Considering the iPhone 14 Pro, the Galaxy Z Fold 4, Pixel 7 Pro, Magic4 Pro and more, what’s my smartphone of 2022?

As 2023 begins, it’s time to look back at last year’s smartphones to not only spot some trends, but also decide on my personal ‘Smartphone of the Year’.

This isn’t a direct shoot-out of the specs on each device; there are no criteria and points out of ten until we find a handset with more points than all the others. Smartphones are not only tools to use, but also personal objects that reflect us. Finding a connection to a handset is essential. I’m going to talk about specs, but I’m also thinking about emotion. Which is uniquely striking in a year where the keyword smartphone trends feels like…”iterative.”

With that, let’s go through some of the leading smartphones before I reveal who will take home the gold medal.

OnePlus took a step back in terms of flagship strategy this year, with a single release in the summer and a follow-on ‘T’ release in the winter. The latter focused on pure performance and perhaps sacrificed too much to achieve that, but the former, the OnePlus 10 Pro, struck a better balance.

The screen is the standout feature; a 6.7-inch display running at 2K, with a fast refresh rate to boot. It’s a big phone, but OnePlus has capitalized on that. It also addressed one of the issues surrounding Qualcomm’s SnapDragon 8 Gen 1 chipset; the chip used in many of 2022’s biggest phones tends to run hot, so OnePlus’ increased efforts to keep it as cool as possible – especially when gaming – are welcome.

Still, the camera remains OnePlus’ weak point. It’s more than good enough with regular use, and for many, that’s enough. With flagships having similar specs and chipsets, little things make all the difference in comparisons. Slower autofocus than the competition, slightly more color blur and low-light performance that lags just a little behind the competition.

Clearly Apple has decided that the iPhone 14 Pro is the ‘core’ iOS device, with the iPhone 14 and iPhone 14 Plus feeling compromised, so the 14 Pro can stand on its own (making the 14 Pro Max everything just bigger).

Despite all the marketing and buzzwords, Apple’s big consumer differentiator in the iPhone 14 family – the dynamic island – is a nice workaround for the front-facing camera, but Android devices have had several camera holes, disguises, and tweaked notifications from the platform since its inception , all under the control of the user.

It should come as no surprise that Apple still insists on using proprietary charging connectors, and the price still puts the iPhone at the upper end of expensive. The move to eSIM ties the handset closer to your Apple account and the networks, which may not be to everyone’s taste.

What does come as a surprise is the camera. Of course, the iPhone 14 Pro is a better camera, producing better photos and videos, than the iPhone 13 Pro, and if that’s the only comparison that matters to you, then you’ve found a winner. The competition has not only caught up with Apple, it has caught up with the 14 Pro in some key areas.

When there’s no competition, if your only references are other handsets in Apple’s walled garden of content and software, then there’s no question the iPhone 14 Pro is the best offering. Look out into the wider world of smartphones, and you’ll find that, while strong, the 14 Pro isn’t a champion, but a strong contender in a very crowded and diverse field.

Okay, this one is a bit of an indulgence on my part, but I’m allowed to use one wildcard and this is it… the most open-source phone I’ve used this year. It’s the Pixel 6a… but not a Pixel 6a out of the box. It runs on Graphene OS.

GrapheneOS is an implementation of the Android Open Source Project with a focus on both privacy and security, issues that will gain importance in 2022. The operating system removes any sign of Google services or other megacorps applications feeding their analytics and advertising engines while you use them.

You can still use these services, with each application strictly sandboxed and incredibly granular per-app permissions set. I also took on the almost quixotic quest to use only open source software to find out how far you can go down this road. And it is certainly competent. There are hoops to jump through; you don’t have the same slick integration of the Google Play Store, but if you’re playing around at this level of handset then you won’t have a problem using anything that isn’t a slick, user-friendly app store.

That the best solution for GrapheneOS is to install it on a Pixel device, because of the enhanced security in Google’s hardware, is the ultimate irony…

The Galaxy Z Flip 4 (and while it has a slightly different form factor, the Galaxy Z Fold 4) exemplify one of the overriding themes of smartphones in 2022. Many of the big changes and reasons to update to a new device are in iterative updates … the software has been tweaked, the hardware is a little faster, and the unique choices are a little more accurate and durable. The mainstream has not made any radically new choices in the past twelve months.

This should not surprise. Given the timeframes required for smartphone design, 2022 has brought us the handsets outlined in the first quarters of 2020…when the world went into lockdown and Work From Home became the primary way of working. Not worrying that balance was the most important consideration.

Looking at the Z Flip 4, the compact design is a bit sleeker, the screen is a bit more robust and the performance matches that of more traditional plate-like smartphones. But the camera isn’t quite up to the level of the Galaxy S22 family, the battery is small and there’s not enough economies of scale to entice people into the foldable space with a lower price point.

The Z Flip 4 moved forward, but there’s nothing really competitive to measure it against yet.

With the release of the Magic4 Pro in the international markets, 2022 feels like the year that Honor has emerged as one of the top global smartphone manufacturers. Initially a lifestyle brand under Huawei, it was then broken out as a separate company and then began redefining itself from “the phone for teens and young adults” to “we set the tone for the international call.”

To do that, every company needs a flagship smartphone that does everything expected at the top and adds something unique to stand out.

The Magic4 Pro is that calling card, but it’s not really a trump card. Moore’s expected specification law has been met, and at this broad level the handset is clearly a flagship. What’s needed now is a look at the fine details, the clunkiness in the UI that catches your eye, a few extra features for the camera (not coming with OIS is an Achilles’ heel on the package, and there’s a little too much fashion above shape for my tasting; as always, I’d like a millimeter or more of thickness for longer battery life, but that’s not a trade everyone in the market will want.

The Honor Magic4 Pro is an important device for Honor and the wider market – more competition raises all manufacturers – but it’s more important to the story it tells.

And with that to my real phone of the year… Google’s Pixel 7 Pro.

Last year’s Pixel 6 family felt like Google’s first step into the consumer market with a reworked design philosophy. The Pixel 7 Pro refines that approach and lets it fly.

It is the software that creates this package. Google’s taste of Android has lagged behind many manufacturers’ Android versions, but the Pixel family of phones has always been closest to Google’s vision for obvious reasons. This is the undiluted Google experience. It’s open to everyone, but anyone can install new versions of Android, alternative launchers, and customize the handset to their liking.

Google’s decision to design its own chipset resulted in the Tensor G2 – it won’t gain raw performance, but it’s tuned to the software. That integration allows more AI and machine learning to deliver results for consumers. The obvious win is in the camera software, with the Magic Eraser and Unblur options delivering almost magical results.

Other features include Pixel-only help selling the phone; from call screening and automatic transcription, through translation to universal search and app suggestions, the Pixel software suite is all tightly integrated into the handset.

The Pixel 7 Pro also stands out in terms of design – numerous phones have camera islands, raised lenses and dominant housings on the back. Only the Pixel has a horizontal bar. Buying a Pixel is easy; just buy the one with a bar that looks different from everything else.

I don’t think a smartphone has managed to hit a home run in 2022. Only the Pixel 7 Pro made it most of the way to third base (with perhaps the iPhone 14 Pro joining in if there’s a successful appeal). As the smartphone world emerges from the coronavirus pandemic, Google has delivered the best handset of the year, but the competition is close.

Is that enough head start for 2023? I do not know. But for now it’s enough.