Android Headliner: What Makes A Smartphone 'Good' Nowadays?

A few weeks ago, we wrote an interesting piece on the state of smartphones and in particular, their price. In short, - why buy a Galaxy S7 when you can buy a OnePlus 3? This did highlight an interesting point on where we are with smartphones and whether they do have the same value anymore. Forgetting the issues with OnePlus and invites for the moment and the question is a valid one, what is the point in buying a top of the range smartphone like the Galaxy S7, when you can more than likely pick up an equally good phone from the likes of OnePlus or Xiaomi or Huawei or ASUS, for effectively half the price? However, it also led me thinking to an even bigger and more relevant question - is there such a thing as a good smartphone anymore?

It is clear that there is no such thing as the 'best smartphone' nowadays, as when you dig deep into the smartphone specs, the degrees of separation are just that, degrees of difference. There is no standout smartphone anymore and instead, what we have is a market filled with clear selling points like the camera or the battery life or the design. If we look even closer at this, then here is the issue. If cameras matter to you, then it seems the best option to go for this year was the Samsung Galaxy S6 right? Well, yes. The camera on the Galaxy S6 is one of, if not, the best cameras on a smartphone on the market. Nearly every reviewer agreed with that statement. However, that was before the Galaxy Note 5 came out, which essentially has the same camera setup. And not forgetting, the LG G4 which also arguably has one of, if not, the best cameras on a smartphone on the market.

Of course, if you are all about the design, then it would seem that a smartphone like the Galaxy S6 Edge or maybe the more recent LG V10 would be right up your street. Both of these devices are high-end devices and ones which clearly place an emphasis on their design. The S6 Edge comes boasting those curved edges which offer an additional level of functionality and a nicer fit in the hand, while the V10 makes use of a secondary 'ticker' display for much of the same purpose. Or maybe your preference on a smartphone is battery life. This is a factor which affects all mobile device owners and with that in mind, a good smartphone is one which comes with a big battery right? Well, on that note, you cannot get much bigger than the Lenovo Vibe P1. This smartphone comes equipped with a whopping 5,000 mAh capacity battery. Effectively, twice the capacity of the Samsung Galaxy S6 with its measly 2,550 mAh battery. So which is the better phone? Are they both good phones? Neither of them good phones?

You see, back in the days, things were much easier to decide as it seems the one feature which every manufacturer would strive to create was a durable phone. This was in reality, the one feature which really mattered (and in truth, is probably the one feature that still only really matters). You could have the best camera, biggest battery, sleekest design, but if after one drop or one bending the phone is ruined, then what is the point? Going right back in (smartphone) history for a moment and durability is probably one of the reasons which made phones like the Nokia 3210 and 3310 the iconic phones that they are. This was a heavy duty phone, one which was built to withstand the bangs and scrapes thrown at it on a daily basis. In fact, a reddit was started back in 2011 to celebrate the 3210 and to give you a sample of the praise it got here is one of the top comments "I ran over my 3210 once, accidentally, and it gave my car a flat tyre. I then called my sister with the same phone to drop off the spare tyre. TRUE STORY." Not to mention, the image below which further highlights how the 3210 is fondly remembered.

Can you imagine in 10-15 years from now, any memes or reddits starting up about how great the Nexus 6P or Motorola X Pure Edition was? Probably not. So if durability is what defines a 'good' phone, then why is it that the current trend of all the major flagship devices is to focus on 'premium'? This has become another buzzword of late and one which is seemingly interchangeable with words like glass, metal, accents, sleek, beautiful and so on. But a word which is not so interchangeable with durable. So it would seem that even a tag and selling point like premium and durable do not make a 'good' phone anymore, as they are somewhat contradictory of each other and with such a contradiction, surely they both can't be 'good' phones, right?

So what does make a phone a good phone nowadays? It seems this is where we are lacking a consistent definition in today's smartphone world. Either all phones are now good phones and the original question raised of why bother buying a Galaxy S7 over a OnePlus 3 is a valid one - as they are all good phones. Or the issue is one which is far more simpler - due to the abundance of smartphones that are now on offer and all coming with a similar level of specs, design, performance (or making use of price as an effective offsetting measure), there is no such thing as a good phone anymore. At least, in terms of a phone which can be classed as good when compared to others.

This might be beginning to sound a bit like a mobile device first world problem - if all phones are good enough then surely that is a good thing? And although, at the superficial level, I'd agree with this being a first world problem, this is an issue that manufacturers are likely finding themselves having to deal with on a daily (or yearly basis) in the real world. We look to the likes of Samsung, HTC, LG and Sony to bring to market and show us what a good phone is. However, if the very definition of what makes a phone 'good' has been lost, then it would start to make sense as to why manufacturers like HTC are starting to find it difficult to reestablish themselves. The One M8 was a great phone and using that logic, the One M9 was designed to be a true successor, although when it landed everyone was like "but that's the One M8 again". So how can HTC know what a good phone is, if the consumer public is telling them the last phone they made is great but this new one (which is essentially the same phone) is not great? Maybe this is why HTC recently announced that they were embarking on a feedback program where some users can gain access to early hardware and software and provide them with feedback on what is good and what is not. Maybe HTC is just not sure anymore what a good phone is either!

Interestingly, a report which emerged this week seemed to heavily suggest that the Galaxy S7 is unlikely to see much of a design change from the Galaxy S6 as well. According to the information, it will see some upgrades underneath and will come with feature improvements, like (you guessed it), the camera. But in terms of the outside, the report details that the Galaxy S7 will not see a big makeover and will be far more similar to the Galaxy S6. If this is really the case, then like the One M9, we might as well already declare the Galaxy S7 a failure, right? After all, if it is the same looking phone as the Galaxy S6, with just tweaks under the hood, how can that be a 'good' phone? That was what made the One M9 a bad phone, didn't it?

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About the Author

John Anon

John has been writing about and reviewing tech products since 2014 after making the transition from writing about and reviewing airlines. With a background in Psychology, John has a particular interest in the science and future of the industry. Besides adopting the Managing Editor role at AH John also covers much of the news surrounding audio and visual tech, including cord-cutting, the state of Pay-TV, and Android TV. Contact him at [email protected]