This year’s phones are better than last year’s. They alway are. The best phones are great, yet 2018 has not been a vintage year for mobile innovation.
The phone business is in near-stasis. Three years ago phone makers fixed the basic external design of an upmarket modern mobile phone as a near featureless slab of metal and glass.
Things have changed little since. There’s more glass, less metal and a few minor tweaks.
Goodbye to bezels
Bezels, that’s the bit around the glass, are on the way out.
If phone insides have changed much, it isn’t always clear to everyday users. While today’s processors are more powerful, they didn’t lack power three years ago. It’s been a long time since a premium phone felt slow.
Some phones have better battery life. Yet most still only last for a day before needing a recharge. Some 2018 phones will recharge faster or charge without a cable. Despite the marketing, it’s not that big a deal.
A camera with a phone attached
Cameras are the most significant change in the last three years. And the only one most phone makers talk about.
Today’s best phones sport cameras with more lenses. They have more megapixels and come loaded with more software. You might get three cameras on the back of a phone. In theory you can take better pictures, some of the time. In practice people still use cameras for the same old same old. We could be more creative.
Phone prices crept up in recent years. This is most noticeable at the top end of the range. In general the phone market is more profitable than it was. Consumers don’t care, but they should. Profits pay for research to make better phones.
A few new or revived brand names made a splash. Other phone brands have dropped out of sight. These days you’d be hard pressed to find an LG, HTC or Sony phone in a New Zealand high street store.
The clearest indicator the phone market is in near-stasis is that there are no compelling reasons to upgrade a 2017 phone for its 2018 version.
You may get value upgrading a three-year old phone. The advances are noticeable, especially with cameras, but also in responsiveness.
It’s hard to justify spending the thick end of two grand to get slow-motion video. Chances are you’ll never use it again after a first test play.
This is a good time for a phone retrospective.
The annual phone season runs from mid-year to mid-year. Phone makers launch their most important new flagships in the run up to Christmas. Fourth quarter sales are always highest. That’s when competition is most intense.
New models from Samsung, Apple and Huawei are already in the pipeline. Oppo has at least one more big launch this year. Nokia also has models coming before the end of 2017. These are not the only phones on sale in New Zealand, but the brands account for almost all sales. I’ve only listed phones here that I’ve tested.
Android and Apple’s iOS are the only two operating systems of note. The two make up more than 99 percent of phones sold in New Zealand.
They exist in two distinct silos. There’s not a lot of traffic from iOS to Android or the other way around. A most a trickle of users switch each year.
For most people reading this, the best phones of the year are either the Samsung Galaxy S9 models or the Apple iPhone X. The first runs Android, the second iOS. They are two of the most expensive models and are the most feature packed.
Samsung Galaxy S9, S9
Samsung almost hit the perfect formula a year earlier with the Galaxy S8 and S8 . The Galaxy NZ$1400 S9 and NZ$1600 S9 are incremental upgrades to the S8 and S8 . The pair fix the minor shortcomings such as weird fingerprint sensor placement.
You get the best screen and most polished finish of any Android phone with the S9 Galaxy models. Battery life could be better, but there’s nothing to complain about here.
The two Samsung Galaxy phones look almost identical to their older counterparts. There are cosmetic changes and improved cameras, otherwise offer nothing fresh or remarkable.
You could say the same of Apple’s iPhone 8 and 8 Plus compared with the 7 and 7 Plus models. Yet Apple decided to do something more ambitious with the iPhone X.
The iPhone X the most expensive everyday phone on sale in New Zealand. The design takes the featureless slab further than anyone else. It has a beautiful screen, but then so does every other flagship phone. It has an augmented reality camera, but almost no-one buying the phone will use this to its capability.
Apple’s first iPhone was ten years ago. The iPhone X is Apple’s statement of direction for the next ten years with an emphasis on augmented reality.
My favourite Android phone of the last twelve months is the Nokia 8. There may still be a few on sale in New Zealand, but although it was only introduced in October 2017. Nokia replaced it with the newer NZ$500 Nokia 6.1 and NZ$700 7 Plus models.
The Nokia 8 won me over because it addresses the two most annoying things about Android. First, Nokia has a plain vanilla Android with no software overlay. Some people like these, but they get in the way and slow phones down. They also make for a fragmented market, although that’s less of a problem today than it was in the past.
Nokia’s other plus point is a promise to deliver the software updates and patches to keep malware at bay.
The NZ$100 Nokia 3310 3G is also worth a mention if you need a cheap way of making voice calls.
Huawei P20 Pro
By hitting the market towards the end of the annual cycle Huawei beat Samsung’s flagship models on both price and feature. The NZ$1300 Huawei P20 Pro is $300 less than the Galaxy S9 and more powerful.
You can’t fault Huawei’s engineering. It feels nicer than the S9 , has better battery life and, depending on your taste, a better camera. Having said that, Huawei’s EMUI software overlay is annoying in places. The main count against Huawei is the company’s poor record on updating its software. That’s a security problem.
Oppo R15 Pro
Oppo arrived in New Zealand about 18 months ago and says it is now the number four brand here. The company’s phones have mid-range prices, but premium phone features. Earlier models were rough around the edges. That’s not the case with the Oppo R15 Pro reviewed a couple of days ago.
If Huawei offers an experience that compares with Samsung’s at a NZ$300 discount, Oppo gets almost as close at a 50 per cent discount.
Best phones: what to buy
There isn’t a direct correlation between price and phone experience. A phone that costs half the price of a Samsung Galaxy S9 doesn’t have half the features or half the functionality.
As a rule of thumb, paying more does give you more phone, a better screen, smarter camera and so on. Which is great if you want or need those things, if you don’t then keep your money.
All the phones listed here are excellent in their own way. So long as you know the limitations of each, you’re not going to be disappointed with any of them.
Unless you are unhappy with your older phone, and all other things being equal, a good strategy is to upgrade within the same product family. That way you’ll be productive from the moment you turn the phone on. You’ll also know all your existing software is going to work. Or should work. You can never be certain.