Forget Your iPhone 7 Plus, Ignore The Galaxy S7 Edge, This Is Your Smartphone of 2016
To me, deciding on my 'Smartphone of the Year' is a curious challenge. The choice can't simply be 'the best phone' because everyone has a slightly different criteria for what makes the best phone. If I were to think about it empirically and go for the phone that fits the majority of people's criteria I wouldn't have the best phone, I would have 'the average phone of the year' that upsets the least number of people.
For a smartphone to pick up my personal award it needs to say something about itself, about the manufacturer behind it, and it needs to reflect the smartphone industry over the last twelve months.
So, with just a little bit of scene-setting and discussion about the phones I'm placing in third and second place, let's find out my smartphone of 2016.
Third Place: Jolla C, by Jolla
I've known that the Jolla C would be in the running for a long time for the award, because for the middle six months of the year it was the perfect use of 'proof by negation' of what the smartphone industry required from a smartphone in 2016.
The Jolla C hardware might look a touch underpowered, although it has been built to a very low price of around 170 Euros. With a SnapDragon 212 System on chip, 2 GB of RAM, 16 GB of storage and a 2500 mAh battery, the real strength is in the software. It runs a 'clean' version of Sailfish OS which flies even on these apparently low specifications.
Around one thousand handsets were released (as 'developer editions') and offered over the summer months - a short run that was almost instantly snapped up by the faithful. It made some waves online, but no more. Here was a small company, making the hardware, putting on the software, and distributing the machine. Sailfish OS is compact, designed for a 'buttonless' smartphone relying solely on touchscreen input, with genuine multitasking on top of a robust Linux-based OS. It's robustness was proved on this low-priced Nexus-like device.
There's something delightful about having full access to the system, command line access and a fully internet-connected terminal app in my pocket. For my 'day to day' phone that needs to pick up texts and messages, handle some light web browsing and dealing with my diary management, the Jolla C is all that I need. I make no bones about it, I enjoy using the Jolla handset... but I also realises that it is a vision of a smartphone that has passed into history.
The Jolla C falls short as a consumer device because so much of what defines a smartphone in 2016 (and into 2017) is not in the hardware, but in the cloud services that attach to the software on the device. Jolla's Sailfish OS tries to bridge that gap by providing an Android emulation layer, and while it does allow Android apps to run on the device emulation on a SnapDragon 200 series is never going to offer stellar performance, it falls apart when you look to log onto the Google Play Store or make use of Google's cloud based apps. You need to hunt around to find valid installation files for Microsoft's cloud-based apps such as Outlook and OneNote. Third party services like DropBox are patchy at best, and don't even think about media services like Spotify and Netflix.
The Jolla C shows how mature the market is by showing just how hard it is for a new player to become established. The relationships required to have a solid portfolio of apps to simply match the competition is beyond the reach of almost every company. With Apple's iOS remaining exclusive to Apple, Google's flavour of Android has a lock on the ecosystem for new entrants - although Microsoft's Windows 10 and its universal apps promises another way in, it needs to prove itself in 2017.
In a sense it is an extension of the principles that saw me select the WileyFox Swift last year. You need to choose an operating system that has the breath of apps and services to appeal to the customers. You need to have attractive hardware at a well-considered price point. The increase of competent handsets at a lower price means that relying purely on budget is not enough - brand and trust are important features at the low-end level. Low priced hardware has changed the market.
Other manufacturers are still looking to profit from devices, and while some are looking at the high-volume low-margin business (and the prospect of Nokia's former staff returning to this battlefield during 2017 is tempting), there is a continual fight to try to establish a high-volume high-priced handset.
Which leads me to the silver medal...
Second Place: iPhone 7 Plus (Apple)
It's one of the best-selling handsets of the year; it started a ridiculous number of discussions, editorials, and hot-takes on the place of expected-but-old technology in our pockets; and its software platform remains one of the most profitable for third-party developers.
The iPhone 7 Plus, with its dual-lens camera, fast processor, and improved graphical capability offers the slickest iOS experience yet. The extra internal volume means that battery life is acceptable, the screen pushes the LCD color capability about as far as it can go, 256 GB of storage will be welcomed by some, and it's going to handle any iOS app you care to throw at it.
But the iPhone 7 Plus (and to a lesser extent the iPhone 7) fails to follow through on many promises of having a pocket computer. Apple's need to control every part of the value chain is admirable in terms of security and protection of personal data, but only if you utterly trust the company to do the right thing every time it is challenged in every court around the world, or faces a decision about new hardware and user acceptability.
The biggest drawback for me on the iPhone is Apple itself. If you are out of step with Apple's vision of how the future of smartphones should develop, you have no choice but to change your own viewpoint. Android is flexible enough that you can find alternatives in hardware and software to almost every issue, from being able to maintain a local music collection on the device and choosing a handset with a 3.5mm headphone jack, to deciding which web browser to use to open links on the device and the email client to default to.
Apple's 'courageous' decision to drop the 3.5mm headphone jack left a bad taste in my mouth. Does it accelerate the use of bluetooth headsets? More than likely, but many will feel under duress to make the change. Removing a port, and then immediately putting a dongle in the box to return the port suggests to me that Apple's courage only reached as far as the opportunities for the short-term balance sheet. In the end Apple put a little white flag in every box, admitting that most users would need the 3.5mm connection.
If you take out the improvements that you would expect from Moore's Law and the advancements made in public by other manufactures that the iPhone was expected to match, what was genuinely new on the iPhone 7 Plus?
There's a place for the smartphone that manages incremental changes each year to keep it in touch with the top-tier devices and allows the hardware to be sold as 'new and exciting.' That place is second. You need to have a bit more vision, a bit m
First Place: Galaxy Note 7 (Samsung)
I know. It's a discontinued handset, if you still have one the chances of the software allowing you to charge it after January are approach zero, and it's going to be airbrushed from Samsung's corporate history as quickly as possible... but I've no doubt that the smartphone that had the biggest impact in the year was the doomed South Korean phablet.
Step forward the Galaxy Note 7.
Putting aside the incendiary issues with the battery, the two recalls, and the subsequent impact on Samsung's business, the Galaxy Note 7 would still have been a contender for the top step. Samsung's approach was similar to Apple, in the sense that it was looking to find gains in every single area of the hardware.
The difference is that Samsung rarely relied on gimmicks to find advances, it genuinely worked on finding new technology and different answers. It didn't need to switch to dual-lens to improve the camera, the Note 7 is still one of the best cameras in a smartphone. The Qualcomm or Exynosos-powered handset (depending on your 4G frequency needs) had more than enough power to run complicated applications. The battery life was improved both through more capacity and better use of software.
Samsung tacitly admitted previous mistakes and reinstated the microSD card. The ability to use either of the two main wireless charging systems was carried over from the S6 and S7 handsets. A dual-curve on the screen kept Samsung's message of innovation to the forefront. In use it was slick and comfortable to use. It's a gorgeous phone in the flesh and remains one of the most understated handsets of the last twelve months.
It was everything a smartphone should aspire to.
And yes, a few of them caught fire.
The Note 7 pushed the technological envelope in every vital area, and for reasons that are still to be confirmed, an issue arose in the battery assembly. Putting speculation aside, the Note 7 became a pariah around the world with the mainstream press blasting out messages of Samsung Galaxy phones on fire, announcements banning the phablet from almost every airline in the sky, urgent messages to return the handsets and more.
September was meant to be the triumphant month of 'Note 7 vs iPhone 7' and rulings going in Samsung's favour. Instead it became 'Samsung can't make a phone vs Apple's inability to react to the increased demand for phablets' which feels more like a score draw and Apple winning on away goals. October was more of the same, and even in November Samsung's PR team struggled to move on from the Note 7 and get the message focused on the upcoming Galaxy S8.
Even now the updates to prevent the last units in the wild charging (effectively bricking the handsets when they run out of battery charge) is keeping the Note 7 debacle in the news. The impact of the Note 7 continues to be felt, and it won't truly be out of the picture until the Galaxy S8 sales pick up, presumably in May 2017.
The Note 7 has had an immense impact on Samsung, on the Android world, and the smartphone space as a whole. It had an impact beyond on its sales which will resonate for months, if not years. It is a lesson for everyone in the industry, it is a goal to aim for and a warning to avoid.