With two of the largest smartphone events — the Consumer Electronics Show and Mobile World Congress — now behind us, a number of clear trends are starting to develop. Last year, tablets seemed to dominate all chatter, but after another year of iPad domination, many manufacturers are aiming their innovations back at the phone market. For a look at some of the hot new devices hitting US carriers in the next few months, check out our Best of MWC 2012 piece. Here, however, we’re going to look at some of the broader trends sweeping through the world of smartphones in 2012.
If you can’t beat your competitors at anything else, buy a fish tank and start dunking your phones in water. This has been the strategy of companies like Fujitsu, Panasonic, and Motorola, which have each shown water proof and resistant Android phones in the past few months. Sometimes its called water ‘resistance,’ other times water ‘repellent,’ and Fujitsu was bold enough to call it water ‘proof,’ but it doesn’t seem to be a trend that is slowing down. In the next year, more and more phones will likely start adding seals, casings, and coatings to keep water out, some to get a competitive advantage and some to keep up. We couldn’t be happier about this trend. Losing your $700 smartphone to water damage is not a fun ordeal.
Android 4.0 (ICS)
No matter where you turned at events in the last couple months, the words “Ice Cream Sandwich” could be heard by passersby. Very few people seem to understand exactly what it is or what it means, but they know it means new. As our loyal readers likely already know, ICS is the new version of Google’s Android operating system and comes with a number of marked enhancements over Android 2.3 (Gingerbread), which debuted in late 2010. Google updates its OS once or twice a year, but ICS was an especially big update, designed to unify the apps on Android tablets and phones and improve stability across both device types. So far, we like it.
One thing that we keep noticing is just how dominant Android has become. With the exception of a couple Windows Phones, almost every new device shown this year runs Android, and all of the exciting ones are running Android 4.0.
If you thought dual-core processors (two processors in one) were cool last year, Nvidia has a surprise for you. At Mobile World Congress, the first slate of handheld devices running on the Tegra 3 quad-core processor debuted, including the HTC One X, ZTE Era, Fujitsu Ultra High Spec prototype, and LG Optimus 4X HD. Huawei got in on the action as well, unveiling the Ascend D Quad, a quad-core phone based on its own technology. The Tegra 3 is interesting because it actually has five cores, not four. A fifth “companion core” works in place of the other cores when you’re not really using your phone much, saving battery life. This actually makes many of these quad-core phones more battery efficient than their dual-core predecessors.
The downside: Tegra 3 isn’t yet compatible with LTE, meaning that none of these super fast, super awesome new phones will be able to connect up to Verizon or AT&T’s fast 4G LTE networks — a real bummer. Nvidia representatives told us that LTE compatibility will come in the next couple months, but currently Qualcomm Snapdragon processors seem to be the platform of choice for LTE. Qualcomm will also release a quad-core mobile processor later this year and Samsung has already shown off its new quad-core Exynos chip, which will likely debut with the Galaxy S III.
It all started with the HTC Evo with its 4.3-inch screen, and now almost every major phone coming out this year will sport a screen size of at least 4.5 inches. Devices like the Galaxy Nexus have stretched things even further with 4.7-inch screens, but Samsung and LG are taking things to the limit with the LG Optimus Vu and Samsung Galaxy Note, both of which exceed 5 inches in size and are so large that they can’t be held (comfortably) in one hand. Samsung is clinging to the controversy, releasing its own ads that ask “Is it a tablet? Or is it a phone?” Unfortunately, it is a phone. We’ve been a bit critical of these huge device sizes. Luckily, help is coming and the small phone may make a bit of a comeback as well.
Budget phones that aren’t terrible
Lately, we’ve been seeing a lot of budget Android devices and Windows Phones that are smaller in size and weaker in specs, but run quite well for their price. Motorola, in particular, showed off a nice Android device in the MotoLuxe. Sony’s Xperia U was also compact but nice and Nokia debuted the first Windows Phone Tango device, the Lumia 610, which runs on only 256MB of RAM (half other WP7 devices) and a much weaker processor, but still manages to respond and feel as responsive as a Windows Phone running on much better hardware. The new ZTE Orbit was similarly decent for a cheap device. Time will tell, but Samsung today unveiled the Galaxy Pocket, which seems aimed at exactly the same market.
Samsung has decided that styluses are cool again and everyone else seems to be noticing. The Galaxy Note ships with a stylus (called an S-Pen) and the Korean manufacturer has debuted a new 10.1-inch Galaxy Note tablet as well. In reaction, LG is including a stylus with its Optimus Vu, even though there is no place to hold it, and other manufacturers like Asus seem to be scrambling to prove that they support styluses as well. It will be interesting to see if stylus support for smartphones continues to grow, or if anybody really wants to use them, but at least for a while, expect new mobile devices to ship with, or be compatible with, capacitive touch pens.
The battle of camera quality kicked off when Apple showed how adept the iPhone 4S was at photography last October. Since then, all of the major players have been upping their game. Most recently, at MWC, HTC unveiled its One X phone with an F2.0 sensor, a dedicated imaging processor, and a host of other upgrades that help it churn out some amazing photos for a phone. In response, Nokia ended HTC’s thunder by unveiling a new Lumia phone with a 41MP camera on it. Yes, 41 megapixels. There was an audible gasp in the room when the device was unveiled. It’s certainly not perfect (currently running on Symbian, for example), but Nokia claims that this technology will make its way into Windows Phones soon enough. We expect other companies like Samsung to continue to up their game in cameras as well.
Battery life: It’s not improving anytime soon
The Galaxy Nexus and all of these dual-core, quad-core, LTE-enabled phones are great, but they are draining batteries faster than ever. I even recently stopped using the Nexus because it just can’t hold a charge all day. The Motorola Droid Razr Maxx is the first device we’ve seen with truly impressive battery life since the smartphone revolution began, but it may be alone for a while. Manufacturers have been talking up cameras, specs, styluses, Android 4.0, and quad-core processors, but not one of them is talking about battery life. That’s a bad thing. With AT&T and other wireless carriers rolling out 4G LTE connectivity in 2012, battery life is going to become a bigger and bigger issue.
Smartphones become tablets and PCs
Motorola introduced the concept of using your smartphone as a PC with the Atrix in 2011 and it has been met with little uptake, mostly because the company’s Webtop interface is sluggish and just doesn’t do everything you hope it would. However, Android 4.0 appears to have given manufacturers more options. As Asus has been demonstrating with its upcoming PadFone, Google’s new OS is capable of dynamically resizing itself, allowing you to plug a smartphone into a bigger screen and have it become an Android tablet. Plug in a keyboard and you have yourself a netbook. Now we just have to find out if anyone wants to use their smartphone as their computer.
Chinese invasion and the return of old faces
Currently, Apple, Samsung, Motorola, HTC, and (sort of) LG rule the the smartphone market in the United States, but there are a number of big companies that want in and have shown off some impressive new phones. ZTE, Huawei, and Lenovo may be from China, but it may not be long before they begin to secure deals with top-tier US carriers. We’d be happy for the increased competition, as the US market is seeming less and less diverse each month.
At the same time, this year may also see the return of some familiar faces. Nokia has already inked a deal with AT&T for the Lumia 900 and Sony, now free of Ericsson, is making a big push back into the smartphone market with its Xperia S, P, and U. Acer, a PC maker, also showed off some nice Android phones at MWC. Of course, a nice phone doesn’t guarantee success, but a crappy phone really hurts your chances. Enter Panasonic. At MWC, the electronics maker showed off its waterproof Eluga Android phone, but we don’t see much of a future for the sluggish device. Fujitsu also has a lot of nice devices, but no real plan on how to break into the US market. Nokia, Sony, and some of the Chinese companies stand a shot, but not everyone will make it onto Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, or Sprint shelves this year. It will be interesting to see who does.
Update: Added “Smartphones become tablets and PCs” category. A great trend that I neglectfully did not have in the first draft.