Monday, 4 November 2013

Z1, Note 3, Moto X, G2, Nexus 5 - End-year Android flagship guide

Back in July, I wrote a simple guide comparing the current Android flagships at the time - the Xperia Z, the HTC One and the Galaxy S4. It wasn't meant to be an in-depth review, just an accumulation of opinions that I had gathered from various review sites, meant to help consumers decide which phone might suit them best. We are now approaching the end of 2013, and it's time for a second Android flagship guide, this time with phones released in the second half of the year. As I mentioned at the end of my first guide, this guide will include some of the most anticipated phones of the second half of the year, including the Galaxy Note 3, the Moto X, as well as the newly released Nexus 5. I'll also share some thoughts on the refresh of the Xperia Z, the Xperia Z1, as well as the LG G2, the phone which the Nexus 5 is based on. There's a lot to talk about, so let's get started.

Sony Xperia Z1
The Z1 is more a refresh than a new
flagship. Image: Android Authority
I'm starting off with the Xperia Z1 because I don't really consider it a new flagship. While the other phones in this guide (except the Moto X) are all successors to their one-year old predecessors, the Xperia Z1 is merely a refresh of the Xperia Z, which was released just 7 months prior. Even so, the number of improvements the Z1 has over the Z is quite substantial. First off, the processor. While the Z was a bit outdated, running the Snapdragon S4 Pro from 2012, the Z1 addresses that issue by running the latest and greatest currently in the market, the Snapdragon 800. The display was also improved. While it may still be a 5" 1080p display, the underlying technology was improved. Having said that, viewing angles are still a problem, with the display appearing washed out and faded when viewing from the sides. The battery received a huge bump up to 3000 mAh from 2330 mAh. The last major improvement is the camera. In addition to some technical improvements, there was a bump in megapixel count as well. The 13.1 MP camera in the Z was upgraded to a 20.7 MP camera in the Z1. Despite this high pixel count in the camera, the images of the Z1 are not that great. Reviewers seem to think it's a software issue, which if it is, can be fixed with a software update. But for a 20.7 MP camera it's pretty poor, considering what the iPhone 5s can do with a mere 8MP camera. Everything else about the Z1 is pretty much the same compared to the Z. So if you are looking for a well built, water and dustproof phone with a close-to-stock Android experience, the Z1 would be a good choice for you.

Samsung Galaxy Note 3
What makes the Note 3 the best
 in its class. Image: AndroidPIT
The best phablet in the market just got better. The original Note was pretty much an experiment, aiming to test if the market would accept a large device (at that time, 5.3" was a ludicrous screen size) and whether or not the stylus could be made useful again. Needless to day, it was a huge success. The Note II built upon the original Note, improving it in every way, and the Note 3 continues to do so. Everything about the Note 3, from hardware to software is not only better than the Note 2, but pretty much the best of any phablet in the market. When someone asks me about the Note 3, and if there are other alternatives, I say there are, but none of them come close to the Note 3. The Note brand may not be for me, I don't want a huge phone nor do I need the S-Pen and the software features it brings, but I have always believed that the Note 3 (and the Note II) is the best phone for consumers who want a productivity-oriented phone. The S-Pen and associated features in TouchWiz are uncontested in the market, which make the large 5.7" phone more than just a large phone. Paired with the Snapdragon 800 (or Exynos 5 Octa) and 3GB or RAM, you know that this phone was meant to multi-task. If you are looking for a smartphone to assist you productively (note taking, document editing etc) or creatively, the Note 3 is the best only choice for you.

Motorola Moto X
Probably one of the most rumoured devices of the year (a close fight with the Nexus 5). Being the first of it's kind, there wasn't much to go on when predicting what the Moto X would actually be. Once it was announced, it literally divided the tech community into two very, very vocal groups. First you had the spec heads, who ripped the Moto X apart for being priced as a flagship, despite looking more like a mid-range device. It has a 720p display and a dual-core Snapdragon S4 Pro, both of which were standards of 2012 flagships. Then you had the more holistic group of people, who believe that specs don't matter as long as the overall user experience is a good one. I belong to the second group. Despite "only" having a 720p display, it's still a great display with a pixel density of over 300. And despite "only" having a dual core S4 Pro, Motorola's custom X8 Mobile Computing System made that a mute point. The two main features of the Moto X prove that a great user experience does not need the newest and greatest specs. Active Display and Touchless Control are two features that no other phone out there has (other than the Droid lineup), and make the Moto X a unique one-of-a-kind smartphone. The only problem is, it's only available in the USA, Canada and Latin America. Yeah. So, a great phone, but not for the global market. If you live in those countries and are looking for a unique experience from your smartphone unlike any other, get the Moto X. If you don't live there however, move along.
Features like this make up for "mid-range" specs.  Image: Android Central
LG G2
Not such a bad thing. Image: Android Community
Most people were paying extra close attention to this phone because it was rumoured to be the base for the upcoming Nexus 5. But even without the Nexus 5 to help boost the G2's reputation, it's still a beast of a phone. It's packing all of the best internals and comes with a few neat tricks too. The main talking point of this phone however, is not the specs or the software, but the placement of the power button and volume rocker. Instead of placing the buttons on the side (or top) like all other phones do, LG placed the buttons on the back. Yes, the back. While it may seem weird and unorthodox, every review I've read said that the button placement is actually quite good. Your finger naturally rests there anyway when using the phone, so there's no extra effort required to use the buttons. The G2 tries to emulate the Note 3 by having features like floating apps and Quick Memo, so there are added software features as well to complement the hardware. How practical they are to use is another matter. It's hard to recommend the G2 to any particular consumer. It's a great phone no doubt, but it's not catered to anyone in particular. I guess if you want a powerful smartphone but don't need the S-Pen, you'd go for the G2.

Google Nexus 5
Finally, the phone every Android purist has been waiting for. The Nexus 5 was just announced and released  4 days ago, so there aren't many full reviews out yet. But there have been many hands-ons, initial impressions and walk-throughs of the device, so I have a pretty good idea of what the phone gives. Specs wise, it's got all of the makings of a 2013 flagship - Snapdragon 800 with 2GB RAM, a 1080p display, an optically stabilised camera and of course, the latest version of Android, KitKat. As usual for a Nexus device, the main attraction is the software. KitKat has some cool new features like the immersion mode, a smart dialer, and a new home screen experience, where Google Now can be called upon via voice command straight from the home screen. It's not really Touchless Control, but like I said earlier the Moto X is not available for everyone, so yeah, I'll take it. Another selling point for this phone is the price. This is the best value-for-money smartphone you can buy, period. Similar to the Nexus 4 of last year, the Nexus 5 can be bought for pretty much half the price of other flagship phones. Great specs, pure Android, and a great price. This is why I'm getting the Nexus 5. Sure vanilla Android is a little bare compared to OEM skins, but if you appreciate the simplicity and purity of stock Android, and are looking to get the most powerful yet affordable smartphone on the market, the Nexus 5 is for you.
Google Now is even deeper integrated into Android. Image: Android Police
There are many great phones out there to choose from and deciding between them can be overwhelming if you don't know what you're looking for. Similar to the first guide I wrote, this is just meant to help you in the right direction when deciding which phone to buy. You should go and watch or read more in-depth reviews before deciding which phone to buy. It doesn't really matter if you go with HTC, Samsung, LG, Sony, or Motorola, they all have great devices. There's no wrong choice. All you need to do, is determine what you want and need from your smartphone.