For a while, any conversation about premium smartphones began and ended with Apple and Samsung. Last year, Google jumped into the mix and immediately rose to the top ranks, with the Pixel claiming a spot next to the iPhone 7 and the Samsung Galaxy S7 as the best phones money could buy in 2016.
And with that, Apple's place on the top shelf started to look more crowded than it had in recent years.
But 2017 is a new year, and Apple isn't done feeling the heat—the newly-released Galaxy S8 is pound-for-pound the best Android phone we've ever tested, and maybe even the best phone we've ever used, period.
And it's not just Samsung that's upping the competition, either. Google is on pace to release a follow-up to its crowd-pleading Pixel sometime later this year, and you better believe the tech giant learned a thing or two about building and marketing a winning smartphone after its inaugural run in 2016.
If Apple hopes to secure its footing at the top of the smartphone food chain, here's a list of what it needs to do to keep the iPhone from slipping out of the hearts and minds of shoppers looking to upgrade to the next big thing.
Keep the fingerprint sensor on the front, but put it beneath the screen itself
The iPhone 7 was the first iPhone to replace its iconic home button with a pressure-sensitive, capacitive facsimile that mimicked the look and feel of the original button. According to industry sources, however, the next iPhone is rumored to feature a display that takes up the entire front side of the phone—just like the extra-tall display on the Samsung Galaxy S8.
After Samsung displaced the Galaxy S8's home button with a ginormous screen, its engineers decided that the fingerprint scanner would now live on the back of the device—right next to the S8's primary camera. The problem is that the fingerprint scanner on the S8 is roughly the height and width as the phone's camera. What's worse is that the camera is right smack-dab in the middle of the S8's back casing, which is the spot your finger is naturally inclined to go when it wants to unlock the phone.
In order to avoid the same smudgy-camera fate, Apple will need to position the next iPhone's fingerprint scanner more strategically. Fortunately, according to the iPhone rumor mill, Apple allegedly figured out a way to keep the scanner on the front of the iPhone despite its edge-to-edge, bezel-less display: by putting it underneath the display itself.
If this rumored high-tech trickery proves true, the next iPhone will see all of the benefits of a massive screen without forcing its users to re-train their fingers to unlock their phone. It's an easy way to score some points on Samsung,
Make the camera faster
If there's one area where the Google Pixel has an edge over its contemporaries, it's camera speed. The reason for the Pixel's zippy shutter speed has to do with some ingenious software. Essentially, whenever the Pixel's camera app is open, it's always snapping rapid-fire photos. The only ones that are saved, however, are the photos taken when a user decides to take a picture.
This is the sort of software development that Apple should be looking to steal (or, ahem, adopt) moving forward. Sure—when it comes to speed, the iPhone 7's camera ain't exactly slow, but if there's an opportunity to close the gap between you and your opponent, you've got to take it—even if it means poaching your opponent's winning formula.
Introduce wireless charging
Wireless charging has been a key feature of Samsung's Galaxy series for several years—so long a time, in fact, that it's downright silly that Apple has yet to incorporate similar technology in its iPhone lineup.
If you've never known the splendor of wireless charging, just imagine an office desk or a night stand free of cables. Better yet, imagine a bedtime routine that doesn't involve getting down on your hands and knees while you fumble around for a spare outlet.
When a new Galaxy phone is released, its wireless charging functionality tends to be overshadowed by camera performance, raw hardware specs, and overall battery life. But it's high time Apple catches up with its chief rival and introduces similar functionality for the iPhone (just don't expect an official Apple charging pad to come cheap).
Keep the water resistance
Although Samsung wasn't the first to make a water-resistant smartphone, its Galaxy flagships were the first smartphones to make water resistance an expectation rather than a bonus feature. Needless to say, it took Apple a while to catch up. (Sensing a pattern yet?)
With the iPhone 7 and the iPhone 7 Plus, Apple finally gave its base what it spent years clamoring for: Both of the latest iPhones can withstand rain, spills, and accidental drops in the toilet.
But why stop there? Why bother reverting back to the dark days of sticking your waterlogged iPhone in a bag of rice, wondering if that ill-fated puddle will ultimately claim the life of your precious phone? Besides, if the first Pixel is any indication, Google might not outfit its next smartphone with water resistance. If Apple really wants to sweep Google's leg, this might be a good place to gain the upper-hand.
For Apple, staying in front of Samsung and Google is just as much about incorporating new ideas as it is about maintaining the ideas that have proven to work. Water resistance is no longer a nifty add-on feature—it's something people expect. More crucially, it's something people will be disappointed not to have anymore.