From James Bond’s mobile to the latest ‘phablet’, Steve Dinneen reviews new innovations in smartphone technology.

There’s a growing argument in the tech world that we’ve reached “peak smartphone” – that the decade-and-a-half-long period of rapid innovation, which took us from the Nokia 3310 to the current crop of Swiss Army Phones, is slowing to a gentle canter.

The days when a new phone could really blow us away are gone. Even Apple’s new iPhones – once cause for people to camp outside stores for days on end – tend to have only one or two new blockbuster features.

Most manufacturers have settled on a roughly five-inch glass touchscreen cased in metal, with as few physical buttons as possible. And while this makes things a little dull for reviewers, it’s generally a good thing for the consumer – it means failed experiments such as Blackberry’s ludicrous square Passport handset are few and far between.

Apple’s iOS hasn’t changed dramatically since the release of iOS 7 in 2013, and while Google’s Android has been steadily improving, the updates aren’t exactly monumental. Rival operating systems such as Microsoft’s Windows Phone and Blackberry’s OS 10 are now dead men walking, making up a combined 0.9 per cent of the market.

All of this means that consumers can afford to be super-picky about their phones. Once we’ve splashed out on a new contract or bought a new phone, we can be fairly confident it will last at least a couple of years (this is backed up by sales, with Apple expected to shift fewer iPhones in 2016 than the previous year for the first time in a decade).

In this world of increasingly homogenous phones, what are the features that make a difference? Let’s start with security, which, largely thanks to the FBI managing to hack an iPhone, has become big news. Most high-end devices now come with some form of biometric security – Apple started the trend with its Touch ID fingerprint scanner, which first appeared on the iPhone 5s back in 2013, and the technology has since been adopted by everyone from Samsung to Sony.

This not only makes unlocking your phone incredibly easy, it has also been integrated into Apple Pay and Samsung Pay, which allows you to buy things from contactless readers in a way that’s more secure than a contactless bank card. Phones such as Microsoft’s Lumia 950 also feature an iris scanner for unlocking, although this isn’t anywhere near as reliable. Yet.

More cutting edge is the concept of the “modular phone”, which allows users to customise hardware to suit their needs. If you take lots of photos but don’t play many games, for example, you might benefit from prioritising your phone’s camera over the latest processor. Google has long been plotting this with Project Ara, the first instalment of which is expected later this year, but it was beaten to the punch by LG, which released its modular G5, allowing you to yank off the bottom 2cm of the handset and clip on extra modules. Modular is a nascent market and there’s no guarantee it will catch on, but it’s an exciting prospect.

Other new features include 4K screens, as pioneered by Sony on its Z5 Premium handset, which packs in more pixels than the human eye can even detect. Apple has experimented with what it calls 3D Touch, a pressure-sensitive screen that allows you to “half press” to bring up further options (essentially a right click for the 21st century). Rumour has it that Samsung is working on its own version, which could see the technology move into the mainstream.


The first modular phone to hit the market, the 5.3-inch LG G5 is a big gamble in a generally risk-averse market. The headline feature allows you to remove the bottom of the phone and clip on hardware accessories, which include the LG Hi-Fi Plus (a digital to analogue convertor and headphone amp developed with Bang and Olufsen, £149) and the LG Cam Plus (a camera grip with additional buttons, £69). It’s also a great phone in its own right, with a decent processor, dual cameras and a universal infrared remote to control your TV.

Huawei P9

This Chinese giant has been threatening to break into the UK market for years and the 5.2-inch P9 is its best attempt yet. Its headline feature is its dual 12-megapixel cameras, developed alongside German photography legend Leica. The design sails close to iPhone 6 territory, with a metal chassis and rounded edges. The screen is fine but not extraordinary, and it loses points for the Huawei-skinned Android operating system, which adds a bunch of pointless apps and removes some of Android Marshmallow’s useful features.

Nextbit Robin

New smartphone manufacturers are to be treated with extreme caution; there’s a reason why Apple and Samsung dominate the market. But Nextbit’s 5.2-inch Robin is an interesting, if niche, proposition. Its big selling point is storage. Its solution is to integrate onboard and cloud storage, to a total of 132GB. The handset itself is smart, with a minimalist design in eye-catching teal, a dual front speaker and an adequate screen and processor that will get you by. It also comes with an unlockable bootloader, so you can cherry-pick your phone’s operating system.

HTC 10

HTC has created its most attractive phone yet, a metal monolith with sports car-esque curves – available in black, silver or gold – that combines great processing speed, a decent screen and new hi-fi system with speakers at the top and bottom of the phone. It’s a jack of all trades that does everything well but doesn’t quite lead the pack in anything. It deserves special praise for using what’s been branded “Vanilla Android”, which does away with the annoying skins and duplicated apps that you see on phones from Samsung, LG, Huawei et al.

Apple iPhone SE

Apple is taking things all the way back to 2012 with a smaller than average four-inch device in the same chassis as the iPhone 5. If you’re used to chunkier phones it may feel like a toy but it packs in some serious hardware, including an excellent rear-facing camera and the ability to shoot 4K video. If you want the power of a high-end Apple phone but don’t want to lug around a mini tablet, this could be the one for you. The biggest downside is the maximum 64GB of storage (£439), which fills up if you take a lot of selfies or download movies. A new iPhone is set to be released this autumn but details about it were unclear as we went to press.

Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge

With the Galaxy S6 Edge, Samsung created the definitive Android handset. This 5.5-inch update doesn’t try to reinvent that wheel, instead augmenting it with some nifty new features. It looks almost identical to the S6 Edge, with a glass front and back and a beautiful curved screen – this is second to none, with dark blacks and rich, vivid colours. It’s also lightning fast, behind only the iPhone 6 in most real-world tests. If you’re an Android guy or gal, this is the best phone out there.

Sony Xperia Z5 Premium

Following hot on the heels of the Xperia Z3+ comes the… Xperia Z5 Premium. The official mobile phone of James Bond is a solid update from the Japanese company, with a beautiful 5.5-inch display, a powerful selection of hardware, a side-mounted fingerprint scanner and a sleek, minimalist design available in black, chrome and blingy yellow gold. The Z5 Premium is also waterproof, with capped edges so if you drop it, the exterior won’t shatter, and it has a 4K screen – although you can’t really tell because your eyes aren’t sharp enough.

Google Nexus 6P

The 6P is a well kitted-out 5.7-inch “phablet” with a rear-mounted fingerprint scanner that’s placed where you naturally hold the device. It runs the latest version of Android (Marshmallow) and runs it like Google intended, which is far more user-friendly than the skins most companies insist on overlaying. It’s well constructed with a nice screen, but some of the hardware specs are a fraction off the pace, as is its camera. If you’re looking for a mid-priced Android phablet, this will more than cater to most people’s needs.