Saturday, 12 December 2015 15:28

What smartphones excited me in 2015

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I thought I would simply tell you about what smartphones excited or surprised me in 2015. All are 4G LTE and all are great examples of the technology.

In 2015 I set out to test what people bought. What you see below made the grade – there were many that did not. It proved beyond doubt that previously little known companies like OPPO, Alcatel OneTouch, Xiaomi, OnePlus, Huawei, ZTE, Moto and more could compete well in the flagship and mid-market setting new lower price levels for new higher level phones. These are some of the new luxury brands of the future.

Smartphones – flagship ($800-1000+)

Samsung is the undefeated winner in the flagship race with its Galaxy S6 series and its Note 5. Simply put it has:

  • Leading edge technology (Exynos processor, AMOLED screen, Qi and Fast Charge)
  • High quality devices (no more plastic backs)
  • Excelled in design (especially its curvy Edge and Edge+)
  • Honed its Touch Wiz user interface (no more bloatware)
  • Strengthened its Android security (Knox and opening its kernel to AV companies)
  • Added value via any Samsung and Galaxy exclusive apps (S-Health, many improved Android productivity apps, and Microsoft collaboration)
  • Great user support (retailers say it had one of the lowest return/defect rates)
  • A long haul attitude including of this series to Android Marshmallow

The range includes

While I probably awarded the S5 and the S4 similar honours in previous years the S6 embodies all that is good and desirable in an Android based smartphone. It clearly shows it has graduated from a ‘manufacturer’ to a ‘designer’. I cannot wait to see the S7 series.

An honourable mention must go to LG’s leather clad G4 that offers a removable battery, microSD card, and a first rate 2560 x 1440, 5.5”, IPS LED screen. Let’s just say that the retail is $799 but the street price for the LGH815 (Australian model) can be a couple of hundred less making it the best bargain flagship of 2015.

Sony’s Xperia Z5  was a worthy $999 entrant let down by what I suspect were early production issues. Its 23MP camera should have been amazing but it had a very slow loading camera app, and low light shots were variable and often blurry. My conclusion was this should be fixed with a couple of firmware updates.

Moto X Style with its water resistant case and excellent specifications was let down – in part – by its version of ‘pure’ Android which I realise now was about 90% correct. The 10% I did not like were its ‘modified apps’ that can be replaced with Google’s version. I am looking forward to testing the new Nexus phones with Pure Android Marshmallow accordingly. My conclusion was that it was a hell of a lot of phone for its $799 price.

I have not included Microsoft’s Windows 10 Mobile, Lumia 950 or XL in this years’ shootout as it is too early to tell. On the surface (pun intended) these are as good as current technology gets and on paper marginally ahead of everything else. Then there is W10M that could be a deal maker or a deal breaker. I will include them next year.

I hesitate to mention the Apple iPhone 6s and Plus for the anxiety it causes fan boys when Apple gets knocked from the tree. It may be the world’s largest technology company and I do admire its business model (although I don’t get how it gets away charging what it does – perhaps something is worth what people will pay for it). The iPhone had a tough time this year:

  • It was the subject of attack by cyber-criminals and all security predictions for 2016 are that iOS is ‘the’ target – the cost of popularity. It is not as safe as its complacent user think – XcodeGhost; YiSpectre; misuse of enterprise and developer certificates (to install malware disguised as legitimate apps); Cydia (jailbroken phones but that is the norm in some countries); more personalised attacks on iCloud (to glean personal information); the first ransomware attacks occurred in Australia; infected apps in the app store; limited curation of what suspect web-sites an app connects to; and Wirelurker (infected by non-Apple chargers) – to name some of Apple’s 2015 ‘annus horribilus’. If you want to read more the iphonewiki has a good article here.
  • iOS was buggy and it is up to version 9.2. Some of these were security fixes and some were to address a plethora (around 20) of bugs that were discovered by users. It is indicative of a rushed to market, immature product. Steve Jobs (deceased) once said that Apple never allows its customers to solve its problems (referring to Microsoft Windows). To Apple’s credit it does a reasonably good job of fixing things but in 2015 I have never seen it so much on the back foot.
  • iOS (all versions) has 753 vulnerabilities – 418 found for iOS 9.x (by contrast Android has 171 for all versions). Again to be fair Apple has fixed many of these within an acceptable time frame.
  • It had poor battery life and the highest data usage of all smartphones due to ‘Wi-Fi’ assist. These issues have mostly been addressed.

That said on a specification basis:

  • Screen resolution (6s – 1334 x 750 and Plus 1920 x 1080) was way lower than Samsung, LG, Lumia, Sony and others
  • Absence of a microSD card was behind LG and Lumia
  • A non-removable battery – again behind LG and Lumia
  • Absence of fast charge and Qi was well behind Samsung, Lumia and a $10 optional chip for LG
  • 12MP camera f/2.2, lack of optical image stabilisation on 6s – way behind Samsung, LG and Lumia

Apple will rightly say that it’s the best iOS phone ever, that it outsold other flagships and that the specifications are what the public wants. I simply make the point that other phones are technically far superior but if you like the Apple iOS ecosystem then this is literally the only phone for you.

Mid-upper range phones ($500-799)

There are many phones in this segment and I admit to reviewing more in the flagship segment – but at least you know what trade-offs to expect.

OPPO was the surprise entrant in field with the amazing 6” R7 plus at $599 – this phone blew me away. It punched well above its weight and could compete with phones twice the price and win! My strongest advice – get an OPPO over some of the flagship phones.

Huawei’s 5.2” P8 at $699 deserves an honourable mention especially as JB Hi-Fi are now selling it for $499. Huawei is a brand to watch.

Mass Market phones $250-499

OPPO had the winning entrant with 5” R7 at $449. Again specifications and quality were well above its weight and it has great support in Australia.

A real find was the 5.5” Alcatel OneTouch IDOL 3 at $379. It is an excellent 5.5” Android smartphone with everything you need including a great French pedigree. I think this will become a cult phone for those who understand that it is not necessary to be a brand snob.

An honourable mention goes to the Moto G at $369 - It is a dammed decent phone for the price and you cannot go wrong.

El-Cheapo (by name – not nature) <$250

I don’t do many entry-level phone reviews.

OPPO was again the winner with its Mirror 5s – a 5”, phone that got 5+++ in this category. At the time it was $269 but has dropped to $209 at Dick Smith.

I have yet to review a $99 Alcatel OneTouch ‘Quatro’ co-branded with Boost Mobile. It is a 4.5” 5MP camera, quad core processor, microSD that epitomises the pre-paid market. Again it beats the average specs for this class and a couple of years ago it would have sold for at least three times the price.

And the conclusion – ‘The end of the $1000 smartphone should be nigh’.

I wrote this article on 20 July. I remember how incensed I felt at that time about $1000 plus prices when the cost of manufacture had dropped by about 30% over the past five years (and phones had not). Plus, due to Moore’s Law we were seeing the doubling of ‘specification’ and the halving of price every 18 months.

While I appreciate that there will always be those who buy a premium car/phone/champagne, the great bulk of phone sales - over 90% - are in the mid, mass and el-cheapo markets. Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate the exquisite Samsung Galaxy et al and know that I am paying for R&D, top draws specs and more. No question about it - if you have to ask the price then go down the street to Dick Smith and get a pretty good phone for half the price.


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Ray Shaw

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Ray Shaw ray@im.com.au  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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