2018 was a good year for smartphones. Not because of one show-stealing feature or an altogether new innovation, but because the whole smartphone world got really good. Your average phone in 2018 was much better than in the last few years, and that's better for everyone. But in 2019, I see a year in Android that will be slightly different — a "tock" cycle of altogether new technology and innovations hitting the market, rather than a "tick" of a rising tide that lifts all ships.
Here are the trends we can all look forward to in the Android world in the coming year.
Innovative notches; the death of the 'notch'
Back in April I wrote about display notches and how they're not inherently bad, so long as they actually serve a purpose. At the time I also pointed out that getting frustrated over notches isn't worth our time, because they'll soon be reduced and then disappear as quickly as they arrived. 2019 is the year for the start of this transition away from notches.
Notches are getting smaller, they're changing shape, and in some cases they aren't really "notches" at all. 2019's notches will be in the corner(s) of the display, they'll be just barely larger than the components they contain, or they'll be just a hole in the display rather than a full-on notch. All of these new designs are less intrusive, less annoying and take up less of your display.
A prototypical top-dead-center notch will remain for some time, particularly at the mid-range price segments where phones get years-old tech that trickles down. But at the high end we'll see fewer large notches and more innovative screen shapes and cutouts that more graciously integrate the cameras and sensors we need to have.
Samsung will release a foldable phone in 2019, and it won't be alone. This is the next frontier for smartphones, because as soon as the technology can be shrunk down to a pocketable size, it just makes sense as a concept. Our insatiable appetite for larger screens has made phones too big to fit in our hands and our pockets, yet we keep wanting more screen real estate, more features and larger batteries. A foldable phone starts to solve the hand and pocket problem by letting a phone be compact when you need it to, then expand when you want more screen to see or interact with.
The first foldable phones will be big, bulky and not all that enticing, much like the first big "phablet" phones, but don't get discouraged — foldable phone technology is an exciting development that has the potential to change what we consider to be a "smartphone" form factor.
You could also use this discussion foldable phones to include sliders, but I don't see those sticking around very long. Foldable displays justify their thickness with dramatically increased screen real estate, whereas sliders add lots of physical complexity for little benefit. And advancements in notch, display, sensor and camera technology will eventually let components rest inside and behind displays in ways that will negate the need for a slider altogether.
Fewer headphone jacks, ports and buttons
Headphone jacks aren't dead. Far from it, in fact, particularly in all of the segments below the ultra-expensive flagships. But customers don't seem to mind missing the headphone jack too much, and keep buying phones without it — so companies keep putting out phones without one. The trend will continue in 2019, and you shouldn't ever assume that a company will make an about-face move and bring a headphone jack back to a model — when it's dead, it's dead.
But this is really a symptom of smartphone makers wanting to simplify their hardware in a multitude of ways. First, it was removable batteries. Then, SD card slots, LED notification lights, headphone jacks, large speaker grills, and so on. Now it's buttons and ports of all kinds. The fewer openings there are in a thin phone's frame, the fewer failure points to exploit in a pocket or with a drop. HTC tried to eschew buttons altogether and mostly failed, but you can't count out this happening again.
If there's a way a company can remove a port, button or moving part from a phone while spinning it as a positive (or gracefully not mentioning it), it'll do it. Customers will complain a bit, but it doesn't seem to be as big of a hang-up in purchases as it is in discussion.
The start of the (confusing) 5G transition
2019 will be, finally, the year of the transition to consumer-ready 5G networks. We've been hearing the hype and promises for a couple years now, but carriers are finally putting their cell sites where their marketing is. Verizon and AT&T are leading the 5G charge in the U.S., and dozens of carriers around the world are doing the same in their respective countries. 5G that's currently limited to fixed home-based internet service and large dedicated mobile hotspots right now will make its way into phones throughout 2019, and the number of markets where 5G is available will go from a handful to dozens.
But the transition to 5G will unfortunately be slow, convoluted and ultimately confusing — just like the move from CDMA and HSPA (3G) to LTE (4G). We'll still be using LTE for years to come as the backbone of cellphone networks while 5G is rolled out, as 5G will take several years to deploy fully and even when "finished" will still rely on LTE for rural network deployments. Unfortunately, we're in for the same transitional headaches as the 3G-to-4G move as well; AT&T is already muddying the waters, and carriers are already greatly over-exaggerating the size of their networks. The first 5G phones will look like the first LTE phones did: big, battery-hungry and exclusive to specific carriers. But we'll get past this, and 5G will be fantastic. Eventually.
All photography is 'computational' photography
One of the most consistently impressive improvements in smartphones through 2017 and 2018 was camera quality. Every smartphone over $150 has a pretty good camera, and the top-end models have truly excellent cameras. Nearly all of the improvement has come from what we refer to as "computational photography," or the idea that a series of deeply complex algorithms and processing generates photos rather than a basic sensor simply capturing what it sees.
Google steals the limelight with its Night Sight feature that's a shining example of what computational photography can bring us, but the truth is that every smartphone is using some level of computation when it creates photos, and smartphones will only lean further on this technology in the year to come. Smartphones don't have any more room inside for larger cameras, but the software and processors inside are more than picking up the slack. With the right processing, a phone with a tiny sensor and simple lens can take photos that rival a professional's DSLR.
And these features aren't reserved for only the most expensive phones from the big brands that have massive dedicated photography engineers. Companies like Qualcomm are making plug-and-play solutions that smartphone manufacturers can license and bring advanced photography solutions to their phones without the massive investment of developing the features themselves.
What are your predictions?
With a fresh calendar ahead of us, and lots of new Android phones yet to launch, where do you see things going? Let us know your predictions and wild expectations in the comments!
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Andrew was an Executive Editor, U.S. at Android Central between 2012 and 2020.