A Tale of Three Smartphones

Posted on April 24, 2017 by Paul Thurrott in Android, iOS, Mobile with 60 Comments

A Tale of Three Smartphones

For the past few weeks, I’ve been evaluating three smartphones that represent some of the best choices available in their respective pricing categories. Those evaluations are ongoing. But even at this early point, I feel like I can make some recommendations.

This is all Samsung’s fault. When the consumer electronics giant announced its Galaxy S8 and S8+ flagships in late March, I was struck by how dramatically Samsung had appeared to move the needle on a market that, frankly, had been getting pretty boring. And I preordered a Galaxy S8+, at great personal expense, immediately.

But as many of you know, these kinds of expensive purchases don’t sit well with me. In any given market—laptops, smartphones, whatever—I am all about value, and from a morally responsible standpoint, I am no fan of the throwaway culture that has emerged in the wake of the iPhone. Yes, Apple absolutely changed the world with this device. But it did so for the worse, in some ways, as well as for the better.

That’s life, I know: More gray than black and white. But as a reviewer, as a human being, I have a hard time, often, recommending very expensive devices when I know that many readers cannot even afford them to begin. Heck, I can’t afford them either.

I’ve reached out to PC makers recently to see whether I can’t review some less expensive PCs in the near future. This won’t stem the flood of premium devices for a number of reasons—the most obvious being that this sub-market is where the profits are—but I hope it helps.

On the smartphone side, I have fewer official relationships. And while I’d really like to change that, I can also do my part by examining lower-cost smartphones in addition to the usual flagships. This was, of course, the subject of my premium post, Let’s Talk About Smartphone Pricing, which I wrote in the wake of my Galaxy S8+ buying frenzy.

The issue here is simple. The Samsung Galaxy S8+ either will or will not live up to the hype, and it either will or will not be “worth” the firm’s stunning asking price. But what about that majority of people who can’t afford to throw down almost $1000 just because Samsung decided to drop the 21st-century version of the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey on us unwitting apes?

Well, you have choices.

Less so on the Apple side, of course: You can pick between a tiny iPhone SE, a year-old iPhone 6S, or a refurbished iPhone if you want to stick with Apple’s platform and save (a little) money. Or you can take your chances with Craigslist, eBay, or similar.

But the Android market is wide open. And I know from past experiences with dozens of handsets that there is great value to be had on the Android side of the fence. Complicating matters somewhat is that Google killed its value-oriented Nexus lineup in favor of me-too Pixel handsets that copy more than just the iPhone’s design: They copy the iPhone’s expensive pricing structure as well. (And unlike iPhone, the Google Pixel does not justify its high price, so it’s a bad value on many levels.)

That word—value—is key here. It’s not enough for a phone (or whatever) device to be cheaply priced. It needs to work well, too. Some devices punch above their weight, so to speak. But some do not.

In Let’s Talk About Smartphone Pricing, I identified and then purchased two smartphones that I think represent the best of their respective price classes. (One might make the argument that the Apple iPhone 7/7 Plus and Samsung Galaxy S8/S8+ today represent the best of the premium price class; I can’t disagree.) They are:

Moto G5 Plus. Available for under $200 if you don’t mind a few Kindle-style lock screen offers, the Moto G5 Plus is an entry-level handset with a premium look and build quality, and it can be outfitted with 4 GB of RAM and 64 GB of expandable storage if you don’t mind spending a bit more. I did just that, and the gold version I purchased cost $285 as delivered directly from Motorola.

OnePlus 3T. There are probably lots of great options in the mid-tier segment, but my choice is the OnePlus 3T, which can be had with 64 GB of non-expandable storage for as little as $440. I upgraded to 128 GB and paid just $480 or so. Put simply, the OnePlus 3T is the Nexus of 2017: It outperforms the much more expensive Pixel XL across the board and offers a similar level of quality.

Rough screen height comparison: Moto G5 Plus, OnePlus 3T, and Galaxy S8+

As you may have seen, I’ve written a bit about each of these devices, including the Galaxy S8+, since receiving them. And I’ll write more going forward. But I’m happy to report that my initial assessment of each held up under scrutiny. Each of these phones—the Moto G5 Plus, the OnePlus 3T, and the Galaxy S8+—represents a tremendous value in their respective price classes. That is, each exceeds my expectations compared to the amount paid, and compared to competing devices.

The OnePlus 3T is perhaps the best value of the lot. This is a flagship-class phone for one-half to two-thirds the normal asking price. The one exception, as I’ve noted, is the camera: Where true flagships like the Pixel/Pixel XL, iPhone 7/7 Plus, and Galaxy S8/S8+ offer “very good” to “superior” camera experiences, the OnePlus 3T is “good,” at best. It’s not bad, at all. It’s just that it doesn’t measure up in this one area.

And that area may be important to you. It is to me, and as hard as it is for me to write this, it means that I won’t be able to use this device going forward. But your needs are likely different. And if an excellent smartphone with a good camera is where you’re at, you will not find a better value than this device.

In the value segment, the Moto G5 Plus presents a step up from the past: This new version of the phone comes clad in a more professional-looking body than previous renditions. And the new Moto look and feel—where each handset features a prominent if superfluous camera bump—adds to the appeal, I think: We typically only see such bumps on higher-end devices. (On a side note, I’ve never understood some people’s aversions to camera bumps. Most of the best smartphones I’ve used have had prominent camera bumps.)

Point being, this is a great looking phone. And I don’t believe anyone would be embarrassed by carrying this device. Better, the day-to-day performance of the Moto G5 Plus is pretty great as well, though I do recommend stepping up to the 4 GB/64 GB models for future-proofing purposes (as I did). And here’s one that will make the cash-strapped grin: The fingerprint reader on the Moto is possibly a thousand times better than the one on Samsung’s expensive Galaxy S8+.

Less successful is the screen, which is a 5.2-inch Full HD panel with no particular strength. It looks fine indoors, but washes out so badly in direct sunlight that it’s basically unusable. But then this is a value computing, and for those with less demanding needs, hey, it’s Android, so you do have that amazing app selection and surrounding ecosystem to take advantage of.

And then there is the Samsung Galaxy S8+, a supercar among more basic transportation.

If you do have the money to spend, or don’t mind credit card debt or monthly installments, it’s very clear that Samsung has raised the bar here, and in dramatic fashion. As I noted previously, the Galaxy S8+ is so gorgeous, and so amazing, that it makes all other modern smartphones look old-fashioned and quaint by comparison. That it matches those looks with powerful, glitch-free internal components just makes the device all the more impressive.

It’s not perfect. The fingerprint reader location isn’t just unnecessary, it’s a crime against humanity. The Bixby personal assistant stuff is even worse than I had imagined. And Samsung still has a bad habit of stuffing its phones with bloatware, much of which duplicates functionality in other Google-supplied built-in apps.

None of that matters. This phone is fricking amazing. And for all the Samsung weirdness in there, I have to admit that this firm may have achieved the impossible in fixing all of the stuff about Android that makes me crazy. I’ve long said that I prefer the iPhone to Android, and a big part of that is the consistency I get from Apple’s devices. Not just consistency in the UI/UX, but consistency in the reliability and performance. Android phones never offer that.

Well, the Galaxy S8+ does, at least so far. I know, it’s early. And I’ll keep using it, waiting for that day where it lets me down. All previous Android handsets have, to be sure. The Pixel, for example, offers a superior camera, but the performance is glitchy. (Even the OnePlus 3T outperforms it.) The Nexus 6P I loved so much offered an even better camera, but that camera was actually pretty slow too. The iPhone camera is fast, but the picture quality is surprisingly bad, with dull, muted colors. On and on it goes.

I’ve been around the block enough to not trust Samsung or this particular device. But the thing is, it just keeps delighting me. This is true of the big things—the camera, which is amazing, the display, which is likewise amazing, the performance, the battery life, and more—but also the little things. All over this phone, Samsung has made little changes, small additions, that just put Android over the top. Where Touchwiz used to be an abomination, now it’s a laundry list of improvements that Google should make to the underlying OS. It’s a better Android.

So we’ll see what happens. But so far, at least, I feel that these three handsets are great choices in their respective price classes. Each is a great value. It just comes down to what you need, and what you feel comfortable paying.

More soon.


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