There’s a lot to be excited about if you’re looking for something new in the world of smartphones. And if you happen to be in the market for a new phone this year, you’re probably wondering what’s on the horizon. Read on to find out.
Technically folding phones arrived in 2019, but I never saw a single one outside of some kind of presentation. In 2020 they should arrive in earnest, if only because manufacturers like Samsung and Huawei are desperate for some novelty to shake us out of our “phones are boring now” malaise.
We already know at least one new version of the Galaxy Fold, possibly titled the “Galaxy Z Flip” or similar, should be coming to Samsung’s don’t-call-it-MWC-Unpacked event in February. And Lenovo is pushing hard for folding screens, both with the revived Motorola RAZR brand and the ThinkPad X1 Fold computer.
TCL, which is planning a sizable push into the mid-range in western markets, is still showing off its own folding screen tech. It seems more likely the company will sell its folding panel to other manufacturers for their own entrances into the folding phone world, unless TCL is planning a big high-end push and hasn’t told anyone.
If you can’t beat ’em . . . um, kinda-sorta-imitate them. That seems to be the approach several companies are taking when it comes to folding screens. Take LG, for example, which made a big deal out of its add-on screen for the G V50. ASUS did something very similar with the gaming-focused ROG Phone.
You can spot a few more variations on the double-screen design from smaller vendors, but none are more notable than Microsoft’s first self-branded foray into mobile hardware, the Surface Duo. Along with its bigger, laptop-sized brother the Surface Neo, the pair represent a refutation of the folding screen trend, with Microsoft choosing to focus on dual screens with a book-style fold.
Is that because Microsoft truly doesn’t believe in folding screens (which, to be fair, have a lot of issues), or is it that they don’t own any of the expensive and lucrative tech going into those screens? You be the judge. The point is that, between folding and semi-folding designs, there’ll be a lot of new stuff happening in both physical and UI designs for phones this year. Whether any of it will stick is the question—it seems at least as likely as not that we’ll go right back to glass rectangles.
Crazy Camera Arrays
The one area of smartphone design that seems to consistently make leaps and bounds ahead is cameras, benefiting both from the miniaturization of sensor and lens technology and the advancement of post-processing on the software side. And multiple cameras for multiple zoom levels and advanced light-gathering is a crucial element of that process.
With Apple, Samsung, and Google embracing the “more = better” school of camera lenses, expect the expanding bump of rear cameras to expand even further. Early leaks of one Galaxy S20 model (because “Galaxy S11” is a bit of a mouthful) indicate that it’ll have at least five rear cameras, covering wide-angle and super zoom capabilities. The fashionable rounded square on the rear of phones might just stretch to a rectangle.
Better photos are an easy sell to consumers. Not everyone knows or cares about the differences in better processors or more memory, but show someone side-by-side photos from a better and worse camera, and they’ll instantly know which one they prefer.
High Refresh Rate Displays
Once you get used to a screen with a faster refresh rate, it’s tough to go back to old-fashioned 60 Hz. That’s less important for a monitor or TV (unless you’re playing a game), but the animation-rich interfaces of phones and apps benefit from it quite a lot.
Previously restricted faster screens were limited to “gaming” phones like the Razer Phone, with its double-quick 120 Hz panel. OnePlus and Google are now using 90 Hz screens—not as fast or battery-sucking as 120 Hz, but still much better than standard—on the OnePlus 7 Pro/T and Pixel 4 series, respectively.
Samsung is expected to bump up its AMOLED display panels to 120 Hz for the S20, and presumably the next Note as well. It’s a small but noticeable change, so expect to see it pop up more often. OnePlus has also confirmed that it’s bumping its next phone up to 120 Hz.
Face Unlock/Facial Recognition
Whatever your feelings on replacing biometric fingerprint sensors with 3D facial scanning—and no, not everyone is a fan—it seems to be here to stay. When it works right, it’s undeniably convenient to simply glance at your phone and be sure it’s securely unlocked. It’s a small but crucial change in the way we use phones, saving a couple of precious seconds every time. It’s not much, but it’s more than enough to make you miss it when it’s not there.
All of the major phone manufacturers have gotten onto face recognition in one way or another, and even mid-range phones can technically do it. But they’re usually using older 2D systems of facial recognition, which are slower and can be fooled much more easily. A dedicated 3D scanning system is a boon for user convenience and security, and it allows the manufacturer to save money and volume in the phone itself. Expect 3D facial recognition to push into the cheaper mid-range in 2020.
And speaking of which . . .
5G Pushes into the Mid-Range
High-speed 5G wireless has been all that carriers want to talk about for about a year, but manufacturers are more hesitant to jump on. Samsung is leading the charge, perhaps because 5G adoption has been so much faster in South Korea, where densely-packed urban areas make it much more effective than Europe or the U.S.
But manufacturers are starved for novelty and differentiation. Now that suppliers like Qualcomm have had a few whacks at integrating 5G radio into silicon, expect to see it spread beyond the limited edition, ultra-flagship models that are more footnote than actual mass-market products. Like 3G and LTE in years past, 5G will start spreading into mainstream and mid-range devices quickly.
Whether 5G’s high-frequency, short-distance coverage and miasma of incompatible carrier bands will translate to actual utility for users has yet to be seen. But that hardly matters—in a year or two, a 5G capability will be a lot like 4K resolution on televisions: Not everyone can make use of it, but everyone will have it nonetheless.
2020 Big Phone Road Map
If you don’t follow the minutia of the phone world in excruciatingly obsessive detail. . . well, good for you. Seriously, this isn’t entirely healthy. But if you’d like the arguable benefit of that obsession without putting in years of gadget blogging, here’s a broad outlook of the major phone releases coming later this year.
Note that, with the exception of the Galaxy S20 and Motorola RAZR, we’re only guessing at very probable phone names. Similarly, as the list grows, details will get thinner and thinner. We’re not fortune tellers, people.
Motorola RAZR: February
Motorola initially planned to have its vertical folding throwback to 2002’s favorite flip phone ready just after Christmas, then bumped the release to January. That seems a little hasty at this point, so we’ll guess it’s going to go on sale next month. Verizon is the exclusive retail partner in the U.S.
Samsung Galaxy S20: February-March
This is the only major phone release of the new year already nailed down to the calendar, as Samsung has sent out invitations to the latest Unpacked event on February 11. We’re already packing our bags for both this presentation and the following Mobile World Congress.
Expect bigger screens, faster processors, better cameras, a few software tweaks, and at least one new Galaxy Fold model (possibly the “Galaxy Z Flip/Bloom” with a clamshell design) and a 5G edition when the phones hit the market at the end of the first quarter.
Google Pixel 4a: Summer
This more budget-friendly variant of the Pixel 4, already leaked, should be launched sometime in the late spring or early summer if Google follows the roadmap of the Pixel 3a. Rumors indicate that there will be a 5G variant, too, but that seems a bit more far-fetched. Still, you can expect a killer camera for a price that won’t break the bank.
OnePlus 8: Summer
The next release from the dark horse of the phone industry is expected in May, with both OnePlus 8 Pro and a regular or “lite” variant. According to some very early leaks, the pop-up selfie cam is out (more’s the pity), and OnePlus is going with a more conventional hole-punch camera. We’ll probably see a 5G variant and (we can but hope!) wireless charging.
Samsung Galaxy Note 20: August-September
Samsung’s dual-phone approach to the top end of the market is as regular as Daylight Savings Time: Galaxy S in the spring, Galaxy Note in the fall, with each release often borrowing major features from the previous one.
iPhone 12: September-October
Apple reliably announces its yearly iPhone updates in September or October of each year, with releases coming just a couple of weeks later.
Google Pixel 5: October
Since transitioning from the Nexus brand to Pixel, all of Google’s phone announcements have come in October. At the moment, we’re too far out to predict what the Pixel 5 will feature, or even if it’ll be called the Pixel 5. Disappointing sales from the last two years might lead Google to make some drastic changes . . . or just plod on, because they’ve got more money than they know what to do with. We’ll see.
As fun as it is looking at what’s coming up, it’s also worth remembering you don’t have to upgrade your phone every year. Or even two! With smartphones continuing to get faster and more powerful, their lifespan is also increasing so you can hold on to that $1,000 purchase for longer. That’s better for your wallet and the environment.
But hey, if this is an upgrade year for you, then you have a lot to look forward to.