AnandTech Year In Review 2020: Flagship Mobile

We’re a few days away from completing the 2020 calendar year, and it’s been a quite a hectic year for everybody. In times of troubles, the smartphone industry had been under a two-prong attack from both an economic stand-point as well as the from a product maturity standpoint – trying hard to innovate with new features to convince users to upgrade their previous generation devices. This year, we’ve seen several new industry trends make breakthrough advances in terms of technology in smartphones, beyond the obvious elephant in the room, by which 2020 will be remembered by: Big camera sensors, 120Hz displays, several large SoC moves, 5G, and several other vendor product choices.

Big Sensors go Mainstream

Although a subjective opinion, what I view as one of the most important developments in 2020 mobile devices has been the widespread adoption of larger camera sensors. While in years past, Huawei had been the notable exception to the rule in terms of adopting larger camera sensors in their smartphones, this year, we’ve seen almost everybody make the transition to larger formats – either 1/1.78” sensors or even the new humongous 1/1.33” bests in some flagships.

Galaxy S20 Ultra & Galaxy S20+

Bigger sensors most of the time means that vendors are able to use bigger pixels – which in turn results in better dynamic range capability and better low light captures. This year we’ve seen many flagships at least adopt a 1/1.78” sensor which is notably larger than previous generation 1/2.3” or 1/2.5” units – resulting in 12MP 1.8µm pitch units like on the new S20 series and some other vendors such as Sony.

Other vendors have opted to go even bigger – ranging from 1/1.3” to 1/1.4” sensors. The most notable and talked about has been Samsung’s new 108MP units in the S20 Ultra and Note20 Ultra series. Although the high-pixel count sensors deployed on these devices have questionable benefits in their native resolution, the ability to bin 3×3 pixels down to an 12MP image means we’re looking at effective light gathering capabilities similar to that of a 2.4µm pixel pitch sensor, something well beyond other current sensors on the mobile market.

We’ve seen variations of these huge sensors – Xiaomi also uses a 108MP native unit but bins down by 2×2 to a 27MP capture mode in general use-cases, while OnePlus had opted for a slightly smaller 1/1.4” sensor in the OnePlus 8 Pro with a 48MP native resolution, binning down to 12MP.

The big caveat with these big sensors is their optics systems – many times the plastic lenses can’t keep up with the resolution of the sensors, partly negating some of their characteristics, making much of the 108MP contenders relatively gimmicky in real-world scenarios.

iPhone 11 Pro vs Galaxy S20 Ultra

The other big issue with larger sensor sizes is that they require a larger z-height of the camera module, which means larger camera bumps. And oh boy, we did get some really funky looking camera bumps in this year’s devices, such as the massive design element on the S20 and Note Ultras.

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120Hz, An Almost Must

Another big development this year has been the mainstream adoption of high refresh rate display panels. While in 2019 90 or 120Hz displays were exotic or reserved for special gaming-oriented phones, in 2020 it could be said that it was a checkmark feature for almost every vendor, essentially eliminating 60Hz from almost all new product releases bar the mid-range or low-end.

Though 120 and 90Hz displays this year certainly have augmented the fluidity and user experience of flagship devices, only the Note20 Ultra was the one device which was able to adopt this with relatively few drawbacks, thanks to its new polycrystalline and oxide panel technology. For the rest of the market, 120Hz came with a relatively larger battery impact, meaning the new fluidity came with a device longevity compromise.

For 2021, I see more vendors adopt the new 120Hz feature in a more optimised manner that improves upon the battery consumption, maturing the technology to a point where it becomes a no-brainer to have it enabled by default.

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Exynos Core Death (& Revival?)

Continuing with our takes on key hardware component changes in 2020, one large move has been Samsung’s abandonment of their custom CPU cores in their Exynos chipsets. Struggling with power efficiency and performance competitiveness for several years now, Samsung LSI finally cut the cord on their custom CPU core design project and team, opting to instead fully rely on Arm’s future Cortex CPU IP for next-generation Exynos SoCs.

We had been covering Samsung’s cores in detail for several years now, and it’s unfortunate to say that the project’s cancellation is likely the best-case scenario for future Exynos SoCs, dropping one of the chip’s most negative aspects – and in turn likely result in significantly better designs in 2021, hopefully eliminating some of the performance and power efficiency differences between Snapdragon and Exynos Galaxy phones.

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MediaTek Dimensity Resurgence

2020 marked MediaTek’s re-entry into the high-end SoC market, introducing the new Dimensity 1000 SoC. Although the new design was off to an extremely slow start with very few design wins in the first half of the year, the company’s efforts in the mid-range Dimensity series has results in a large amount of design wins, and according to Counterpoint Research, allowed the company to actually position itself as the #1 SoC vendors in Q3 2020, taking market share from the likes of Qualcomm.

We had reviewed the Dimensity 1000 inside of the OPPO Reno3 5G and found it to be an excellent SoC in terms of performance and efficiency – what’s really lacking though is a more prestigious high-volume design win that has more visibility. Hopefully MediaTek manages to achieve such a design in 2021.

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5G for Most

While 5G has been a premium “the new thing” feature in some 2019 devices, it can be said that it’s really in 2020 where the new cellular communication standard has really been adopted as a mainstream technology in new smartphone products. Almost every new Android flagship device has had 5G as a selling point in 2020, and with Apple’s release of 5G-only iPhone 12 series, we can pretty much say we’ve made a turning point between 4G and 5G.

Although cellular networks in many countries are still in deployment and it’ll probably be a few years before 5G becomes ubiquitous for everybody, buying a 4G device today is no longer the best long-term investment unless you’re really looking at low-end devices. 5G also has trickled down to the premium and mid-range thanks to the likes of SoCs such as the Snapdragon 765 – with 2021 projected as being the year where we’ll also see the $250 device market also adopt 5G connectivity.

OnePlus produces the best all-rounders

One of the biggest surprises this year and devices which generally delighted me the most was OnePlus’s new 8-series. Particularly with the OnePlus 8 Pro, I feel like the company had ditched its mantra of making “flagship killer” devices and simply outright made their first full true flagship device – a device with very few compromises.

The OnePlus 8 Pro for me really checked almost all boxes for what you’d expect in a 2020 flagship phone, QHD 120Hz screen, triple-camera setup with a new massive sensor- all whilst maintaining competitive pricing throughout the year and undercutting the closest competitor devices such as from Samsung.

Weak points of the OnePlus devices continue to be camera software processing. Unfortunately, I no longer have the devices to test further firmware updates throughout the year and to see how things have developed, however it looks like the phones aren’t getting as much attention and updates as other competitor devices such as from Samsung.

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Samsung’s Note20 creates a bad precedent

One of the most baffing devices of the year was Samsung’s new Note20. Samsung’s decision to create two Note devices isn’t exactly new as we had already seen the this being first implemented in the Note10 series in 2019 – however while the Note10 was mostly a smaller variant of the Note10+, with only a few feature discrepancies such as a lower resolution screen and a lack of a ToF sensor, the new Note20 really had almost nothing to do with the Note20 Ultra.

Featuring a completely different camera setup, a lower resolution, quite different design, 60Hz-only screen, a plastic covered back, the Note20 really felt more like a Note20 Lite whereas the Note20 Ultra was the true successor to last year’s Note10 series. This came at quite a starker contrast compared to the S20 versus S20 Ultra devices, with Samsung still featuring the Note20 at a quite expensive price point.

While we don’t usually comment on non-official information, there’s been plenty of leaks on the upcoming Galaxy S21 series where we’re seeing signs of a similar feature discrepancy between the regular S21 devices and the S21 Ultra – with features that were usually present on the regular models now being only present on the higher-end large-format phone. This is a general bad sign for consumers, especially in a year where Apple’s new iPhone 12 line-up now covers the entire spectrum from small to large in regular and premium variants.

It’s left to be seen how 2021 plays out, but I have a feeling Samsung here is loading up the gun in preparation of shooting themselves in the foot, and leaving open opportunities for the competition to actually deliver no-compromise devices across the spectrum.

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Huawei’s Last Kirin Phone?

Due to geopolitical circumstances, Huawei’s Mate 40 series devices might be the very last phones from the companies in the foreseeable future which come equipped with their in-house Kirin SoCs. Beyond the fact that the company had been barred from using Google services such as the Play store, cutting the company away from its own in-house silicon designs is a major blow that will have large repercussions to future products.

Amongst the largest implications, and assuming the company will be able to actually continue to produce handset devices using third-party SoCs such as from Qualcomm, is that this bars the company from having an advantage in software-hardware vertical integration. Huawei had been particularly a company that for years now had been taking advantage of their internal SoC designs to create camera experiences leveraging custom sensors along with their custom ISPs, giving them unique advantages such as RYB sensor designs that were vastly superior in low-light compared to other manufacturer designs.

Whether Huawei would be able to continue such unique differentiation in 2021 isn’t clear – and if the current software situation hasn’t already killed the viability of Huawei smartphones outside of China, then the possible lack of any differentiation against the competitor hardware surely will.

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The Pixel is no longer a Flagship

The last few generation of Pixel phones weren’t all that successful – Google’s late-year release schedule always meant that hardware-wise, the Pixels were always relatively out-dated compared to nearest released competitor flagship phone, which always put into question the value proposition of Google’s flagship phones. I had commented in our Pixel 4 review last year that Google had to change something in their strategy, and they actually did this year with the Pixel 5:

The Pixel 5 no longer positions itself as a flagship device, but rather as a “premium” segment phone, meaning the segment between flagships and the usually mid-range. Falling back to a Snapdragon 765 SoC, this means that the Pixel 5 featured a weaker SoC, but also came with a much more reasonable launch price of $699.

The issue for the Pixel 5 however came from its own ranks: the sibling Pixel 4a 5G features the same SoC, same camera setup, adds a 3.5mm headphone jack, and only gives up an IP68 rating and 90Hz refresh rate for only $499 in the non-mmWave variant of the phone, positioning itself as a much more attractive value than the Pixel 5.

The fact that Google still doesn’t officially release the devices in many countries also continues to pose the question of whether they’re being serious about the whole Pixel line-up.

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Apple’s has an iPhone for everybody

Apple’s new 2020 iPhone 12 line-up has been extremely impressive, for the sole reason of it being extremely versatile in terms of the model offering. Now having released a total of 4 iPhone 12 models, Apple’s offering of the iPhone 12 mini, iPhone 12, iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max means there’s a plenty of choice for consumers, with this year having significantly less features discrepancies between the models other than their builds and form-factors.

While Apple’s iPhones don’t particularly shine in every aspect besides the still outstandingly well performing A14 SoCs – they lack fancy features such as high refresh-rate displays or the new more advanced camera sensors of the competition, they’re still outstandingly solid overall devices, with particularly the 12 mini and the iPhone 12 offering shockingly good value starting at $699 and $799 – something we usually can’t really claim very often about Apple devices.

What really impresses me about the line-up is that these are almost feature equivalent between each other whilst being mostly different in their form-factors – an increasingly rare product design decision that comes in contrast to other vendor’s choices of putting all bells and whistles onto their biggest models while leaving the smaller devices with compromises, or even removing historically present features. In that sense, Apple offers an iPhone for everybody’s taste and budget.

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What to expect from 2021: Maturity, Refinement

Overall, 2020 has been a year of varying successes and introduction of new features. The market is becoming increasingly mature and device purchase cycles are getting longer, as manufacturers are struggling to really put truly differentiating features on every new generation of devices.

For 2021, what I’m expecting is more of a year of refinement and maturity. I hope to see 120Hz displays become a standard, with a more optimised software and hardware stack that reduces the battery life impact.

The new generation 5nm SoCs such as the Snapdragon 888 will bring performance benefits, but the newer generation of 5G modems hopefully will also mark a maturation of the technology and a return to extremely long battery life devices.

Finally, cameras are really becoming the aspect today where smartphones differ the most from each other. The various new camera technology approaches, together with the fact that AI and software plays a huge role in the final products means that vendors have to differentiate through talent and software resources as well. While the hardware of 2021 might not bring anything ground-breaking to the market, I still expect major leaps in the computational photography side of devices.

We’re looking forward to the first new releases of 2021 in the comings weeks and months, and we’ll be sure to cover them extensively.

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