Smartphones are hot again: These are the key features we'll want this year

After a difficult year for mobile phone manufacturers, the outlook for 2021 is much better.

Young woman blogger in spectacles publishing new post on own website and installing new application for editing photos in social networks on digital smartphone device connected to free 4G internet

Users are experiencing new kinds of applications on smart devices.

Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

After months of delays and declines, things are looking up for the smartphone industry: research firm Gartner expects that 2021 will see 1.5 billion devices sold around the world, 11.4% growth compared to the previous year

A new report released by the firm's analysts anticipates that smartphone shipments will come close to 2019 levels again, after the last year saw a pandemic-induced dip in sales of more than 10.5% year-on-year, caused in part by cautious consumer spending. 

Gartner's analysts expect that growth will be largely driven by the availability of affordable 5G-enabled devices, which will constitute 35% of total smartphone sales. Compared to 2019, the number of 5G smartphones that will be shipped next year will increase 32-fold, to reach more than half a billion units. 

SEE: 5G smartphones: A cheat sheet (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

According to Anshul Gupta, senior research director at Gartner, a major chunk of these sales would have happened over the past year, when consumers should have started embracing 5G applications, and have now been pushed into 2021.  

"Some sales in 2020 were really pushed out because of lockdowns. Purchases of some of the 5G models were delayed into 2021," Gupta told ZDNet. "Product launches also met challenges unseen before, so we saw many product delays.

"This means that some of the 5G uptake that could have happened in 2020 is now happening in 2021, which is causing the big jump." 

Despite the delays that Gupta pointed out, the number of 5G-enabled smartphones is now growing as fast as their price is reducing. Over 150 5G devices launched commercially in 2020, and prices are now starting from a few hundreds of dollars. Gupta expects that by the end of the year, consumers will be able to get their hands on 5G smartphones from $200, which will only contribute to expanding the market. 

The past few months also saw Apple release the 5G-enabled iPhone 12, which Gartner's analysts anticipate will trigger a "supercycle", as iOS users queue up to replace their devices. 

Adoption of 5G devices is particularly aggressive in China, where 5G smartphones are on pace to represent almost 60% of all devices in 2021. The country's strong lead can be attributed in part to a smoother rollout of 5G technology and the wider availability of handsets; this contrasts with regions like Western Europe where the patchy deployment of next-generation connectivity is driving less consumers towards 5G devices. 

Gupta is nevertheless adamant that consumer interest in 5G has spiked, and that as a result, a strong replacement cycle for mobile phone devices has already started. "As far as consumers are concerned, I think they are definitely more interested in spending more money on 5G phones," says Gupta. "They definitely see the need, and can see what 5G can do for them." 

Users are experiencing new kinds of applications on smart devices that require faster networks, explains Gupta, pointing to the explosion of video consumption. What's more, with remote working trends showing no sign of disappearing, the demand for faster connectivity is only set to increase. 

SEE: 5G and edge computing: How it will affect the enterprise in the next five years

Even in markets where 5G roll-outs are far behind, consumers are keen to make themselves 5G-ready. "In India, for example, 5G auctions have not even started to go ahead," says Gupta, "but there are 5G phones available. Why would someone in India buy a 5G phone? Because they expect networks to come anytime soon, and they want to be 5G-ready." 

As critical as 5G smartphones will be to inject a sales boost in the industry, Gupta noted that the remaining two-thirds of shipments will still be made up of earlier-generation phones. In emerging markets, customers will be upgrading their handsets with 4G devices that show better capabilities. 

Features such as cameras and displays are still top-of-mind for those users, and with many innovations coming to improve phone specs, Gupta says that strong demand will generate sales for non-5G devices too.  

"That trend for the emerging market will continue, and we will see increased smartphone sales coming from there," he argues.  "2021 looks to be a much stronger year, and there will be a strong recovery from 2020."