Smartphones become so much more powerful and more aesthetically pleasing every year, it becomes increasingly difficult to choose a stand-out device. Overall features and functionality barely differ from one flagship handset to the next. The result is that one tends to focus on a specific feature or aspect of the phone that stands out from the rest.
This column’s choice of smartphones of the year come down to devices that have exactly that: a stand-out feature or function. This selection excludes phablets – phones with 5.5-inch or larger displays – and focuses on standard-format phones, i.e. smaller than 5.5-inch.
Smartphone of the year: Samsung S6 edge
The Samsung S6 edge is my choice for smartphone of the year for two compelling reasons. As phones go, it is a beauty to behold. The curved screen edges represent the most significant departure in phone design this year, making it practically the only phone of 2015 to break out of the rectangular block mould.
Initially, the utility of the edge screen was dubious, but once the software was updated to allow apps as well as contacts to be displayed on the edge, it came into its own. It should be said, however, that far more was expected in terms of utilities that specifically took advantage of the format of the secondary screen. There, users are still disappointed.
There has been compensation for this, however, in the dazzling quality of the Super AMOLED display and of photos taken with the 16 MP camera. I have yet to see a phone camera that matches this one for quality and clarity of images. The one-touch automatic light adjustment for shaded images offers almost the equivalent of the LG G4’s manual controls for exposure adjustment. The latter still has the, err, edge in manual settings, but can’t match the S6 for consistent quality in automatic mode.
How does the S6 edge match the Sony Xperia Z in this category, despite the latter’s eye-popping 23MP camera? For one thing, the size of the camera’s sensor plays a bigger role than Megapixels at this level, and both camera’s sport 1/2.6” sensors, as does the G4’s 16MP camera. However, when all else is equal, the software behind the image processing is all-important. Here, Samsung appears to have spent an inordinate amount of laboratory time in ensuring it brings the cutting edge to all its flagship phones, including the S6, S6 edge+ and Note 5, all of which share the same camera specs.
Those for whom high quality photography on the fly is make-or-break on a phone, it will be difficult to look past this one. If aesthetics is their reason to buy the phone, they may want to take heed of a cautionary tale: one cannot keep that gorgeous curved screen in pristine condition without a flip cover. That means its aesthetics will rarely be exposed, except to the user. In other words, not great for those who want a phone for status. I’d be quite happy to enjoy it privately.
The runners-up are all superb phones, but most suffer by their lack of significant advances over previous models.
#2. iPhone 6S
One can tell that Apple is running put of ideas when it calls its latest phones “the most powerful iPhones ever”. What, a new iPhone would be LESS powerful than the previous model?
Of course, almost every element is improved over the iPhone 6. Of course, it is a better version of a phone that was already superb. And of course, it is a must have for a die-hard iPhone user.
To the casual observer, however, it is the same phone, and it would be absurd to regard it as the best phone of the year. “Second-best” sounds like an insult, but it remains a magnificent device, with a 4.7” screen featuring force touch functionality.
First seen in the Huawei Mate S, touch sensitivity is taken a step further with 3D Touch on the 6S, which allows functionality like previewing content before opening it, from email to Instagram to map locations. That would be enough to keep Apple fans coming back.
#3. Sony Xperia Z5
If it’s good enough for James Bond, it’s good enough for, well, Xperia fans. It has a similar look and feel to the previous editions, from the Z1 through to the Z3+. Sony skipped the Z4, almost as if to say this is a leap in technology.
The main spec change is the camera going from 20 to 23MP and its sensor size increasing from 1/2.3” to 1/2.6”, while the device also becomes even slimmer, from 7.3mm down to 6.9mm. A fingerprint sensor is added, bringing it up to speed with Samsung and Apple competitors.
The camera puts it ahead of the iPhone for photographers, but Sony needs to come up with a real step change rather than tinkering at the edges to be a stronger contender for phone of the year.
#4. HTC OneM9 +
Like Sony, HTC has also found itself in an arm wrestle of evolution from great previous models to even better new ones. The One M9, like the Xperia Z3+, represented a holding pattern, but the new One M9+ breaks formation. It has a magnificent display, with its 1440 x 2560 pixels and 565 ppi pixel density beaten only by the Samsung S6 phones, and then only marginally.
Like the M9, it has a massive battery, at 2840 mAh, but that translates into a thicker phone, at 9.6mm, which can feel positively clunky against the competition. It stays with a 20MP camera, introducing a second 2.1MP Duo Camera on the rear, but this doesn’t translate into image quality that competes with the Samsung and Sony options.