2016 was a crazy-ass year for phones

This year, Samsung exploded, Apple ditched the jack and Google struck out on its own.

Lynn La Senior Editor / Reviews - Phones
Lynn La covers mobile reviews and news. She previously wrote for The Sacramento Bee, Macworld and The Global Post.
Lynn La
5 min read
Josh Miller

2016 will go down as one of the most notoriously baffling, surprising and frustrating years to date, and that goes for the world of phones , too.

From flaming batteries and killed-off headphone jacks, to adventures in modularity, phones made major headlines in 2016. We look back at this year's most memorable moments.

Samsung goes kaboom

One exploding phone is bad. But millions of potentially fire-prone phones is catastrophic. That's what made Samsung's massive recall of its otherwise highly-rated Galaxy Note 7 the kind of trainwreck saga that we haven't been able to rip our eyes from since September.


The Note 7 went up in flames.

Josh Miller/CNET

After reports of the Note 7's combustible battery began popping up worldwide, Samsung promised to replace the device with new ones. But when those began to explode too, airlines and governments made quick work of banning and recalling the phone, making it as good as dead. (So far, Samsung has retrieved 93 percent of Note 7s in the US, and will work with most carriers to brick the rest.)

Samsung's nightmare is far from over. The recall has cost the Korean company $3 billion, its high-flying reputation and sales to Apple as well as Google . It's also rumored that Samsung will delay the launch of its Galaxy S8 phone until it can figure out what went wrong with the Note 7. Catch up on what happens next.

Google waves bye to Nexus, hello to Pixel

This year, Google decided to ditch the Nexus line and release a new phone called the Pixel (and its larger counterpart the Pixel XL). Though the handset was assembled by HTC, it was engineered, designed, branded and sold by Google.

Why is this a big deal? Because every "Google phone" since 2010 was a joint venture between phone makers like Samsung, LG and Motorola that resulted in a Nexus phone -- an inexpensive handset running the latest (and skinless) version of Android. Though they had Google goodness inside, Nexus phones were packaged in hardware that was branded (and sometimes sold) by these other companies.

Now, it's a different story. The new Google-branded Pixel is a smashing success. It's a polished-looking phone with a fantastic camera -- all at a much steeper price than any Nexus phone before it. And while nothing has been officially announced, the Pixel signals the likely death of any future Nexus partnerships along with Google's full commitment to joining the mobile hardware game.


With the launch of the Pixel phone, Google unofficially bids adieu to the Nexus line.

Josh Miller/CNET

RIP, headphone jack

While 2016 saw the widespread adoption of Type-C, our least-favorite trend was about another port, or rather, the lack thereof. The beloved headphone jack, which lets us listen to music and phone calls on our phones, have been a smartphone staple since the beginning. But this year saw companies rip out the port and force us to listen to audio through wireless Bluetooth headphones (which is fine if you already have them) or dongles (which sucks for everyone). (Here are seven ways to get around the jacked jack. Or check out the year's best wireless headphones.)


Why tho.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The most noteworthy company to do this was Apple with its iPhone 7 and 7 Plus. It also released a wireless version of its earbuds, AirPods. Some consider this move a deal breaker, while others see it as an inevitability that we'll all have to get used to. Motorola (now owned by Lenovo ) and LeEco also released phones without a headphone port recently, and Samsung is rumored to follow suit. Ugh.

Modular is in! Out! Who knows

This year was a roller coaster ride for modular phones. The concept of swapping in and out hardware parts from your phone (like the camera lens or a battery pack) has been an industry dream for some time. A modular phone gives you the flexibility to customize the phone how you want, and many companies have attempted, in their owns ways, to achieve this.

LG's flagship, the G5, debuted with a swappable bottom chin that you can use to attach a camera grip or a digital-to-analog high-definition audio converter. Lenovo's Motorola took the modular concept a step further with its Z-series of handsets, which included magnetic pins you can connect accessories to like a video projector, audio speaker and even a different camera.

All year, we had waited for Google's first real Project Ara phone, an initiative the company took on after acquiring Motorola, who first announced Project Ara in 2013. An Ara phone would let you swap core components, like the camera, in and out of a frame. It was going to be available to developers by the end of the year and consumer-ready by 2017.


Modular phones are here to stay? (Or maybe not.)

Josh Miller/CNET

But then in September, Google put Project Ara on hold indefinitely and LG's G5 didn't sell very well. (Lenovo recently reported good earnings on the Moto Z , however.)

Despite the unpredictable results, this doesn't mean everyone's giving up on modular phones (Moto is still committing to mounds of Mods, LG said it's sticking to its guns and Facebook might take up the Ara baton from Google). Still, it feels that the dream got further away just when we were all getting closer.

Attack of the '$400' phone

A few years ago, buying a mid-range phone meant you got a ho-hum device with a lot of compromises (laggy performance, mediocre camera, cheap-feeling design). If you wanted something better, you'd usually have to cough up $600 or more (or about £600 and AU$1,100).


OnePlus' 3T (left) and 3 are premium phones without the premium price.

James Martin/CNET

But 2016 cemented the already rising trend of reliable, fast and fantastically designed phones that cost about $400 (around £350 and AU$550). OnePlus , which kicked things off a couple of years ago with its first cheap flagship, continued the momentum with the OnePlus 3 and its quick followup, the 3T.

Others joined in too, with newcomer LeEco's LePro 3. The Alcatel Idol 4S, Motorola Moto Z Play and ZTE Axon 7 are also ace phones that hit the same price range.

As these cheap-but-good as well as better-than-midrange models get more common, don't be surprised if the appeal of pricier phones diminish. Then we may all come to expect midprice phones to hit almost as many home runs as the iPhone flagships of the world.

Looking ahead

As we continue our way towards 2017, we're going to see these trends continue. But expect some other surprises as well, like phones with more sensors or flexible phones perhaps. CES 2017, which kicks off at the beginning of the year, will be a pivotal show for phone trends. Of course, CNET will be on the ground reporting, so check back and stay tuned for what's coming ahead.