2018 is almost nearing an end, too soon for a lot of us. This year saw an array of smartphones entering the market and crushing previous records. Let us take a look at the best that this year had to offer in handheld consumer tech.
Samsung Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus
It would be fitting to kick off this list with the first flagships launched this year- the Samsung Galaxy S9 and its bigger brother the Galaxy S9 Plus which were launched in March. They were a slightly more polished version of their predecessors the Galaxy S8 and S8 plus, addressing small issues like the awkward placement of the fingerprint sensors, and providing the customary internal and OS upgrades. The S9 plus was the one to boast some new innovations, being the first smartphone camera in the world to feature a variable aperture (going from f/2.4 to f/1.5 in low light conditions). The smaller Galaxy S9 made do with a single sensor unlike it’s bigger brother, which was the only difference between the two apart from the obvious differences in screen size and battery capacity.
2019 is a big year for Samsung, marking the tenth anniversary for the Galaxy S lineup. Like Apple did with the iPhone X last year, everyone expects a radical redesign of their flagship device next year to commemorate the milestone. Leaked images of the device feature an all screen design with an off-center cutout for the front facing camera which has received mixed opinions so far. The definitive verdict can only be reached by looking at the production unit- but the best part is that date is soon to arrive, with the Galaxy S10 launch just a few months away.
iPhone Xs and Xs Max
Arguably the most awaited phone launch of the year for a few years running has been the iPhone event. This year was no different with Apple launching 3 new iPhones, of which the iPhone Xs and Xs Max serve as the flagships. The phones continue the design language introduced by Apple last year with the iPhone X which has since been copied extensively, with almost all Android manufacturers shifting to a notched display and a vertical camera sensor array. This year had to be the one with the minimum improvement over the previous phones, with Apple having to rely heavily on their increased processing power and even a new color shade to sell their phone in the keynote event. Apple’s inability to distinguish itself, the exorbitant price (starting at $1000) and increasing competition are the probable causes for the phones to register lower than expected sales figures. The phones still remain the best iPhones though, and the ultimate device for an iOS fan with deep pockets.
OnePlus 6T (And the 6)
Even though the hugely popular OnePlus 6 was also launched this year in May, it has already been refreshed thanks to OnePlus’ 6-month update cycle, something not particularly shocking for a company which has the tagline ‘Never Settle’. OnePlus 6 saw very strong sales consistently- driving OnePlus to the position of bestselling premium smartphone manufacturer (price above 30k) in India.
The OnePlus 6T, launched just this November, is a refinement of the winning formula of the OnePlus 6. It provides an even better screen to body ratio by reducing the notch to a water drop, and provides a futuristic in-display fingerprint sensor located in the lower half of the screen, a feature that phones costing twice as much do not provide. That is the theme of the phone- incredible value, providing users with an experience so close to the flagships by other OEMs (and oftentimes surpassing them) that spending any more money than the asking price of a OnePlus seems to be money lost. The company also provides one of the best Android skins- Oxygen OS, which is both clean and customizable, and promises timely updates for at least two years for the same. This combination of top notch hardware coupled with top notch software result in a phone which makes a very strong case for not just being the best phone at its price, but the best phone currently on sale period.
Pixel 3 And 3 XL
Successors to Google’s Pixel 2 and 2XL, the world waited with bated breath to see if Google could bring any imagery improvements over the already unbelievably good cameras of these phones, widely regarded as the best in any smartphone. The answer was a resounding yes, as Google kept it’s crown of the best camera for the third year in a row, thanks to its superior image processing. Images captured by the camera had excellent dynamic range and clarity, often astounding reviewers how such good photos could be produced with the small sensor of a smartphone camera.
Before the laurels bestowed on the Pixel’s cameras could settle, Google launched it’s ‘Night Sight’ feature- which used AI and machine learning to bring out the colors in extremely low light situations, where even the human eye struggles to see clearly. This feature was executed so well that it made the harshest of critics stand up and give Google a round of applause.
While Pixel lead the other phones in camera performance, it falls below flagship standards when it comes to hardware. The screens were not as good as the ones available on Samsungs and iPhones, the rear glass was prone to scratching, and Google somehow still could not manufacture 2 phones which look like a proper sibling and not distant cousins. Whereas last year’s phones featured 2 different screen aspect ratios, this year we get one with a notch and one without. Not to mention that the Pixel 3XL has the worst implementation of the notch seen so far, having almost twice the height of a normal notch.
On the bright side, Google offers the best Android experience and offers day 1 updates for a class leading 3 years. The ‘ugly’ looking notch was perhaps a tough pill to swallow for consumers at this price range, leading to weak sales, which is a shame because it still remains the best phone for those who give priority to camera performance, updates, fluidity and a clean UI.
The ‘budget’ iPhone of the year- if you can call it that at Rs 76,000, was launched alongside it’s more expensive brothers the Xs and Xs Max. The phone is arguably the most important of the three as it drives the sales and brings the majority of iOS users to Apple’s new design language and form factor. This would be the first time a lot of the customers would experience Apple’s gesture based navigation system which lacks a home button. The internals remain largely the same as the Xs with the phone getting the A12 Bionic chipset which puts almost all other phones to shame in benchmarks. Apple cut some corners in the display department providing the XR with a lower resolution HD LCD screen which Apple calls ‘Liquid Retina’ compared to the full HD AMOLED displays of the Xs. Another thing Apple dropped from the Xr is the secondary camera present in the Xs, limiting the phone to purely software based bokeh effect and taking away the capability of optical zoom. While these things may add up to create a lackluster offering on paper, it does not matter as the typical iOS user targeted by Apple does not usually bother going over a spec sheet, and more importantly is limited by the choices which Apple provides if he has made up his mind for an iOS device. Apple also threw in a plethora of color options to target the youth, knowing full well the aspirational value an iPhone holds in a developing country like India.
By Dhruv Malik