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If 2017 was the year of unibody metal smartphones, 2018 was the year of glass sandwich models.
If 2017 was the year of unibody metal smartphones, 2018 was the year of glass sandwich models.

That’s so last year: What defined smartphones in 2018

Was it the glass back or a notched display? A look at the smartphone trends in 2018

New Delhi: When you take a look at the smartphones of the past few years, it’s not difficult to call out which one belonged to which era. Here’s a fun thing you can try out: here are six pictures with six smartphones belonging to different manufacturers and different years. Try to guess the year the smartphones were manufactured in:

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Was it difficult to guess?

The first smartphone in the first picture is the Samsung Galaxy S4 launched in 2013, the second is the iPhone 3GS launched in 2009 and then you have the Xiaomi Redmi 3 launched in 2015. In the second picture you have the Samsung Galaxy Note Edge launched in 2014, the Apple iPhone X launched in 2017 and finally the Huawei Mate 20 Pro launched in 2018.

As you can see, there is a gradual shift in design and aesthetics of smartphones, and lately, it’s been dictated by four aspects—screen-to-body ratios of the display, the front and rear camera placement, choice of back panel materials and textures, and finally biometric options like a fingerprint scanner.

Many people like to think the race to eliminate display bezels was kickstarted this year by two major players—Vivo and Oppo—two brands belonging to the same umbrella company, BBK Electronics. It is no surprise that the two brands share their resources, along with Realme and OnePlus.

Vivo in June announced the Vivo Nex—the world’s first smartphone to feature a motorised front facing camera. Since there was no camera to obstruct the front of the phone, the display could be stretched further to the bezels; in fact, the Nex has a screen-to-body ratio of 86%, the highest at the time of its launch.

As more manufacturers explored possibilities in this area, we received rather interesting devices like the Oppo Find X, the Honor Magic 2 and the Mi Mix 3.

While this was a feature many premium smartphones carried, manufacturers also made the notch ubiquitous in affordable smartphones—a feature that was a symbol of luxury, thanks to Apple iPhone X.

By the third quarter of 2018, the market was flooded with smartphones that sported a notch cut-out, with varying shapes and sizes. In August, Oppo announced the F9 Pro, with a dew drop/tear drop/water drop notch. This quickly caught on with its sister brands, including OnePlus, and we saw devices like the OnePlus 6T, Realme 2 Pro and Vivo V11 Pro.

But Samsung refrained from using any notches on its smartphones and instead focused on bringing its “Infinity Display" to its affordable handsets.

While Vivo Nex is widely regarded as “that smartphone with a pop-up camera", it was also one of the first to sport an in-display fingerprint scanner, a technology that several other smartphone makers started to seek. The technology relies on an optical fingerprint sensor, which uses a light source to capture a high-resolution photograph of your fingerprints and uses algorithms to identify unique patterns. To capture a high-resolution image, it requires a light source, which has to be strong enough to illuminate your fingerprint. The problem arises when the light has to hit the sensor after bouncing back from your finger. As a result, this tech can work only with OLED displays, since an LCD’s backlight can get in the way.

Vivo Nex was one of the first smartphones with in-display fingerprint scanner.
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Vivo Nex was one of the first smartphones with in-display fingerprint scanner.

The rudimentary renditions of this tech were quite cumbersome, especially in my experience. The speed is already slow to begin with (it takes anywhere between half a second to two seconds), and any type of interference—be it tempered glass or scratches on the display leads inaccurate fingerprint capture. If you’re a person prone to dropping your phone, this tech isn’t for you.

The first quarter of the year also saw facial unlocking become more accessible to people. While it is a little less secure than a physical fingerprint scanner, it’s more convenient.

Facial unlocking is more convenient but less secure than fingerprint scanning.
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Facial unlocking is more convenient but less secure than fingerprint scanning.

But it’s unfair to assume that most smartphone tech surrounded around the display. Flip a 2018 smartphone and you’ll see a drastic difference from a smartphone of any era. You have glass backs, number of cameras ranging between one and four and striking colour gradients—it has become crazy out here.

If 2017 was the year of unibody metal smartphones, 2018 was the year of glass sandwich smartphones.

While glass backs add an element of luxury, they also make smartphones extremely fragile. To fix this, some smartphones have started adding polycarbonate resin (a fancy name for faux glass plastic), which is shatter resistant and is more durable. It is also heat resistant, so during winters, these smartphones don’t get uncomfortably cold to touch.

The back of the smartphone also saw an increase in the number of cameras. The Huawei P20 Pro was the first smartphone to sport three cameras. Other manufacturers also followed suit—the LG V40 ThinQ, Samsung Galaxy A7, Oppo R17 Pro all feature triple camera setups.

And then you have Samsung’s Galaxy A9, the world’s first smartphone with four cameras.

The point of adding more cameras is simple—you get a higher range in focal lengths within a slim form factor.

However, the Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 3XL were probably the only premium smartphones of 2018 that stuck to a single rear camera. It’s the perfect example of software and hardware working together in symphony.

While these were some factors that physically defined smartphones of 2018, what else changed?

We started gaming more on smartphones.

Top titles like PUBG and Fortnite shot to fame after they were made available on Android and iOS devices. Since these titles are resource heavy, they not only require powerful processors but also sophisticated cooling options.

While Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 845, Huawei’s Kirin 970 and Apple’s A12 Bionic were the top chipsets of 2018 in terms of performance, mid-range processors like Snapdragon 636 and MediaTek P60 stole the show by bringing reasonable performance to pocket-friendly smartphones.

That’s not it; bare-basic apps like YouTube, Facebook and even Maps also started becoming a bit more resource hungry, thanks to all the features they pack. These apps have started consuming more internet data, more processing power and more battery.

The chipsets of 2018 also came with AI—a technology heavily advertised by nearly every single smartphone maker. However, many users don’t even realise how big of a role AI plays in performance and longevity.

AI algorithms keep a track of your activity and usage and keep apps from running in the background to reduce power consumption and keeping your RAM from getting full so that it can quickly run apps whenever required.

Voice assistants, however, made the presence of more prominent this year. Be it Google Assistant, Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa, virtual assistants became considerably smarter this year. They can now do things that would’ve left you gaping merely five years ago—from making quick calculations and ordering groceries online to executing incredibly complex commands like booking hotel reservations for you.

Software experience also changed in 2018. When Apple announced the gesture-based navigation for the iPhone X last year, Google was stuck with its primitive three button navigation. Custom UIs based on Android quickly caught on with this by providing their own rendition of gesture-based navigation. The latest version of Android (Pie) finally made it official on stock Android.

But that wasn’t the only thing that changed. Several security and privacy features were added to the new version along with Digital Wellness, which is aimed at reducing the amount of time people spend on their smartphones.

While all of these trends are based on the majority of the smartphones that came out this year, there were certainly a few outliers like the Razer Phone 2 with a metal back, LED accent lights and a 120Hz display. Huawei’s Mate 20 Pro comes with wireless reverse charging technology which lets you charge another Qi charging compliant smartphone through its back. We also saw a satellite smartphone, the X5-Touch, from a UAE based company called Thuraya.

2018 saw the little slab of metal, glass and semiconductor transform into something that’s not just functional, but aesthetically pleasing. It’s probably the second step into the future. And given that technologies like foldable displays and 5G are in their nascent stages, we can definitely expect an exciting new year.

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