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So What's Really the Best Smartphone?

By Rob Enderle
Oct 5, 2015 5:00 AM PT

The best smartphone on the market is the iPhone, right? That is the conventional wisdom. However, if I were to ask about the best shoes, shirt, car, boat or TV, the answers likely would be all over the map -- not just on brand but on type.

So What's Really the Best Smartphone?

When it comes to cars, for instance, I personally favor convertibles because they remind me of my youth when I could ride a motorcycle without a helmet, and they are just more fun. They suck if you want to carry a bunch of things, though, which is why my contractor favors a pickup with an extended cab.

If I lived in the city, I'd likely favor a small electric car -- or if I had lots of kids, a huge SUV. I actually have four very different cars -- each best for what I want to do, and only two are convertibles. There's clearly not one best car, so why should one size fit all in smartphones?

Microsoft is expected to launch a refresh of its phone and tablet products next week. Its mobile devices haven't done well against Apple's to date, so it would seem that rather than competing head on, a better approach would be to offer a line of products that could showcase the differences.

So, which new smartphone really is best -- and how high is the bar Microsoft must reach next week? I'll close with my product of the week: the new Amazon Fire HD 10, which makes the old Kindle tablets look positively ancient.

Who You Are

If you are going to buy any device as personal as the smartphone has become, the first step is to define who you are. Granted, we all are a blend of concepts, desires and needs. Are you heavily moved by status? Are you focused on getting jobs done? Are you playful or easily bored? Do you worry about Big Brother and privacy constantly? Do you love exciting new things? Or do you just want your stuff to work and not change very often?

A good way to start would be to look back at how you use your phone now. Let's take me, for instance. I don't play games on my phone -- I do that on my tablet, as a bigger screen offers a better experience. I prefer reading on my tablet as well -- but when it isn't around, being able to read on my phone is critical.

I do browse on my phone and navigate with it. Also, it is my alarm and my primary communications tool. It is my primary camera as well. It is the thing I depend on if I'm in trouble, or if someone needs to contact me. Finally, I like to have something that others don't have.

Considering the way I use my smartphone, which are the cream of the crop?

iPhone 6s Plus

The iPhone 6s Plus has a decent camera and screen, stands out with apps, is certainly attractive and conveys status. However, so many people have it that it isn't very distinctive. Its battery life in testing now ties for worst in class, but as it's available from a broad set of carriers, you can pick the best for connectivity.

Its Retina Display, once best in class, now is lagging the other new top-of-the-line phones, and its processor has the fewest cores -- strangely, that actually may be an advantage at the moment. The iPhone 6s Plus is certainly competitive, but it appears to be falling slowly behind the other phones in its class.

Granted, if you are tied to Apple, that likely doesn't matter yet, which is one of the reasons I'm not a fan of a single vendor lock-in strategy.

The battery life makes this a nonplayer for me, and what is interesting isn't that the iPhone got worse, but that apparently everyone else got a lot better. For instance, the aging HTC One Windows phone shows nearly 11 hours of LTE streaming and leads the class, while the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus phones show less than four and a half hours in testing.

The iPhone is not for me for two reasons: poor battery life and lock-in.

Nexus 6P

Google's Nexus 6P offers a better camera and an eight-core Snapdragon 810 processor -- but in benchmark tests, having more cores has proven to be a disadvantage more often than an advantage. It has lots of app depth and a better screen (AMOLED). Its battery life should be close to best in class, thanks to a combination of more advanced battery savings and twice the battery of the iPhone.

The Nexus line is relatively rare and very attractive, but on the downside, there's been a history of security problems with the Android platform.

The Nexus 6P also comes with a little-known Google service called "Google Fi," which has no peer in the market. This service could reduce my smartphone bill dramatically -- but in testing, though connectivity was good, the data rates sucked. This may be a teething problem, or the carriers may have been throttling the service because they don't want it to spread.

While I'd sweat security, given that I don't side-load apps from unknown sources, I think it would be manageable. With a better camera (better low light performance), far better battery life (including inductive charging), more exclusivity, and a fast-charging USB-C port. The combination of big battery, better power management, and fast charging almost has me drooling and makes the Nexus 6P a real contender. The issue is Google Fi, which should be an advantage -- but right now, because of performance, it isn't. Still, this phone would be on my short list.

LG V10

The LG V10 announcement came as I was writing this, and on paper it is an impressive phone. It lags the Nexus in processor (Snapdragon 808) and operating system (Android Lollipop not Marshmallow, though you may be able to upgrade it).

This phone has a 5.7-inch screen, and it sports one of the first quantum dot displays. In fact, it has two of them, one large and one small for pager-like notifications. For a communications-focused user like me, this is a big plus. Battery size is a tad smaller, and it is uses a twin camera setup up for selfies (not a high priority for me).

It has a better primary camera in terms of pixel density, laser autofocus and settings, which is a big plus. The fingerprint security sensor is a bit better positioned on the power button, which doesn't make a huge difference but is nice to have. There are more choices of phone case, and it is more robust, which suggests you won't need a protective cover. Still, it would be wise to get a screen protector. This phone is equipped for fast charging.

I'm a tad torn and might end up flipping a coin between the Nexus 6P and the LG V10.

Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge Plus

Samsung's Galaxy S6 edge Plus is a stunning phone to see in person. It has a curved edge display that can be used in a similar fashion to the LG's second display. It has an AMOLED display similar to the one on the Nexus, but the curve allows you to put it face down and be able to see who's calling, while saving energy.

The camera is strong. Though lacking the settings of the V10, it's nevertheless earning praise as the best camera in the market right now. Perhaps the strongest feature is its credit card replacement solution.

Samsung Pay currently works with more credit card readers than Android Pay or Apple Pay, but offsetting that good news has been an ugly rollout. Like the LG, it runs Lollipop, and uses a quad-core Samsung processor instead of the eight-core Snapdragon. Again, more cores isn't better right now.

Samsung mixes up the buttons a bit, which can make a move to any of its phones an initial exercise in frustration. You can use the flash to monitor your heart rate -- more of a gimmick than an asset.

While I love the look of the Edge display, I worry about how to protect it. Even though it is Gorilla Glass 4, the most robust so far, dropping this on its edge would be incredibly risky. Battery life is good, and it does have fast charging as well as an inductive charging option, which I'm a huge fan of.

Wrapping Up: The Windows Phone Bar

Given a choice of these four phones, I'd be torn between the Nexus 6P and the LG V10. The Samsung just has too many weird issues for me to want to mess with it. I should note the Nexus is made by Huawei this round, an impressive start for such a little known vendor.

I'd favor the Nexus for the battery, connectivity and charging, while I'd be drawn to the LG for its dual display, data speed and cameras. OK, if I had to pick right now, I'd choose the LG. The Nexus and LG set a particularly high bar for Microsoft -- Samsung and Apple, not so much.

Nokia led with cameras, inductive charging, and with Continuum, which should work better in my Windows World than Android does. However, core app support (for me, Sonos and, surprisingly, Insteon which partnered with Microsoft) and falling behind in hardware have been problematic.

Both Apple and Google are moving the bar aggressively, though. With the Nexus, it isn't hard to point to Google as currently having the edge. So, right now, the bar that Microsoft has to meet or beat for smartphones isn't Apple's -- it is Google's. Boy I never thought I'd ever say that. We'll see how the company does next week.

In the end, the phone you choose likely won't be the phone I'd choose, but if you have a good understanding of what you want in a phone, it will be a better phone for you -- and that's all that counts.

Rob Enderle's Product of the Week

OK, to start with, the new US$229 Fire HD 10 is one heck of a deal. At this price, you typically don't get a technology-leading product -- you get a value. I'd like to say this is a bit of both, but it is really mostly value. At a fraction of the iPad price, it is that.

SHORT CAPTION TEXT GOES HERE
Fire HD 10

I'm a long time Kindle user (What happened to the Kindle name?) but this is the first time I felt the product took as much a step back as forward. Suddenly the UI isn't easy. I found it hard to find things where I didn't have that issue before. Others have complained it isn't as good for reading, and while I don't see that, it really isn't better either.

It is better looking, thinner and sleeker, and it has a better cameras -- though I think folks who take pictures with tablets look a tad foolish. This version was particularly hard to get to work with my WiFi system, a problem I hadn't seen previously. When I say hard, I mean it took me almost an hour and half to get it to authenticate properly with my MU-MIMO router (to be fair it connected with an older router just fine).

In the end, there is nothing that can touch it for the price, and I expect that future patches will improve the user experience by the time we get into the Christmas buying season. If I were buying for myself, I'd likely wait for the coming Pixel C tablet. While more expensive, is also more impressive. Then again, it is twice the price, showcasing just what a huge value the Fire is.

On value alone the Amazon Fire HD 10 Tablet is my product of the week -- but I'd hold off buying one for at least a month to give the company time to fix the user experience.

I'm going to end this with one more observation: First with the Fire Phone, and now with this Fire tablet, it feels like someone critical to the user experience has left Amazon. The company needs to get that person back, because the bar continues to move for tablets, and value only gets you so far.


Rob Enderle is a TechNewsWorld columnist and the principal analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends. You can connect with him on Google+.


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How do you feel about shopping for your next new phone?
I can't wait for the new iPhone.
I'm eagerly awaiting the Galaxy Note 8.
I enjoy shopping for a great bargain, not necessarily a new model.
I dislike the phone shopping experience -- it's too confusing.
Phones have become boring -- I wish I could get excited.
Switching phones is monumentally inconvenient and annoying.