Opinion: I get the privilege of trying out a lot of different phones, and they’re almost always very good. None of them, though, has as yet proved good enough to keep me interested for more than a couple of months at a time. The problem I’m faced with is that of all the dozen different flagship smartphone releases of 2015, each does a couple of things well but also gets a couple of things wrong. There are a few small improvements that could be made across the board. I don’t think I’m asking for too much.
Since its launch, I’ve been using the Samsung Galaxy Note 5, and I’m mostly happy with it. I’m also using the new iPhone 6s Plus. At the moment, I’m road-testing a couple of different but similar phones in the 5.7-inch Moto X Style and the 5.5-inch Moto X Play, and they’re both appealing in different ways. But I’m still not sure if they’re right for me.
We all know that smartphones are making constant and ceaseless advances in technology; the internal processing power and screen fidelity improvements that we agonise over here at Gizmodo. Those much are a given, and I won’t worry about them here. I don’t think they’re as important as the other things. These are my top five demands when it comes to making a smartphone that I’ll love and that I’ll keep using for weeks and months and maybe even years.
An attractive, well-built design. What the Moto X Style is really winning me over with is its beautiful bamboo rear cover, and the feel of its aluminium edge and vertical rear camera strip. It’s genuinely one of the best built Android phones that I’ve ever used. (Apart from its screen glass, but more on that later.) To keep using a phone for more than a couple of weeks, I have to like holding it, and I have to like the way it feels and that it looks. More than anything else on this list, this is a personal preference, but I think there are general points in there that need to be followed — high quality materials, glass and metal and wood and even plastic, as long as it’s well crafted. I read something a couple of weeks ago that mentioned the fact that the human finger can distinguish textural rises and falls of something like 10 microns — and that means smooth edges and flat glass faces are extremely important.
Simple software, with no added bloat. Another advantage of those new Motorolas over my current Samsung is how straightforward the Android implementation is. No extra apps, no silly software tweaks or menu adjustments — just a simple and easily understandable home screen and notifications bar, exactly the way I like it. I fully expect some of you to disagree with me here, and that’s fine, but it’s a personal preference again. I can understand the appeal of Samsung’s extra Galaxy store and Gear smartwach software being preloaded, but all other things being equal I’d prefer to have the option to install them myself later.
A really, really good camera. At the moment, the best camera I’ve used is undeniably on the iPhone 6s Plus, with the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge+ a close second. But for me to hang onto a phone for a while, I have to like the photos that I’m taking. Chasing megapixels isn’t necessarily important — Apple has shown that much with its 8- and now 12-megapixel iPhone sensors, which trade outright pixel count for pixel size and light gathering ability. More important than that, though, is the RAW camera file support has been around since Android 5.0 Lollipop, and we’re now onto 6.0 Marshmallow — why haven’t I seen a smartphone manufacturer camera app with basic exposure/shadow/highlight/saturation/white balance post-processing adjustment available straight of the box? Instagram can do it — the interface is perfect — but it only works with lossy JPEGs.
Strong, scratch resistant glass. This is a big one — I’ve already inadvertently scratched the Moto X Style’s screen after only a single weekend with it. I don’t especially like screen protectors, but I’ll use them if they’re available, because the alternative of having a screen with dozens of little spiderweb scratches across its surface is just frustrating. I applauded the Oppo R7 for having a pre-applied screen protector purely because over the couple of weeks that I used it, the screen protector worked — that is, at the end of my time with the phone, the screen protector was covered in pockmarks and little scratches. I’m genuinely pretty careful with any phone that I use, but that doesn’t stop them picking up dings. A paragon in this area is Samsung’s Galaxy Note 5 and S6 Edge+, both of which have stood up to the test of time incredibly well so far, and the ion-exchange glass of the new iPhone 6s.
Future-proofing. I want my phone to be able to to last at least a couple of years of concerted use, and that means its software has to evolve with it, including receiving big software updates relatively quickly after they’re released into the world. I’m looking at you, Samsung and Sony, and your long waits for Lollipop especially on older devices. And my phone needs to not run out of space when I’m using it; in 2015, that probably means expandable storage or 64/128GB of internal space. I want the ability to quickly and easily add extra storage space so I can load on a bunch of movies or TV shows for a long flight, or sync a couple of massive Spotify playlists for a party from a UE Boom. That said, if the phone plays nicely with a microUSB flash drive — and there are plenty that don’t — then expandable storage isn’t so important. Versatility, though, is paramount.
Have I missed anything important? Let me know in the comments below.