What is a Flagship Smartphone?

Everybody’s talking about 2017 flagship smartphones. But what exactly is a flagship device, and why is it called that?

The origin of the word ‘flagship’ comes from the 1670s, when Navy warships carrying the Admiral, Vice-Admiral or Rear-Admiral used to fly special colors to distinguish them from other ships in the squadron. This ‘flag’ would have taken many forms, such as banners, standards, ensigns, pendants and so on.

So, how did it come to be used figuratively, and what does it mean?

It was only in 1933 that the word ‘flagship’ came to be used as a figure of speech. It meant something that stood out from the rest of the crowd, something that was more ‘special’ than anything else within that group.

In the smartphone world, the term flagship has been used to denote the most special model released by a manufacturer during a particular year. From that perspective, this is actually the first year that Apple has had a ‘flagship’ smartphone, which is iPhone X. Until now, Apple has never had a model that was more special than its other releases. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Apple has never, until this year, simultaneously released multiple smartphones, with one of them being the most high-end variant.

Samsung, on the other hand, has had flagship models for a long time. Essentially, these have been its Galaxy S and Galaxy Note series of smartphones and phablets. The term is accurate in Samsung’s case because the Korean electronics giant typically releases multiple models across all price bands every year.

Google doesn’t have a flagship model either, but LG does, and so does Motorola, in a sense. In this article, we’re doing to cover the flagship smartphones from Apple, Samsung, Google, LG and Motorola, with Google being the only exception of not having a true-blooded flagship device in the game.

Apple – iPhone X

Apple’s very first flagship smartphone is iPhone X. It stands out from the other two releases – iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus. In fact, iPhone X actually makes the other two smartphones look like outdated pieces.

As for iPhone X, it is very much a flagship device, not only because it is more expensive and has new technologies not found in the other two, but because it is a celebration of 10 years of iPhone. And that’s certainly something to wave a flag about.

Several features on iPhone X have never been seen on any previous iPhone model, and we’ll cover these in detail.

OLED Panel

The use of OLED (organic light-emitting diode) technology is a new introduction to Apple’s common practice for its displays. Until now, it has only used IPS LCD (in-plane switching liquid crystal display) for its iPhones. This year marks the year when Apple moves completely to OLED. Only the iPhone X has an OLED screen; iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus retain their legacy LCD screens.

OLED has several advantages over traditional LCD displays. For one, the plastic organic layers that make up an OLED display are thinner, lighter and more flexible than older types of smartphone screens. Since the light-emitting layers of OLED are lighter than other types of displays, they can be made flexible, which is what allowed Samsung to come up with the Edge display on its Galaxy S Edge series of smartphones.

Another major advantage is that OLED is brighter than traditional LED. Since the organic layers are thinner, the emissive and conductive layers can be multi-layered. Moreover, since OLED does not require glass for support (glass absorbs some amount of light), it can be made much brighter.

OLED is also far more power-efficient because it doesn’t require backlighting, which draws most of the power in an LCD screen.

There are some disadvantages such as cost, but that will reduce over time as demand for OLED for smartphone displays goes up. And Apple and Samsung will be the biggest consumers for such technology. Currently, only Samsung has been contracted by Apple for OLED displays, but LG is getting into the fray as well, and others like Sharp Display are also gearing up for the upcoming surge in OLED demand that will last several years.

Face ID

Face recognition is not a new technology, but it is brand new for iPhone X and Apple. Of note is the fact that the 3D infrared tech used by Apple is different from the one used by Samsung for its iris recognition feature. Both are security features called biometrics, but they work in different ways.

In iPhone X, the user’s face is bombarded with 30,000 points of infrared light, which helps the IR camera capture and form a 3D image of the user’s face. This image is then compared to what iPhone X already has in its memory about the user’s face, and it unlocks the device if, and only if, a match is found.

Though Face ID is far from being accurate, the technology is here to stay. In fact, nobody even knows whether or not bombarding your face and eyes with IR light dozens of times a day will have any adverse effects, as I recently covered in a detailed article – linked below:

Will Face ID on iPhone X Damage Your Retina?

iOS 11

Though this refers to the operating system version that runs inside iPhone X, it is one of the most significant features because of the productivity elements that Apple has brought into the mix.

Things like a dedicated Files app, drag and drop, multi-app views, new apps dock, etc. have made iOS 11 unlike any other iOS version before it. And this is just the beginning, in my opinion. Future iterations of iOS 11 and future major versions like iOS 12 and beyond will bring even more productivity elements into the iOS ecosystem.

Here’s a detailed article on why iOS 11 will make iPad super-competitive:

iOS 11 So Different from All Previous iOS Versions. Is it Critical? Hell, Yes!

The Bezel-Free Look

This is another major feature of iPhone X, Apple’s flagship smartphone for 2017. It all started when Samsung introduced its Galaxy S Edge models a few years ago. And it caught on. Nearly every premium smartphone for 2017 sports the bezel-free look.

In case, you’re not familiar with the term, the bezel is the ‘skirt’ around the display on the front of the smartphone, and it is enabled by OLED because this technology doesn’t require backlighting, as mentioned earlier. It is also enabled by the fact that Apple has done away with a physical Home button on iPhone X, replacing it with other actions that achieve the same purpose.

The new trend in bezel-free smartphone displays is highlighted by none other than Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi, with its Mi Mix that was released last year with almost no bezel at all. Here’s what the phone looks like from the front:

Xiaomi Mi Mix smartphone review

As you can see, except for the ‘chin’ area of the front, there’s virtually no bezel.

Apple has tried to do the same on iPhone X, but since it required the “notch” at the top for its Secure Enclave that houses several sensors, including the ones for Face ID, it looks a little odd, to say the least.

iPhone X

But they’ve successfully “debezeled” the chin area, giving a nice clean look to the bottom portion of the display.

There are several other minor features on iPhone X that make it stand out from the others, not the least of which is its starting price of $999.

iPhone X is available for pre-order starting on October 27, which is more than a month away, but you can already pre-order iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus, and they start shipping in a couple of days.

Samsung – Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus

Samsung’s Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus are superb smartphones, and there’s no doubt that they deserve the title ‘flagship’. Aside from bringing crystal clear displays courtesy Infinity Display, these phones also embrace the bezel-free philosophy as part of the same feature.

Specs-wise, the S8 series sport the best-in-class components, including Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 processor in the U.S. models and the Exynos 8895 elsewhere.

The Galaxy S8 series also did away with physical navigation keys, unlike previous years’ models. But you can still activate the virtual Home key when it is hidden or when the display is off. This is done using pressure sensitivity, which is only available for the Home key, not the other navigation keys.

As for the screen, Samsung used Super-AMOLED and Infinity Display, which, together, provide a stunning all-display front for the Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus. These phones definitely qualify for the ‘flagship’ tag.

The biggest new feature on the Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus ought to be Bixby, Samsung’s own answer to Amazon Alexa and Apple Siri. But Bixby wasn’t ready in time for the launch, so it had to be offered down as a watered-down version, only working with image recognition in the beginning. The Korean version worked perfectly fine for voice commands, but Bixby had problems with the nuances of the English language.

Considering that most of its inventory is sold in the English-speaking world, this was a near-disaster. But Samsung glossed it over on the strength of the Galaxy S8’s other powerful features, and Bixby eventually became fully functional by the time the next flagship device was released – the Galaxy Note 8: successor to the ill-fated Note 7.

Samsung – Galaxy Note 8

The Note 8 also deserves the ‘flagship’ tag because it brings a lot of innovation to the table, including introducing a dual camera for the very first time on a Galaxy smartphone.

6.3-inch Display

The phone is also unique for its massive 6.3-inch Infinity Display, which is the largest we’ve seen in a while. However, because of the bezel-free look, the phone is actually not much larger than the S8 Plus.

Note 8 Dimensions: 162.5 x 74.8 x 8.6 mm

S8 Plus Dimensions: 159.5 x 73.4 x 8.1 mm

As you can see, it’s only 3mm longer and 1.4mm wider than the S8 Plus, but has a bigger display that’s stunningly clear and distraction-free, hence the name Infinity Display. Before the official launch, there were several rumors about the Note 8 having a massive 6.4-inch screen, but later information confirmed the 6.3-inch screen dimension.

Dual Camera with Live Focus

Another key feature, as mentioned, is the dual camera with its Live Focus feature. It allows the user to get two different shots at once – zoomed in and wide angle. Live Focus also lets you adjust the level of blurring of the background. That’s something even iPhone doesn’t have – that’s more of a natural background blurring to achieve the same ‘bokeh effect.’

Of note is the fact that this is the first Samsung smartphone with a dual camera setup, but it certainly won’t be the last. This is a trend that’s not going to reverse itself, because buyers of premium smartphones will expect this as a standard offering on all future models.

In fact, the dual camera feature could become popular enough for the costs to come down over time. That means mid-range phones will start getting them soon enough. They’re ideal for portrait shots, and they offer a unique advantage over single lens camera systems. Phones like ASUS Zenfone 4 and Oppo F3 Plus already offer dual sensors on the front selfie camera. So it’s a given that this is going to become a standard for most mid-range phones in the near future.

S Pen

This is one of the features that really makes the Note series stand out from the crowd. A stylus is ideal for certain kinds of input, such as drawing and writing. You can even hover over a particular text to activate the translation feature. In fact, this is more of a tablet accessory, which is what makes it special on the Note series.

Another great use for the S Pen is to record notes, memos, shopping lists or quick reminders even on the locked screen. That can be really helpful if you’re in a hurry and you want to quickly jot something down. No more hunting down a pen and paper as long as you have your Note 8 handy.

Samsung has also introduced something called Live Message. You simply create a drawing with the S Pen, and an animated version can be sent as an instant message to your contacts.

Bixby Does More

When the Galaxy S8 came out, Samsung’s digital assistant, Bixby, wasn’t fully functional. At least, not in English, as I mentioned earlier. On the Note 8, however, full functionality was released, and Bixby is now an official member of the virtual assistant race that includes Siri, Alexa, Google Assistant, Cortana and others.

The Note 8 has a dedicated Bixby button on the side, and users can either talk directly to Bixby using the button, or use it to launch the Bixby Home Page on the device. Bixby now has several new features, including image recognition and lots more.

DeX

Samsung DeX is the function that allows users to extend their Note 8’s display to a larger monitor using a docking station. It was first introduced along with the Galaxy S8, but Samsung has made great strides in developing the feature, and it is the perfect feature for the Note 8.

Essentially, DeX ports your smartphone’s display onto a larger monitor, but it adapts to the larger screen in several ways. For example, you can see 36 apps per page on the latest version of the app drawer.

Email functionality has been improved as well, and you can now drag and drop attachments into emails, as well as right-click to delete. This is a critical functionality, since the whole idea of porting your screen to a larger monitor is to make you more efficient and productive, as in an office environment.

Video conferencing also got a major boost in terms of functionality. You can now share an additional screen with the participants. If you’re working on a presentation, for example. any changes you make to the presentation can be seen in real-time by all participants in the video call. What’s more, if you’ve got to leave, just pull your Note 8 or Galaxy S8/S8+ from DeX and continue the chat after a very brief load time, which is quite normal.

So, whether it’s gaming in full screen, forcing apps to try and go fullscreen or using Lightroom with DeX, users will see much smoother functionality, not to mention DeX constantly being expanded to include more capabilities.

As you can see, a lot of the functionality on DeX works just like on a desktop, and that’s a major achievement considering that the only other company that’s successfully pursuing this line of thought is Microsoft with its Continuum feature for Windows 10 mobile devices.

And now it’s time to talk about Google’s pseudo-flagship devices, the Google Pixel 2 and Google Pixel 2 XL.

Google – Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL

Notwithstanding the fact that Google’s 2017 smartphones are not technically flagship devices, they’ve earned the right with the success of their predecessors. The Pixel and Pixel 2 were resounding successes, no doubt, and though they don’t necessarily sport impressive features, the camera capability on last year’s models is something to be respected.

And I believe that’s the strength that this year’s devices are going to showcase as well. Though the hardware might not get major upgrades, according to rumors, the software enhancement will make for a better photo and video experience on the new smartphones.

Moreover, Google has managed to get LG to make its XL model this year. That’s no small achievement considering that Samsung and Apple literally own the smartphone OLED market. In fact, Google has been using AMOLED from last year.

Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL are expected to come with capabilities equivalent to this year’s flagships from Samsung, as well as Apple’s “fallbacks”, the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus.

Originally rumored to have three releases, we now know that there will only be two models. The smaller one will have a 4.97-inch display with Full HD resolution and 4 GB of RAM, while the larger XL variant will have a 6-inch QHD AMOLED display with 18:9 aspect ratio, which is almost the same as the 18.5:9 ratio on the Galaxy S8, making it look a little taller than its predecessor, the Pixel XL, which had a 16:9 screen aspect ratio.

The biggest feature is that Google Pixel 2 and 2 XL will ship with Android 8.0.1 Oreo, and that’s before any other device gets the public version of the latest Android OS. What’s more, the devices are expected to come with something called Active Edge, which is believed to be similar to the HTC U11’s Edge Sense. It allows you to perform certain actions by squeezing the sides of the smartphone, perhaps even waking up Google Assistant.

The Pixel 2 isn’t expected to have a dual camera, but it will likely sport better enhancement software, as I mentioned earlier. That’s the rumor going around, and it is consistent with several reports from different sources.

We could also see something similar to Samsung’s AOD, or Always-On Display, but Google is calling it Always On Ambient Display. That should let you do certain actions without unlocking the screen, such as replying via message notifications and so on.

It appears that Google won’t be jumping on the anti-bezel bandwagon just yet, and will continue with the same bezeled look this year. However, the OLED panels that are being put in by LG on the Pixel 2 XL could accompany minor design changes. We’re hoping that they’ll opt for thinner bezels, if only to match the flagships from Apple and Samsung this year, among others.

And that brings us to the sideliners, LG and Motorola. These two companies don’t have a presence in the super-premium market, but their flagship devices deserve mention.

LG – G6 and V30

The LG G6 is a beautiful phone, no doubt, and it has all the makings of a flagship device – a $700 price tag, dual camera on the rear, wide angle camera on the front, a 5.7-inch QHD Plus FullVision display and a Snapdragon 821 processor.

The device also has a high IP68 rating for dust and water resistance, which means it can be immersed in up to 1.5 meters of water for up to 30 minutes. It sports a fingerprint sensor on the rear, and has wireless charging capability with compatible charging docks, sold separately, of course.

The LG V30 is another notable device from LG’s lineup for 2017. Priced at the equivalent of $840 in Korea, the V30 Plus has a price tag of $885. The device sports a 6-inch P-OLED screen, a Snapdragon 835 processor, dual 16MP cameras on the rear, and it’s even Bluetooth 5.0 ready.

The V30 and V30 Plus come with Quick Charging 3.0, which charges the phone to 50% in 36 minutes. It also comes with wireless charging with a compatible dock. Like the G6, the V30 also has a dust and water resistance rating of IP68. The V30 comes in a 64GB variant, while the V30+ offers double that, or 128GB.

The V30 and V30 Plus both ship starting today, September 20, and are highly anticipated devices on the market. LG fans are going to want to get their hands on these devices before anyone else.

That brings us to the last company whose flagship smartphone we’re covering today: Motorola.

Motorola – Moto Z2 Play and Moto X4

The Moto Z2 Play was the much anticipated follow-up to the Moto Z Play, but it disappointed many because it lacked one of the best features of its predecessor – a powerful battery. Lenovo decided to go with a thinner battery so the device could have a slimmer profile, but it took away the one thing that made the Moto Z Play stand out from the crowd – battery life.

But Lenovo has made a few key upgrades to this year’s model. It comes with a Snapdragon 626 processor, and they’ve also put out a 64GB variant with 4GB of RAM. The Moto Z2 Play also supports USB 3.1. The battery, however, got a downgrade from 3510mAh to 3000mAh, which gives the Moto Z2 Play its slimmer profile. Lenovo also introduced a new range of color options this year: Lunar Gray, Fine Gold and Nimbus Blue. Unfortunately, the rear camera also got toned down to 12MP from 16MP, but got an f-upgrade to f/1.7 from f/2.0. Price-wise, the Moto Z2 Play retails for a pricier $550 for the 64GB variant, which is about $150 more than what the Moto Z Play currently sells for.

The Moto X4 was a surprise addition this year, but well received by fans of Motorola. Sporting a 5.2-inch screen, the Moto X4 comes with a Snapdragon 630 processor with 3GB of RAM. The surprise factor is the dual 8MP camera setup with the dual LED flash, and it comes with all the standard features packed in: phase detection autofocus, face detection, voice activation and touch to focus. The big deal is actually the 16MP front-facing camera, not something you’d find on a device priced at $399.

The Moto X4 has been chosen by Google to be the very first Android One phone in the United States with Project Fi support, and that’s a big deal considering the importance of both projects for Google. Android One is an attempt to standardize the Android platform with OEMs that sign up to the program, and it offers a pure Android experience.

And that brings us to the end of this article. But not yet. We can’t go away without at least a passing mention of an extremely stand-out device called Essential PH-1.

Essential PH-1 from Andy Rubin, Founder of Android Inc.

With the majority of the flagship phones covered today running on Android, the founder of Android Inc., Andy Rubin, deserves some coverage. His company, Essential Inc. has launched its very first Android phone called the Essential PH-1 (ph-one, get it?) The device has almost non-existent branding, a stunning bezel-free look and a premium pricing of $699.

The phone has a titanium body with a ceramic back, a stunning 5.71-inch QHD display, Bluetooth 5.0 LE support, 4x microphones with noise cancellation, 13MP dual RGB + Mono camera set up, 8MP front camera with 4K 30fps video capability, and a powerful Snapdragon 835 processor with 4GB RAM and 128GB internal memory.

It is the very definition of a flagship phone, and it is the first out of the Essential stable. Running pure Android, the device started shipping out a few weeks ago after a delay. We don’t know how the phone will do in the crowded premium smartphone market, but this is most certainly a device to consider buying.

And that brings us to the end of this coverage of 2017 flagship phones from the world’s top smartphone brands. We don’t have the space to cover the Chinese giants like Huawei, Vivo, Oppo, Xiaomi and the rest, but I promise to do that in a subsequent article.

For now, thanks for reading this longish piece!

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Essential doesn’t have QHD display. At 1325p, it’s ALMOST QHD. They messed up and can’t claim QHD. Like Apple at 1125p. Anything below 1440p is not QHD.

    • The PH-1 has a resolution of 1312 x 2560 pixels, which is “almost” QHD, as you say, but with a slightly different aspect ratio (19:10). Also, the pixel density is approx. 504 ppi, which is the number that really matters. You’re right in that PH-1 isn’t “true” QHD, though.

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