Good phones drop all the time, but when I glance back at 2018's greatest hits, it's clear that this year brought us something special. The parade of top models from tried-and-true hitmakers Apple, Samsung and Google include the iPhone XR, Galaxy S9 and Pixel 3.
These gems went beyond premium phones into midrange and budget devices, and even into innovations from globally lesser-known brands such as Oppo and Vivo. Niche phonemakers tried to do something different, too, an effort we can all appreciate.
But what made phones really sing in 2018 — one of the best ever collections in my eight-plus years as a phone reviewer — is the consistently high bar of quality across the board. Phones were fast, powerful, and brimming with exciting hardware and software. Photos have gotten so good, the best low-light camera on the planet outdid itself this year, by far.
Even the undersung specimens that didn't make our best lists drew high scores for their rock-solid performance. We saw an embarrassment of riches anyone would be happy to have, even among the more moderately priced devices.
While the sheer volume of quality phones topped the charts this year, not every trend was a win. You railed against the increasing presence of notches cut out of screens, and headphone jacks are still on the chopping block. Prices spiked hard in 2018, with Samsung, Apple and Huawei cementing the $1,000 starting price for a premium phone.
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A shifting landscape in 2019 will see rising competition go along with higher costs. And while most 4G LTE phones will hew to the status quo, at least two new tracks are set to develop alongside them.
Here's exactly how phones surged ahead, and the biggest winners and losers in 2018. Plus, a peek into the mobile world's emerging phone categories.
Best phones of 2018
Most innovative phones of 2018
Huawei P20 Pro: Gradient design, triple rear cameras
Oppo Find X: Sleek pop-up camera module
Vivo X21: First in-screen fingerprint reader
Razer Phone 2: A true premium phone for gamers
Red Hydrogen One: A camera phone aimed at Hollywood
Biggest phone winners of 2018
Apple: Over $1 trillion in profits, propelled by iPhone sales
OnePlus: Carrier support from T-Mobile boosted US sales by 249 percent
Samsung: Hanging on as world's largest phone-maker
Huawei: Ousted Apple as No. 2 phone brand by sales volume
Biggest phone losers of 2018
Huawei: Business deals rotted on the vine over growing concern about Huawei's ties to the Chinese government, and violation of US trade sanctions.
ZTE: This other Chinese brand got lumped in with Huawei, and President Trump had to intervene after sanctions crushed ZTE's business with a components ban. The ban has since lifted.
Palm: A potentially huge comeback fizzled with this pricey accessory that isn't a phone at all.
We've never been closer to true edge-to-edge screens
Phone designs were still relatively stagnant in 2018, but manufacturers dutifully shaved down bezels and stretched screen sizes to cram as much screen as possible into a footprint as small as possible.
In order to get around the pesky problem of the front-facing camera and a physical home button, phonemakers used every trick in the book, and then invented some new ones: We saw screen notches that create "wings" around the notch, hidden cameras that pop out from within when you invoke them (that's you, Oppo Find X and Vivo Nex) and a wider variety of gesture controls.
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In-screen fingerprint scanners are a thing now
Last January, Chinese brand Vivo stunned us with a concept phone with the first-ever in-screen fingerprint reader. The optical sensor basically takes a picture of your fingerprint to confirm that you're you.
Although this method was unreliable and its security questionable, other brands, from Huawei to OnePlus, embedded fingerprint scanners beneath the screen, too.
Now that Qualcomm, the world's largest chipmaker for mobile phones, has announced an ultrasonic fingerprint reader that uses sound for identifying your print, chances are high most premium Android phones will have one next year.
Cameras and video are crazy-good
Excellent camera phones blossomed in 2018. The Pixel 3, iPhone XS and XR, Galaxy S9 and Note 9, and Huawei P20 Pro and Mate 20 Pro all produced excellent photography and videos. The Pixel 3's Night Site mode for low light shots is stunningly noteworthy, while Huawei's two "Pro" handsets include a similar feature.
More cameras used AI smarts to automatically match optimal settings to lighting scenes, like the Note 9 and Huawei's two phones, and super slow motion video (from Sony's XZ3 Premium especially) made its way across many high-end models.
Wireless charging, waterproofing prevail; headphone jack hangs on
While there wasn't a lot of change here, wireless charging and water-resistant coatings remain a high standard in 2018 for the upper echelons. But phones without these features, such as the OnePlus 6T, tend to cost less.
OnePlus was the latest to drop support for the headphone jack, but Samsung, LG and others hung on. The headphone jack's fortunes could change in late 2019 if rumors that 2019's Galaxy S10 will be the last Samsung phone to have one — a Note 10 in August that loses its headphone jack would portend the end of the native 3.5mm port for wired headphones.
Battery life a little better, just not like we'd wish
You want long battery life no matter which phone you get, and that's at odds with power-hungry advancements like larger screens and complex photography processing. The more time you spend streaming video and navigating directions, the quicker your reservoir drains.
Yet battery life in 2019 often gets a tad longer despite these strains, because the chip inside is much brawnier every year. However, we can't ignore the discrepancy between the gains we're promised and what we get. For example, the Galaxy S9 battery didn't last as long as we'd like, while the S9 Plus took us on an all-day ride.
Much of that has to do with the way the chip comes together with the phone makers' own software layers. Apple is the notable exception since it controls both processors and software in-house. iPhone battery life is passable, but pales in comparison to some top Android phones.
Let's talk about that $1,000 price tag
Last year's iPhone X shocked the world with a $1,000 starting price, which Samsung followed with the Note 9 in 2018. (See which was better value for money).
There's no doubt that all phones are getting more expensive — here are the numbers to prove it. The upward price trend and shift to 5G suggests that these prices will continue to rise, and likely the cost of unlimited plans, too.
"If you generate enough value," Samsung's SVP of mobile, Justin Denison said this month about 5G phones, "Then consumers will be ready to pay." The same can be said for today's LTE devices as well.
2019 will incubate 5G phones, foldable, 3D selfie cameras
The phones of 2018 struck the right chords, building a momentum that will take us well into 2019.
These devices will get faster (for example, those using Qualcomm's Snapdragon 855 chip), and more will get secure in-screen fingerprint scanners and 3D front-facing cameras that create depth maps of your face for more interesting selfies and let you securely pay for goods.
Phones in 2019 will also use more AI and their software capabilities will keep growing. For example, Android phones will develop as Google continues to roll out new updates for Google Assistant and Google Duplex, which can call real humans to make reservations on your behalf and could soon field incoming calls for you.
Alongside these changes, expect to see prices continue to swell as phones in 2019 become an even more essential part of your everyday life.
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