Best smartphones of March 2017

Top 10 smartphones

How to choose the best smartphone

From a smartphone that costs less than 5 dollars, like the Freedom 251 available in India, to the latest flagships, like the iPhone 7 or the Galaxy S7, there is a wide range of devices you can choose from. Whether you want your smartphone to be your personal assisant, your non-stop source of entertainment or your wallet, you have to make sure that its screen won’t shatter the first time you drop it and that the battery won’t die when you need it the most. Here are some of the most important aspects you should take into account when choosing a (new) smartphone.

Design and build

Since your smartphone is probably always in your pocket or by your side, sometimes tracking every step you take and every move you make (especially if you use fitness apps), the size should be comfortable. Some prefer phablets, some prefer compact smartphones, but everybody wants a phone with a high screen-to-body ratio, with thin bezels and a screen that takes up more than 75% of the smartphone’s surface. The main types of screen technologies are LCD and OLED / AMOLED, both presenting advantages and disadvantages.

LCD

Liquid Crystal Displays adjust the amount of light that passes through each liquid crystal layer.

OLED / AMOLED

Organic Light Emitting Diode displays / Active-Matrix Light Emitting Diode displays emit light directly.

Advantages
  • Thin and light
  • Low refresh-rate flicker
  • Cheap to produce
  • Fast response time
  • High contrast ratio
  • Energy efficient
Disadvantages
  • Low viewing quality in direct sunlight
  • Loss of contrast in high temperature environments
  • Limited viewing angles
  • Limited lifetime (due to the use of organic materials)
  • Supra-saturated colours
 
Independently of the technology used for the screen, it’s always good to choose a device with high resolution and high pixel density. The pixel density for smartphone screens is measured in pixels per inch (PPI) and is calculated using the resolution and screen size. Devices with a large screen will have a lower pixel density than devices with a small screen, when the resolution is the same. Usually, a device with a pixel density of 300 PPI will render clear and sharp images. Apple’s proprietary LCD technology, first introduced on the iPhone 4 in 2012 under the name of Retina Display, refers to screens that have a pixel density of minimum 300 PPI, making it impossible to spot the pixels from a normal viewing distance (10-12” from the eyes).

The materials used vary a lot, from plastic, which is the cheapest option, to metal (various aluminium or magnesium alloys) or glass.

  • Plastic, usually polycarbonate, has good heat and shock resistance. Any tech nostalgic remembers the bulky Nokia 5110 released in 1998, recognized as one of the most longevous mobile phones ever made.
  • Metal, usually under the form of an aluminium alloy, is widely used in for flagship devices because it allows manufacturers to produce a light, thin and resistant casing. Metal is also better for heat dispersion, making it possible to use more powerful SoCs. However, unlike plastic or glass casings, devices with metal casing require an external antenna.
  • Glass is probably the best choice for those concerned about scratches, being the most rigid. In terms of conduciveness, it’s between polycarbonate plastic and aluminium. Glass is sometimes used for the back panel.

The infamous ‘bendgate’, which forced Apple to withdraw a batch of iPhone 6 devices from shops, drew more attention to the importance of materials. Soon after ‘bendgate’, Apple improved the aluminium alloy used for its iPhones and iPads, switching to the 7000 series. The 7000 series combines aluminium with zinc and is also used for aircraft construction, due to its great strength-to-weight ratio and durability. HTC and Huawei also use aluminium unibody designs for most of their product lines. Most manufacturers combine materials and sometimes use them in combination with leather (LG G4), ballistic nylon (Moto Droid Turbo 2) or other materials.

Battery

One of the most frequent requirements users have is a long battery life. The battery power is an important indicator when choosing a smartphone, but it alone is not a guarantee that your smartphone will last for a long time on one charge. The phone with the best battery power at the moment - the Gionee M2017 - has a non-removable battery of 7000 mAh. However, its 5.7” AMOLED screen requires a lot of power, so there is no guarantee that, under similar usage, it would last longer than a smartphone with a smaller screen and half the battery power. So make sure that you also check the following:

Battery life for talk-time: for how long you can talk on your smartphone on one charge.

Battery life in stand-by: how much time your smartphone lasts on one charge in stand-by mode.

The conditions in which these tests are made vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, so these are not reliable indicators by themselves. Taken together and put into relation with other specs (screen size, clock speed) and with the user’s habits (how many apps are frequently used, how much time a user spends watching videos) is the best way to go when deciding which smartphone to get. Other things you should watch out for are:

  • Quick charge: a technology developed by Qualcomm which speeds up the charging time significantly, making it possible to charge a smartphone’s battery to 80% in just 30 minutes.
  • Wireless charging, using a charging base.
  • Removable battery: batteries tend to age pretty quickly. If you want to keep your phone for a long time, it’s important to be able to change the battery.

Also, there are many options to make sure that your precious companion will be ‘awake’ all the time - portable power banks come in all shapes and sizes and are very affordable.

Processor

A performant processor is vital for any device. It will determine how well apps and games run on your smartphone, how fast you can switch between apps and how many things you can do at the same time on your phone. The most basic evaluation of processors takes into account the number of cores and the clock speed. However, recent technologies made it possible to improve a processor’s performance by using cores clocked at different speeds. Known as BIG.little, the technology developed by ARM makes it possible to use cores clocked at low speeds, which have the advantage of being power efficient, for tasks that don’t require a lot of processing power. The big, powerful cores come into action for complex tasks. When all cores are used at the same time - in the case of heterogeneous multi-processing (HMP) - the background tasks are performed by the little cores and the high priority tasks are performed by the big cores.

Cameras

Evaluating a smartphone’s camera is a complicated topic. Most users judge a camera’s performance by the number of megapixels, but it takes more than that to get good photos. Lumia and Sony devices generally hold the record for the smartphone-cameras with the highest number of megapixels, with the Nokia PureView (released in 2012) on the top position: a 41-megapixel camera with Carl Zeiss optics and a xenon flash.

In recent years, manufacturers focused on improving the lenses. Dual-lens cameras can offer better image quality in low-light conditions and better zoom by using two lenses with different focal lengths. Huawei took a step further with the P9 flagship, which has two 12-megapixel cameras, one shooting in color and one in black-and-white. The black-and-white camera captures details in high-contrast, while the color sensor offers vibrant colors. By combining the images captured with these two cameras, the overall quality is improved. The possibilities are endless and we’re probably going to see some very interesting developments together with the evolution of VR devices and apps.

Since the word ‘selfie’ made it to the Oxford Dictionary in 2013 and people realized we’re not going to get over this frenzy too soon (for better or for worse), more and more smartphones with very good front cameras were released. Sony Xperia XA Ultra and Vivo V5 Plus are currently the top ranking selfie phones.

OS

Android and iOS combined have 93.85% of the worldwide market share, while Windows covers only 2.47% (source: netmarketshare.com). Android gained lots of traction in emerging markets, especially through the Android One programme. Choosing the operating system depends a lot on what other devices you are using, since it’s easier to sync your data across devices running on the same OS. There are advantages and disadvantages for each OS.

Android’s source code is open and it’s used to create various operating systems based on Android, like CyanogenMod. Many smartphone manufacturers who produce Android-based devices add proprietary components. There is a much wider range of devices to choose from if you opt for Android.

iOS is closed, powering exclusively Apple devices. This allows Apple to have a much better control over its operating system, offering direct iOS updates every year for iPhone users. Updates for Android devices come at a slower pace, except for Google devices which run on 'pure' Android, like Google Pixel or, until a recently, the Nexus series.

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