From the Nord to the Lite to the Max to the Pro: The Top Ten Phones of 2020
A Nord-ic year to the Max
- It was the year in which Google got the Pixel out of the flagship race, Poco came back, Samsung went Ultra, and even Apple launched five iPhones.
- As the dust settles on the Covid-scarred 2020, we pick our favorite ten phones of the year.
- The selection is across the price segments and the list in the chronological order.
It might have shut down part of the world, but what COVID could not stop was the flow of phone launches. Indeed, there was a time when it seemed that seldom a day or two could pass without a phone being launched. Even Apple, which normally restricted itself to two or three phones in a year, launched five, and its great rival Samsung, came up with multiple variants of both its Note and S series, Google pulled the Pixel out of the flagship race, Realme released a new series, Xiaomi brought back a (slightly) old series…
Yes, COVID notwithstanding, it pretty much rained phones in 2020. And as the virus-ridden year comes to an end, here is a (very individualistic) look at the phones that really caught our eyes this year, in chronological order of release in India:
Samsung Galaxy Note 10 Lite – This Lite beats the Ultra, plizz to Note!
January 21, 2020
It might have made spec chasers drool with the Ultra variants of its S and Note series later, but Samsung began 2020 with lite versions of its two flagships, the S10 and the Note 10. And given the fact that the prices of both ranges had been going up steadily, the availability of two lower-priced options was very welcome news. Yes, they were released even as the S20 was on the horizon, but that did not change what a superb deal they were for anyone looking for a flagship device.
And while more attention went to the S10 Lite because of its Qualcomm chip, we preferred the Note 10 Lite, simply because it brought most of the Note’s functionality – complete with that marvelously versatile S Pen, great display, and very good cameras – to users at a price that was in OnePlus-land. There were some hemming and hawing around the Exynos 9810 processor and yes, it did have its share of stutters, but by and large, this was an awesome value for money device and served up proof that Samsung could do budget flagships. As the year ended, Samsung reminded us once again of just how well it could deliver a great device at a OnePlus price with the Galaxy S20 FE. The Note 10 Lite, however, remains my favorite, and not just because it was available in Red!
Poco X2 – Guess who is back? It is really Mi…as Poco!
February 11, 2020
It stirred up the market on its launch, and then went totally silent for more than a year. But 2020 saw Poco, Xiaomi’s sub-brand, make its comeback. And no, it did not do so with the Poco F2 (which has the distinction of being the most talked-about phone never to be launched) but with the Poco X2 (we do not know what happened to the X or X1, if there was one). Unlike the F1, it was not a flagship. Unlike the F1, it was not an out and out original (it seemed like a rebranded Redmi K30).
But like the F1, it managed to combine some very good hardware (a high refresh rate display and great cameras) with a surprisingly affordable price. That combination made it a runaway hit, and brought Poco well and truly back into the Indian market. Mind you, the brand would spend the rest of the year being accused of being a Redmi clone and a stick with which to beat Realme. But all said and done, the X2 did what it was supposed to do – get Poco back into the spotlight.
iPhone SE – the joker in the pack!
April 15, 2020
It was the iPhone that had the verve to be launched in the middle of a pandemic. And while the iPhone mini might have been the iPhone 12, shrunk, this was the iPhone 8 upgraded. And the reason why the new SE pips the mini to this list is simple – it delivered what was then the latest iPhone processor at a surprisingly low price (USD 399). So low that it got right into the OnePlus zone (the OnePlus 8 was rumored to be released when the SE hit the market). Yes, it had bezels, a home button and battery, and camera compromises, but on the flip side, it delivered the iOS experience without cutting corners and was assured updates for a decent amount of time. It still costs less than half of an iPhone 12! The relatively mainstream iPhone had arrived.
May 18, 2020
Xiaomi had made its debut in India with a high-end device, the Mi 3. But while that particular flagship captured the imagination of the public, its successors had a relatively lukewarm response, which led the brand to hold back on the premium flagship segment for a while (the last real effort was the Mi Mix 2 a few years ago). And well, given the fact that their mid and lower segment devices were a rage in the market, the decision seemed a sound one. However, 2020 saw Xiaomi return to the premium segment in India with the Mi 10.
While some folks felt it was overpriced (perhaps they expected every Mi phone to be priced around Rs 15,000-20,000), it did pack one heck of a punch in terms of both specs and performance. It had a brilliant curved edge display, a Snapdragon 865 processor, a supremely good 108-megapixel main sensor (one of the best cameras I used on a phone all year), a big battery, wireless charging, fast charging…and it all worked wonderfully well too. I do not know how well it did in the sales department but it certainly showed us that Xiaomi was well capable of mixing it with the best. And paved the way for the Mi 10T and Mi 10T Pro later in the year.
Realme X3 Superzoom – Getting a Big Zoom into the affordable zone
June 30, 2020
Realme was in busy bee mode in 2020, releasing a whole new series of devices (Narzo) and also a number of its regular range of devices, including what the brand claimed was India’s first 5G phone. There were some very good phones out there, but the one I thought really did the most perhaps did not get the credit (I think) it deserved. This was the Realme X3 Superzoom. Priced at below Rs 30,000, it came with a Snapdragon 855+ processor, a 64-megapixel main sensor, and a 120 Hz refresh rate display, but what really made it special was the presence of a periscope lens with OIS (rarely seen at this price point) which gave the phone a 5x optical zoom and a 60x digital one. The display could have been brighter, but those cameras were easily the best and most versatile in their price segment. A 4200 mAh battery with 30W fast charging did not harm the cause either. Easily one of the best camera phones of the year.
OnePlus Nord – The “Premium Mid-Segment” flagship!
21 July 2020
In terms of sheer marketing and communications, the OnePlus Nord was perhaps the phone of the year. I cannot remember when a phone that was expected to be priced at Rs 25,000-30,000 and was not a budget flagship got this sort of attention. The Nord was not a benchmark buster but was an incredibly efficient phone for its price, and thanks to its sleek and classy design, very good display, and promising processor, led to the coining of a new segment – the “premium” mid-segment. It had everything that most people would want in a phone that at price (barring a 3.5 mm audio jack) and added OnePlus’ clean UI and OnePlus’ formidable reputation to the mix. Yes, it did face its competitors in the days that followed (two are in this list), but for many people, this was the benchmark for any sub-Rs 30,000 phone!
Vivo X50 Pro – the stylishly stable fella
July 24, 2020
This was the year in which Vivo turned on the style and focused big time on cameras. And nothing reflected this twin target approach better than the X50 Pro, its flagship phone of the year in India. Not only did the phone come with a very sleek design, making it perhaps one of the best-looking devices of the year, but it also packed in an excellent set of cameras, the most outstanding feature of which was the gimbal-inspired image stabilization for some of the best videos we shot this year, this side of an iPhone.
And well, it also came with one of the easy-to-use starry modes that let you take pictures of stars without any of the hassles that other phones with a similar facility did. Yes, it took a lot of criticism for its price tag and for using a Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G chip in a flagship instead of an 865 or even an 855+, but the phone itself made a very strong statement and did very well too. Most importantly, it showed the market that after a brief break, Vivo was well and back in the premium segment and had the looks and the camera to take on all comers.
Samsung Galaxy M51 – M-powerment, Samsung style!
September 17, 2020
In 2019, Samsung had shown that it could play the “specs-price” game as well as anyone in the market. And 2020 provided further proof of this. The Korean brand released a number of very well specced and yet surprisingly affordable devices in its M series and the star of the show without a doubt was the Galaxy M51, which not only brought a massive 7000 mAh battery to the game along with a superb display and a great set of cameras, but did so in a surprisingly light frame, and surprise surprise, a Snapdragon processor rather than an Exynos one. And all this came at a price that was bang in the zone of the OnePlus Nord and the Realme X3 Superzoom. The fact that it did very well tells you just how good it was. It remains one of the best options for anyone looking for a phone under Rs 30,000 even now, even after the subsequent arrivals of the Vivo V20 Pro and the Pixel 4a.
iPhone 12 Pro Max – The biggest, the most powerful, and the best iPhone out there!
October 13, 2020
All right, I know that some people would be expecting the iPhone 12 mini out here, but hear me out. The iPhone 12 Pro Max for me quite simply was a bit like the Note moment for the Samsung Galaxy series. Rather than just trying to give everything in a slightly bigger size as with the 11, the 12 Pro Max pretty much saw Apple throw the kitchen sink at the iPhone – the display, the best battery, and of course, waaay better cameras than anything we had seen. And while some saw the big screen as adding to the bulk, with the addition of ProRAW shooting, that very display became a huge asset. And of course, it was blazingly fast and delivered phenomenal sound. The price of Rs 1,29,900 was crazy and inspired kidney jokes but in terms of sheer high-end performance, this was the phone to beat.
Redmi 9 Power – Striking a higher…Note!
December 22, 2020
If there is one device that you would bet on featuring in every best of the year list since 2015, it would be the Redmi Note series. Not this time. Not because the Redmi Note 9 Pro, Note 9 Pro Max, and Note 9 did not do enough – they were all very good and rock steady devices. It is just that they moved a notch up the price ladder, and that left the door open for other devices to slip into their very ample shoes. And the best of them came right at the end of the year. The Redmi 9 Power was a Note in all but name – a decent (full HD) display, a reasonable processor (Qualcomm Snapdragon 662), reasonable cameras, a huge battery, a very eye-catching design, and wonder of wonders, stereo speakers (at this price!). An easy recommendation for anyone looking for a phone for about Rs 10,000 (it starts at Rs 10,999).
And one more…
iQOO 3 – Remember me, anyone?
25 February 2020
It was known as a Vivo sub-brand, but iQOO’s first phone in India, the iQOO 3 was perhaps the best phone debut of the year (and there were a few new phone series and brands out there). The phone ticked all boxes – a very good display (albeit not with a high refresh rate for the Hz counters), decent cameras, a Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 processor, a big battery with fast charging, and all of this with a number of gaming touches including special buttons on the side and decent cooling. It was one of the first 5G phones to arrive in India and was quite a performer in its own right. It was however rather odd to see it recede from the spotlight, in spite of being very competitively priced. It remains one of the best budget flagships out there even now, though I do wish it would get software updates more regularly. I do hope to see more of iQOO in 2021.
(Note: The selection here reflects the individual opinions of the author)