Editor’s note: This article was originally published on December 29, 2020. It has been updated to include the related video above.
The smartphone world endured a rollercoaster of a year, as the transition to 5G collided with the COVID-19 pandemic. The former meant that we got 5G phones across almost all price segments, as well as some major price hikes at the top-end. Meanwhile, the pandemic hurt business in a big way in the first half of the year, as lockdowns resulted in offline retail collapsing.
Yet, even without these two factors, we still saw several major smartphone fails that are really hard to justify. From Microsoft to OnePlus and beyond, here are the more notable smartphone fails in 2020.
The curious case of the delayed Nokia
HMD first unveiled the Nokia 8.3 in March. It’s an upper mid-tier phone with a slick design, respectable specs, and a ton of supported 5G bands. A month passed after the reveal and we didn’t get the phone, then two months, and then three months. Roughly six months went by before the phone was actually available to purchase.
HMD didn’t reveal a reason for the delay to the best of our knowledge. However, the postponement coincided with the latest James Bond film (No Time To Die) being delayed. And yes, HMD was the “official phone partner” for the movie, strongly suggesting that the movie’s delay forced HMD’s hand.
It didn’t help that when the Nokia 8.3 was eventually available to purchase, consumers had better and/or cheaper 5G options on the market like the Pixel 4a 5G, Poco F2 Pro, and OnePlus Nord. It also didn’t help that HMD went the whole year without a proper flagship phone either. If this continues to be the case for the first half of 2021, that means we haven’t seen a Nokia flagship launch for two years.
Microsoft Surface Duo
Microsoft made waves in 2019 when it revealed the Surface Duo for the first time, marking its first major entry into the Android phone space. It was a rather intriguing concept too. Microsoft showed off a dual-screen foldable and promised to reinvent how you interacted with apps.
Unfortunately, reviews showed that the Surface Duo was an unpolished mess at launch. Microsoft’s software contained loads of bugs, while the list of apps that supported the dual-screen design was disappointingly short.
A lack of polish wasn’t the only strike against Microsoft’s phone, however. It was overpriced. For $1,400, you got 2019’s flagship silicon, no 5G, no NFC, no fast charging, and no wireless charging. You’re better off spending a little extra to get the Galaxy Z Fold 2, unless you really want that book-like Kindle experience.
Escobar Fold 2
The brother of late drug kingpin Pablo Escobar launched a $350 foldable smartphone in 2019, but this was a scam. The so-called Escobar Fold was literally just a Royole Flexpai in disguise. Royole’s CEO had no idea this was happening, while loads of customers complained that they (unsurprisingly) didn’t get their orders.
This sketchy enterprise stepped up its game in 2020, as it then decided to launch the Escobar Fold 2. Of course, this wasn’t an original design either but rather the Samsung Galaxy Fold with some gold tape hiding Samsung’s branding. A disguised Galaxy Fold for $400? Yeah, don’t expect to actually get your order here either.
Motorola managed to garner mainstream attention at the end of 2019 when it announced that the Razr flip phone was coming back as a modern foldable. Featuring a clamshell design, a foldable main screen, and a large external display, it certainly blended retro and modern in theory.
When the phone eventually launched in 2020, however, it delivered anything but bang for your buck. Splashing out $1,500 got you a small battery, a camera setup akin to entry-level phones, a mid-range chipset from 2018, and Android 9 many months after the Android 10 rollout. It didn’t help that some users complained about build quality issues too.
Related: The best foldable phones you can buy
The Razr was also soundly trounced by Samsung’s Galaxy Z Flip. It offered ultra-thin glass, better build quality, a more impressive spec sheet, and a cheaper price tag. No wonder Motorola was doing buy-one-get-one-free offers shortly after launch. The company launched a 5G variant later in 2020, delivering a more modern mid-range silicon and a dual rear camera setup. Nevertheless, it seemingly failed to gain traction compared to Samsung’s wares.
Samsung Galaxy Note 20
The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra may have launched at $1,300, but that was a truly high-end phone. This made it one of the better premium flagships around. The vanilla Galaxy Note 20, on the other hand, was a rare miss for Samsung. It wasn’t a bad phone on its own, but it was definitely a bad phone by Samsung’s standards.
For $1,000, you got a phone that was actually inferior to the Galaxy S20 FE in a number of ways. Samsung’s cheapest S20 series phone packed a 120Hz refresh rate, microSD card support, a slightly larger battery, and a 3x optical zoom camera. The Note 20 had to make do with a 60Hz screen, fixed storage, and 3x hybrid zoom camera.
Samsung’s vanilla Note model did have a couple of advantages over the S20 FE though. Those included more RAM (8GB vs 6GB), 8K recording, and the S-Pen. Are these additions really worth paying the extra $300 though? And don’t get us started on the plastic design. It’s understandable to see this material on cheaper phones (e.g. Galaxy S20 FE) but the fact that plastic was used on a $1,000 phone without a corresponding bump in features elsewhere was bizarre.
Motorola Edge Plus flip-flops
Lenovo-owned Motorola launched its first proper flagship in quite some time this year, and it wasn’t the worst phone released in 2020. However, the company drew the ire of many enthusiasts when it initially stated that it could only guarantee one Android version update for the $1,000 Motorola Edge Plus.
The company then changed tack after the negative press and claimed it would indeed be offering two Android version updates. This still left an incredibly sour taste as it felt like Motorola was trying to pull a fast one. One update is disappointing for a budget phone, but for a $1,000 device? Get outta here.
More coverage: Carrier exclusives are killing great smartphones
This wasn’t the only smartphone fail by Motorola in 2020. The company made the Edge Plus a Verizon-exclusive in the US. That was as silly move, considering it was the brand’s first full-fledged flagship in a while. You’d think the company wanted to showcase the best of Motorola to the widest possible audience.
OnePlus in 2020
The BBK-affiliated brand had a solid 2020 on the flagship front, with the OnePlus 8 Pro, in particular, standing out. This marked the company’s first full-fledged premium flagship, and it delivered. Between photo quality, water resistance, wireless charging, and that QHD+ 120Hz screen, this definitely felt like a high-end experience to challenge the top-tier players. Even the OnePlus Nord was a great phone too, making for a standout mid-range experience.
However, OnePlus made a number of missteps this year too, starting with its decision to launch the OnePlus Nord N series. The more expensive Nord N10 was only slightly less expensive than the Nord but missed out on several notable features (e.g. OLED screen, a better processor, an extra selfie camera). Meanwhile, the Nord N100 was simply a rebranded Oppo A53 and offered little in the way of performance, not to mention the most disappointing type of triple camera setup (main/macro/depth).
Other notable missteps include an extremely divisive Oxygen OS redesign that courted unfavorable comparisons to One UI, the promise of only one Android version update for the Nord N series, and a smartphone marketing campaign that became very exhausting very quickly.
What was the biggest smartphone fail of 2020? Vote for your top pick in the poll.