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The flagship smartphones of 2022: a look at the model year ahead

Dominik Bärlocher
Zurich, on 04.02.2022
Translation: Katherine Martin

Smartphone manufacturers are gearing up to launch their 2022 flagship products. That’s why I’m reflecting on 2021’s flagships here and revealing my hopes for the coming year.

The first launch dates for new smartphones are trickling in. Huawei, for example, has already revealed its flagships for the first half of 2022. But before I get started on 2022, let’s hit rewind and take another look at last year’s models. Where did their strengths and weaknesses lie? Which manufacturers have still got work to do? And who can simply put their feet up? In order to see what’s coming, we’ve first got to look back.

Oppo comes out on top

Oppo produced the phone of the year in 2021. The Oppo Find X3 is a fantastic device – especially when it comes to the image quality, which is a drastic improvement on that of its predecessor. Its 10-bit photos are so good that they can’t even be displayed on most screens. The screens that do accommodate 10 bit, however, give you dazzling visuals.

Oppo Find X3 Pro
Oppo Find X3 Pro
Find X3 Pro (256 GB, Blue, 6.70 ", SIM + eSIM, 50 Mpx, 5G)
OPPO Find X3 Pro (256 GB, Blue, 6.70 ", SIM + eSIM, 50 Mpx, 5G)

The Oppo Find X5, successor of the Find X3, has been announced. Clearly, the manufacturer wants to bat a second home run. The MariSilicon X, which has been announced as the dedicated image processor, could lead to even more spectacular photos. Oppo’s Android Distro with ColorOS will reportedly be a tad faster too, meaning the speed of the so far suspected system-on-a-chip (SoC) will also be visually recognisable.

But Oppo has got a bigger problem. The Chinese corporation has newly established itself on the Swiss market. Very well, in fact. This has, of course, roused some envy. 10-bit screens and cameras are being built into more and more smartphones. Oppo definitely can’t get complacent. Otherwise, their chances of winning the next «Smartphone of the Year» title are slim.

Samsung made the strangest all rounder in the industry, but its software needs to catch up

Samsung urgently needs to work on its software. The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra has strong hardware, but right from the beginning the software failed to do it justice. From the get-go, One UI frenziedly consumed the battery power, the display delivered undersaturated images and the 100x zoom was a marketing gimmick at best. Yes, you can use 100x zoom to take a picture. And yes, the image winds up in your gallery. But the pixelated, blurry jpeg is unusable.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
Galaxy S21 Ultra (Snapdragon) (256 GB, phantom silver, 6.80 ", Dual SIM, 108 Mpx, 5G)
Used + tested
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra (Snapdragon) (256 GB, phantom silver, 6.80 ", Dual SIM, 108 Mpx, 5G)

Although 100x zoom still isn’t useful, Samsung has worked on the software. A lot, in fact. One UI 4, like the later Android 11 updates, is based on Android 12. This has resulted in solid performance and nicely displayed images.

The S21 shoots videos in 8K resolution, performs well in the dark, and the battery lasts pretty long these days, too. In addition, there’s the bold design decision to have a camera bump that wraps around the phone. If only it were made from the same material as the phone and didn’t have an ugly gap between the frame and the backplate. In my opinion, this could give rise to a fantastic design that would give the Galaxy its own identity.

So, I won’t be singing the S22’s praises in advance. I hope it won’t be yet another phone that’s only good months after it’s launched. After all, having a pretty design alone doesn’t cut it. Even if Samsung merges the Note and the Galaxy series by incorporating a stylus into the S22, the software has to keep up. Forking out 1000 francs for a smartphone in late winter, only to have to wait until summer for it to be good, just isn’t acceptable.

Huawei, do something please.

I’ve missed Leica lenses. The picture quality is as stunning as ever, even without a 10-bit camera built in. The edges are sharper, the colours crisper. Harmony OS is ultra fast and it’s obvious how efficient the code is.

Huawei P50 Pro
Huawei P50 Pro
P50 Pro (256 GB, Golden black, 6.60 ", Hybrid Dual SIM, 50 Mpx, 4G)
Huawei P50 Pro (256 GB, Golden black, 6.60 ", Hybrid Dual SIM, 50 Mpx, 4G)

There’s no reason why the Huawei P50 Pro shouldn’t or couldn’t have launched on the Swiss market. Of course, US sanctions against the Chinese company and the resulting lack of Google services stack the odds against it. That said, with hardware of the P50 Pro’s calibre, Huawei could pull off something great. The same goes for the foldable P50 Pocket. The UV camera may be a gimmick. And it may produce photos which could’ve come straight out of a horror film. But it’s fun, and the outer case fits snugly in your hand.

However, that means one thing: the phones need to start hitting shelves.

It’s one thing to hold press conferences every now and then, dangling the carrot in front of our noses. By all appearances, Huawei isn’t completely beaten. This is nice to know, but we’ve got to see some proof. They need to bring a new device to the market that clearly says: Huawei’s still fighting the heavyweights. The company isn’t doing itself any favours with big events and «coming in a few months».

So Huawei, be brave.

Google is distancing itself from the rest of the market

Google did a lot of new things with the Google Pixel 6 Pro. Google’s own system-on-a-chip, the Google Tensor, does a fantastic job – especially in terms of artificial intelligence and ambient computing. The camera counts itself among the best, even though it can sometimes be over-the-top and produce unnatural results. With a performance like that, though, I’m willing to forgive the odd botched update or two. Just as I’m willing to forgive the phone’s ghastly shade of grey.

Google Pixel 6 Pro
Google Pixel 6 Pro
Pixel 6 Pro (128 GB, Stormy Black, 6.70 ", SIM + eSIM, 50 Mpx, 5G)
Google Pixel 6 Pro (128 GB, Stormy Black, 6.70 ", SIM + eSIM, 50 Mpx, 5G)
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    Google Pixel 6: January update should bring promised performance

Google should continue along the path that it took with the Pixel 6. In other words, it should make itself stand out from the crowd by configuring the software in a way that reduces work for the user more drastically than other phones do.

The speech recognition is so good that I can dictate entire articles in English without any peculiar wording popping up. The technology is so good in fact that the Pixel 6 Pro collects smartphone data. When I dictate a name from my contact list, the Pixel doesn’t write down any old baloney, but thinks along. The AI considers what the text is about and who I’m referring to. It then flicks through my contacts and adds them in.

Google should continue on this path. It’s okay if the Pixel 7 moves even further away from the rest of the market. I wouldn’t mind an unpolished and experimental model coming along, as long as it’s communicated clearly. I believe Google also needs something else: a new name for its Android-Disto. The system needs an identity and a clear direction. The Pixel 7 doesn’t have to capture the most beautiful photos or have the best screen. Instead, it should wow consumers again with features that they wouldn’t find anywhere else.

Okay, despite what I’ve just said, the camera is obviously very good.

Microsoft: third time lucky

The Surface Duo is a fantastic idea. Even if it’s just used to read books. The Surface Duo is more «flaps» than «folds», with two screens instead of a single bendable one. However, the idea hasn’t been implemented well enough so far. For one thing, combined with the camera, the phone is a bit too thick. Not only that, but the camera itself isn’t great. Plus, by the time the release rolled around, the phone’s system-on-a-chip was outdated. Its successor has been saddled with a stupendously ugly camera bump and the camera performance still isn’t up to par either.

Microsoft Surface Duo 2
Microsoft Surface Duo 2
Surface Duo 2 B2B (128 GB, obsidian, 8.30 ", SIM + eSIM, 12 Mpx, 5G)
Microsoft Surface Duo 2 B2B (128 GB, obsidian, 8.30 ", SIM + eSIM, 12 Mpx, 5G)

Still, Microsoft is right to stick to its form factor.

But time is running out for the tech giant. And some day, money will too. Because regardless of how badly an idealistic manufacturer wants to cling to its great idea, the spectre of profit always comes knocking in the end. Smartphones aren’t cheap to develop.

So I’ve got high hopes for Microsoft’s Surface Duo 3, provided that ship hasn’t sailed already. Maybe we’ll finally get a foldable whose camera doesn’t get in the way of the device unfolding completely. This would create unhindered access to shooting beautiful images. What’s for certain is that no other smartphone is as good for reading eBooks.

Apple: more courage to make statements

The look ahead to the iPhone 14 is the most difficult one on this list. The iPhone 13 is a solid phone and undoubtedly the best that Apple has ever produced. Maybe it’s not bleeding edge, but what it does, it does very well. With the improved battery performance, the iPhone 13 is an inconspicuous and extremely reliable companion through everyday life.

Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max
Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max
iPhone 13 Pro Max (256 GB, Sierra Blue, 6.70 ", SIM + eSIM, 12 Mpx, 5G)
Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max (256 GB, Sierra Blue, 6.70 ", SIM + eSIM, 12 Mpx, 5G)

With this in mind, if I relayed my one, very personal wish for Apple to a genie, it’d probably roll its eyes. Every time I look at my iPhone 13 Pro Max in light blue, I yearn for the beautiful blue of the iPhone 12 Pro Max. Pacific Blue really hit the spot. Sierra Blue, on the other hand, seems like a washed-out version of a much stronger colour. I’d like to see some colour again. A colour that really stands out when someone pulls out their iPhone. The kind of smartphone that turns heads.

Apart from the colour comment, the only thing left to say to the folks at Apple is: «Keep it up, you’re doing well.»

Will somebody please do something crazy?

I know the chip crisis is dominating the market – whether the market likes it or not. Only a small number of phones can be produced and these have to get the cash and the glory rolling in. That puts a squeeze on creativity.

Red Hydrogen One
Red Hydrogen One

Still, I want to see a manufacturer – well known or otherwise – really stick their head above the parapet. I want something on the market that makes everyone say, «Are they living in cloud cuckoo land?»

I’m talking about a company like Essential, which despite failing time and time again with its modular add-ons, is convinced that the beleaguered idea will surely work out with the PH-1. Or a company like Red, which stubbornly claims to want to revolutionise the phone market with an extremely edgy design.

But maybe that’s only relevant to us phone testers. Maybe the revolution will succeed in giving us something that we didn’t even know we were missing.

So that’s it for today. Bring on the press events and livestreams. Because after that, it’s my favourite time of year: the review spring.

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Journalist. Author. Hacker. A storyteller searching for boundaries, secrets and taboos – putting the world to paper. Not because I can but because I can’t not.

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