This is the fourth annual State Bar of Wisconsin summary of currently available smartphones. The options continue to evolve and improve. Enhancements were made across the board to battery life, speaker quality, camera quality, screen design, and even face-to-screen interaction. But rest assured that no matter your preferred brand or operating system, the features are quite comparable and you can find a good smartphone at all price points.
Just like last year, there are options to buy smartphones with monthly payments at zero-interest financing over two to three years with little to nothing up front, in addition to paying for the full amount at the outset. This makes the idea of paying for a top-of-the-line $1,000 phone much more realistic even for frugal lawyers. The details vary, of course, among the service providers and they all seem to be pushing their unlimited data plans.
As usual, service coverage will depend on where the phone primarily will be used (home, work, and travel). If you tend to stay in your community, a regional carrier with lower service costs may suit your needs. At the other end of the spectrum, regular international travelers should keep in mind not only service but also hardware capabilities of the phone itself.
Changes for 2018
Most smartphone screens are in the approximately five-to six-inch range. The size you choose ultimately depends on what fits comfortably in one hand, within the reach of your thumb, as many people often use phones when walking, cooking, watching TV, holding children, or juggling other activities.
Aly Lynch, Marquette 2007, is chair of the State Bar of Wisconsin Law Office Management Assistance Program (Practice411™) Advisory Committee. She has a masters of professional studies in law firm management from George Washington University and teaches lawyers, legal staff, and students about innovating and improving their practice.
However, advances in video quality and streaming services, combined with the above-mentioned push toward unlimited data service plans, means you might opt for a slightly larger screen with your next phone purchase to enable easier viewing. In addition, you can get cases or stick-on tools that make it easier to hold a larger phone with one hand. If you often edit photos or videos, stream video, or edit documents on your phone, you probably want a screen larger than 5.5 inches. Look for bright, colorful displays, with AMOLED being better than LCD and the very latest phones offering HDR displays.
The flip side of video is audio. Some of this year’s phones have stereo sound built in and front-facing speakers. That’s something to consider if you tend to prop up your phone on something soft, such as a couch, pillow, or your lap, which may dampen the sound on a speaker at the bottom of your device. If you are watching video in a landscape orientation, it can be annoying to have to cup your hand to amplify the sound out to share a funny video with a friend in a noisy room. (By the way, one of the best tips I’ve learned from a tech geek is that putting a phone in a cup works to amplify sound for a room of people – try it sometime, if you haven’t already.)
If you listen solo, you might have noticed that approximately as many phones have done away with headphone jacks as have kept them this year. Phones without the traditional 3.5-mm headphone jack use a USB-C for both charging and audio; you can use wireless Bluetooth headphones, instead. Wireless headphones are nice, but if you spend time in planes where Bluetooth mode might not be allowed or it might not be easy to recharge your wireless headphones, it may be more convenient to have traditional, wired headphones. And most of us have several pairs of the old traditional headphones around our homes and offices. Personally, I like the option of wired, and I can also use wireless.
Some manufacturers did away with headphone jacks because they wanted to make their phones slimmer and thus lighter. They’re all approximately five to eight ounces, but a good case will add a little more weight, as will the materials used to make the phone.
Some of the new smartphones have glass-coated panels, which allow for wireless charging. For clumsy or accident-prone users, it’s probably best to stick with the metal and plastic phones, or invest in a good case, which sort of negates the glass panel in the first place. Alternatively, you could pay for the insurance many providers offer.
Rest assured that no
matter your preferred
brand or operating
system, the features
are quite comparable
and you can find a good
smartphone at all price
Improvements in camera quality on smartphones continue to allow the recreational photographer to get by without a separate device only for taking pictures. Some phones have dual rear cameras, allowing for wide-angle shots and more zoom. A number of the smartphones on this year’s list now have front-facing cameras that more closely rival the abilities of the back-facing ones, and some support portrait mode. Portrait mode allows you to take pictures with out-of-focus backgrounds, so the subject is the only thing in focus. Now you’ll have no excuse for having a LinkedIn profile picture from 10 years ago. If camera quality is important, look for a small aperture number rather than worrying about megapixels.
One of the interesting features added to this year’s phones is facial recognition. My father, who is in his mid-60s, recently got his first smartphone, the iPhone X. He spent the afternoon sending animojis to my sisters and me – a dog, a robot, and a unicorn moving as him, complete with talking lips, head tilts, and eyebrow raises, with his voiceover. It was hilarious, amazing, and a little surreal, until my lawyer brain kicked in. (For more on that, you can find many articles about privacy and Fourth Amendment concerns related to facial recognition in smartphones from a variety of sources.)
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In terms of basic smartphone security, though, facial recognition and iris sensors now join fingerprint recognition and passcodes as ways to keep your phone access private. As an additional measure of security, I recommend having a way to remotely wipe your smartphone in case of loss or theft. The same service, such as Find My Device or Find My iPhone, can also help you when your phone falls out of your pocket in the middle of a field of tall grass or slips between your car seats.
Storage continues to be a distinction when comparing devices. There are ways to manage storage on devices that do not allow for expansion, from cloud storage to automatic management solutions, but it seems awfully convenient to just be able to swap out a memory card when your device is full. As apps and video files continue to multiply on devices, users will continue to run out of storage.
Processors are similar enough now that they’re not worth worrying about. All the recent smartphones have virtual assistants – Siri (Apple), Google Assistant (Android), or Bixby (Samsung). If you’re an average smartphone user, look for a 3000mAh battery to get you through the day. If you’re a heavy user, look for something with at least 3500mAh. More battery will generally mean more weight.
For a side-by-side comparison of some of the main specs on the latest smartphones, see the accompanying table.
Pick Your Winning Smartphone Model…
Click on the chart to expand.
The Field: Pricey
Apple iPhone X ($999 – $1,150)
Apple’s 10th-anniversary iPhone is the X, and it’s the most advanced iPhone yet. The iPhone X has a dual back camera for extra zoom and portrait mode with studio lighting effects available for both selfies and regular photos. The traditional push home button has been replaced with navigation gestures. The X features an HDR-capable OLED display that goes to all edges. It has a glass back, so it can be charged wirelessly, and uses facial recognition. It is the only smartphone on this list without a traditional fingerprint scanner, which may make it less desirable for some lawyers. For the diehard iPhone fans who love the latest and greatest, it will be hard to turn it down for an 8 or to wait until next September for the new iPhone.
Buy this phone if you want the best iPhone currently available.
Samsung Galaxy Note 8 ($820 – $950)
Samsung’s Galaxy Note 8 rivals the iPhone X in nearly every way and has an additional five inches of screen size. It has the dual back camera for extra zoom and portrait mode, wireless charging, and HDR capabilities. It includes the S-Pen stylus typical of the Note series, with more precision and features than ever before. Also typical of Samsung phones, the Note 8 has microSD storage expansion. Samsung rolled out its own AI (artificial intelligence) assistant, Bixby. Bixby, which has a dedicated button, is initially limited in capabilities but will be able to understand what is on your screen and offer options based on what you are viewing.
Buy this phone if you prefer Android phones and huge screens and want top-of-the-line features.
Samsung Galaxy S8 ($750) and S8+ ($820)
Samsung’s newest S line phones, the Galaxy S8 and S8+, are slim and smooth. Like the Note 8, the screens go to each edge, the displays are Super AMOLED, and the phones offer wireless charging, Bixby AI assistant, and microSD storage expansion. All Samsung phones have 3.5-mm headphone jacks. The S line has facial recognition in addition to iris and rear fingerprint scanners. The S8 and S8+ don’t have quite as many features as the Note 8. You won’t have HDR or dual rear cameras. The S8 has a 5.8-inch display and the S8+ has a 6.2-inch display.
Buy one of these phones if you want an amazing Android phone without all the bells and whistles or so much weight.
LG V30 ($799)
This LG packs a punch with a fast processor, lots of memory, and powerful hardware. It boasts dual rear cameras, which can each be controlled manually when shooting photos or video. The V30 can be charged wirelessly, is water resistant, and is very thin. The HDR capable display is 6 inches.
Buy this phone if you want a big, powerful phone with a slightly smaller price tag.
Google Pixel 2 ($649 – $749) and Pixel 2 XL ($849 – $949)
Google has improved upon its original Pixel and Pixel XL, keeping the top-notch cameras. Both offer stereo speakers, a 12MP camera with portrait mode, Google Assistant, and rear fingerprint scanner and are water resistant. They do not have 3.5-mm headphone jacks or storage expansion. The 2 has a 5-inch display and the 2 XL has a 6-inch display.
Buy one of these phones if you want the purest, most tightly integrated Android experience available with a fantastic camera.
Apple iPhone 8 and 8 Plus ($699 – $849 and $799 – $949)
The iPhone 8 and 8 Plus are amazing, just not as amazing as the iPhone X. Rather than the OLED display, they feature the IPS LCD, which is not as bright and colorful as the display on their newer cousin. They are thin, HDR capable, and water resistant and have wireless charging but no 3.5-mm headphone jack; the 8 Plus has dual rear cameras. Downsides of iPhones include lack of expandable storage and low battery power, but the phones are easy to use. The 8 has a 4.7-inch display, and the 8 Plus has a 5.5-inch display.
Buy one of these phones if you want an iPhone without facial recognition or the four-digit price tag.
Moto Moto Z2 Force Edition ($756)
With Moto Mods, physical devices that snap on to the back of any of the Moto Z family of phones and that can be bought separately, Moto’s conception of what a smartphone can be has certainly caught the eyes of gadget lovers. Simply by adding these Mods, such as the JBL SoundBoost Speaker, the Moto Insta-Share Projector, and Hasselblad True Zoom Camera – not to mention multiple battery pack and cosmetic options – Moto Z phones can transform into whatever “best” phone you need them to be. The Force Edition features a ShatterShield display, which promises to never shatter, and is the first Moto to have a dual rear camera. The body is thin and light.
Buy this phone if you want the most physically customizable phone available.
Huawei Mate 10 Pro ($799)
The Mate 10 Pro is very tall and has a high screen-to-body ratio. It has dual rear cameras and a low aperture on each, so the camera quality is excellent. The battery life is large, the second largest on this list, but it does not have expandable storage or a 3.5-mm headphone jack.
Buy this phone if you want a big screen and long battery life.
The Field: Mid-Range Budget
OnePlus 5T ($500 – $599)
The OnePlus 5T is a flagship device for a lower price. It has a rear dual camera with portrait mode, a rear fingerprint scanner, face unlock, and a 3.5-mm headphone jack. It also has Dash Charger, the company’s quick-charging solution. This is one of the few smartphones listed here that is not water resistant. OnePlus may be a lesser-known phone manufacturer, but the quality, features, and reviews are virtually the same as for the pricier options.
Buy this phone if you want the most bang for your buck.
HTC U11 ($650 or less)
The HTC U11 has a super LCD display, which isn’t as great as the AMOLED options, but it has a good battery, touch-sensitive control keys, and squeezable sides, which gives you more functionality. This phone does not have a 3.5-mm headphone jack.
Buy this phone if you want a moderately priced model with good functionality.
LG G6 ($500)
The LG G6 has a 5.7-inch HDR capable display with a metal frame and glass body, offering a high level of water and dust resistance as well as durability. It has a dual rear camera, lots of memory, expandable storage, and face recognition.
Buy this phone if you want a solid phone that isn’t too expensive.
Sony Xperia XZ Premium ($699)
The Xperia XZ Premium boasts a 4K-resolution display with HDR capable video, two stereo front-facing speakers, and a powerful, energy-efficient processor. At 5.5 inches the screen size is average and the screen-to-body ratio is small, but few smartphones have the video capabilities of the Xperia XZ Premium.
Buy this phone if you watch a lot of movies on your phone.
The Field: Frugal
Asus ZenFone 4 Max ($199 – $379)
The Asus ZenFone 4 Max has an amazing 5,000mAh battery, lots of system memory, expandable storage, a dual rear camera, and a 5.5-inch display. The phone has dual SIM cards, so you can have service active on both, but overall the phone has a dated design and user interface.
Buy this phone if you want a low-budget phone with long battery life.
LG K20 V ($168)
The K20 V has a smaller screen than most, at just 5.3 inches, and doesn’t have a ton of storage, but you can expand the storage to 2TB with the microSD card. The battery is also smaller than most, but still respectable for light to moderate users.
Buy this phone if you want a lightweight phone with minimal features at a very budget-friendly price.
Last Year’s Top Models
Just because a phone came out in 2016 doesn’t mean it’s obsolete. Phones such as the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus and the LG V20 are still really good phones and, with reduced prices, remain competitive.
Overall, the iPhone X, the Samsung Galaxy Note8, and the LG V30 are arguably the “best” smartphones currently available, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are the best for you. If you prefer specific features, functionality, or specifications, you’ll want to investigate further and there are additional options out there. For most people, though, and based on the reviews of present users, these are the best smartphones presently available. And unless you’re very particular about your gadgets, having a nice, new, fast phone is always exciting.
Meet Our Contributors
You’ve never practiced law a day in your life. Why did you go to law school?
It wasn’t exactly a well-thought out strategy. I never envisioned spending my days fighting it out in a courtroom or over a negotiating table. The truth is, I went to law school because I had a few family members who were lawyers, I liked and respected them, and I wanted to be a part of their industry.
Fortunately, I found a different way to spend my time working with lawyers. Most of my classmates were excited by the idea of practicing law but bored or intimidated by the idea of running a legal practice. I was the exact opposite. I was fascinated by the legal industry and the business management of law firms, and actually got excited with every chance to try out new practice management tools and legal technology. (Yes, I am a nerd.)
And that’s what I’ve done ever since – consulting with lawyers and firms to make the task of running (and growing) their practices a little more painless, so they can focus instead on the things theywent to law school to do.
Aly Lynch, Next Step Legal Consulting LLC, Madison.
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