Tech Tuesday: The five best smartphones of 2015, and who should buy them
The BlackBerry Priv is shown in Toronto, Friday, Oct. 30, 2015. (Graeme Roy / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Simon Cohen, Special to CTVNews.ca
Published Tuesday, December 15, 2015 6:00AM EST
Last Updated Tuesday, December 15, 2015 10:19AM EST
There's a good chance that you'll spend more time agonizing over your next smartphone than you will over your next car.
These devices have become such a constant companion and extension of our lives that choosing the right one can make the difference between a joyful feeling of connectedness and a nagging sense of constant frustration.
Here's a look at the year's most interesting new models, and a roundup of the features that could make them right for your needs and budget.
For the media mogul: Sony Xperia Z5 ($649)
Apple gets a lot of press for its iPhone and deservedly so -- it's a great smartphone. But if you've never looked at Sony's line of Android-based handsets, you might be very surprised by how good they are, especially as an iPhone alternative.
The Xperia Z5 is especially appealing to photo- and video-takers (yup, that's pretty much everyone these days) thanks to its 23 megapixel rear camera which has the fastest auto-focus on the market. It can shoot 4k too, which is quickly becoming the new standard for high-def video. Sony has also equipped the Z5 with support for Hi-Res Audio, which is a boon for music lovers disappointed by most phones on the market that are only capable of reproducing near-CD quality audio.
Just like the iPhone, the Xperia Z5 comes with a built-in fingerprint reader. It may sound like just another add-on, but the convenience of never having to enter a PIN or swipe a pattern to unlock your phone is a huge plus.
Unlike the iPhone, the Z5 boasts an IP68 rating for dust and water protection, making it effectively waterproof for the most common mishaps (see our top gift ideas for under $50 for a product that will save you if you don't buy a Z5). Another bonus: Even if you manage to exceed the Z5's claimed 2-day battery life, its quick charge feature will have you back up and running fast, with only 45 minutes needed to get another full-days' worth of use.
For the budget-conscious buyer: Motorola Moto G 3rd Generation ($199-$249)
Want to get your kid a smartphone but are completely put-off by the sky-high prices? Check out the 3rd generation of Motorola's Moto G.
What was once a cheap, and cheap-looking, Android phone is now a classy, but still relatively inexpensive device. With the exception of its meagre on-board storage (only 8GB), the Moto G lacks little in the features department:
The latest version of Android (5.1), a tough, 5-inch Gorilla glass 3 screen with excellent pixel density and vibrance, 13 megapixel rear camera with an f/2.0 lens (perfect for low-light performance) that can also shoot 1080p video, and a removable back shell that can be swapped out for other optional colours.
Oh, and did we mention it's also water- and dust-proof?
This might just be biggest reason to buy a Moto G for your kid -- you won't find this kind of protection on any other phone in this price range. And while the limited memory is an annoyance, especially for users who insist on loading up with tons of games and apps, it's somewhat offset by the ability to add up to 32GB of micro-SD storage, giving you room for your photos, videos and music.
For the savvy techie: ZTE Axon ($400)
Despite the seemingly endless array of handsets on the market, finding a phone that can do it all, at a price that won't have you reaching for your line of credit is no easy task.
ZTE's Axon comes closest. It's a big, brawny-looking device with a 1080p, 5.5-inch antimicrobial Gorilla glass screen and powerful speakers. While its dark grey aluminum body and bronze-tone accents might not appeal to everyone, it's hard not to love the features.
For your $400, you get a 3,000 mAh battery that provides ample power for all day use, with a quick-charge system that will get you to 50% in just 30 minutes. There's also an audio system which ZTE refers to as "hi-fi," claiming it's the first phone in North America to offer it. I can't find a technical definition of hi-fi so it's hard to validate this claim, but to my ears it certainly sounded good - maybe not as good as the Sony Xperia, but definitely better than an iPhone.
The coolest feature, however, is the dual rear cameras. The primary lens packs a 13 megapixel sensor and can shoot 4k video, but the secondary, 2 MP lens provides a fascinating and unique ability: You can shoot photos with the Axon and then -- at a later point in time -- alter the focal point, which can dramatically change the impact of your composition. Another plus for shutterbugs:
The large f/1.8 aperture on the main lens gets you much closer to the shallow depth-of-field "bokeh" effect that makes portraits drool-worthy. The inclusion of a dedicated shutter button is also a nice touch.
The only criticism that prevents the ZTE Axon from being a no-brainer is its non-expandable 32GB of storage. Most Android phones can overcome memory limitations with additional microSD cards, but the Axon omits this feature.
For the no-compromise, productivity-minded professional: BlackBerry Priv ($799)
It's no secret that Canada's own BlackBerry has had a hard time convincing consumers to stick with the company's handsets. Which is why the most recent version of its operating system, BB10, was made compatible with some (but not all) Android apps via the Amazon App Store.
But this proved to be a compromise-laden Frankenstein approach and it failed to win the company much needed market share. So BlackBerry went back to the drawing board and has emerged with its first-ever Android-based phone, the BlackBerry Priv. It's a big gamble, but so far it looks to be paying off.
The Priv (named for its focus on privacy) keeps the best parts of BB10 such as the BB Hub (a central point for all of your messages) and advanced security features that are unmatched by other phones. But it adds the familiar Android interface and is directly compatible with the Google Play app store -- no more middle men for downloading and installing apps.
However it's most unique (and controversial) feature is its slide-out keyboard. For fans of the very popular BlackBerry Torch, the design will be immediately familiar and perhaps even comforting, but typing on it may take practice -- the Priv is more top-heavy when typing thanks to its taller touch screen. But that screen is a stunner. At 5.43 inches in size, it uses OLED technology which is more vibrant and energy efficient than regular LCD, and is made from a piece of curved Gorilla Glass 4 for superb scratch-resistance. Reading text at any size will look even better than on paper thanks to its 540 PPI pixel density. To put that number in perspective, the iPhone 6s Plus has a 401 PPI density.
You get 32GB of storage, expandable via microSD card (up to a whopping 2TB!), which might seem only so-so for the phone's price, until you compare it to an iPhone 6s at $899, with only 16GB of non-expandable storage. Another rave: The Priv's photo capabilities. It uses an 18 megapixel rear camera that's been certified by Schneider-Kreuznach, and can shoot 4k video, making this the most capable camera ever offered on a BlackBerry.
For the tradesperson, outdoors person or just the truly accident-prone: Sonim XP7 ($649)
It's unlikely you've ever heard of Sonim -- the company keeps a low profile and doesn't market to consumers -- which is a shame, because their line of ultra-rugged Android smartphones are unbeatable when it comes to, well, taking a beating.
Designed for people who need to use their phones while wearing heavy work gloves, the XP7 won't win any performance competitions with its 4" screen that tops out at decidedly low-res 480x800, but thanks to its tough, rubberized shell, it can be dropped onto concrete from a height of up to 2 metres, and survive total immersion in water.
You can expose it to oils and chemicals, operate it at temperatures down to -20 C, and put it under a metric tonne of pressure before it shows any signs of giving up. The XP7's durability is matched only by its battery life.
It packs a monstrous 4800 mAh battery which the company claims is good for 40 hours of talking or 1,000 hours of standby time. And yes, it has cameras, two of them: 8MP rear and 1MP front. Not terrible, but probably best not for taking epic selfies.
The XP7's larger-than-life feature set is rounded out with a speaker so loud (103 dB) it can compete with gas mowers or hair dryers. And, just in case you're concerned the phone won't live up to its durability claims, Sonim includes a 3-year comprehensive warranty that covers accidental damage.