that battery life happens to be important to most people since it’s a device’s battery that allows us to enjoy its other features. So even though many of the P2’s specs are merely satisfactory, the fact that the device can three days (or perhaps even longer) between charges makes it much more desirable. Plus, it offers all-metal construction, a fingerprint sensor, expandable storage, and the ability to fast-charge that huge battery while costing roughly $230. Although it might not be the right choice for everyone, the Lenovo P2 is definitely an underrated Android smartphone in my book.

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