The best phones of the decade – part 1
The changes in the mobile phone world over the last 10 years are bigger than any other time in history. As we say goodbye to this decade of technological milestones, we wanted to have a look back at some of the most influential phones – not only the best sellers, but also the phones that heralded major developments in hardware, software and user experience.
Nokia N8 – 2010, April
The Nokia N8 is a glorious beast of a device that came out in 2010 and barely makes the cut for this roundup. In more ways that one, the Nokia N8 is kind of the last of the Symbian titans. The end of an era, if you will. As such, it is definitely a monumental device in its importance. Not to mention its massive popularity.
And even beyond the Symbian powerhouse aspect of the device, the N8 has a lot of modern smartphone DNA shining through its overall retro exterior. AMOLED touchscreen and a rather big one by the standards back then, powerful hardware with plenty of connectivity options and a focus on web and multimedia. Plus, arguably the best camera in its day.
Apple iPhone 4 – 2010, June
The Apple iPhone 4 was the first great iPhone. It was the first with a properly capable camera (before it came the iPhone was something of a running joke, camera-wise), the first iPhone to capture HD video, the first with a “Retina” display (which was mind-blowing at the time), the first of Apple’s metal-and-glass designs, it was the first time an iPhone had a homescreen wallpaper, the first iPhone to have noise cancellation during phone calls and much, much more.
But those landmark features aside, the iPhone 4 was brimming with character. At the time it had a refinement none of its rivals possessed. Its nearest competitor, the Samsung Galaxy S was all-plastic, lacked an LED flash and was laggy (up to the point that there was something called One Click Lag Fix developed for it). If you want to relive the first epic rivalry between Apple and Samsung – be our guest.
By the time the iPhone 4 had rolled around the AppStore was light years ahead of the Android Marketplace and there were so many quality games to choose from.
The iPhone 4 was the first iPhone that made the iPhone a special, magical device for millions of people. And you know what, holding it today, it still feels special.
LG Optimus 2X – 2010, December
The LG Optimus 2X is the first smartphone in the world to use a dual core processor – this even earned it a place in the Guinness World Record book. The Nvidia Tegra 2 packed two Cortex-A9 cores running at 1GHz and featured a GeForce GPU.
The chipset blew everything else out of the water, even beating some Intel Atom-powered netbooks of the time. All this processing power was put to good use in other ways too, making the Optimus 2X the first smartphone to record video at 1080p resolution (at 24fps, but still very impressive in its day).
Samsung Galaxy S II – 2011, February
Marking down several high points for Samsung, the I9100 Galaxy S II can rightfully be considered the smartphone that laid the foundation for the brand’s Android success. Frankly put it was that good of a phone bringing everything you could need back in 2011 and then some. From the large 4.3-inch Super AMOLED display to the first Exynos chipset, 8MP main camera and optional NFC, the S II left little to be desired.
Arguably the most important feature of the S II came under its hood where we got out first taste of Samsung’s Exynos chipsets. The Exynos 4210 Dual featured two Cortex-A9 cores clocked at a mind-boggling 1.2 GHz alongside the Mali-400MP4 GPU which we described as a “serial speeder” in our review.
That moniker was rightfully earned as it blazed past the competition. The exact same SoC would later power the mighty Galaxy Note N7000 and Exynos chipsets are still found in Samsung devices to this day.
Samsung Galaxy Note – 2011, October
Typically, when tech dies it stays dead – you don’t see any analog TVs anymore. The stylus was just as dead until the Samsung Galaxy Note brought it back and launched a new form factor along the way. Dubbed “phablet” it bridged the gap between phones and tablets with its absolutely massive 5.3” screen. Keep in mind that just the year before Dell launched a 5” tablet, so the Galaxy Note was really huge for its time.
The active digitizer by Wacom with pressure sensitivity and precise tracking allowed the stylus (called S Pen) to be used for handwriting and drawing experience similar to paper. People could sketch their ideas, annotate documents or simply jot down notes.
Just as important legacy of the Galaxy Note, however, is the size of its screen. Initinally mocked, it caused phone screen sizes to explode in the following years. Bezels shrank, then aspect ratios changed and funny things started happening to selfie cameras – all for the sake of ever larger screens.
Nokia 808 PureView – 2012, February
The Nokia 808 PureView held the record for highest resolution sensor – 41MP – until late last year. Its sensor is still the largest in a mobile phone, 1/1.2” compared to the 1/1.33” of Samsung’s current champ 108MP sensor.
This phone was truly ahead of its time, utilizing its high res sensor to do smart digital zoom without losing image quality – something that is only now becoming commonplace. It’s not just imagery, the two microphones recorded some of the best quality audio we’ve ever heard. Also, the AMOLED display was unrivaled in terms of visibility in direct sunlight – the Nokia 808 PureView was a treat for all senses.
Nexus 4 – 2012, October
Before someone coined the term “flagship killer”, there was the Nexus 4 by LG and Google. It launched at a price of $300 in late 2012 and was down to $200 by mid-2013. Keep in mind that this phone had the 720p screen, Snapdragon S4 Pro chipset and 8MP/1080p camera of the LG Optimus G, which cost considerably more (as did flagships from other brands).
The Nexus 4 was ahead of its time. It was one of the first phones to feature wireless charging and its back had a polarized 3D pattern on its rear glass that shifted and moved with the light. Hitting the price point however meant that there was no 4G LTE support (there was an unofficial way to enable it, but it only worked on one band).
Sony Xperia Z – 2013, January
Sony has been building trend-setting devices for decades and the Sony Xperia Z is one of them. When it was unveiled very few phones had a dust tight and water resistant body – that was more of a rugged phone thing. Today, almost all flagships are built to be dust and water resistant.
Back in January 2013 very few phones had a 1080p screen too and while the following months changed that, the rectangular design with narrow bezels of the Xperia Z felt ahead of its time. The Xperia ZL took that to an extreme and shaved off several millimeters at the expense of an oddly-positioned selfie camera (on the bottom bezel, something we’d see again with the Mi Mix).
HTC One M7 – 2013, February
Ah, HTC at its prime, how we lament the passing of this great innovation powerhouse! The HTC One M7 wasn’t the first One smartphone, but now years later it sure feels like it. It came in a metal unibody that overshadowed anything that didn’t have an Apple badge on it and sacrificed a bit of Super LCD real estate in favor of front-facing chunky stereo speakers that we’re, simply put, phenomenal.
Wired audio was equally groundbreaking – the HTC One M7 was at the time leaps and bounds above its competitors for music enjoyment!
The one fault of the One M7 was its camera. The 4MP unit simply didn’t capture the detail required of a 2013 flagship, despite its super-sized UltraPixels.
Nokia Lumia 520 – 2013, February
For the longest time, the Nokia Lumia 520 was the most popular Windows Phone handset out there. Starting at under $200 and quickly falling to $100 (and as low as $50 with promotions), this phone ran Metro UI with buttery smoothness on hardware that would make contemporary Androids chug. The free voice-guided navigation for one country was a great perk too, this was just about the cheapest SatNav you could find – and you’d get a fully featured phone along with it.
In mid-2014 Microsoft reported that 12 million Lumia 520 phones have been activated. If there’s a reason to miss Windows Phone, this cheap, capable and reliable phone is it.
iPhone 5c – 2013, September
Jumping to September 2013, Apple brought not one but two iPhones marking a major shift in its release cycle and pricing policies. The iPhone 5c was the first affordable iPhone even though the “c” didn’t stand for cheap but rather for color. The four new color options coupled with the lower asking price led Apple to believe the 5c would sell like hotcakes (especially in developing markets) but the results were far from what Apple envisioned.
Looking back the iPhone 5c didn’t quite reach the success Apple hoped for but it could be argued that the iPhone XR is its spiritual successor and that one did very well. More importantly, the 5c marked the first occassion of multiple iPhone releases in one year, a tradition maintained to this day.
Apple iPhone 5s – 2013, September
While the iPhone 5c failed to achieve the sales Apple hoped, the iPhone 5s not only sold in buckets, but changed the industry in more than one way.
The iPhone 5s was what the iPhone 5 should have been – not just a major shift in design, but also in technology. Indeed, this was the first ever phone to come with a 64-bit processor. It took Qualcomm two years to release the Snapdragon 820 chip with a 64-bit CPU after that.
But that’s not all. The iPhone 5s was the first iPhone to come with Touch ID – a glorified name for a fingerprint scanner. Those had been around for years on both laptops and phones, but it was Apple and the iPhone 5s to really make them mainstream. People loved the convenience of the Touch ID so much that its replacement – the Face ID – just can’t repeat its success.
But wait, there is one more thing! The iPhone 5s introduced the HDR panorama mode – one of the features we loved a lot! The panoramic shots of the iPhone 5s were industry-leading with perfect stitching, excellent dynamic range, and absurdly high (for its time) resolution. And while we are talking about the camera, the iPhone 5s was also responsible for the spread of the dual-tone LED flash.
So, yes, the iPhone 5s has had an enormous impact and it still gets some love from a lot of Apple fans around the globe. That, and also because Apple continued to release major iOS updates for years – its last firmware was seeded in September 2018 – 5 years after the iPhone 5s launch!
LG G2 – 2013, September
Just like many other devices on this list, the LG G2 comes from a whole other era of smartphones. Arguably, one that agreed a lot better with the company as a whole. LG was doing great in the market and also pushing the smartphone envelope very hard with innovative concepts like its iconic power key/volume rocker single hardware control. A feature that managed to transition into a layout ideology of its own and one sorely missed by many fans.
But the LG G2 went beyond just being different. It was generally great and often gave most of its direct competitors, like the contemporary Samsung Galaxy S4 a run for their money. Potent internals, were backed by a 3,000 mAh battery – rather beefy at the time and a 5.2-inch IPS display. The latter also considered quite spacious and complete with some of the thinnest bezels around. It is kind of funny to consider LG’s insistence, back in 2013, that the G2 represents the biggest comfortable form factor to hold in your hand, though.
Motorola Moto G – 2013, November
The early days of Android were pretty chaotic, with many new, budding and sporadic players just experimenting and throwing things at the wall to see what sticks. A budget Android phone was typically synonyms with a bad experience. An unfortunate stereotype that a Google-acquired Motorola almost singlehandedly challenged with the original Moto G.
Stripping the hardware down to the necessities was really done right on the Moto G. But the most revolutionary bit was the clean and pure Android ROM that seemingly magically managed to pull off a smooth experience out of relatively modest silicon.
It was a glorious premonition of what the future of budget flagships and midrangers had in store. And thanks to frequent Google updates and a continued insistence on a pure and fluent experience, the Moto G line remained a go-to budget pick for more than a few years.
Sony Xperia Z1 Compact – 2014, January
After the Galaxy Note kicked off the large screen craze, there was suddently a dearth of small premium phones – if you wanted a petite phone, you had to settle for a mid-range or even entry-level devices. Well, that or an iPhone 5s.
The Sony Xperia Z1 Compact went against the current – the 4.3” screen was smaller than anything that the Android flagship segment had seen recently. And it was a flagship through and through – it had the same Snapdragon 800 chipset, same 20.7MP camera and same waterproofing as the larger Xperia Z1. Unfortunately, Sony stood alone in the small flagship fight for a long time – only lately have we started seeing Pixels and Galaxy S e competitors.
OnePlus One – 2014, April
This was the phone to coin the flagship killer term. At just €300/$350/£270 for a 64GB model it was a no-brainer at the time. It ran a custom CyanogenMod 11S based on stock Android, it had a top of the line Snapdragon 801, 3GB of RAM, a 4K DCI-capable 13MP camera, loud dual speakers and came in a lovely white color.
But as a first-gen product it had issues that needed ironing out. Its JDI-made LCD suffered from yellow coloration and had low contrast, its ample (at the time) battery had poor stand-by and there was that whole thing with needing an invite to purchase one.
The OnePlus One made a strong first impression and served as a positive platform, on which OnePlus has continued to build to this very day.
LG G3 – 2014, May
Displays have always been the central point around which smartphones are built. Having a subpar panel on an otherwise great phone could be a deal-breaker but with the LG G3 that was far from the case. While not the first phone with a QHD display (that title belongs to the vivo Xplay 3S) the G3 was the first widely available smartphone to pack a 2560×1440 panel with a razor-sharp 538 ppi.
While the display was the definitive highlight, the G3 also came with the flagship Snapdragon 801, laser-enhanced phase detection autofocus and clever button placement on its back. Its 3,000 mAh battery held up surprisingly well and as a whole, this was an excellent device for 2013.
iPhone 6 Plus – 2014, September
At the start of 2014, Apple’s largest screen iPhone was still sitting at a measly 4-inches but Cupertino finally gave into the big screen market pressure when it released the iPhone 6 duo. This event marked a monumental shift in Apple’s design principles and also ushered in the two-sized iPhone release cycle.
The 6 Plus with its 5.5-inch display was the first iPhone to bump the resolution to 1080p as well as the first time Apple put OIS on its cameras. We also got a generous (by Apple standards at the time) 2,915 mAh battery which delivered excellent endurance.
Apple was hesitant to release a large-screen iPhone for a long time but it didn’t just bring a larger display and call it a day. The clever landscape mode with split-screen functionality was another step towards killing the compact tablets and today the iPad Mini is barely seeing any attention from both Apple and its custormers. While we’re here we also have to mention the infamous “Bendgate” controversy but even that didn’t stop people from buying the first big iPhone.
Samsung Galaxy Note Edge – 2014, November
Samsung is an enormous company of many divisions – many focusing on cutting edge electronic components, and sometimes we get the feeling that the Galaxy phones are just an excuse for Samsung to flex its engineering muscle.
The Samsung Galaxy Note Edge was the first product with a flexible OLED panel. It was meant as a showcase device with a limited production run, but it got so popular that Samsung agreed to a full retail release.
Most flagships today have dual curved displays, which was enabled by the tech developed for the Note Edge. The Xiaomi Mi Mix Alpha is the extreme application, wrapping the screen all the way to the back. The foldable panels were the first step towards developing what we are seeing today – actual foldable phones.
This covers the most significant phones to come out in the first half of the 10s. We’ll cut off here, but stay tuned as we’ll be back with the second part at the turn of the year!