There’s a consensus among some tech fans that the smartphone world is stagnating.
And while it’s true that handset design has become about fine margins rather than major overhauls (with some notable exceptions), the way our smartphones look and the things they can do have come on leaps and bounds in the past 12 months.
Whether it’s savvy new cameras, clever new software or a peek into the future, these were the biggest smartphone trends of 2018.
In the market for a new smartphone? Find good deals on a range of phones on our comparison pages.
Apps to tackle phone addiction
Smartphone addiction is increasingly regarded as a serious issue.
So much so that in the past year, the two major software companies took steps to try and help users grow their awareness of just much time they were spending on their devices.
Apple’s Screen Time, introduced with iOS 12, gives drill down details on how much time is spent on different apps, allows users to set time limits and operates a special down time function that strips an iPhone back to its core elements overnight.
Google’s Digital Wellbeing, a core part of Android Pie, does much the same, albeit with more powerful tools that make apps completely inaccessible when time limits have been hit.
These are timely and important tools as mobile-makers battle to improve their image.
Notches - more of them. And they're getting smaller
Go back a year, and the only phone doing the rounds with a notch was Apple’s newly minted iPhone X. Now, you can’t move for them.
The design remains divisive, with some believing that notches, or cut-outs, detract from the overall look of the device.
But they’ve become a core way of maximising screen space while keeping essential functionality such as front–facing cameras and other sensors.
Of course, Apple came back with its iPhone XS, XS Max and XR. But others followed, with varied results.
Huawei’s P20 and Mate 20 Pro showed the way, with small, teardrop style notches. This was a tactic also adopted by OnePlus with its excellent 6T.
Google failed hopelessly, however, its Pixel 3 XL’s notch an ugly attempt at keeping up with its rivals.
LG’s G7 took a novel approach, allowing users to hide the notch completely.
Samsung stayed above the fray and is planning a new cutout screen with a hole for the camera.
Huawei Mate 20 Pro back in hand camera lenses
Huawei Mate 20 Pro camera video black white colour hero size
Like the megapixel wars a decade ago, mobile-makers seem to be turning to the multi-lens camera as a way of standing out from the crowd.
Dual lenses, it seems, simply don’t cut it any more.
First there was the Huawei P20 Pro with its Leica–powered triple lens camera.
The same manufacture followed that up with another triple lens effort that took shooting to the next level.
Samsung couldn’t help itself, telegraphing plans for its 2019 flagships with a quadruple lens camera in the Galaxy S9.
And the imminent Nokia 9 is set to come with five cameras.
With patents showing LG readying a barely credible 16-lens camera, it seems mobile manufacturers are desperate to prove that more lenses means better pictures.
HQ Trivia and quiz apps
Coupling fiendish questions with the chance to win cash prizes, HQ Trivia is undoubtedly the app story of the year.
After debuting on the iPhone, it arrived on Android on the last day of 2017 and has since gone on to become a runaway phenomenon, sparking a glut of copycat apps that struggle to match the original.
The appeal is obvious – it’s always evolving, there are new questions every day and there’s always the chance you can win big.
AI in cameras
A times. Artificial Intelligence (AI) can be a little bit disappointing. And a lot frustrating.
Most obviously when your Amazon Echo goes massively off-piste and mishears a simple commmand. Or the checkout robot misidentifies a phantom "unauthorised item in the bagging area".
But when it comes to smartphones, AI has been something of a boon.
All the big names leant on AI to improve their cameras credentials this year. And the results were hugely impressive.
Apple’s Neural Engine, first seen in last year’s iPhone X, is a core part of the iPhone XS and iPhone XS’s camera, where it's employed to analyse scenes to ensure perfect results.
It's also at the heary of the improved Portrait Mode and allows users to blur the background of images after they’re taken.
How good is the iPhone XS camera, really? Read our review for the uSwitch verdict.
Google’s Pixel 3 and 3 XL features Top Shot and Photo Booth modes that use machine learning via the new Pixel Visual Core chip to pick out the best images from a burst and brighten dark spots in low light.
In-screen fingerprint scanner and all-screen fronts
OnePlus 6T in screen fingerprint scanner working hero size
OnePlus 6T in screen fingerprint scanner before hero size
Fingerprint scanners have been ten a penny ever since Apple first introduced Touch ID with the iPhone 5s.
But with the iPhone now a face scanning–only zone, rivals are looking to carve out a niche with a in–screen scanners.
Things are moving slowly – OnePlus was the only major mobile-maker to offer one on 2018.
And while it works well, Samsung’s plans for its own, more powerful effort is being teased for 2019’s Galaxy S10.
Meanwhile, all mobile-makers have started slimming bezels and placing their physical fingerprint scanners on the back of phones in a bid to make phones all–screen powerhouses.
Augmented Reality has quietly gone about its business in 2018.
After Apple CEO Tim Cook talked up the tech in 2017, this year has been all about making it into something more everyday.
Samsung’s Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus came with a new ARCore app featuring enjoyably daft games like Slingshot Island and apps like Ikea Place.
Google placed 60 AR–packing apps on the Play Store in March, as it looked to steal a march on Apple.
And the latter revealed clever new apps at its WWDC event, including a Lego game that allowed users ti turn a physical toy into a computer game.
Demise of Android tablets
With phones increasingly topping 6–inches, demand for tablets has waned in recent years.
But it’s only over the past 12 months that the true extent of their demise has come clear.
While Apple remains committed to its iPad line-up, Google seems much less keen on Android tablets.
The test version of the latest Android Pie software wasn’t made available for tablets and it took down its own tablet support page back in June.
While Samsung is still releasing tablets to diminishing returns, Google itself launched its Pixel Slate running using Chrome OS rather than Android.
Android is disappointing on tablets and it seems manufacturers aren’t fussed. And with larger phones on the rise, it’s not exactly a surprise.
Foldable phones are almost a real thing
Samsung Galaxy F foldable phone unfolding hero size
Samsung Galaxy F foldable phone unfolded hero size
Considering no mainstream mobile-maker actually released a folding phone in 2018, it’s a surprise that they’re one of the year’s biggest tech stories.
Samsung’s heavily tipped device, dubbed the Galaxy F, was the subject of endless rumours before the Korean tech giant unveiled a prototype at its developers conference in San Francisco in November.
With a tablet–sized screen that can be folded in half to make a standard–sized smartphone, it has set tongues wagging about whether the current slab-shaped design of phones is on its way out.
Google seems to think so, throwing its weight behind Samsung and pushing developers to create apps for folding handsets.
Huawei is plotting its own model, possibly called the Flexi, for 2019, as is LG. With Apple said to be readying its own version in a couple of years.
Expect this to be a big story over the next twelve months.
Licensed, animated emoji
Emoji are now a core part of the smartphone experience. And not ones to miss a trick, movie studios have been quick to create their own official versions in order to expand their franchises.
Disney created their own AR–backed live emoji with Samsung, allowing users to create their own takes on characters from films such as The Incredibles and Zootopia.
Google, meanwhile, struck a deal with Marvel to develop AR emoji for its Pixel phones, with Iron Man and Incredible Hulk brought to life.
In the market for a great SIM only deal? Head to our comparison tables for SIMs starting from just over £5 per month.