It was a stellar year for smartphone innovation, design and progress. This despite the fact that the once-perennial innovator Apple failed to ignite the market with the iPhone 7 duo of devices. And despite the fact that Samsung ignited a little too much of the market with the disastrous Note 7.
The usual practise is to select a Smartphone of the Year, along with a couple of runners-up. This year, my choice for the top three phones of the year has been made enormously complicated by the fact that three handsets each offer distinctions so powerful, each would have been a shoo-in to clinch the top spot in previous years.
The result is something of a cop-out, but also an acknowledgement that different users with different needs would have opted for any of these as first choice: we have a three-way tie. The winners are the Samsung S7 Edge Injustice Edition, the Motorola Moto Z, and the Huawei P9 Plus.
Here are the reasons why each of these deserves to be the winner:
Motorola Moto Z
Motorola came back to South Africa with a figurative and literal bang – the latter being the mighty noise made by the Moto Z’s astonishing range of distinctions. It is the thinnest name-brand smartphone in the world, at only 5.19mm. It is also the first modular phone that can be adapted without opening or removing anything from the phone, as required by the LG G5.
The Moto Z was launched with a range of Mods, short for modifications, that clip onto the back of the phone. Since the phone is so thin, the mod does not bulk it up so much that it becomes unsightly. The initial range of four Mods include a JBL speaker, Hasselblad camera, and a projector called the Insta-Share.
The latter is the highlight of the family, and makes it possible to project anything visible on the phone display onto any other surface. In a dark room, this allows for the equivalent of a 70-inch display on a white wall. In other words, using a ShowMax or Netflix app on the phone, one can watch a movie on a bigger screen that the average large-screen display in South African homes.
The phone’s specs are not too shabby either, with a 5.5-inch display (2560×1440), fingerprint scanner, Snapdragon 820 processor, 4GB RAM, 64GB expandable storage, 13MP rear camera, 5MP front, and a 2600mAh battery.
Huawei P9 Plus
Huawei has been upping its smartphone game year by year, much the way Samsung did before its global breakthrough with the Galaxy S3 and S4. Its equivalent phones that made the market pay attention were the Huawei P6 and P7 devices, while the P8 marked time in much the same way Samsung did with the S5.
The P9 and its big brother, the P9 Plus, take Huawei to a different dimension. While the P9 is a 5.2-inch device and the Plus carries a 5.5-inch display, both feature a breakthrough that defines the new Huawei. They each carry a dual 12MP lens using optics from camera pioneer Leica.
One lens uses a colour RGB sensor, while the other is monochrome; the two use image fusion technology to combine their simultaneous images into one photo. The result is richer colour from the RGB sensor and greater detail from the monochrome, combining to allow Huawei to compete on image quality for the first time.
The P9 Plus is the standout of the two. In one of its colour options, Haze Gold, it is almost indistinguishable from last year’s Mate S, the phablet phone that took on the Samsung Note range in many departments. However, there are two standout distinctions: a sleek, rounded unibody that almost exceeds the industrial design standards set by the iPhone, and the two lenses on the rear, accompanying a dual-LED flash.
Outside of the curved edge screens of the Samsung S6 and S7 edge devices, there is no finer-looking phone on the market.
Samsung S7 Edge Injustice Edition
And that brings us to what is possibly the most beautiful smartphone ever made, the limited edition Injustice version of the Samsung S7 Edge. The basic S7 Edge is a superb phone in its own right, easily able to compete with the other phones in this list. Its curved edge screen continues to set it apart aesthetically from anything else on the market.
Now add an exclusive theme, and bake that into both the hardware and software of the phone. That’s what Samsung did when they teamed up with DC Comics and Warner Bros Entertainment to mark the release of the Injustice 2 mobile game, featuring a range of DC superheroes and villains. Since Batman is the standout hero, he was chosen to turn this into a standout phone, and it could well have been named the Batman Edition.
The midnight black unibody of the phone is inlaid with gold trimmings, from the speaker grill and edge of the fingerprint sensor, along with the Samsung logo on the front, to a Batman logo and edges of the camera lens and flash. An included protective plastic rear cover features an equally stylish logo Batsuit-inspired ribbing.
The limited edition phone is also packaged with a black edition of the Samsung Gear VR headset, and a voucher for downloading non-free VR content.
The Batman theme chosen for the phone blends in perfectly, with a range of iconic logos and images appearing on the home screens, messaging backgrounds and phone interface. Call up the keyboard, and that batsuit theme appears again.
The icons and category folders are all in gold on black, with the cherry on top the apps icon, which appears as a Batman mask.
For any Batman fan, this is the ultimate phone. For anyone who appreciates the character as well as stylish smartphone design inside and out, it is a visual feast. The aesthetic pleasure of both the phone and its interface has yet to wear off after six months of use.
The almost phones
Three phones didn’t make it to the top, but made a major impact this year. They were:
- The Apple iPhone 7 Plus: the ultimate phone for the iPhone aficionado, with a faster processor, better camera and better display than previous editions. The absence of a headphone jack and earphones, replaced by wireless AirPods, has attracted the most attention. The Airpods have been described as looking like tiny toothbrushes in the ear, and keep the iPhone outside the list above. Improved versions in future may well take it back to the top.
- The LG G5: a beautiful if chunky phone with a slide-down bottom that allows for Friends – LG’s version of Mod add-ons – to replace the battery. The add-ons include a camera, speakers and battery. The G5 is also at the heart of a new LG ecosystem of Virtual Reality goggles and camera – the 360 Cam – and apps that bring these features into their own.
- The Sony Xperia XZ: with one of the finest cameras ever seen on a phone. It is the world’s first smartphone with 5-axis image stabilisation, which compensates for camera shake in any direction. This allows for smoother and stable videos while walking or during extreme close-ups. Distance sensing and colour sensing technology have been added to a 23 MP lens.Between the XZ, the iPhone 7 Plus, and the Huawei 9 Plus, smartphone photographers have never had it better.