The iPhone’s 10th anniversary this past week has put me in a contemplative mood. I’ve been thinking about smartphones in general, and about my perpetual quest to find the one that checks all of my boxes. And the thing I’ve come to realize is that I don’t actually want to ever find a perfect smartphone. So long as there’s still something else irritatingly out of my reach, some other feature that my phone doesn’t yet have, I’ll know that smartphone makers are still innovating and pushing us forward. The perfect smartphone would be the sign of a stagnant industry.
I’m sure I’m not alone in starting every year with a refreshed anticipation for the novelties to come from the likes of Samsung, OnePlus, HTC, Huawei, and Apple. As much as we all love and rely on our smartphones, there’s always something new coming down the pipe that draws our attention and our dollars. That innovation pipeline has slowed in recent years, as we can’t enjoy such massive breakthroughs as high-resolution AMOLED displays every year, but it’s still the case that every few months another layer of polish and improvement is added to the smartphone category. With such a moving target, it’s obvious that an ideal phone that has everything one could want is a practical impossibility.
The Galaxy S8 from Samsung, for example, would have been the perfect phone at this time last year. It has exceptional design, top specs, a delightfully modern TouchWiz UI, and that envy-inducing Infinity Display. I rank its camera ahead of the iPhone 7’s, and I’d tell you that the S8 is the best phone you can buy right now — except the Google Pixel exists, and it has an even better camera.
So I use a Pixel myself. But the Pixel has a million little foibles that make it kind of crappy: the USB-C port at the bottom is sharp and digs into my fingers when I hold it, Bluetooth connections are easily cut off if I cover up the glass window on the back, and the headphone audio coming out of the Pixel is just terrible. it’s also not waterproof and its battery doesn’t last for a particularly long time.
In moments when I favor the best possible audio rather than photos from my phone, I lean toward LG’s G6 with a quad DAC. That phone’s musical advantage over any other is profound, and it’s the sort of difference that you don’t have to be an audiophile to hear and appreciate. The G6 also has a display that rivals Samsung’s minimal bezels on the S8, though it falters when it comes to LG’s interface atop Android and a few other downsides such as the aggressive over-sharpening of photos.
The HTC U11 could be considered a great candidate for the phone that balances all requirements, having a pretty great camera, a lightning-quick interface, and an especially gorgeous design in its Solar Red variant. But it doesn’t have a headphone jack, and its display has the same old conventional bezels that Samsung and LG are quickly turning into a sign of having an outdated device. I’m quite confident, in fact, that by this time next year the most obvious sign that your phone isn’t from 2018 will be the size of its bezels.
If I insist on vanishingly small bezels, but I’m not thrilled by either of the Korean companies’ offerings, there’s Xiaomi’s Mi Mix or, more recently, Andy Rubin’s Essential Phone. I love the idea of the person in charge of bringing Android to life creating his own phone and company, but Essential is more an indulgence than a real mass-market device. The phone is going to be distributed on a very limited basis, being a Sprint exclusive in the US, and it’s made out of titanium and ceramic, materials which massively constrain the number of units that can be produced. It also lacks a headphone jack, and an early photo from it that was posted online and then quickly retracted didn’t show much promise about its camera.
What I love about smartphones — and I think this is a passion that most of us share but are unaware of — is that constant jumping around between devices and priorities. It’s because we are never allowed to have everything in one single device that we treasure and appreciate it when any phone comes close. But the truth is that what we enjoy is the chase, and we wouldn’t really know what to do if we ever achieved the goal of perfection. I enjoy following and writing about technology because of its constant progress, whether it’s measured in millimeters shaven off a device’s thickness, nanoseconds of improvements in touch responsiveness, or discrete new capabilities like wireless charging, contactless payments, and biometric authentication.
The perfect phone doesn’t exist because smartphone innovation moves too fast. This was obvious and unremarkable a decade ago, but it’s to every phone maker’s credit that it continues to be the case today, deep into the smartphone age.