Skip to main content

These are the phone features and innovations we loved in 2020

The smartphones released this year have met a very high standard, almost regardless of the cost, and manufacturers have seemingly done more than ever to entice us into buying their devices with an array of interesting, fun, quirky, and useful features. With so many memorable phones, which of the features or innovations we’ve used stood out to Digital Trends’ mobile team the most?

It’s a hard question to answer, as not only are we spoiled for choice, but which ones really went beyond being an eye-catching gimmick and into useful, or even groundbreaking territory. It’s easy to get distracted by hyped-up features like 5G, and phones that take the kitchen-sink approach like the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, so after some careful consideration, these are the features and innovations we’ve loved the most from phones this year.

Andrew Martonik

Variable refresh rate displays are the future

The big push in smartphone displays for 2019 was moving beyond 60Hz to higher refresh rates that dramatically smooth out motion. A high refresh rate just feels right, and once you have one it’s tough to go back. 2020 was arguably just as important, as several companies made the next jump to variable high refresh rate displays.

Galaxy Note 20 Ultra Front
Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

With a variable refresh rate, the display can change the refresh rate on-demand depending on the content being shown. It seems like a nerdy detail, but it’s incredibly important. Not only can the screen change the refresh to match the frame rate for video or gaming, but it can also save a considerable amount of battery in times when there’s no motion on the screen.

When your phone’s just showing a lock screen, home screen, or static app page, it can sit at a low refresh like 10Hz and just sip power. Then the instant that you tap the screen, it can ramp all the way up to 120Hz — and everything in between. Phones like the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra and Xiaomi Mi 10T Pro do this, and it’s a real feat of technology.

Google released a metal phone … with wireless charging

The Google Pixel 5 is hardly a design marvel. In fact, it’s quite boring looking. But there’s more underneath its skin, including one feature that’s super interesting to me. The Pixel 5 is made of aluminum, like most phones, but it also offers wireless charging (and reverse wireless charging!) unlike any other metal phone. Phones have gone to glass backs for many reasons, but a critical one is to allow for wireless charging. Not on the Pixel.

Google Pixel 5 Back Hand
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Google didn’t make some massive breakthrough in materials science that lets it use Qi charging through metal — it simply cut a hole in the metal instead. But you’d never know it. Since Google uses a textured coating over the Pixel 5’s entire body, it’s able to cut a hole in the back, fill it in with a Qi coil and a resin, and paint over it. And just like what’s done to your apartment walls after you move out, when it’s done right the users are none the wiser.

It’s done right here. Touch, tap, slide your fingers all over it and you’d never be able to tell it isn’t metal. I’m a fan of the textured coating in general compared to the usual slippery metal finishes out there, even if it didn’t have this neat trick hiding. But it’s also a fun thing to nerd out about. I would be shocked if other companies aren’t doing the same in future phones.

Andy Boxall

Screens aren’t fixed any more

The screen doesn’t have to remain fixed in one place, remain the same size, or even only be placed on the front of your phone any more, and 2020 has pushed this exciting design and usability innovation forward in exciting ways. The Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2, and how it made foldable phones truly usable everyday, is the most obvious winner, but several others have played with our preconceptions about how phones should look and act.

Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

LG’s crazy Wing phone may have its flaws, but the rotating screen (and secondary screen hidden underneath) is an exciting, unusual, and almost really useful hardware innovation. If only software developers were similarly committed to exploring new designs, it may have really taken off (sorry). Huawei’s Mate XS folding smartphone showed how screens can work on the front and the back of the phone, as well as proving foldables can fold outward as well as inward, and Motorola’s improved Razr and the Galaxy Z Flip show foldables don’t have to be massive.

Samsung Galaxy Z Flip
Corey Gaskin/Digital Trends

Prices are still high on all these devices, but Samsung may be about to change this a little, while companies like Oppo are experimenting with further new screen type designs. These phones are all still early adopter playthings due to the cost, but this year we’ve seen advancements which prove they will be more than that in the near future.

Asus mastered the flip-over camera

We all take selfies (go on, admit it), but most of us do so with a compromised, sub-standard front camera that can’t match the ability of the rear camera. Asus said, “what if the rear camera is also the front camera?,” and engineered a complicated yet beautiful mechanized hinge system for the Zenfone 7 Pro, which flips the rear camera around for use as the selfie camera.

Asus Zenfone 7 Pro cameras
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The original Zenfone 7 introduced the feature, but Asus really refined it for this year’s Zenfone 7 Pro, and it’s without a doubt the best selfie-focused smartphone you can buy. Everything the rear camera does — and it’s a great performer with plenty of features — is repeated for selfies when the module flips round. It’s fast and fun, and it attacks a problem few address or even admit is there in an innovative and technically very impressive way. It’s surprising we haven’t seen at least one other interpretation of the tech elsewhere.

Christian de Looper

ZTE made under-display cameras a reality

Development of under-display camera tech has been underway for a few years, with Oppo demonstrating the technology in mid-2019, but 2020 is the year it finally became a reality. With the ZTE Axon 20 5G, there’s now a phone on the market, that can be bought, with an under-display camera sensor.

Now, let’s get this out of the way right now — the front-facing camera in that phone kinda sucks. But the concept is still really cool, and things can only get better from here. Smartphone manufacturers are likely to continue developing this tech until the camera quality is actually passable.

It will probably be at least a year or so before many more phones start to adopt this tech, but the fact that it’s possible proves that at some point in the near future, we should finally start getting more phones with true, uninterrupted edge-to-edge displays.

The iPhone 12 Pro Max brought smartphone cameras to the next level

The iPhone 12 Pro offers a great camera system, but the 12 Pro Max steps things up a little. With the iPhone 12 Pro Max, Apple released a new, larger camera sensor with a new sensor shift technology. The sensor is actually a hefty 47% larger than that on the iPhone 11 Pro Max, and as a result, lets in more light, and reduces noise, especially in low-light shots.

iPhone 12 Pro Max
Andrew Martonik/Digital Trends

The sensor shift tech is a new (for smartphones) take on image stabilization, stabilizing the sensor itself rather than just the lens, just like a DSLR. It’s less immediately noticeable, but still handy — and lets the 12 Pro Max take crisper, brighter photos in challenging lighting even without Night Mode. It’s a seriously impressive technical leap over even the regular 12 Pro.

The only downside to all of this? The fact that it’s only available on the iPhone 12 Pro Max, and not the standard iPhone 12 Pro. Hopefully, the tech will trickle down to other models next year.

Editors' Recommendations

Andy Boxall
Senior Mobile Writer
Andy is a Senior Writer at Digital Trends, where he concentrates on mobile technology, a subject he has written about for…
I put the iPhone’s Dynamic Island on my Pixel 7 Pro — and I can’t go back
The expanded DynamicSpot Dynamic Island at the top of the Pixel 7 Pro.

The Apple iPhone 14 Pro got a big refresh last year, and key to that was a new selfie camera design with a pill-shaped cutout. Only, this is no normal hole -- it's the home of a new feature, the oddly-named "Dynamic Island." It's a notification bubble that lives behind the selfie camera that displays information like music tracks, timers, and anything else you need to know, but don't need a full screen for. If you're playing music on Spotify, it'll display the track name and controls. If someone calls you, it'll show the person's contact information. Waiting for an Uber? It'll show you how far away it is. It's even tied into the Face ID unlock process. It's a great use of the selfie camera — and one with a bright future.

At least, that's what we thought. The Dynamic Island has had a tough start, as app support was extremely limited, meaning it didn't live up to Apple's promises. This persisted for a number of months before the Dynamic Island finally got what it needed to live up to its hype.

Read more
Apple, Samsung, and Google could learn a lot from this unique phone
The Huawei P60 Pro held in a person's hand.

Apple, Samsung, and Google could all learn something from Huawei’s latest flagship smartphone, as it’s one of the best-looking, most ergonomic, and tantalizingly unique mobile devices I’ve seen and held in ages.

Above is the Huawei P60 Pro, and the stunning finish is called Rococo Pearl. Here's what makes it special — and why I'd love to see other companies take such care.
A long history of great design

Read more
I found a phone that fixes the iPhone 14 Pro Max’s biggest flaw
Vivo X90 Pro back.

The comfort of holding a smartphone is underrated, especially when you consider that most of us hold our phones for at least a quarter of the day. And, unfortunately, it seems like the comfortable form factor of a big phone is the least thought-out feature.

Take any flagship phone with a 6.5-inch+ screen size, for instance. The iPhone 14 Pro Max, Galaxy S23 Ultra, or Xiaomi 13 Pro all have one thing in common: they feature top-notch cameras but aren’t very comfortable to hold, either due to the poor flat edge design or weight distribution. Thankfully, one new smartphone — the Vivo X90 Pro — solves this problem.
A design Apple wishes it could copy

Read more