In the past couple years we’ve seen numerous electronic manufacturers dive into the new true wireless earbud market. Most are rolling out their first crack at it, while a select few were early starters and now have second iterations that don’t feel so beta anymore. One of the newest well-known manufacturers that are in the former camp is Sony. The Japanese giant has a well-placed presence in the audio market, not just with general headphones but wireless offerings that boast some of the best active noise-cancellation (ANC) tech thus far. Its over-ear flagship sequel, the WH-1000XM2, has garnered a lot of praise.
But can it deliver a first-gen pair of true wireless earbuds that hold the same excellence as the rest of their headphone line, and not fall victim to the same downsides as the rest? That’s what we’re here to discover. To boot, we’ll say that fitting in ANC into such a small package is darn impressive, and something that others cannot claim.
Unboxing the WF-1000X
One thing we really like about Sony’s designs is that they rarely follow in others’ footsteps. Case in point, the shape of the WF-1000X don’t look like any other true wireless earbuds currently on the market. They bear an L-shape that may initially draw confusion on how to exactly don them. But it quickly becomes apparent as soon as you realize the proper orientation. Grasping the ear tip stems and pointing the other end forward reveals how they insert in your ears. The ear tips are angled to match the shape of your ear canal.
We think the reason for this design is due to all the technology at Sony desired to pack in. So instead of going outward from the ear, they wrap around a bit towards the front. This is clever and in practice, there’s no downside that we found. Despite their size, the earpieces are still exceptionally lightweight. They practically disappear in your ears. This design choice also enables Sony to have great separation between the audio driver and wireless-enabling electronics. We think this is one reason for the WF-1000X’s above average sonics (we’ll talk about the audio quality a little later).
Speaking of the build, it’s all plastic but with a finish on the primary shell that looks metallic. Our “Black” model has more of a reflective dark gray that has an attractive sheen in light. It transitions to a smooth, matte finish on the ear tip end and a small window on the other end (where a wireless receptor is visible).
To reiterate, these earbuds are the in-ear (or in-canal) type, so the seal that the ear tips make in the ear canal are a big proponent of the sound quality. Sony’s ear tips are a firm, bullet-style and they go in pretty deep. We had no problem getting an appropriate seal. In the case that you don’t, Sony includes three different sizes of not just the typical silicone material but also foam.
We didn’t have any issue with the WF-1000X falling out, even while working out (which we don’t recommend because they’re unfortunately not water/sweat-proof). The silicone ear tips have a sticky finish that cling to your ear canals. They are very comfortable and we didn’t get any aches whatsoever.
The packaging also comes with a USB-A to micro-USB charging cable, user-installable ear fins (for extra support), and a premium-feeling metal carrying case that has a battery within. True wireless earbuds struggle with battery life (the WF-1000X are no exception), so manufacturers typically put a battery in the carrying case to assist. This case has enough capacity to charge the WF-1000X through 3 cycles. This is great to have, but with a measly 3-hour rating, many your sessions will probably be cut short and you’ll have to wait until they charge up before continuing. Sometimes the future feels like we’re going backwards.
The earpieces have their specific Left and Right silos in the case. They have two pins that match up to the magnetic connectors in the case. They click into place nicely, but you do have to make sure that they get seated correctly. One time we thought we did and then ended up with no juice on the right earpiece. There’s a blue and red LED indicators that light up from the transparent portion of the earpieces. Red will shown when they’re charging. A blue flash tells the user that the earbuds are on, but they stop flashing once they’re set in the ears and the Bluetooth connection is stabilized.
It’s always interesting to see how manufacturers implement the user controls in these little guys, being that there’s not much room to work with. Some try touch controls while others try different button placements. Sony opts for buttons, one on the bottom of each earpiece. The left earpiece controls the power and mode of ANC (Sony has three sound modes: ANC on, ANC on but with audible higher frequencies, and ANC off), and the right earpiece controls playback in the typical method: single press for play/pause, double press for next track, triple press for previous track, and long press to toggle the mobile device’s virtual assistant (i.e. Google Now on Android). The buttons worked well in our use. Finding and pressing them can sometimes rock the seal, but nothing major.
I’m usually the type that likes to just plug and play. So I booted my experience with the WF-1000X by simply taking them out of the case, pairing with Bluetooth on my phone, and playing. I knew that Sony had an app that accompany the earbuds, but meh. Well, I soon found that if you want to access to the full volume capacity, you have to use the app. I was hitting the volume ceiling with just plugging and playing and got super worried for these headphones. The app has an independent volume control, for whatever reason. So what I did was cranked it up from that end so that I can solely have volume control on the Bluetooth end. This is an easy enough fix, but we still don’t agree with it. It’s not intuitive. The app shouldn’t be a necessity. I can picture users returning the WF-1000X upon running into the low volume and not realizing that the app can fix it.
The Sony Headphone app has various feature control for the WF-1000X.
In the app, you can set the ambient mode to automatically switch to suit what you’re doing (sitting, walking, running, or traveling).
Sony includes an equalizer with various presets (but not user-customizable).
Most true wireless earbuds struggle with the Bluetooth connection. It’s understandable, since the receptors must be tiny and the range compromised. The WF-1000X are certainly not exempt from this issue, despite its design to move the receptors further out from the ears. We can’t say if the fault falls on hardware or software. Not to scare anyone, signal drop-age isn’t particularly a whole lot worse than other true wireless earbuds we’ve tried. Typically enough body movement between the source device and earbuds do it. But we have found that the signal can spaz out randomly on the WF-1000X. Usually it’s the right earpiece that gets lost (these earpieces use a master/slave relationship – the left earpiece is the master and the right links to it) and takes a few seconds to recover. Our experience with this is best described as hit or miss. Sometimes it would chug through flawlessly and sometimes it would struggle to recover. Additionally, a few times when we took the earpieces out of the case for a listen, only the left earpiece would play. We would then have to placing them back in the case so they shut off and reset and that did the trick, but annoying.
[Update: Sony has since issued a firmware update that improves the audio/connection stability. We have installed it and can tell that there are less dropouts. Additionally, Sony has linked the volume control with the system, so there’s no longer the separate controls we complained about.]
And alas, there’s the ANC. To first set the stage, we have to caution that the performance of the ANC here is not going to be on the same level as something like the Sony WH-1000XM2 or Bose QC 35. It helps block noise but it’s going to be near dead silent. We’d say it’s about half level of those. It’s up to you if that’s meaningful or not. It is in our opinion. It’s pretty amazing to have ANC at all in something this size and this challenging to engineer. In other words, we’ll take whatever we can get. In practice, you’ll mostly be cancelling out low-end rumbling, like a white noise in an office space or the rumbling of a dishwasher. Same goes for an airplane, but in this case you will pick up the higher frequency whizzing from the engines.
The WF-1000X easily pair to our Android phone, but Sony includes an NFC receptor on the bottom of the charging case for even quicker setup.
The WF-1000X is not going to rival any headphone in the $200 range for clarity or analytical details. That said, it is no slouch either. Dynamics are stellar, reaching higher than the price would suggest. Soundstage is also a strong suit relative to the competition. This means that the sound isn’t cohesively flat. It’s open, airy, and notes have depth/dimensionality and impact. If you can look past high fidelity, it’s a very enjoyable and engaging sound. Together with the noise-cancellation, it’s easy block out the out the outside world and get lost in the sound. In other words, Sony makes up for fidelity (which is in no way bad) with delivery and noise-cancellation.
Speaking of the frequency response, it’s fairly well balanced. As of late, Sony has been doing a great job getting a nice balance between neutrality and energy. The range upper bass to mid range is wonderfully present and well separated. But sub-bass doesn’t go as deep as you can get up the price chain. Likewise, the treble is appreciably detailed, but it not with standout quality or reach, just decent.
Like most wireless, ANC headphones, the WF-1000X isn’t exempt from low-level hiss. But it’s within the realm of reason. Unless it’s a quiet passage, the music drowns it out.
The WF-1000X are an…interesting pair of true wireless earbuds. They have a couple standout highs but also some potentially deal-breaker lows. We’d be able to recommend them, but with a glaring caution based on the iffy wireless signal – but this is significantly better now since the firmware update.
The WF-1000X sound quality is definitely where it should be for the price tag. What puts it over the edge is noise-cancellation, which no other truly wireless earbud can claim. If you value sound above other things, and want absolutely no wires, then the WF-1000X is the best that you can do at the moment.
When you think of Sony smartphones in the modern area, you mainly think of an angular design with excessively wide bezels around the display that, when compared to the competition, looks old-fashioned in the eyes of many. But the wise will pay more attention to Sony’s Xperia smartphones in the coming year, because there are many indications that substantial changes are coming to the Japanese company and its products.
If you use a Sony Xperia smartphone in 2017, people often laugh at you, call you old-fashioned and always ask why you chose a Sony smartphone in the first place. There are so many better smartphones on the market, especially ones with a higher screen-to-body ratio. These arguments are understandable, but you should also look at the hidden advantages. They might be somewhat niche, but Sony smartphones often come with added value that you (often) don’t recognize. I had already gone over some of the advantages in my final report after spending 100 days with the Sony Xperia XZ Premium.
The long hard road to a new Sony Mobile
The historically chaotic state of Sony Mobile in the last few years is reflected in the confusing naming of Xperia smartphones and the equally confusing variety of products. Z, M and E-series with suffixes like Aqua, Plus, Premium and g transitionally became X, X Performance, XA, L plus Ultra, Premium and Compact until finally becoming the XZ, XZ1, XA1, and the L1 series. The nuances became much clearer in 2017. Anything that bears the XZ in its name represents the best that Sony Mobile can deliver in its Xperia smartphones. The XA is the mid-range series and Sony distinguishes the entry-level series below it with the L.
The Xperia XZ line in particular shows the direction that the Japanese company has in mind with its smartphone division. Sony wants to increasingly integrate the technologies of other divisions into its Xperia smartphones. When viewed from the outside, it may seem like a very easy thing to do, but the difficulties of integrating different company areas and their technologies in a smartphone is a challenging undertaking. In any case, the current Xperia XZ Premium sees the launch of a flagship smartphone project that was continued in the XZ1 and, to some extent, the XZ1 Compact as well.
The user will hardly notice any added value when considering the components such as the 4K display, Motion Eye camera, and audio, whether it’s wired or wireless. Rather, the Motion Eye camera is the best example of what Sony has become in 2017. Instead of selling the sensor to other smartphone manufacturers and running the risk of them getting more out of it thanks to better software, the Motion Eye camera has been reserved for its own products. The fact that the Sony camera currently cannot quite keep up with a Pixel 2 or even the Galaxy Note 8 is largely due to the software.
Speaking of software: Have you noticed that Sony’s Xperia smartphones are among the fastest to get updates while Samsung’s Galaxy S8 and S8+ or even the recently launched LG V30 are still stuck on Android Nougat? Sony Mobile launched the XZ1 and XZ1 Compact with Android 8.0 Oreo out of the box, and the update has already been available for a few weeks on the XZ Premium. Admittedly, it probably hasn’t been implemented in a very optimized manner on the XZ1, because problems during testing resulted in annoying crashes here and there, but like I said, 2017 is a transitional year for Sony Mobile.
Sony Xperia 2018: Bigger display, smaller bezels, better software and camera optimization
All these changes in 2017 are hardly relevant for end customers that are looking for a new smartphone. What many end users want is a bigger display, smaller bezels and a smartphone camera that ultimately delivers beautiful pictures in day-to-day situations. There is no doubt, at least in my eyes, that all this and more is on Sony Mobile’s agenda for 2018. You can already see the first signs if you have been following the related rumors concerning Sony smartphones over the past few days. A datasheet has already been spotted that shows that an Xperia smartphone with a 5.7-inch display will be released with a more compact structure than the Sony Xperia XZ Premium.
Sony seems to be working on a new image stabilization feature called “Dynamic Vibration System” for better photos and even better videos. The brand patent application does not mention a word about it, although it is an optical image stabilizer. It would not be like Sony to submit a trademark application just for an optical image stabilizer that is integrated into the lens. Furthermore, I assume that this is a systematic development of the five-axis sensor stabilization controlled by the gyroscope. Since this system achieves a maximum of full HD recordings at 30 frames per second, “dynamic vibration system” could also mean that the upcoming XZ-class Sony Xperia smartphones will support higher resolutions and framerates. We will learn more about it by the time Mobile World Congress 2018 rolls around.
You can now develop Android O ROMs for selected unlocked Xperia devices via Sony’s Open Devices program. The recently released build guide gives developers the necessary tools and instructions to begin their development and the new software binaries adds support for Xperia XZ Premium, Xperia XZs, Xperia XZ, Xperia X Performance, Xperia X and Xperia X Compact. This means you can now build and flash your own version of Android O on all devices mentioned above.
Get started using the build guide for instructions on how to build AOSP for your device. Before you begin, you will need to download the necessary software binaries. You can find the corresponding binaries for each compatible device below:
As you may know, the Open Devices program is our way to provide access and tools to build and test your custom software on a range of Sony devices. You can access all the resources you need through our Open Devicespage on Developer World. We value our open source community and welcome you to participate in our projects via GitHub. Feel free to provide feedback on further resources you may need and where we can improve.
Check out the Xperia device list to find out if your device is a part of our Open Device program
Contribute to and find out more about our current open source GitHub projects
Read all blog posts covering Open Devices
Compared to other Android smartphone makers right now, Sony puts a lot of effort into the open source part of Android. The company contributes a lot of code to AOSP and they’ve been known to be quite friendly to developers as well. It was just last month when the company released build instructions on how to get Android 8.0 complied and running on the supported Xperia devices. Today, the company has officially announced that AOSP Android 8.0 Oreo is now available on Sony’s Open Devices program.
For those who are unaware, Sony’s Open Devices program is something they set up a while ago for developers who are eager to experiment with Android on their supported devices. For those supported Xperia devices, Sony provides AOSP device configurations directly on GitHub for anyone who is interested, as well as the required binaries. This works both ways as it gives new developers access to the code that works on those devices while also providing experienced developers a way to contribute to the project.
Sony has been very supportive of the new Android 8.0 Oreo update and as mentioned, released build instructions for those who want to compile AOSP Android 8.0 for a supported device. As of right now, the list of supported devices from Sony includes the Xperia XZ Premium, Xperia XZs, Xperia XZ, Xperia X Performance, Xperia X, and the Xperia X Compact. Along with this build guide, having AOSP Android 8.0 included in the Open Devices program adds support for their convenient tools, projects, and more.
The company has also already announced which Xperia devices will be receiving the company’s official OTA update. Naturally, this includes all of the additional features that the company adds onto their devices which are not found in the AOSP builds. You can learn more about which devices will be receiving their official Oreo update here.
Apple’s 2017 iPhones will inevitably influence the top end of the smartphone market. Here’s how it looks at the moment, with a number of key launches expected soon.
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:
The top-performing chipset — on these measures at any rate — is 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), and the new A11 Bionic-powered iPhones are sure to see a significant speed bump when benchmarks appear (here’s a leaked report). 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.
Also prominent are the Kirin 960-powered handsets from Huawei and Honor, which 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 remaining Snapdragon 821-powered smartphones on this chart — notably Google‘s Pixel and Pixel XL — are well behind the 2017 curve, and will certainly be updated with the 835 chipset in due course. 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.
For dual-camera handsets, the top bar is the wide angle or colour camera, while the bottom bar is the telephoto or black-and-white camera.
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:
Apple’s True Depth camera system occupies a notch at the top of the iPhone X’s OLED screen.
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 22 handsets charted here have battery capacities between 3,000 and 4,000mAh. Apple has not divulged the battery specs for the iPhone 8, 8 Plus and X, and we’re awaiting the teardown analyses that will supply them.
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:
Notes: the LG V30 prices are converted from Korean won; the Nokia 8 price is converted from euros. The following handsets are not officially available in the US: Honor 8 Pro, Huawei Mate 9 Pro, Huawei P10 and P10 Plus. Where available, prices for entry-level and top-end configurations are shown.
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.