For a while there, we had reached peak smartphone. Every phone started to look the same. Phones became boring. Like, really put-you-to-sleep boring. Boring to look at. Boring to hold. And, yes, even boring to review at times.
But that all changed this year.
Smartphones started becoming exciting and cool again, thanks to the removal of features like home buttons and the addition of bigger, more immersive screens with thinner bezels and weird dual-camera setups. Phones are basically in an awkward transitional period — and frankly, I love it.
Change is, of course, controversial and will inevitably ruffle some peoples’ feathers, but that’s what also makes it so fun. Sure, I’m all for predictable technological improvements that are also practical, but they can be so damn uninspiring. That’s why it’s important for tech companies to blow things up and dare to be weird.
There are three key areas where I’ve noticed phones are undergoing some radical changes this year. Here’s where you’ll notice the biggest differences:
Bold, new materials
The first place you’ll notice a major difference is in the materials. The original iPhone set an impossibly high standard, mixing aluminum, stainless steel, and plastic into one smooth and rounded touchscreen brick.
Apple then swapped these materials out for curved, molded plastic on the 3G and 3GS. Stainless steel and glass replaced that on the iPhone 4 and 4S before Apple tried an aluminum unibody on the iPhone 6, 6S, and 7. Then came this year’s iPhone 8, 8 Plus, and X, which replaced most of that aluminum with glass again.
Android phones went through a similar design trajectory until they all eventually landed on a design similar to that set by the iPhone 6, released in 2014: a thin CNC-ed unibody aluminum case with antenna bands embedded within the backside.
A perfect example of this was the OnePlus 5. While not a complete copy, the phone’s industrial design — the way the antenna bands are positioned and curve off on the top and bottom and the arrangement of the dual cameras on the back — was clearly inspired by the iPhone 7 Plus.
In fact, the company’s head of marketing Kyle Kiang even told me that there’s only so many ways to make a metal phone. Which is why it was refreshing to see companies switch from metal to glass. Sure, the iPhone 4 did the “metal and glass sandwich” design first way back in 2010, but not now it’s back, and it’s hotter and more functional than before.
Not only is the glass that’s used in phones like the iPhone X and Samsung Galaxy Note 8 stronger and more scratch-resistant, but the materials allow for wireless charging. These materials also feel way better in the hand than cold metal. But it’s not like glass is the only material that companies are working with.
I love that Essential chose to make its Essential Phone from titanium and that Xiaomi’s Mi Mix 2 has a ceramic back (there’s also a special edition unibody ceramic edition). Neither of these materials are easy to work with, but nobody ever made a dent in the universe by taking the easy route.
And while I don’t adore it, the Pixel 2’s have aluminum frames coated with a matte finish that looks a little bit like plastic, but are much tougher. This coating gives the Pixel 2’s a kind of grippiness that other phones don’t have.
Bigger, rounder screens with notches
The dream has always been for our phones to be nothing but a pure screen — a literal window into our content. The device itself fades away.
This year, we got ever closer to that dream. Some companies like Sharp have had semi-bezeless phones for a few years. The Aquos Crystal, released in 2014, was one of them. When I reviewed that phone, I said it’s what the future of phones would look like, and I was right.
We’re now seeing virtually every phone maker shift from rectangular screens with a thick “forehead” and “chin” above and below the display towards screens that stretch from edge-to-edge on two, three, or even four sides.
Xiaomi’s Mi Mix, launched last year, built off what the Aquos Crystal started (albeit with much larger display) with no bezels on three out of four sides. It was also the first phone to introduce rounded corners, a feature that every flagship phone appears to have embraced.
Samsung’s Galaxy S8, S8+, and Note 8 carry the company’s signature curved glass edges, while simultaneously sporting thinner top and bottom bezels.
But my favorite displays are on the iPhone X and Essential Phone — by a wide margin. The iPhone X has a screen that touches every side and the Essential Phone has one that stretches to three. Both of these phones have “notches.” The iPhone X has a longer one that houses all the various sensors for the TrueDepth camera, and the Essential Phone’s cutout is just for the selfie camera. I’ve grown to appreciate the quirkiness of both these displays.
That’s right, I actually don’t hate the notches. They’re weird and strange, but that’s what makes them so unequivocally unique and iconic. You can spot these phones from a mile away just because of their notches.
More than anything, notches and rounded corners open the gates for even wilder phone displays. I’m talking non-rectangular, free-form displays that could mean we’ll see round phones, or triangular phones, or who knows what in the near future. It’s not impossible. At the IFA’s consumer tech show in Berlin this year, I saw some free-form displays at Sharp’s booth that give an imaginative glimpse into this world.
Ditching old ports, buttons, and single cameras
It’s human nature to mourn the loss of something. For phones, it’s been a rough year for home buttons, headphone jacks, and single cameras. While some phones proudly cling onto these features, it’s inevitable that they’ll end up removing the headphone jack, killing their front-mounted home buttons, and switching to dual cameras.
Apple’s “courageous” removal of the headphone jack on the iPhone 7 received heavy criticism, but it’s already proving to be the right move.
If it really was so bad for the users, you wouldn’t see companies like Google, Essential, Motorola, and Razer follow.
It sucks every time I have to deal with a dongle, discover I’ve lost a dongle, or the battery on my wireless headphones are dead, but the removal of this port is for the greater good for future smartphone designs.
On my iPhone X’s tightly-packed circuitry, it means dual cameras that fit in a smaller phone, room for a larger battery, water-resistance, and more. Same goes for on the Razer Phone. The company’s CEO has defended the headphone jack’s death on their first Android phone because it meant they could toss in a bigger battery.
Similarly, losing the home button is actually a blessing. Not having it means a larger screen in the same phone footprint, and fewer chances for mechanical failure. I’m down with that.
For some people, the death of the home button also means the death of a fingerprint sensor, but I’ve quickly learned that I’m okay with that trade-off. I think the iPhone X’s Face ID is fantastic most of the time. And Android phones like the Note 8, OnePlus 5T, and Pixel 2 still have the fingerprint sensor on the back.
Besides, no fingerprint sensor only means faster development for facial-recognition unlocking systems. The first generation of facial-recognition systems may not be as strong as we’d hoped, but they will get better on future versions just as fingerprint sensors got more accurate and quicker.
I love all of this chaos.
Another interesting new smartphone addition to phones is dual cameras. The iPhone 7 Plus may not have been the first phone to have twin cameras (HTC’s One M8 was), but it was the best executed, which is arguably more important.
In many ways the rush to include dual cameras in phones has created an ugly mess — there are a zillion different dual camera setups such as a “wide-angle lens + 2x telephoto lens”, “color sensor lens + monochrome sensor”, “wide-angle lens + ultra wide-angle lens”, etc. — that, bluntly speaking, have f*cked up photography on many Android phones.
Just as Android smartphone cameras were getting really good, phone makers decided to ruin everything with silly unproven sub-par dual cameras.
And I love all this chaos.
It’s like the Wild West all over again. There’s no way to know what to expect. Phones will live or die by their cameras. They can’t all be great. This camera contest is what’s going to separate the really excellent devices from the trash. The companies that put more resources into producing great photos and videos will be the ones that rise to the top.
Dawn of a new era
When a company launches a product that’s truly revolutionary and then the rest of the world copies it inside and out, it’s almost impossible to become enthusiastic for any new iterations.
Phones are not impervious to commoditization in a globalized society. Like all products, it was inevitable for them to become boring.
Ten years ago, the iPhone changed the smartphone game and only a few years after that, designs peaked. The smartphone as we know it may have many acts ahead of it, but what we’re seeing play out right now is only its second.
These new screens, materials, cameras, software — it’s all so refreshing even when they’re so imperfect. But that’s precisely what makes all phones so cool again. So much has been reset, and it’s anyone’s game.