This is the seventh annual State Bar of Wisconsin summary of the best currently available smartphones. Attorneys I corresponded with for this article say the top concerns surrounding smartphones are overall performance, battery life, and price. Secondary and almost tied are the operating system, storage, camera, and screen quality.
About 20 percent more correspondents have adopted Apple iOS devices compared to those adopting Android-based devices. And, attorneys stated they were unlikely to change their device platform, choosing instead to stay with the OS and carriers they know. Security is also a big issue this year, especially as COVID-19 pushes more attorneys to work remotely and rely on their mobile devices more than ever.
Changes for 2021
Smartphone manufacturers are addressing camera quality, including phones with multiple cameras and improved features such as better low-light pictures, wide angle, and greater zoom, with improved designs. Consumers continue to do more with their phones, using them as primary devices for communication as well as entertainment, making 5G coverage increasingly important. Battery-life improvements include faster charging technology and bigger batteries whenever possible. Processors have increased performance in phones this year as well.
As our consumption of streaming audio and video and need to access data continue to grow, network speeds and coverage become more important. This is evident by the number of phone providers actively promoting their compatibility with 5G networks. The T-Mobile/Sprint merger has extended 5G coverage, arguably making T-Mobile the largest 5G provider in the nation.
James Pearson owns The Computer Center, Janesville. He is a Microsoft Certified Professional and a frequent author and speaker on cybersecurity and safety topics.
Even with T-Mobile and Sprint’s merger, the conversion will take some time. T-Mobile has publicly made a commitment to provide 5G access to “99% of Americans” over the next six years.1 When choosing a provider, however, it is essential to review their current coverage map, especially as it relates to 5G.
Let us get this out of the way first. No provider or operating system (Android or Apple’s iOS) will provide 100 percent security for smartphones and users right out of the box. Just as with personal computers, security is as much a function of behavior as it is of a manufacturer’s smartphone design.
If you are security conscious, here are some things to consider when further researching your next smartphone purchase.
Both iOS and Android device manufacturers are constantly improving security and take it very seriously. Look for items such as facial recognition, PIN password protection, and frequent security patches. Apple’s iOS devices have generally been considered more secure because of Apple’s tight control over the operating system, vetting of apps, and sandboxing (not allowing applications to access data from each other).
Because nobody owns the Android OS (Google developed it but released the code as open source), manufacturers are free to apply it how they see fit. This means that there are fewer standards and that updates and patches are up to each individual phone manufacturer. So, while being a significantly more customizable experience on smartphones, Android’s OS has traditionally been considered less secure out of the box than devices with the Apple iOS.
Improved Camera Technology
Smartphone camera quality and features continue to improve this year. Most devices now have at least two separate rear-facing cameras, with as many as four. How do multiple cameras affect the quality of photos? Unlike traditional cameras, phone cameras are limited by size. Therefore, features such as wide-angle, low-light, and telephoto lenses must be implemented as separate lenses, instead of one larger adjustable lens such as on 35MM SLR cameras.
Each lens on a phone is designed for a different function, such as a telephoto lens. This means that the lens takes a picture using the telephoto lens settings instead of using digital zoom, resulting in a significantly higher quality image.
Further, phones with multiple cameras can use all the lenses at once and combine the images to create a truly stunning photo.
While all the phones have better cameras than before, if you are a shutterbug, choosing one with multiple built-in cameras is the way to go. On the accompanying table, phones with multiple cameras are designated 12/12/48 in the format column. This indicates three separate lenses rated at 12, 12, and 48 megapixels (MP). A whole article could be written on camera quality, so if this feature is important to you, be sure to do additional research, focusing on lenses and how the phone uses each of the built-in cameras.
Battery life is a tricky one to rate.2 For one thing, each manufacturer’s ratings are often marketing based, using terms such as “up to 3 days without a recharge.” But how you use your phone is what truly determines how quickly the battery drains. Additionally, settings such as screen brightness, screen-lock timeout, and application background usage all affect battery life.
In the comparison table I have listed an additional column this year that shows battery life. Whenever possible, I have indicated the phone’s battery life based on video-streaming usage. When independent testers review smartphones, they typically run software that emulates a consistent heavy usage similar to this. The battery size is also a good indication of battery life. A larger battery typically means longer battery life but also increases a phone’s overall weight and size.
Click on the image to view larger table.
The Field: Performance
Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max ($1,099) – Best overall performance.
Samsung Galaxy Note 20 5G ($999) – Snapdragon 865+ processor and battery make for a good performance phone.
OnePlus 8 Pro ($799) – The Snapdragon 865 processor makes this a fast phone.
The Field: Battery Life
OnePlus 8 and 8 Pro ($499-799) – Best overall battery life.
Google Pixel 5 ($699) – Gets high battery-life ratings with good overall features.
Motorola Moto G Power ($249) – The price can’t be beat.
The Field: Camera Quality
Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra 5g ($1,299) – With a 108MP camera, this is the winner.
Apple iPhone 12 Pro ($999) – Lots of great technology besides the three cameras.
The Field: Price
Motorola Moto G Power ($249) – The most economical on this year’s list.
Google Pixel 4a with 5G ($499) – Great value in a 5G Phone.
You can still purchase a new phone this year with monthly payments and no interest. If you are a budding photographer, then look for a phone with multiple cameras to get the greatest range of features such as telephoto and wide-angle lenses. For battery life, turn to Motorola’s Moto series and OnePlus models. Best overall performance goes to Apple’s iPhone 12 and 12 Pro and Samsung’s Galaxy Note 20 Ultra.
If 5G coverage is your main concern, be sure to review your carrier’s coverage map to ensure 5G availability in your area. Even if the coverage is not there now, if you typically don’t swap phones every year, then you’re likely to see speed improvements within the next three years regardless of your carrier.
Cite to 94. Wis. Law. 39-42 (January 2021).
Meet Our Contributors
How did you find your way to your current position?
I started working for The Computer Center in 1999. I began as an engineer and taught computer classes. In 2009 I purchased the company from the founder. Like any small business owner, I wear a lot of hats. Juggling all the responsibilities can get a little hectic at times and deciding where I need to focus my energy to move our company forward is always the key. Sometimes it’s sales and marketing, sometimes I must focus on improving operational and service delivery issues, and sometimes I need to step back and work on my business instead of in it.
When I started in the IT industry, I had no idea that I would have to become a security expert, a phone expert, and even a signage expert. Everything is connected these days, and that means that IT professionals must know a little bit about everything. I’m constantly studying and learning. It is a never-ending process.
My family moved to Appleton when I was in the sixth grade. I graduated from Appleton West High School and still consider Appleton my childhood home. I love the Fox Cities area. Now that I live in southern Wisconsin, I enjoy my annual getaway at the Grand Geneva in March. I’m truly a nerd at heart, and the Grand Geneva has hosted the Gary Con convention for the past several years.
James Pearson, The Computer Center, Janesville.
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1 T-Mobile/Sprint Merger.
2 Battery life based on video playback or lowest number. Whenever possible results were taken from https://www.gsmarena.com/battery-test.php3.