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Phones in 2020 are coming with more killer cameras, 5G and foldable screens

Get ready for phones to try to wow you again this year. Here are the most important features to expect.

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Phones in 2020 are set to regain some sizzle.

Angela Lang/CNET
This story is part of CES 2020, our complete coverage of the showroom floor and the hottest new tech gadgets around.

In exactly two weeks, Samsung is set to reveal the Galaxy S20 series of flagship phones and the Galaxy Z Flip, a foldable clamshell device whose screen folds from top to bottom down the middle. Rumors are pouring in that the Galaxy S20 will be a bigger update than in past years, with a new camera design, new screen technology and 5G data to help push us into the era of faster speeds.

It's a different world than a year ago, when hype was high for 5G and the first foldable phone, the Galaxy Fold, but expectations were otherwise lukewarm for mainstream handsets. Sales were stagnant, devices felt same-same, and while we knew change was in the air, nobody was sure if the 5G and foldable phone revolutions would go to plan. 

Now, devices like the Galaxy  S20 and Huawei P40 Pro  have the chance to deliver on some of last year's dramatic promises. Add to those faster screen refresh rates, support for 8K video, photographic skills like seriously impressive periscope zoom technology and astrophotography, and you have yourself some excitement creeping back into the phone game. 

The annual CES electronics show in January taught us that cheaper foldable phones are coming, 5G prices are dropping and camera elements are becoming more important. Here are even more important things you have to look forward to with this year's phones.

5G becomes more mainstream in 2020

5G networks kicked off in 2019, but the handful of phones had to be there to support them were either extremely expensive or had extremely limited 5G networks to work with. 5G phones also have a tendency to overheat when it's hot out, with the 5G connection shutting down to keep the phone from reaching dangerous internal temperatures.

There were a few success stories. This past December, Samsung said it sold 6.7 million 5G phones in 2019, and some brands worked on cheaper 5G phones like the $520 Xiaomi Mi 9 Pro. Already in 2020, the CoolPad Legacy 5G phones for $400. And 

Despite 2019's growing pains, 5G is inevitable in 2020. In countries where carriers are building out their 5G networks, expect every premium phone to be either 5G-ready or have a 5G variant. For example, Samsung's Galaxy S20 will likely be one of the first to bring 5G to many more people. 

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The Galaxy S20 could support 5G across the entire family of phones.

XDA Developers

Once 5G networks become more widespread, phones will be able to access significantly higher data speeds and more responsive service, which could mean:

  • Lighting-fast downloads of large files, like Netflix shows to watch offline.
  • Seamless video calls.
  • Amazing graphics on streaming real-time games and AR experiences.
  • A split-second advantage in responsiveness when shooters like Fortnite.

Get to know the different flavors of 5G -- and which real-world benefits will actually come to you. And here's why the first cheap 5G phones may not be very good.

Foldable phones get real

If 2019 was the year of seeing foldable phones come to life, then 2020 is about determining if phone screens that bend are a potential future or a gimmick destined to be forgotten like 3D displays. 

Samsung, Motorola and Huawei have launched foldable phones that work, each with their own design. The Galaxy Fold gives us a book design that opens into a tablet. The even larger Mate X has one big wraparound screen around the outside of the device, which can be used three different ways. And the Motorola Razr is a small phone flips up vertically to reveal a tall, narrow display within.

Foldable phones seek to give you a larger screen in a much smaller body. In 2019, they're expensive, ranging from $1,500 for the totable Razr to over $2,000 for the Galaxy Fold and roughly $2,400 for the Mate X.

That's at least 50% more expensive up front than you'd spend on a premium superphone, like the $1,000 iPhone 11 Pro. Consider, too, that foldable phone screens are made of plastic, a more fragile material than glass. They're more prone to scratches and damage from too much direct pressure.

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This working TCL prototype phone wants to drop the price of phones that bend by bringing a simpler design.

Angela Lang/CNET

We know that the Fold, Razr, and Mate X will get company in 2020 and beyond. Phone-makers like LG, Xiaomi and TCL have been vocal about experimenting with foldable designs, like this foldable device that bends in three places to open into a 10-inch tablet

Samsung already teased the new Galaxy Z Flip foldable design (as we're calling it), which will go toe to toe with the Motorola Razr. Rumors also suggest that Samsung is working on the Galaxy Fold 2 for August 2020.

Photography continues to rise

Camera quality is one of the top three reasons people buy one phone over another, alongside screen preference and battery life, according to a consumer study by research firm Kantar Worldpanel.

Mobile phone photography made deep strides in 2019, with advancements in telephoto quality and advanced image processing. For example, telephoto and/or wide-angle sensors have now become standard for high-end phones. The Huawei P30 Pro is notable for its periscope lens that achieves incredible zoom results using a combination of optical and digital zoom.

Phone brands are also using sophisticated sensors and post-processing to achieve shots that were previously only achievable on DSLR cameras. The standout was Google Pixel 4's astrophotography mode, which is capable of taking sharp photos of the starry sky, assuming you're in a dark enough place to begin with. It's astounding.

In 2020, new phone processors will be able to support up to 200-megapixel cameras, and advancements will come to telephoto and ultra-wide angle photography, particularly with more top-tier phones using 5x optical zoom. Slow-motion and high-resolution video will also get a boost, thanks to more powerful processors.

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Renders associated with the Huawei P40 Pro, in black and white.

Evan Blass/via Twitter

120Hz screens come to the masses

Screens on high-end phones will continue to be crisp, detailed and saturated with color. But also expect them to get "faster," with refresh rates of 120Hz -- the next OnePlus flagship phone, presumably the OnePlus 8 is already confirmed to build in this faster 120 Hz screen. The Galaxy S20 is rumored to have it as well.

The standard refresh rate is currently 60Hz. That indicates the number of times the images on your display update per second. So, 60Hz equals 60 refreshes, and 120Hz equals 120 refreshes per second.

A faster refresh rate makes graphics look smoother, which is important for fast-paced and graphically heavy games. But It also enhances graphics for 4K video, screen animations and even scrolling through a web page or your app drawer.

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The Pixel 4 has a "fast" screen... if you turn the feature on.

Angela Lang/CNET

A high refresh rate could also help improve the detail or responsiveness of AR graphics, an area that's got a lot of potential, but is mostly used in games right now, like Pokemon Go, Minecraft Earth and Harry Potter: Wizards Unite.

Right now, only a handful of phones have 90Hz or 120Hz screens built in, like the OnePlus 7T and Google Pixel 4. The setting is optional, because increasing the screen refresh rate by 50% (90Hz) or 100% (120Hz) takes a toll on your battery.

Fast charging will get faster

Your phone is only as good as its battery, because if it runs out of charge, or you're dashing for the nearest outlet, then your phone's no good to you. 

A bigger battery that holds more charge is one solution. Fast-charging is another. The idea is that if you can't get everything you need out of your battery, you can at least give yourself most of one in as little as 30 minutes.

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The iPhone 11 Pro comes with an 18-watt fast-charger in the box.

Angela Lang/CNET

For example, the Galaxy Note 10 Plus comes with a 25-watt charger that fills up your empty battery in about an hour. It also works with a 45-watt charger that fills your battery up in half the time.

Apple, too, embraced fast-charging in 2019, with an 18-watt charger in the box for the iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max

So it's pretty inevitable that fast charging and battery maintenance are going to become even more of a hot topic in 2020. The fastest fast chargers will start showing up as a matter of course, and we could potentially see Samsung start including 45-watt chargers in the box for its most expensive phones. 

At the very least, we might see Apple and other rivals try to close the gap with Samsung's 25-watt charger by introducing their own. Until we see how it all shakes out, here are six truths about fast charging and your phone's battery life.

High-end phones get more expensive

Phone prices have been on the rise in the last several years, with new camera features and larger screen sizes used to justify the hike in cost.

Enter 5G, foldable phone designs and even more camera, battery and processor enhancements and it's clear to see that prices will only go up, at least on the high end. We'll always see more moderate pricing for midrange phones, especially those that use older technology. 

Phones that are 4G-only, or which use a midrange 5G processor like the Snapdragon 765 chipset will also be able to dodge the steepest costs. But on the whole, expect 5G phones to cost more than 4G phones with the same parts. Also expect that affordable 5G phones will downshift specs in exchange for 5G support -- and they might not be all that good.

Originally published earlier this month and updated with new information.