Just as we see the year 2018 in the rear-view mirror we decided to take a somewhat different spin on it and try and find the most beautiful phones it brought. Ignoring pricing and feature sets we’ll only focus on looks here.
A quick comparison of the last two years shows that while 2017 brought mostly grey, black and white phones with rectangular screens, 2018 got us a kaleidoscope of vivid colors and screen cutouts of all shapes and sizes.
Phones, especially ones from Chinese makers like Huawei, Oppo, vivo, Lenovo and Xiaomi are the ones pushing this revolution but the likes of Samsung and Apple have also taken up the fight. This year we got Polaris Blue Galaxy S9 and Coral iPhone XR.
Meanwhile phone makers are experimenting with ingenious ways of getting another step closer to the bezeless future. The notches went from wide to waterdrop-shaped and now were beginning to see the punch hole selfie cameras that live inside the display.
This was also the year we saw the motorized selfie camera on the vivo NEX S, then a motorized slider for all cameras on the Oppo Find X, and finally manually sliding phones like the Honor Magic 2 and Xiaomi Mi Mix 3. Those raise some questions when it comes to durability and efficient use of the internal volume, but they paint a picture of experimentation, innovation and beauty.
So lets set the round table and see what our editors have to share. Just one simple question in this one – which were the best-looking phones of the year?
To my eyes and fingers the prettiest phone of the year is the Huawei Mate 20 Pro. It combines a vibrant nearly bezeless curved AMOLED with beautiful Emerald Green or Midnight Blue-colored glass that has a unique non-slip texture – thats right a texture on the glass. The texture feels divine to the touch, helps with the grip and reduces fingerprints and smudges.
I find that the perfectly-centered square with the three Leica-branded cameras adds a balanced look to the rear of the Mate 20 Pro. Okay, theres a notch on the front but it makes a strong case for itself by providing accurate infrared face scanning, while the bottom bezel is among the thinnest on a phone.
The subtle curves of the glass – both front and rear – provide a comfortable grip and the red-colored power button is just cool!
Now that every phone is some variation on a rounded rectangle, its rare to have design standouts. So, not what most people will describe as a a stunner but at least the Meizu 16 delivers a clean design that doesnt look like it was drawn up by an engineer.
Its symmetry just works for me. On the front, bezels are of even size and theres no notch to mess things up. On the back theres just the dual camera and the rare ring flash, both of which are aligned on the center line. Nothing feels out of balance. Compare it to the Galaxy Note9s back where components feel thrown together.
I do wish Meizu offered some more color options weve seen some great blues this year with a glass that plays with the light. And I really could have done without the Android-to-iOS reskin of the software.
As an early bird I often get to enjoy the sunrise and I’m quite fond of the morning goldish-pinkish-orange hues of the sky. There is something magical in these brisk 5 minutes right before the sun pops out behind the horizon and I am so happy to see smartphone manufacturers implementing these colors in a device.
I sure wish more companies did it since the Mi 8 Lite and Lenovo Z5s are something unusual, but my hands-down best-looking smartphone is the Honor Magic 2.
Honor Magic 2
There is just something magical in this clean glass panel with its mirror-like finish. The love for a gradient from white to blue might be subjective, but I enjoy both colors and the way they are sitting on the Magic 2 back is pretty neat.
There is also a front panel without any notches or other eye-sores, so you can enjoy the Magic UI (aka EMUI), if that is possible. I don’t think Honor Magic 2 is the best phone to have but is definitely the most attractive.
I have a deeply rooted aversion to display notches, and in a year when that was the norm, every phone without one looked good to me. But there was one particular notchless handset that felt special this year, and it was the Sony Xperia XZ3.
The company that produced the blockiest designs on the market for years gradually warmed up to the previously foreign concept of curves. A few half-generations into it, the new wave of Sony design brought us the XZ3 with curved front glass edges, rounded display corners, and a shapely back, plus reasonably trim bezels (especially by Sony’s standards of old). My eyes turned into hearts the moment it came into the office.
Of course, during the honeymoon period that followed I was willing to overlook issues like the tiny and awkwardly positioned buttons and the ridiculous placement of the fingerprint reader which also meant a smudged up camera more often than not. Funny thing happened though, and as time went by I just embraced those and other XZ3 quirks – it was almost like a fairy tale love story.
Then a wild Pixel 3 appeared and it all fell apart in an instant. But that’s not the point – the point is that the Xperia XZ3 is one seriously good-looking phone.
For me, the best looking phone of the year is a sandwich. Here are its ingredients:
– the front of the Xiaomi Mi Mix 3 (or Honor Magic 2 since they seem to be using the exact same display panel)
– the stainless steel frame of an iPhone X, XS, or XS Max
– the back of the Huawei Mate 20 Pro
Allow me to explain. That front is the closest we’ve gotten to the truly bezel-less smartphone dream up until this point, and there’s something about this that makes the phone feel almost like it’s from the future. Mesmerizing.
In a world filled with aluminum frames, stainless steel is just… different. And yeah, that’s basically the only reason for this choice: it would allow this device to stand out from the crowd.
On the back it can only look like the Mate 20 Pro, because that handset’s squircle camera island just does nice, warm and fuzzy things to my mild OCD. It all seems so logical, so well thought through, so well put together, and inside the island itself there’s symmetry too. Add to that the very unique paint jobs – the blue and green with their micro-patterns laser-etched into the glass, or the gradient finish that is still stunning to look at – and you’ve got an unmatched package in my opinion.
I’ll be perfectly frank here – I’ve never really been big on looks. I live and breathe smartphones but mostly for their geeky side – the internals, the nitty-gritties of things, the cool innovations, that sort of things. Also, I often find myself paranoid about the fragile nature of most modern devices. If there’s a case available for a gadget – I definitely get it and never take it off.
Keeping those two in mind, any kind of glorious paint job is wasted on me. And since I value utility above everything else, I still can’t really stop disliking curves, notches, holes, in-display camera modules or anything else that disturbs the glorious symmetry and utility of a large, uninterrupted display. Preferably one of the Super AMOLED variety for that extra visual fidelity.
vivo NEX S vivo NEX Dual Display
Luckily, amid all the odd display mutilation and “chop-shop” designs of 2018, a few gorgeous (by my standards) handsets did see the light of day. Like the vivo NEX S, which still warms my geeky heart with its mechanical periscope selfie camera and glorious huge Super AMOLED panel. Unfortunately, despite my best and persistent efforts to love it, it was simply not daily-driver material. The under-display fingerprint reader was first generation tech and very wonky and the software was practically unusable outside Asia.
Ever since, I have been looking in the general direction of its successor – the NEX Dual Display. Dual Super AMOLED panels do appear very cool, at least on paper and on a conceptual level.
Huawei Honor Magic 2 ZTE nubia X
Another honorable (pun intended) mention has to be the Honor Magic 2. That mechanical sliding mechanism is so satisfying and such a nice throwback to a bygone age of mobile design that it is pretty hard to resist. Then again, I would probably end up breaking it after a month’s worth of constant fidgeting.
So, for me personally, the most beautiful 2018 device title has to go to the ZTE nubia X. In case you were wondering, I probably wouldn’t be happy with it in the long run for its IPS panel, if nothing else. But that ingenious back design! Let’s be frank here, the most practical use for a display on the back is probably going to be as a camera viewfinder and perhaps a ticker style notification feed or a clock.
Even with the nubia X’s panel positioned under a colored glass surface, degrading image quality, it is still good enough for these simple tasks. The enormous benefit to the looks department being the amazing idle animations that ZTE has been playing around with. It’s like having a mesmerizing screensaver playing on what looks like a solid glass surface. Both insanely cool and geeky. Right up my alley.
The best-looking phone? Don’t they all look the same nowadays? Almost. The glass-sandwich is pretty much the definition of a flagship design, while the touch-enabled display limits the creative freedom a lot. But when I just thought the glass phones don’t have anything more to offer when it comes to looks, Oppo proved me wrong.
There is a best-looking smartphone this year for me and it’s the Find X. All screen at the front. All clean back. And yet no camera was hurt in the process. It was a unique thing to experience, the slider mechanism and the clean design, and I was hooked on the looks the moment I saw the Find X.
Then OnePlus managed to surprise me with the OnePlus 6T McLaren Edition. The front is like any other, but the nicely patterned back, which looks like it’s glowing with the subtle orange accent – that’s what really catches the eye. And it has certainly caught mine.
And if you have asked me this question six months ago, I would have probably picked some of the Huawei P20 phones because of the gradient paintjob. But as it often goes in this business, Huawei and Honor overused those hues, other makers picked them up immediately, and they wore off way too early.
Remember the days when Chinese companies’ idea of designing a phone would just sheepishly copy whatever design Apple currently does, while filling the specs sheet with as many big numbers and buzzwords as possible? Those are long gone now and for the past year it was exactly Chinese makers that pushed the envelope of design.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s quote that “Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away” aligns perfectly with my understanding of great phone design. That’s why it’s hard to look past the Oppo Find X for the best looking phone of the year. In its folded form it’s as close to perfection as the mobile world has seen so far.
Another Oppo phone that I feel I should mention is the R17 Pro or RX17 Pro depending on where you live. It’s notched front is hardly ideal, but it’s back is the pinnacle of the gradient paintjobs that become so trendy this year. The fact that the gradient goes all the way to the frame and the S-curve make the Radiant Mist a proper stunner.
The manual sliders are another alley I feel is worth exploring. They deliver the desired all screen front, while the movement adds some life to the otherwise cold design of modern bar smartphone.
The final phone I’ll include is the vivo NEX Dual Display Edition, which has twice the usual number of screens to give us a perfectly clean front and the Lunar Ring on the back looks really great with its illuminated edge. Chances are it won’t gain much traction in the west, which is a pity since it’s a sight to behold.