The year 2019 is about to end, but what a year it has been for smartphones. The industry was hypercompetitive, driving innovation at a breakneck pace while dramatically influencing the price-to-value ratio. Some highly anticipated concepts like foldable phones finally became a reality to mixed reception, while the design and capabilities of regular smartphones were also advanced by leaps and bounds. We went from 48-megapixel cameras to 108-megapixel shooters on a phone, all in a single year. But at the same time, consumers became more conscious about the software experience, regular updates, security patches, accessibility, and other such aspects.
To be fair, 2019 ushered in a tonne of new trends and turned nascent ideas into mainstream stuff, which make it difficult to select just ten of them. After much discussion and debate, here are our picks for the top ten smartphone trends of the year 2019:
At this very point in 2018, foldable phones existed only in the realm of fancy concept videos and leaked sketches. 2019 started off with a bang, with Samsung announcing the world's first mainstream foldable phone - the Galaxy Fold. Packing top-of-the-line hardware and a design that would make anyone drool, the Galaxy Fold also impressed us with its versatility and promise of an altogether new smartphone experience. Huawei followed suit with an equally impressive take on the foldable phone idea with the Huawei Mate X. Xiaomi gave us another peek at a rather novel foldable phone design. Later on, Motorola also entered the fray with the Motorola Razr (2019), a foldable phone with the classic Moto Razr DNA.
A host of other smartphone makers are experimenting with the idea of foldable phones as well, most of which are set to materialise next year. Yes, there are problems galore with foldable phones, especially when it comes to durability and pricing. Remember the Galaxy Fold fiasco, the recall, and the relaunch? But then, it was a first-generation product, and as they say, innovation is the by-product of repeated failures. Samsung is already rumoured to launch Galaxy Fold successor early next year, and so does Huawei, sending a clear message that foldable phones are here to stay. Let's just hope that aside from being more durable and adding new features, they also become a wee bit more affordable next year.
Last year saw the rise of the notch. From flagships to entry-level, the notch was seen on phones across all price brackets. But the pace at which phones embraced the notch design, they abandoned it an equal speed - especially Android flagships. We saw Samsung skip the notch on its flagships, making the jump to the hole-punch design. The hole-punch not only eliminated the notch, it also paved the way for a near all-screen experience. Samsung, Vivo, Motorola, Xiaomi, and Honor have launched a bunch of phones with the hole-punch aesthetics, and come 2020, we'll see this design on more phones across the flagship and mid-range segments.
Pop-up cameras carried the idea of a full-screen experience from hole-punch forward, and paved the way for a truly uninterrupted design. While pop-up cameras were once exclusive to the ultra-premium phones, the likes of OnePlus 7 Pro, Xiaomi Redmi K20, Realme X, and Oppo K3 brought the price down to sub-Rs. 15,000 range over time. Some smartphone makers tried the slider design, giving us phones like the Xiaomi Mi Mix 3, Lenovo Z5 Pro, Honor Magic 2, Samsung Galaxy A80, and the Oppo Find X. However, the slider form factor didn't really catch on. We even saw the first in-screen camera solution on an unannounced Oppo phone. Whatever the solution a brand adopts, one thing is clear – smartphones started moving towards the full-screen design with full steam in 2019, and will embrace it widely in 2020.
But it was not just the design of a smartphone's display that evolved this year, as they improved in a lot of other areas as well. Notably, panels with 90Hz or 120Hz refresh rate became a talking point and went mainstream, rather than being limited to gaming-centric phones. And even though they consume more battery power, the smoother animations and transition effect is something consumers have started craving for. 2019 also saw AMOLED panels making their way to more phones, be it the high-end or the budget segment. And this was definitely a welcome change.
Moreover, aspects like colour accuracy, brightness, viewing angle, and touch latency saw visible improvements, further refining the quality of smartphone screens. Curved panels are making a comeback, with more smartphone makers adopting it for their high-end phones and upcoming mid-range offerings. We even saw a more radical iteration of the curved display - the Waterfall design - on phones like the Vivo Nex 3, on which almost the entire left and right side of the phone was covered by the display, not even leaving space for the physical power and volume buttons. This implementation looks gorgeous, although it poses some ergonomic and fragility issues.
There still lingers fear that a majority of smartphones look the same from the front. (This stands true especially for phones with a waterdrop notch). While that is correct to some extent, 2019 saw smartphone makers trying new designs to freshen things up. The holy grail of smartphone design, as concept renders made us believe, was an all-screen solution - and the industry somewhat achieved it this year, at both flagship and mid-range levels. The gradient design became all the rage, with companies trying everything from a subtle colour shift with understated hues to flame-inspired aesthetics (Redmi K20), micro dots, kevlar finish, and geometric patterns. And oh, punchy colours on smartphones made a big splash.
Notably, in-display fingerprint sensors became much more accessible. The front shooter moved between the notch, hole punch, a sliding module, and a pop-up camera, while the number of rear cameras kept increasing the size of the module at the back. We even saw rectangular camera lenses that used the novel periscope mechanism for optical zoom. Radically curved display (also called Waterfall design) covering the entire sides, pressure-sensitive volume controls with haptic feedback, the returning side-mounted fingerprint scanner, better vibration motors, improved cooling technology were design changes that characterised smartphone design trends this year. And even though there was nothing as radical as Motorola's Project Ara, things have not been boring either.
Smartphone cameras recorded somewhat of a quantum leap in 2019. We started the year with 48-megapixel cameras, jumped the gun to 64-megapixel, and then ended at 108-megapixel sensors, all on commercially available phones. Multi-camera setups became a norm, and even phones that cost around Rs. 10,000 started packing four rear cameras that click social media-ready photos. Night mode became the talk of the town, and although the difference in its implementation varied significantly between the top-tier phones and low-end segment, its widespread availability was definitely a plus. Computational photography came to the forefront, and Google Camera mods became all the rage for users who didn't like the stock camera app on their phones.
A dedicated macro camera and wide-angle snapper became one of the must-haves on any smartphone that makes bold promises about its photography prowess. Higher-end phones went big with telephoto lenses with optical zoom, promising detailed long-range shots. Periscope camera modules made their way to smartphones as well, improving zooming capabilities. Optical zoom went from 2x to 6x on phones in a year, accompanied by claims of ‘lossless' 10x hybrid zoom on the likes of Oppo Reno 10x Zoom Edition or regular 20x hybrid zoom, and digital zoom as high as 60x. Sensor size increased, and so did capabilities of smartphone cameras, paving the way for high-resolution photos and super slo-mo video capture at an astonishing 7680fps on the Huawei Mate 30 Pro.
Until last year, fast charging was a commodity that was exclusive to flagships or high-end phones. That changed in 2019. Take for example the Redmi Note 7 Pro, which was launched in the first quarter and offered Quick Charge 4.0 support with a 10W peak output. Subsequently, Xiaomi and rivals Realme, Vivo, Oppo, and Samsung not only launched cheaper phones with fast charging, but also amped up the charging wattage to juice them up even quicker. Take for example the Realme X2 Pro, which starts at Rs. 29,999 and comes with support for 50W VOOC Flash Charge technology.
While the presence of fast charging has become mainstream in 2019, the technology has also made big strides. From 10W, smartphone makers eventually graduated to 15W, 18W, 25W, 30W, 45W, 50W, and all the way to 65W, as seen on the Oppo Reno Ace. The streak will carry forward to 2020, as Xiaomi has already promised that 100W Super Charge Turbo Fast Charging Technology is coming to smartphones next year. And even though graphene batteries didn't materialise in 2019, advancements in smartphones design also ensured that the battery capacity kept going up this year.
Coming to the software side of things, 2019 marked a drastic change in how custom Android skins looked and the features they offered. One of the key appeals of vanilla Android is the clean interface, and with consumers gravitating towards such a UI, smartphone makers took notice. Samsung was the first one to comply, introducing the much refined One UI that focused on minimalist aesthetics and more accessibility. Oppo made similar strides with ColorOS 7, and even added a tonne of new useful features that users will appreciate. Realme went a step ahead and announced a custom version of ColorOS 7 for its phones that will be closer to stock Android
Features such as screen recording, Zen Mode, dedicated game launcher, and game booster became more prevalent. But despite the addition of new features, the overall software got leaner with less pre-installed bloatware. A good example is ZenUI, which essentially feels like stock Android on the Asus 6Z. And even though the likes of Funtouch OS and MIUI have a long way to go, Vivo and Xiaomi have tried to tone down the garish design and remove the bloatware as much as possible. The cream-of-the-crop, OxygenOS, kept getting better in the meanwhile.
With software becoming leaner and cleaner, smartphone users also became more aware of the importance of regular updates, Android security patches, and more. Additionally, the user community also became more active at reporting bugs and asking smartphone makers to resolve them quickly. OnePlus takes the crown in this domain, as the company not only has a very active community of passionate users, but also rolls out OxygenOS updates at a relatively quick pace. Now, it goes without telling that software updates bring new features. But more importantly, they fix the issues that have been plaguing smartphone users.
Regular updates mean users don't have to live with an issue for a long time, which is why phased rollouts have become almost ubiquitous. A higher percentage of users now participate in beta-testing apps, games, and OS builds, playing a more active role in developing new features or refining existing ones than ever before. A promise of long-term software update now plays a bigger role in buyers' decision before going with a particular brand, and companies too have now become more proactive at ensuring software support for a longer span of time to sell phones.
There is no doubt that smartphones evolved significantly in 2019. Be it design, hardware, or capabilities, innovation happened at a breakneck pace. But at the same time, smartphone usage pattern changed significantly as well, and it was predominantly driven by cheaper data, especially in India. The explosion in the popularity of online games such as PUBG Mobile, Fortnite, and Call of Duty: Mobile was undoubtedly driven by cheap data. And this love for mobile games also gave a big push to the gaming phone market, because there was an actual demand for such spec-heavy, overpowered phones. Also, e-sports tournaments for mobile games finally gained traction, especially in India.
But mobile gaming is just one of the trends that caught on big time due to cheap mobile data. With unlimited plans that offer 1GB data or more at a relatively low price, smartphone users got hooked to streaming online content on platforms like YouTube, Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hotstar. The potential here is so huge that Netflix launched mobile-only plans at a price cheaper than any other region in the world. Music streaming also skyrocketed, as Spotify, Wynk, YouTube, and Amazon Music gained widespread popularity. These content consumption habits also influenced smartphone makers to improve the quality of audio-visual hardware on their phones.
Our smartphones have become more than just communication devices. From serving as cameras and media consumption hubs to smart home control and learning, the use case scenarios are simply vast. But above it all, they have become a medium of self-expression, with apps like TikTok, Snapchat, and Instagram emerging as the major platforms to do so. Far from being just a stage to keep up with friends and their activities, these apps are where people express their creative freedom unhinged to hilarious, and sometimes cringeworthily, results. And in doing all this, these apps have further cemented people's connection with their phones.
With the apps continuously evolving and introducing new tools and features, people are now more engaged with their phones than they have ever been before. Smartphone makers have also realised the same, and keep tweaking and improving their phones' hardware to let people make the most of these platforms. Macro cameras for social media-worthy close-up shots, higher-resolution front cameras, and better audio output are among the many refinements that have been tailored to make the maximum out of these apps, and keep people hooked to them.