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Phones

What mobile has in store for you in 2018

From the Samsung Galaxy S9 to AT&T's epic quest to buy Time Warner, CNET takes a look at the biggest trends for next year.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Unlimited data returned to the mobile world in a big way this year.

T-Mobile's move in 2016 to offer only an unlimited data plan initially drew a lot of scorn. But instead of withdrawing, the company raised the ante, announcing at CES in January of this year that it would shave off taxes and fees. Its momentum dragged Verizon and AT&T into the unlimited game, and now that's become the default option on all the national carriers.

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T-Mobile's push to cover the cost of taxes and fees in its unlimited plan helped drive its popularity -- in turn getting the rest of the industry to follow along on unlimited. 

James Martin/CNET

Meanwhile, your phones took a different look as makers like LG, Samsung and Apple shaved off the bezels around the display, allowing them to pack more screen in a smaller body. Samsung, in particular, was looking to impress after the disastrous and flammable Galaxy Note 7 in 2016.

Then there was AT&T's quest to become a Hollywood powerhouse -- which is still in question with the Justice Department suing to block its acquisition of Time Warner. The buzz over the oh-so-close merger between T-Mobile and Sprint capped off the second half of the year -- at least until both sides walked away from the deal.

In other words, it was a crazy 2017 for the mobile world.

How do you top this year? Here's a look ahead to all things mobile.

No Galaxy S9 at CES

The tech New Year kicks off with CES, which sets the direction with a bevy of gadgets and tech themes. But with a few exceptions, the show has traditionally shied away from major mobile announcements. It's typically a time for lower-profile smartphone makers like Huawei, ZTE or TCL to make their mark.

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That seemed like it might change when reports emerged that Samsung would tease its Galaxy S9 smartphone -- the highest-profile mobile device in the hopper -- at CES. Alas, Samsung shot down those rumors in an interview with Korea Herald, so we'll be left waiting until the Mobile World Congress trade show in February for the mobile heavy hitters to step in. (Samsung declined to comment on the rumor.)

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Qualcomm CEO Steve Mollenkopf is just one of many people who can't stop talking about 5G. 

James Martin/CNET

Of course, chip companies like Intel and Qualcomm will be around, and 5G will inevitably be a topic of conversation. The next-generation cellular technology is supposed to dramatically boost our wireless speeds, and also make it easier to connect a myriad of other gadgets to the internet.

But most don't expect 5G to show up in a big way until at least 2019. Meanwhile, the hype train will continue to chug along.

Beyond CES

2017 saw lots of radical redesigns of phones -- particularly from Apple and Samsung -- but analysts aren't expecting the same level of advancement in 2018. Speculation already points to the next lineup of iPhones all featuring the iPhone X's infamous notch, while leaks of Samsung's Galaxy S9 show a device that isn't all that different from the Galaxy S8.

"There's only so much you can do in terms of thinness, weight and display technology," said Maribel Lopez, an analyst at Lopez Research.

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The Essential Phone was one of a few phones from lesser known companies that made a splash. Can it keep things going in 2018?

Josh Miller/CNET

The one exception is the notion of a foldable phone. This year's ZTE Axon M -- which has a hinge that allows it to fold -- hinted at the start of a potential trend, and Samsung CEO DJ Koh has said he would like to bring a foldable phone under the Note brand to the market in 2018. Lenovo in 2016 showed off a prototype foldable phone you could wrap around your wrist.

Koh also hinted that the company would have to overcome some challenges to get the phone out, and hedged a bit on whether it would actually happen.

Just as interesting will be what the smaller companies do. 2017 saw Essential and Razer enter the phone market with unique devices. The Essential PH-1 offers a modular gimmick with attachments, while the Razer Phone is a tank with an impressive display. How do they follow up on those products?

Carrier clashes

With the deal between T-Mobile and Sprint collapsing, we're once again left with four national carriers all vying for your business.

That may mean good news for consumers if T-Mobile and Sprint continue to be aggressive in taking business away from Verizon and AT&T. The result could be more promotions, lower prices or better deals for new phones.

Sprint pitchman Paul Marcarelli

Former Verizon pitchman Paul Marcarelli continues to poke the rest of the industry in his ads for Sprint. 

Sprint

One thing's for sure: These carriers will be as vocal -- if not more so -- next year.

"It'll be all about industry evolution, convergence and with our help -- more disruption!" T-Mobile CEO John Legere said in an e-mailed statement. 

AT&T v. US

The other big carrier storyline will play out in the courtroom. But wait, it's not a typical boring patent lawsuit. There are ramifications that may directly affect you.

AT&T is set to face the US Department of Justice in the courtroom on March 19 in a legal battle to acquire Time Warner. Companies that face a Justice Department lawsuit blocking their deal typically give up. But AT&T's willingness to pursue this deal shows how important getting into the media business is to the company.

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Okay, maybe AT&T doesn't want "Justice League" anymore. 

Warner Bros

It's the strongest illustration of the key 2017 theme of firms getting into the entertainment business. Companies like Apple and YouTube invested in shows. Verizon has combined its AOL assets with Yahoo to create media and advertising business Oath, but AT&T by far has made the larger bet with Time Warner, home to CNN, HBO and "Justice League."

"In 2018 entertainment will become faster, more insightful, more social and more mobile than ever before," said an AT&T spokesman.

How this trial plays out could shape who owns and creates your favorite shows and movies, as well as how it's delivered to you.  

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