I’m a big basketball fan, I have loved the sport since I was a kid growing up in New York City rooting for Patrick Ewing and the New York Knicks. In the game of basketball, a team will inevitably have a bad season for whatever reason. That could be injuries, bad coaching, etc. But oftentimes there is a silver lining even in a bad year, where a young player will show promise or the star player on the team will play at a high level despite losing. When it comes to phone manufacturers, this seems to be an appropriate analogy for what we have seen in 2020. Objectively, 2020 was a terrible year for almost everyone. Yet in the phone space, Samsung has had quite the year, perhaps one of its best since it started making Android phones. And they have done so by staying with their plotted course and it seems to have paid some dividends in the result this year.
The Steady Excellence of the Galaxy S
The Galaxy S line was the one that got Samsung to be the relevant Android manufacturer that it is today. I often look back at the Galaxy S3 as the Samsung phone that got the masses to take notice of what the South Korean company was doing with phones. It is the device lineup that I think of whenever Samsung phones are mentioned. But in recent years, it seems that the Galaxy S line was getting stale and uninspired.
The peak of this lack of inspiration seemed to come from the Galaxy S8 and S9 feeling like the same phone sold twice by Samsung. Meanwhile, the Galaxy Note 8 and 9 were powerful devices that seemed to take the mantle away from the Galaxy S as the true Samsung torch bearer device. For a while, it seemed like the Galaxy S was just there, a device that was meant to fill in the release cycle void of the first quarter to reach customers that would not be willing to wait for the Note in the 4th quarter.
But this year felt different. Samsung announced its S20 range of devices (Galaxy S20, S20 Plus, and S20 Ultra) in February right before the COVID-19 pandemic caused mass shutdowns across the world. The reviews of these phones were exceptionally positive. Android Central called the S20 a “near-perfect, pocket-friendly powerhouse”. Meanwhile, Android Authority said that the Galaxy S20 Plus was “one of the most well-rounded smartphones that I’ve used in years”. This is the overall feeling of the entire S20 lineup this year. A phone that can finally wear the moniker of being the default Android phone or the Android iPhone as many have labeled Samsung recently. With the S20, Samsung finally made a phone that didn’t seem to have the issues of previous generations. Most of those issues in the past seemed to revolve around the Samsung software experience.
In the early days of Android, manufacturer skins like HTC Sense and Samsung TouchWiz were viewed as necessary as stock Android was too barebones for most users. Samsung’s TouchWiz skin in particular added features to give Samsung a marketing advantage over its competitors. But as time went on, the core Android experience that was found on Pixel devices got better and more feature-rich while Samsung’s skin added feature after feature, making it feel bloated and laggy after a few months of use. With the refined One UI skin on the S20, this changed this year. A Samsung flagship device now had excellent software to match the hardware, much like its primary rival Apple.
Excelling in the Midrange
Where getting the Galaxy S on par with the iPhone was a final step forward, Samsung this year found itself having to make a lot of ground in the lower price tier. For years, Samsung had something of a gap between its flagship Galaxy S phone and the entry-level Galaxy J series. This left the middle price territory vacant in Samsung’s lineup. This vacancy allowed for a device like Google’s Pixel 3a to be successful and to be received very favorably by reviewers. This year saw the onslaught of the Galaxy A series of phones in the West.
Samsung introduced the Galaxy A11 and A21 to combat Motorola’s ultra-budget E line, and the A51 and A71 to occupy the $400 and $600 price points respectively. In a world consumed and ravaged by a pandemic, being successful with these phones was of utmost importance. The A51 and A71, in particular, had to be more than just a pedestrian effort as the competition in the $400–600 price tier has never been more fierce.
It is with these devices that Samsung has built its excellent year. The A51 was the best selling Android smartphone in the first quarter of this year. This is important to remember as it was competing directly with the specter of the upcoming Pixel 4a, countless Moto G handsets, and also with the second-generation iPhone SE. This device from Samsung offered a big and bright display with most of the features that people wanted for an affordable price. A step up from this was the A71, which gave Samsung a 5G phone to offer carriers at the $600 price point. This device was also reviewed well as a device that nails the basics with the added benefit of 5G for people that needed the latest cellular connectivity standards. In short, 2020 was the year that Samsung finally took its mid-range and entry-level devices more seriously. Another win for the premier Android manufacturer.
The Folding Revolution
Samsung has never been a company that was afraid to take some chances with its phone designs. After all, they were the first company to popularize curved edge displays on smartphones (does anyone remember the Galaxy Note Edge?). It is only natural then, that Samsung would be the company to make folding phone screens mainstream. Last year saw the release of the original Galaxy Fold, a phone when closed and a tablet when unfolded. This was a product that felt very first generation, a product that was not ready for mainstream adoption. Many people suggested that it would take a few generations for Samsung to get the formula just right. Samsung was a year early.
The Galaxy Z Fold 2 has been a resounding hit. A phone that has been heralded as the future and true innovation. This is important as the competition and implementations of new form factors has never been stronger. With other folding phones coming out of China from Oppo and Xiaomi and dual-screen solutions like the Microsoft Surface Duo, LG V60, and LG Wing the competition for the next form factor has been fierce. As a result, Samsung had to make sure that their folding phone made a huge leap forward.
And take a huge step forward they did. The Fold 2 featured a front display that was more edge to edge making it more useful than the first generation model when closed. Samsung also improved the hinge mechanism and overall feel of the device that made it feel more well-composed, which is something that you want in a device that costs $2,000. Then there is the matter of Samsung’s other folding display device: the Galaxy Z Flip.
The Z Flip aims to be the revival of the compact flip phone. With a vertical hinge that opens up to a large 6.7-inch display. This was the return of the flip phone, a phone that has had to compete with Motorola’s revival of the iconic Razr. While many have praised the Razr for its larger front “cover” display, most have seemed to prefer the Z Flip in many regards. Another device that elicits a wow factor that showcases Samsung’s engineering might over the competition.
The Steady Hand of the Note
For a few years, the Note has been the showcase device of what Samsung had to offer. The thinking in recent years has been that the Galaxy S will introduce a feature, and then the Note will refine on that feature later in the year. This year was no exception as the near-perfect S20 was followed by the near-perfect Note 20 Ultra. This was a moment where the criticism of the Note line becoming a “Galaxy S with a pen” was a good thing because the Galaxy S this year was so good.
Where the Note 20 Ultra succeeded this year was in the camera department. After a couple of years of lagging behind the iPhone and Pixel, Samsung caught up this year, and the Note 20 Ultra spearheaded that advantage. Where Samsung was once criticized for a lackluster camera experience, the narrative has shifted this year. Samsung is considered a premier camera phone smartphone manufacturer. These advances have led people to declare that Samsung has a superior camera to Google’s Pixel phones which have not been the case for quite a few years.
As we close in on the end of the year, many publications are looking back at the phones of this year and choosing a winner, deciding what device was the best to be released this year. For many, that device has been the Note 20 Ultra. The reason for this may be that the Note is a culmination of everything that Samsung has done right this year: excellent hardware, diverse cameras, and a clean software build that matches speed with features harmoniously.
Now the year has not been completely perfect for Samsung. The S20 Ultra did suffer from some autofocus issues at launch, and the Galaxy S20 FE had reports of some screen flickering before a software update fixed the issue. But the overall report card for Samsung was stellar this year. As an addition to that, Samsung’s wearable tech products of watches and wireless headphones have continued to be excellent year over year. In a year that saw criticism of companies like OnePlus and Google for misguided product releases, it was the king of Android that found itself succeeding where others failed. And if this year is any indication, the South Korean giant has no intention of relinquishing its crown.