In 2015 I saw a ton of great smartphones hit the market; so many, in fact, that it’s getting harder to pick something you will regret. And yet whenever I receive a new smartphone to review, I feel like I'm always able to find a fault or major tradeoff that's been made. I see phones with really nice bodies and powerful hardware that fall behind on battery life. I see great cameras in phones with terrible camera apps. I see stock Android in phones with no expandable storage. I see big batteries in phones with mediocre processors.
There have been some smartphones that have come close to exactly what I want in a daily driver – the Google Nexus 6P, Apple iPhone 6s and Samsung Galaxy S6 are all great examples – but I’m yet to see the elusive ‘perfect’ device; the phone with no compromises in hardware or software. And after everything I’ve seen over the past year, and considering what tech we can expect in 2016, I truly believe it’s possible for a company to produce an ideal, perfect smartphone this year.
In this article I'll go through every aspect of the modern smartphone and list exactly what I want to see, with every aspect of the hardware and software firmly grounded in reality. This means no next-generation lithium-air batteries or desktop-class graphics processors: sorry everyone, but these features are still many years away. This is a smartphone that should be possible to create, and something I would absolutely love to see hit the market.
Display: 5.3-inch 1440p AMOLED from Samsung
The display tends to dictate the size and design of the phone, which is why I had to choose this first. While I love the Nexus 6P and Galaxy Note 5, I’m not a fan of the phablet-class display, and the LG G4’s 5.5-inch display is also slightly too large. This is why I opted for something slightly smaller, at 5.3-inches.
The resolution to use was a tough choice. I was originally going to opt for a 1080p display as the difference in sharpness between 1080p and 1440p isn’t hugely significant, and several generations ago there were power and performance implications from choosing a higher-resolution display. However, in 2016, I believe that 1440p is a better choice for several reasons.
Across the handsets I reviewed in 2015, I saw no reason to suggest that phones with 1080p displays had better battery life than 1440p displays. The HTC One M9, Sony Xperia Z5 and Google Nexus 5X all achieved pretty average battery life, even though they all packed 1080p displays, while some 1440p phones like the Galaxy Note 5 have great battery life. Second, performance is not an issue with the current crop of SoCs being more than capable of playing today’s mobile games.
And lastly, with the increasing popularity of virtual reality solutions, there are advantages to having a high-resolution display on your phone. The Gear VR, built for Samsung devices, is an excellent example of a cheap consumer device that can turn your phone into a decent VR experience. It’s enhanced by the fact that most Samsung phones have 1440p displays, which allow for greater clarity when the display is so close to your face. I expect phone-based VR solutions will only get cheaper and better, and a 1440p display will be needed to get the best out of it.
I opted for AMOLED technology over LCD because they produce better contrast and black levels, which leads to better apparent vibrancy. Samsung has done particularly well in developing high quality AMOLEDs that are efficient and capable of decent maximum brightness, and when properly calibrated to sRGB standards as I’d expect from this ideal phone, they can look better than competing LCDs.
Body: Nexus 6P-style all-metal with Gorilla Glass 4
I don’t want the ideal smartphone to replicate the Nexus 6P, but the matte silver aluminium used in its construction is the exact metal I’d want to wrap around the entire back panel and the sides. For ergonomic reasons this slab of metal would be a slightly rounded rectangular prism, with both the power and volume buttons located along the right-hand edge in an ideal location. The back panel would be essentially constant width, indicating a lack of camera bump.
The front of the smartphone would see the 5.3-inch display flanked by very small black bezels, similar to the LG G4. The entire front assembly would be protected by the latest Gorilla Glass, which would curve downwards slightly at the left and right edges to provide a swooshable, seamless infinity display. To keep a clean aesthetic, the front panel would include no logos or any other distracting elements.
Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 820
When it comes to high-end smartphone SoCs, there are three main contenders to consider: Qualcomm Snapdragon, Samsung Exynos, and Apple A-series. Apple has routinely produced some of the best smartphone silicon on the market, but as this handset isn’t running iOS and as Apple doesn’t sell their chips to other OEMs, that unfortunately rules out their hardware for this handset.
Last year, the race for the best flagship SoC heated up significantly between Qualcomm and Samsung. The Exynos 7420, seen in the Galaxy S6 and Note 5, was the first SoC from Samsung in a long time that really challenged Qualcomm from both a performance and power efficiency perspective. Meanwhile, overheating, throttling and efficiency issues led to a disappointing year for Qualcomm and its Snapdragon 810.
So why have I chosen to return to Qualcomm when Samsung had the best hardware last year? Why wouldn’t I opt for the upcoming Exynos 8 Octa? Well, there’s a couple of reasons.
Admittedly it’s early days, but I’m a much bigger fan of Qualcomm’s CPU design in the Snapdragon 820 than the rumoured Exynos 8 Octa. Qualcomm has an excellent track record when it comes to in-house CPU core design, whereas the Exynos 8 Octa is reportedly using one of Samsung’s first in-house CPU cores. On top of that, a 2+2 core all-custom design, which the Snapdragon 820 implements, is closer to what I anticipate is the ideal CPU layout, as opposed to the 4+4 core design of the Exynos 8 Octa.
Feature wise, I expect both the Exynos 8 Octa and Snapdragon 820 to compete in many ways, including high-bandwidth LPDDR4 support, Cat 12 LTE, MU-MIMO, and fast Wi-Fi. Where the Snapdragon 820 might get an edge is in GPU performance: Qualcomm uses custom Adreno designs, whereas Samsung uses Mali, and historically Adreno outperforms Mali in flagship chips.
It's still early days for these chips, as neither has been seen in any production devices, but I suspect the Snapdragon 820 will become a popular option for phones released throughout 2016.
Camera: Sony Exmor IMX300 with f/1.9 lens and OIS
The rear camera I’d use in this ideal smartphone is basically a mashup of the two best bits of camera hardware I saw in 2015: Sony’s Exmor IMX300 sensor – a 23-megapixel, 1/2.3” sensor with 1.1μm pixels – paired with a 24mm-equivalent f/1.9 lens with optical image stabilization. Essentially, this is combining the Sony Xperia Z5’s excellent camera sensor with the Samsung Galaxy Note 5’s lens and stabilization rig.
I decided to use the IMX300 over the Nexus 6P’s larger-pixel IMX377 because both Samsung and LG have managed to deliver excellent indoor and low-light performance with a 1.1 μm pixel sensor combined with OIS. Choosing a sensor with larger pixels would be better for night time photography, but considering most smartphones are restricted to 1/2.3” sensors or smaller, adding OIS to a high resolution sensor is the best solution available today.
The rear sensor would be capable of optically-stabilized 4K video and slow motion 720p footage at 240 fps. I’d also pair it with LG’s laser-assisted autofocus system for lightning-fast photography, and a dual-tone high-power LED flash.
Where I would use the IMX377 is on the front of my ideal smartphone, paired with an f/2.0 lens. By taking the Nexus 6P’s 12.3-megapixel rear camera and placing it on the front of this ideal smartphone, it would achieve excellent low light performance without the need for OIS. Considering many selfies are taken at night, such as in bars, restaurants or nightclubs with groups of friends, the benefits of 1.55 μm pixels would really shine in these use cases.
The front camera, although it wouldn’t feature OIS, would still be capable of 4K video recording. There wouldn’t be a flash, but it would use the screen displaying an all-white image if needed, similar to the current-generation iPhones.
The camera would combine Samsung’s excellent image processing with LG’s fantastic camera application, seen in the LG V10, for an awesome photography experience. This would give the user full manual control over settings in both photo and video mode, as well as an excellent automatic mode with auto-HDR. Thanks to Samsung’s image processing (with some tweaks to the sharpness filter to tone it down slightly), images would always look great.