It’s new phone season and we’ve seen some interesting releases from the two biggest manufacturers and another player looking to disrupt the field. Samsung has taken its latest phones and waterproofed them, while Apple has gone back to the future with an old form factor and Huawei updated a previous model.
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After receiving the Samsung Galaxy S7 ($1199) and setting it up, with the screen on, we dropped it in a kitchen-sink full of water.
It was so liberating!
No more angst about getting the phone wet because it’s waterproof up to a depth of one metre for up to 30 minutes. The phone kept working under the water and after we took it out. The larger Galaxy S7 Edge ($1399) also kept going.
We thought the trend of waterproof phones had ended, but it isn’t the case. Waterproof phones, in general, are more versatile, you can use them comfortably in more situations. Thinking about using your phone while you’re cooking; if you get anything on it you can just wash the phone under the tap. Tradies in dusty, dirty workplaces similarly don’t have to worry about ruining their phones.
The hardware has also been updated with a faster processor, the camera has been upgraded and the battery life extended. They also run the latest version of Android, Marshmallow.
The Edge has a screen that wraps around the edges (hence the name). It takes a while to get used to, but we’ve come to like the Edge more than the regular Galaxy S7. It’s big, bright screen makes everything look better.
Apple’s new direction is an old one. After releasing the large iPhone 6S and even larger 6S Plus, Apple has gone back two steps and released the iPhone SE ($749). It's the same form factor as the iPhone 5S, but with an upgraded interior.
The camera is the same as the 6S and the front camera's flash now uses the screen to light you up. The processor is upgraded to run the new iOS 9, including its software improvements. It has an improved fingerprint sensor and, of course, the SE is available in the Apple colour du jour: rose gold. The SE doesn’t have the 3D touch like the 6S, but you won’t miss that.
It’s nice to be able to easily reach the opposite corner of the screen with your thumb without needing hand gymnastics. It’s thicker than the other iPhones but not so much you'd really notice. The thickness also means the camera doesn’t stick out.
Meanwhile, Huawei, the third largest manufacturer, has released the Mate 8 ($1099), a six-inch phone with a polished look and feel. The Mate 8 is one of the most comfortable large phones we’ve used. The metal case, with its slightly curved back, is comfortable to hold and the location of its fingerprint sensor is pure genius. The sensor is on the back of the phone, just below the camera, avoiding what we term the “fingerprint fumble” — the awkward change in grip required with one hand to get your finger on to the sensor without dropping your oversized phone.
The Mate 8 is one of the faster phones we’ve used. It never slowed down and was quick to reconnect to a mobile network after going through tunnels. The screen is sharp and light, and we had no trouble using it inside and out.
Given how good the photos were, we thought the camera would have a massive resolution. But its 16MP camera, with image stabilisation, punched above its weight and provided crisp, clear images. It also has some fun features, such as slow motion and time lapse recording.
The real surprise is its front-facing camera. When other manufacturers are using 5MP front cameras, Huawei decided to go with an 8MP camera. Great for crystal-clear video calls and flawless selfies.
The only downside we found was using its “near field communication” (NFC), with such a large phone and only a small area on the back where NFC will work, we had to hunt for the “sweet spot” before buying a coffee with our mobile wallet.
The takeaway from this set of releases is the mobile phone eco-system may look like a bunch of black rectangular touchscreens, but there is a large amount of diversity. You can find exactly the thing you’re after.
Our writers received these phones on loan for this First Look. First Looks are trials of new or interesting products from the perspective of our product experts. Our lab-based tests offer truly objective product comparisons.
by Erin Bennett & Hadyn Green
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