Personal Technology: Best Androids Raise Bar for Next iPhone -- WSJ

By Geoffrey A. Fowler Features Dow Jones Newswires

This article is being republished as part of our daily reproduction of WSJ.com articles that also appeared in the U.S. print edition of The Wall Street Journal (September 11, 2017).

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Want to annoy Apple fanatics? Remind them how many magical iPhone capabilities arrived first on Android. Big screens? Fingerprint scanners? Mobile payments? Water resistance? None of it invented in Cupertino.

Ahead of Apple's wildly hyped 10th-anniversary iPhone launch next week, three more Android phones have been pushing the boundaries of what smartphones look like and how we use them: Samsung's Galaxy Note 8, the Essential Phone and the OnePlus 5.

Screens are taking over. By nipping and tucking around the glass, designers have made screens longer, with more usable area. And the best screens make images look more lifelike and colorful with a tech called OLED.

Using the Note 8, which arrives Sept. 15, is the closest I've come to manipulating a sci-fi movie communicator-gizmo -- 6.3 inches of screen, nearly without edges. It's a big part of what makes the Note 8 the best big-screen phone money can buy, especially now that Samsung appears to have put battery fire woes behind it. At $950, the Note is also expensive overkill.

For a more pocket-friendly take on the all-screen design, the $700 Essential phone, from a startup founded by Android's creator, wraps a 5.7-inch screen in a slim belt of titanium. It's the handsomest phone I've seen in years, though it disappoints in other areas.

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These designs are changing how we operate the phone. With no space on the front for a home button and fingerprint reader, unlocking has to happen elsewhere. Essential moved the fingerprint sensor to the back. Samsung did, too, but you can also unlock the Note 8 with facial recognition or an iris scan -- when they work.

Cameras are the other big news. Now the best phones have two lenses on the back, using the extra eye for closer-in zoom shots and even depth perception. Dual cameras are no longer a bank-breaking feature: The $480 OnePlus 5 boasts the highest-resolution pair on the market. In coming weeks, we're also expecting a new Pixel phone from Google, whose first model impressed us last year, especially in the camera department.

Of course, it isn't about getting features first: What matters is who does it best. And while there's plenty to like about each of these phones, there's room for Apple to improve on things like pro-level photography, biometrics and augmented reality. Maybe it has cracked the code on 3-D facial scanning? Or here's an idea: Apple could address deeper smartphone problems such as battery life, privacy protection and nonstop distraction.

If you're looking for an Android phone to buy now, or you're just keeping score, here's what I like -- and don't -- about the leading contenders.

Samsung Galaxy Note 8

This giant phone can chew gum and hula hoop at the same time.

Likes: If you're abandoning your laptop for a smartphone, stop here first. The Note 8's screen, about as big as an XL Hershey bar, is a no-longer-crazy way for road warriors to rock Gmail and spreadsheets simultaneously. With the included stylus, which tucks inside the screen, scribbling notes is almost as easy as using paper.

The Note 8 stuffs in pretty much every feature somebody might want from a phone in 2017: virtual-reality capability, widely accepted mobile payments, wireless charging, an animated GIF maker -- it can even become a desktop computer with a $150 dock. And like other recent Samsung phones, it's water-resistant and allows you to add your own memory card for storage.

The Note 8 camera not only joins the multi-lens trend but jumps to its forefront. In my tests, the Note 8 often outperformed the iPhone 7 Plus at focusing quickly and snapping low-light situations, though I still prefer many shots from Google's Pixel. Zoomed-in shots from the 2X telephoto lens were clear thanks to optical image stabilization. The "live focus" mode that uses depth data to artfully blur portraits had some hiccups, but no more than the iPhone 7 Plus's similar "portrait mode."

Dislikes: All that screen gobbles up battery, which lasted a ho-hum eight hours in my stress test. The fingerprint reader is poorly placed, while the facial recognition isn't fast or reliable enough. Bixby, Samsung's Siri competitor, still feels underdeveloped, though Google's Assistant is also available.

I find the Note 8 too much phone to carry comfortably. A more slender alternative is Samsung's Galaxy S8, though photo buffs would miss the dual cameras.

Essential Phone

This attractive new model is better off in front of the camera than behind it.

Likes: The Essential has the first phone design in a while that can actually turn heads. The screen comes so close to the edge, there's a notch cut out for the front-facing camera. The ceramic back cover feels luxe and promises to last longer than other phones' scratch-prone finishes. The software is just as clean: basic Android, no bloatware. And the battery lasted a decent nine hours in my stress test.

Essential has an interesting approach to accessories: They can snap on and draw power from the phone. But so far, there's only one, a 360-degree camera -- and modular-phone efforts by LG and Motorola haven't caught on.

Dislikes: The Essential phone doesn't actually cover the essentials. There's no headphone jack (it includes an adapter, but no headphones) and it isn't water-resistant.

The biggest problem is the camera: It's slow and struggles in low-light settings. Another disappointment: The second lens on the back is for black-and-white shots, not zoom.

OnePlus 5

It's a remarkable value, but it looks like last year's phone.

Likes: The OnePlus 5 is slim and lightweight yet packs in performance: smooth-running software, bright OLED screen and a battery that lasted a solid 9.5 hours in my tests. The dual camera also wowed, though Samsung and Apple beat it with their fancy-blur portrait mode.

What's most incredible, though, is the price: $480, sold through the OnePlus website without the typical carrier hoopla, contracts and bloatware. In a year when premium phones aim to break the $1,000 ceiling, the OnePlus 5 is a welcome option.

Dislikes: The thick-bordered screen looks like phones we've seen before. (Upside: There's still space for a fingerprint reader on the front.) The screen also isn't as high-resolution as the Note 8's, nor does the phone have tricks like face unlocking or wireless charging. If you want to double the default 64GB storage, the price rises to $539.

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

September 11, 2017 02:47 ET (06:47 GMT)