Have Apple and Samsung grown too complacent? Darkhorse rival steals smartphone design crown in 2023

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
Have Apple and Samsung grown too complacent? Darkhorse rival steals smartphone design crown in 2023
In the past couple of years it has become more and more obvious that we have entered the age of maturity for smartphones, or as some may call it: smartphones are now boring!

Bad news for us techies, and great news for our friends who no longer have to endure a monologue about the power efficiency of 5 nanometer chip manufacturing.

Sure, you still get the occasional new chipset to scratch that itch (hey, that new Apple A17 Bionic chip with 3 nanometer technology is actually exciting!), a few new camera features that pop up now and then, but the foundation has been laid and it's not moving anytime soon.

But it’s time we faced it: smartphones are the new laptops - nobody cares which one you have, they all kind of work the same!

Okay, that might be a bit of an overstatement, smartphones are certainly not THAT boring (at least not yet), but if you focus on smartphone design and just look at the big names in the industry, you can certainly see us drowning in me-too glass and aluminum designs.

Just look at the last few iPhone and Samsung Galaxy phones, they are incredibly safe choices. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with safe… if customers had another option!

But that’s exactly the problem. In most Western markets, we don’t have other options. While reviewing some more “exotic” phones, I came away really impressed not just by the new features, but by the genuine care in providing that originality that seems so lacking.

This company showed innovative phone design is still possible

One such company is Chinese phone maker Xiaomi. The company does not sell its phones in the US (and probably never will due to government regulations), but it's worth looking how - despite having much smaller presence in the flagship space - Xiaomi offers its latest phone in not just the usual glass and metal.

It offers a leather-like soft textured finish that completely transforms the feel of the phone and since you don't have to deal with a glass back, you will feel much safer using the phone without a case.

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Not only that, you have a third option with a ceramic back coating that looks like glass but won't scratch as easily and has a more organic feel to it.

This level of diversity in the materials used is something we desperately need in this mature market where the overall slab smartphone format is well established and there is no going around it.

But it is this brand new phone that steals the 2023 design crown

Take another Chinese phone maker, Oppo. It has recently launched its flagship phone for 2023, the Oppo Find X6 Pro and it has what is probably the coolest design for the year.

Oppo has crafted the camera area and surroundings out of metal, while the bottom two thirds of the phone are made of a soft-touch leather material. The phone is soft to the touch, very well put together and yes, while this design is incredibly original it would still appeal to so many people.

Here is the beauty of this design, it’s an option, and you can also go for a more traditional single-color glass finish. It’s all about choice.

But you don't have to go that far for the less known in the West Oppo brand.

OnePlus is a company that is actually present in the United States and it has also showed that innovation in design is possible.

The latest OnePlus 11 employs an incredibly interesting material with embedded microcrystals that reflects light in this unique way and has a very pleasing texture. And that is a $700 phone that also shows how you can be creative in the design space, without going over the top.

We went from dozens of brands and ideas to only a couple

As I was writing this, news came in that OnePlus might experiment with a MARBLE back for the OnePlus 11. Yes, real marble, and not a $20 Dbrand skin!

I feel that even Google is more open to creativity and pushing the boundaries in smartphone design. Pixels lack the clever material choices of phones out of China, but with clever dual tone finishes and some brave color choices we have seen Google step out of the box.

Remember the phone market seven or eight years ago?

We had the LG G4 with a leather back, we had the Galaxy S5 with a perforated back, we had Nokia Lumias running Windows Phone coming in crazy shapes and with bright yellow and blue colors that would stand out, even earlier we had Motorola phones with bamboo backs, HTC phones with streamlined modern designs, heck we also had a bunch of BlackBerries with super sleek leather finishes!

I can go on and on: remember the Essential Phone? Ceramic back and a titanium frame!

Not so long ago, you had the ability to choose a phone with a metal back and we all remember how durable these phones were and unless you had the misfortune of dropping them on their screen, you could enjoy using these phones without a case.

Remember plastic phones? Yes, those same cheap feeling ones, but also those phones weighed HALF the brick-like weight of modern phones.

Why are Apple and Samsung so afraid to try something new?

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So what is preventing Apple and Samsung to try something new and a bit more exciting?

A huge part of it has got to be scale. When you are selling tens of millions of devices, a new design is massive undertaking and carries risks. Smartphones not only have to look cool, but they have to survive years of use and abuse, and with the term of smartphone ownership increasing, many people use the same phone for five or six years after its release. A less resilient material might seem like a good idea in the short term, but will it survive long-term use?

The other part is the fact that nearly 80% of people put their phone in a case and the design ultimately does not matter all that much.

A new design of something like an iPhone is usually a multi-year investment which shifts thousands of people, supply chains and more. Because of those reasons, we think that we will continue to see innovative and cool smartphone design ideas mostly from the smaller players.

But just like Apple can make a new color (hello, yellow iPhone 14), it surely can commission a different material too. And Samsung, which makes dozens of phones in all sorts of price tiers, each with a different design, can also easily be more creative with its flagship design. If more people choose those designs and share how great they can be with their friends and family, this will only happen quicker.

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