Smartphones in 2021 – Stability is boring but awesome

Smartphones are getting boring. Their shape and form have stabilized. Android flagships will be coming with screens ranging between 6.5″ and 6.7″. They will also carry the latest Snapdragon, Exynos, or Kirin SoC, 8GB of RAM in most cases, 128GB of storage for the base model, and battery capacities getting close to 5000mAh. It sounds like 2020 all over again ?triple or Quadruple camera systems with different combinations of Sony or Samsung lenses. No innovation, no gimmicks. The biggest news is the possible removal of chargers from the boxes. That's the point we are at. And that's exactly what we should ask for. Just like desktop computers and laptops, smartphones are not just gadgets. They are tools. And I want my tools to be optimized and efficient, not experimental toys costing almost 1,000 euros or dollars. Without any further ado, let's jump to the expectations we can have from smartphones in 2021.

snapdragon 888 will power flagship smartphones in 2021
The Snapdragon 888 chipset will power Android flagship smartphones in 2021. It's expected to be fast, but its predecessors, the Snapdragon 865 and 865+, are arguably fast enough already. Let alone the Snapdragon 875, which will debut in 2021.

Mobile chipsets are already fast

Apple's A14 chip and the Snapdragon 865 and 865+ are already powerful chipsets in terms of performance. The upcoming Snapdragon 888 chipset will be just another step forward. Featuring Arm's latest Cortex-X1 core, which will power the new Android devices, it promises to deliver the following:

  • 25% higher performance compared to the Snapdragon 865.
  • 35% jump in graphics rendering with the new Adreno 660 GPU.
  •  The CPU and GPU components will be more power-efficient than the Snapdragon 875.
  • The 5G modem will now be part of the SoC, saving space and cost (hopefully) for the manufacturers.
  • Improved 5G connectivity and Wi-Fi 6 support along with support for the new 6GHz Wi-Fi 6E standard.
  • The new Spectra 580 ISP will feature a triple ISP, allowing it to capture three simultaneous 4K HDR video streams and three 28-megapixel photos at once at a rate 35% faster than 2020.
  • Qualcomm's sixth-generation AI Engine will help improve computational photography, gaming, and voice assistant performance even further.

The Snapdragon 875 will probably feature just one Cortex-X1 CPU, 3 Cortex-A78 CPUs, and 4 Cortex A77 CPUs from last year's 1+3+4 setup. This should be enough to challenge Apple's A14 Bionic. Meaning the Snapdragon 888 will have it beat with the use of more Cortex X1 CPUs.

Let's pause here. The Snapdragon 865 and 865+ were already super fast. The AI improvements are always a great addition, and the improved GPU vital for gamers. However, does the smartphone user care about the ISP's capability to record or shoot from three cameras at the same time? At the end of the day, as a consumer, do you care about all those cameras or just the main camera, the front camera, and possibly a wide-angle lens? Do you really use the low megapixel macro or telephoto cameras? I want a great camera app, like GCAM and iPhone cameras, to do it all. 

For instance, the first thing I wanted to do on my OnePlus 8 Pro was to try the GCam ports. The reason being that the official OnePlus camera app is not what I want it to be yet.

No more RAM, please!

There are Android devices out there with 12GB or 16GB of RAM. Either that is just a marketing decision that leads to no actual benefit, or it tells you everything you need to know about Android. If 8GB of RAM is not good enough for your smartphone, we need to start questioning the operating system's efficiency. Add to that the custom skins added by manufacturers, which further hinder performance. Even the Google Pixel 5 comes with 8GB of RAM. That's 2GB more than the 6.7″ iPhone 12 Pro Max on a 5.8″ phone. That's on stock Android and still delivers a slower phone overall.

Focus on the Operating System and Software

Let's see it this way. If the SoC for Android devices can challenge or beat the iPhone SoC if your phone has more memory and a much larger battery, why are the two devices comparable at the end of the day? It all comes down to software. Running the same apps on similarly efficient and performant hardware requires more power. An indicator that Android is more resource-hungry than iOS. And more power-hungry as a result. Nothing new there.

This fact is rarely pinpointed enough by smartphone reviewers. And that's my problem with them. A typical smartphone user may only open 2-4 apps at the same time. When you buy a flagship mobile phone, you should be able to open at least 10 when the limit is 20 for Android.

Some people can do this successfully. Personally, I can't. I've been using Android for the past 7 years, and I always need to remember to close recent apps to keep things running smoothly. You know, like when you try to log in on your in-app browser, you go to your password manager app to copy a password, and then when you go back to said browser, everything is gone, and you need to start over. Don't tell me this has never happened to you. Whenever I try to run an Android device without acting as a maintainer/cleaner, my OxygenOS 11 UI will crush at least once a day. Maybe it's the apps I'm running. Maybe it's a large number of apps I have installed leading to the execution of far too many services in the background.

The key takeaway remains that the arguably best Android smartphone of 2020 runs out of memory and has to restart the GUI itself. Cool stuff.

App developers cannot support everything

On the software side, the situation is a mess for Android. A simple example is the Instagram app for Android. It cannot do hyperlapse. It's not supported on Android phones. That is, a popular function on one of the most popular social media apps has not successfully been ported to every Android phone out there. Who knows how many there are. To make things worse, my Instagram app crashes every time I try to shoot an Instagram reel. 

This is not an indictment on Android. This is an indictment on the manufacturers producing so many different phones with different hardware combinations yearly. Developers can't optimize their apps for so many different phones. And you won't be saved by picking a manufacturer like OnePlus that makes a handful of devices per year. I was not, and remember, OnePlus provided a nearly stock Android experience. That's until OxygenOS 11, when they felt the need to go “One UI.”

Samsung galaxy s21 smartphone in 21
Sadly the Samsung Galaxy S21 series is expected to keep the trend of both Exynos and Snapdragon variants in 2021. The Global version is expected to be powered by the latest Exynos chipset while the US version will carry the Snapdragon 888 or 875 depending on the model (S21, S21 Plus, S21 Ultra).

Different hardware on different variants of the same phone

The headline says it all. This one is about Samsung. I owned the Samsung Galaxy S3, the S5, the S6, the S7 Edge, and the S8. In 2020 I ditched Samsung. The reason being Samsung's continued insistence on featuring its Exynos SoCs on the Global version of the Galaxy S series. The Snapdragon variant has consistently outperformed the Exynos variant of the Galaxy S over the years. Is this acceptable for the price premium consumers pay? I don't think it is. Why can't manufacturers stick to a few devices per year and optimize their Android skin and software for these devices? Samsung goes as far as providing multiple variants for the same machine.

It's baffling. Samsung's arch-rival, Apple, aims for a tight coupling of software and hardware to improve performance across the board. The Apple M1 and the new MacBooks of 2020 follow the same direction Apple phones and tablets do. And they delivered a top-of-the-line performance for laptops. At the same time, in 2021, this trend will hit the desktop world. Meanwhile, Samsung chooses diversity. We can only hope for a better-unified experience on its 2022 flagships with the possibility of ditching Snapdragon for an Exynos-AMD combined experience, which promises a significant performance gain.

Smartphone manufacturers need to step up

Android manufacturers need to change their approach. Too much diversity leads to extreme fragmentation of the market. Developers cannot keep up and support every little gimmick that is out there. In fact, not even manufacturers themselves can keep up with all the hardware they need to support. The need to start specializing is apparent, and the stability and maturity of Android as an operating system is the foundation of such a change. That's what I want to see in 2021.

The (mobile) OS battle

Despite Android's maturity, iOS has its beat in everything that matters. Call that an opinion, not a fact. But it is a much more robust and smooth platform for app developers. Google and Apple play weird games with developers in terms of their app stores. But that does not change the fact that iPhones provide a better overall experience in terms of OS and apps, even if it comes with less variety. Unfortunately, this experience comes with a significant price premium too. But the point here is not to convert iPhone users to Android users. It's to satisfy and maintain existing Android users. And that may end up being a challenge.

Google Fuchsia OS possible Android successor
Google's Fuchsia could be Android successor. Definitely not in 2021 Smartphones though. Android will need to rise up to the challenge of iOS.

Is Fuchsia the answer?

The inadequacies of Android are not secret. Even Google itself wants to move to a different, more unified experience. Both for Android devices and Chromebooks. That's where the Fuchsia OS comes in, possibly. Fuchsia has ditched the Linux kernel for a microkernel called Zircon. We don't know much about Fuchsia's purpose, and Google has been very cryptic about it.

We don't know a whole lot about Fuchsia, other than the fact that Google describes it as a “production-grade operating system that is secure, updatable, inclusive, and pragmatic.” That's pretty nice to know, but whether it will replace an existing OS or just a UI and UX experiment, or just a testing tool that complements Android and ChromeOS, is still unknown. Yet, it seems to be targeting smartphones and tablets.

Fuchsia is definitely not the 2021 answer, though. But with Huawei moving to HarmonyOS, we can tell that pretty much every major player wants to ditch Android. In the case of Huawei, the ban on US trade with China sped up the process, but they eventually came up with their own Android variant. Samsung tried it with Tizen, and there are multiple other instances of failed efforts.

linux not the mobile operating system answer for 2021
Our favorite penguin has not found its place in the mobile world. Different principles make it a non-viable platform for digital marketing. For now.

Sadly, Linux is probably not the answer

In terms of user experience, Linux has turned to everything Windows, and macOS want to be in the laptop and desktop world. It may not look as pretty -that's debatable- but it's faster, smoother, open-source, and respects your privacy. At the same time, Linux smartphones are fast. But they are not user-friendly. The reason Linux on desktop and laptop is user-friendly is web browsers and app stores. That's all the average user needs.

For a successful mobile phone, though, all this needs to be replaced by mobile apps. Facebook, Instagram, Google apps, WhatsApp, Viber, Tik Tok, and many more. There are no financial incentives for developers and social media giants; no ads will be running; no private data will be sold to advertisers. As a developer, I would not target Linux on mobile either. So imagine a generic camera app built open-source with the need to support every single device. It will never catch up to GCam or Apple's, Huawei's, and Samsung's cameras. 

A large app library is what makes a mobile ecosystem make or break. So yeah, the best operating system for laptops and desktops is not the best one for smartphones.  

What should we be asking for in 2021?

In a word, efficiency. In the form of better battery life, smoother overall experience, and price drops. I did not write this article to criticize Android manufacturers. Actually, the existing approach is what has made Android dominate the smartphone market. But I think it's time to make smartphones better tools. Android keeps up with iOS, even with this level of fragmentation in the market.

  • Why not start shipping cheaper phones with stock Android and just a few extras and keep the “enhanced” Samsung/OnePlus/Oppo etc., experience for premium phones?
  • Wouldn't it be better if OEMs provide tightly coupled software and hardware and continuity with at least 3 or 4 years of support?
  • Why should I need to flash a custom ROM to an older phone to keep getting security upgrades — when that particular phone had such a premium price tag.

That's a disgrace, especially when that phone is the flagship of a top Android phone manufacturer. Smartphones are an integral part of our lives, especially in the post-covid era. Let's start treating them this way.

OnePlus 9 Smartphones in 2021
The OnePlus 9 and the OnePlus 9 Pro are among the most anticipated smartphones in 2021. Appearance-wise, everything apart from the cameras looks like an iterative upgrade. It will be powered by the Snapdragon 888 or 875 chipset.

Smartphone hardware in 2021

For a large part of smartphone users, cameras are essential. So why not unify the camera experience like the 2020 Zenfone by ASUS did? Front cameras are pathetic. Can I have one primary camera to rule them all? Because that's exactly what I want. The primary camera can turn into a front camera. And then a manufacturer that targets the Snapdragon, Kirin, or Exynos ISPs so tightly that the outcome is impressive. Not a manufacturer that has to target 20 different SoCs per year with 5 different lenses per device.

Screen sizes and resolutions have plateaued. I don't think we need to go any higher, at least for now. But in that area, foldable phones should be the future for those who need extra space. Productivity could go through the roof in such devices. LG is about to release a new rollable phone, while Samsung may ditch the Galaxy Note series entirely in favor of the Z Fold one in 2021.

What could also make productivity skyrocket is a phone that turns into a desktop computer when plugged into a monitor.

Wait, what did I just say?

What does the introduction of the Apple M1 mean? It's not just the performance and efficiency perspective. It's the concept of one chipset across the board for all iPhone, iPad, and Mac devices. 2021's Mac Mini Lite should be the iPhone 13 Pro. It's pricier than the Mac Mini, it's more than capable, and it's the same ecosystem. And this is what can make an ecosystem dominate. The moment your iPhone becomes your Mac and your Mac becomes your iPhone. So then you only need one of the two for the complete Apple ecosystem experience. After that, the expectation will be to stick to the ecosystem and start using all the emerging Apple services. That's where profit comes from. 

This is what Apple wants to make us do. Convert us. And I think that either in 2021 or 2022, your iPhone will indeed be a Mac Mini in terms of performance. And it will be able to run as one. What is clear here is that a significant price drop on iPhones should make its appearance. The Apple M1 Macbook Air or the Mac Mini is much cheaper than the iPhone 12 Pro Max. As of December 2020, this looks very absurd.

Convergence is knocking at our doors

Do you remember Canonical's initiative called “Convergence“? It's a Mir display server aimed to unify the experience across Ubuntu phones, tablets, and laptops/desktops. Eventually, Canonical killed the project in 2017, along with its Unity desktop environment. But the idea still makes sense, and with smartphone SoCs finally catching up to laptops and desktops, maybe it's time for actual convergence.

apple logo
Whether we like it or not, Apple has set the stage perfectly for their smartphones in 2021. Along with their tablets, laptops, and desktops. Wow!

2021: Advantage Apple

It's hard to argue with that, even if you don't like Apple. They survived 2020 pretty well and ended it on a high note. In 2021 they will be back on track with their usual September iPhone launch. Android's diversity may end up being its downfall due to its single-purpose nature so far. I think Google is trying to catch, and Fuchsia is part of the equation. They want to provide an ecosystem that unifies the user experience. But they lack the in-house silicon. It feels like everyone will want to team up with Qualcomm for 2021 and on to challenge Apple. Microsoft is at the front of the queue there with Windows on ARM. This may end up being an all-out war of platforms and ecosystems. And that's far more interesting and beneficial for the end-user than an extra sensor on the phone. The future of smartphones in 2021 and beyond has tremendous potential, and I'm hyped!

P.S. Writing down your ideas is really vital. The “iPhone as a Mac” realization dawned on me as I was writing this. And I think it's the most important thing to take from this article.

P.S. #2: I think this article makes the reasons behind my interest in the Apple M1 pretty clear. It's a game-changer on many levels. And not just for Apple.

Anastasios Antoniadis
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