Most of the past decade has seen little deviation from the conventional smartphone design that comprises a full-screen touch display and rectangular form-factor.
Since Apple introduced the original iPhone in 2007, the confluence of features and designs have come to a point where it is really tough to distinguish between phone models without proper hands-on experience.
From a performance perspective, however, mobile processors have become faster, displays have grown larger and sport higher resolutions, and cameras capabilities have improved enormously.
Given that these enhancements have been made incrementally, however, it may be difficult for many consumers to recognise the progress made over the years.
Those who are hungry for fresh ideas and features will not be disappointed by the efforts of manufacturers in 2020 to develop more distinctive features or enhancements
Contrary to what many cynical industry observers may hold, the year has seen significant experimentation on the part of smartphone makers.
Numerous companies have conceptualised bespoke components, strange form-factors, and features previously believed to be in the realm of sci-fi.
Below are several of the most interesting developments in smartphone features and designs for 2020.
Foldables and dual-screen displays
2020 saw several foldable and dual-screen smartphones hit the market.
Just after Motorola’s flip-phone like Razr hit store shelves, Samsung unveiled the Z Flip – its own attempt at clamshell foldable.
While the Razr received generally mixed reviews – particularly due to Motorola skimping on hardware like its processor and camera – the Z Flip has primarily been heaped with praise.
Both of the smartphones’ foldable displays have appeared to hold up well, however.
Samsung also launched the second iteration of its foldable phablet – the Z Fold 2 – which has been called the smartphone of the year by numerous tech reviewers.
With this iteration, Samsung improved in nearly every department that experts had issues with its first foldable.
LG continued its release of dual-screen smartphones with the LG ThinQ V60’s launch in March, while Microsoft finally released its own dual-screen Surface Duo smartphone in September.
Chinese manufacturer Oppo approached the ability to extend and shrink the smartphone screen
The Oppo X 2021 employs a plastic OLED display that can be rolled out to increase its size from 6.7 to 7.4 inches.
The display curls around a rotating mechanism that rolls it like a paper scroll. This action can be activated
This configuration solves a few of the issues present in a smartphone with foldable displays – including the visible crease and differences in screen specifications such as refresh rates.
In addition, when in its standard form-factor it is just as thick as a normal smartphone – whereas devices like Samsung’s Fold are relatively thick when closed.
Invisible front camera
After initially rolling it out to China, ZTE officially launched the Axon 20 5G globally early in December.
This smartphone is the world’s first with an “invisible” front camera, offering a total full-screen experience with no notch, droplets, or hole-punch style selfie camera.
According to ZTE, it had to develop five core technologies to make the camera capable of shooting through its screen.
The camera is located under a specially-designed 7-layer OLED display with an anti-reflective coating that maximises the transparency of the screen without a breakdown in image quality.
Electrochromic glass – also referred to as smart or dynamic class – is capable of changing colour or opacity when an electric current is passed through it.
This technology has already been used in building windows that can go from transparent to black on command.
In January 2020, the OnePlus Concept One was unveiled as the first smartphone to include electrochromic glass.
This was in the window that houses its rear camera lenses and allowed to change from transparent to black on command, hiding the lenses from view.
However, Vivo has taken this to the next level, with its own prototype smartphone with an entire glass back made from the material.
In a video demonstration of the technology, it showcased a working prototype which could turn from a white/silver to dark blue on command.
Vivo said the glass would allow users to customise their phone’s appearance to their liking.
The graphene battery is an exciting emerging technology which has the potential to completely change how long smartphones can hold charges and extend their total life.
Simply put, graphene is a thin layer of graphite – the same material which is used in pencil lead.
It possesses the same atoms as the element carbon, but these are arranged differently.
Due to its composition, it possesses a wide range of properties which have had researchers label it as a “supermaterial”.
While being harder than diamond, it is lighter than aluminium and more elastic than rubber.
On top of this, it is the best-known conductor of heat and electricity, which makes it great for use in smartphone batteries.
The Xiaomi Mi 10 Ultra is one of the first smartphones which uses a hybrid lithium-ion battery with a graphene layer, allowing it to support 120W fast charging.
GSMArena tests have shown this makes it capable of filling the battery 41% in 5 minutes and up to 100% in just 23 minutes.
The material also helps reduce the long-term loss of capacity from around 25% in three years to 10%.
Detachable front camera
Vivo flaunted another unique feature with its IFEA smartphone in the form of a pop-up selfie camera module that can be detached from the smartphone.
While removed, the camera can be operated remotely from the smartphone.
This allows the user to place the module in and record video at an additional angle while shooting with the main rear camera as well.
Alternatively, users could clip it onto the collar of their pets or on clothing for creative POV shots.
While the phone is still in concept, Vivo has said it will “continue to evaluate the potential use of the technology in a commercial phone”.
Built-in wireless earbuds
There is good news for those wireless earbud users who have a knack for losing things.
Xiaomi has filed a patent for a smartphone design which provides two slots for storing and charging wireless earbuds.
In addition, the earbuds would act as additional speakers for the smartphone when connected.
LetsGoDigital created renders of what the design may look like if Xiaomi decides to go ahead with this one.