IF you need a new smartphone to look after your life, there has never been more choice. Adrian Weckler looks at some of the very top flagship devices and assesses their advantages and drawbacks.
1. Sony Xperia 1 ii
Will people spend €1,200 on a Sony smartphone? The marque has had a few misses in recent years. But that doesn't mean that the Xperia 1 ii is not worth considering as an interesting alternative to the usual Galaxies and iPhone Pros. Sony has done some innovative things here, even if some of the mainstay features feel a little underwhelming.
Here's a brief summary of the good and the bad stuff.
The good: A distinctive 'skinny' design that makes it easier to use than rivals in some circumstances; an ultra-high resolution display screen; 5G; a powerful top-end engine and lots of storage; decent battery life; an attempt to upgrade manual photography controls.
The bad: A camera system that promises much but under-performs; a screen that isn't bright enough in daylight; a relatively slow 'refresh rate' that makes the screen slightly slower to scroll than rivals.
The good stuff makes it clear that Sony is positioning this phone at people interested in watching full movies or using the phone as a more involved photography and videography tool. For those who want a more blended approach of consumer and work-focused features, there are some noticeable compromises.
The biggest thing of note about the Xperia 1 ii is its 'skinny' design. Think of Coke switching from its traditionally shaped cans to those new taller ones and you get the general picture. It's still a 6.5-inch screen, but because it's narrower, it's also taller.
This has one or two immediate advantages. First, it's slightly easier to hold. I found this when walking along the street with the Xperia 1 ii. You have a better grip because you can reach your hand around the device more completely. It's also a little easier to slip into jeans or jacket pockets.
And it's easier to use one-handed for the same reason - your thumb can generally reach across to the far side of the screen thanks to its narrower frame. This includes scrolling. Although, it's even harder now to get that same thumb to the top of the screen, so Sony has a 'one handed mode' double-tap shortcut that mitigates this a little by giving you a miniature screen-in-screen close to your thumb.
This isn't the reason that Sony has shifted its smartphone design to this shape, though. It is now pushing the idea of a screen shaped to fit modern 'letterbox' 21:9 movie formats.
In other words, Sony reckons that there's a gap for people who watch more and more full Netflix movies on their phones.
To push this package even further, Sony has given the display an industry-topping 4K Oled HDR display. In theory, this should be visually stunning. In practice, I found it to be something akin to overkill - being very difficult to see the extra resolution benefits of a 4K display on a device this size. This isn't a controversial view, the benefits of 4K resolution are debatable on televisions under 30 inches in size, let alone 7-inch smartphones (although it's not a straight comparison as you're far closer to the 7-inch screen than the 30-inch one).
For watching movies on a phone, the 21:9 letterbox shape is a gamble. For those movies filmed in that format, you do get a larger picture than almost any other phone. But when you try to look at a YouTube video or a television series or movie not filmed in 21:9, the picture is actually smaller as two fat black pillarbox shapes encroach at the side of the video.
So a large part of whether you consider this phone will depend on just how often you watch a movie on your phone.
There are other strengths and quibbles. On the latter point, I found that the Xperia 1 ii's screen isn't as bright as rivals. This mainly affects visibility outside or beside a window and it's frankly a little annoying. For all its 4K chops, it also has a limited refresh rate (60hz compared to flagship competitors that boast 90hz or even 120hz). This means that while scrolling is fine, it's not quite as quick and smooth as those rivals. This won't be a deal-breaker for many people. But if you're paying €1,200, you're entitled to look at features like this more closely.
There are a few other reasons you might consider the Xperia 1 ii. One strong contender is the camera system.
I'll say it right up front: I'm a bit disappointed in these cameras. Despite some superb new developments in eye autofocus, the actual photo-processing lags rivals, sometimes badly.
Physically, there are three separate camera focal lengths on the back - ultra-wide (16mm), wide (24mm) and telephoto (70mm or 3x). This is a great range and brings Sony into line with most competitors.
When your subject is well lit, the photos are sharp and clear. When there's a stark variation in lights, dynamic range goes out the window - it either dooms the darker bit into shadow or blows the highlights out. In other words, it can't handle the same range of everyday shots as your average high-end iPhone, Samsung or Huawei.
One solution to this is the manual 'pro' apps for photography and videography that Sony includes on the phone. These are supposed to appeal to those who want far more control over every setting on the photograph. As a photography enthusiast who only shoots manually on cameras, I found this interesting. But it sadly doesn't make up for the lack of processing chops when you want to take a quick shot. This is all the more so given that the Xperia 1 ii has a physical shutter button, a really nice addition that encourages quick shots.
In low light, it doesn't quite match elite competitors for capturing detail. It's not just that it has a smaller sensor, but there's no dedicated night mode.
The irony in all of this is that Sony still makes a good chunk of camera sensor technology for other phone makers. It has also kicked everyone else's backside in the DSLR camera world with world-beating new systems. But it apparently isn't prioritising its own handsets when it comes to the best experience.
If you're a gamer, you might forgive these lapses for the Xperia 1 ii's concentration on visual excellence and haptic stimulation. From the few games I tried on it, this is excellent.
And Sony's dedication to music and proper audio equipment is also evident from the 3.5mm audio jack it has included on this handset. A very unusual (but welcome) move for a flagship smartphone.
As for physical storage, the 256GB here is probably enough for almost anyone, although it's by no means near the top of what's available. Models from Apple and Samsung both give you 512GB, with a 1TB handset likely on the market this year. The issue, partly, is the cameras: with great ability and resolution comes much greater need for local storage. A burst of a few photos can take a hefty chunk of a gigabyte: 4K videos take even more. Over a few months, that adds up.
The Xperia 1 ii comes with 5G included, which is a nice future-proofing feature, even if 5G remains a very slow roll-out here.
All in all, is this reasonable value? If the Xperia 1 ii was a little cheaper, you'd say it was a compelling competitor. At €1,200, it's almost €300 more than a Samsung S20 which, frankly, has a better camera system.
But the Xperia 1 ii does stand out on its own as regards physical design and as a statement of intent for movie watchers. It's great to have this choice on the market.
The S20+ is a great all-round flagship smartphone, with a good balance of high-end power, screen technology and superb cameras. Having said that, it has almost identical specifications to the smaller S20. The only bump you get is a depth sensor for your camera array and a slightly bigger battery - which you need for its bigger screen anyway.
The 6.7-inch screen is now the best that Samsung has ever made and probably the best on the market overall. It's not just its 'super-amoled' high resolution. It's the increased 'refresh rate' on the screen. In layman's terms, this means the screen's fluency. If you're scrolling, it's almost perfectly smooth, rather than jumpy or skippy. If you're playing a game, it's like going from standard definition to high definition. The S20's display can do this at 120hz, which is higher than almost every other smartphone on the market.
However, do know that if you choose this ultra-high refresh rate (as opposed to the standard 60hz rate it defaults to), the battery will be sapped faster. Luckily, it comes with a very decent 4,500mAh battery, bigger than most others on the market. The screen on the S20+ is also just about the perfect size for maximum suitability for bright, visible videos and social media, while not overwhelming your hand or crippling your stretching thumb.
The other significant upgrade is in the cameras. It's not the focal lengths, which are the same as the S10 - ultra-wide, wide and 3x optical zoom - it's the camera sensor.
That sensor is much, much bigger. This has a substantial impact on things like low-light performance.
Here, the S20+ also has a slight edge over the S20 because of its extra depth sensor, useful for portrait photos.
In short, if you're a fan of good smartphone cameras, the S20+ is now bettered only by Samsung's sibling, the S20 Ultra, and Huawei's P40 Pro (due to its even larger sensor and massive zoom).
The engine on the S20+ is close to being top of the line for smartphones - an Exynos 990 processor (not as good as the Snapdragon 865 in US S20 models), 128GB or more of storage and a whopping 12GB of Ram memory. Bear in mind that most pro laptops come with a standard 8GB of Ram.
As a work-focused smartphone device, I've always found Samsung's Note series to consistently be one of the two or three models you need to consider. The company has just released its 'Note 10 Lite' version, but I haven't yet had enough time to fully review it. However, I am very familiar with the current Note 10+. Its 6.8-inch screen is one of the biggest on the Irish market, but it's an almost bezel-less screen, which means its overall size is not much bigger than some rival phones with smaller screens.
The quality is, unsurprisingly, superb. This is actually big enough to use as a legit Netflix or Amazon Prime screen on the move, without feeling you're compromising much compared with a tablet.
Small design features help navigation, too. There's a tab on the side of the screen you can tap to access frequently used apps, saving you a potentially two-handed requirement.
In terms of battery life, with 4,300mAh made available to the Note 10+ compared to 3,500mAh for the Note 10.
It has a triple lens setup of ultra-wide, wide and telephoto (2x). The Note 10+ also has a fourth depth-sensor camera to allow for portrait photography that delivers a 'bokeh' or depth of field effect. Samsung has also updated its 'S Pen' stylus to include some interesting new controls. Probably the one that most will find favour with is its improved handwriting recognition. This extends to a search function. In other words, if you write out some notes with the S Pen, you can search for words within those scrawled notes later on. That's a nice trick.
Another potentially useful one is its ability to trigger photos from the camera. In theory, this means much more interesting selfies, or group shots, as you can better compose the picture.
It's not cutting edge for things like screen refresh rate (60hz). My test model had 256GB of storage and 8GB of Ram, on par with any self-respecting flagship. There's an even more pumped-up version of the Note 10+ that offers an eye-watering 12GB of Ram and 512GB of storage.
It may not be the best time to buy an iPhone right now, with a new one almost certain to be announced in September.
Nevertheless, if you need one now, the iPhone 11 Pro or 11 Pro Max is a great phone in almost every way.
It's very slightly thicker and heavier than the preceding iPhone Xs Max, but that's partly because the battery inside is larger. This is one of the most underrated improvements on this generation of iPhones - the battery life is so much better. It's several hours per day better.
The 11 Pro Max's 6.5-inch LED screen is also superb, not so much in terms of speed - which was never really a problem with iPhones - but in brightness and contrast. Its 800 nits maximum brightness can rise to an eye-watering 1,200 nits for brief spurts. Suffice to say that you won't have problems seeing the display on a sunny day.
And the glass is marginally tougher now, meaning it's a little less likely to spider-crack if it falls out of your pocket or off a table.
The camera system is pretty amazing, too. Other than the extra flexibility of an additional 13mm ultra-wide lens for landscape, sky, architectural and interior still photos, the real fun starts when you use it for video. It is then that you're reminded of just how good the stabilised video on the iPhone system is. For those who are unfamiliar with this, it may even seem like the biggest 'wow' factor of the iPhone 11 system. I walked and then ran with the iPhone recording 4K video and the smoothness of the video coverage was fairly astounding.
Are there downsides? Other than the high price, there's no 5G on board here, although there isn't much happening yet with 5G from Irish operators anyway.
5. Huawei P40 Pro
Huawei's P40 Pro is, for some, a bargain. For others, it's a non-starter.
It is, by far, the most advanced, accomplished physical smartphone for the money. It's gorgeously designed, has the best camera on the market and is utterly slick to use.
And yet, you may not be able to use it as an everyday phone if you depend on Google apps.
That means no Google Maps, no YouTube, no Google Search, Docs or Gmail.
I've tried getting used to alternatives. I've tried using the browser on the phone (which can't be Chrome, of course). But it's not the same. If I want to continue using the apps I've become accustomed to, it can't really be on this phone.
What a shame. As regards its camera, it is best-in-class. The P40 Pro has a considerably larger (1/1.28) camera sensor than any rival. This gives the phone the ability to deliver higher megapixels, better low light quality and clearer, sharper photos at resolution.
Add to that some of the extra engine power under the hood and you have better stabilisation and improved autofocus. This means that the 50x zoom - a 5x optical telephoto lens that's stretched out - is absolutely usable at its maximum range, an astonishing feat.
So far, I've been blown away by the quality. I had thought that Samsung's S20 Ultra would be a difficult bar to match for raw camera power, but the P40 Pro has matched it with its trio of ultra wide, wide and telephoto lenses, for almost €400 less.
Huawei has moved the 6.6-inch Oled display on the P40 Pro up to 90hz, meaning even more fluid, smooth scrolling.
Battery life is good to excellent, with its 4,200mAh capacity all but guaranteeing all-day performance for me over the week.
And there's loads of power (via Huawei's 7nm Kirin processor and 8GB of Ram) and with twice as much storage (256GB) as most flagships of this price.
In short, this phone is nothing short of awesome as regards its hardware.
But I'm not sure that it's enough. There's no avoiding the elephant in the room here: the lack of Google apps or Google's Play Store.