Tuesday, 19 November 2013

My top Android OEMs for 2013

Who's your pick for OEM
of the year? Image: Phone Arena
We're at the tail end of 2013, which means another year of product releases in the mobile industry is coming to an end. Well, technically the product cycles for 2013 have already ended, with all major Android OEMs having already announced their line-up for 2013. We've had some great products this year, some more spectacular than others. Some OEMs have surprised us with their flagships, and even with some other unique devices as well. My list of top OEMs for 2013 will not be based on any measurable metric; it will just be based on what I consider to be great contributions to the industry. It's not going to be solely based on who sold the most phones, who made the most profit, who made the "best" devices or anything of that nature. Of course I will take some of that into consideration but in my eyes, the best OEM needs to do more than just make and sell great products, they need to challenge the market and push it forward, which is what I think my top 3 OEMs each accomplished to differing extents.

3. HTC - One phone to rule them all
If this list were based on financial status, HTC would be no where near the top. But like I said, this isn't based on any measurable metric. One of HTC's biggest criticisms of 2012 was their lack of a strong brand. The HTC One X was supposed to be their flagship, but it was usurped a few months later by the HTC One X+. And all the other weaker devices like the One V, One SV, One VX, and One S did nothing to cement the One brand as HTC's answer to Samsung's Galaxy S brand. That changed in 2013, in a big way. HTC has one clear flagship, the HTC One. There were only two other "One" devices, and it was clear from the beginning what role they would play in HTC's portfolio - the One Mini, a smaller version of the One, and the One Max, a larger version. No confusion there. Not only did HTC make one flagship and stuck to it, they made it a great flagship. HTC challenged the market by making the camera utilise UltraPixels, instead of cramming more pixels in the sensor like everyone else, and put dual stereo speakers on the front of the phone, again something no one else is doing either. The One was praised all around for it's industrial design, some calling it the best built Android phone of all time. Others said it was the iPhone of the Android ecosystem in terms of build quality. It wasn't the perfect phone of course, as that doesn't exist, but it was what HTC needed - a great flagship that stood out in a sea of Android smartphones, unlike the HTC One X which was just a good phone, nothing more. HTC's "Here's to Change" campaign sums up their year nicely. HTC needed to change and learn from their mistakes in 2012, and I think they did an excellent job, which is why HTC is number three on my list.
Finally, HTC get a solid phone behind their "One" brand. Image: Daily Tech
2. LG - It pays to be different
LG's rise to be a major Android OEM is quite surprising really. I mean, just last year not many people would've chosen an LG smartphone as their daily driver, and not many people would even consider LG as a major Android OEM. But now in 2013, not only is the LG G2 considered to be one of the best phones of the year, but suddenly many people are giving LG the praise and admiration they lacked in the past. What changed? Well for starters, being chosen to make the Nexus 4 was a huge boost for LG's credibility. I remember last year before the Nexus 4 was official, many people were perplexed with Google's decision to choose LG as the manufacturer. Up until then, LG had hardly created anything noteworthy in the Android ecosystem. Not many people even knew of the LG Optimus G, which the Nexus 4 was based on. But that's what the Nexus brand does, it raises the status of an OEM within the Android community. But LG didn't get to where it is today by just coasting on the glamour of the Nexus brand. LG went out there and built upon the newfound fame that the Nexus brand had brought. The G2 is one of the most powerful Android devices of the year. But specs aren't everything, and LG knew this. Which is why they took a gamble and put the power and volume buttons on the back of the phone. It was a gamble, but it paid off. Many people love the placement on the back, and the phone itself is a beast. LG continued to be different with the LG G Flex. Nicknamed the "Wolverine phone", it's curved shape is actually flexible, allowing the phone to be flattened out without breaking before returning to it's curved shape. And the back is "self-healing", removing scratches obtained in day to day use. LG was given a boost by the Nexus brand, and they built on it, showing how thinking outside the box can be beneficial, if you do it correctly. And LG did.
Thinking outside the box. Done correctly. Image: Ars Technica
1. Motorola - redefining what we call a smartphone
Ahh the Moto X. The most polarising smartphone in the Android ecosystem. People who have used it love it. Most people who haven't well, don't. Motorola aimed to prove with the Moto X that a phone doesn't need the best specs to provide the best smartphone experience. And even though I've never used it, I tend to agree. Reviews of the Moto X have never once mentioned any sort of lag or drop in performance, which is something that can't be said of more "powerful" devices like the Note 3. Not only that, software features exclusive to the Moto X like Touchless Controls and Active Display work incredibly well, despite having "outdated" specs. Motorola extended their philosophy with the Moto G, a budget smartphone capable of a flagship-like experience. The Moto G has roughly the same specs (if not better) as the iPhone 5c, Apple's version of a "budget" iPhone, but is priced at one-third the price of the 5c. It even runs circles around the more expensive Galaxy S4 mini and HTC One mini. I'll be the first to admit, that I wasn't happy with the Moto X's limited availability. And when I saw the leaked specs of the Moto G which was for the international market, I was even more outraged with Motorola. But then I watched the Moto G event live, and heard Motorola's approach to the market and I thought, "Damn. Motorola nailed it." You can't review a phone only based on the hardware, or only based on the software. The two need to be considered as a whole. And while other OEMs have devices with great hardware, they don't always have great software. Motorola nailed it with the Moto X and Moto G. Adequate hardware running optimised software, a perfect marriage. Motorola got so many things right this year, that other OEMs seriously need to pay attentionMotorola's approach to software in addition to hardware is what made it my OEM of the year. 

EDIT 20/11/2013: Well, Motorola have updated the Moto X to KitKat, just 3 weeks after Google announced it. While other OEMs are still pushing out 4.3 updates, Motorola do this. Another reason that justifies their number 1 spot in my list.

The Moto G redefined the mid-range smartphone market. Image: Google+
Now I know what many of you are thinking. Samsung. Honestly, I never even considered Samsung for my list. It was easy to omit them. Not to say that Samsung didn't do anything worthwhile this year. The S4 is a great good phone. And the Note 3 is the only phablet I recommend to people looking for a large phone. The Note 10.1 is also the tablet I recommend to people looking for a productivity tablet. But that's all more of the same from Samsung. The S4 and Note 3 are just yearly refreshes of an already well established device family. Nothing really new came with the devices. Samsung didn't do anything special this year (no, the Galaxy Gear is not special). While Motorola optimise software and hardware, Samsung did the exact opposite this year. They threw everything they could think of into TouchWiz, leading to storage space issues with the S4, and they gave the market three S4 variants, looking to cash in on the S4 brand. Samsung may be top of the Android ecosystem in terms of profits and market share but to me, they didn't do nearly as much to push the market forward as HTC, LG and certainly Motorola did.
This was the best Samsung came up with in 2013. Not good enough. Image: Talk Android
Who would your Android OEM of the year be?