We were spoiled for choice in 2018 with a flood of truly excellent smartphones, with very little to distinguish them from one another. The best smartphones gained an edge with stunning photography or refinements to luxurious design. Some of our favorite features were software innovations, as the hardware race seemed to slow down.
Performance is increasingly irrelevant, with $1,000 phones matched in the processing department by devices at 75 or even 50 percent of the price. The gap between the best cheap phones and our top picks has been steadily closing. As the year of the notch comes to an end, we look expectantly at the next 12 months and what we have to look forward to in the next wave of smartphones.
There’s no doubt that bezels will shrink further, but that still leaves manufacturers with a quandary about where to place the front-facing camera. We have seen pop-up camera designs in phones like the Vivo Nex S and the Oppo Find X, but we’re not convinced this will catch on. Instead, we think manufacturers will continue to place them within the display. Until they figure how to place one under the display, that means carving a notch or punching a hole.
Anything that accelerates the death of the notch is to be celebrated, but we desperately need a better name for the replacement design than “display holes” or “hole-punch display.” If you’re unfamiliar, the next design trend set to accommodate those tricky front-facing cameras into a bezel-less all-screen frontage is a small hole in the display surrounded by screen. We’ve already seen some designs from Samsung, Huawei, and Honor, and we expect to see a lot more in 2019.
While the hardware race seems to be running out of steam in some respects, smartphone photography has come on in leaps and bounds over the last few years. Our reigning champion in the best camera phones roundup proves there’s an awful lot you can do with software smarts, but many manufacturers have taken a different route, adding more and better lenses.
Xiaomi has already announced its intention to release a phone with a 48-megapixel camera in 2019, which would set a new record, jumping ahead of Huawei’s 40-megapixel lens-toting Mate 20 Pro and P20 Pro, and current record holder, the Nokia Lumia 1020, which had a 41-megapixel camera. We think a few other manufacturers will be tempted to follow suit.
It also seems unlikely that the race to add more lenses is over. Not content with five lenses in the LG V40 ThinQ, the South Korean manufacturer has a patent for a 16-lens design. Whether that will ever appear as a fully formed product is impossible to know right now, but we think the contest to add more lenses is set to continue as a trend.
With battery technology at an impasse, any potential increases in capacity are quickly shrugged off in the pursuit of slimmer, sleeker designs or larger, power-hungry displays. What has been steadily improving is the time it takes to recharge our batteries once they’re depleted. Chinese manufacturers like Huawei, Oppo, OnePlus, and Meizu are already offering astounding charging speeds, but the two biggest smartphone sellers stateside are among the slowest.
Although the most recent iPhones can charge from zero to 50 percent in 30 minutes, you have to pay extra for the fast charging kit and a full charge still takes close to 2 hours. If you use the charger supplied, it takes closer to 3.5 hours. Having had its hands burned already with the Note 7 recall, Samsung has nerfed its charging speeds, sticking with Adaptive Fast Charging which is compatible with Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 2 standard.
In 2019, Qualcomm is introducing a new triple charge system that will offer up to 32W for wired charging and 15W for wireless charging. To give that some context the iPhone charger that ships in the box puts out 5W. However, uptake of the current Quick Charge 4+ system has been slow, with some manufacturers, like Google, preferring USB-PD, and others sticking with proprietary charging technology.
Despite the fact that there are many different fast charging technologies, the general trend is unmistakable. We expect to see even faster charging in the year ahead. We just hope the big two get on board with it.
While face unlocking has been around for a few years now, Apple has kicked it firmly back onto the menu with Face ID. We think more and more Android manufacturers will follow suit, improving their face unlocking systems to the point where they’re faster, more reliable, and secure enough to use for payments.
The old fingerprint sensor has been shunted onto the back of most phones to make way for an all-screen front, but it’s not a perfect solution and it imposes some design limitations. In-screen fingerprint sensors made an appearance this year, but the experience of using them left us underwhelmed. We’re not convinced that’s the answer, though there’s hope Qualcomm’s next flagship chip, the Snapdragon 855, will help to improve them significantly with ultrasonic support.
Face unlocking is by far the easiest way to unlock your phone. Google partnered with Huawei to make the 3D face unlock system work with Google Play, so we expect this to become more widespread in 2019 as more phone makers ditch the fingerprint sensor.
We debated whether to include 5G on this list, because we think its impact in 2019 will be quite limited. Sure, 5G promises amazing speeds, and we know many 5G phones and networks are coming over the next few months, but it will be confined to small pockets in a handful of cities at first. This new technology is going to take years to roll out across the country and there are important issues to figure out before it can hope to deliver the much hyped high speeds and low latencies of our dreams.
On the other hand, some lucky people will enjoy those blazing fast speeds. And it’s worth noting that people who buy new 5G-enabled phones should also see very real speed boosts for downloads on 4G LTE networks thanks to the new modem in the Snapdragon 855, which will power a lot of flagship Android phones. The trade-off is going be higher prices, for both service and smartphones.
Don’t worry, we haven’t forgotten foldable phones. We are aware that Samsung, Huawei, Oppo, LG, and likely a few others are working on folding phone designs that they may or may not show off in 2019, and we’ve already seen the Royole Flexpai. The fact is that folding phones are coming, but the first wave are going to be chunky, glitchy, and incredibly expensive. We think it’s going to take a lot more work before folding phones develop into a major, mainstream trend.