Slightly better camera? Sigh. Bigger batteries? Yawn. Improved performance? *Slips into a coma.* There’s no doubt iPhone 13, Samsung Galaxy S21 and Pixel 6 are certainly some of the best phones of 2021. But they’re only subtle improvements on last year’s top devices. Fortunately, even if flagships have lost the wow factor, phone makers are still having fun on the fringes.
This year, the Microsoft Surface Duo and Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 3 helped take foldables mainstream. And rollables look set to push flexible screens even further in 2022. However, this is a hype-free zone. As much as we loved the imagination that went into the LG Rollable (RIP) and Vivo’s phone with a built-in drone, there are no designs concepts here. Rare and weird as they are, all of the handsets in this list exist.
So read on to discover which fast-food chain brought out a phone, a truly kick-ass gaming handset and a mobile that’s made from a Martian meteorite.
OnePlus Nord 2 x Pac-Man Edition
You may have heard of the Nord 2. It won a lot of plaudits for offering high specs at a low price. But you’ve not seen one like this. In a collab with games developer Bandai Namco, OnePlus created a loving homage to an arcade classic.
It starts with a decal of Pac-Man on the back of the device, which also glows in the dark to reveal a holographic maze design. But this is more than a simple reskin, OnePlus also gamified the user experience.
So on top of animated wallpaper and logos inspired by the game, you can unlock content featuring the munching mascot by completing challenges dotted throughout the settings.
The Wendy’s Phone
Yes, that’s right. Alongside frosty shakes and square burgers, a limited-edition phone is on the menu at Wendy’s. Given away as part of a competition to entice Canadian customers to download the chain restaurant’s mobile app, this was clearly a gimmick. But the bright-red handset was fully functional, with a 6.4-inch HD screen, three rear-facing cameras and a fingerprint sensor on the back.
Most impressively of all, it includes its own voice assistant. Just say "Hey, Wendy" to ask a question, set alarms or get directions and the phone will respond in the same sarcastic tone that’s made its Twitter account so popular.
Sony Xperia Pro-I
Sony’s latest is less like a phone with a great camera and more a professional-grade shooter that you can call people with. While most handsets rely on algorithmic brains to snap a great selfie, Pro-I is packed with brawny hardware.
This includes a trio of sophisticated Zeiss lenses. A large 1.0-type image sensor for better image resolution with less noise. And a 3D iToF sensor for more accurate autofocusing.
Meanwhile, the Pro-I’s interface even apes Sony’s Alpha cameras. So you can choose between manual controls or automatic settings for photo and video as well as capture in RAW.
Redmi K40 Bruce Lee Edition
The Redmi K40 is a strange beast in its own right. The Xiaomi sub-brand typically offers bland budget and mid-range mobiles. But the K40 is a hardcore gaming phone, with a supercharged 120Hz display and 480Hz touch sampling rates, HDR10+ display and a 5,000mAh all-day battery.
It even has shoulder buttons like a console controller. But the Bruce Lee Edition adds an extra layer of eccentricity. For no apparent reason other than it looks cool, the handset is yellow with a black strip like the king of kung fu’s signature jumpsuit in 1978’s Game of Death.
Beyond that, the phone comes with a wallpaper featuring the star’s portrait and packs a punch with 12GB RAM and 256GB storage.
ZTE Axon 30
At first glance, the Axon 30 doesn’t look all that weird. But look a bit closer, where’s the front-facing camera? There’s no ugly notch or pinhole cutout here or even a bezel to block your view. Just a seamless screen. Instead, both the shooter and fingerprint scanner are hidden underneath the display.
In truth, ZTE debuted this camera technology last year on the Axon 20, but this was practically a prototype and took terrible pictures. The 30’s photos are much improved, though the image quality might still be too fuzzy if you’re serious about your selfies. Still, with a little more refinement, this bizarre innovation could easily become the norm in the not-too-distant future.
Unihertz Titan Pocket
Perhaps confusing 2021 for 2011, this year saw Unihertz release a candy bar with a QWERTY keyboard. Weirder still, there’s a market for it: almost 3,500 supporters backed the Titan Pocket on Kickstarter in under a month. And the Blackberry-like throwback features don’t end with the physical buttons.
The Pocket also has an IR sensor so it can control your TV, a 3.5mm headphone jack that doubles as an FM radio tuner and, a three-color notification LED. But what makes us most nostalgic is the battery. Though 4,000mAh isn’t that impressive anymore, with only a 720p screen and limited support for heavy-duty apps, this device can run all weekend without needing to charge.
Caviar Space Trek: God of Fire
In May, China landed its first rover on Mars. To celebrate the occasion, luxury brand Caviar launched its Space Trek Collection. This is made up of not one, but three Huawei Mate 40 Pros that, like most Caviar customizations, are dripping in gold and ornate finishes.
But the God of Fire model is truly out of this world. It features an 18-carat decal of a dragon and a mechanical clock. If that wasn’t enough, the clock also contains a fragment of a Martian meteorite. It’s perhaps no surprise there are only eight of these phones in the world and they each cost a whopping $28,000.