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2021 hasn’t been a great year for phones… yet

2021 has not been a standout year for smartphone releases. There have been some excellent devices at various price points, but for me very little has really stood out.

I think that is to be expected. The Covid-19 pandemic took hold of the industry last year and has clearly severely affected many things, not least the global chip shortage. But there does still seems to be a real lack of innovation with what we’ve seen so far.

The Samsung Galaxy S21 line, for example, was a change of direction for the brand. The S21 and S21 Plus felt almost like downgrades in terms of features to reach a more affordable price point, while the pricier S21 Ultra righted many of the wrongs of its predecessor.

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Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs Samsung Galaxy S21. Front shot of the screens.
Galaxy S21 (left) vs S21 Ultra (right)

It’s been a similar story for other big Android phones, like the OnePlus 9 Pro and Oppo Find X3 Pro – good devices with high prices and mostly minor updates over the phones they replaced.

You can even say the X3 Pro, a phone I liked a lot when I reviewed it shortly after release, is a downgrade over the X2 Pro from 2020 as it ditched the excellent telephoto zoom camera that made that phone so special.

There’s also been a slightly disappointing, but entirely predictable, trend at the cheaper end of the market where 5G feels like the feature every phone must have, even if it leads to sacrifices being made elsewhere.

5G just simply isn’t that important yet and it shouldn’t be the feature that entices someone to upgrade or choose one phone over another. Something like the Xiaomi Redmi Note 10 Pro ditched 5G but made up for it with an excellent camera, screen and battery. I would choose this every day over a similarly-priced device with 5G that lacked some of those high-end features.

Innovation has still been felt, though. Gaming-focussed phones seem to be growing in numbers, with the Asus ROG Phone 5 offering some genuinely different features for those who want to play games on the go.

Asus is also responsible for what I consider to be the biggest surprise of the year so far with the Zenfone 8. This iPhone 12-sized phone is powerful and very capable, with a lovely screen and a strong design – but it’s also far smaller than any other Android flagship. For those who have long complained that phones are too big, this is for you.

We’re only halfway through the year and there’s a lot to come

While I can’t say I have been blown away by the innovation levels so far this year, there’s still a lot to come.

Samsung is expected to hold the next Unpacked event in August and, if the rumours are to believed, it’ll be headlined by foldables.

The Z Fold 3 and Z Flip 3 have been heavily leaked and I think it shows just how much Samsung wants this new category to succeed that it’s ditching the next Note device for them. The Z Fold is now Samsung’s second flagship line, underneath the more mainstream S series.

Leaks also suggest Google is going to have a busy few months. The Pixel 6 and 6 Pro should swap the mid-range comforts of last year’s models for the all-out flagship specs we saw in previous years. The phones themselves could also look radically different, with orange hues and a unique camera array.

I was a big fan of the modest Pixel 4a and 5G devices and I hope Google still services that more affordable end of the market, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t excited by a specced-out Pixel 6 Pro with the best camera around.

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Google also has its new Wear OS software to fully reveal and a possible Pixel Watch to release.

Then, of course, there’s Apple. The iPhone 13 Pro looks to be the focus this year, with a 120Hz display finally making its way across from the iPad Pro. Add this in and the iPhone catches up to Android in another area it’s been trailing in for a while now. I wouldn’t be surprised if the A15 was another dramatic leap forward for mobile chipsets too.

We’ve also got Huawei and the heavily delayed P50 which should be a force to be reckoned with when it comes to camera tech.

Lower down the food chain we also have Honor’s first Google Play-toting device in a number of years and the OnePlus Nord 2 once again taking on the budget market.

huawei p50 series image showing the back
Huawei P50 series

So all in all, while it hasn’t been the most exciting year for phones yet, but that could all change very soon.

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