It is that time when you cast an eye back on the months that were, and pick and choose the highlights of the year that will soon be past. Like every year, 2022 too had its share of smartphone innovations. Some worked, some did not, and some were announced but have taken their time coming to devices. All said and done, there was plenty to talk about on the smartphone featurescape in 2022. If we had to cherry-pick ten features in smartphones launched in this year that stood out, we would go with the following.
Dynamic Island on the iPhone 14 Pro/ Pro Max: sheer notch dynamite
When Apple released the iPhone X, it brought along the infamous notch which polarised the tech world. There were those who absolutely loved it and then there were those who hated the very sight of it. After keeping it largely the same (Apple only reduced the size of it a bit) for the next three generations, Apple finally changed the anatomy of the notch on its flagship offerings of the year, the iPhone 14 Pro and the iPhone 14 Pro Max. While the new notch, the Dynamic Island did not receive as much hate as the OG notch did, there were some people who did not like the looks or the functionality it brought to the table. We disagree with that lot because the Dynamic Island on the iPhone 14 Pro Max is one of our favourite features to have launched on a smartphone in 2022. Unlike other brands that bring different types of notches on their smartphone just as a placeholder for the front camera, Apple always did more with the notch on the iPhone and with Dynamic Island, the Cupertino tech giant has taken it to another level. What used to be a big black stationary rectangular block on the top of our iPhone displays, was now changed into a shape-morphing pill that changed the way we interacted with our new iPhones. It added visible functionality to the phone instead of just being a design element or carrying out functions in the background (the previous Notch was very functional after all, driving face ID). Apps like Maps or Apple Music brought life to the seemingly basic tiny black pill on the top of our iPhones, bundled it with a number of animations and information. This was not just delightful visually, but also very helpful in practical life as well. We did not have to unlock our phone to look for directions or see when the next turn was coming because the Dynamic Island harboured that information right on the top of the locked display. Similarly, most of our music controls were present right on the Dynamic Island and could be easily accessed. By making the notch on the iPhone interactive, Apple gave us an all-new way to communicate with our iPhones. And judging by the number of Dynamic Island apps springing up all around the world, it is only a matter of time before it becomes an Android staple too.
Glyph UI on the Nothing Phone (1): A lit new way of smartphone life
Much like Dynamic Island and the original notch, many hated the flashy tiny LEDs on the back (called the Glyph UI) of the Nothing Phone (1) as well. They were seen as something that was only there to grab attention and were not really functional. We thought the same when we first used the phone, but using the Phone (1) for a while made us realise that the Glyph UI on the phone is actually very useful, although we love the flashy element of its existence as well. We are all for a smartphone design that stands out and this one screams different in all languages. The LEDs on the back of the Phone (1) come with flash as well as functionality bundled too. The charging indicator on the back of the Phone (1) actually comes in very handy when you are charging your phone in public. You can keep it face down and keep an eye on the charge levels without having to worry about notifications popping all over the display. Another great touch is that you can assign particular ringtones and Glyph patterns to your contacts, which tell you who is calling without having to pick up the phone. The phone also switches to silent mode when it is placed face down and the LEDs blinking in different patterns will tell you who is calling, all without having to look. The Music Visualization feature on the Phone (1) is quite interesting as well. It was erratic initially but after a few updates, the LEDs blink alongside the music which is a great party trick. Hopefully, Nothing will keep adding new functions to Glyph UI through updates in the coming days. It is a totally new way of using a smartphone, and one which is currently unique to the Phone (1).
Transparent back on the Nothing Phone (1): Making the innards the stars
For quite a while, most of the smartphone world has been churning rather predictable and regular-looking smartphones. Brands that dared to go down a different design route were a rare sight and were often seen only in the premium price segment. Carl Pei, however, brought back a lot of design excitement to the phone world when his new company, Nothing, released its first phone, the Phone (1). The back of the phone not only came with eye-catching LEDs that brought a whole new interface to our phone lives (read above), but also was transparent, giving it a very edgy and different look. The back did not totally show you what was inside the phone (some of the parts were tactfully covered) and kept things subtle by giving us a glimpse of only some very aesthetically pleasing innards of the phone. The result might have polarised some opinions, but the fact is there was no other phone that looked remotely like this in the Indian market. The Glyph UI also lit up around those internals whenever a notification came in, highlighting their presence. We are not too sure too many will copy this phone back as it will take some doing, unlike elements like flat sides and colour variants. All of which makes it one of the biggest design highlights for us in 2022.
10X optical zoom on the Galaxy S22 Ultra: Super zoom on a phone!
Cameras have become one of the most important features of smartphones today, so it is hardly surprising that camera specs on phones are improving by the day, especially in the premium segment. One area where progress has been relatively limited has been optical zoom, so we were pleasantly surprised to see a massive 10X optical zoom on a smartphone in 2022. We have seen smartphones with ridiculous amounts of digital zoom (especially from Huawei’s famous P series) but that is basically all about cropping images which eventually means that you lose out on a ton of detail. There are phones that offer some amount of optical zoom with the most common being 3X, and some phones take it to even 5X. But Samsung decided to take the optical zoom game to a different level in 2022 by introducing a whopping 10X optical zoom to its flagship phone of 2022, the Galaxy S22 Ultra, through a 10-megapixel periscope telephoto lens. This is a kind of optical zoom which is rarely seen even in digital cameras, let alone a smartphone. With it, zooming into a subject on a smartphone suddenly became much more than the equivalent of moving a step or two closer to the subject. We actually could take pictures of birds from a safe distance without disturbing them and still get impressive details of their plumage. We have honestly not seen this kind of optical zoom performance from a smartphone before and so hope other brands join the zoom bandwagon in 2023.
Quad speakers on the Xiaomi 12 Pro: The sultans of smartphone sound
While other brands focused mainly on displays and cameras, in 2022 Xiaomi decided to take a road less travelled and made a flagship that not only stood out in the camera and display departments but also had its speakers as USPs. Yes, you read it right – the speakers. The Xiaomi 12 Pro saw Xiaomi return to the premium phone segment in India in 2022, and while the smartphone came with flagship-level specs in all aspects, what made it very different from other devices were the quad speakers that the smartphone. Most flagship phones tend to come with two speakers, but Xiaomi doubled that number with the Xiaomi 12 Pro. It was the first phone in the Indian market that was launched with four speakers– two woofers and two tweeters. The whole system was tuned by Harman Kardon. As a result, Xiaomi 12 Pro delivered perhaps the best sound experience we have ever had with a smartphone in terms of loudspeaker performance. Whether it was gaming or watching content or simply listening to music, the Xiaomi 12 Pro just knocked it out of the audio park each time. They were definitely not the loudest speakers on a smartphone that we have experienced but the quality was sublime with the audio having great body and balance to it.
120W charging on the Xiaomi 11i Hypercharge: Crazy fast charging on an affordable phone
Fast charging has been around on smartphones for a while now with the likes of Dash, Warp and VOOC charge becoming part of the geek vocabulary. However, really fast charging had been the preserve of the premium segment, and you had to fork out a pretty penny for it. Xiaomi changed that by launching the Xiaomi 11i HyperCharge in 2022. Yes, the phone had very mid-segment specs in terms of processor, display and cameras, but it came with a feature which at that time was not seen even in the premium segment – support for 120W charging, and with a charger in the box as well. The result was a 4,500mAh battery that got charged in about twenty minutes. The segment had never quite seen anything like it, and by the end of the year, other brands were paying Xiaomi the most flattering tribute by including similarly speedy charging at lower price points. But to the 11i HyperCharge goes the credit for yanking super fast charging out of the premium zone and into the more mainstream one.
Audio message transcription on the Google Pixel: Now, you can read voice messages
There is a lot more to Google’s iconic Pixel range of phones than just extremely good cameras. Beneath that striking exterior lie some serious software smarts. And one of our favourites was the transcription of voice notes which came with the Pixel 7 series. While transcription (converting voice to text) has always been a Pixel forte, the transcription of voice messages is particularly useful because it enables one to find out what’s on an audio message without actually having to hear it – something which is often not possible (you might be in a crowded place, for instance). All voice messages delivered on the Google Pixel 7 and 7 Pro on the Google Messages app come with a transcription box which lets you see what exactly is in the message without having to hear it. And the transcription is right on point too. It is fast, it is convenient and rather smart. It was one of our favourite features of 2022 and we so hope it comes to more devices and messaging services in 2023.
The audio jack on the Redmi K50i: This jack is not over the hill
While the 3.5mm audio jack is not yet history, 2022 saw it start disappearing from the premium mid-segment. Most phones with a price tag in excess of Rs 25,000 ditched the audio jack. Which is why it was a huge surprise when Xiaomi included the 3.5mm audio jack in its Redmi K50i which was launched at Rs 25,999. And it was not a run-of-the-mill audio jack but quite a powerful one as well, capable of driving mid-level headphones, saving you the need to invest in an entry-level DAC. It was a classic case of an old feature showing us that it was still handy as we suddenly discovered that using earphones did not always mean getting into Bluetooth pairing mode or checking battery levels on buds or TWS. We are not over-optimistic about the 3.5mm audio jack’s future but it would be wonderful if brands continued to offer it even at higher price points.
The secondary display of the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip4: A second display that actually helps and can be used easily
We have been seeing phones with a secondary display for a while now. The RAZR 2 had an external display that let you see some basic information, the Yota Phone literally had an e-reader on its back and in 2021, the Mi 11 Ultra came with a tiny secondary display in the camera unit to let you check the time and take selfies. Samsung however, added real value to the secondary display with the external display on the Galaxy Z Flip4 launched in 2022. The 1.9-inch display was not very large but it was more than ample for carrying out a number of functions without having to open the phone. You receive and reject phone calls, read messages and even respond to them (using a pre-written response) and control music and system settings, apart from a host of other activities (including taking selfies). What made the Z Flip4’s secondary display special was just how smoothly it worked and how it hit the golden mean between being large enough to use and view easily without being too obtrusive. It would be a great option in the premium segment, especially for those of us who like to keep our phones face down or simply do not like unlocking our phones for every task.
Samsung’s Android updates: Getting into the Pixel’s league…or Galaxy!
Mention quick software updates for Android devices and it is a fair chance that most folks will think that you are referring to Google’s Pixel range, which gets Android updates regularly and in a timely manner. Well, 2022 saw Samsung get into Android update mode and deliver impressive results, in spite of having a wide portfolio of devices spread across different price segments. As the year ends, Samsung was one of the few brands that had a number of phones updated to Android 13, and these were not just flagships but also mid-segment devices. What’s more, most of the OS updates were smooth and error-free. The brand also surprised many with its commitment to provide Android OS and security updates for a number of years for many of its devices, finally putting Android updates where they belonged – in a prominent place on the spec sheet. It is expected that other brands will follow suit – some are already doing so – and that is terrific news for all those using Android devices.