You wouldn’t guess it from online forums that are ripe with complaints from consumers, but we are in the golden age of industrial design for our personal electronics, namely smartphones. Spoiled with options, flush with cutting-edge technology, we take these slabs of glass and metal for granted, but it’s one of the most resource and design intensive industries, and things are really heating up between Samsung, Apple, and Google. All three companies released new versions of their flagship smartphones this year, and while packing similar technology, they’re packaged in different ways, and we’d say there are clear design distinctions.
Apple’s new iPhone X comes on the 10th anniversary of the original iPhone, a device that undeniably charted a course for all smartphones, and pioneered a lot of the touch technology that we take for granted. iPhone X is a bezel-less slab of glass with a fullscreen OLED panel, save for a notch cut out of the top. We were surprised Apple embraced this notch design, but they’ve integrated it well, and it supposedly is a thing of beauty in person. The phone has both glass on front and back, with a shiny stainless steel band in the middle. The glass back allows for wireless charging, a feature that Apple was slow to integrate. Eschewing a fingerprint sensor for a state-of-the-art facial recognition system is perhaps the most controversial part of the design. Said to be more secure than fingerprints, we’re unsure how readily the new face scanning technology will be adopted. In our geeky reading, we’ve learned Apple is at least 2.5 years ahead of the competition in this technology.
Apple has long been the design leader of the pack, but lately Samsung has devoted deep resources to style and engineer their devices beautifully. Their latest, the Galaxy S8, has a very attractive form factor, with a screen that wraps the edge of the device, in what they call an “infinity screen”. They’ve moved the fingerprint scanner on the back of the device, similar to Google’s move. In making up for their fire-prone S7’s from last year, Samsung earns strong design marks on this iteration. Indeed, Samsung adopted the industry’s most rigorous safety review procedures after their debacle last year, making us confident that the S8 won’t catch on fire. Also, considering Samsung manufactures most of the world’s OLED panels, we’re confident that their technology is solid.
Google is still new in the hardware arena, and their Pixel 2 shows it. While also packed with technology, the form factor is a bit of a let down, with more of a bezeled design, and a less-than-premium look. Playful touches like colorful side buttons are cute, but doesn’t carry the same elegant look as it’s rivals. In a bit of an embarrassing move, Google removed the headphone jack on this year’s Pixel 2, after widely teasing Apple’s removal from their iPhone 7. Considered to have the best camera of the bunch, plus industry-leading AI, Google may make up for their design shortcomings with great software and functionality.
Obviously style can be subjective, but when judged on fit and finish and overall visual appeal, we think the Galaxy S8 and the iPhone X are just about tied. Google comes in 3rd, with a design that doesn’t look as polished or mature as the others. And yes, there are additional companies making great hardware, like LG and others, but for this comparison, we chose the three most popular brands.
We’re curious how the sales of these devices will pan out, whether Google will catch up to Samsung and Apple in sales, and whether emphasis on great design will impact other areas of consumer electronics even further.