The battle of the big smartphones: Which one rules them all?

by Peter Griffin / 26 October, 2018
Samsung note 9

The Samsung Galaxy Note 9 smartphone and S-Pen stylus. Photo/Getty.

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It used to be that you had to use two hands to hold a big-screen smartphone, which a few years ago garnered the unappealing moniker of ‘phablet’.

The idea was that those wanting lots of screen space while retaining the mobility of a smartphone would get the best of both worlds – tablet and phone.

But phone makers have figured out how to squeeze large screens into smaller form factors, largely by reducing the bezel around the screen and pushing the display towards the phone’s edges. As such, we’ve seen the rise of a class of smartphone that feature a display six inches in size and over, but which in the hand, don’t feel that much larger than a standard phone.

Why go big?

A display over the six-inch mark is going to be great for watching movies and TV shows, which I’m increasingly doing on my phone. Mobile gamers will also appreciate a larger screen. Photography enthusiasts will enjoy the extra screen real estate for reviewing the contents of their photo gallery.

With less mass appeal is the split-screen option many phones now offer, which let you have two or more apps displayed at once – which will always look better on a larger screen. As we spend more time on our phones and less on desktop and laptop computers, the large-format smartphone is becoming a viable replacement for all sorts of applications, hence their growing appeal.

Super-sized options

Samsung Note 9

The reigning champion in big Android phones, despite the debacle over the exploding and discontinued Note 7, remains the Note ‘phablet’. But hungry competitors are snapping at its heals.

The Note 9, with a 6.4 inch screen, takes most of the same hardware attributes of Samsung’s flagship Galaxy S9+ and introduces a larger, more angular body, a bigger battery (4,000mAh) and more storage. I was impressed with the Galaxy S9 and S9+ when they debuted in March, so the Note 9, which incorporates many of the same core features, is off to a good start.

The key defining feature of the Note is the yellow (so it’s harder to lose) S-Pen stylus, that pops out of the bottom to let you scribble on the screen with remarkable accuracy, as well as control apps and the camera.

How important is the fancy pen? Well, if you are a big note taker and want to free yourself from paper, it is remarkably useful – the screen is easy to scribble on. You can even take quick notes without turning the screen on with the Screen-off Memo function. The S-Pen also assists your general phone navigation, letting you zoom in on a webpage or move between apps. It is Bluetooth-enabled so can also function as a remote control for your phone.

The most handy function here is using it to control the phone’s cameras, meaning you can step away from the camera and pose for shots, without having to use a timer or dreaded selfie-stick. If you are game to try and run a slide presentation from your phone, the stylus, which fully recharges in less than a minute when inserted into the Note 9, becomes an effective clicker to move through your slide deck.

Pros:
The S-Pen is a productivity booster
Great battery life and storage options
Excellent camera and screen quality

Cons:
Chunkier and less stylish than the S9+
Extra dimensions add cost and weight

Bottom line: The best option for Samsung power-users who want more than a day’s usage between charges, who will make use of the S-Pen and need a lot of storage. For everyone else, the S9+ has almost identical specifications in all other respects and is a tad easier to wield.

Price $1,699

Huawei mate pro

Huawei Mate 20 Pro in various colourways.

Huawei Mate 20 Pro

Last year’s Mate 10 Pro really saw Huawei’s phone design quality leap forward. A year on, it looks surprisingly dated, compared to the new Mate 20 Pro and after the hugely successful launch in April of the P20 Pro, which won rave reviews for its design and camera quality. With the P20 Pro such an attractive and well-priced option for what it packs in, why would you go for the Mate 20 Pro?

Well, there’s plenty more to like in the phone that has only a slightly bigger screen than the P20 Pro (6.39 vs 6.1 inch). The quad HD display (made by Samsung) offers much better resolution than the P20 Pro (1080p) and is unencumbered by the lip at the bottom of the P20 Pro, which contains the fingerprint reader and home button. Instead, the Mate 20 Pro houses the fingerprint scanner under the screen, giving you more screen real estate. There’s a sacrifice made there – the optical sensor isn’t as quick as a dedicated pad. But the Mate’s 3D face scanner is much faster for unlocking the phone anyway.

The Mate 20 Pro has one of the fastest processors on the market, the Kirin 980, which really pays off with great performance and fast-loading apps. The processor performs very well in benchmarking tests.

The camera set-up is really an evolution of the P20 Pro’s three camera configuration on the rear. Given the success of that technology, you wouldn’t expect a radical overhaul. But the cameras are mounted in a square configuration in the rear of the phone, rather than along the top right of the P20 Pro, which I personally prefer.

You have a 40-megapixel main camera, an 8-mega pixel telephoto lens and a 20-megapixel ultra-wide camera. They all work in concert when taking photos and use so-called ‘pixel-binning’, just like the P20 Pro camera. There’s no faulting the resulting photos: The Mate makes producing great results easy, the same Huawei artificial intelligence adjusting based on what you are photographing, and the performance of the camera in low light settings is again, particularly impressive.

The Mate 20 Pro has a few other interesting aspects, including the type of curved glass on the sides that the Samsung Galaxy Edge made famous. Introducing wireless charging for the first time, Huawei also introduce a neat new feature – reverse wireless charging. When enabled, simply place another Qi wireless charging-capable phone, like an iPhone or Galaxy S9 to the back of the Mate 20 Pro and you can charge it from the Mate’s battery. That battery has a hefty 4200 mAh capacity, so you’ll have juice to spare.

Pros:

Reverse wireless charging
Fantastic camera
High-performance processor
Huge battery

Cons:
EMUI [Huawei’s user interface] software underwhelms

Bottom line: More of an upgrade on the P20 Pro than the year-old Mate 10 and around the same dimensions as the P20 Pro too. The Mate 20 Pro improves the recipe ever so slightly while refining the phone’s build quality further, with nice touches like the curved screen and sleek case. At $1,499 the Mate 20 Pro currently delivers the best value on the market at the premium end.

Price: $1,499

iPhone XS Max

Now that the initial furore over the $1,899 entry-level price of Apple’s iPhone XS has died down, Apple fan(atics) are doing what they do – staying loyal and upgrading.

If you loved the larger format iPhone 8 Plus, the iPhone XS Max will be right up your street, though again the $2,099 starting price will need to be seriously contemplated. When it comes to the technology, you are getting a better package in some Android rivals for $500 less. That’s the premium Apple commands at the top of the market.

But what you do get is stunning. I reviewed the iPhone XS here. The specs for the XS Max are identical, the key difference being the 6.5 inch screen on the Max, versus the 5.8 inch XS.

It is a big phone, but not dramatically bigger (and only four grams heavier) than the iPhone 8 Plus. For Apple’s biggest phone, you get a great new stainless steel and glass body reminiscent of the now discontinued iPhone X, and one that’s a significant improvement on the iPhone 8 Plus. There’s a luscious True Tone OLED display and support for 3D Touch, where you can press on the screen to activate various functions.

Under the glass sits Apple’s new A12 Bionic processor which has taken iPhone performance to a new level of competitiveness with much improved graphics performance and power efficiency.

The XS Max has a significantly improved dual-camera set-up on the rear, with a larger pixel size than the iPhone X, which serves to let in more light when taking photos. That equates to better low-light photography, an area Apple has been overtaken in during the past year.

The photography software also has some new flourishes, such as ‘Smart HDR’ which takes multiple shots at different exposures, stitching the shots together to give you the best single result, and the ability to adjust background blur in portrait mode shots. The stereo speakers have also had an upgrade.

The big question for big-screen fans is whether the iPhone XR with a respectable 6.1 inch display and much reduced price tag ($1,399) will offer a compelling enough alternative to Apple fans who like to go large. It has just debuted in New Zealand this week.

Pros:
Great form factor
Improved camera
High-performance processor

Cons:
Expensive!
64GB storage is tight

Bottom line: Apple was late to the big phone game, but the iPhone 7 Plus and 8 Plus models did well and you can expect the iPhone XS Max to have similar appeal, despite the hefty price tag. It really is a triumph of phone making after the bar was set very high by last year’s iPhone X. But if you are less obsessed with photography and screen quality, there’s plenty of action down market with the new iPhone XR and the older 7 Plus and 8 Plus models still in play and offering very good value.

Price: $2,099

The Oppo Find X in Bordeaux Red.

Oppo Find X

If Huawei has led the charge against Samsung locally, a new challenger is also proving it means business in smartphone design. Oppo has released the most intriguing phone of the year in the Find X.

At $1,499 it debuts at the same price as the Huawei Mate 20 Pro and is the same size (6.4 inches). The most notable difference with the Find X is the lack of a camera mount on the back. Instead, you tap on the camera icon to raise the camera from behind the screen.

That gives the Find X a major advantage over its rivals – there’s no notch needed atop the screen to house cameras and the back of the phone is completely smooth and uninterrupted. The display also has a tiny bezel around it, giving the Find X one of the largest screen-to-body ratios on the market (93.8%).

The Find X has a substantial, high quality glass finish to it, available in “Bordeaux Red” or “Glacier Blue”, so is right up there with Samsung and Huawei on body design.

But that pop-up mechanism has its drawbacks too. It also houses the camera’s sensors so if, for instance, you want to use facial recognition to unlock the phone, you have to wait for it to pop-up. It is pretty quick, but nevertheless not as quick as its rivals. It also means Oppo can’t offer the same waterproof rating (IP68) as other smartphone makers.

Elsewhere, you have a high performance phone powered by the Snapdragon 845 processor and with 8GB of RAM. The separate graphics processor Adreno 630 GPU is one of the best-rated around, so if you are into gaming, this could be the phone for you.

That housing that whirs up at the touch of a button includes two rear-facing cameras (16MP + 20MP) and a 25MP selfie camera. They do a solid job, but in the camera department, the Find X lacks the overall finesse of the Mate 20 Pro and setting options aren’t as extensive.

Crucially, Oppo has left out a number of features you’ll get from the competition, such as wireless charging, a microSD expandable memory slot, a fingerprint scanner and that waterproof coating.

Given those omissions, you really need to be sold by the Oppo’s novel design and focus on delivering an unencumbered screen for videos and gaming.

Pros:
Great design
Pop-up camera is unique
Impressive screen to body ratio (93.8%)

Cons:
No wireless charging
No expandable memory
No waterproof certification
No fingerprint scanner

Price: $1,499

Bottom line: Oppo has shown its ambition with the Find X and in performance terms, it matches or outclasses the rest of the pack. But its lack of handy little features we’ve come to expect as standard holds it back and it is yet to be seen if the pop-up camera, as a rare moving part that could fail, will find widespread acceptance.

Which is best?

We are spoilt rotten for high-performing, big-screen phones at the moment.

In the Apple camp, the XS Max is the king of the iPhones, but it has a price to match, which will lead some to hold fire on upgrading until they check out the iPhone XR ($1,399). That phone offers a larger screen than the standard iPhone SX, but the lower price means making sacrifices. Most notably, those include a lower-quality display, less sophisticated camera and the build quality isn’t as luxurious. The iPhone 8 Plus is also still on sale and makes for a compelling package at $1,299.

When it comes to Android phones, the competition is intensifying, which is great for consumers. Samsung’s Note 9 is the ultimate work phone, though the Galaxy S9+, which still has a 6.2 inch screen, cleaves away some of the heft for easier carrying.

Huawei has had a great year, first with the P20 Pro’s camera advancements and now with the Mate 20 Pro, which is more an evolution of the P20 Pro than its predecessor the Mate 10. Oppo has made a statement with the Find X, but it has too many technical omissions for me.

Other players, such as Nokia and Motorola are refining their wares with Android handsets and should feature more prominently next year and maybe we’ll finally see Google’s own Pixel 3 phone on sale here.

The options for a high-performance, big screen phone around the $1,500 mark are impressive.

The Huawei Mate 20 Pro is my top pick in the Android field and I’d be looking to the newly released iPhone XR as a more affordable option if I was an Apple user.

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