REVIEW: The best and worst phones I've ever had both came in 2016

Samsung Galaxy S7. (Image: Samsung)

Compared to a few years ago, smartphone users are spoilt for choice. There’s a myriad of Android handsets out there, with some Chinese brands chipping away at Samsung’s long-time lead in the market.

As such, I was fortunate enough to try this year both a Samsung Galaxy S7 and Oppo R9 to sample the competition. As a long-time HTC and Sony devotee, I was excited to expand my horizons with extended use of these two handsets.

It was something of a surprise that I had completely opposite experiences with each.

It’s the best, Jerry, the best

The Samsung Galaxy S7 and its larger model Galaxy S7 Edge were released in March to critical acclaim. However, the critics also loved the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 upon release – and history now shows the model was discontinued after just a couple of months because of its tendency to light up in flames.

So I put the Galaxy S7 through three months of everyday use before making a judgment. And I’m glad to report it did not catch fire and is still a winner.

First, the feel of the phone in your hand is very solid – the metallic feel you expect in a high-end device but without it being heavy. The smooth aluminium blends with the front glass to make up a unit without any plastic trimmings, and the tactility of the buttons is very satisfying.

Second – and perhaps the feature that impresses me the most – is that the camera takes outstanding pictures. In fact, the crispness of the images are often better than what I can get on my dedicated high-end compact camera.

Indoor shot on Samsung Galaxy S7 – downsized due to website limitations. (Image: Tony Yoo)
Daytime shot on Samsung Galaxy S7 – downsized due to website limitations. (Image: Tony Yoo)

During a trip to the freezing Mongolian countryside in October, my regular camera broke down (presumably from the wind and snow) so the Galaxy S7’s dual-pixel 12MP camera had to come to the rescue as the backup device. I would probably argue from the results that no one would guess the photos were taken from a smartphone unless explicitly told.

Such hazardous conditions also reminded me that the S7 is water and dust resistant. Although I’m too nervous to submerge any phone underwater to take photos, my S7 worked like a charm in negative temperatures with snow pelting down horizontally.

Snow shot on Samsung Galaxy S7 – downsized due to website limitations. (Image: Tony Yoo)
Night shot on Samsung Galaxy S7 – downsized due to website limitations. (Image: Tony Yoo)

Taking all those lovely pictures turned our attention to the screen. The quality of Samsung quad-HD Super AMOLED is high enough that those same photos look stunning with vivid colours and brightness. The 2560 x 1440 resolution over 5.1-inches mean pixelation should never be an issue.

The hardware performance is on-par with what you’d get in other high-end phones around the $1,000 mark. The software environment is very clean, with only a few Samsung apps thrown in on top of the default Android offerings. However, for novice users the existence of a separate Galaxy Apps market in addition to the normal Google Play maybe confusing.

Having used the Sony Xperia range in recent years, I have become accustomed to excellent battery life. I once used my Xperia Z3 Compact for four days without charging, and this spoils one’s expectations for other brands.

The Galaxy S7’s battery performance was okay, although it helped that I switched off the much-hyped always-on display. Most days I could get away with not charging overnight, but it can be a struggle to finish comfortably on a day with heavy GPS or internet use.

All in all, the initial reviews of the Galaxy S7 proved to be correct. The Samsung device is almost flawless and I couldn’t ask for anything more than a minor request for Sony-like battery life.

The worst… ever

So what about the Oppo R9? Out of all the smartphones I’ve used — cheap and expensive — it is easily the worst. I was intending to use it for at least a couple of months but had to abandon it after just a few weeks of what can only be described as a nightmare experience.

Chinese manufacturer Oppo launched the R9 this year, at a similar time to the Galaxy S7, to pitch it as a lower-priced alternative to the more expensive high-end offerings from Korean, Japanese and American rivals.

And no doubt it is a great looking phone and takes nice photos. But there are several major flaws that made it no better than a $600 paperweight.

Firstly, Oppo’s customised operating system ColorOS has so many shortcomings that all the minor faults add up to a major problem. One prime example is the inability to easily turn the phone from full-volume ring to vibrate-only mode to silent mode. In fact, one has to navigate into the settings to switch the phone to silent mode – a practical pain-point for all but the most narcissistic users.

Oppo R9. (Source: Oppo)

Secondly, notifications do not work properly. I found myself missing incoming text messages and reminders from apps because no notification would appear. This is after ensuring numerous times that no notifications from any app had been blocked or switched off.

What can you say about a smartphone that can’t do what your old Nokia did in the 1990s and actually tell you when you receive a message?

These are two basic problems that make using a smartphone an absolute chore and make your life harder, not easier. I was forced to abandon the R9 after I missed one too many messages from the boss. Not good times.

So that was the rollercoaster ride that was 2016 with the best phone I’ve ever had and the worst. May I wish you a new year filled with only awesome smartphones.

The Samsung Galaxy S7 review unit was purchased by the journalist. The Oppo R9 unit was provided by Oppo.

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