Here at Digital Trends we pride ourselves on being able to spot a great product — and every month we come out with more smartphone reviews that are aimed at helping you decide whether or not you should buy a device. But not everyone is looking for the same thing in a smartphone, and while we can all tell when a phone is a quality device, that doesn’t mean that we don’t have our own preferences.
So what are our preferences? What exactly are we looking for in a great smartphone? We asked each of the members of the Digital Trends mobile team for their thoughts on what the perfect phone would look like. Here’s what the team members said.
Get the basics right
When I think of the best phones I’ve ever owned, the story typically goes something like this: Tasteful design, excellent build quality, dependable performance, and software that manages to be both beautiful and functional. I don’t feel that’s too much to ask for.
I’ve never romanticized new technology for its own sake. It’s more important that my phone be there right when I need it, than have a battery-guzzling 4K display. If three or four gigabytes of RAM is enough, why bother spending money on more? If I can unlock my iPhone 7 in what feels like milliseconds with a regular old fingerprint sensor, what good is an iris scanner?
I’ve been through six phones in the last eight years, and my favorite is still the Nexus 4. I bought mine in late 2013 — a year after it launched — and it rarely disappointed. It looked gorgeous, with that shimmering, reflective glass back. The size was just right, fitting my hand perfectly. The power was beyond adequate, and the lovely pulsating multicolored LED below the screen ensured I never had to wake the display to know exactly what kind of notifications I was getting.
It wasn’t flashy, and it didn’t have any back-of-the-box marketing buzzwords to attract early adopters. What it did have, however, was an excellent OS — Android 4.2 Jelly Bean — and two modest features that have come to define modern expectations: NFC and wireless charging. Bear in mind this was 2012, a handful of years before the masses knew how either worked.
Plus, it was the right price — just $250 by the time I picked mine up, right before a trip across the pond for a semester abroad in England. I needed an unlocked phone to get me through my three months overseas. To this day, I don’t think I’ve ever had a better travel companion in my pocket.
Convenience, usefulness, and usability
For the truly geeky, the ultimate phone is likely to be all about the specification. Processors that are faster than light, more RAM than a crash of rhinos, the ability to run every app thrown at it regardless of operating system, and a massive retina-searing screen. The resulting device would certainly be exciting, and almost certainly incredibly expensive. But my ultimate phone doesn’t need to be “ultimate” in that way. Instead, my ultimate phone is a template. The basis on which other awesome phones can be built; but not a specific model, range, or collection of components. More a smartphone ethos to which everyone subscribes.
The ultimate phone should be about convenience, usefulness, and usability. The hardware should be light at under 150 grams, attractive but not derivative, strong so I’m not sobbing if it falls, and durable so it won’t matter if it gets wet. The software needs to be perfectly stable, with useful apps — that means quality over quantity too — and must receive regular security and version updates, without delay. The convenience factor means it needs to be easy to use, and that includes seamless biometric security systems, a simple yet powerful user interface, and cohesive, genuinely useful features. I never want to Google for how to use something, or miss out on a cool feature because it’s hidden away beneath umpteen menus. Battery life is important, but because the system will be perfectly optimized, and the apps well curated, the phone will run like a well-oiled machine and the capacity won’t need to be monstrous. Besides, 24 hours normal use is more than enough, and achievable without turning the phone into a brick.
Get the underlying platform exactly right, and everything else should fall into place. Stuffing a phone full of features isn’t the answer, nor is thinking up something interesting and then trying to crowbar it into a device while the marketing team figures out who the hell is actually going to use it. I’m not Jony Ive, despite my British accent. That means I’ll leave ideas for breakthrough tech to him and other generously brained individuals. The ultimate phone is about getting all the basics right first, then adding the best camera, a beautiful screen, and a ultra-fast processor to the package. That’s the phone I want to buy. Rather frustratingly it’s arguably achievable now, yet I still can’t do so.
A shatterproof phone
My ideal phone is one that can keep up with my ever-changing lifestyle, and packs everything I’ll ever need while on-the-go into one device. For starters, the phone would have a battery that lasts an entire day after a full charge. Wireless charging capability is also a must, because it means finding an outlet is one less thing I have to worry about.
As for hardware, it needs to be shatterproof but also scratch-proof — especially when hiding in the deep dark depths of my bag, or on concrete thanks to my clumsy nature. It still needs to be bezel-less, super thin, and sleek. It could also support my love for capturing photos with a DSLR-quality camera, that doesn’t require downloading an app to use certain camera modes. I’d also appreciate speakers with amazing sound quality – similar to the stereo sound on the JBL Soundboost 2 Moto Mod, but actually built into the phone.
I know I can get some of what I’m looking for on Android, but as a loyal iPhone user I can’t let go of iMessage – even if my life depended on it. Even though I’m asking to pack a lot into one phone, being the millennial that I am, if we’re talking about “ideal” the price point would be $400 or lower.
Software and hardware optimization
For me, an ideal phone is only partially about great hardware. I see hardware as a way to facilitate great software — and great software is what I’m looking for in my ultimate phone. That’s why my favorite phone to date is still the Google Pixel, even in the era of the bezel-less and technically more powerful Samsung Galaxy S8.
That’s not to say hardware isn’t important — the latest processor, plenty of RAM, and enough storage is all very helpful in creating a seamless software experience. The display is becoming increasingly important, especially in a time when mobile VR is picking up speed. Durability is up there too — who wants to cover their phone in a case?
All this culminates into a list of ideals rather than a list of specifications — a phone needs to be powerful, durable, and attractive, with classy and un-bloated software and a nice, crisp display. Oh, and I’d love a headphone jack.
Better low-light camera
As a photographer, my perfect smartphone revolves around the camera. While I very much enjoy using my DSLR, it’s becoming easier and easier for me to opt for my smartphone camera in certain instances. But before I jump into my dream mobile camera, the phone has to get some basics right.
The latest high-end processor, plenty of RAM and internal storage, a MicroSD card slot, a headphone jack — essentially everything the Samsung Galaxy S8 offers, with a similar edge-to-edge display. I’m fully on-board with the bezel-less trend. A big battery enough for the phone to last a little more than a day would satisfy me, but software optimization is more important. Apple’s harmony between software and hardware is near perfect, and Google comes incredibly close with the Pixel. It not only keeps the phone running smoothly for a long time, but also ensures fast version and security updates. I’m not a fan of glass backs or glossy devices that easily attract fingerprints, so I would prefer a matte, aluminum unibody with plenty of colorful options. The display would ideally also be akin to Motorola’s Shattershield glass, but it shouldn’t easily scratch.
For the camera, I want the ability to take better low-light images. Daylight photos are more than satisfactory these days, but a larger image sensor on smartphones would help all around, especially in low-light environments. This would require a thicker phone for heat dissipation, but ideally we would have figured a way to keep the phone thin and cool. That’s it, really. There are a lot of phones and apps that offer manual controls to make low-light photography a reality, but it often requires tripod and a lot of tinkering. It would be very interesting to see how a smartphone fares with a larger image sensor, with familiar features like 2x optical zoom, and a wide-angle camera like the one on the LG G6.
A cheaper Galaxy S8, please
Some futurists predict that the phones of tomorrow will roll up like a sheet of newspaper, download apps faster than home fiber connections, and anticipate our needs before we ourselves do. That all sounds good and fine, but when it comes to smartphones, I’ve never been about the bells and whistles.
My ideal phone is beautiful. It’s functional. It’s something I’m proud to tout around when I slide it out of my pocket, but it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. Of all the phones I’ve owned, borrowed, and reviewed, the Galaxy S8 Plus comes the closest. Even after three weeks of carrying it around pretty much nonstop, I’m still enamored by its curved, colorful screen and fast-as-lightning facial detection. Its camera captures the clearest images of any phone I’ve used by far, and even its low light performance, an Achilles heel for the best of camera sensors, trades blows with my former Pixel XL. Its battery lasts a whole day, easily.
The only sore point is the price. At more than $800 MSRP, Samsung’s commanding a premium for the Galaxy S8’s design and features. But for phones that break the mold, like the S8, I’m willing to bend my rules a little. I’m not sure what my next phone will look like, or who will make it. But I know what I want: An eye-catching design, a great camera, and a long-lasting battery. Everything else is window dressing.
Perfect in every way
The design has to be attractive, but it should also feel great in hand. We touch our phones so many times in an average day that it really matters how a phone feels. The screen should be bright, sharp, and as large as possible without making the phone comically big. An expanding display, so that the phone is compact in your pocket, or when you want to use it one-handed, but can be much larger for gaming or watching movies, would be great, but it’s difficult to imagine an elegant design that would accommodate this.
The phone should be capable of instantly recognizing you for rapid secure unlocking that works flawlessly every time. Performance has to be fast, fluid, and responsive with minimal load times. It needs to have a high-quality camera that’s very fast, to help you capture spontaneous moments. If we can’t have week-long battery life, without brick-sized batteries, then our phones should be able to charge themselves wirelessly in our pockets or bags (without risk) and charge super-fast when plugged in. It should be virtually indestructible, able to take a dip in the bath or a tumble onto concrete without chipping or cracking. It should not have any bloatware. When required, it should seamlessly, wirelessly and securely connect to all the other phones, tablets, TVs, computers, and laptops in my home (regardless of manufacturer) for easy content and file sharing.