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The Best of 2014, Pt 4: High-end Phone of the Year

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It’s easy to confuse the best phones with the most marketed phones. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK’s pick of 2014 delves into both the best-known and the unknown among the high-end smartphones.

It’s an easy trap to feel compelled to choose the best phone of the year. In reality, there is no longer such a creature. At every price point and size format, there is a “better” phone within the confines of that price and size. “Better”, in turn, is defined by the needs and preferences of the user. “Best” is a figment of marketing imaginations.

Marketing naturally plays a massive role in public perception of what is “better” and “best”. In the United States, Apple’s powerful marketing machine and brilliant positioning has earned it those labels for many years, even when it was obvious from an objective point of view that it had fallen behind the cutting edge – in particular the demand for larger displays, driven by the growing emphasis on photos and videos. It was testament to the iconic status of the iPhone that its appeal didn’t seem to wane even as Samsung took away its market dominance.

But now Apple has caught up, and some would even say reclaimed its leadership. But that is a limited perspective: again based on the idea that one phone can be the “best”. If it’s any consolation to Apple fans, both new iPhones contend for the title of best in class in their specific formats and price points. Samsung is also up there, of course, but in one key category – the flagship smartphone – it has not been able to repeat the category-leading status of the Galaxy S3 and S4.

Here then are the leaders among high-end phones in the phablet, standard and compact formats. Note that the following categories are not necessarily industry standards, but are defined according to the structure of the market and needs of consumers:

Large format phone of the year

There is little to choose between in the winning selection of phones with displays of 5.5″ or larger. Anyone who has used and got used to Samsung’s Note range will be best served by the Note 4, with its stylus and split-screen options. Apple users who have felt frustrated by the pokey screens of the 4 and 5 ranges will be blown away by the 6 Plus. And LG knocks out the competition with a large screen in a smaller overall format. All three of these phones are as close to magic as consumer technology has reached.

Joint winners:

Apple iPhone 6 Plus

LG G3

Samsung Galaxy Note 4 Apple iPhone 6 Plus

LG G3 Samsung Galaxy Note 4

Budget large format phone of the year

The leading large format phones also lead in price, with the 6 Plus and Note 4 both well above R10 000, and the G3 above R7500. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that, for those willing to sacrifice on leading brands and far-end specs, the same format is available at a far lower cost. Sadly, however, the clear winner here appears to have been discontinued. It may well be that the HTC Desire 816 was TOO cheap, at under R5000, but it is probably still available via diligent shopping around.

Alcatel’s runner-up, the 6-inch Hero, still comes in at under R6000 despite its monster size. That seems impressive, until you check out the next one down, namely the Hisense MAXE X1. At 6,8-inches, it’s really a small tablet phone, but is being marketed as a “phablet” and positioned as the brand’s flagship smartphone. At well below R5000, consumers will give them the benefit of the doubt.

HTC Desire 816 Alcatel One Touch Hero Hisense MAXE X1

Standard format phone of the year

In the format that is now standard on flagship smartphones, with displays ranging from 5″ to below 5.5″, the standout devices are less obvious, and the pecking order clearer. The winner is the phone that is streets ahead in terms of display quality, camera power (13MP rear, 8MP front – the largest of any major brand), and size – at 6.5mm, the Huawei Ascend P7 is the thinnest big-brand smartphone in the world. That strikes the three major chords of the consumer, and only lack of marketing holds it back.

The lack of real innovation and the similarity of appearance in the Samsung Galaxy S5 means that it could not repeat the success of the S3 and S4, my personal “best” phones for 2012 and 2013. It was even pushed into third place, with the stylish HTC One M8 shoving its way forward in the queue.

The same issue faced the Sony Xperia Z3, a superb phone but with little reason to upgrade from the Z2, aside from incorporation of PS4 Remote Play and battery life that puts the other phones in this category to shame.

Huawei Ascend P7 HTC One M8 Samsung Galaxy S5 Sony Xperia Z3

Compact phone of the year

The format between 4″ and 5″ is one of the most quietly competitive at the high end of the market. While flagship phones get the attention, both Sony and Samsung have brought superior “compact” phones into the battle to fend off Apple. Sony’s 4.6″ contender, the Z3 Compact, even looks like an iPhone 6 at first sight. With Sony’s superior camera technology, however, it is a “better” choice, if one is not locked into Apple. Samsung’s 4.5″ S5 Mini option is almost as good, while the 4.7″ iPhone 6 takes its rightful place in the top three. As with the phablets, I have to cop out here, and declare them joint winners, with the choice depending on the buyer’s own preferences for look, feel, features and brand.

Joint winners:

Apple iPhone 6

Samsung Galaxy S5 Mini

Sony Xperia Z3 Compact

Apple iPhone 6 Samsung Galaxy S5 Mini Sony Xperia Z3 Compact

Most innovative phone of the year

Here there is only one serious contender in terms of attempting to shift boundaries. The much-maligned BlackBerry startled the market with a phone that will no doubt regularly carry the prefix, “much-maligned”. The Passport is a phone that grows on you, with its ungainly shape and square screen gradually proving its worth as a productivity tool for producing documents and working on Excel spreadsheets on the run.

Strictly speaking, Samsung’s Galaxy Note Edge should not be on the list, as it’s not officially available in the country, but enough have been brought in to give it some visibility. With the emphasis on visibility. The notification screen on the edge of the device not only gives it the name, but also offers tremendous potential for innovation in both notification services and additional utilities on the phone.

The LG G3 sneaks into this round-up for a second time thanks to its ability to fit a phablet-sized phone into a standard-sized body. The 5.5″ G3, when placed alongside 5″-5.2″ competitors, does not look out of place. It’s notable that LG’s curved G Flex does not make it into the list: the marketing arguments for a superior viewing angle don’t translate that well in the real world.

1. BlackBerry Passport

2. Samsung Galaxy Note Edge

3. LG G3

BlackBerry Passport Samsung Galaxy Note Edge LG G3

* Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee, and subscribe to his YouTube channel at http://bit.ly/GGadgets

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