The camera has quickly and easily become one of the most important features of a smartphone. We’re capturing more and more photos every day, and it’s all largely thanks to the simplicity of tapping a shutter icon to snap a shot, as well as the abundance of the camera phone. In 2017, we saw an astounding number of excellent cameras on flagship smartphones ranging from $500 to $1,000.
Here are 10 phones that really stood out to me in 2017, though it was a great year and I could easily have made this list a lot longer. I’ve chosen 10 but, really, this was the year of the number eight: Nokia 8, Samsung Galaxy Note 8, Samsung Galaxy S8 and, of course, iPhone 8. Let’s start there.
Apple iPhone 8 (and 8 Plus)Most Popular In: Tech
Apple launched three phones this year and the first two were overshadowed by the third. Which is a shame because the iPhone 8, first reviewed here on Forbes on September 19, and the iPhone 8 Plus had a lot going for them.
In fact, many of the selling points found on the pricier iPhone X, such as wireless charging capabilities thanks to a newly designed glass back, and a super-speedy A11 Bionic processor, are on the cheaper 8 and 8 Plus.
And the 8 Plus has an improved dual camera which is not far off that in the iPhone X.
True, the borders on top and bottom of the screen are noticeably bigger than on some phones released last year but at least the deep chin at the bottom means there’s room on the front for the Touch ID fingerprint sensor – still by far the best place for such a sensor, I’d argue.
And although battery life on iPhones is a touchy subject at the moment, the iPhone 8 Plus manages to go on and on. Since the iPhone X also uses a moderately different version of iOS 11, traditionalists may well enjoy the iPhone 8 more. I’m still predicting that despite initial sluggish sales that the iPhone 8 will be among the most successful small-screen phones of 2017.
Samsung Galaxy S8
After the unfortunate issues of some Galaxy Note 7 phones catching fire, it was no surprise that the Galaxy S8 took a more cautious path. You could almost hear the Samsung top brass holding their breath as the phone was released. Well, you can breathe easy, Samsung execs. The S8 worked just fine and, with one exception, was pretty successful in every way.
The exception, of course, is the fingerprint sensor slap-bang next to the camera lens. It took some time, literally several weeks, to routinely find this sensor without looking and while I never really saw smudged photos as a result of erroneously pressing the lens, it was a concern. Of course, the iris scanner and face recognition options meant I could choose those ways to unlock the phone, but I never found them as reliable – something that made me worry about face recognition for the iPhone X when it was announced.
But this was the only real issue. The phone even came with Bluetooth 5 which made an innovation called Bluetooth Dual Audio possible, so two people could listen to music from the same phone on separate wireless headphones.
The new 18:9 ratio screen was the first fullscreen display on a Samsung phone, and it delivered plenty of wow factor. Like the S8+ and Note8, the S8 screen had sloping edges, contributing to the way the 5.8in display fitted the hand easily. This was easily Samsung’s best phone to date.
Samsung Galaxy Note8
Everything you would like in the S8 was found in the splendid Note8, released in late summer by a Samsung which was clearly, and justifiably, confident again. The Note8 squeezed a 6.3in display into a remarkably small shell, meaning that like the S8 and the larger S8+, it was surprisingly comfortable in the hand. The sloping edges, though steeper than on the S8, also helped with the fit.
The fingerprint sensor has been usefully repositioned. Although it’s still alongside the camera, it’s further away, which is a bit better.
This being a Note, it comes with a stylus which is useful, even if many owners don’t use it much. Incidentally, if you think you’re not a stylus type, then you could save money and opt for the S8+ which has a similar size screen and is almost as good but for the fingerprint sensor placing and the camera.
Ah yes, the camera. This is a dual-lens 12-megapixel model which, like the iPhone 8 Plus, provides an effective 2x optical zoom, and lets you shoot both cameras at once to create a depth-of-field bokeh effect, again like the iPhone 8 Plus and indeed iPhone X. But unlike Apple’s phones, here you can also adjust exactly how blurry you want the background to be – a choice you can make as you shoot or in retrospect.
Recent reports about Note8 handsets not recharging after the battery has gone entirely flat are so far restricted to tiny numbers. For what it’s worth, I never experienced this problem and there were several times when the battery went completely flat.
Sony Xperia XZ Premium
This, make no mistake, is a dazzling phone. The first phone with a 4K HDR display, capable of slow motion at a remarkable 960 frames per second and a brilliant 19-megapixel camera. It even has a highly convenient, side-mounted fingerprint sensor and strong battery life. So, why didn’t it attract more attention than it did?
Sony has often pioneered new features on its handsets – they were routinely waterproof before rivals caught up and the camera pixel count has almost always outranked the competition. But somehow, the phones haven’t taken off. Perhaps it’s the design, which, though elegant enough, seems increasingly defined by the large spaces above and below the display. Or the fact that some features, such as playing back 4K content natively was held back by the fact that compatible content was pretty limited.
It’s a phone that should have done better, but at least it means that the price has dropped considerably, making it an even better buy now.
Next page: HTC, Huawei and BlackBerry
Who wouldn’t like a phone you can squeeze? When HTC released the U11 back in May, it was certainly innovative.
The pressure-sensitive sides added extra functionality to the phone that was entirely configurable so you could use the squeeze to turn on the flashlight, launch Google Assistant or zoom in on Google Maps one-handed.
It comes with noise-canceling headphones, has a gleaming, curved glass back that shimmers and a software feature called USonic which optimizes audio for your personal hearing.
It also has an excellent 12-megapixel camera which, when it launched, had a rating from DxOMark that was unmatched by other phone cameras – though that record has been broken since.
Huawei Mate 10 Pro
The 6in-screened Mate 10 Pro arrived with claims of strong AI capabilities and boasts from the Chinese company that its processing power was way more than the iPhone X.
It’s certainly a proficient, fast and powerful handset with a slick design and impressive camera – helped along by those AI smarts which automatically adjust settings when the snapper recognizes what you’re photographing.
Unlike some of the glass-backed phones here, it isn’t capable of wireless charging and not everyone likes their fingerprint sensor to be on the back of the phone, but these are among the more serious of the phone’s flaws, which is to say it’s pretty good.
In other respects, most boxes were ticked: OLED screen that covers almost all the phone, water resistance, dual-lens camera, fast-charging battery (from nothing flat to 20% in 10 minutes) and so on.
And Huawei was ahead of the curve with its performance capabilities, too. It introduced the ‘Born Fast, Stay Fast’ technology from last year’s P10 phone, designed to keep the phone running at or close to its day one performance 18 months down the line.