It's been a year packed with top-notch phones – from the Samsung Galaxy S9 to the iPhone XS – but as 2018 draws to a close, what does 2019 have in store? The usual suspects will be launching new and improved flagship phones once again, so we peered into our crystal ball to predict what lies ahead.
1. 5G phones
You may still be struggling to get 4G or LTE speeds in your part of the world, but 5G is coming whether you're ready for it or not. While 5G network infrastructure is still in the very early stages of development, phone makers are still going to use it as a selling point for the flagships of 2019.
Even if you can't actually get a 5G signal over the next 12 months, seeing that sticker on the box of your next smartphone means you've got a device future-proofed for the years ahead, so manufacturers are going to be eager to make their wares 5G capable.
In fact, most of the big names have already confirmed they're going to be introducing 5G technology during 2019: the likes of OnePlus, Samsung, Sony, Huawei and others are all on the record as wanting to introduce 5G handsets over the next 12 months. Apple and Google are remaining tight-lipped but may well jump on the bandwagon too.
So what exactly will 5G get you, when the phones and the infrastructure are ready for it? Faster upload and download speeds of course (maybe even hundreds of times as fast in some scenarios), but also more capacity on the network – so you won't lose signal when you're in a crowded place like a sports stadium or a train station.
2. Foldable phones
They're going to be chunky, and they're going to be expensive, but foldable phones are definitely coming at some point during 2019. We've already seen Samsung show off a prototype foldable phone, suggesting it's going to be one of the first out of the gate with this kind of technology over the next 12 months.
Samsung won't be alone though – Huawei CEO Richard Yu said during the launch of the Mate 20 that his company was also working on a foldable phone ready to be unveiled during 2019. And while LG hasn't said anything officially, recent patent applications by the company suggest it's working on the same kind of innovations too.
We might see something as early as CES 2019 in January, though be prepared for these phones to be too expensive for most. Why bother at all then? Well, the main advantage of the technology is the obvious one – a large screen, tablet-style experience when the device is opened out, but a smaller, more pocket-friendly phone form factor when needed.
We're not talking about two displays with a hinge in the middle, like the ZTE Axon M – we're talking about displays that genuinely bend, like the Royole FlexPai. Android is adding support for screens that shift in size in preparation for a new wave of devices, but it might be a while before Apple dips its toes into this particular pool.
3. The evolution of the notch
The front display notch wasn't something phone makers gave much thought to before the iPhone X arrived in 2017, but now it's everywhere. Even Samsung – which has held off on the notch up to now – has been showcasing some work-in-progress notch ideas that might appear on some of its phones during the course of 2019.
Of course the notch was made necessary as phone manufacturers shrunk the display bezels down to almost nothing. Fingerprint sensors could be moved to the back of phones (or replaced by Face ID in Apple's case), but when it came to front-facing cameras, a cut out was necessary.
Phones such as the OnePlus 6T have reduced the notch right down to almost nothing, and if Huawei's latest teaser is to be believed, it's soon going to be debuting a phone that features a circular notch completely surrounded by screen. Expect handset makers to experiment with different notch types and positions during the course of 2019.
Indeed, next year might be the last hurrah for the notch, brief though its time in the spotlight has been. Manufacturers are already working out how to embed fingerprint sensors under the front display, and it's only a matter of time before cameras can be hidden with the same trick – which means no more need for the notch.
4. More camera lenses
With a paucity of smartphone specs left to seriously improve year-on-year, it looks like manufacturers have latched on to the idea of camera lenses as an area where big jumps can still be made. First came the dual-lens camera, then we had the triple-lens camera, then the quad-lens camera, and next year we could even see it go way beyond that.
We're dealing with rumor and speculation here rather than confirmed fact, but considering that LG has been spotted patenting a camera with 16 lenses – a hexa-lens camera – it seems likely that the major players are going to keep adding lenses on the back of their phones until there's no more room left.
Where do all these extra lenses get us? Well, they make up for the lack of physical depth in smartphone camera technology, adding features like optical zoom, background smoothing, anti-shake measures and better HDR reproduction by combining the data from several lenses rather than just one. The main holdout is Google, preferring to use advanced software image processing for its Pixel phones.
In the case of the hexa-lens camera supposedly coming to a future LG flagship phone, by taking a series of shots from slightly different angles, the camera may well be able to produce a variety of impressive 3D and motion effects.
Cameras on 2019 phones could end up being significantly better than their 2018 predecessors.
5. Added artificial intelligence
This will come as no surprise if you were paying close attention to the phone launches of 2018, because AI is already playing a major role in flagship smartphones. As we move through 2019, expect that role to get bigger and bigger – the premium handsets of 2019 will be able to do more than ever before without your help.
Most high-end phone processor chips now have dedicated components for artificial intelligence calculations. That means they can handle tasks specifically suited for machine learning, like being able to recognize a dog and a cat in a photo, or being able to tell your voice from anyone else's.
That in turn means a phone doesn't have to upload these kind of recognition tasks to the cloud, so you get your results quicker and the device responds instantly. Think smoother augmented reality shots through your phone's camera, or shooting modes that quickly identify the type of photograph you're trying to take.
There'll be a host of improvements on the software side too of course, as Google Assistant, Siri, Bixby and the others continue to get smarter. Actually, we wouldn't be surprised in some of the most exciting smartphone innovations of 2019 happen on the software rather than the hardware side – watch this space.
Want a cleaner, faster loading and ad free reading experience?
Try New Atlas Plus. Learn more