2016 in review: iPhone continued success, Moto surprises, and rise of Huawei

Apple holds on to its fairly consistent market share, Samsung failed with the Note 7, Lenovo impressed with the Moto Z line, and Huawei rises around the world.
Written by Matthew Miller, Contributing Writer

2016 was another fantastic year in mobile technology where we find people using their smartphones as their primary source of information and social interaction. I've been blessed to now write here on ZDNet for more than a decade and look forward to an exciting 2017.

This year-end post includes my ten most viewed posts from 2016, some "best of" titles for this year, answers to last year's questions, and questions I hope to have answered in 2017.

Most viewed articles of 2016

  1. 7 small-screen smartphones: Can the 4-inch iPhone SE trump rivals?
  2. 10 best smartphones of 2016 so far
  3. iPhone 7 Plus case roundup: Speck and Tech21 provide drop protection in slim form
  4. Nationwide Cricket Wireless outage draws customer ire primarily due to lack of communications
  5. T-Mobile's free iPhone 7 offer requires upfront costs and lots of patience
  6. Running with the Apple Watch: Yes, you can leave your iPhone behind
  7. 10 ways to boost your productivity with the Samsung Galaxy Note 5 S Pen
  8. Android Wear 2.0 preview on a Huawei Watch: Significant UI changes and watch face complications
  9. 10 best smartphones for the 2016 holiday season
  10. Apple iPhone 7 Plus: 10 reasons to pick the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 instead

Smartphones dominated my most popular posts of 2016 with the Apple iPhone the primary subject of four posts. Readers seem to enjoy my picks for best smartphones and after CES and Mobile World Congress in January and February, you can expect my next list in early 2017. At this time, the iPhone 7 Plus, Google Pixel XL, Moto Z Force Droid, and Huawei Mate 9 are fighting for my attention on a daily basis.

Despite the fact that the wearable market continues to struggle to gain consumer attention, two of my 10 most viewed posts were about the Apple Watch and Android Wear smartwatches. The Garmin Fenix 3 HR and Samsung Gear S3 were the subjects of three more articles in the next 10 most viewed articles I wrote here on ZDNet.

Best of 2016

I have a few titles I would like to award to the devices, accessories, and software I checked out in 2016.

  • Best smartphone surprise: When Motorola launched the Moto X, I was a huge fan because of the price, customizability, and fact that software updates appeared as fast as a Nexus device. The Moto phones fell off my radar after the Lenovo purchase, but I've been pleasantly surprised and impressed by the new Verizon Moto Z Force Droid that received the Nougat update quickly while also being a phone that offers more than a Google Pixel XL. It has a shatterproof display, water repellant coating, modular design that is actually useful, expandable microSD storage, and handy Moto Actions to improve your efficiency.
  • Rodney Dangerfield award (Best device that lacks the respect it deserves): LG continues to release excellent smartphones and with the failure of the Note 7 I expected the new LG V20 to do better than it has. LG phones deserve more attention and respect. The LG V20 has an excellent camera, microSD storage card, removable battery, and shipped with Android Nougat.
  • Best Android smartphone: With the death of the Galaxy Note 7, choosing the Google Pixel XL as the best Android smartphone is an easy choice. It's battery seems to last forever and it reminds me of an iPhone running Android. While it's hard for me to pinpoint exactly why I can't put it down, the Pixel XL doesn't disappoint.
  • Best iOS smartphone: This one is easy as Apple only launches a couple new phones each year. Apple iPhone 7 Plus is clearly the best Apple smartphone of 2016. It is similar to the iPhone 7, but the dual camera adds a fun portrait mode while the battery life also satisfies.
  • Best BlackBerry device: I honestly didn't think I would have a BlackBerry to include on this list, but the DTEK60 is fantastic. BlackBerry no longer makes the hardware, but they worked with TCL to launch a powerful, attractive, and inexpensive flagship with the DTEK60. Android works well with BlackBerry Hub integration and the only thing I would like to see is a bit longer battery life.
  • Best tablet: The Surface Pro 4 is my favorite computer ever and I personally also use it as my primary tablet. CNET has a list of the best tablets of 2016 and would agree that the Apple iPad Pro 9.7 is probably the best, non-PC tablet available.
  • Best smartwatch: The new Apple Watch Series 2 is excellent, but I'm giving my top pick to the Samsung Gear S3 Frontier thanks to an integrated cellular connection, water and dust resistance, GPS, watch-optimized OS, and the ability to work with any Android smartphone.
  • Best daily activity tracker: Fitbit is the Kleenex of the wearable world and having recently acquired some Pebble assets, it is definitely the company to beat. The Fitbit Charge 2 is the best wristband tracker available today. The Fitbit Blaze is a great tracker too, but comes in a watch form factor that is not as subtle as the Charge 2.
  • Best GPS sport watch: I've spent years, and hundreds of dollars, trying out different GPS sports watches to track my running and cycling. I finally splurged this year and bought the expensive Garmin Fenix 3 HR and it does everything I could ever want while having a battery life that lasts me at least a week. It's a big watch, but has proven to be the best wearable I have ever purchased and I couldn't be any more pleased.

Responses to questions from 2015

  • Will Microsoft finally give up on smartphone hardware?: The Lumia 950/950 XL have been on a fire sale recently and there continue to be rumors of a possible Surface phone. We didn't see anything new from Microsoft in 2016 and I'm not holding out much hope for anything in 2017 either.
  • Will Android turn BlackBerry around?: I wouldn't say that Android has turned BlackBerry around, but the latest DTEK phones are receiving high ratings from reviewers and there are strong rumors of a successor to the BlackBerry PRIV. There is still a long road ahead to convince businesses that BlackBerry is the choice for a secure Android device, but high quality hardware like the DTEK60 may help.
  • Will HTC get out of the smartphone business?: Not yet. The HTC 10 was released in 2016 and it's a solid device that didn't get as much respect as it deserved. HTC made the new Google Pixel phone so while it is possible HTC may get out of the branding business, maybe the company will become Google's preferred hardware maker.
  • What's next in wearable tech?: I'm not sure what can be done to make wearables more attractive to consumers. The latest Apple Watch and Samsung Gear S3 do everything you could want in a wearable and there's not much more to be developed here. Battery life remains the biggest hurdle to overcome.
  • What's going to be changed in the next iPhone?: Apple's iPhone line continues a similar form factor and we saw the expected new processor and an improved camera. The dual camera with bokeh portrait mode is a nice addition. The move away from a physical button took some getting used to, but makes sense in moving forward. The lack of a headphone jack still annoys me, but thankfully high quality Bluetooth headsets are available.

Here are a few questions I have for 2017:

  • Will VR become more popular now that Google Daydream is available?
  • Will Huawei/Honor grow mindshare in the US market?
  • Will wearables continue to stumble along and will other wearable companies go under?
  • What's going to be changed in the next iPhone and Nexus?

Looking ahead to 2017

I have a few Huawei phones I am testing right now and the company has moved into third place behind Samsung and Apple in worldwide market share. The phones are high quality with some excellent capability, but it remains to be seen if Huawei can show some success in the US. The Google Pixel/Pixel XL phones are the first Google-branded phones and both continue to have limited stock. I am excited about the next Pixel offering and the possibility of Google smartwatches too.

Given that I like to write about the latest and greatest here on ZDNet, it's likely that I will sell my existing devices and pick up the next big iPhone, next Samsung Galaxy Note, and maybe the next Pixel smartphone.

What was your favorite smartphone, tablet, or wearable of the year? How about your worst?

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