For tech writers and readers worldwide, autumn represents the start of what some of us refer to as ‘smartphone season’. It’s when the world’s biggest manufacturers tend to drop their flagship products. Yet this year, I just can’t get excited about it.
The rumor mill is already in full swing, but as we begin preparing for IFA 2019 in Berlin, arranging appointments and talking about how we cover the event, I can’t help but feel underwhelmed by smartphone season 2019. I’m sure there will be some great phones launched by the likes of Google, Apple, and Huawei, but for some reason, the buzz is just not there for me. I need to try to work out why.
The upcoming smartphones for 2019
When the Huawei Mate 20 Pro came out last year, I was really excited to try it. The fingerprint reader under the display felt like a genuine step forward, added with the Face Unlock technology, despite its stumbling start, it felt like we were starting to experiment with the way we unlock our phones and that was cool. It was also the first phone I’d held with a Kirin 980 in it, an SoC that was highly anticipated thanks to its use of AI.
This year, with the Huawei Mate 30 line just around the corner, my anticipation is slightly subdued. Leaks show a new camera module design, and it may well launch with a Kirin 985 (or some other new, unannounced processor) but apart from that, there’s little to write home about, at least from where I am standing. I hope I am wrong.
Then we’ve got the Google Pixel 4. I’m a huge fan of Pixel phones, the 3a is currently my daily driver and it’s a phone I keep going back to once I’m done testing whatever is currently on my desk. The heavily leaked Pixel 4 is my most anticipated smartphone in 2019, but even so, there are warning signs that quell my excitement.
Firstly, there is the gesture control teaser video published by Google. Anyone who has used an LG G8 ThinQ will be ambivalent at best about the future of this technology. Google could, of course, master it and change the game, but I’ll believe that when I see it. Apart from that, I’m expecting a faster, better version of the Pixel 3. The dual camera enters a world where three, four or even five is normal, although I am interested to see what Google does with the camera software. A 90 or 120 Hz display could also get me going, but not if they stick a hole punch in it.
Apple will be dropping the successor to its iPhone XS this autumn too. Even the most tribal Android fans are lying if they say they don't take at least a passing interest in what Apple does with its smartphones. Sure, they will be ludicrously expensive, predictable in design, and I really don't get on with iOS at all, but you can’t deny that if Apple innovates, we’ll all be swallowing the same pill soon enough.
All of the buzz around the next big step forward for iPhone is for 2020. That’s when we expect Apple to enter the 5G market. For 2019, expect more AR applications and perhaps a new display. I doubt the next big smartphone-spanning trend is coming from Apple this fall.
Then there’s Sony. Perhaps we’ll get an Xperia 2. The Xperia 1 was only announced at MWC 2019 in February, so don’t expect that to be making any giant leaps forward. Nokia has been doing some really cool stuff recently, but HMD Global is more about getting the basics spot on these days than taking any major risks - the Nokia 9 PureView apart! We’ve already gotten our hands on the new Note 10 and Note 10 Plus. They look great, but not groundbreaking. HTC?.... Only kidding!
The failed promise of foldable phones and 5G
I think part of the reason for my apathy is that 2019 has been a year of failed promises so far. This was meant to be the year of the foldable smartphone - the new form factor to end stagnation in the smartphone space. Only it hasn't happened. The Galaxy Fold had its disaster launch-that-was-not-really-a-launch and the Huawei Mate X has gone into hiding. The Galaxy Fold will resurrect in September, of course, but these things rarely go well when the false start has been as dramatic as Samsung’s first foldable smartphone’s was.
There is one foldable smartphone I am excited about, however, and that’s the Motorola Razr 2019. A lot of this excitement (OK all of it!) is admittedly driven by nostalgia. I had an original Razr as a teenager and loved it. But I’m also intrigued by the rumored decision to go a bit more mid-range with the specs. Word on the street is that the foldable Razr will use a Snapdragon 710 with a little as 4GB of RAM. If they can get this out for an affordable price, it could ride the crest of a wave and become an icon for a whole new generation, just like the original Razr did back in the early 00s. Please let it be true!
Then there’s 5G. Along with foldable displays, the fifth generation of networking technology was touted as being the next big thing in the mobile business. It’s true, of course, 5G will be revolutionary, taking the computing burden away from our phones and into the cloud. The first 5G phones are already on sale, and the networks are up and running in small parts of the US, the UK and Europe.
For me, 5G is exciting in a prosaic kind of way. I truly believe it will make our lives easier, better connected and more efficient eventually. But in the immediate future, at least, there’s little romance in faster network connections and more stable internet. That’s not what we get out of bed for in the morning, is it? The truly life-changing stuff that 5G will enable (connected cars, smarter cities, advanced cloud-computing) is still years away.
Perhaps I’m just being too curmudgeon about all of this. Forgive me, it's been a long, hot summer. But this is how I feel today, right now. I’ll keep you posted if things change.