Today, every phone is more or less a rectangular slab along the lines of the iPhone X ($900 at Boost Mobile) or Galaxy S9 ($240 at Walmart). That's not inherently a bad thing, but when you stack these devices side by side, it's easy to feel like you're drowning in a sea of sameness.
From time to time I like to sit back and take stock of the phone designs that are different, some even conspicuously so. (We'll never forget you, Runcible).
When devices follow design trends in a pack -- slim bezels, face unlocking and the soon-to-be-unavoidable screen notch -- then even minor design experiments feel special and unique. A camera that pops up. A particularly mesmerizing color. Buttons that buzz back at you when you push them.
The iPhone X and Galaxy S9 are the trendsetters. But they don't feature what all eight of the following phones have in common: some physical element you can push down, pop up, snap on or otherwise touch. Interesting isn't always better, but it does make you take notice.
There's a certain thrill to seeing buttons and other extras that make phones more physical -- it hearkens back to that childlike need to mash every button and press every lever.
Of course, not all these physical throwbacks work as well as technologies like biometric face and iris unlocking, and underscreen (or in-screen) fingerprint readers. But the fact that phonemakers still turn to designs with physical features even as other flagship phones, like the iPhone X, seem to do everything to shed them, says something.
In a digital world, physical things still matter.
Editors' note: This post updates frequently. It was originally published August 2013.
HTC U12 Plus: Squeeze and tap its sides
Haptics, haptics, haptics. Buttons on thebuttons don't press in; they vibrate when you push them. The phone also launches any number of apps and actions when you give the sides a squeeze. And, you can double-tap the same edges for even more actions.
Although the feeling of those buzzing buttons gives me the chills (and HTC says it's going to address this in a future update), there's no other phone that takes the potential of haptics to this level. The others that have experimented in this way were also made by HTC.
Oppo Find X: That sliding camera
Oppo has a long pedigree of wowing us with novel things it does with its camera. The Oppo Find X keeps that spark of innovation alive with a slide-out camera that allows it to keep an all-screen design while molding a phone with beautiful lines… by hiding the cameras within the phone body.
Slide the mechanism up to reveal the 25-megapixel front-facing camera and the 16- and 20-megapixel dual rear cameras lurking within. You have to see it to believe it.
Vivo Nex: Notch-free, all-screen phone with a pop-up camera
How do you get more screen in your phone? Here's a wild idea that's on the Vivo Nex. Store the front-facing camera in the phone and mechanically raise it when you're ready to use it.
As for the speaker grille, that goes away when you use vibration to turn the phone screen into the speaker. The Vivo Nex has an in-screen fingerprint reader as well.
Read: All about the Vivo Nex
Red Hydrogen One: A holographic phone for Hollywood
That this smartphone is made by Hollywood, for Hollywood makes it no less fascinating. The Hydrogen One looks clunky, even ugly, in prototype form. But its scalloped edges makes it easy to grip and its "holographic screen" will let you watch 3D content on the screen without those dorky 3D glasses. (Images have depth; they don't pop out at you.)
The Hydrogen One also has pogo pins on the back to attach very specific mods that will essentially turn the phone into a live viewfinder for moviemaking, so you don't have to use a headset when filming 3D.
Asus ROG Phone: High-end gaming phone with 'real' buttons
Aggressive angles and button shapes tip you off that this is no regular phone.
The Asus ROG Phone includes sensors that give you shoulder buttons for playing games (especially shooters). There are also separate attachments to uplevel your gaming, like a dock that makes the ROG Phone feel much more like a gaming device, and 6,000mAh of extra battery power.
If you're not in the know, ROG stands for Republic of Gamers, Asus' lifestyle gaming brand.
Huawei P20 Pro: Three cameras on the back
There are one, two, three cameras on the back of the Huawei P20 Pro. This phone roared out of the gate as the first to use three cameras for photography (others have used a multitude of cameras for AR or for tracking); one in color, one in monochrome and one telephoto lens. It'd sound like a gimmick if the P20 Pro didn't take such good photos.
If you're lucky enough to see it in Twilight, a mesmerizing iridescent bluey-purply-pink shade, you'll see why I can't take my eyes off this device.
Read: Our full Huawei P20 Pro review
Moto Z3 Play: Keeping modules alive for all
A few years ago Motorola shook it all up by placing magnetic pogo connectors on the back of a couple of phones and declaring they'd create an ecosystem of snap-on modules.
It was a modular dream that Motorola tackled, along with a few others -- at first -- until Motorola stood alone. A few generations later, Motorola keeps the modular dream alive with the Moto Z3 Play, an affordable midrange device with a long battery life and a story we all want to believe in.
Read: Moto Z3 Play hands-on
BlackBerry Key2: A phone with a keyboard
Since when does a retro device get top billing for "innovation"? Since now, when the BlackBerry Key2 is one of the only non-slab phones there is. The physical keyboard holdout isn't perfect, but it tries to bridge the gap between old-school physical buttons and a new-school digital mentality.
It's an impossible position, it might not always work, but I will salute it for trying.
Xiaomi Mi 8 Explorer: See-through backing design
Come for the faux-see-through back cover and stay for the in-screen (or underscreen) fingerprint reader. Ironically, the Xiaomi Mi 8 Explorer feels like an iPhone X cookie-cutter device of the future with its 3D face-unlock feature, gesture-based navigation and identically stacked rear cameras. But that backing is a cool idea that draws you in by the sheer force of its physical promise -- seeing the parts that make the phone (even if it isn't real in the end).
What about the Galaxy Note?
Samsung deserves all kinds of kudos for pioneering the Galaxy Note phone family. Not only was it considered oversize for its day -- the original Galaxy Note screen was a whole 5.3 inches at its diagonal -- it also sported a digital stylus. This was crazy. It was unheard of. And it stuck.
Almost a decade later, the Galaxy Note 9 is around the corner. But Samsung's been so successful, the handset is no longer a novelty; it's now a yearly expectation.
Read next: Why Google makes Android phone notches now
: 7 phones with screen notches
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