After over a decade of surging growth since the introduction of the first iPhone and Samsung Galaxy S handsets, the smartphone market shrank in 2018.
Global smartphone shipments fell by seven percent in the fourth quarter of 2018, with Samsung suffering a 13 percent drop in the third quarter, according to both IDC and Strategy Analytics. The slowdown was blamed on a lack of enticing new features from the latest handsets, and higher costs persuading consumers to hold onto older phones for longer.
On that note, a report from 2018 claimed the average U.S. adult keeps her smartphone for almost three years before replacing it.
The smartphone industry needed to shake things up, and over the last week it has done exactly that. Almost every major phone maker was at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week to reveal new handsets — and, more so than in recent years, each new model has a feature to get excited about.
Of course, 2019 will also be the year when 5G networks are switched on for the first time. These will bring huge increases in mobile internet speeds, meaning an HD movie can be downloaded in around five seconds, lag-free gaming is available everywhere, and networks in major cities will no longer suffer from congestion.
Here are nine new smartphone technologies we're excited about for 2019.
Ultrasonic fingerprint reader: Samsung Galaxy S10 and S10+
The Galaxy S10 goes on sale on March 8GearBrain
Having offered little in the way of new features for the last couple of years, Samsung is firing on all cylinders again with the Galaxy S10 lineup. Setting the S10 and S10+ apart from the crowd is their ultrasonic fingerprint sensor, which sits beneath the glass on the front of the handset.
The system works incredibly quickly and with the lightest of touches. It also works fine when your hands are wet, and doesn't require the screen to be on — unlike the beneath-glass system on the OnePlus 6T.
This is a perfect example of the user directly benefiting from the seamless integration of new technology. It makes unlocking the phone easier and quicker, and removes the need for a print reader placed awkwardly on the back of the phone, or on its power button.
Hole-punch front camera: Samsung Galaxy S10 and Honor View 20
The Galaxy S10e with its hole-punch front cameraGearBrain
Honor was first to adopt the new 'hole-punch' front camera design with its View 20, where a display notch is replaced by a small circular cut-out in the top corner. Soon after, Samsung refined this design with a smaller hole on the S10 and a 'double hole punch' on the S10+ for its camera and depth sensor.
This design takes up less display real estate than a notch, and because Samsung uses the in-display fingerprint reader, there's actually no need for a notch at all. For as long as Apple sticks with Face ID, we can't see it moving away from the notch design of the iPhone X — something we feel will quickly look dated.
Reverse wireless charging: Huawei Mate 20 and Samsung Galaxy S10
Galaxy Buds charging wirelessly on the back of a Galaxy S10
Huawei was first to fit a phone with reverse wireless charging, enabling its Mate 20 to top-up the battery of another device when the two are held back-to-back. But Samsung was first to actually make this feature useful, by demonstrating how the S10 can charge the case of the new Galaxy Buds wireless earphones.
We think this is a great use of the technology. Picture the scene; you board a flight to find your earphones are out of juice and you left the cable in your suitcase. No need to worry, because you can charge the Buds by placing their case on the back of your S10.
Smaller, cheaper flagships: Samsung Galaxy S10e and Google Pixel 3 Lite
The smaller S10e (far left) is still a flagship phone, despite its lower priceGearBrain
For the first time in years, Samsung now has a smaller and cheaper version of its flagship handset. But unlike the Galaxy S5 Mini of old, the S10e looks and feels every bit as premium as the regular S10, only with a more pocket-friendly screen size and a lower price (matching the iPhone Xr at $749).
It misses out on the in-display fingerprint reader (which is on the power button instead) and there's no 5G option, but otherwise we were very impressed with the cut-price handset. The fact journalists and Samsung staff alike kept mixing up the S10e with the S10 at their recent launch event proves just how good the smaller model looks.
Google is expected to launch a cheaper version of its Pixel 3 this year, called the Pixel 3 Lite. This phone, it is claimed, will offer the same extraordinary AI-powered cameras as the Pixel 3, putting market-leading photography within the reach of more consumers.
Folding phones: Huawei Mate X, Samsung Galaxy Fold, Royole FlexPai
The Huawei Mate X is the most impressive folding phone we have seen so far
Although most journalists haven't yet been allowed to touch the Huawei or Samsung — in fact, the latter was tricky to even photograph at MWC this week — hopes are high. The Huawei in particular, which doesn't suffer from the Galaxy Fold's large display bezels, looks promising and will hopefully usher in a brand new smartphone form-factor when it goes on sale in June.
That said, software will need to be rethought to get the most out of these devices, the hardware's durability is yet to be proven, and the prices are very high, with the Huawei costing $2,600. But this is the first generation; remember, the original iPhone was considered expensive and mocked by then-Microsoft boss Steve Ballmer back in 2007.
Five rear cameras: Nokia 9 PureView
The five cameras of the Nokia 9 PureViewGearBrain
Nokia saw the trend for two or three cameras on the back of smartphones and seriously raised the game this week, announcing a phone with five. The Nokia 9 PureView uses these — three monochrome, two color, but all with the same type of lens — to create huge image files. They weigh in at between 60 and 240 megapixel each, before being crunched by the processor into a more manageable size.
The process is slow and a little clunky, but the results could well be worth the wait. We're excited to see how other manufacturers will react to Nokia's five-camera system in 2019 and 2020, and if Google will stick adamantly to one lens and artificial intelligence for its fourth-generation Pixel.
Oppo 10x camera
A phone with this 10x zoom system will arrive in the second quarter of 2019Oppo
Sticking with the photography theme, Oppo used Mobile World Congress to show off its new 10x optical zoom system. This uses an ingenious periscope system inside the phone to send light through three lenses laid out perpendicular to the screen.
These magnify the image by up to 10x before it hits the imaging sensor and creates a photo. For comparison, most smartphones — iPhone XS included — only offer 2x optical zooming. Oppo says it will launch a phone with the 10x system during the second quarter of 2019.
As with Nokia's five-lens system, it will be fascinating to see if other manufacturers copy Oppo's approach and build their own periscope zoom systems.
Using the display as a speaker: LG G8 ThinQ
The LG G8 ThinQ vibrates its display to create a speaker
While we were left unimpressed by the LG G8's new Air Motion gesture system, the phone's innovative approach to audio piqued our curiosity at MWC. Instead of using a traditional speaker at the top of the display, the G8 ThinQ vibrates the display, turning its glass into a speaker.
This makes the phone louder (along with the same BoomBox sound chamber system we saw on the G7 last year), removes a hole for potential water ingress, and means the display can fill up more of the phone's footprint. The screen can even be pressed against your face to act like bone-conduction earphones when talking in a loud environment.
Tall 21:9 display: Sony Xperia 1
The Sony Xperia 1 has a movie-friendly 21:9 display aspect ratio
Sony has a fairly quiet Mobile World Congress, announcing three smartphones which failed to dominate the headlines in the way Samsung and Huawei did. However, Sony's new flagship, simply called the Xperia 1, is the first smartphone is offer a display aspect ratio of 21:9.
This makes the phone unusually tall and narrow, which won't be for everyone, but means many Hollywood movies will play without any unsightly black bars above and below the picture. It also means the phone can neatly display two apps at once.
What about Apple and the iPhone?
The next iPhone is due to be launched in SeptemberApple
All of this innovation leaves us wondering what Apple will do next. As we mentioned earlier, it seems unlikely that the company will ditch Face ID already, having only just fitted it to the new iPad Pro. As such, the iPhone is likely to keep its notch design for as long as Face ID requires the hardware that notch houses. An in-display fingerprint reader and the return of Touch ID would shake things up, but backwards steps are not something Apple tends to do.
We also can't see Apple jumping on the folding phone bandwagon just yet, if ever. Yes, the company has patented a device with a folding screen, but that alone doesn't mean much at this stage. Similarly, Apple isn't expected to launch a 5G iPhone until at least the fall of 2020, over a year after some of its rivals.
Apple is very rarely first to market when it comes to hardware innovation, so while everyone else works out what the future of the smartphone looks like, Apple is working on the future of how the smartphone is used. The next steps for this will be the imminent launch of news and movie subscription services. These will go some way towards restoring the revenue lost by softening iPhone sales, but lack the wow-factor of Samsung and Huawei's latest offerings.