So, the 2013 smartphone releases are now mostly over, having started in March with the Galaxy S4 and ending today with the Apple iPhone 5S and 5C. We saw the usual plethora of devices, and the market seems to have mostly matured-a distinct number of devices this year focused on having a single distinctive feature, such as the Nokia 1020 or Xperia z1’s cameras, or the Moto X’s deep contextual awareness, or Samsung lying about performance benchmarks on the S4.
Three phones have solidly grabbed my attention this year as viable replacements for my current iPhone 4S:
-Sony Xperia Z1
I’ll write a little about each and my reasons for wanting them.
The X-phone was probably the most hyped phone of the year; I fell victim to it, hoping that it would offer customizable hardware-it’d be pretty awesome to assemble your phone exactly the way *you* want it, right? While it didn’t offer that, it has taken what I view as Google’s focus on “life handling” to its current maximum limit. Get in your car? The X phone knows. Time for a meeting? The X phone knows that, too, and puts your phone on silent. And those are just a couple examples.
A Stock Android Phone That Is Subsidized
Even arguably more important and consumer-useful, outside of its contextual awareness software, this is a stock Android phone, with no carrier bloatware whatsoever, and available with a subsidy. While the benefits of unlocked phones are many and easily understood, right now they are simply too expensive for most people, especially when most phones are obsolete or nearly so within a year or two; the typical high-end smartphone clocks in at five hundred to eight hundred dollars when bought without a carrier subsidy. The Nexus 4 is an exception, but even its (old) three hundred dollar price was easily a hundred bucks or more beyond a subsidized phone of any brand’s pricing.
Before the X phone, subsidized Android-based phones almost always had carrier bloatware piled onto them. This affected phone performance, OS features, battery life, and in some cases-especially due to the carrier’s slowness to roll out OS updates-security.
The X-Phone demolishes that. There is no carrier bloatware on the X, nor will there ever be. Motorola has committed to trying to roll out OS updates to the device as quickly as possible as well; given that the only significant difference from stock Android is the contextual awareness software I think they’ll be able to achieve that.
Sony Xperia Z1
A hardware-focused monster
Let’s not put on airs, here. The Xperia Z1 is not nearly as much of a high-water mark for life management as the X phone is. What it is, though, is a hardware monster. It sports:
20-megapixel camera lifted from Sony’s point and shoot line
-Snapdragon 800 processor, the most oomphy processor Android currently has.
-2GB of RAM
5-inch 1080p screen
I’ve thought for a few months now that Android is going to eventually become an OS that spills across all mobile form factors-wearable devices at one end, ultrabooks at the other-and I think these specs show that trend accelerating. ARM processors are still a long ways from what an x86 processor, even a light one like Intel’s Atom processors, can do, but Android is compatible with Intel’s processors.
As I said, phones this year are becoming increasingly focused on a central feature-the Moto X’s contextual awareness, for example. This is a function of software becoming increasingly mature and featured-Android 4.3, for example, features a bare handful of changes from Android 4.2.2, and iOS 6 did not feature a great deal of change from iOS 5, although that’s probably more due to company infighting than software maturity (more on that in the iPhone 5S section) .
The Xperia Z1’s central feature is the camera. Lots has been made about how many megapixels it has, but megapixels are not the end-all in terms of taking good photos. Aperture size is directly related to picture quality and the Z1’s aperture is a whopper at f/2.0. I won’t pretend to be a camera genius, so here’s the wiki article:
The camera is also linked to several interesting applications:
-Social Live, which can livestream video to your Facebook
-Info Eye, which is the one that really got my attention- it can provide contextual information about whatever you’re taking a picture of.
-AR Effect, which does pretty much what you’d expect-allow you to insert dinosaurs and other things into your photos.
-You can also share photos directly from the viewfinder to various social media applications.
The phone is also totally waterproofed, which is handy obviously-I put an iPhone 3G through the wash several years ago.
While I do not think the Xperia Z1 is as close to being as useful for managing your day as the X phone is, the attention to the camera is a very good move, I think. The language of the internet-hell, the language of people in general-is very frequently images, and the better they are the more people like them. Combining that with stable, mature software in the form of Android 4.2.2 and excellent, proven hardware is not a device to dismiss.
Apple moves forward
Since the death of Steve Jobs, Apple has been under a cloud. Internal fighting-most publically shown in the aftermath of Apple maps and the firing of Scott Forestall-seemed to have distinctly stalled the company’s forward momentum; iOS 6 brought very few new features to the software side of the house, beyond Siri gaining the ability to launch apps, and the deletion of Google Maps and Youtube from the stock software install. Beyond that you can’t really put creativity on a schedule, I think that it was Forestall that was primarily responsible for iOS 6’s relative lack of change; he possessed Jobs’ ego with none of his drive.
Outside of the general modernizing of the GUI, iOS 7 and the iPhone 5S is a big deal in one way: It’s the first mobile OS to be 64-bit. As above with the camera thing, I don’t really have expert knowledge here or anything, so here’s the anandtech post about it.
Anandtech, for those who don’t know, is awesome. They’re the least biased technology website I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting-there’s no arbitrary “well I own this” that pervades other websites, and they actually manage to break stuff down into easy to understand terms.
At any rate, basically 64-bit architecture will be able to handle larger amounts of data at once. Apple used the upcoming mobile game Infinity Blade III as an example:
This honestly looks about as sharp as early Xbox 360 titles did, and this is in a phone format. Mobile gaming has been able to take advantage-on both Android and iOS-of rapid hardware improvement over the last few years, and is continuing to catch up to consoles; the 64-bit architecture will be quite a boon to mobile gaming in general, I think, as well as web browsers and similar apps that have to deal with lots of data.
Jailbreaking, to put it simply, is developer mode for your iDevice. It allows you to change the look of the OS, what your default browsers are, back up your phone to something other than iCloud, and a plethora of other things that are worthy of a post or five in their own right. I’m very curious to see what happens with jailbreaking and iOS 7-7 removed a lot of the reasons to jailbreak to begin with, whilst offering a more powerful platform to jailbreak and modify. I’m hoping it brings about a major renaissance in the jailbreak community; iOS is a wonderfully stable platform to screw around with and I don’t think the jailbreak community has really reached its full potential for modification.
I could honestly call myself an Apple fanboy until iOS 6 or so. Now I use an Asus Transformer Pad for most of my lazing-around-on-the Internetting, and my jailbroken iPhone goes out and about with me. I think myself, or anybody really, could be plenty happy with any of these three phones, although I suspect it’ll come down to the Moto X and 5S for me with Sony’s seeming pissy relationship with my carrier.
Just as a note: Owning all your devices from one company is sorta like being that guy at a party wearing the matching track suit.