Samsung Is Making the Best Phones

Photo: Sam Rutherford (Gizmodo)

Last year after a somewhat lackluster product cycle, I said Samsung couldn’t afford to hold back anymore. And in 2019, it seems Samsung took that message to heart because it released some of the most exciting phone tech we’ve seen in the last 12 months.

Now before I get in trouble for patting myself on the back too hard, it’s obvious that one op-ed doesn’t carry that much weight. What’s more likely is that the powers at Samsung simply came to a similar conclusion, and with Huawei nipping at Samsung’s heels for global smartphone market share and bunch of innovative new tech poised for imminent release, everything lined up just right for a big 2019.

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So while Apple and its entire product line maintained a holding pattern devoid of any major advancements, Google got too cute with the Pixel 4, and Huawei got slapped with a ban on using U.S. tech, Samsung released a dizzying amount of phones including its most impressive flagship in years, multiple 5G-ready handsets, a fully revamped budget and mid-range line, and of course the Galaxy Fold. And thanks to all that, it looks like Samsung has managed to maintain its top spot in the phone market for another year. 

Photo: Sam Rutherford (Gizmodo)

In early March, Samsung kicked off its strong year with the Galaxy S10, creating a phone that had everything even demanding power users could really ask for: a big beautiful screen with practically no bezel, excellent performance, twice the base storage you got on the S9 (128GB, up from 64GB), in-display fingerprint sensor, wireless (and reverse wireless) charging, triple cameras, and even a headphone jack.

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Then Samsung went even further and made the S10e for people who appreciate smaller handsets with a flat (not curvy) screen and a side-mounted fingerprint sensor—a phone that remains probably the most overlooked mainstream phone of the year. And even with its smaller dimensions, the S10e kept its headphone jack too.

After that, Samsung axed the Galaxy J phones, merged them with the Galaxy A line, and piratically revamped its entire budget and mid-range portfolio. With the new Galaxy A50 Samsung made a better phone for $350 than Motorola (though it couldn’t quite take out the Pixel 3a). And if you look at a list of this year’s best selling phones, you’ll find three Galaxy A-series phones (Galaxy A10, A20, and A50) in the top 10, tied only with Oppo (Oppo A5, A5s and A9).

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Photo: Sam Rutherford (Gizmodo)

Then, in the fall, Samsung pumped out two versions of the Note 10 for the first time ever, with the Note 10+ being in my opinion damn near perfect (aside from the lack of a 3.5mm jack). Samsung even tested out tech like 3D time of flight sensors, and while they aren’t used for much more than doodles right now, you can already see the potential.

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And while all of this was going on, Samsung release not one but two 5G phones. Now it’s true, especially in 2019, there’s no reason the average person should give a shit about 5G. But the value with the Galaxy S10 5G and Note 10 5G is being able to get some real 5G phones out in the wild, so people and companies can learn how they get used, and what to improve on in the future, when, you know, 5G might become important to you.

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Samsung even took some time to overhaul its signature wireless earbuds, which at first seemed more like an attempt to keep pace with Apple’s AirPods than anything else. But as time went on, the Galaxy Buds start looking and sounding better and better compared to its competition to now, where it’s actually sort of underrated. This is a sentiment that really hit home for me when my wife asked to trade the Sony WF-1000XM3s I got her for the Galaxy Buds I had been using because they were lighter and more comfortable while still delivering superb sound quality. While I really wish you didn’t need to install a helper app to get full functionality for the Galaxy Buds on non-Samsung phones, the Galaxy Buds are still the best alternative to the original AirPods for Android folk (while also being $30 to $60 cheaper).

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There was also the Galaxy Fold and all of its high and lows. Despite its flaws and its exorbitant price, the Galaxy Fold is one of the best devices released this year, and the only device with a foldable screen you could really buy on this side of the Pacific. The Galaxy Fold represents one of the biggest forks in smartphone design since the leap from dumb phones to smartphones, and with Samsung having already teased that its second foldable is already on the way, there’s a good chance Samsung will have created two foldable phones before most phone companies even make one.

Huawei’s Mate X came out even later than the Fold, and LG didn’t even bother, opting to go with dual-screens instead. And if noted Samsung leaker Ice Universe is correct about Samsung having figured out how to install flexible glass on the Galaxy Fold 2, then well...damn.

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However, Samsung impressive 2019 still had its faults. The Galaxy Fold was delayed for five months due to potentially easily avoidable circumstances. Samsung Mobile CEO DJ Koh may have apologized and taken responsibility for the matter, but you can bet the Galaxy Fold’s early issues won’t soon be forgotten.

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On top of that, when it comes to pure image quality, while triple rear cams are nice, Samsung sits in a solid third place (or fourth if you include Huawei), behind both Google and Apple. With the growing importance of computational photography, image quality has become one of the most obvious categories where simply doubling down on hardware doesn’t guarantee results. Samsung needs better software if it wants to gain a league. Speaking of software--while Samsung’s OneUI has gone a long way towards erasing the painful memories of TouchWiz, it still takes too damn long for Samsung phones to get new versions of Android.

But most importantly, 2019 for Samsung represented a return to form, where a company long known for innovative hardware basically dabbed on a lot of its competition. Now that challenge for next year is to turn its first mover’s advantage into an even better batch of gadgets.

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About the author

Sam Rutherford

Senior reporter at Gizmodo, formerly Tom's Guide and Laptop Mag. Was an archery instructor and a penguin trainer before that.