2020 was an awful year for the most part. And the smartphone market was a perfect reflection of the year, with tall promises starting with ambitious projects like Xiaomi's Mi Mix Alpha, down to utterly disappointing releases like Samsung's Galaxy Note 20.
While the year started eagerly with releases like the Sony Xperia 1 II and Galaxy S20 Ultra promising to redefine the public's perception of what an Android flagship could do, spec sheets failed to translate into real-world sophistication with the majority of those phones bearing severe weaknesses. This may be overstated, perhaps—in the spirit of the year—but looking back at smartphones releases this year will do naught but leave the informed enthusiast disappointed.
Kicking off with the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra, a phone marketed as being Samsung's magnum opus. Ultra! The reality of the matter reveals a lackluster device with few selling points. A 108 MP camera sounded game-changing at the time but was impaired by an inept auto-focusing system; the heavily-advertised 100x zoom was nothing more than a gimmick for TikTok videos; the 120 Hz display was limited to a mundane FHD+ resolution.
The less said about the Exynos 990, the better for everyone. Some hits, for sure, but more misses than one would like on a device that started at US$1,399. Samsung's transgressions didn't end there either, as the company went on to release the Galaxy Note 20, a device offering so little value for money one has to assume the smartphone giants were having a laugh at our collective expense.
Then there was Google. The Pixel 4a was delayed multiple times, going from what should have been a May release to ultimately being launched in August. The Pixel 5 would've scratched some heads too, as it wasn't quite a successor to the Pixel 4 as one would normally expect. That's not to take anything from the devices as they're excellent offerings in their own right but expectations were not met and there's not much of an argument to be made against that.
All of this may appear to be isolated cases but it becomes more evident to the enthusiast looking to upgrade to newer hardware this year. There's a dire lack of new releases that tick most of the boxes one would prefer to be. For the person looking to upgrade from a Galaxy S10, for example, what are the options? A Galaxy S20 with few to no actual hardware improvements bar the 120 Hz display? A Pixel 5 with worse performance? A OnePlus 8 Pro with worse software support and iffy cameras? The script writes itself and rather easily at that.
That's not to say that it was all bad, however. Attempting that would be farcical. Xiaomi, for example, had a solid year and provided decent devices across the board. But it also had its flaws. The Mi 10 and Mi 10 Pro in Europe were more expensive than they had any right to be, the Mi 10T and Mi 10T Pro were saddled with LCDs, and the Mi 10 Ultra never made the trip out of China at the end. In spite of that, Xiaomi was rewarded for being the best of the bunch by toppling Apple to become the third-biggest smartphone maker in Q3. Rightfully so.
That said, Xiaomi did offer some excellent mid-range phones. On closer inspection, so did other OEMs; the Pixel 4a offers excellent bang for the buck and smartphone makers like Motorola and Samsung all released solid mid-range and sub-premium devices. Even OnePlus managed to release the Nord—issues regardless.
Perhaps the starting premise was a bit too harsh after all. Perhaps 2020 was just a bad year for flagship phones. In a year that promised too much and ultimately failed to deliver, the enthusiast's sight may have been best served ignoring the flagship market in favor of the mid-range one. Here's hoping for a better 2021.