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Summary:

From phones that can take pictures underwater to handsets with larger screens in a small phone body, the quality of design in current Android flagships is at an all-time high.

Xperia ZR water

Has there ever been a better time to choose among the newest Android handsets? I think not. Yes, there have been several standouts from different manufacturers over the past few years, but the stars are aligning — or maybe it’s just the competition heating up — to raise the bar for many of the major Android phone makers.

Take the new Sony Xperia ZR, for example, which is a smaller version of the company’s flagship Xperia Z. This 4.6-inch 720p device is not only safe from accidental drops in water, but it can be used to capture full HD video while submerged. Don’t get all Jacques Cousteau with it though: The Xperia ZR is only rated for depths of 1.5 meters for up to 30 minutes. Still, it’s an amazing design feature and shows just how far smartphone hardware is maturing in general.

The current market isn’t just about features though. Nearly every flagship phone released this year to date shares most, if not all of the same hardware components. With 1080p displays, Qualcomm Snapdragon S600 processors, and the latest wireless technologies supported, purchasing choices could be influenced more by phone design. Sure, there are also Android skins and services to consider, but I can’t think of any time in history when nearly every flagship phone had such smart design.

HTC OneTake the HTC One, for example. With it’s curved metal body and super build quality, it’s a sure standout from the many plastic phones on the market. My colleague, Om Malik — an iPhone user that never met an Android phone he liked — actually for the first time considered buying Android phone after seeing the One. (Don’t worry Apple fans, Om hasn’t defected: He still doesn’t own an Android!).

Need more examples? Sony’s Xperia Z — the big brother of the new ZR — is stunning as well with a 5-inch full HD screen and no hardware buttons on the front face. The side-mounted power button is a design stand-out as is the 7.9 millimeter thinness. It too impressed Om.

Samsung’s new Galaxy S 4 is arguably a hardware let-down for many, yet it still impresses me that the company could cram a larger, high-resolution panel in a phone that looks like the Galaxy S 3, but is essentially a smaller device. LG’s Optimus G Pro shares similar features and components with all of the above yet feels and looks like a much-improved Galaxy Note 2. All of these are light-years better than my original ugly duckling — the Nexus One — when it comes to design.

I’m not suggesting that any of these phones is “best” or that you should opt for a flagship device over a lower-priced smartphone. Instead, my point is this: With so few top-tier hardware component suppliers, most high-end handsets share a similar feature-set. There may be subtle differences — which has a better camera sensor or maybe support for that new 802.11ac Wi-Fi — but most of these phones offer similar experiences.

Up to this point, hardware makers put more effort to differentiate with Android skins, services or other software functions. These days, design is becoming more prominent. For consumers looking for their next flagship Android phone, that’s a great problem to have.

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  1. What’s the hardware “let-down” for the S4? That it’s plastic? That it’s not a mind-blowing improvement over the excellent S3? About the only real negative I’ve heard is that the pre-installed software takes up too much space, and I’d consider that a software issue.

    You’re overall point though is good–there are a lot of good choices right now. Hopefully that improve further before the week is out!

  2. What about water resistance and unbreakable phone combination?

    1. I probably should look up the specs on the Sony phones before saying this, but I doubt you could have a waterproof phone with a removable battery, and the latter is a must have feature for me.

      And in any case, if my phone ends up in the water, it’s probably the toilet, so I really won’t care that it’s waterproof. ;-)

      1. My SE mini has a wrist strap slot. Why do the high priced new Android phones not have one?

  3. I find it rather interesting that bloggers and writers talk about Android hardware as though the hardware (be it stellar or mediocre). Couldn’t have been made without the Android OS.? How does the “Sony’s water resistant Xperia ZR show why now is a great time for Android”? I mean what has android got to do with it other than the manufacturer has elected to use Android. Isn’t it a case of manufacturing refinement and the fact that there are more players on the market?

    Just wondering.

  4. I find it rather interesting that bloggers and writers talk about Android hardware as though the hardware (be it stellar or mediocre) couldn’t have been made without the Android OS. How does the Sony’s water resistant Xperia ZR show why now is a great time for Android? I mean what has android got to do with it other than the manufacturer has elected to use Android. Isn’t it a case of manufacturing and design refinement/innovation and the fact that there are more players on the market?

    Just wondering.

    1. I think the point attempted to be made by the author is that it’s a great time to be in the market for an Android phone. That the selection of Android phones is really good right now. So it’s directed at those limiting their choices to Android, not that Android made the choices possible.

      That point could be made that it’s because of Android this hardware is possible. But for Apple’s restrictive policies, you probably could buy an IOS phone with NFC, a removable battery, IR, a physical keyboard or even a different size screen. Because of Apple’s restrictive policies, you can’t. That’s not the fault of the OS though, and that’s not the point the author was trying to make.

      1. The second paragraph should have started: “The point could be made . . ..”

      2. Kary, The Xperia ZR is Waterproof AND has a removable battery.

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