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The ideal smartphone: how would Android Authority build it?

We asked the AA reviews team what the ideal smartphone would look like if it were made up of currently-available components, but in any combination.
By
November 12, 2016
Sony Xperia XZ Review-6

The particular combination of ingredients that constitutes the greatest smartphone around is a highly subjective topic, one that depends on your specific priorities and how those coalesce into a whole.

Now, some folks are all about the best camera and battery and the rest doesn’t matter so much. Others live and die by the price-performance ratio while still more look for an overall cohesive feeling, something that offers a great user experience even if every component isn’t the best of the best.

What would make the 'perfect' smartphone?
Features

With that in mind, I asked a few of the Android Authority review team to tell me what would make the ideal smartphone. Not to just pick their current favorite phone, but to cherry pick the bits and pieces from each manufacturer or device that would come together, Voltron-like, into the perfect smartphone for them.

Design

Bailey: A curved metal unibody like on the HTC 10 or ZTE Axon 7 would be ideal, even if it required antenna lines and the exclusion of wireless charging (which is too slow anyway). My ideal phone would have the fingerprint reader on the back, below a camera flush with the metal body (I’m okay with a thicker phone). Color options should include matte black, silver, white, and possibly bright colors.

htc-bolt-hands-on-10-of-27

John V: We can talk about build quality and materials when it comes to design, but I’ve been impressed by Lenovo’s modular design approach. Metal is still king when it comes to materials I think, since it’s sturdier than plastic and glass, so my ideal phone would still leverage it – the core part of the chassis, to be exact.

Metal is still king when it comes to materials and it needs to be water resistant.

Then again, by going with the modular design approach, this ideal phone would be able to add a level of personalization by featuring different types of “mods,” whether they’re expanded battery packs, skins, and much more. And yes, it needs to be water resistant, along the lines of having IP68 protection.

Josh: For the most part, a good screen size for me capped out at 5.5 inches, until our dearly departed friend the Galaxy Note 7. The dual curved glass design did a great job of alleviating the large device woes we’re all too familiar with: unwieldy, impossible to use one-handed etc.

I still consider the Note 7 one of the best designed phones around because it married the large screen size with proper handling in one hand.

To this day, I still consider it one of the best designed phones around because it married the large screen size with proper handling in one hand. So, if there is going to be a screen larger than 5.5 inches, the bezels should be minimal and, at the least, curves should make the back sit easier in the hand.

For me, build quality and resistance trump actual design language.

Gary: For me, build quality and resistance trump actual design language. If I drop it I don’t want it to smash into a million pieces, so I guess metal is better than plastic and some kind of toughened glass for the display. I don’t want it to be a fingerprint magnet either and water resistance is nice to have.

Samsung Galaxy Note 7 (Notetaking)-24 (in hand mural background front featured)

Display

Bailey: For me the display would be a Quad HD 5.5-inch Super AMOLED panel covered in Gorilla Glass 5, with excellent color accuracy and great sunlight readability. It would be very similar to the Note 7’s display, except slightly smaller and without any edges.

John V: I’ve been pretty satisfied with today’s crop of displays, so it’s really tough to be nitpicky about what I want in an ideal phone. First, there’s the matter of resolution. And while Quad HD has become the de facto standard amongst high end phones, I would very much like my ideal phone to move forward and go into 4K resolution.

4K resolution is important, especially on the VR side, where resolution makes all the difference.

Yes, there are very few phones in existence that have them, even now, but it’s the minimum expectation for me – especially on the VR side, where resolution makes all the difference. On top of that, I’d like for it to be an edge-to-edge display, possibly with curved edges like Josh suggested, and also for there to be some sort of 3D Touch-esque technology.

Josh: While AMOLED usually results in a warmer display that makes the white colors a little less… white… this can be changed artificially by the software’s color output. It’s not ideal, but that is the tradeoff for better battery life because of the nature of AMOLED.

Speaking of which, an AMOLED display is best able to perform the main feature I would want out of the screen – ambient display. I wear smartwatches, which eliminates the need to always look at my phone for notifications, but it is nice to be able to get that information at a glance.

Gary: AMOLED with good brightness and at least HD quality. Quad HD would be nice if I was to get into VR, but at the moment, if the rest of the phone was top-notch I would still be happy with HD. As for the diagonal screen size, at least 5.5 inches but less than 6.0 inches.

Qualcomm Snapdragon

Hardware

Bailey: The ideal phone would be unlocked, support dual-SIM and be compatible with all four major US carriers. There would be models available with 64, 128, and 256 GB of storage, but the user could also insert a microSD card slot into the second SIM slot for additional storage. It would also have dual front-facing speakers, on-screen navigation keys, a USB Type-C port, and a headphone jack.

All I want is the best-of-the-best, so that probably means silicon from Qualcomm.

John V: All I want is the best-of-the-best, so that probably means silicon from Qualcomm – the Snapdragon 821 chip. That’d be paired with 6 GB of RAM at the very least, along with 128 GB of internal storage with room for expansion via microSD.

A fingerprint scanner is compulsory, one that can also be programmed with different functions, such as acting as the home button – or possibly be another form of navigation like a mouse cursor. Dual-front firing speakers, IR blaster, wireless charging, and a 4,000 to 5,000 mAh battery that doesn’t add too much bulk to the phone.

Dual-front firing speakers, IR blaster, wireless charging, and a 4,000 to 5,000 mAh battery that doesn’t add too much bulk to the phone.

Josh: Probably the main hardware feature that I need would be the protection of said hardware. My ideal phone wouldn’t necessarily need to be waterproof and go swimming in the ocean with me, but at the very least some ruggedization would provide some peace of mind.

Storage is a big deal these days, as cameras get more and more powerful with 4K video recording and RAW photo capabilities. I have already had this problem with the 32 GB version of the Google Pixel, which simply does not have enough storage space to handle all of the videos that I may record on any given day.

google pixel xl initial review aa (25 of 48) camera
Good audio really adds to the overall experience.

I don’t have a lot of requirements when it comes to external audio because I would likely connect a phone to Bluetooth speakers. However, the DAC revolution is really strong in 2016 and I have to say that good audio really adds to the overall experience.

Gary: Lots of internal storage, a SD card slot, an IR blaster, wireless charging, front facing speakers, a big battery and definitely a 3.5mm headphone jack!

However I do have one non-negotiable item. A pen. Ever since I started using the Samsung Galaxy Note range I just can’t truly get on with smartphones without a pen.

I do have one non-negotiable item. A pen.

Of course this limits my options (to basically the Note range). But thinking of my perfect phone it would certainly need a pen or a stylus of some kind.

Benchmark

Performance

Bailey: For performance, the Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 and 6 GB of RAM would be an excellent combination.

Josh: This one shouldn’t be difficult to figure out – the latest processor at the time will be more than enough to ensure that the performance is top notch. These days that would be the Snapdragon 821, but as we saw with the Google Pixel, there is just as much optimization done in the software as there is in the processor.

As we saw with the Google Pixel, there is just as much optimization done in the software as there is in the processor.

That said, I have to give a shout out for a feature that is actually not found in many flagship devices these days – higher RAM capacities. Though plenty of current flagships run just fine with 4 GB, the main case for better performance came in the OnePlus 3, which has 6 GB. The result is an operating system that is much less prone to getting overwhelmed.

I don’t necessarily need bleeding edge performance, I would rather have longer battery life.

Gary: Although I use my smartphone all day long, I don’t necessarily need bleeding edge performance, I would rather have longer battery life. The top SoCs over the last few years have been excellent and I would opt for a higher-end SoC but with the best energy efficiency.

4 GB of RAM would be nice, but I think 6 GB is overkill and unnecessary. If we are saying that our smartphones need the same amount of RAM as a laptop or small desktop then we are doing something wrong.

LG V20 review-28

Camera

John V: If we’re going to go all out, I’d like to have the Lumia 1020’s 40+-megapixel camera, but in a dual-camera configuration to offer the same wide-angle and zoom functions we get in current incarnations of the setup. Possibly even gain somewhere around a 5X zoom, which wouldn’t impede too much (I hope) on the phone’s thickness.

Low lighting performance is also crucial, so it’d have to be able to capture sharp images when the conditions are dim. In terms of video, I’d like to see the V20’s expansive video-centric features in this ideal phone. That means 4K capture, full manual controls, and incredible audio recording capabilities.

Not only would the camera have larger pixels, a wide aperture and OIS, but also Samsung’s software image processing.

Bailey: My ideal phone’s cameras would be very similar to those used in Samsung’s flagship phones. Not only would they have larger pixels, a wide aperture and OIS, but also Samsung’s software image processing.

Josh: Dual focus pixels from Samsung the way that Canon puts them in the D series cameras, fewer but larger megapixels for better low light performance, and the new wave of stabilization implementations show that there is real thought going into some of the best smartphone cameras that we’ve seen in a long time.

Plenty of compact cameras have been coming out with 1 inch sensors and they have been wildly popular with photographers and vloggers alike. This means that users are gradually moving toward having smartphones and these very small compact cameras together in their everyday carry.

april fools day the perfect smartphone aa
The company that finds a way to fit a 1-inch sensor on the back of a smartphone opens up a wealth of possibilities.

A merging of these worlds would be incredible – the company that finds a way to fit a 1-inch sensor on the back of a smartphone opens up a wealth of possibilities. To keep it as practical as possible, the lens can be fixed and without zoom capabilities (sorry, John).

A big sensor would be the best leap forward, but a combination of great low light performance and high quality 4K video that can work in every situation, plus the ability to zoom or use different focal lengths would do wonders. Zoom on the iPhone 7 Plus and the wide angle feature on the LG G5 and LG V20 are really fun to shoot with.

Give me a camera that faithfully reproduces color, has a good aperture range and works well in low-light.

Gary: I’m not a megapixel junkie, so I prefer fidelity and quality over image size. Give me a camera that faithfully reproduces color, has a good aperture range and works well in low-light. If a sensor maker can do that in 8 MP then that is fine by me! 4K video would be nice too.

porsche-design-huawei-mate-9-home-screen

Battery

John V: As I’ve mentioned earlier, it’d be nice to have a 4,000 to 5,000 mAh battery cell to ensure longevity. Wireless charging would be built-in natively on my ideal phone, seeing that it’s a convenience I enjoy using on the Galaxy S7.

A very large battery, software optimization needed to reach at least six hours of screen on time and a universal fast charging standard.

Bailey: For the battery, my phone would have a very large unit (4,000+ mAh), but also have the software optimization needed to reach at least six hours of screen on time with a solid day of use. The phone would also support a universal fast charging standard like Quick Charge 3.0 for faster charging times.

Josh: Battery is a tough one because we have been conditioned to understand that size matters in the battery life department. Until battery technology jumps forward, there isn’t too much that can be done here without making the phone thicker. I maintain that fast charging is our consolation prize to better battery life, but it is a necessary feature.

What I would like to see is faster wireless charging – even better, if wireless charging was more readily available, that would make power never out of reach. Power banks could have wireless charging installed and pretty much any major public place could install charging pads without breaking the bank.

4,000+ mAh is really important. Most smartphone makers just don’t include big enough batteries.

Gary: This is the key component for me. Smartphones are by nature untethered devices and need to run off the battery for as long as possible. 4,000+ mAh is really important. Most smartphone makers just don’t include big enough batteries.

evernote-app-shortcuts-android-nougat

Software

Stock Android 7.1 Nougat and a two-year update promise.

Bailey: Keep it simple with stock Android 7.1 Nougat and a two-year update promise. No bloatware, no OEM-replaced stock apps, and no additional features.

Josh: Polish. It might come at a surprise, but with all of the features that I have touted in the previous sections, I actually think less is more in the core of the operating system.

All I really require from my software is the open nature of Android that would allow me to install anything I feel it is missing, but with the core as polished as possible. Oh and Google Assistant. I actually really enjoy using it and I find it incredibly useful.

Gary: Stock Android, no bloatware, no third party apps.

oneplus 3 gold aa (17 of 22)

Price

Bailey: An affordable perfect smartphone is quite honestly a pipe dream, so instead of watering down the phone’s features to reach a lower price point, avoid compromising the key aspects and price as appropriate.

Avoid compromising and price as appropriate.

A two-year warranty with accidental damage protection would provide peace of mind for the user. In case the phone is exposed to water and is not water resistant, allow for an advance exchange, for a relatively small deductible.

Gary: You may have noticed that I didn’t max out some of the specifications in what precedes; for example, I don’t necessarily want 6 GB of RAM. Why? Because price is a very big factor for me when it comes to the ideal smartphone. An OEM can make a phone with the most expensive display, the most expensive SoC, the most expensive XYZ, but then the phone will cost $800 or $900 or more.

Because of high pricing, consumers often get their devices on-contract, but when you do the calculations they pay much more for the phone over the contract period. Also it ties people into two or three year contracts where they are stuck with the same phone.

I would much rather a reasonably spec'd $400 phone than a phone which is maxed out on the specifications but costs an arm and a leg.

Offering handsets off contract at more reasonable prices gives consumers more freedom and costs less over the long term. I would much rather a $400 phone with a HD display (rather than Quad HD), an efficient SoC (but not necessarily the highest performing), a big battery and a pen, than a phone which is maxed out on the specifications but costs an arm and a leg. But that is probably just me.

Sony Xperia XZ Review-1

Wrap up

So there you have it, some very divergent opinions on how our team would build the perfect Frankenstein’s monster of a smartphone right now. While some features are near-ubiquitous, especially around the nexus of chipset, RAM, battery and display type, preferences spread out pretty quickly after that. The fact of the matter is that there is no perfect smartphone, only the one you like more than the rest. But that never stopped us from dreaming.

What would make your ideal phone? Hit the comments and share your recipe and let us know which aspect is the most important to you.