Survival of the Fittest – Evolution of Flagship Design Over the Years
Each passing year has seen a constant slew of devices being released, each packing the latest hardware features combined with the freshest Android release out of Mountain View, and with mainstream processors dominating the mobile scene, very little sets apart these flagships from each other.
One of the major deciding factors in this neck-and-neck race has come to be the design and external aesthetics of the flagship devices, with a variety of techniques such as premium materials, streamlined shapes and comfortable form factors being employed to woo end-users, and while most flagships today have a lot to offer, all things weren’t as they are. Let’s take a look at what changed over the years in each flagship lineup, what stayed persistent across each iteration, what crashed and burned in terms of flagship design, and what shaped up the family of devices into the proud frontrunners that dominate the market today.
Google’s flagship lineup of devices running pure vanilla Android have always held a soft spot in every enthusiasts’ heart, and rightly so, with each year’s iteration providing top-of-the-line specs and the latest firmware from the Googleplex, almost always at an affordable price point. However, the Nexus lineup only hit its stride in product design after the launch of the Nexus 5, with its predecessors’ consistency, or lack thereof, failing to build a strong identity.
The Nexus 5 brought a soft-touch body with it, and while this was initially met with mixed reactions after the breathtaking beauty of the glass on the Nexus 4, consumers gradually grew to love it given its durability, grip and matte finish. The same soft-touch matte finish persisted across the Nexus 7 2013, Nexus 6, Nexus 9 and even the Nexus 5X, with the Nexus 6P deviating away from it in favor of a more premium metal body.
The Moto X 2014 acted as the base model for the Nexus 6, just like the LG G2 did for the Nexus 5, but unlike its predecessor, the Nexus 6 adopted numerous design details from the Moto X. Most of them stayed exclusive to the Nexus 6, but two prominent patterns persisted on to the Nexus 5X and 6P – the front-facing speakers, and the ridged power button. While the former is becoming increasingly prominent across a large range of flagships, Motorola’s ridged power button is one of the best UX decisions made in hardware design, allowing tactile sensing and differentiation of the power button from the volume buttons, eliminating a fairly common dilemma wherein users press the wrong button the first time.
While minor details are important in their own stead, the design of a product is governed by its shape and form, and it’s taken the Nexus lineup several experiments to find the sweet spot. The Nexus 4 was built with glamorous curves and very rounded corners, with the Nexus 5 packing straight edges and much sharper corners in a stark contrast. Both designs hit either end of the spectrum, with the Nexus 7 2013 and Nexus 6 finding balance in gentle curves, and a corner radius defined by the size of the device.
The Nexus 5 replaced the back-panel speaker of the Nexus 4 with a grilles on either side of the USB port at the bottom of the device, similar to the array on the OnePlus One, and while this was an improvement over its predecessor, it lasted only one generation, eventually giving way to front-facing speakers adopted from Motorola’s lineup. Another design feature that ended that year was the placement of the notification LED. The Nexus 4 and 5 used the space below the screen to provide an RGB notification LED, but the arrival of ambient display on Lollipop with the Nexus 6, combined with the placement of the front-facing speakers led to the relegation of the LED behind the speaker grille, a decision that persisted on this year’s devices as well.
The Galaxy S series is notorious for seemingly reusing hardware designs each year, but the team at Samsung has been gradually defining the look of its flagship lineup, with the S6 and S6 Edge turning out to be among the best looking phones of the year, after falling under three years of heavy criticism. While the overarching look remains true to the consistent look of the lineup, numerous detail refinements are what pushed the S series to this year’s crescendo.
Samsung’s device lineup is almost synonymous with “large home button”, and the iconic button has stayed consistent across every tablet and phone they’ve launched, right from the release of the original Galaxy S. With more and more OEMs opting for softkeys, Samsung stuck by their philosophy amidst a flurry of controversial opinion, with the button finally proving to be somewhat useful this year, doubling up as a fingerprint sensor for the S6, S6 Edge and Note 5.
With more and more OEMs waging a zealous war against bezels, many manufacturer logos have been pushed to the back of the devices, but Samsung has stayed firm and retained its full text logo right above the screen. While this decision may not particularly stick well with consumers, the design team hasn’t wavered and the logo remains as iconic as the home button.
Despite devices being drastically smaller back in the day, Samsung has always placed the power button on the side of the device, and while it was just an aesthetic decision during the days of the original Galaxy S, it proved to be vitally important in the long run as devices kept getting larger, and power buttons on the top of the device became increasingly harder to reach, prompting almost every manufacturer to go the Samsung route.
The Galaxy S and S2 sported generic designs, with the S3 being Samsung’s first step towards defining the design of their flagship’s frame. However, the rounded corners proved to be too much, and the subsequent devices gradually shaved small bits off the corner radius, until the S6 found balance between squarish and rounded corners. The change was gradual, but definitive and produced an aesthetically pleasing and form-fitting result.
The Galaxy S3 and S4 both sported a plain plastic back, and while it seemed appropriate at the time, it was a decision that couldn’t persist as flagship phones targeted more premium looks and materials with the passage of time. The S5 was a step in the right direction with its perforated back, but the finish and the material was not quite there, and it was only this year that the Galaxy S6 went for a premium metal and glass build, matching the flagship feel to the reputation that precedes the lineup.
HTC has hit a stroke of bad luck recently in terms of sales and subsequently, market value, but it’s hard to refute the fact that the Taiwanese OEM produces some of the most elegantly designed devices out there. The Desire lineup sported a very average design, and while the One X was halfway there, the One M7 brought the pivotal changes that set the bar for HTC design, and cemented their status as one of the best-looking device manufacturers.
HTC was one of the first OEMs to bring a premium feel to their flagships in the form of a full-metal build, and the One M7 was met with a tremendous response, with its build and design going on to set the standard for subsequent flagships in the One lineup, with the One M8 and One M9 sporting the same overarching look, with minor detail changes.
Camera and flash placement has stayed same across the past three years for HTC, the only differences being the the addition of a second camera on the M8, which was eliminated in the M9 as it moved away from the circular camera. However, it is interesting to note that the region-specific M9+ retains the round, dual-camera setup as the M8, suggesting that that setup is not something that HTC designers are ready to let go of just yet.
Polar opposite to the Nexus lineup, the One lineup started out with slightly rounded corners on the M7 and exceedingly rounded ones on the M8, with the M9 finding the balance between the two in terms of corners, as well as overall width and height of the device, the M7 being slightly smaller and the M8 being the same size, but narrower and taller.
On the front of the device, all three devices maintain a strikingly consistent look, in terms of camera and speaker placement, and the black bar below the screen with the HTC logo. The only difference comes in the form of the capacitive buttons on the One M7 being abolished from the M8 onwards, in favor of softkeys.
Despite most OEMs moving the power button to the side of the device in favor of a more natural placement following the increasing size of flagships, it wasn’t until this year that HTC took that step, with the M7 and M8 both sporting a hard-to-reach power button on the top edge of the device, and the M9 and M9+ sporting it on the side of the device.
Right up until before the Optimus G, LG was fairing mediocrely in the smartphone sector, but the launch of the Optimus G saw Google turn its eyes to the South Korean OEM, and select it as its hardware partner for the 2012 Nexus phone, the Nexus 4, which turned out to be a raging success. The following year, LG stepped up its game with the G2, and was once again picked to manufacture the Nexus 5, which remains the best selling Nexus device to date. The consecutive selection saw them mature into a widely respected device manufacturer, and since then, device quality and customer satisfaction for the G3 and G4 have been top notch, with LG going to on to become the only manufacturer to be selected for three Nexus partnerships, as it once again went on to build the Nexus 5X.
The launch of the LG G2 saw the design team at LG make a rather strange decision, opting to place the power and volume buttons at the back of the device, instead of the usual side placement. While the decision was met with mixed reactions, it felt natural and allowed LG to reduce bezel side more than ever, persisting the placement on to the G3, G4 and even the newly released v10.
With the lack of front-facing speakers on any LG flagship, the front bottom bezel is blank across all the devices, and LG has persistently chosen this location to place its logo. Despite front facing logos being frowned upon by most enthusiasts, LG carries off their placement gracefully, filling up empty space rather than making room for it and consequently increasing bezel size.
The LG G2 sported a glossy plastic back, which once again, may have been appropriate at the time, but as flagships became more premium and consumer expectations grew, the G3 adopted a faux metal finish, with the G4 and v10 taking things a step further in the form of authentic materials and textures like leather and ceramic.
LG’s flagships, like their peers, gradually grew into a signature frame and form, as handset specifications and consumer expectations changed. The rounded and relatively smaller G2 slowly but steadily shaped up into the beauty that is the v10, growing taller, slightly wider, and losing the rounded corners in favor of sharper ones, resulting in a sleek and premium form factor.
After numerous device launches that were all over the place, Sony fired up the big guns when it launched the Xperia Z line, which has infamously iterated on 6-month cycles, albeit maintaining the same overarching unique look, and instead choosing to focus on minor design details and polish.
The Xperia Z, first of its name, sported a sleek look that made it stand out from the crowd with long straight edges, a squarish look, an edge-to-edge glass body on either side, and Sony’s signature metallic-finish power button, with all these minor details combining to give the device a premium look. This same style has persisted across 5 generations of devices, namely, the Z, Z1, Z2, Z3, Z4/Z3+ and even the latest member of the family, the Xperia Z5.
The Xperia Z1 packed a 5.2″ display, a small increment over its predecessor, a size that has widely been accepted as the sweet spot between phone and phablet. The size reflected well in consumer satisfaction reports, and has since then persisted all the way to the Z5, with Compact and Premium variants offering smaller and larger options respectively.
Despite choosing to place the camera module in the center of many of its sub-flagship devices, the Z series has always had it in the top left corner from the Z1 onwards, with the Xperia Z possessing a slightly off-centered module, between the corner and center of the device. Camera aside, the back panel of the lineup has retained its minimal look over the years, with the Sony logo front and center, and an Xperia logo at the bottom of the panel.
One of Sony’s strongest selling points is the excellent camera that the Xperia Z lineup packs, and the team behind the device design has amplified this by placing a camera button for quick access on the bottom of the right edge of the device. The button allows users to quickly open the camera app, taking Lollipop’s lockscreen camera access to the next level, and has resolute throughout the entire lineup.
The Xperia Z series has retained largely the same design across the years, with minor changes and refinements being the sole factors that separate the devices in the aesthetics department. Technology has allowed each iteration to become lighter and more durable than its predecessor, with polish such as impact-absorbing corners on the Z3 and the expansion of the power button to house a fingerprint sensor on the Z5 making all the difference that there is, and rightly so, with the Sony flagship lineup being one of the best looking families of flagship lineups available.
2013 was a year to remember for Motorola’s smartphone lineup, wherein after years of Droid smartphones, Motorola went all out and made a staggering impact with the launch of the Moto X and then the Moto G. Sporting a completely new design language that went on to persist across three generations of flagships in every budget slab, Motorola’s devices have become synonymous with style and elegance.
The fall of 2013 saw the Moto X hit stores sporting an elegant tapering back panel with a dimple for the Motorola logo, extremely small bezels around the screen, and an arched top edge that worked in synergy with the tapered back. The same visual language, right down to the dimple has been adopted by three years of Moto Xs, Gs, Es, and even the Nexus 6, with minor refinements such as a metallic trim being among the few improvements.
Last year’s devices, including the Nexus 6, pushed for dual front-facing speakers above and below the device screen, and while the tradeoff was an increased bezel size, the design seems to be riveted in place, with not only the 2015 Motorola lineup, but also the 2015 Nexus lineup adopting it.
In addition to the front-facing speakers, another valuable contribution by Motorola has been the ridged power button, another detail that Google has decided to adopt for this year’s Nexus lineup. which allows tactile sensing and differentiation of the power button from the volume buttons, vastly improving the end-user experience.
Despite Motorola’s 2013 lineup sporting a stunningly simple back panel, the Moto X 2014 deviated away from it by increasing the size of the OEM logo, losing some of the elegance in the process, while the second gen iterations of the Moto G and Moto E retained the 2013 look. This year’s design, while consistent across the Moto G, Moto X Play and Moto X Pure, brings yet another deviation from the previous two years’ design, reverting to the original dimple but opting for a vertical, accent-colored strip linking the camera and logo.
While the Moto X has always enjoyed the benefit of various back panel styles via Moto Maker, the original Moto G sported a plain plastic back, and although there was an provision for various colored options, the plain panel quickly gave way to a textured finish on this year’s Moto G and Moto X Play, a small detail, but a vital step to give a more premium feel to the budget sector smartphones.
As time passes, each flagship lineup grows in its own capacity and at its own pace, slowly but surely, to match expectations and inch towards perfection. By now, each family has already hit its stride and found a base design to work with, and each iteration goes on to bring further refinements to that base design. However, at the end of the day, beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, and while a soft-touch matte finish with rounded corners may catch one person’s eye, a squarish aluminium frame might catch another’s.
Which flagship’s visual language appeals to you the most? What changes would you make in a particular flagship’s design? Let us know in the comments below!