Ah, Japan! The mecca of tech – both ingenious and odd. Or at least that used to be the case many (but not that many) years ago. Japan is still among the leaders in tech, but the landscape sure has changed in the last few decades.
With smartphones being arguably the most universally sought-after gadget currently in existence, you'd expect Japanese companies to hold a pretty strong position in the industry. That's not exactly the case, however, at least not world wide – Sony literally being the sole exception. Sure, smartphones from manufacturers such as Sharp and Panasonic still sometimes make an appearance outside of their homeland, but those sightings are sporadic at best.
But does that mean that Japan's finest have little to offer to consumers? We rummaged through our own records, Japanese telecom listings, and manufacturers' own web sites before arriving at about 30 great handsets, which we then further cut down to just the 17 models you'll find below. So go ahead and get to know Japan's best smartphones for 2014!
#17 Kyocera Urbano V01
Price: ~$568 total over 24 monthly payments
Kyocera, which started out in the ceramics business back at the end of the 50s, has since switched its focus to more than just that, and its portfolio now includes electronics – some of which we're sure you've heard of, even if you live in the States.
Unfortunately, the Kyocera Urbano V01 isn't available stateside, and that's too bad. It's very well designed, with metal navigation keys at the front, and it sports a 5-inch display with a resolution of 1080 x 1920, runs on a Snapdragon 801 processor and 2GB of RAM, and has a 13-megapixel main camera. Packed at the back is a healthy, 3,000 mAh battery, and as any self-respecting Japanese device, it is IP58-certified –meaning water and dust resistant.
Kyocera Urbano V01
#16 Kyocera Urbano L03
Price: ~$361 total over 24 monthly payments
The Urbano L03, another great Kyocera device, isn't that different from the V01 we just took a look at.
Indeed, it adopts a very similar design, with physical navigation keys, but the overall shape of those and the entire phone is more arc-like. It's also cheaper, while offering the same kind of high level specs. Namely, we've got a 5-inch, 1080p display, a quad-core Snapdragon 801 processor and 2GB of RAM, a 13-megapixel main camera, a 3,000 mAh juicer, and, of course, IP58-certified ability to withstand water and dust.
Kyocera Urbano L03
#15 Sharp Aquos Crystal
Price: $149 (Boost Mobile), $249 (Sprint)
The Sharp Aquos Crystal initially landed in the US as a Sprint-exclusive, but was eventually picked up by Boost Mobile, as well. The near bezel-less phone is quite odd-looking compared to what we're used to, but Sharp has actually been perfecting this 'headless' design for a while now.
The Aquos Crystal isn't a flagship phone, but at prices such as $149 and $249 with Sprint, it's impossible not to appreciate the value proposition here. For that kind of money, you're getting a 5-inch IGZO display with a 720 x 1280 pixel
resolution, a quad-core Snapdragon 400, 1.5GB of RAM, an 8-megapixel main camera, and a 2040 mAh battery. And, yes, this is
something unique you'll be carrying around, and that's also worth something.
Sharp Aquos Crystal
#14 Kyocera Brigadier
Price: $0 with a 2-year contract, $399 full retail (Verizon)
The Kyocera Brigadier is yet another device that folks stateside may have heard about. The Japenese company created something truly rare – an Android phone with a sapphire glass-covered display. And if you thought that the 4.5-inch (720p) screen is the only thing that's tough about the Brigadier, you're wrong – it's also IP68-certified for its resistance to water and the fact that it's dust-proof, and MIL-STD-810-certified (shock, vibration, humidity, high temperature resistant). In other words, this thing is built like a tank.
Which is why its relatively humble specs (quad-core Snapdragon 400, 1GB RAM, 8MP camera, 3100 mAh battery) are not at all a let down – this phone isn't for everybody, but the niche it's after certainly benefited from Kyocera's work here.
#13 Sharp Aquos SHL25
Price: ~$405 equivalent with au KDDI (SIM locked)
The Aquos SHL25 is yet another typical Sharp phone, with the same top-heavy desgin and minimal bezels. Unlike the Aquos Crystal, however, the SHL25 is a high-end device. It packs a 5.2-inch IGZO display (1080 x 1920), a quad-core Snapdragon 801 processor, 2GB of RAM, a 13.1-megapixel main camera, and a 3,150 mAh battery. As you likely expect by now, this phone, too, is water- and dust-resistant (IP57).
Sharp Aquos SHL25
#12 Sharp Aquos Zeta SH-01G
Price: ~$725 total over 24 monthly payments
The Sharp Aquos Zeta is the first truly phablet-sized smartphone on our list, with its 5.5-inch, 1080 x 1920 resolution IGZO screen. Like the rest of Sharp's warriors on this list, the Zeta, too, features and extremely high screen-to-body ratio and its signature "Edgest" design.
The Zeta is powered by a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 chipset, 2GB of RAM, a large, 3,300 mAh battery, and a 13-megapixel camera capable of 4K UHD video recording. And, yes, the phone is dust- and water-resistant (IP57).
Sharp Aquos Zeta SH-01G
#11 Sharp Aquos Xx 304SH
Price: Between ~$331 and ~$475 depending on contract
With a screen-to-body ratio of 79%, it's hard to complain about the unfortunately-named Aquos Xx 304SH (whose predecessor we looked at a while ago
). When you're getting a quad-core Snapdragon 801 processor, 2 gigs of RAM, a 13.1-megapixel camera with f/1.9 lens, an IR blaster, and a 2600 mAh battery, it's even harder.
The 5.2-inch 304SH, with its 1080 x 1920 resolution IGZO display truly is something, though we do realize that Sharp's design philosophy won't suite everybody. In any case, this Android 4.4 KitKat-touting, IP57-certified smartphone sure has our fancy.
Sharp Aquos Xx 304SH
#10 Sharp Aquos SH-04F
Price: About ~$730 contract-free
The Sharp Aquos SH-04F landed as an NTT DoCoMo exclusive in the summer of 2014, and we wasted no time covering it in our fortnightly Monsters from Asia column. Why? It's simple – if you thought the Sharp Aquos Xx 304SH was compact, then the IP57-certified Aquos SH-04F will blow your mind.
Indeed, the SH-04F is a 5.4-incher (1080 x 1920), which would suggest that it's plenty big, but with its extremely small bezels (an extraordinary, 81% screen-to-body ratio), it's actually considerably smaller than the 5.2-inch Sony Xperia Z2, for example (140 x 74 x 9.3 vs 146.8 x 73.3 x 8.2 mm). What's more, Sharp has fitted a quad-core Snapdragon 801 processor within, along with 2GB of RAM, a 13.1-megapixel camera, and a generous, 3,300 mAh battery.
Sharp SH-04F Aquos
#9 Fujitsu Arrows NX F-05F
Mostly known as an IT equipment supplier (it's the third largest in the world, actually, after IBM and HP), Fujitsu also invests in its own smartphones. The Arrows NX F-05F is proof that the company isn't just messing around.
Despite its overly-complicated, even odd, name, the specs sheet attached to the phone contains hardware that is quite familiar. We've got a 5-inch, 1080 x 1920 pixel resolution display, a quad-core Snapdragon 801 processor from Qualcomm, 2 gigs of RAM, a Sony Exmor R 20.7-megapixel main camera, and a large, 3,200 mAh battery. The Fujitsu Arrows NX F-05F also sports a fingerprint scanner on its back, right underneath the camera lens, and though we haven't had the opportunity to play around with it, that is a pretty convenient spot for a security scanner like that.
#8 Panasonic Lumix DMC-CM1
Price: $1,000 in the US (unlocked)
Panasonic says that the Lumix DMC-CM1 is a camera first, smartphone second, and that makes sense – that thing has got an enormous, 1", 20-megapixel sensor with f/2.8-f/11 Leica lens and LED flash. That's roughly 7 times larger than your average smartphone sensor. Add in the many, many manual controls the camera software offers, and it's easy to see why Panasonic chose to call it a cameraphone.
But that doesn't mean that the rest of the package is anything to sneeze at. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-CM1 has a 4.7-inch, 1080 x 1920 resolution display, a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor, 2GB of RAM, and a 2,600 mAh battery. The phone runs on Android 4.4 KitKat, and we're hopeful that an update to Lollipop will follow, even though we can't be certain.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-CM1 hands-on
#7 HTC J Butterfly
Price: ~$613 total over 24 monthly payments
Say what? An HTC phone exclusive to Japan? Correct.
Available through Japanese au KDDI, the HTC J Butterfly is something along the lines of a less stylish HTC One M8, but with a 13-megapixel Duo camera and a waterproof body (like all Japanese handsets, as you must be noticing).
The J Butterfly also retains the two front-facing speakers, though these aren't of the BoomSound type, alongside a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor, spacious 2 gigs of RAM, LTE-Advanced radio (downloads of up to 150 Mbps), and a slightly larger, 2,700 mAh battery. The J Butterfly hit the Japanese market in August.
HTC Butterfly 2
#6 Sony Xperia Z2
Price: $480 through Sony US (unlocked)
Finally! A familiar name. Certainly, you didn't expect us to exclude Sony's excellent devices just because they don't quite mesh together with the rest on the list, right?
Anyways, most of you are well-acquainted with the Xperia Z2. Sony's ex-flagship is among the highest-rated smartphones we've reviewed
, and for a good reason. It packs a 5.2-inch, 1080 x 1920 resolution display, a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor, 3GB of RAM, a long-lasting, 3,200 mAh battery, and a potent, 20.7-megapixel main camera. Needless to say, Sony also went ahead and water- and dust-proofed the Xperia Z2.
Sony Xperia Z2
#5 Sony Xperia Z3 Compact
Price: $530 through Sony US (unlocked)
Yet another familiar face, the Sony Xperia Z3 Compact more than deserves its spot on our list. Without a doubt, the Z3 Compact is the only really high-end 'compact' device on the planet – it's got a very compact-for-its 4.6-inch (720p) display body, a powerful quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor, 2 gigs of RAM, and the same excellent, 20.7-megapixel Exmor R camera. Its 2,600 mAh battery is an insane marathoner, too, having managed the awesome 10 hours and 2 minutes on our custom battery benchmark
Sony Xperia Z3 Compact
#4 Sharp Aquos Crystal X
Yeah, yeah, we're suckers for Sharp's 'Edgest' design and the small bezels it has learned to work with. But the Aquos Crystal X – the larger brother of the Aquos Crystal – is well deserving of its high spot in this ranking.
Unlike the Aquos Crystal, the Aquos Crystal X is a high-end device, with a large, 5.5-inch 1080p display, a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 chipset, 2GB of RAM, and a 13-megapixel camera. The handset also features Harman Kardon sound and a 2,610 mAh battery, but it's currently unknown if the device will be IP-certified for water- and dust-resistance (though it's likely).
Sharp Aquos Crystal X
#3 Fujitsu Arrows NX F-02G
Fujitsu's current top-of-the-line model is no other than the octagonal Arrows NX F-02G that we covered just recently
, and it taking the bronze is well deserved. While the device's design may not be everybody's cup of tea, the specs packed within certainly won't disappoint.
The IP58-certified Arrows NX F-02G sports a 5.2-inch IPS display with a resolution of 1440 x 2560 pixels, and is powered by a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor and generous 3 gigs of RAM. Also on board is a Sony-made, Exmor R 1/2.3'' sensor with 20.7-megapixels and a giant, 3,500 mAh cell that the company claims is good for up to three days of usage. To round off the package, Fujitsu has also included a dedicated infrared blaster for control over home electronics and a swipe-type fingerprint scanner.
The Fujitsu Arrows NX F-02G
#2 Sony Xperia Z3
Price: $630 through Sony US (unlocked)
It felt like days only had passed when Sony reiterated on its flagship vision with the Xperia Z3, six short months after the Z2. The successor to the Z2 finally focused on a long-standing issue with Sony devices – size – and brought down the thickness to only 0.29 inches (7.3 mm), while sacrificing essentially nothing in terms of the hardware stack.
Like with the Z2, we again have a 5.2-inch, 1080 x 1920 resolution display, a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor and 3GB of RAM, an extraordinarily resilient, 3,100 mAh battery, and, of course, Sony's signature 20.7-megapixel shooter. Like every other device on this list, the Z3 is also IP68-certified, so it's quite resistant to both water and dust.
Sony Xperia Z3
#1 LG Isai VL
Price: ~$667 total over 24 monthly payments
We'll admit that putting the LG Isai VL in the #1 spot wasn't an easy decision, what with Sony's Xperia Z3 lurking just around the corner, but, ultimately, we had to make one, and we just like the Isai more.
We first caught wind of the au KDDI-branded, LG-made Isai before the LG G3 was released, and speculation was heavy that this is how the G3 was bound to look like. Not only that, but the Isai's specs sheet read exactly like what we were expecting from the G3, so, naturally, it's got some pretty sick hardware on board, including a 5.5-inch, 1440 x 2560 resolution display, a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor, 3GB of RAM, a 13.2-megapixel rear camera with a laser auto focus assist system in place, and a 3,000 mAh battery. The LG Isai VL, like the G3, also has its volume rocker on the back, but its power key is located on the right. Its rear shell actually looks a lot like the Asus Zenfone 2. Food for thought there.
See the Isai VL in the flesh!
LG Isai VL