You might think that the best phone launch of the year takes place in September when Apple announces its latest iPhone 15. In fact, the main phone event takes place in February, when Samsung sets the hurdle that every new smartphone has to jump or dive under. After we got the Galaxy S23Ultra at Samsung Unpacked (assuming we do), the only question left is how Apple, Google and others will try to beat it.
That will be extra difficult this year. We get a good idea of the parts of a new smartphone long before it launches. Since most manufacturers buy from the same component manufacturers, it is difficult for a phone manufacturer to differentiate itself. Launching a phone at the start of a new year’s launch cycle is particularly daring.
A better Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 platform
Take the mobile platform. Last year, Samsung launched the Galaxy S22 Ultra with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 chipset. It was the best platform money could buy outside of an iPhone, but it wasn’t exclusive to Samsung. By the time Samsung announced its Galaxy Z Fold 4 in August, it was already time to upgrade to the Snapdragon 8+ Gen 1.
What’s worse, last year’s Galaxy S22 didn’t launch in every region with the latest Qualcomm chips. Some areas had a Samsung Exynos platform and testing showed that the Qualcomm device was the superior phone.
This year, Samsung is not taking any risks. Not only does each region get a brand new Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 mobile platform, Samsung also offers a better chip than competitors will use, making it possibly the most powerful phone money can buy. Rumors suggest that Qualcomm will overclock the Snapdragon in Samsung phones to give the devices a speed advantage over the rest of the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 phones.
Of course, we will definitely see faster chipsets from Qualcomm before the end of the year. Samsung won’t hold onto the performance crown all year, but it’s possible it will defend the title until reinforcements arrive in August in the form of a possible Galaxy Z Fold 5.
The wild card is the new MediaTek Dimensity 9200 mobile platform that could appear in competitors like the Oppo Find N2. MediaTek has made quality chips for mid-range devices, as well as some flagship phones sold outside the US market. The latest high-end chipset focuses on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon, and MediaTek talks about its graphics performance as if we’re back in the old days of gaming console wars. We expect heated competition.
That wild 200MP Samsung camera sensor
If you’ve been following the Samsung Galaxy S23 rumors so far, you’ll know that the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 platform isn’t even the most exciting spec upgrade. Qualcomm has been hinting for months that it would be the exclusive partner for the Galaxy S23. It’s the Samsung 200MP camera sensor, a huge leap in resolution, that we’re really excited about.
Qualcomm says the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 image signal processor can handle 200MP images, but that doesn’t mean manufacturers will reach for that extreme level of sensor data. Samsung is rumored to be adding a Samsung Semiconductor ISOCELL HP2 sensor that will blow competitors away in low-light photography beyond sheer resolution.
Smartphone imaging is much more than the number of pixels. A high resolution won’t help if those pixels are too small to capture enough light to take great photos. Phones also need fast lenses and the software to put it all together. Our experience with the best Samsung phones has us excited about the images the Galaxy S23 Ultra will produce with the new shooter.
Apple and Google will have a very hard time keeping up if the new camera lives up to the excitement it created. Both competitors could theoretically also buy the new camera module. Samsung Semiconductor’s camera sensors are separated by a legal firewall from the Mobile Experience group that makes phones for this very reason.
Samsung sells sensors to other phone makers, including Motorola on the Motorola Edge 30 Ultra. Samsung phones use camera sensors from Sony and other camera companies.
Not on the next Apple iPhone or Google Pixel
We don’t expect Apple or Google to upgrade to 200MP, at least not with the next Apple iPhone 15 Pro (or the possible iPhone 15 Ultra) or the Google Pixel 8 Pro (or the possible Pixel Ultra). This just doesn’t match the history or camera style.
Apple only recently updated its iPhone from a 12MP sensor to a larger 48MP sensor, but that’s still nowhere near the 108MP on the Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra that tops our list of the best camera phones. Of course, the actual sensor size is very similar between the two, and both companies resize images to a more reasonable size by default.
We don’t expect Apple to significantly upgrade the pixel count on the iPhone in the coming generations. Apple likes to reach a resolution plateau and then hone its image processing skills for a while to get the best results from familiar technology.
Google, on the other hand, uses AI enhancements to improve images. The Pixel 7 Pro uses fine sensors and lenses, but nothing superlative. Instead, the Google Tensor G2 chipset packs unique image processing and editing features that you can only find on a Google Pixel 7 family phone. These really make a difference, but they can only build on the existing image quality.
It will be harder for Google to improve the optical image quality to match the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra than for Samsung to come up with some new AI and software tricks to give us Google-like results. With a fantastic new sensor and competent lenses, Samsung doesn’t need to blur photos or drastically improve the zoom. The camera does the work.
Satellite emergency SOS will raise the bar
Finally, we hear that Samsung will be teaming up with Iridium Communications for a satellite messaging service similar to the satellite emergency SOS that Apple has included on the iPhone 14 family. Satellite capabilities will be a recurring theme in mobile devices this year.
We expect plenty of competitors to support satellite emergency messaging, so by the time the next iPhone launches, this will be on the line. If a phone manufacturer has left this box unchecked, does it really care about its customers who climb K2 regularly?
Competitors can win on battery and power
There are a few missing ways we wish Samsung set the stage for the year, but there will be room for competitors to win as competitors have before. Samsung batteries aren’t big enough and Samsung phones don’t charge as fast as the best OnePlus phones. We’d like to see Apple and Google up their game in these areas as well.
Samsung was rumored to be improving the fingerprint sensor on its phones, but it seems to be sticking with older kits. The latest Qualcomm 3D Sonic Max sensor can handle multiple fingers at once and we expect it to appear on competitor phones. Security is going to be a big deal this year, so this could be a major upgrade.
Samsung won’t improve where we really need it
We have no hope for improvements to Samsung’s OneUI this year either, and the gulf between Samsung’s software design and the Google Pixel version of Android is more apparent than ever. Samsung needs to modernize or competitors who get closer to Google’s sleek, mature, and unobtrusive interface will find happy buyers.
It’s shaping up to be a tough year financially for most of us, and we haven’t seen any rumors that Samsung will respond to the global cost of living crisis. We hear that the latest phones from Samsung and Apple will cost more, not less. That would be a mistake, and also an opportunity for the competition.
We know where Samsung wants to lead the pack this year. With class-leading processors and camera sensors that competitors may not be able to match, we can see how high Samsung is setting the bar this year. We hope that as competitors try to jump ahead, we see phones that also find the space to duck under and give us the battery and security improvements that Samsung lacks.
Before the 2023 editions from Samsung, Google and Apple arrive, take a look back at the best smartphones they’ve delivered this year.