Friday, 02 December 2016 17:26

What excited me in 2016 – flagship smartphones

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OPINION It is that time of year when I reflect on what excited me most about devices I reviewed during the year. I reviewed smartphones from $99 to $1799. Some were remarkable.

The year 2016 was different to previous years in that smartphone makers began to realise that there is only so much you can do with a “glass slab”. Sure, you can increase screen to body ratio (Apple, please note that your pathetic 65.6% and 67.7% iPhone 7 and 7 Plus don’t cut it when ratios are now above 75% and approaching 90%!!!).

Sure, you can put in faster processors, more memory and storage – Moore’s Law takes care of that. Every iteration should be faster, cheaper better. Strangely few flagship makers reduced prices during the year (Apple, please take note that it is not nice to announce making more average profit per unit – we simply see this as price gouging).

But there were some standout smartphones this year in the flagship range and I make no more mention of Apple that don’t even get a look in for this listing. Why? Android now rules 90% of the market and that is what 90% of readers are interested in.

Before I go into detail let me say that you would be happy with any of the flagship contenders – each has many strengths and few weaknesses. “There is but a cigarette paper between them.”

The year’s contenders (and review links) are:

Samsung Galaxy Note7

Note 7It was sad that a very small number (about 50 from 3 million) caught fire and terrific that Samsung acted so decisively, quickly and responsibly in recalling them. Samsung is not able to reveal the cause at present because the matter is out of its hands – the US and other global authorities have taken over the task of independently assessing the cause and Samsung can only wait for the results. I have it on good authority that more than 7000 handsets have been thoroughly overcharged, dropped, thrown, overheated, and otherwise abused at an independent research facility in Vietnam and none have caught fire!

Whatever the outcome, it is patently obvious that Samsung needs to show amazing quality control and that it did everything it could to ensure this never happens again. Bouquets to Samsung for its handling of a very sensitive issue.

This 5.7”, Edge-styled, stylus-equipped, smartphone won my heart in the two short weeks I had it. Samsung has perfected the pen on paper feel that is needed to make a stylus useful on glass. Its software user interface was perfect.

I suspect we won’t see a “Note” again, but we will see an S8 Edge Plus next year.

Samsung Galaxy 5.1” S7 and 5.7” Edge

samsung galaxy s7 edge 2This is a perfect smartphone covering top draw hardware, a light touch User Interface, value added Galaxy apps, QHD AMOLED screen, IP68, wireless charging, microSD support, amazing camera, and the curvy Edge design is damned sexy. The whole package gets a 10 out of 10.

Until the Pixel XL came along, it had no peer in rear camera, daylight photography. Pixel is marginally better, but most users will not notice. In all other modes, the GS7 beats the Pixel with a faster lens and bigger µm pixels.

The Edge is the smartphone that I return to after reviews and its always so pleasing to “come home”. Everything just works so well.

LG G5

lg g5The LG G5 was LG’s flagship, but in fact it was not. Its superseded V10 and new V20 are, and I have not yet reviewed the latter.

So it is high praise indeed that I chose to travel overseas with the G4 for two reasons. First, it’s the only smartphone with a removable battery, and you cannot believe how convenient it is to have a spare battery and standalone charger when travelling.

Second, it has the best “tourist” camera of all with a separate 8MP, 135° wide angle lens as well as a 16MP lens. The Grand Canyon never looked so good, and its panorama mode was excellent.

On top of that, it tried to introduce LG friends that mated with the battery slot. The idea was good, but the execution flawed.

I cannot wait to get my hands on the V20 with its dual screen, dual rear camera and B&O pro-audio and video.

Moto Z and Moto Mods

Moto Z headerI reviewed the Moto Z and Moto Mods just before the Google Pixel, and the review was a part shootout where I claimed the Moto Z was better because of its Mods and the light touch of Moto’s UI added considerable value to Pixel’s raw Pure Android.

As it stands it should win the best flagship for its innovative and extremely functional Mods including a Hasselblad camera, Incipio offGrid battery and wireless charger, and JBL stereo speakers.

The smartphone by itself is notable for its wonderfully thin design, 5.5” QHD AMOLED screen, good camera, and Moto UI. But there is actually an even better Moto Z called the Force (DROID) exclusive to Verizon in the US that uses Moto Mods and has a better-specified camera, shatter proof screen, longer battery.

Anyway, I would take a Moto Z with the Hasselblad camera, JLB speakers and Incipio offGrid Wireless charger/battery any day!

Google Pixel and XL

PIxel headerI think the Pixel has the potential to be one of the great smartphones, but it is not quite there yet. Call this a damned good attempt at version 1.0. I liked the device; its camera is the best for daylight shots, but it is let down by a basic camera app and pure Android lacking the finesse of Samsung, LG, and Moto user interfaces.

I am continuing to use it and getting more used to the foibles like no separate volume adjustment for notifications and a lack of notification screen shortcuts to do things like turn off mobile roaming data. For the most part, it is a great smartphone, the 5.5 QHD AMOLED screen is terrific. It lacks water resistance and a microSD slot (buy the 128GB version), so it loses points there.

I have yet to try DayDream and VR in detail, and I have had limited exposure to its Google Assistant.

My take – if you want Pure Android for fast Google updates you can’t get better.

I have also not included the excellent Google Nexus phones from LG and Huawei. These are both great pure Android phones and in some ways were better than the Pixel which sees the end of Nexus.

Sony Xperia XZ

Sony XZ headerI used the term “tantalisingly close to right” in the review, and that reflected a small frustration known as “close but no cigar”. The hardware is there but firmware it not. For example, the camera is a great daylight performer but it is not so good in low light, and it should be. I also think the 3GB RAM will be a limit when it is updated to Android Nougat.

Nevertheless, it is worthy of flagship status and puts back meaning into the phrase “It’s a Sony”.

 

 

 

 

Huawei P9

Huawei P9 headerThis is the value flagship at $799, and for that reason alone it deserves special mention although I see discounting to $650 online, so that makes it exceptional value. It has great craftsmanship, and it comes from a reliable, quality company with excellent local support.

It is always a risk when you review a very early release of the hardware/software/firmware and it showed. The Leica camera was good, but during tests back in August it did not live up to the hype. Having said that other journalists say later updates have brought it back into the game. Regrettably, its price dictated some compromises – its own Kirin processor (it is very good, but not a Qualcomm, having about 30% less power), 3GB RAM, 32GB storage, no waterproofing, nor wireless charging, IPS screen etc. The Huawei UI was adequate but built for its major Chinese market.

 

Missing from the list

HTC 10 that was not reviewed despite requests to the PR company.

I have not included the exceptional but niche player Windows 10 Mobile Microsoft Lumia 950 XL and Continuum dock. Lumia was actually released in 2015 and its specs reflect that generation.

It will be interesting to see the new HP Elite x3 as the update of the Lumia and the rumoured Microsoft Surface phone.

OK, the winner is!

On the best tech scale, the Samsung Galaxy S7 and Edge version in particular, are the best all round, with QHD AMOLED screens, wireless charging, microSD support, great camera, waterproofing and support. They win hands down – the Note 7 would have.

On the best value scale the Huawei P9 if you can get it at under $700 wins. However, the excellent LG G5 is probably a better buy technology wise, and I have seen them at around at similar prices.

On the innovation scale, Moto Z and Mods are epoch-making and is what I would probably buy if I had a lazy $1700 to get the phone and the three mods to extend it way beyond a smartphone. Damn, I would love to use this for an extended period – two weeks’ review was not enough.

On the best new entrant scale, Google’s Pixel XL shows a lot of promise, but never buy V1.0 of anything. Google also needs to show it can support a hardware product – it is an online company par excellence.

Conclusion

It is very hard to choose. Read the iTWire reviews, don’t try and build up a spreadsheet of all specs or you will go mad, and pick one and be very happy. They all get my tick of approval.

If you don’t agree with my assessment tell me why, but don’t try to be smart with unsupported fanboy claims.

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Ray Shaw

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Ray Shaw [email protected]  has a passion for IT ever since building his first computer in 1980. He is a qualified journalist, hosted a consumer IT based radio program on ABC radio for 10 years, has developed world leading software for the events industry and is smart enough to no longer own a retail computer store!

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