With just a few days left for the year 2017 to end, now is a good time to take stock of the major tech advances that the smartphone industry witnessed in the last 12 months. While the primary objective of this feature is to choose the smartphone with 2017’s best design, it is also important that we go back in time to track the evolution of modern smartphones. The purpose of this is to fully understand why the modern smartphone design stands where it is today. Once that is done, we will take a look at all the handsets launched in 2017 that made a significant statement with their design. Keeping our predominantly Indian audience in mind, this list only includes handsets that were officially available for sale in India before the end of 2017.
Smartphone design evolution through the last decade
The year 2007 was a watershed year in the history and the evolution of the modern smartphone. When Steve Jobs took the first ever iPhone out of his pocket during his keynote address at Macworld ‘07 on January 9, 2007, even the most seasoned smartphone experts would not have envisioned the impact this device would have on smartphone for years to come. Over a decade later, it goes without saying that all modern smartphones still use the design blueprint that Apple spearheaded with the first-generation iPhone. Smartphones are now slimmer, displays have gotten bigger, and these machines have also become very powerful. However, design changes to the modern smartphone in the 10 years since the introduction of the first-generation iPhone can be best described to be incremental in nature.
In 2007, the concept of a large display, a capacitive touchscreen (most phones before the iPhone used a resistive touchscreen that required a stylus) was an exciting prospect. Today, however, the same concept has become repetitive, and dare we say, boring. In fact, the entire six-year period from 2010 – 2016 could probably be described as a time period when smartphone design reached a point of stagnation. Almost all smartphones from this era irrespective of their platform, pricing and spec sheet looked near-identical. Unsurprisingly, a product manager for a leading smartphone maker was recently quoted saying that people “aren’t excited by new phones anymore.” And boy was he right! When you have smartphones that look virtually identical to each other being churned out by the millions, there is little reason for anyone to be excited about yet another launch.
The same six-year-period, however, did witness a few aberrations like the Samsung Galaxy Note Edge, and the Sharp Aquos Crystal. While the Galaxy Note Edge had a display that curved across the right side of the device, the Sharp Aquos Crystal is widely thought to be the first bezel-less smartphone. There were also forgettable attempts at radical smartphone designs. These included the likes of the Samsung Galaxy Round and the LG G Flex, both strange smartphone designs from 2013. Then there was the infamous the LG G5 from 2015, and Google’s Project ARA, both attempts at spawning a modular smartphone revolution, which failed. Project ARA was unceremoniously killed by Google in 2016. Unlike Project ARA, the LG G Flex, the LG G5 and the Samsung Galaxy Round did make it to production. In hindsight, some of these smartphones while not commercial successes were responsible for starting a trend. In fact, remnants of the design elements these handsets first brought to the table can still be seen on handsets sold today.
Before Samsung showcased the Galaxy Note Edge for the first time at IFA 2014, curved displays on smartphones was stuff only seen in sci-fi movies. While Samsung had been showcasing their curved and flexible displays at events like CES, MWC and IFA for several years, the consensus was that that displays of this nature were simply too expensive and impractical to be used on a smartphone. Samsung did try out a curved display on the Samsung Galaxy Round smartphone that was officially unveiled in October 2013 as an exclusive device for sale only in Korea.
In the same month, Samsung’s homegrown archrival LG launched the LG G Flex.
Both these devices featured unusual concave displays that had their curves along different axes. While the Samsung Galaxy Round’s display curved from left to right, the LG G Flex featured a display that curved from top to bottom. While Samsung did not announce a successor to the Galaxy Round, the LG G Flex did spawn a successor, the LG G Flex 2 before LG too, before killing the Flex series unceremoniously. In October 2014, Samsung decided to take a fresh approach in the way the curve on a smartphone should look like, resulting in the birth of the Samsung Galaxy Note Edge.
Announced at IFA 2014 along with the standard Note 4 model for that year, the Note Edge featured an offset curve on one side of the display. The curve was large enough to be used as a secondary display that showed additional information. While the Galaxy Note Edge did not go unnoticed, most users felt that the curve on the display was a bit too aggressive. Samsung subsequently announced the Galaxy S6 Edge a year later with a display that had gentler curves, this time on both the sides – a design trait that the company continues to use to this day.
The dawn of the bezel-less era
The evolution of today’s smartphones with their ‘bezel-less” and “Infinity Displays” also makes for an interesting read. In 2014, Japanese electronics major Sharp Electronics launched a mid-range handset called the Sharp Aquos Crystal. Even though the handset went largely unnoticed at the time of its launch, it is now widely thought to be the origin of the modern bezel-less phone. At the time of its launch, the Sharp Aquos Crystal had an insane 78.5% screen-to-body ratio, something that was unheard of in 2014. The design of the Aquos Crystal came as a breath of fresh air and the near-infinite bezel, especially at the top that made the phone look futuristic and ahead of its time.The Sharp Aquos Crystal was the first phone with a bezel-less display
In fact, as of 2017, smartphones with large bezels are quick to be rubbished for being too old-fashioned. Even though Sharp followed up the Crystal with a successor, the Sharp Aquos Crystal 2, the handset did not enjoy much success in terms of overall sales. While the Crystal and the Crystal 2 remain commercial failures, both these handsets will be remembered as the first smartphones on the planet to feature a truly bezel-less display.
The Xiaomi Mi MIX factor
While the Sharp Aquos Crystal takes credit for being the first bezel-less smartphone series ever, it was the Xiaomi Mi MIX from 2016 that once again brought the concept of bezel-less displays to the fore. Featuring a 6.44-inch display that occupied nearly the entire front fascia of the phone, the Mi MIX was an absolute head turner. Even though it was initially touted as a concept device, there was considerable interest in the handset which eventually resulted in Xiaomi giving it a limited production run.The Xiaomi Mi MIX is largely responsible for setting off the current bezel-less trend
The lack of a bezel at the top of the front fascia on the Mi MIX literally forced Xiaomi to innovate. This bezel-less display meant that they would not be able to use a standard earpiece for calls (it’s still a phone, you know). Xiaomi’s solution was to come up with a fancy piezoelectric ceramic nestled underneath the display. This was not a speaker in the traditional sense. This setup consisted of a Digital to Analog Converter that sent an electrical pulse to the piezoelectric ceramic. The ceramic in turn converted the electrical signal to mechanical energy that vibrated the metal frame of the phone to create sound.
2017 smartphone design trends
Three years after the launch of the Crystal, and less than a year since the announcement of the Mi MIX, we are now witnessing a barrage of smartphones with little or no bezels and curved displays. While the ‘original’ Xiaomi Mi MIX is largely credited for spawning the current bezel-less craze, the handset never actually made it out of China, well at least officially it did not. It was only in 2017 that the world increasingly started seeing fresh smartphone designs with taller displays and minimum bezels. This was the year Samsung came up with the Galaxy S8, S8 + and the Galaxy Note 8, Xiaomi came up with the Mi MIX 2, and LG launched the stylish LG G6 and V30 smartphones. Then there was the most awaited smartphone of 2017 -the Apple iPhone X. All these smartphones either used a bezel-less display or came in a curved display+small bezel form factor. By mid-2017, even budget smartphones started to feature 18:9 displays.
Contenders for the best smartphone design for 2017
Xiaomi Mi MIX 2
The lessons that Xiaomi learnt from their experience with the Mi MIX led to the arrival of the Mi MIX 2 – the Chinese company’s second bezel-less smartphone. Announced in September 2017, the Mi MIX 2 fixed several flaws that plagued the original Mi MIX. To begin with, the 5.99-inch display on the Mi MIX 2 is a lot smaller than the 6.44-inch panel on the Mi MIX. The display also features the now standard 18:9 aspect ratio instead of the 17:9 aspect ratio that the original Mi MIX boasted of. The reduced size of the smartphone has also resulted in improved ergonomics and better usability. The Mi MIX 2 also gets flagship class specifications and at least on paper seems to have everything going for it.
Launched just a few months before Samsung took covers off the Galaxy S8 series, the LG G6 is one gorgeous looking smartphone. Featuring a 5.7-inch display, the handset is pretty compact for something that sports a phablet-sized display. The LG G6 was among the first Android smartphones to feature a 18:9 aspect ratio for the display. While the Samsung Galaxy S8 did spoil the G6’s party by launching itself just a few months after the G6 was announced, it is pertinent to note that the G6, unlike the S8 is virtually indestructible. The G6 is MIL-STD-810 compliant which means that it has passed 810G military standard testing — that includes tests for temperature and environmental extremes, pressure, vibration, and shock, salt, sand, dust, and water immersion.
Samsung Galaxy S8
The Samsung Galaxy S8 was announced along with its larger-screened cousin the Galaxy S8+ on 29 March 2017. Successors to the popular Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge models, the new S8 series saw Samsung take a radical approach towards design. The S8 featured a near-bezel-less display that curved on both the sides. This display was also larger and taller and adopted the 18.5:9 aspect ratio. The tiny bezels resulted in the fingerprint scanner being moved to the back panel. Samsung did, however, attempt to make up for this by equipping the phone with an iris scanner and facial recognition features. Even though the phone does not feature a bezel-less display like some of the other contenders here, the way the Samsung Galaxy S8 is put together is the defining feature of the handset.
Samsung Galaxy Note 8
The Samsung Galaxy Note 8 was announced in August 2017, just five months after the Galaxy S8 and the S8+ were made official. The smartphone is nearly identical to the Samsung Galaxy S8+ and retains the new ‘family look’ that flagship Samsung smartphones seem to have adopted in 2018. The handset also features a brand new dual-camera setup and an improved S-Pen functionality.
Apple iPhone X
Perhaps the most awaited smartphone of 2017, the iPhone X was announced along with the iPhone 8 and the iPhone 8 Plus on September 12, 2017. The iPhone X marks a major shift in the way future iPhone models would look and feel. The iPhone X features a nearly bezel-less, 5.8-inch display with an unusual ‘notch’ at the top. More than a decade after the circular ‘home button’ made its debut on the first generation iPhone, Apple removed the physical button in favour of a series of swipe-based gestures that would be used to navigate around the operating system. The iPhone X also saw Apple adopt a display technology it had once shunned – OLED panels.
Winner: Samsung Galaxy S8
When Samsung first showcased the Galaxy S8 back in March 2017, there was nothing quite like it in the market. While Samsung had to make some compromises in terms of the functionality, like moving the fingerprint scanner to the rear, thanks to the relatively compact nature of the device, the S8 does not suffer terribly when it comes to overall ergonomics. Adjusting to the new position of the fingerprint scanner is only a matter of getting used to. Things were to change in the later part of the year which saw the launch of the gorgeous Xiaomi Mi MIX 2. Both the iPhone X and the Mi MIX 2, thanks to their near bezel-less displays, had the wow factor and turned as many heads as the S8 did. However, both these handsets did come with their own set of design flaws.
For the iPhone X, many users were not too happy with the unwieldy notch that occupies a prime position at the top of the front fascia. Most of us here at MySmartPrice were also of the opinion that the notch, even though a head turner, did take away from the immersive experience of using the iPhone X, especially when watching videos. The second design flaw that the iPhone X had was the large camera bump at its rear. The positioning of the camera bump is such that the iPhone X cannot be placed on a flat surface without rattles and shakes as only two corners of the device manage to actually touch the surface on which the phone is placed. We do not think Steve Jobs would have let this design through if he was still around. As for the Mi MIX 2, the smartphone did have its share of rough edges. The front-facing camera on the handset, for example, takes a little getting used to. The phone also did not feature a quad HD display that other handsets in its class boast of. The camera performance was sub-par, and unlike all the other handsets in this list, it did not feature any form of water and dust protection.
The other two flagship devices from Samsung, the Galaxy S8+ and the Galaxy Note 8 did not make the cut simply because they were too large and unwieldy for one-handed usage. Additionally, both these phones were mere extensions of the original Samsung Galaxy S8 design. The Galaxy S8, therefore, is our choice for the smartphone with the best design for the MySmartPrice Mobile Of The Year Awards 2017.