Are this year’s top smartphones significantly better than last year’s, and is it worth upgrading? That’s what I set out to discover in this week’s show when I compared the HTC One M9 with the newer HTC 10, last year’s Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge with the latest S7 Edge, and the iPhone 6S Plus with the brand new iPhone 7 Plus.
In some areas the improvements are clear. All the new phones boast better screens and they all have improved battery life. It’s a couple of hours extra in the case of the newer iPhone which could be a lifesaver.
The new phones are all faster and the Samsung and HTC offer notably improved graphics performance. Though whether this makes much difference to you depends on how you use your phone. Video editors and gamers would definitely notice but the rest of us may not.
Cameras were more of a mixed bag. The newer Samsung produced less detailed pictures but focused quicker, while the newer HTC produced better shots in low light, again at the cost of less detail.
The iPhone 7 Plus however makes an excellent photographic case for itself. It now has two lenses - the usual wide-angle and a so-called “telephoto” lens which is actually nearer a “standard” lens with its 56mm equivalent focal length. You can easily switch between lenses and get closer to your subject without cropping and losing sharpness. More intriguingly it combines the lenses to give a blurred background in its “portrait” mode, mimicking a more sophisticated dedicated camera. There have been smartphones with twin lens cameras before but the iPhone 7 Plus is by far the most effective yet.
An issue for some might be manufacturers’ apparent keenness to drop features from their new flagship models. The latest HTC loses the FM radio and the IR transmitter that turns the phone into a handy remote control. Both are features with a small but enthusiastic following.
In the iPhone’s case, the feature that’s been dropped is the more widely used 3.5mm headphone jack. There are ways round the problem - you can listen with wireless headphones, use the supplied earbuds that plug into the Lightning socket, or plug in 3.5mm headphones using a Lightning to 3.5mm adaptor (also supplied). However it could be a real nuisance for some users, especially those who use wired headphones and charge their phone at the same time. This requires the purchase of another, rather expensive adaptor and could be a reason to stick with an older iPhone.
Though it’s swings and roundabouts because features are added, too. The S7 Edge reintroduced the microSD card slot the S6 lacks. The iPhone meanwhile is now fully water resistant.
So, the bottom line on whether it’s worth upgrading really depends upon which phone you’ve got and what you do with it. iPhone users who are keen photographers and hammer their battery may really appreciate the upgrade. Samsung gamers, likewise. But HTC or Samsung devotees with an enthusiasm for photography, or Apple users with a fondness for wired headphones, might be somewhat disappointed.
Newer can be better but not everyone will find it’s worth paying extra for the privilege.
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