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Smartphones

The best smartphone features of 2017 plus our five favourite models – where’s the iPhone X?

From single-camera bokeh shots and funky AR apps to the world’s first neural processing unit, it has been a year jam-packed with innovations. We pick out the ones that really matter and the phones that have rocked our world

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 December, 2017, 5:47pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 December, 2017, 5:51pm

If there is one single feature that epitomises smartphone evolution this year, it would be the shift towards slim-bezelled handsets with displays that stretch almost edge to edge.

The top releases in 2017 were all noticeably smaller and easier to hold than last year’s editions without losing screen real estate, such as the LG V30 and Huawei Mate 10. In the case of Apple and Samsung’s flagships, users got more screen in a smaller body.

Samsung Galaxy S8 full review: at HK$5,698 it’s pricey but there’s a lot to like

But while this bezel-less movement is understandably getting most of the attention – it is the first thing we see, after all – tech companies have made several improvements to smartphones that may not be immediately noticeable, but are perhaps more important.

The first is continued advancements in artificial intelligence (AI), from both an immediate and long-term perspective. Huawei built the world’s first mobile chipset with a dedicated NPU (neural processing unit, essentially a souped-up CPU capable of running AI applications), which will shape the tech in future years. Apple and Google, meanwhile, improved their current machine-learning algorithms to work wonders today.

Remember the dual-camera trend pioneered by Huawei but popularised by Apple? Consumers were told that two cameras were needed to produce that depth-of-field effect in portraits (aka bokeh). But the single-camera Google Pixel 2 phones can produce bokeh shots just as good, if not better, than Apple and Huawei’s dual-shooters.

Google was able to achieve this with AI smarts that identify scenery and then produce the blurred effect through post-photo processing.

There is still a reason for the second rear camera to exist – LG uses it for wide-angle shots, for example – but Google has effectively shut down the claim that two cameras are needed to determine the distance between subject and background.

Over at Apple, the iPhone X uses what the company calls a “neural engine” to power an impressive facial recognition system and AR (augmented reality) prowess. The latter is especially useful in the real world – just try AR apps by Ikea and Topology Eyewear that respectively allow users to place simulated furniture in their living room and glasses on their face.

That Apple is pushing so hard for augmented reality – the company introduced an AR framework to app developers in its newest iOS software – is yet more proof that AR is far more important than the overhyped VR.

Android users wanting the latest AR apps need not fret: Qualcomm recently announced that its Snapdragon 845 chipset, which will be in most 2018 Android flagships, is built to focus on AR capabilities.

Smaller brands like LG and Razer do not have the resources to develop AI like Apple, Google and Huawei, so this year they’ve turned their attention to improving media consumption.

LG went against the industry trend of retiring the analogue headphone jack by putting two hi-fi audio DACs (digital-to-analogue converters) into its V30.

Gaming hardware company Razer, meanwhile, gave its first smartphone a set of killer speakers and a 120Hz screen refresh rate, the latter effectively giving the device double the framerate of other smartphones.

Both the V30’s audiophile-appeasing sound output and the Razer Phone’s insane graphical fluidity is likely to go unnoticed by the average smartphone user (that would be most people), but enthusiasts who care about these things swear by them and refuse to settle for anything less.

It is clear that top-tier phones have made big strides this year, but as smartphone manufacturing continues to mature and components become more widely available, mid-tier and budget phones are getting better and better too.

Chinese companies such as Xiaomi and OnePlus each released phones with Snapdragon 835 chipsets at half the price of Samsung phones running the same chipset. OnePlus, in particular, released what is probably the best value handset in the entire market with the 5T.

On the low-spec end, phones out of Shenzhen OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) are getting cheaper and cheaper – you can buy a solidly built bezel-less phone from an obscure brand like Maze for around HK$1,000.

Review: Maze Alpha smartphone – a budget Xiaomi lookalike with some useful features

And with the recent announcement that Google and Taiwanese semiconductor company MediaTek have teamed up to make a leaner, streamlined version of Android designed to run on really low-spec devices, consumers can expect the price of even the cheapest Android phones to go even lower (less than US$70).

This is welcoming news, because 2017 was also the year large smartphone companies realised that consumers in developed markets such as the US and China have no qualms about paying more for what they perceive to be “premium” products.

This year both Apple and Samsung increased its flagship phone prices to over US$1,000 and sold more units than ever. Huawei took it one step further with a “Porsche Edition” of the Mate 10 Pro that retails officially for 9,000 yuan (US$1,360) and is on the resale market in China for twice that amount.

It is worth mentioning that the Porsche Edition is the exact same phone as the Mate 10 Pro but has more internal storage and a Porsche logo painted on the phone’s back. Phone companies are going for the shameless cash grab and consumers don’t seem to mind.

But perhaps this is the price one must pay to live in the future, because the top phones of 2017 certainly feel close to the personal devices that have been depicted in futuristic sci-fi films for decades.

Ben Sin’s top five smartphones of 2017 (factoring in both performance and value):

1. Huawei Mate 10 Pro

2. OnePlus 5T

3. LG V30

4. iPhone X

5. Samsung Galaxy S8