The year 2018 has been consigned to tech history. It was a year that would be remembered at best for incremental rather than radical innovation in the most popular gadget of our times, the smartphone. We did not see any breakout innovation in technology, functionality or design that would (marketing jargon alert) “redefine how we used phones,” but what we DID get were a whole lot of devices that worked better than ever before. So when you go back in the annals of time and look at the phones that defined the year that was 2018, these five are going to stand out. They might not have sold the most units or made the most headlines, but they were the ones that managed to bring in winds of incremental change in a market that was getting increasingly predictable:
Huawei Mate 20 Pro – style, substance, bells, whistles… just everything!
Every year there comes a phone that seems to do everything and a little more. And generally that honour inevitably went to the insanely innovative Galaxy Note series from Samsung. In 2018, however, Huawei came to the flagship phone party with a vengeance. It began the year with the very innovative P20 Pro with three cameras on the back, and ended it with the feature-rich Mate 20 Pro. A dazzling AMOLED display? It had it. Three awesome cameras at the back with Leica technology and lots of AI sorcery? Check. A world class processor? Absolutely. An eye-catching design with a glass back that changed shades depending on the light falling on it? Check. A large battery? Check. Wait, a large battery that can even charge other phones wirelessly (just place the other phone on its back)? Totally. Yes, all this came wrapped up in an interface that was a little intimidating, if feature rich. Many wondered if the glassy phone could survive falls (a theme that ran across most flagships in 2018 – a year in which “glassy” became synonymous with “classy”) and still more felt that the phone was a trifle overpriced (it was priced above the Note 9 in the Indian market), but no one could doubt the prowess of the Mate 20 Pro. It did not have a 3.5mm audio jack (hey, neither did the Pixel 3 or the new iPhones), but had everything else. In spadefuls.
ASUS ROG Phone – a phone that dared to play a different game
The year 2018 saw some sections of the phone world turn towards gaming – a phase that tends to recur from time to time (phase one was marked by the Nokia N-Gage, phase two by the Sony Xperia Play…), and the company that really threw the gaming kitchen sink at a smartphone was ASUS. Naming its phone the ROG Phone after its Republic of Gamers (ROG) series of computers, the company gave the phone everything a mobile gamer would ever want – an overclocked flagship processor, lots of RAM, a terrific AMOLED display with a 90Hz refresh rate, a big battery, stacks of cooling options (including a special cooling unit of its own), stunning sound… and topped it all off with a design that made the ROG Phone perhaps the most distinct phone of the year in terms of sheer appearance. The phone not only boasted mighty internals, but screamed “gaming” at the top of its lungs with arrow-shaped camera and speaker units, laser etchings on the back and of course, the ROG logo. ASUS even stacked a number of optional accessories with it, including a dock with a second screen and one to turn the phone to a full-fledged PC. The absence of games especially tailored to make the most of all that hardware goodness makes us wonder if the phone will succeed (and that is a thought that applies to gaming phones as a whole) but it definitely set a design and hardware benchmark for the year… without including a notch!
Google Pixel 3 – a phone can be a camera!
It was not perfect. Far from it. Its design seemed a little repetitive. It had some issues as regards sound, its software was surprisingly buggy and the battery life was not the greatest. But no one really noticed as everyone was being too busy being dazed by the camera on the device. The last time we used a similar line, the Lumia 1020 was in town and Nokia was still a smartphone superpower. In 2018, the mantle of “camera disguised as a phone” fell on the shoulders of the Google Pixel 3. Yes, it was Google’s flagship. Yes, it was assured Android updates before any other phone (although this turned out to be incorrect). And yes, it boasted flagship-level hardware, including a Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor and an AMOLED display, but what really made headlines were the sort of results that the 12.2 megapixel rear camera delivered. Aided by software enhancements, the single shooter on the Pixel 3 took pictures that made people doubt the need for dual cameras altogether – the amount of detail that was delivered was almost unreal and while purists muttered about a “lack of realism,” cellphone photography fans were too busy clicking like crazy and hash tagging #TeamPixel. A new benchmark had been set in cellphone photography (in stills, we hasten to add – video was not the greatest).
POCO F1 – making the flagship affordable again
A few years ago, flagship devices were very much affordable – you could get a high-end phone for as little as Rs 25,000. However, succeeding years had seen prices of devices with high-end specs get high-end too, so much so that even the once super budget friendly OnePlus began to dip its toes in premium waters. However, reviving the budget flagship segment was POCO, Xiaomi’s sub-brand, whose first device, the POCO F1, brought back memories of the Xiaomi Mi 3 in terms of sheer staggering value for money. The phone had everything a flagship would want – a full HD+ display (with a notch that enabled infrared-aided face recognition), a Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor, RAM that started at 6GB and went up to 8GB, and storage that started at 64GB and went up to 256GB (and was expandable too), world class cameras (they came second in a very profile blind test), rock solid software, a massive 4000mAh battery, and every connectivity option you could think of – at a surprisingly low price that started at Rs 19,999 and went up to Rs 28,999 for the 8GB/ 256GB variant. The sort of phone that simply became the best option for anyone who wanted to buy a phone under Rs 30,000 and Rs 20,000. That good!
iPhone XR – the iPhone that surprised everyone
When Apple unveiled the iPhone XR towards the end of 2018, not too many were surprised. In the post-Jobs era at Cupertino, product details do tend to get leaked well before their launch. Indeed, the main surprise was about the phone’s price tag. Far from being the “affordable” iPhone that many had hoped it would be, the iPhone XR charged a stiff premium for what seemed to be surprisingly middle path specs – a HD display that was LCD and not AMOLED, single rear camera and a frame that inspite of being colourful, was not as premium as the XS and XS Max. However, when the phone hit the stands, most pundits were taken aback by its performance – the display was surprisingly good, the single camera was Pixel-esque in performance and well, we were all stunned by the battery which comfortably lasted for a day. All this with the same turn of speed that we saw in the XS and XS Max, as it had the same A12 Bionic processor. It was not the super affordable smartphone that everyone had expected it to be, but it certainly was the most surprising iPhone of them all, and thankfully, a radical change in design terms from its predecessors!