For better or worse, no gadget exemplifies the 2010s more than the smartphone. Smartphones helped propel the meteoric rise of social media apps like Twitter, Instagram, and most recently TikTok, while also giving millions of people an incredibly powerful and practically always available pocket camera (much to the detriment of old-school camera makers).
We use smartphones to pay for coffee, unlock our cars, control our lights, and just browse the web—since 2018 mobile surpassed desktop to become the largest driver of global web traffic. Basically, if there’s something you can’t do on a phone (aside from high-level gaming/editing/modeling), it’s probably not worth doing.
So now at the end of 2019, it feels like the perfect time to look back and highlight the most important phones of the decade (and all the near misses and honorable mentions).
Note: These picks aren’t necessarily “the best” phones of each year, but the phones that had the most impact, both at the time and following its launch.
Honorable mentions: Google Nexus One, Microsoft Kin
When people talk about the most leaked device being the Pixel 3 or whatever Galaxy S phone is coming out next, well respectfully, we have to disagree. With the iPhone 4, never before had a device of this magnitude been seen in such detail that early. And what a phone it was.
The iPhone 4 was Apple’s first phone to sport a Retina Display, an A-series processor, and FaceTime, not to mention an all-new glass and metal design. This phone was a remarkable upgrade from the original iPhone and iPhone 3G that came before it, and even now, it’s the iconic device a lot of people think of when they of an iPhone. And thanks to Antennagate, it even had a tech scandal worthy of its commanding presence. There’s no doubt that the iPhone 4 is a legend.
Honorable mentions: Motorola Atrix 4G, Galaxy Nexus
Practically every phone made today would qualify as a phablet at the beginning of the decade, and the phone responsible for the trend that made this happen is the original Samsung Galaxy Note.
When it came out, there were constant complaints about the Galaxy Note being too big or too bulky to too awkward to use. It wasn’t, it just took some folks longer than others to catch on to the world’s desire for bigger and better screens. On top of that, the Galaxy Note was the Cadillac, the Rolex, the Christian Louboutin of phones. It had a vibrant OLED display while pretty much every other handset was still using LCDs, a built-in stylus, an 8-MP rear cam, and a replaceable battery. The original Galaxy Note had everything you ever wanted on a phone in 2011, plus a whole lot more.
Honorable mention: iPhone 5
Originally intended as an OS for cameras, Android had a lot of catching up to do following its debut on the HTC Dream in 2008. And to this day, there are people out who feel like they got burned by very early Android phones and still refuse to give them a second chance. But with the Nexus 4, for the first time, Google really demonstrated the power and appeal of stock Android.
The Nexus 4 was stylish, super fast, and it was one of the first phones to support Qi wireless charging, something we often take for granted on today’s modern devices. And while the Nexus brand has since died out, this phone helped pave the way for a legacy of slick stock Android devices like the Nexus 5, Nexus 6P, and Nexus 7 in the years to come.
Honorable mention: Nokia 1020, Sony Xperia Z
When it comes to smartphone design, especially back in 2013, the HTC One M7 was pretty much perfection. Sure it had a couple plastic lines scattered around its body, but with the One M7, HTC was making unibody aluminum chassis before practically anyone else.
The One M7 also has ridiculously good dual front-facing speakers and HTC was using its Ultrapixel tech to increase the quality of low-light photos years before the term pixel-binning ever hit the mainstream. While it’s a bit sad that HTC never made a phone this good again, there’s no doubt the One M7 was the best and most important phone of 2013.
Honorable mention: Galaxy S5, Galaxy Note Edge, OnePlus One, Moto X
Imagine a world where Amazon— a company that already has an outsized influence on the average person’s buying habits—had a direct line into millions of people’s minds and a permanent home in their pocket. Well that’s probably what would have happened if Amazon hadn’t bungled the Fire Phone as bad as it did back in 2014. Instead of “normal” Android, Amazon went out and made its own fork that didn’t come with Google apps or the Play Store, which made installing many of the apps you wanted to use really annoying or sometimes impossible.
Meanwhile, most of the phone’s six cameras weren’t used to make its photos look better, but to give its home screen a fun, but ultimately gimmicky parallax effect, or help identify products so you could more easily order from Amazon. In reality, the Fire Phone was actually less of a phone and more of a fancy barcode scanner designed to get you to buy more shit. And five years later, this thing still holds the title for the worst Fire device ever made.
Honorable mention: Lumia 950
Halfway through the decade, the Blackberry Priv represented a critical turning point: physical keyboards on phones going from essential to passe. The Priv also marked the last gasp for Research in Motion (which later rebranded to Blackberry Limited) after commanding around 20 percent market share between 2008 and 2010, to having less than one percent in 2015 following the Priv’s doomed launched. Not long after, Blackberry sold the branding rights for phones to TCL, ending the company’s influence in the smartphone world almost entirely.
2016 - The Samsung Galaxy Note 7
The Galaxy Note 7 is the phone that never was. After jumping straight from the Galaxy Note 5 to the Galaxy Note 7, this phone was supposed be a flagship among flagships. Samsung gave the Note 7 a brand new iris sensor, a bunch of new S-Pen features, and a big 5.7-inch display, and a huge 3,500 mAh battery.
Unfortunately, that battery also caused a ton of issues, turning Note 7's into impromptu fire starters in almost 100 cases just in the U.S. And even after the Note 7 was pulled from shelves the first so Samsung could address the issue, the phone came back and was still blowing up. And even after airlines banned the phone, someone managed to scare an entire plane just by putting Note 7 in the name of their mobile hotspot. The one saving is grace is that this debacle forced Samsung to re-evaluate its battery manufacturing regulations, and thankfully, none of the batteries in Galaxy phones have been an issue since then.
Honorable mention: Blackberry KeyOne, Galaxy S8, Essential Phone, Razer Phone
10 years after the original iPhone, Apple came and celebrated the occasion with a banger. The iPhone X marked a completely new era for iPhones. No more Touch ID or chunky bezels. Instead, we got a gorgeous OLED display with a bunch of sensors packed inside its big chunky notch.
Even using the phone was different with gestures replacing the home button and many of the commands used in previous iPhones. And unlike a lot of other Apple devices, the iPhone X was only available for one year. It was a special commemorative gadget that was both a celebration of old and a vision of the future.
Honorable mention: Oppo Find X, Red Hydrogen One, Huawei P20 Pro
After two previous Pixels, it felt like Google’s contemporary design and software-first approach had finally hit its mark with the Pixel 3. Combining components like a rear fingerprint sensor, colorful OLED screen, and Qi wireless charging with nifty features like Google’s Now Playing song identification and Call Screen, the Pixel 3 had the right balance of tech and smarts.
And thanks to the Pixel’s HDR+ photo mode and the release of Night Sight shortly after launch, the Pixel 3's camera put every other phone maker on alert status. Before the Pixel 3, a lot of people thought Google’s phone hardware merely amounted to playing around, but this phone forced its competitors to think again.
Honorable mention: OnePlus 7 Pro, Pixel 3a
In 2018, we saw the debut of the first-ever foldable phone, and it was garbage. But fast forward to 2019 and thanks to the Samsung Galaxy Fold, suddenly the idea of a foldable smartphone didn’t seem quite so preposterous. Look, the Fold isn’t perfect and at $2,000, it’s expensive as hell. But with its 7.4-inch flexible OLED display, it has the power to replace a tablet, an e-reader, and a whole bunch of other gadgets all in one device. And when it comes to watching movies on planes, trains, or buses, I’d rather carry a Galaxy Fold than pretty much any other phone on the planet.
Regular phones with stiff glass screens aren’t going away anytime soon, but the Galaxy Fold showed that there’s still a world of possibilities that handsets have yet to explore. And as we move into a new decade of phone tech, I can’t think of a better device to prepare us for that future than the Galaxy Fold.