For every great smartphone released to the public, there are several that never make it off the drawing board. It’s a natural consequence as companies come up with new designs.
But there are also a select few devices that came tantalizingly close to actually being released before being canceled at the prototype stage. Here are some of the more interesting smartphones that were never officially released.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published on February 15, 2021. It has been updated to include the video embedded at the top of the page.
Essential Phone 2 and Gem
Essential only ever released one smartphone, dubbed the Essential Phone, before the company shut down. It was far from perfect owing to barebones software and a disappointing camera experience, but it delivered great hardware, a constant stream of handy software updates, and popularized the display notch.
The company had at least two phones in the pipeline prior to closing though, with an early Essential Phone 2 prototype being revealed by Essential designer Kevin Hoffman. This looked like more of the same from the company, but the firm had something weird up its sleeve in the Essential GEM device (seen above).
This smartphone featured a long design and tall screen, resembling a smart TV remote rather than an actual phone. It’s unclear whether the device ran Android or why it adopted the peculiar screen ratio, but we’re a little sad we never got to try out Essential’s elongated phone.
Google Project Ara
One of the more notable canceled smartphones was Google’s Project Ara, which promised a bold future of modular smartphones. The 2013 project envisioned a world where you could simply add and remove modules as needed, such as microphones and speakers, a rear screen, a kickstand, cameras, and more.
Unfortunately, Google canceled this smartphone project in 2016, reportedly due to the company’s desire to “streamline” its hardware efforts. Project Ara was also rather ambitious, promising that a ton of components could be swapped out. This undoubtedly added to the complexity of the project and limited its viability.
Fortunately, those hankering for a modular phone eventually had a few options such as the infamous LG G5. One of the better modular experiments was Motorola’s Z series. It wasn’t quite as ambitious, but it still allowed users to add a better camera, a projector, battery pack, and much more via its Moto Mod system.
HTC Pixel 2 XL
The Google Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL were made by HTC and LG, respectively, back in 2017, but it turns out that HTC was supposed to make both phones. In fact, one rumor at the time claimed that HTC’s Pixel 2 XL (codenamed Muskie) ended up receiving a few tweaks and became the HTC U11 Plus.
However, a prototype HTC Pixel 2 XL appeared on YouTube in January 2021, showing that distinctive Pixel rear cover complete with various zig-zag patterns (presumably for identification and leak tracking).
One of the more polarizing features here was the pair of thick bezels up front, which would’ve seemed a little dated even in 2017. It was a prototype after all, so it’s possible this wasn’t representative of the final design.
Microsoft Lumia McLaren
Early 2014 marked arguably the high watermark for the Windows Phone platform. It seemed like a viable third platform in some markets and we enjoyed several great high-end devices such as the Lumia Icon/930 and Lumia 1520. Microsoft and Nokia were expected to keep this momentum going with a new Lumia flagship code-named McLaren in the second half of the year, but the device was unfortunately canceled.
Then, in 2016, Windows Central and Michael Fisher (a.k.a. Mr Mobile) reviewed a near-final prototype of the phone, showing a rather interesting proposition. The phone featured “3D touch” or hover touch functionality that allowed you to hover your finger over the screen to interact with it. This means you could preview messages or mute audio without actually touching the display. These sensors could even lock the orientation or keep the screen on when it detected that you were gripping the phone.
Nokia N95 reboot
2007’s Nokia N95 was another iconic phone from the Finnish brand, featuring a two-way slider design that could slide up or down. Slide the screen down and you’d get several handy multimedia keys for playback controls. Slide the screen up and a physical keyboard would appear. Toss in a variant with 8GB of storage (a huge amount for a phone in 2007), a selfie camera for video calls, and a 5MP main camera, and you had a pretty stacked device for the time.
Nokia brand licensee HMD Global investigated a Nokia N95 reboot, toying with a number of slider designs. It ultimately decided against the reboot, but not before producing early prototypes for internal use.
Mr Mobile again went hands-on with one of these prototypes, which differed from the original by sliding horizontally instead of vertically. The slider hid a pair of selfie cameras as well as a speaker, allowing for a screen without a punch-hole cutout or notch. It’s a pretty slick design and we hope similarly innovative designs from the company get a commercial release in some capacity.
Samsung Project Valley
Some smartphone enthusiasts will undoubtedly be familiar with the dual-screen ZTE Axon M, which launched back in 2017. The device let you unfold the rear screen to sit alongside the main display, giving you more screen area to work with. This seemed to be the same approach that Samsung was touting with its cancelled Project Valley smartphone.
Images of the Project Valley phone (uploaded to Weibo and shared on Twitter in 2018) show a phone that looks like any device at first. But a book-like hinge meant you could fold out a secondary display to join the main screen too. Either way, this design looked pretty chunky, and seems like a stopgap measure before phones with foldable screens arrived in 2019 and 2020.
Sony Ericsson Xperia Play 2
Sony Ericsson launched the Xperia Play back in 2011, and it’s still held up as a great example of a gaming smartphone. It wasn’t a specs beast but its defining feature was the slide-out gamepad, featuring dual analog trackpads, the familiar D-pad and button layout, and a pair of shoulder buttons too.
See also: The best phones for gaming
Unfortunately, Sony Ericsson never released a follow-up, but it turns out that an Xperia Play 2 was in the works and was actually canceled. Images appeared online in September 2020, showing an Xperia Play 2 prototype.
The images show a device that’s largely similar to the original model, albeit with a mysterious “3D” button as well. Either way, we’d love to see a modern PlayStation phone hit the market.
Xiaomi Mi Mix Alpha
The Mi Mix Alpha is one of the most high-profile canceled smartphones on the list, having been revealed in late 2019 to much fanfare. The Xiaomi phone featured a display that wrapped around the rear too, making for a very distinctive design.
The rest of the Mi Mix Alpha was suitably high-end too, such as a 108MP main camera, a Snapdragon 855 Plus SoC, 512GB of storage, and 40W fast charging for the 4,050mAh battery. So what happened?
Unfortunately, CEO Lei Jun confirmed in 2020 that it had abandoned plans to mass-produce the Mi Mix Alpha due to manufacturing complexities. On the one hand, it’s disappointing that such a radical design never saw a commercial release. On the other hand, the phone’s wraparound display presented some pretty major usability challenges, with false touch detection and durability when dropped being two major concerns.
That’s it for our look at some of the most notable canceled smartphones! These are just a few of the phones that never were, so let us know in the comments which abandoned projects you wish had seen the light of day.