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A letter to the manufacturers - here's what we want to see in 2017
What a year, huh?
2016 was certainly a year to remember in the smartphone world. Samsung had a major slip up with one of its flagships, Google started making its own phones (and said goodbye to the Nexus line), and we finally got to see something promising come from HTC. We also saw a few OEMs – LG and Lenovo/Moto – step out of their comfort zones and into the realm of modular designs.
In 2016, some companies struggled to find their footing, while others really came into their own. So what happens next?
Join us as we talk about what we want to see from each major smartphone manufacturer in the new year.
Try not to have any phones explode next year, okay?
Okay, let’s get the obvious out of the way: Samsung has a lot of work to do in 2017.
The company started 2016 off with a bang, as it unveiled the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge at MWC in Barcelona. While the S7 and S7 Edge were described as more of an evolution than a revolution, they did bring a number of big improvements over 2015’s Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge.
For starters, the S7 and S7 Edge featured a refined yet familiar design language that was first present on the S6 line. An all-glass chassis, complimented by an aluminum border really made these phones feel like they were worth the high asking price. This time around, though, the S7 line featured minimized camera humps, curved edges on the back, and came in two different sizes to suit more consumers’ needs. Oh, and they also featured microSD expansion and an IP68 rating for dust and water resistance – two features that were notably missing from the S6 line.
2016 was the year that Samsung really started listening to its customers
2016 was the year that Samsung really started listening to its customers. Because the S7 and S7 Edge succeeded in winning over so many fans, that made the launch of the Galaxy Note 7 even more exciting.
Samsung announced the Galaxy Note 7 in August 2016 amid much fanfare. Not only did the 5.7-inch phone bring top-of-the-line specs, an IP68 water resistance rating and expandable storage, it was basically a bigger, better version of the Galaxy S7 Edge. Like its smaller sibling, the Note 7 featured a curved display – complete with all of Samsung’s Edge software features – along with a curved back panel that made it really easy to hold. Plus, it had a few other tricks up its sleeve, like an iris scanner, a secure folder to hide sensitive content, and a user interface that wasn’t horrible to look at.
The Note 7 unfortunately had an exploding problem, though, which led to the device getting recalled and permanently discontinued all over the world. The Note 7 will forever be known as Samsung’s exploding phone, and the company is going to spend the next year trying to win consumers’ trust back. That’s why Samsung’s main focus in 2017 needs to be quality control. They’ve already proven to us that they can make some really good phones – the S7, S7 Edge and pre-discontinued Note 7 were some of the best phones of 2016. Now the company needs to make sure that quality control issues never happen again.
In 2017, Samsung needs to make sure none of its phones, you know, explode
[related_videos align=”right” type=”custom” videos=”698045,692759,679646,679576″]Samsung, put the brakes on new, wild innovations if you have to. Heck – just make another great phone that doesn’t injure people. I know a lot of Samsung fans probably wouldn’t have a problem if the Galaxy S8 really turned out to be a repackaged Note 7. That was a really good phone, and now a lot of people feel robbed.
Aside from the whole exploding phone thing, Samsung does still have some other things to work on. Most importantly: software.
I know, we say the same thing every year. My thoughts on the subject are a little different this time around, though. After spending a few months using Android 7.0 Nougat (beta) on the Galaxy S7 Edge, it’s clear that Samsung has worked hard to bring the best version of Nougat to its flagships as it can. While many of the company’s resources are tied up in the Note 7 ordeal, Samsung has done a great job at refining the latest version of Android and making it it’s own.
With all that said, Samsung has never really been the fastest when it comes to rolling out software updates to its gigantic list of devices. Samsung has just said Android 7.1.1 will roll out to the S7 and S7 Edge in January, while the HTC 10, LG G5, Moto Z and a few others have gotten their updates.
I must say, though, Samsung is getting better. Even though we don’t have official Nougat builds yet, at least we have the community-driven beta program, which is much more than we can say about last year. Look at me, trying to find other things to gripe about. Samsung, just don’t have a repeat of 2016. All in all, you had a hard year… but if anyone can bounce back from a bad year, it’s probably you.
The HTC10 really impressed, but there’s still more work to be done.
In the smartphone world, a few things really stood out in 2015: Samsung’s Galaxy S6 was beautiful and fast, LG’s G4 wasn’t far behind, and the HTC One M9 was bad. With its atrocious camera and wonky software features, it was clear that HTC didn’t really focus on innovating in 2015. From the One M9 to the too-iPhoney One A9, HTCclearly went through somewhat of an identity crisis in 2015.
That finally changed in 2016 with the HTC 10.
HTC introduced the 10 in April 2016, and overall, it was received quite well in the smartphone community. Not only is the HTC10 still one of the most well-built phones on the market, the company managed to refine its trademark design without copying other manufacturers’ work or rehashing the same old design of its flagships of years past. It’s clearly an HTCphone through and through.
HTC refined its software experience this year
One of the main focuses for HTCthis year was in the software department, and it shows. Instead of cramming in a ton of useless features or putting a heavy, bloated skin atop the Android we all know and love, HTCmanaged to put its own spin on things while still staying lean. HTC’s Sense skin is still here, but it’s quicker and lighter than ever before. Perhaps that has a lot to do with the fact that HTCeliminated many of the duplicate apps this year, forgoing its own calculator, calendar and browser apps for Google’s.
Plus, due to the company’s light software interface, the HTC10 was one of the first smartphones to receive its Android 7.0 Nougat update this year. Not that HTChas been particularly bad at issuing software updates in the past, but it’s always nice to see a company focus on bringing the latest and greatest to its users.
HTC also did something completely unprecedented with the 10: it made a good camera
HTC also did something completely unprecedented with the 10: it made a good camera. While it’s not quite Google Pixel or Galaxy S7 good, it’s still really good. Featuring a 1.55μm UltraPixel sensor with optical image stabilization, an f/1.8 aperture and laser-assisted autofocus, the 10’s camera offers fast and accurate autofocus in most lighting conditions as well as good exposure and noise reduction in low light. It’s miles above what the One M9’s camera offered, but honestly that wasn’t a high bar to clear. Also, for what it’s worth, DxOMark says the 10’s camera is among the best with a score of 88 points.
With all of that said, HTCisn’t in the clear yet.
We wanted a great phone from HTC, and we got one. But 2016 was the year of trying new things, and HTCmight have missed out on that a bit. Samsung upheld the idea that edge displays are the future, so the S7 Edge and Note 7 both came with slightly curved displays. LG and Lenovo (or Moto) did something a little more daring this year, bringing modular designs to the masses. But what exactly is so unique about the HTC10? Aside from its more advanced audio capabilities and sound profiles, what does it offer over the competition?
It doesn’t have that sense of risk taking that most other flagships today offer. It’s not modular, it doesn’t have a crazy dual camera or curved display; it’s just a smartphone. A really good smartphone at that. Now don’t get me wrong, I love most everything about this phone; its design, display, fantastic audio capabilities and software are really some of the best on the market. That’s why in 2017, HTCneeds to step out of its comfort zone. Build us a VR-focused smartphone that enhances the HTC Vive somehow, or try your hand at at a modular phone this time around. Heck, if that HTC Ocean concept ever sees the light of day, I’m sure people will buy it.
As was the case last year, HTCneeds to start innovating. They built a great smartphone this year, but there are plenty of other great ones on the market for around the same price or a lot cheaper. If HTCgives people a good reason to buy their phones, things will start shaping up.
You had one heck of a year – just make sure to focus on what the users want.
We left Google out of last year’s manufacturer’s letter for a reason, and that’s because the company never really made its own smartphones. While Google may have had its hand in the manufacturing process of its Nexus phones, they were still made by other manufacturers. Not only that, each Nexus device was notably missing any Google branding, and was instead branded by its manufacturer.
Since the beginning, Nexus devices were Google’s way of bringing a no-frills Android experience to developers and die hard fans of the OS, but that changed significantly in 2016. 2016 was the year the Pixel and Pixel XL arrived, and the year the Nexus line went away.
In 2016, Google created the Pixel and axed the Nexus line
So what are the differences between Nexus and Pixel? Well, as noted above, the Nexus line carried other manufacturer branding and was meant to bring a vanilla Android experience to developers and fans around the world. In contrast, the Pixel is still manufactured by another company (HTC, in this case), but you wouldn’t know it; the Pixel and Pixel XL are only branded with Google’s name, and apparently the company has a bigger say when it comes to the phone’s hardware.
A lot has changed in the Google phone landscape, and that’s not a bad thing in the slightest. The Google Pixel and Pixel XL were two of the best Android phones released in 2016. They both offer great performance, amazing cameras, and, most notably, they both have the Google Assistant on board.
But if the Pixel and Pixel XL are so great, is there any room for Google to improve? Yes, certainly.
With the switch to Pixel, Google ditched some of the most important things that made the Nexus line, well, the Nexus line. While pricing with the Nexus line has never been super consistent, some of the most recent devices came to market with incredibly affordable price tags. The Nexus 6P and Nexus 5X, for instance, were available at launch for only $499 and $379, respectively. That’s not a lot of money at all, especially considering the Galaxy S6 was still going for over $500 at that time, as were some of the other flagship phones in 2015.
With the switch to Pixel, Google ditched some of the most important things that made the Nexus line great
The Pixels weren’t meant to be affordable in any way, though, which is quite telling by their price tags at launch. The Pixel and Pixel XL came to market for $649 and $769, respectively, which is a stark contrast from the Nexus 6P and 5X’s price tags. All in all, the Pixels arguably offer much less compromise than the 6P and 5X ever did, which might help make the price bump make more sense. Still, that’s not great news for consumers’ wallets – spending upwards of $600 on a new phone isn’t something everyone wants to do.
There are a few other things worth pointing out that make the Pixels’ price points less than stellar. Many flagship smartphones released in 2016 came with impressive water resistant ratings, including the Galaxy S7, S7 Edge, Sony Xperia XZ, and even the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus. Still, despite the Pixel and Pixel XL’s premium price tags, they unfortunately don’t come with any notable ratings for dust or water resistance. Google was reportedly too tight on time to include proper water resistance ratings on the Pixels, but that doesn’t really soften the blow at all. The lack of an IP67 or 68 rating is one of the the only blemishes on the Pixels’ spec sheets.
The Pixels' designs aren't all that unique at all
The fact that the Pixels were rushed out of the door may also have something to do with their unassuming and somewhat generic design. For comparison, the Nexus line has always offered quirky, unique designs that aimed to stand out against the competition, but the Pixel and Pixel XL’s design isn’t all that unique at all. The front panels of the Pixels don’t stand out at all, while the bottom half of the back panel is probably the most generic part of the phones. It’s clear that Google tried to do something slightly original with the glass portion on the back, but that’s about the only thing that stands out.
In our full review, we told you that the build of the Pixel XL leaves a lot to be desired. Despite not being dropped once, there are still a few dents and a couple of scratches on the body. Google seems to have cut some corners in the design department.
I don’t want to harp on Google too much this year… the Pixel and Pixel XL are two of the greatest smartphones ever made. There are just a few things holding them back from being truly no-compromise smartphones. If Google can bring a proper water resistance rating, a more unique design and a slightly more affordable price tag to its 2017 flagships, Google will have a successful year.
Lenovo / Motorola
The Moto Z was a great start on modularity – now keep improving
I used to be a huge Motorola fan. Back in 2014, despite its horrible camera and less-than-perfect processor, I thought the 2nd Generation Moto X was by far one of the best Android phones on the market at the time. With its customizable design via Moto Maker, innovative Active Display feature and smooth, stock-like software, Motorola, in my opinion, hit the nail on the head with the 2014 Moto X. It was innovative, and it was what the people wanted. I consider this to be peak Motorola.
Then 2015 rolled around, and Motorola continued to offer high-end, customizable smartphones that wouldn’t break the bank. The Moto X Pure Edition was the priciest of Motorola’s 2015 lineup, while the 3rd-gen Moto G brought reliable performance and an impressive build without the high price tag. All in all, Motorola had a successful, iterative 2015.
Lenovo took the Moto brand in a new direction in 2016
Throughout the past three years or so, Motorola has been an industry leader in that it went against the norm, offering relatively affordable, customizable, unlocked handsets to consumers. Then in 2016, things started to change. The Motorola we once knew and loved took a different direction, thanks to its new owner, Lenovo.
In June 2016, Lenovo took the wraps off the new Moto Z and Moto Z Force. While Moto X devices of years past focused on hardware customization, the new Moto Z line brought users another way to customize their devices – through modular accessories called Moto Mods. Compatible with the entire Moto Z lineup, Moto Mods are swappable accessories that simply snap on the back of the Moto Z to bring extra functionality to the device.
Moto did really well in the hardware department this year. Both the Moto Z line and the Moto Mods themselves feel like premium, well-designed pieces of hardware. But there’s still work to be done, of course, and that has a lot to do with Moto Mod support.
As it stands now, there are a total of seven Moto Mods available for purchase: the JBL SoundBoost Speaker, Moto Insta-Share Projector, Hasselblad True Zoom Camera, Incipio OffGRID Power Pack, Incipio Vehicle Dock, mophie juice pack and Moto Style Shells. So here’s the big question – are Moto Mods useful enough to get consumers to buy a Moto Z? As we stated in our full Moto Mods review, yes and no. Most of the Moto Mods on the market have been well executed and truly bring extra functionality to the device. The problem is, most of them are quite expensive, meaning investing in a Moto Z and a Moto Mod or two can get quite costly.
And although the current Moto Mods on the market are well done, they’re not necessarily needed to make the Moto Z line good. Plus, they’re not the most cost effective way of bringing wireless or Bluetooth solutions to your device. If you’re in need of a louder speaker, for instance, you can always invest in a Bluetooth speaker that costs less than the $79 asking price of the JBL SoundBoost Mod. Or if you’re in need of a better camera, there are plenty of great point-and-shoot cameras for less than the $300 asking price of the Hasselblad Camera Mod.
So what can Lenovo do to make sure Moto Mods catch on? In 2017, Lenovo needs to keep pushing the development of Moto Mods and bring more third-party companies into the mix. That’s already getting off to a good start, too – back in November, the company announced a new partnership with Indiegogo to help jumpstart the next wave of Moto Mods innovation. The Moto Mods Development Kit (MDK) has already been around for awhile, allowing developers to contribute to the ecosystem by creating their own Moto Mods to work with their products. With the Moto Mods Indiegogo campaign, though, developers will be provided with an easy way to raise money to help bring their Moto Mods to life. In addition, Lenovo Capital has set aside up to $1 million to help bring the best Moto Mods ideas to market.
Lenovo needs to keep pushing the development of Moto Mods in 2017
With the help of third-party developers, I think Moto Mods can really prove to be useful add-ons, not just overpriced accessories. But that’s going to require a lot of work on Lenovo’s part.
As a side note, Lenovo, please bring back Moto Maker support for your smartphones. While Moto Maker still exists as a simple color/storage amount selector, I think I can speak for everyone when I say we want the option to choose different colored back plates, front plates, accents and more.
Marketing, marketing, marketing!
Last year, LG was trying to compete directly with Samsung in more ways than one. Samsung had the Galaxy S6, LG had the G4. Samsung had the Galaxy Note 5, LG had the V10. While these competitors were going for a similar demographic, LG’s offerings were quite different from Samsung’s.
This is part of what made the year 2015 interesting in the Android world. Samsung has long been considered as the most popular Android OEM, but then LG swooped in and tried to take some of the company’s users away. That changed in 2016, with the introduction of the LG G5.
On paper, the G5 competes with all of the other major 2016 flagships. It has a 5.3-inch Quad HD display, a Snapdragon 820 processor, 4GB of RAM and even an impressive 16 and 8MP rear-facing camera setup. The G5 also brought something entirely new to the table this year: a modular design. Yes, we’ve already talked about Lenovo’s take on modularity with the Moto Z line, but the G5 actually came out first.
We much prefer Moto's module implementation over LG's
The G5’s modular design is quite different from the Moto Z’s. Instead of simply placing a module on the back of the device, you need to detach and remove the G5’s bottom cap and replace it with something else. If this process sounds more cumbersome to you than the Moto Z’s method, you’d be right. Pulling the cap off the G5 isn’t the easiest thing to do… we much prefer Moto’s method of module integration.
LG only launched two modules (or Friends, as LG calls them) with the G5 at the start: LG CAM Plus, which provides a 1,200mAh boost in battery and better grip for taking photos, and the LG Hi-Fi+ with B&O Play, bringing a 32-bit DAC to the phone. These Friends are nice and all, but the G5 has been out of almost a year and we still have yet to see any more modules for the phone. It’s worth noting that the LG Hi-Fi+ never even made its way to the United States.
So if LG planned to go all-in on modules this year, why has modular development seemingly come to a halt?
That may have something to do with the company’s weird start to modular development. Back in April, LG opened up the G5’s modular design to third-party developers, allowing them to take advantage of software and hardware development kits to make third-party modules for the phone. The problem is, LG noted that each module needs to be co-developed by LG, which would likely slow down the development process drastically. Plus, LG notes that it wants to (understandably so) take a cut of the profits (since it’s co-developing the modules, after all), which might end up turning some devs away from the platform. Starting a modular ecosystem is hard, and it doesn’t seem like LG is taking the right steps to succeed.
Let’s shift gears a little bit and talk about the LG V20. LG announced the V20 just over a month after Samsung launched the Note 7. Now, the Galaxy Note 7 went on sale August 19, still a few weeks before the V20 became official. You’d think LG would want to hit the ground running and get the V20 on store shelves as soon as possible, but that didn’t happen. The company didn’t bring its new flagship device to market until late October (nearly two months after its announcement), after the Note 7 was already recalled and around the time the Google Pixel went up for sale.
The V20 was sort of a missed opportunity for LG
This is why the V20 is potentially a missed opportunity for LG. If the company brought its new device to market just one month earlier, it could have scooped up more folks who jumped the Note 7 ship, and also beaten the Pixel to market. Now, I’m aware that LG can’t just launch a phone whenever it wants to; these things take time. But the phone’s biggest competitor was recalled – that just doesn’t happen. I guess what I’m trying to say is, hindsight is 20/20: LG dragged its feet a little bit and missed the perfect opportunity to sell more units.
So, what can LG do in the new year to improve its smartphone business? Market their products.
In 2017, LG needs to promote its products more than it ever has
In 2017, LG needs to promote its products more than it ever has. If the company wants to continue with its modular ecosystem, then it needs to promote it like it’s a big deal. And if the modules are getting the axe this year, LG still needs to market whatever phone it launches early next year. The same goes for the next phone in the V series. If they want people to know that there are other big and powerful phones out there other than the Note 7, LG needs to put that in front of consumers faces. Tons of commercials, more web advertisements and billboards in big cities are a start. LG has a lot of money, and it needs to spend it in the right areas.
Overpriced smartphones won’t get you anywhere.
I’m going to reiterate a lot of what I said last year, mainly because Sony didn’t really change much at all in 2016.
You may recall that in 2015, the company released three flagship smartphones, the Xperia Z5, Z5 Compact and Z5 Premium. All three devices offered up solid hardware and software experiences, as is the case with most other phones in the Xperia line. The Z5 Premium, though, had one standout feature that made it truly special: a 4K display. With an impressive pixel density of 806ppi, the Z5 Premium wasn’t just a beast on the spec sheet, it offered a little glimmer of hope that Sony would actually start innovating again.
You see, Sony is a company that’s taken the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” saying a little too far. Most of the smartphones it’s produced in the past five years have looked nearly identical, with only a few minor design changes differentiating each one. Then the Z5 Premium arrived, offering up something we’ve never seen on a smartphone before. Sure, the 4K display didn’t turn out to be incredibly useful (it didn’t show 4K content at all times, for instance), but it was something unique.
Then in 2016, the company ditched the 4K display idea and went back to its old ways.
Back in February at MWC, Sony axed its popular Z lineup to instead focus on the new X line of smartphones. Sony called the X line “an evolution of the Xperia brand” that were meant to be smart connected devices “capable of changing the way you interact with the world.” Unfortunately that turned out to be marketing mumbo jumbo, as aside from the change in build materials, the new Xperia X, Xperia X Performance and Xperia XA were basically iterative upgrades over the company’s 2015 flagships.
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That’s not to say these are bad smartphones, though. The Xperia X is the mid-range offering in the lineup, sporting a 5.0-inch 1080p display, a Snapdragon 650 processor, 3GB of RAM and a 23MP rear camera. The X Performance is the highest-end offering in the bunch, with its Snapdragon 820 processor, 2,700mAh battery and same 23MP rear camera sensor. And if you’re looking for a budget option, the Xperia XA offers a 5.0-inch 720p display, MediaTek MT6755 processor, 2GB of RAM and a 13MP camera.
Unfortunately Sony pulled a Sony and hiked all the prices up by a pretty big margin. The Xperia X Performance launched in the U.S. for a hefty $699, the Xperia X launched for $549, while the low-end XA launched for $279. Compared to some of the other similarly-spec’d devices on the market at the time, Sony’s smartphones were unfortunately one or two hundred or so dollars too expensive.
All of Sony's smartphones were WAY overpriced in 2016
Then partway through the year, Sony launched a phone that stood out. The new Xperia XA Ultra aimed to win over the selfie-obsessed, media-focused crowd. It sports a big 6.0-inch 1080p LCD display with minimal bezels on the right and left sides of the device. In fact, the XA Ultra barely has any bezels at all – its chassis is just a millimeter wider than the 5.7-inch Nexus 6P.
That’s great news! The XA Ultra seems to be the most innovative smartphone the new Xperia X line. And the $369 asking price is certainly not outrageous, especially considering that near bezel-less display.
Why does the Xperia XZ exist?
But then at IFA in September, Sony, for some reason, launched two more smartphones in the X line, further convoluting the company’s 2016 lineup. Oddly enough, the Xperia XZ features most of the same specs as the X Performance. It has a 5.2-inch Full HD display, a Snapdragon 820 processor, 3GB of RAM and a slightly larger 2,800mAh battery. The biggest change with the XZ is its new design, which Sony says is a nod to the legacy of the Xperia line. With a new metallic finish and a “flattened cylinder” design, the Xperia XZ was arguably more attractive than other phones in the X line. But why does this phone exist? Why would Sony create a new phone with mostly the same internals as its other flagship smartphone, only with an upgraded design? The two phones cost similarly, and the U.S. version of the XZ doesn’t even come with a working fingerprint sensor.
There’s also the Xperia X Compact, which launched alongside the XZ. Those familiar with Sony smartphones will know how popular the company’s Compact devices have been in the past. Sony has made a name for itself by shrinking down its flagship smartphones to a more manageable size (4.6 inches, in this case), without skimping on the specs. That’s mostly the case for 2016’s X Compact. It comes with a 720p display, a Snapdragon 650 processor, 3GB of RAM and a 23MP rear camera. When comparing the X Compact to other devices in the mid-range segment, the Compact can certainly hold its own. When bringing up the price point, though, that’s where things go downhill. At launch, the X Compact came to market for a ridiculous $499. In a world where the ZTE Axon 7 or OnePlus 3T are selling for less than $500 at launch, there’s no reason anyone should buy the X Compact for $500. Unless they really want a 4.6-inch phone.
Sony is so disconnected with the way smartphones are priced nowadays it's sort of ridiculous
So what does Sony need to do to get people to buy its smartphones again? For starters, it needs to start paying attention to how much smartphones are selling for these days. Sony is so disconnected with the way smartphones are priced nowadays it’s sort of ridiculous. If each one of the company’s smartphones were brought down by $200, they’d offer fierce competition in the Android space. The company’s crowded smartphone line doesn’t need to offer bleeding edge specs, but they also shouldn’t be priced as such.
And as is the case every year, Sony needs to start giving people reasons to buy its smartphones. Consumers aren’t going to buy Sony phones for the cameras alone, or just for the software experience. There needs to be at least one reason worth buying a Sony phone over, say, the Google Pixel, Galaxy S7 or HTC10.
Don’t forget to be original, and don’t forget about software.
Throughout the first half of 2016, everyone was looking forward to what was coming next from OnePlus. The OnePlus 2 was aging quite a bit, and people were itching for a refresh. Not that the 2 was a bad smartphone, but it did omit a few key things that didn’t really make much sense. For starters, the phone didn’t come with NFC on board, because OnePlus One owners “never used NFC”. That means OnePlus 2 owners weren’t able to take advantage of mobile payments services like Android Pay. The 2 also didn’t have quick charging capabilities, which was becoming more and more popular in other smartphones at the time the device was on the market.
But that’s just the start of it all. Perhaps the biggest downside to owning a OnePlus 2 in 2016 was the fact that OnePlus forgot to update it. The OnePlus 2 didn’t receive Android 6.0 Marshmallow until June 2016, a full eight months after Google released it. That’s downright unacceptable, and OnePlus 2 owners were pretty mad that it took so long.
The OnePlus 2 didn't receive Marshmallow for a full 8 months
All eyes were on OnePlus in June. After releasing the Marshmallow update to the OnePlus 2, the company brought us an all-new handset that drew some attention away from 2015’s seemingly neglected flagship. The OnePlus 3 featured a new design, a bump up in specifications and a bunch of other improvements that made the OnePlus 3 a killer flagship.
On the spec sheet, the OnePlus 3 competed with the best of the best. It sports a Snapdragon 820 processor, plenty of on-board storage, a massive 6GB of RAM, USB Type-C complete with Dash Charge (OnePlus’ own version of quick charging), and a decent 3,000mAh battery. Even though the 5.5-inch display was only of the Full HD variety, it seems most OnePlus fans didn’t care. The 1080p display wasn’t the big news with the flagship, though, it was the design of the phone itself.
The OnePlus 3 is truly a killer flagship
The OnePlus One and OnePlus 2 were unique-looking smartphones. Sure, they were still just slabs with a giant display attached to the front. But compared to the other slabs on the market, these two devices were well thought out and attractive. But with the OnePlus 3, it seems as though OnePlus forgot to take the time to come up with a unique design. That’s not to say that the OnePlus 3 isn’t attractive… it has an all-metal chassis, it’s super comfortable in the hand, and it just feels like a well made device. But it also looks like a lot of the other Chinese smartphones out there. It doesn’t look all that original, which is a shame.
All in all, though, the OnePlus 3 has been very well received throughout its lifetime. That is, the 3’s lifetime was cut pretty short, as OnePlus threw a curveball in November and announced a new flagship that would take the 3’s place.
The OnePlus 3T shares just about everything in common with the OnePlus 3, save for the processor, front-facing camera and battery. This newer, shinier device sports a Snapdragon 821 chipset, as opposed to the 3’s Snapdragon 820. It also comes with a non-removable 3,400mAh battery, up from the OnePlus 3’s 3,000mAh unit. Last but not least, the front-facing camera has been upgraded to a 16MP Samsung 3P8SP sensor, up from the 3’s 8MP Sony IMX 179 sensor. Oh, and one more thing – instead of dropping the price of the OnePlus 3 and still offering it as a more budget-friendly option, OnePlus decided to axe the phone altogether. The company stopped making its June flagship in favor of the 3T, and also charged more at launch for the upgraded device. The 3T came to market for $439, while the 3 was available at launch for just $399.
Now, it’s difficult to harp on OnePlus for launching a newer, better smartphone late in the year. Everyone seems to be in love with the 3T. And thankfully for OnePlus, OnePlus 3 buyers don’t seem to be too burned by the company’s decisions.
OnePlus needs to not drop the ball on software in 2017
So that’s OnePlus in 2016. What do they need to work on in the new year? Honestly, OnePlus had a great year, and there aren’t too many things they need to work on. If anything though, the company needs to focus on bringing more timely software updates to its devices. They waited much too long to update the OnePlus 2 to Marshmallow, and that shouldn’t happen again. Thankfully it seems to be on the right track – a beta build of Android 7.0 Nougat is now available for the OnePlus 3 and 3T, and the company has just announced that stable builds of Nougat are starting to gradually roll out.
And one other thing… One of the main reasons why OnePlus became so popular in the beginning was because they promised to do things differently from the other manufacturers. That’s when we got the OnePlus One, 2 and OnePlus X – three solid performing, low-cost phones that sacrificed very little. But the OnePlus 3 and 3T just feel a little boring, and that’s not OnePlus’ style. In 2017, OnePlus needs to innovate a little more, and give users something a little different than they’re used to.
If you keep making phones like the HONOR 5X, HONOR 8 and Mate 9, people will keep noticing you.
Buying an Android phone on the cheap used to mean settling for something. Before the days of the Moto G, you couldn’t find a good Android phone for $200 or $300 without sacrificing build quality, specs or features. Now those days are thankfully behind us, and it’s easy to go out and spend a couple hundred dollars and not instantly regret your purchase.
Back at CES 2016, HUAWEI announced that the HONOR 5X, a $200 Android phone with a solid build and great internals, would be making its way to the United States. Why was that such a big deal? For starters, it was the first Android phone HUAWEI started selling in the U.S. Also, $200 is a really good price for an all-metal phone with these specifications. While the 5X’s speaker and camera turned out to be no good, it still offered a great value to anyone looking for a cheap smartphone with too many compromises.
And you know what? That was really nice to see. The HONOR 5X seemed to do pretty well here in the States, and luckily HUAWEI had more in store for us in 2016.
The HONOR 5X offers a lot for very little money
Taking a break from the budget-friendly market, HUAWEI’s flagships for 2016 were unveiled in April. The HUAWEI P9 and P9 Plus both feature an all-metal construction, solid under-the-hood specs, and bared a slight resemblance to the company’s beloved 2015 posterchild, the Nexus 6P. HUAWEI also managed to co-develop the P9 and P9 Plus’ camera sensors with Leica, the popular German optics company, which certainly bought the company plenty of good press (and some bad). All in all, it seems as though the P9 line has done well.
This company was all over the place in 2016. Following the launch of the P9 lineup, the company unveiled the HONOR 8 – its newest entry to the budget-friendly flagship segment. With its gorgeous design, great camera and excellent software performance, the HONOR 8 enters the market as a direct competitor to the OnePlus 3T and ZTE Axon 7. Sub-$500 flagship smartphones started becoming a thing in 2015, but they got really good in 2016.
In 2016, we also got two new smartphones added to the Mate lineup, the HUAWEI Mate 9 and Porsche Design Mate 9. These two phones really do have some of the best specs and build quality on the market right now, and HUAWEI thought it’d be a good idea to price them as such. The Mate 9, which is expected to launch for the US market at CES 2017, is expected to cost around $700, while the Porsche Design Mate 9 currently goes for €1,395, or roughly $1,450. That’s a lot of moolah for a smartphone.
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So that was HUAWEI in 2016. The company launched a smartphone in just about every category this year, and that’s exactly what they should be doing. But there’s one more area the company needs to add just a bit more focus on if it plans on making it big in the States – software.
If you’ve ever read one of our HUAWEI or HONOR reviews, you’re probably aware that the first ‘negative’ we point is in regards to the software. HUAWEI and HONOR phones run the company’s EMUI software overlay, which traditionally has been a bit polarizing to folks in the United States. Mainly its lack of an app drawer, and its iOS-like interface have been seen as major sore points, but also its abundance of unnecessary extras and features that arguably aren’t all that useful.
Huawei's EMUI software might turn some U.S. users away
The good news is that HUAWEI is aware that its software doesn’t appeal to the western markets the same way it does in the east.
With Huawei’s EMUI 5 the company has finally brought a bit of material design inspired touches to the mix, ditching its odd time-line based layout for both its dialer and notification tray, defaulting to something that’s a bit more akin to what you’d find in a stock Android device. Sure, it’s still not exactly stock, but it finally feels more like Android than iOS. The same goes for icons, which now are more stock-like, and even the multi-tasking (recent apps) menu now takes on a card setup that should be much more familiar to Android users than what was offered in past EMUI iterations. HUAWEI even gave users the option of an app drawer, though its not turned on by default and requires going through the settings to find it and turn it on.
Overall, the tail end of 2016 saw a positive push in the right direction in terms of software, but the company’s work isn’t done. Some of the things we’d like to see this year is a refined setup process that gives you the option to choose whether you want the app drawer or the iOS-like layout when turning on your phone for the first time. We’d also like to see HUAWEI continue to work on improving some of its extras, and axing special features that either don’t work well (such as their odd knuckle-based motion features) or are just too gimmicky.
In many ways, HUAWEI’s EMUI is in a transitional phase that’s not unlike what we saw with Touchwiz not too long ago, when Samsung started to ax unnecessary bloat in favor of a smoother, easier to use experience. If HUAWEI and HONOR can continue pushing its software forward, while also being mindful of pricing trends, 2017 could be a big year for the company.
So what were your thoughts on 2016? Is there anything you’d like to see from these manufacturers in 2017? Be sure to let us know your opinions in the comment section below!