Smartphones are the focus of most people's digital lives these days, and are likely to remain so until computing becomes truly 'ambient' -- probably involving some seamless combination of wearables (particularly augmented reality [AR] goggles), IoT devices, cloud services and artificial intelligence (AI).
Following the launch of the iPhone 8, 8 Plus and X, it's a good time to take stock of the current state of the smartphone market by examining the vital statistics of leading vendors' flagship handsets.
Apple's new iPhones, and Samsung's Galaxy S8/S8+ and Galaxy Note 8, show the general direction in which top-end smartphones are heading: powerful, attractive (and expensive) handsets whose user experiences increasingly leverage AI and AR, integrated with an ecosystem of add-on devices and services in various sectors including gaming, AR and VR, smart home, healthcare, shopping and office productivity.
Following last year's well-publicised Galaxy Note 7 debacle and strong fourth-quarter performance from Apple, Samsung briefly ceded first place to its main rival in the Q4 2016 smartphone market. However, the Korean company swiftly returned to the number-one spot in 2017 (see chart). Apple's new iPhones face stiff competition from Samsung, Huawei and other top-five vendors, and from several manufacturers in the 'Others' category -- including Google, HTC, LG, Motorola, Nokia, OnePlus and Sony -- that also offer premium smartphones.
"Despite some key launches in the second quarter from some well-known players, all eyes will be on the ultra-high-end flagships set to arrive this fall," said Anthony Scarsella, research manager with IDC's Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker, when the Q2 2017 figures were released at the beginning of August. "With devices like the iPhone 8, Pixel 2, Note 8, and V30 in the pipeline, the competition will be fierce come September. We expect all the key players to promote their latest and greatest flagships with an assortment of deals, bundles, and trade-in offers across a variety of channels in most key markets," he added.
Here's how the flagship smartphone market looks following Apple's 2017 iPhone launch, presented as far as possible in graphical form. (Note: we'll update this article as new handsets from Google, Huawei, LG and any other leading vendors are released.)
Screen size & Pixel density
Screen size -- measured in inches across the diagonal -- is a smartphone's defining design characteristic, and the range on offer from leading vendors is now very wide. BlackBerry's 4.5-inch keyboard-equipped KEYone is the smallest, while Samsung's Galaxy Note 8 currently leads the field at 6.3 inches, with 16 out of the 25 handsets covered here falling between 5.5 and 6 inches. Display technologies are split between IPS LCD (Apple, BlackBerry, Huawei, HTC, LG [G6], Sony) and various species of OLED (Apple [iPhone X], Google, HP, Huawei [Mate 9 Pro], LG [V30], Motorola, OnePlus and Samsung).
Recent developments in smartphone displays include curved minimal-bezel screens with on-screen home buttons, 18:9 aspect ratio, Gorilla Glass 5 screen protection and -- in the HTC U Ultra -- a small secondary screen for notifications and other useful information (an idea recently dropped by LG when updating the V20 to the V30). Samsung's Note 8 is the only handset covered here that offers a stylus (the S-Pen). Apple's 2017 iPhones add True Tone technology (first seen in the 2016 9.7-inch iPad Pro) that automatically adjusts colour temperature and intensity to the ambient light, while the iPhone X made more space for the screen by removing the home button (and Touch ID) altogether.
The other key statistic here is pixel density, measured as pixels per inch (ppi), which factors in the display resolution. The graph below shows that Samsung (Galaxy S8) and LG (G6) lead the mainstream field with pixel densities of 567 and 564ppi respectively. The outlier is Sony's 5.5-inch Xperia XZ Premium, which offers a maximum 4K resolution of 3,840 by 2,160 for a massive 807ppi. This looks extremely impressive, but note that, for much of the time, the Xperia XZ Premium works at 1,080p resolution to save battery life, resulting in a much more mundane 403.5ppi.
Not everyone is comfortable with a large-screen handset, but if you want a leading-edge device, that's increasingly what you're being offered. If you're happy with a large screen (>5.5in.) and also want high pixel density (>500ppi), you should be looking at Samsung's Galaxy Note 8 and Galaxy S8+, LG's V30 or, if you're happy to run Windows 10 Mobile, the HP Elite x3. If your hands are on the small side, the 5.3-inch Nokia 8 offers a good combination of moderate screen size and high resolution (550ppi).
Screen-to-body ratio & Thickness
Another key smartphone design metric is the screen-to-body ratio, which measures how much of a handset's fascia is occupied by screen compared to non-display elements like bezels, camera lenses and control buttons.
If low screen/body ratios are 'old-fashioned', then Apple's 2016 iPhone 7 and 7 Plus were showing their age at 65.5 percent and 67.5 percent respectively -- and their 8 and 8 Plus successors have done nothing to change that. Apart from BlackBerry's KEYone, only four other handsets have sub-70 percent ratios: Google Pixel, HTC U Ultra, Nokia 8 and Sony Xperia XZ Premium. The 4.5-inch KEYone is an outlier at 55.9 percent because, of course, it has a hardware keyboard, which decreases the screen-to-body ratio (and also increases the thickness compared to touchscreen-only handsets -- see below).
At the other end of the scale, Samsung's Galaxy S8, S8+ and Note 8 handsets, with their curved Infinity Display screens and on-screen home buttons, lead the field with screen/body ratios of 83-84 percent. LG's V30 and Apple's new iPhone X are the only other flagship handsets with screen/body ratios over 80 percent.
Smartphone vendors often make much of the slimness of their handsets, and it's clear from the chart below that Huawei is particularly keen on this design feature. Conversely, Samsung and Google (and BlackBerry) deliver notably thicker handsets:
Motorola's modular Moto Z2 Force, at 6.1mm with no Mods fitted, is the thinnest handset here. There are trade-offs though: the camera lens housing protrudes from the rear, and the device's body is too thin to accommodate a 3.5mm headset jack. With the increasing use of glass on both the front and back of premium handsets (to accommodate wireless charging), most people immediately put their expensive and shiny new handset in a protective case, which renders the quest for extreme slimness somewhat pointless.
Volume & Weight
As you'd expect, there's a clear relationship between a smartphone's physical volume and its weight, although the variation around the trendline is interesting.
For example, the handsets that are thick for their screen/body ratio -- notably the HTC-designed Google Pixel and Pixel XL, HTC U Ultra and U11 -- are also relatively light for their volume, suggesting that there's plenty of room for components inside the case. Another handset that's below the weight/volume trendline is Samsung's Galaxy Note 8 -- evidence, perhaps, of design changes following the Note 7 debacle (especially as the Note 8 also packs a smaller-capacity 3,300mAh battery than its ill-fated predecessor, which ran on a 3500mAh unit). Conversely, it's noteworthy how Apple's iPhone 8 Plus is particularly heavy (at 202g) for its volume, that the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus are slightly bulkier and heavier than their predecessors, and that the 5.8-inch iPhone X is considerably lighter and more compact than Samsung's 6.3-inch Galaxy Note 8.
Dust and water resistance
Another key smartphone design factor is resistance to the ingress of foreign matter, as commonly indicated by a two-digit IP rating: the first number describes dust resistance on a 1-6 scale, while the second describes water resistance on a 1-8 scale. The highest rating among the flagship handsets covered here is IP68, where '6' indicates that the device is 'dust tight' and '8' signifies that it can withstand immersion in water (usually at least 30 minutes to depth of at least 1m).
An IP rating of 5 for dust means the device is merely 'dust protected', while 7 for water means it can withstand immersion in up to 1m for 30 minutes, 4 means it can resist 'splashing water' and 3 means it can handle 'spraying water', both of the latter for at least 10 minutes.
IP ratings are not available for the BlackBerry KEYone, Huawei (and Honor) handsets, HTC U Ultra, Motorola Moto Z2 Force (although it does claim a 'water repellent nano-coating') and OnePlus 5. However, two of the flagship smartphones -- the LG V30 and HP Elite X3 -- also boast a military-grade MIL-STD 810G ruggedness certification.
Somewhat surprisingly, Apple's 2017 iPhones did not bump up their IP ratings from IP67 to IP68, to match Samsung's Galaxy S8/8+/Note 8. Looking ahead, it will be surprising if Google's second-generation Pixel handsets don't move beyond IP53.
Chipsets, CPU & GPU performance
A flagship smartphone should do its job -- launching, running and switching between apps, and displaying on-screen content -- quickly and smoothly, without any delays or glitches that would mar the user experience. It shouldn't become uncomfortably hot in operation either -- or, of course, burst into flames.
Chipsets from four main vendors power the handsets covered here:
- Apple's 4-core A10 Fusion (iPhone 7/7 plus) and 6-core AI- and AR-optimised A11 Bionic (iPhone 8/8Plus/X)
- Samsung's 8-core Exynos 8995 in the Galaxy S8/S8+/Note 8 (worldwide versions)
- Qualcomm's mid-range 8-core Snapdragon 625 (BlackBerry KEYone); 4-core 820 (HP Elite x3) and 821 (Google Pixel/XL, HTC U Ultra, LG G6); and top-end 8-core 835 (HTC U11, LG V30, Moto Z2 Force, OnePlus 5, Galaxy S8/S8+/Note 8 [US/China versions], Sony Xperia XZ Premium)
- HiSilicon's Kirin 960 in the Huawei and Honor handsets.
Here's how these platforms shape up in terms of processor and graphics performance, as measured by the Primate Labs' multi-core Geekbench 4 (Gb4) and Futuremark's 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited (ISU) benchmarks respectively:
Until Apple's September 2017 iPhone launch, the top-performing chipset -- on these measures at any rate -- was the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835, with Gb4 and ISU scores of up to 6500 and 40000 respectively. Note that the Exynos 8995 versions of the Samsung S8 and S8+ deliver better CPU results but weaker GPU performance (benchmarks are currently only available for the Exynos 8995 version of the Galaxy Note 8).
Apple's A10 Fusion-powered iPhone 7 and 7 Plus were strong performers, with scores of around 5400 (Gb4) and 37000 (ISU), but the new A11 Bionic-powered iPhones have reshaped the smartphone performance landscape. At the 2017 launch, Apple claimed that the A11 Bionic's two performance CPU cores are 25 percent faster than the A10, while its four high-efficiency cores are 70 percent faster. Apple's 2nd-generation performance controller is reportedly 70 percent faster for multithreaded workloads, while the A11's GPU is 30 percent faster and delivers A10-level performance at half the power, according to Apple. Early benchmarks for the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus show the A11 Bionic delivering scores of around 10,000 on Geekbench 4 (multi-core) and 64,000 on 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited.
The Kirin 960-powered handsets from Huawei and Honor cluster around the 6000 (Gb4)/27000 (ISU) mark. Again, we expect to see a performance boost when the AI-optimised Kirin 970 chipset becomes available in the Huawei Mate 10 and Mate 10 Pro in October.
The Snapdragon 821-powered smartphones on this chart -- notably Google's Pixel and Pixel XL, and LG's G6 -- are well behind the 2017 curve, and will also be updated before long. Very much in last place in this company is BlackBerry's KEYone, which is powered by Qualcomm's mid-range 8-core Snapdragon 625 SoC.
RAM & Storage
When it comes to memory, the clear leader of the pack is the OnePlus 5, which is currently unique in offering 8GB or 6GB of RAM. Next come seven flagship handsets with a maximum of 6GB, all of which bar the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 also have a 4GB variant. The most common RAM complement is 4GB, which is the only choice with 11 handsets and the maximum for BlackBerry's KEYone (which also comes with 3GB).
Apple has always fitted less RAM in its iPhones than the Android competition, and that hasn't changed with its 2017 handsets: the iPhone X and 8 Plus have 3GB (like the iPhone 7 Plus), while the iPhone 8 has 2GB (like the iPhone 7).
As far as internal storage is concerned, Apple's 2017 iPhones stand out with their maximum complement of 256GB -- a feature that betrays the company's disdain for external storage expansion via a MicroSD card slot. Samsung's Galaxy Note 8 also offers a maximum of 256GB (in some territories), but has a MicroSD card slot too, making it the top choice for the data-hungry.
Google's Pixel handsets and the OnePlus 5 also lack MicroSD expansion and, like the previous-generation iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, provide up to 128GB rather than 256GB of internal storage.
The most common maximum internal storage complement is 128GB, which is offered by 13 of the 25 handsets covered here.
Cameras have become a key battleground for smartphone makers, and several approaches are currently on view among the flagship population. Although it wasn't the first to do so, Apple kick-started a trend last year by offering dual rear cameras on the iPhone 7 Plus: a primary 12-megapixel (MP) camera with an f/1.8 wide-angle lens and optical image stabilisation (OIS), and a secondary camera with an f/2.8 telephoto lens with 2x optical zoom but no OIS.
As well as adding telephoto capability, Apple's dual-camera system allowed depth information to be calculated, enabling features like bokeh -- sharp foreground and blurred background -- to be supported on portrait shots that were previously the province of expensive digital SLR cameras with high-end optics.
Apple's 2017 dual-camera phones, the iPhone 8 Plus and iPhone X, remain at 12MP but the sensors are bigger, faster and deliver better low-light performance, according to Apple. The iPhone 8 Plus has the same basic lens specs as the 7 Plus (f/1.8 wa + OIS, f/2.8 tele), while the iPhone X has an f/2.4 aperture on the telephoto lens and implements OIS on both cameras. Apple also takes advantage of A11 Bionic chip's machine-learning optimisation and custom ISP to deliver a (beta) Portrait Mode feature called Portrait Lighting: here, depth sensing and facial mapping are combined to deliver real-time analysis of the light on a subject's face and provide alternative lighting schemes -- either pre- or post-capture.
Huawei, LG, Motorola, Nokia, OnePlus and Samsung (on the new Galaxy Note 8) also deploy dual rear camera systems, with various twists.
Huawei's Leica-branded camera system pairs 12MP RGB and 20MP monochrome sensors with 27mm f/2.2 lenses (f/1.8 in the P10 Plus), supporting OIS on the primary colour camera. As well as enabling true monochrome shooting and adding detail to blended RGB/mono shots, the 20MP secondary camera supplies depth information for bokeh-style images. The Honor 8 Pro has a similar (non-Leica-branded) system, but the secondary mono camera is 12MP rather than 20MP and there's no support for OIS.
LG uses two 13MP sensors on the G6, one coupled with an f/1.8 autofocus lens with OIS and the other with an f/2.4 wide-angle lens lacking both OIS and autofocus. The LG V30 takes a similar approach, but uses a 16MP primary sensor with an f/1.6 lens (with AF and OIS) and a 13MP secondary sensor with an f/1.9 lens (no AF or OIS).
Both Motorola and Nokia take the Huawei approach, with colour and monochrome cameras: the Nokia 8's Zeiss-branded system supports OIS on the colour camera, but the Moto Z2 Force does not offer OIS on either.
OnePlus and Samsung (Galaxy Note 8) go for the wide-angle/telephoto dual camera design, OnePlus with 16MP (wa) and 20MP (tele) cameras and electronic image stabilisation (EIS) rather than OIS, and Samsung with two 12MP cameras, both with OIS. Samsung also introduces a couple of neat dual-camera features: Live Focus lets you adjust the bokeh effect pre- and post-capture, while Dual Capture simultaneously captures photos from both the wide-angle and telephoto cameras.
Single rear cameras are an increasing rarity among the flagship population, but are headed (in resolution terms) by Sony and HP, with 19MP and 16MP units in the Xperia XZ Premium and Elite x3 respectively.
The fashion for 'selfies' and authentication via face recognition means that front-facing cameras, once something of an afterthought with a nod to video calls, have seen significant recent evolution.
Samsung, for example, offers both face recognition and iris scanning on its Galaxy S8, S8+ and Note 8 handsets, as well as a capable 8MP camera, while the Nokia 8's Dual Capture feature lets you take pictures with the front and rear camera simultaneously (a.k.a. 'Bothies'). Even more recently Apple more than matched Samsung's functionality with the front-facing TrueDepth camera system and Face ID on the new iPhone X:
To analyse your physiognomy, the flood illuminator detects your face, the infrared camera takes an IR image, and the dot projector places than 30,000 IR dots on your face. These data are fed into a neural network (in the A11 Bionic chip) to create a mathematical model of your face, which is then checked against the stored model on the handset -- all in real time. The True Depth camera also enables Portrait Mode selfies with Portrait Lighting, and animated emoji called 'Animoji'.
Here are the front camera megapixel counts for the 25 handsets under consideration, 12 of which are 8MP units:
Video capture is becoming an increasingly important smartphone camera feature -- witness the fact that all bar one of the handsets covered here can record 4k (2160p) video with at least a frame rate of 30fps. The exception is BlackBerry's KEYone, which doesn't support 4k video capture at any frame rate. Apple's new iPhones just upped the ante by supporting 4k video at 60fps, which will doubtless kick off another round of feature catch-up.
Slow-motion video is another popular feature, and Sony's Xperia XZ Premium leads the field here, supporting HD (720p) video capture at a startling 'super-slo-mo' 960fps. The current 'standard' for slo-mo video is 720p at 240fps, although Apple has again pushed the boundary by supporting full HD (1080p) video at 240fps in the iPhone 8, 8 Plus and X.
As resolutions and frame rates rise, image stabilisation -- either optical or electronic -- will become ever more important. It's noticeably absent from Motorola's Moto Z2 Force, for example.
As flagship smartphones pack in faster processors, more memory, larger and higher-resolution screens, and ever more functions, so the toll on the handset's battery increases. There are multiple trade-offs here: no smartphone user wants to have to recharge during a typical day's usage, but manufacturers cannot simply fit ever higher-capacity batteries into designs that need to be as lightweight and elegant as possible in order to keep buyers interested. Get it wrong and a vendor can have a Galaxy Note 7-style debacle on its hands.
The state of the art in smartphone batteries is currently around 4,000mAh, while 14 of the 24 handsets charted here have battery capacities between 3,000 and 4,000mAh.
Note that the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus have slightly lower-capacity batteries than their 7 and 7 Plus predecessors, despite offering the same claimed battery life -- testament to the increased power efficiency of the new A11 Bionic chipset. The capacity of the iPhone X's battery is not yet known.
A bigger battery obviously means longer battery life, as the chart below clearly shows. But given that design and safety constraints preclude the shoehorning of big batteries into tight-fitting cases, manufacturers also need to make it as convenient as possible for users -- especially 'power' users who subject their devices to heavy workloads -- to recharge their handsets.
Following LG's decision to drop the removable battery when updating the V20 to the V30, this feature is now absent from all of the top-end smartphones covered here. Fast charging is supported on all but the now-outdated iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, while wireless charging is available on Apple's new iPhones (8, 8 Plus and X), HP's Elite x3, the LG G6 and V30, and Samsung's Galaxy S8, S8+ and Note 8.
High-end smartphones are never going to be cheap, but Apple's newly launched iPhone X has broken new ground -- the combination of Apple's historically high margins and a significant amount of new technology have seen to that. The entry-level 64GB iPhone X configuration costs $999, and if you must have the top-end 256GB model, be prepared to part with a princely $1,149 (and the same figure in UK pounds).
That's a record for a mainstream flagship handset, although you can spend even sillier money on specialist secure/luxury devices like Sirin Labs' Solarin if you really want to (although, as it turned out, few did).
Here are the list prices in US dollars for most of the premium handsets covered in this feature:
Recent launches from Samsung and Apple have highlighted the increasing importance of artificial intelligence and augmented reality in high-end smartphones, with the underlying chipsets and developer resources evolving appropriately. At least for now, the smartphone will remain the portable hub for your digital life, and the flow of new devices will continue apace.
We aim to keep this roundup updated as new products, specification details and benchmarks appear. The next big launches expected are Google's second-generation Pixel handsets, Huawei's Mate 10 and 10 Pro, and LG's G7. Check back for updated information on these and other devices.
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