Companies’ Product Strategies and Execution in 2019

Like last year, it would it would be fitting to summarise 2019 based on each companies’ general efforts and product strategies. Successes of individual devices is likely more linked to a company’s design philosophies for the year, rather than the exact implementations on a given device – especially valid for companies releasing multiple devices per year.

Huawei in 2019 – Successful First Half, Political Turmoil in the Second Half

Huawei began the first half of the year with quite a lot of success with the release of the P30 series. The phones generally impressed thanks to offering a good overall package, differentiating themselves again this year by innovating in the camera department and brining to market among the first prism-based telescopic camera modules, as well as showcasing the first ever RYYB main camera sensor module, offering even better low-light performance.

I felt that the P30 series were a continuation of the design philosophies of the Mate 20 Pro released late last year, which isn’t really a bad thing. Huawei’s success of the series might have been greater if they had priced the phones a bit more competitively, especially in the face of Samsung’s strong showing of the S10 series.

In the second half of the year, or more precisely following the U.S. Commerce Department’s ban in May, is when Huawei’s troubles began. The political move meant that US companies such as Google were prohibited from working with Huawei, essentially banning the company from access to Google’s Mobile Services which includes the Play Store and many other of Google’s first-party applications, not being able to ship new devices to the market with these components preinstalled.

The first major device to suffer from the blow was the Huawei Mate 30. Although the device still is able to use the Android operating system, its lack of a preinstalled Play Store represents a real commercial draw-back. It’s still possible to get access to it post-purchase and to side-load most applications, but that’s not a viable means for the average consumer.

The Mate 30 Pro innovated again in terms of camera hardware, but the rest of the phone didn’t quite impress as much. The edge-to-edge curved display felt more like a gimmick and was bad for ergonomics, and the new Kirin 990 was a smaller than usual upgrade over its predecessor. Given the compromises and the high device price, I don’t think Huawei will be able to repeat a similar level of success as we’ve seen in the P30 or Mate 20 series.

Huawei’s future in western market remains clouded in uncertainty – the company will have to double down delivering outstanding hardware and features in order to overcome its trade-sanctioned handicap.

LG in 2019 – Very Little Substance

LG’s execution in 2019 was one that seemed to cry out for despair in trying to stand out. Whilst the G8 is certainly a much better phone than the G7 last year, it just yet again had some obvious weaknesses such as very inaccurate display colours, for which LG in the past openly stated as not caring about. Features such as the floating hand gesture navigation were pretty much pointless gimmicks that don’t really bring any value to the user experience.

LG made great efforts in the camera department this year, and the main camera quality of the G8, V50 and G8X make it certainly as part of the better cameras of the year. Still, the company lags behind the aspect of computational photography, and the choice of segmenting the G8 series between dual and triple-camera setups depending on country, with western markets only receiving only the dual-camera version means that the device becomes even less interesting.

The G8X’s dual-screen accessory is just another attempt at gimmickry that’s just a cheap response to foldables; the two screens aren’t even able to be set to the same colour temperature / colour profile which makes things look ridiculous, besides the fact that it’s just overly of very little use.

I have no idea where LG is heading – most of the devices weaknesses I feel is just bad product management rather than the company not having the resources to execute. We want an LG device that is able to focus on the core aspects of a phone: A good screen, good performance, good camera and good battery life. If you can’t deliver on these four basics, any other gimmicks on top are just wasted development resources.

Sony in 2019 – Biggest Disappointment

We never had much opportunity in the past to cover Sony devices, so that’s why I was quite excited to be able to finally review a device such as the the Xperia 1. I don’t think that I’ve ever had a device turn my excitant into disappointment just as quickly as the Xperia 1. The phone had been promised as being the first development under new management at Sony, but unfortunately it seems it the phone was doomed to fail right out of its design phase.

The actual physical design of the phone is great; the 20:9 aspect ratio works very well, and Sony’s actual hardware is amongst the best in 2019. The issue is that the marketing choice of actually using a 4K resolution display means that the phone is severely handicapped when it comes to battery life, posting amongst the worst results of any 2019 device. Usually I’m very defensive about high resolution screens on mobile devices and will always immediately prefer a 1440p display over 1080p devices, but even I can’t tell the difference on Sony’s 1644 x 3840 display. It’s a design element that shouldn’t have ever been greenlit by management given its battery life drawbacks.

The cameras, while being excellent in their hardware, completely fail in terms of software processing and functionality, producing some of the worst results in 2019 when it comes to exposure, HDR, and low-light photography – although Sony is showcasing excellent detail in daylight.

OnePlus in 2019 – Ability to Differentiate

OnePlus’ phones in 2019 have been great mostly thanks to the company’s ability to be able to actually differentiate itself from the competition. The OnePlus 7 Pro’s design with a bezel-less 90Hz screen still makes it unique to date, and the company has been able to adopt the 90Hz feature in its more mainstream model with the 7T.

The company’s biggest weakness this year was in the camera department. Although featuring a triple-camera module setup, picture quality from the phones wasn’t quite as great as that of the competition. The problem here seems to solely lie in the company’s software processing. When I first received the OP7Pro it was in the midst of a major software update that promised to improve picture quality. The company purposefully changed the camera processing to be more similar to that of the Pixel 3, including actually introducing commonalities such as degrading crushed shadows which weren’t present on the OP7’s release firmware. I thought this was a stupid move, and do feel somewhat vindicated in my line of though given that the new Pixel 4 fixes this negative aspect of Google’s processing.

If OnePlus manages to get its camera processing in order, phones such as the OnePlus 7 Pro and the 7T likely represent one of the best devices in 2019, and I hope the company is able to continue on this trajectory.

Google in 2019 – Software Is Also Meaningless Without Hardware

Google’s Pixel 4 devices this year weren’t as big of a disappointment to me, but that’s solely simply because I wasn’t expecting too much.

Google has received a reputation of not being able to execute well on its hardware, and the Pixel 4 remains true to this cursed tradition. It’s a similar dilemma as for Sony’s Xperia 1: the design choice of going with a 90Hz display should have never been greenlit, or a least it should have never been greenlit along with the disappointing battery capacities of the phones. Whilst we reviewed the XL variant which ended up quite average in terms of battery life, the smaller Pixel 4 is said to suffer considerably more and simply not being a viable phone in 2019. Google’s choice of going with second-rate hardware components such as a cheaper Samsung panel on the XL as well an LG panel on the regular variant means the phones suffer from low brightness and low power efficiency.

The Pixel 4 is also the only flagship device in 2019 which didn’t come with an ultra-wide-angle camera module, Google evidently didn’t get the memo what the market actually wants, and instead chose to go for a telephoto module for Google’s first ever dual-camera phone, catching up to 2018 devices instead of the new 2019 competition.

Google’s solutions to the situation should be easy: either give up on launching the Pixel phones as super-high-end flagships with top-tier pricing and aim for a lower market segment, or go and actually deliver flagship hardware for that price.

ASUS in 2019 – The Biggest Surprise

I wanted to keep this page limited to the most popular vendors on the market, but one vendor that this year seemed to have punched above its weight was ASUS. The company has had its Zenfone line-up for multiple years now, but never really managed to differentiate itself very much, or always had some big drawbacks. The Zenfone 6 as well as the new ROG Phone II this year seem to have followed a change in philosophy at ASUS, with the company now able to more consistently deliver on the core aspects of a phone.

The ROG Phone II was a stand-out phone this year, and most of that notably had nothing to do with the device’s gaming-oriented design and features. The huge phone impresses through its brute-force approach to hardware. With a 120Hz screen, a Snapdragon 855+ and a gigantic 6000mAh battery, it’s been able to reserve itself a special place in the performance and battery rankings this year. Along with a reasonable camera setup, stereo speakers, and a 3.5mm headphone jack, the device isn’t just a good gaming phone, it’s just an overall good phone.

ASUS should continue with this formula as evidently it’ll be able to carve itself a piece of the pie not only among the gaming audience, but the overall phone market in general.

Samsung in 2019 – The Best of Android

When I reviewed the S10 earlier in the year I had mentioned that it was the first device I had considered giving an award to, and only fell short of it due to the Exynos version’s camera processing weaknesses. Samsung over the course of the year largely fixed these shortcomings via software updates, meaning what we’re left with now is amongst the best devices in 2019.

What makes the S10 series so great is that it doesn’t have any particular weakness. Performance, screen quality, outstanding battery life and camera are all core aspects of a phone which Samsung was able to deliver on. It’s true that in the camera segment it’s now been bested by Apple’s newest iPhones, but that’s also half a year into the S10’s product cycle. The S10 checkmarks all the feature boxes that a phone should have in 2019.

Pretty much the same can also be said for the Note10 series (although the 1080p screen on the regular Note10 is at odds with Samsung’s design history). The sad exception that Samsung has now also fallen prey to abandoning the 3.5mm headphone jack. The Galaxy phones had been the last bastion of resistance against the removal of the jack, but it looks like corporate greed and profit exorbitant profit margins on wireless headphone accessories are just too great a temptation for the company’s management. The integrated 3.5mm headphone jack is now dead for good in the mobile space, and it’s a sad day for the consumer. F.

Apple in 2019 – Boring Excellence

On the outside, the iPhone 11 series are extremely boring phones. Comparing an iPhone 11 Pro to an iPhone X from 2 years ago you wouldn’t know the difference unless you flipped them over to showcase the new camera setup. Yet, these are amongst the best phones in 2019, and Apple’s execution of the core aspects of a phone has seen tremendous improvements for the user experience.

Apple’s vertical silicon integration and in-house development continues to pay off, and leads the industry in terms of performance and efficiency. The A13 maintains or even widens this gap to the competition.

Battery and camera improvements are what makes the iPhone 11 outstanding phones. Apple has finally opted to integrate bigger battery capacities this year, and along with Samsung’s flagships, these are amongst the longest lasting devices in 2019. Apple’s triple-camera setup is fantastically executed, and offers one of the best shooting experiences in 2019. Apple still has to work on the quality of its ultra-wide-angle module, but everything else is class-leading.

There’s not too much to say about the new iPhones other than they’re extremely solid phones. I do wish a new design refresh as the current one is getting a bit long in the tooth, but hopefully that’s in queue for the 2020 models.

Related Reading:

SoC Improvements, +90Hz Displays, Battery Improvements and Bendy Phones
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  • linuxgeex - Sunday, December 29, 2019 - link

    I know you would prefer that, but I think Apple errors on the side of sanity with the bezels. It's actually nice to be able to hold the phone with one hand without mistakenly triggering gestures because your hand wraps around slightly and hits the active screen areas. It's nice to have an extra 2mm higher on screen keyboard for typing with one hand. It's nice to know that a side impact will result in a slight case crush instead of loss of the display. It's nice having a very very solid frame so when you have it in your front pocket and you lean over a table and your weight is on that phone, it doesn't burst into flame and burn your balls off. lol.
  • Qasar - Wednesday, January 1, 2020 - link

    i would prefer an apple phone to have a micro sd slot.. but that's never gonna happen, and that's part of the reason why i have never bought an iphone :-)
  • ratbert1 - Friday, December 27, 2019 - link

    Hardware without software is also meaningless.
    Andrei (never met an iPhone he didn't like) ignores the elephant in the room. iOS 13. Luckily I only have to use one sparingly for work.
  • RaduR - Saturday, December 28, 2019 - link

    Andrei , do you know that Xiaomi is the 4th largest Phone manufacturer and you are never mentioning it. Not to forget they allways brought something new to the table : Mi Mix - full display way before Apple , Mi Mix 5G way before Samsung , 100 mp camera before everyone else , and they are Qualcomms largest customer . Never in your speech .

    I think they are a great company and unlike others they DO have devices meant to out of Asia clients , including phisical shops in Europe.

    To mention Oppo ( that is non existent outside China ) and to forget Xiaomi is a mistake . They have one of the best lineups and they are half the price on the same specs compared to anyone else.
  • Andrei Frumusanu - Sunday, December 29, 2019 - link

    I didn't feel they did anything worthwhile in 2019, I mentioned the camera. The Mi9 was a nice phone but at great value but that's about it for them. Oppo had more interesting devices this year.
  • thecoolnamesweretaken - Saturday, December 28, 2019 - link

    "We’ve seen some exotic devices in the form of foldable phones for the first time ever."

    This should probably be written as "in the form of phones with foldable screens for the first time ever". Otherwise it is ahistorical:
  • flyingpants265 - Sunday, December 29, 2019 - link

    Still waiting for a phone with:

    -dual front speakers
    -headphone jack
    -wireless charging, with plastic or kevlar, no freaking "premium feel" glass back, what a bad idea.
    -5000mAh battery or more
    -At least 2-3 good cameras, i like wide angle especially
    -Underwater capability, not "I-leak68"

    Why haven't they created a phone with these features? ALL phones should have all these features. Phones should be a commodity item, instead they rely on useless gimmicks to increase their price to $1400+, which means someone (reviewers) aren't doing their job. My Galaxy S3 was $599 on release (2012).

    Don't give me that nonsense about being 'too thick', these companies' job is to fit everything into a small package, that's why they make billions in profit. You can easily have a 'pro version' that's around 9mm, like the Droid Razr MAXX which had a 7mm and a 9mm version, 3300mAh was revolutionary at the time (2012), and my LG G7 is only 3000mAh.

    Also, I'd like true underwater waterproofing, custom connectors instead of ports, it's a little tough to make them good but it's almost 2020, creating a sealed phone shouldn't be a problem anymore. Just need proper gaskets for speaker/mic, everything else can be eliminated.

    And phones should have 5+ years of warranty for when the screen or SoC randomly fails, like my LG G2, and G3, and G4. That's the only way I would EVER consider paying $1000+ for a phone.
  • Reflex - Sunday, December 29, 2019 - link

    Lots of us don't value all those features or that configuration like you do. I'll happily take a thinner and lighter phone vs one with a battery that large. I don't value a headphone jack and it, along with microSD run counter to waterproofing. I also don't care about microSD, I've got a terabyte on OneDrive for my photos. I agree with you about wireless charging and the backplate but I'm open to other people having different feature requirements.

    That phone might be your ideal, but its not everyone's. And that's okay.
  • s.yu - Sunday, December 29, 2019 - link

    I feel the waterproofing and that plastic there are the most unlikely features, nor do I agree that the body should be plastic.
    The connectors are definitely easy, something like the magnetic connectors already available only built in, but I don't think it's as easy as you think making something entirely waterproof, those that actually qualify are rare and bulky devices.
  • Qasar - Wednesday, January 1, 2020 - link

    " -dual front speakers " headphones solve that issue
    " -headphone jack " agreed
    " -wireless charging, with plastic or kevlar, no freaking "premium feel" glass back, what a bad idea. " dont care for wireless charging, the rest... interesting....
    " -5000mAh battery or more " would probably make the phone to bulky, and heavy to hold
    " -microSD " must have
    " -At least 2-3 good cameras, i like wide angle especially " no thanks, i have a standalone camera for that, 1 camera is fine in the phone.
    " -Underwater capability, not "I-leak68" " um.... why????

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