The smartphone year is a see-saw, with the Galaxy S23 family landing on the early side of 2023, and the iPhone 15 launch teetering high up in the air, waiting to come down in September. We’ve seen Samsung’s best and posted our Galaxy S23 Ultra review, so is there anything worth getting excited about between now and Apple’s expected upgrades? Quite a bit, it turns out, from every other major phone maker, including Google, OnePlus, Motorola, and even Samsung again.
Samsung sets a high bar with its early year phone launch, and the Galaxy S23 is a tough phone to beat. Even the base model phone gets amazing performance from the new Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 and better photos with improved image signal processing.
The Galaxy S23 Ultra is an almost insurmountable foe, the sequel to the S22 Ultra, our best phone pick for most of last year. The spec list reaches for the sky, and the price tag gropes even higher. It has a real 10X optical zoom camera and even a hidden stylus, for cryin’ out loud.
Most phone makers don’t try to compete with the Galaxy S23 family directly. Until the latter half of the year, I don’t expect any surprise phones with superlative cameras that will beat the Ultra, or blazing fast performance to top Samsung’s slightly-overclocked Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 chipset.
Instead, competitors take a different route. The Galaxy S23 family is expensive, even for the most affordable model. Before the next iPhone 15, we’ll see competitors, and even Samsung itself, launch bargain phones that offer much of the same performance as the Galaxy lineup, with some smart compromises.
We also expect some interesting design concepts from OnePlus and Google. OnePlus is showing off a OnePlus 11 Concept phone at Mobile World Congress this week, though it’s possible the phone won’t be widely available, or even available at all.
Google is definitely launching a tablet this year, and we’ve also heard rumors about a folding Pixel fold, and maybe even a high-end surprise. We haven’t gotten confirmation yet, but a hundred leaks can’t be wrong, can they?
I also got a chance to check out upcoming satellite technology on an unfinished Motorola Defy phone, and that phone should see daylight, and far beyond, in the first half of the year, if Bullitt Group meets its predictions.
A OnePlus 11 Concept but good luck buying one
OnePlus has a reliable phone launch cadence, except when it doesn’t. For the past few years we’ve gotten a flagship 'Pro' model, like the OnePlus 10 Pro. Then we get a cheaper version that loses some specs, but beefs up performance just a bit, as we saw with the OnePlus 10T.
This year, we only get the OnePlus 11. There’s no 11 Pro, and there won’t be a OnePlus 11T. OnePlus is competing by consolidating its products, and the new phone gives you solid performance for less than Samsung’s new flagship, so a bargain model may not be necessary.
That doesn’t mean OnePlus is finished with 2023 so soon. At the OnePlus 11 launch event, the company revealed an upcoming OnePlus 11 Concept. This week, it showed off a photo of the new phone.
The device is very different from the OnePlus 11 I reviewed. It doesn’t have Hasselblad branding on the camera, and it has a very different set of openings on the camera module. One of those looks like a telescopic lens, similar to Samsung’s periscope design on the Galaxy S23 Ultra. It could also be a different frame for better videography.
The back plate of the OnePlus concept is a squiggle of neon blue that looks like liquid cooling on a desktop gaming PC. Faint discoloration looks like visible bubbles inside. This makes sense, based on what OnePlus told me.
After my OnePlus 11 review, I told company reps that I enjoyed gaming on the OnePlus 11 even more than on my iPhone 14 Pro, playing the same titles. OnePlus folks were very pleased and intrigued, and made it clear that gaming would be a serious priority for the company moving forward.
They also asked about whether I had any heating issues with the phone. Even while playing a maxed-out Call of Duty Mobile session, the phone didn’t get uncomfortably warm. I’m taking this inquiry as a hint that we’ll see a high-end, perhaps even experimental, gaming phone.
The cooling feature on the back can’t be all of it. The Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 platform has great graphics performance, but I wouldn’t be surprised if OnePlus overclocks the chipset even further than Samsung has done with its Galaxy phones, or else tries something entirely new to boost performance.
Will the Google Pixel Fold finally arrive?
Like OnePlus, Google often offers a mid-year update to its flagship phone for a bargain price. The Pixel 6a was a popular, if underpowered phone that took advantage of Google’s great camera software, even if the camera sensors couldn’t quite match up in specs. This year, we may see a Pixel 7a, but that isn’t the Pixel phone that has me the most curious.
Google has been unusually forthcoming with its device plans this year, but there is a mysterious folding device hiding in the wings. We learned about the Pixel 7 and Pixel 7 Pro long before they launched, and Google has given us a brief glimpse at an upcoming Pixel Tablet. Still, we keep hearing rumors about a foldable.
The Google Pixel Fold has been leaked in possible photos and video. If the rumors are true, we’ll get a device that is more square than tall. It will look more like an Oppo Find N2 than a Galaxy Z Fold 4.
We don’t know much else about the device, or even if it will ever come to fruition. We’ve also heard rumors about a Pixel phone with a serious camera upgrade, a so-called Pixel Ultra, but those rumors haven’t been as lively as Pixel Fold leaks. Where there is smoke, there must be fire, so I’m sure Google has at least a foldable Pixel prototype.
It must, because it is steadily baking more features into Android to support tablets and alternative screen designs. Android is ready for the Pixel Fold, we just need Google to launch it.
As a first generation device, it would be smarter for Google to get this phone out early and put some time between its foldable and Samsung’s mature, upgraded Galaxy Z Fold 5 and Galaxy Z Flip 5 phones, expected later this year.
Send satellite text messages on a Motorola Defy
The new iPhone 14 can talk to satellites, if you really, really need to. Like most iPhone owners, I hope that I never need to use the iPhone emergency SOS via satellite feature. The upcoming Motorola Defy built with help from Bullitt Group takes the opposite tack. It features satellite messaging that can call for help, but can also help you make dinner plans while you’re still on the trail.
I laugh at the idea of satellite SOS because I don’t see myself getting lost on a mountain and needing a helicopter rescue, but the truth is that I am out of cell phone range regularly. I live in New England, and it’s easy to find mountain hikes with no service. My favorite camping spot in Maine has spotty reception, at best.
Bullitt Group isn’t just using satellites for SOS emergencies. It is offering a messaging platform that can communicate between satellites and ground-tower phones. If you are in the desert at Big Bend National park and you want to meet friends for barbecue later, you can send your message via satellite and it will be relayed via SMS.
Eventually, I expect all flagship smartphones will have some level of satellite connectivity. It’s fascinating that consumer-friendly satellite messaging, without the panic of emergency SOS, is coming to a rugged work phone like the Motorola Defy before it’s adopted by Apple or Samsung.
Will a Galaxy S23 FE finally get the Fan Edition right?
Samsung sells a lot of phones at a variety of price points. If the Galaxy S23 is too expensive, you can get a Galaxy A53 or even a Galaxy A13, which offer much of the same style and software features, at a lower price. These devices should see an upgrade to Galaxy A54 and Galaxy A14 this year, and an old familiar fan favorite may come back.
Samsung has launched enigmatic ‘Fan Edition’ phones in the past, including the Galaxy S21 FE. The Galaxy S22 did not get a fan edition.
What is the point of Fan Edition? That’s unclear. They tend to cost less, but not enough to justify the other compromises they make in terms of camera capabilities and design.
This year, Samsung has a chance to get it right. We’ve heard that instead of updating the Galaxy A73 to an A74, Samsung may launch a less expensive Galaxy S23 FE. The Galaxy A73 is an impressive phone with a 108MP camera sensor and a nice display. It wouldn’t be a distant step to give this phone the latest Snapdragon 2 Gen 8 for Galaxy and call it one for the fans.
What does it mean to Samsung to be a fan? Fans are people who like what Samsung is doing, but can’t afford its phones. Fans are people who switch to other manufacturers like OnePlus and Google to save money, even though they wanted a Samsung. Fans are people Samsung needs to woo and keep.
While OnePlus and Google aim for the high-end this year, Samsung has an opportunity to drop the price on its flagship family and win back some real fans. Then we’ll talk about how much the Galaxy S24 should cost next year.
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