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Why 2017 Turned Out To Be The Year Of The Flawed Flagship Phone

Makers of premium smartphones are trying new ideas. But the trade-offs leave you having to decide which aggravation is most tolerable.

Why 2017 Turned Out To Be The Year Of The Flawed Flagship Phone
Google’s Pixel 2 XL has a big screen and narrow bezels, but early adopters have reported serious issues with the display. [Photo: courtesy of Google]

When I went phone shopping a few years ago, the decision on what to buy was simple. I wanted a big screen, the best camera, and no compromises. So I picked up an iPhone 6 Plus.

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Now it’s time to replace that phone, and the path forward isn’t so obvious. In 2017, every new flagship phone brings some kind of glaring flaw, whether it’s the iPhone X’s obtrusive notch, the misplaced fingerprint sensor on Samsung’s Galaxy Note8, or the display issues plaguing Google’s Pixel 2 XL.

There’s never been such a thing as a perfect smartphone, but the best phones have never been as imperfect as they are in 2017. Deciding which phone to buy now comes down to which routine annoyance you’re most willing to tolerate.

Apple made the iPhone X’s display so big that it had to carve out a controversial notch at the top for the camera and Face ID. [Photo: courtesy of Apple]

Xs And 8s

If I didn’t want to think too hard about which phone to get, I would just settle for an iPhone 8 Plus. By most accounts it’s a fine phone, packed with features that my iPhone 6 Plus lacks, such as a dual-lens camera, wireless charging support, a much more vibrant display, and support for ARKit-powered augmented reality apps.

It’s also almost the same size and shape as the phone I bought three years ago. Since then, other phone makers have crammed larger screens into smaller bodies, leaving the iPhone 8 with a design that looks outdated. Maybe this is just vanity, but if I’m spending upwards of $800 on a new smartphone in 2017, I want it to look like one.

Of course, Apple has an answer in the iPhone X, but this brings its own compromises. I’m afraid the notch that houses Apple’s Face ID recognition tech would slowly drive me crazy. I also often use my phone when it’s on a desk or table, so getting my face in front of the camera to unlock the phone could be a hassle.

Besides, the iPhone X costs $1,000, which is $200 more than an iPhone 8. And given the supply issues that Apple is reportedly dealing with, it’s unclear whether the iPhone X will even be readily available this year.

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Google’s Pixel 2 is a nice phone—but with a small screen and big borders by 2017 standards.

Android’s Inadequacies

Not that I was committed to buying an iPhone anyway. Lately I’ve been intrigued by the idea of a nice Android phone, mainly because of its superior handling of notifications and its deeper ties to Google services. Since I wasn’t in the market for a new phone last year, I thought the stars might align around a second-generation Google Pixel XL this fall.

But the Pixel 2 XL, which Google announced a few weeks ago, has a display with some deep flaws. Users and reviewers have been complaining about grainy details and a blue tint at even the slightest off-angles, and I found the latter issue to be rather noticeable while playing with the phone at a Verizon store. Google is also investigating a “burn-in” effect that makes Android’s navigation buttons appear faintly on the screen, even when they’re not supposed to be there.

The smaller Pixel 2 doesn’t have these problems, but it lacks the smaller bezels, slightly curved glass, and bigger battery of its extra-large sibling. And after a few years of using the iPhone 6 Plus, it’s hard to go back to smaller screens.

Beyond Google’s Pixel phones, the next logical options are Samsung’s Galaxy S8+ and Note8, both of which have powerful processors, striking curved displays, and top-notch cameras. But these phones also share a significant design compromise in the placement of their fingerprint sensors, which reside high up on the phone next to their camera lenses. The sensor is a pain to reach in this location, and can also lead to camera smudging. (Even Samsung acknowledges the issue, prompting users to wipe their lenses regularly once they’ve set up fingerprint recognition.)

The bigger problem with Samsung’s phones–and all other non-Pixel phones, for that matter–is the software. Most Android phones don’t feel as fast and smooth as Google’s Pixels, even when then they use the same processors, and they tend to tweak the interface in ways that seem garish in comparison to Google’s minimalist design. Android phone vendors are also much slower than Google at delivering software updates, and they seldom commit to more than a year or two of new Android releases. By comparison, Google is now guaranteeing three years of Android updates for the Pixel 2 line.

In the end, I ordered a Pixel 2 XL, but instead of the usual excitement that comes with replacing an old phone, I’m agonizing over the decision, second-guessing whether to return the phone and try something different.

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Why Now?

There are plenty of little reasons for why this year’s phones are all flawed, from the shortage of OLED panel suppliers to underlying Android issues that hinder the delivery of software upgrades. But the overarching theme is one of growing pains for the premium smartphone business.

A few years ago, smartphones seemed to be plateauing, with no major changes from one year to the next. Performance was generally fast enough, cameras were generally good enough, displays had become sharper than the human eye can discern, and getting through the day on a charge was no longer a major concern. Waiting more than two years between phone upgrades was once unthinkable to me, but with the iPhone 6 Plus, it never seemed like much of an issue.

In 2017, phone makers are trying to take a bigger leap forward. The iPhone X’s camera notch and the Samsung Galaxy line’s awkward fingerprint sensor placement are both the result of a push to minimize bezels and fit larger screens onto smaller phones. Meanwhile, the Pixel 2 XL’s problems may stem from Google’s inexperience with hardware as the company takes software integration into its own hands.

These issues may not last another generation, as phone makers look to correct their biggest missteps next time around. But that’s of little consolation to anyone who needs a new phone in 2017.

About the author

Jared Newman covers apps and technology for Fast Company from his remote outpost in Cincinnati. He also writes for PCWorld and TechHive, and previously wrote for Time.com.

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