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Why 2023 was such a special year for Android phones

OnePlus 11 in hand with Pixel 8 Pro and iPhone 15 Pro in the background.
Prakhar Khanna / Digital Trends

When I review phones, I consider the design, display, performance, cameras, software, and battery life from my experience with the device. A flagship phone needs to be great in at least one parameter and above average in others. But if it’s below average in at least one department (which many 2022 flagships were), it’s a bad phone.

But you know what? That didn’t really happen in 2023.

2023 Android phones had one thing in common

The back of the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra.
Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

2023 was the year when bad Android flagship phones finally died. That’s because they had powerful and efficient processors. Even Google made improvements with its Tensor G3 chip in the Google Pixel 8 and Pixel 8 Pro.

Last year, I had one major issue with almost all flagship phones: poor battery life, which I can’t compromise on. I need my primary phone to get me through the day. From the Galaxy S22 Ultra to the Xiaomi 12 Pro or the OnePlus 10 Pro, none of them lasted me an entire day of use. But that changed this year.

Playing a game on the Galaxy S23 Ultra.
Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

This year’s Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 was efficient enough to make Android flagship phones great again. For reference, my work day includes a lot of communication over WhatsApp, Slack, and Teams. I also juggle between X (formerly Twitter) and Instagram, clicking a few photos and browsing on Chrome. I’m on the go for most of the week, so this is over 5G with Google Maps and Uber running for at least 20 minutes a day.

I didn’t have to worry about keeping a power bank in my bag when using the likes of Galaxy S23 Ultra, Oppo Find X6 Pro, OnePlus 11, and other 2023 flagships because I was confident enough to have at least 20% battery life left by the time I’m home. The Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 brought a sense of confidence that I didn’t have when using 2022 flagship phones. It was the one spec that kept things together with the right mix of power and efficiency for these phones.

Cameras got even better

OnePlus Open and Oppo Find X6 Pro.
OnePlus Open and Oppo Find X6 Pro Prakhar Khanna / Digital Trends

2023 also saw more phones with better camera capabilities, including sharper zoom and better focus. For instance, the OnePlus Open now has the best camera setup on a foldable. The ability to choose the best camera while also opting for cutting-edge tech with a screen that folds is an achievement in itself. It’s the highlight of 2023, in my opinion.

Another phone that stood out with its cameras was the Xiaomi 13 Pro, which made me take more black and white photos and put in an extra second in being mindful of what I’m capturing – not because it can’t point and shoot, but because I like the color tuning and want to get good shots with better framing. The Xiaomi 13 Pro was the easiest phone to click great portrait shots with; all I had to do was point and tap on the shutter button, and I was sure I’d get a cool portrait shot.

The Galaxy S23 Ultra remains the most versatile camera setup of 2023. I got some excellent photos with 10x zoom on my trip to Barcelona for the Mobile World Congress earlier this year. The Oppo Find X6 Pro offered great 6x zoom, making me find more use cases and perspectives to shoot.

Using the camera app on the Google Pixel 8 Pro.
Joe Maring / Digital Trends

The Tensor G3 chip might not be the most powerful or efficient chipset, but the Pixel 8 Pro comes with some exclusive features that you wouldn’t find on any other phone. Google’s AI prowess puts Photoshop-level tricks at your fingertips. If I had to pick one phone that didn’t last me an entire day in 2023, it would be the Pixel 8 Pro.

The OnePlus 11 brought the value-for-money flagship Android back in 2023. While the OnePlus 10 Pro brought extra features like fast wireless charging, the OnePlus 11 kept things simple but improved cameras and was a very good phone. It offers good performance, clean software, better cameras than before, and a design that’s comfortable to hold. The Vivo X90 Pro is another good phone that has a comfortable in-hand feel and amazing cameras.

Apple stepped up, too

iPhone 14 Pro Max and iPhone 15 Pro on leaves.
Prakhar Khanna / Digital Trends

The iPhone 13 Pro Max was my favorite phone of 2022, and even after the year it was launched. But Apple dropped the ball with the iPhone 14 Pro series, which was plagued with issues. The iPhone 14 Pro Max was the most unergonomic phone I’ve used in the past year; the cameras had HDR issues, and the battery life wasn’t good. I had to charge it in the middle of the day to get it to my bedtime browsing.

While the iPhone 15 Pro Max isn’t yet back to iPhone 13 Pro Max-level battery life, it’s got enough enhancements to make it one of the most improved phones of 2023. The portrait mode focus is better, it’s lighter and more comfortable to use, and the HDR issue has been fixed. Moreover, the portrait shots in 5x zoom are exceptional – they come out better than expected.

Someone holding the Natural Titanium iPhone 15 Pro Max.
Joe Maring / Digital Trends

The lower-end iPhone 15 was a great improvement over the iPhone 14. The jump from iPhone 13 to 14 wasn’t massive, but Apple brought plenty of changes to its base iPhone this year. It borrowed features from the Pro series, including the Dynamic Island. I’ve had mixed experiences with Apple’s approach to multitasking, but the Dynamic Island has matured over time to make it more appealing.

The iPhone 15 also got HDR enhancements in the camera and “next-gen portraits” (the iPhone 14 Pro doesn’t have this) – both of which were introduced this year. I’ve been using the latter feature on my iPhone 15 Pro quite a lot. It lets me click portraits without switching to portrait mode because the 2023 iPhones automatically capture depth information, and you can turn any photo into a portrait via the Photos app on iPhone, iPad, or Mac.

Android phones shined in 2023

The back of the OnePlus 11 and Google Pixel 8.
OnePlus 11 (left) and Google Pixel 8 Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

I wrote earlier how 2023 was the year of foldables. But looking back, it’s also clear that there were no “bad” flagship phones this year. We got better camera capabilities, improved designs that are more ergonomic, and a more efficient processor in the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 that was the binding force for Android flagships.

I am currently using the Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 3-powered iQOO 12, and it seems promising. I hope the new mobile chipset is at least as efficient as the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2, if not more. With the likes of Vivo X100, Galaxy S24 series, and OnePlus 12 launching in the next few weeks, 2024 already feels exciting.

Coming off a year that was already so fantastic, we should be in for another incredible year for Android smartphones. And I can’t wait.

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Prakhar Khanna
Prakhar writes news, reviews and features for Digital Trends. He is an independent tech journalist who has been a part of the…
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