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A very strange thing happened to smartphones this year

The Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 5 next to the Motorola Razr Plus, both showing their cover screens.
Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 5 (left) and Motorola Razr Plus Joe Maring / Digital Trends

For a while, it seemed like there was little actual choice out there when we wanted a new smartphone. Instead, there was just a string of competent devices that didn’t exactly shine. But in 2023, something unexpected, a bit strange, and very welcome has happened.

We may still be seeing the same type of devices, but not only has quality and ability been massively increased, but manufacturers have excelled at differentiating one from the other. So, even if one model isn’t quite right for us, another otherwise very similar device may be exactly what we’re looking for.

A hard trend to explain

Motorola Razr Plus and Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 5 in hand with cover display turned on.
Motorola Razr Plus (left) and Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 5 Prakhar Khanna / Digital Trends

It’s quite hard to explain, so let me give you an example. On the surface, the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 5 and the Motorola Razr Plus (or Razr 40 Ultra if you live in the U.K.) are very similar phones. They are both compact folding smartphones and both weigh about the same, are about the same size, and cost the same too. Yet each has its own well-crafted appeal where if one isn’t quite right, there’s a good chance the other will be.

From the choice of colors — including the stunning Pantone Viva Magenta shade — to the always-cute Moo character on the cover screen, the Razr Plus is a fun phone. The Galaxy Z Flip 5 is more sensible, and its classy design gives it an air of sophistication. It’s less tactile, though, and doesn’t turn heads in the same way as the Razr does. If you care about apps on the cover screen, the Motorola Razr Plus makes it easy to use them, but you have to make more of an effort on the Z Flip 5. If you want fast software updates, you should pick the Samsung phone.

Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 5 next to the Motorola Razr Plus.
Motorola Razr Plus (left) and the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 5 Joe Maring / Digital Trends

The thing is, they are both excellent phones to buy. Neither is ostensibly better or worse than the other, so there’s no automatic, easy “buy this one” recommendation to be made. Instead, you could probably buy either and be really happy with your choice.

But rather than just flipping a coin, the decision can be made based on what each manufacturer has done to give their phone its own identity and how it will fit into or enhance your life. The differences may not be glaring at first, but that’s a good thing — as it means neither has lost sight of that overall universal appeal or resorted to pointless, distracting gimmicks.

Foldables, phones, rings, and smartwatches

OnePlus Open and Google Pixel Fold standing to show designs.
OnePlus Open (left) and Google Pixel Fold Christine Romero-Chan / Digital Trends

Are you beginning to see what I mean? Here are some more examples to see how this trend has developed over the last year.

When we started in 2023, there was one big-screen folding smartphone available in the U.S. — the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 4. Now, we are reaching the end and there are three such smartphones: the Galaxy Z Fold 5, the Google Pixel Fold, and the OnePlus Open. They aren’t drastically different in design, but there are enough differences between them — whether it’s in the durability, camera, or software — for one to likely make more sense than another to you personally.

It’s not just foldables, either. If you’ve got about $500 to spend, you’ve got a choice of phones like the Nothing Phone 2, the Samsung Galaxy A54, the Google Pixel 7a, the Motorola Edge (2023), and the Asus Zenfone 10. Each phone has its own key selling point, mixed in with other small but crucial differences, to make one more likely to tick more boxes for you personally than another. But ultimately, if you can afford one, the rest are within range — and all are really good phones you’ll enjoy owning.

The Xiaomi Watch 2 Pro and the Pixel Watch 2 on a person's wrist.
Google Pixel Watch 2 (left) and Xiaomi Watch 2 Pro Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

We’re even seeing the same trend in wearables. The Oura Ring and the Ultrahuman Ring Air are both smart rings, but they are genuinely different from each other, right down to the amount of money each costs to own long-term. The Google Pixel Watch 2 and the Samsung Galaxy Watch 6 Classic are smartwatches with the same price tag, but are almost completely different in style, software, approach, and appeal. If you’ve said, “I want X product,” in 2023, the choice of which to buy has never been greater, but I also think the final decision has become easier.

More choices, and more devices that suit you

A person holding the Apple iPhone 15 Plus and Apple iPhone 15 Pro Max.
Apple iPhone 15 Pro Max (left) and Apple iPhone 15 Plus Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

I’ve mostly used Android phones as examples so far, but we can see the same thing from Apple, too. The iPhone 15 Plus is suitably different from the iPhone 15 Pro Max, despite both being the biggest iPhone models with the same size screen. The Plus model is a strongly recommended purchase, unlike last year. It is the same situation with the iPhone 15 against the iPhone 15 Pro, and there are spec differences between the 15 Pro and 15 Pro Max to help make a buying decision easier too.

We’ve long had a huge choice of smartphones to buy, but when it came down to a recommendation, there was usually a clear and obvious winner. It wasn’t that the competition or alternatives were bad, but it was a case of counting the compromises that spoiled them, whether they had to do with design, features, software, or price, then establishing if you could live with them. This year, the choice has widened because devices are almost all excellent and the compromises are fewer, so the gap between them has closed a great deal.

Clockwise from top: natural titanium iPhone 15 Pro, Nothing Phone 2, green iPhone 15, and Obsidian Black Google Pixel Fold.
iPhone 15 Pro, Nothing Phone 2, green iPhone 15, and Obsidian Black Google Pixel Fold. Christine Romero-Chan / Digital Trends

It would normally make a decision really hard, but the brilliant thing is, instead of being faced with a sea of smartphones and mobile devices that are all very good, but also all basically identical, an effort has been made to truly differentiate them. We’re seeing more targeted products, where unique selling points are being thought through and sensibly applied, which has resulted in products that have genuine individual appeal. There are far fewer gimmicks tacked on to hide potentially deal-breaking compromises and more devices that stand out from the competition in a positive, helpful, and enticing way.

It has been much more difficult to make a “bad” choice of mobile device in 2023 as manufacturers have worked hard to give devices distinctive, individual traits without deviating far or compromising a product’s basic, universal appeal. We have been given both amazing products and the opportunity to make more personal choices due to this trend, and I hope it continues through 2024 and beyond.

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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…
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