This is part 1 in my three part series reviewing 2016; the good, the bad, and an outlook on what 2017 may hold for smartphone enthusiasts and Android fanatics
his year will likely go down as the year of few compromises, the year of the flagship, the year where Android OEMs tried something entirely new or just put out the best smartphones they could. But to really understand just how good and different 2016 has been, one has to have a little context.
Last year was a bad year for Android smartphones, there is just no other way to put it… While there were some shining points like the above-excellent Nexus 6P and the new premium focus of Samsung, it also was full of controversy. Things like Android OEMs inability, or unwillingness to provide timely updates was brought to the fore with security flaws like StageFright. LG started fighting with a boot-loop problem it still is facing, and the “2016 Flagship Killer” simply wasn’t. HTC saw profits continue to decline past what anyone thought was actually possible… and who can forget the Snapdragon 810, and almost-equally poor 808. If you were a smartphone enthusiast, 2015 was a year where you likely saved quite a bit of money. But just a year later the entire Android landscape has changed for the better and is ending with a bang (heh).
Samsung really got the year off right with its Galaxy S7 — love it or hate it the S7 is one of the best phones released in years. It sported a stunning screen, amazing fast camera and more bells and whistles than one could ever use, and the return of the mighty micro SD card support. They also added IP68 water resistance back to the lineup, showing that you simply don’t have to compromise on design, with flaps or the removal of ports to achieve this feat. Even on the software front it was a vast improvement over prior years, despite having plenty of room to continue that pace. Later on in the year HTC finally got around to releasing the HTC 10, a phone that absolutely does not get enough credit. It would not be a stretch to say that the HTC 10 was one of, if not the best, while also being the most forgettable phone of the year. Google, working with HTC, launched its Pixel phones which despite their prices and “missing features” are two of the best Android phones ever.
It wasn’t just Tier 1 OEMs that saw success this year. How often can you say that there are multiple outstanding phones you can recommend with little reservation that don’t cost an arm and a leg, or a kidney… OnePlus rebounded in spectacular fashion with the OnePlus 3, a phone that feels and performs far beyond its price bracket. ZTE shot back with the Axon 7, a phone that packed feature on top of feature, despite its questionable software decisions which are slowly being rectified. The Honor 8 is also an easily recommendable phone for the price. The Android SOC space also went from one where finding a good chipset meant going back a year, to really having your pick of the litter. Qualcomm offered a range of excellent performing chips from the 617, to the 652 to the top-tier 820 and faces stiff competition from the Exynos 8890 and the Kirin 950, 955 and now the 960. The proliferation of faster storage solutions like UFS and EMMC5.1 along with DDR4 and the optimization of Android in general has made even skinned devices surprisingly snappy. While speaking of the optimization of Android, we cannot skip over the impact that Nougat has had.
The Nougat rollout to older Nexus devices has not been without its share of issues, but largely Nougat has brought a more responsive system, more features pulled from other OEM skins like multi-window, and 7.1.1 looks to improve the longevity of batteries. Huge improvements were also brought to notifications, Doze and overall system smoothness. Many OEMs have yet to update or ship with Nougat preinstalled, but as 2017 rolls in more and more devices will benefit from one of the best Android updates in years. More so than in any other year, a good, solid and in some cases a great smartphone can be had at any price, and 2016 isn’t even over yet.
True though, the camera could be better on the OnePlus 3, the DAC could be better on the Pixel, and the screen could be better on the HTC 10… but here is the kicker, despite those things each of those phones offers an above-standard level of performance across the board. You are really grasping at the wind complaining about the things that those devices do not do “as well” as its competition. Choosing the Pixel does not mean you have a bad DAC, because it is great, it just means the HTC 10 and V20 chose to focus on this experience. Choosing the OnePlus 3 does not mean you have a bad camera, it has a fantastic one, but the Galaxy S7 and Pixel have one even better.
Going out and buying a great phone across the board has never been easier, regardless of how much you have to spend and it all boils down to choice. Choosing what matters to you in a smartphone no longer means you have to choose an audio experience at the cost of a poor display or camera, and that is an amazing feeling.
So is it safe to call 2016 the year of no compromises? Not quite, and I will be looking into this in Pt 2 of this article, but Android OEMs largely rebounded from an awful 2015 to deliver one of the most exciting times to be a smartphone enthusiast.
So what devices stood out to you in 2016? What OEM really kicked it up and just delivered? Sound off in the comments and be on the lookout for Pt. 2 of my series coming soon!