Growing phones, shrinking tablets, and the return of Windows: 2012 in mobile hardware

Mobile trends of 2012

This year brought many new advancements in technology, and opened the door for older innovations to come to the forefront. 2012 has seen a lot of trends, some more ridiculous than others, but a few stood out by sheer force in numbers. We may wish some patterns in mobile tech would kick the bucket, but most of these deserve to be popular.

Let’s take a look at this year’s hottest mobile hardware trends and celebrate surviving yet another supposed apocalypse.

Smartphones keep growing

Remember when the 5-inch Dell Streak seemed huge? Not anymore. Now that size is pretty much standard – even the iPhone got taller this year. Samsung’s successor to the Galaxy Note, the aptly named Galaxy Note 2, packs a 5.5-inch screen and people are actually buying it, lusting over it even. These days, a 4-inch iPhone seems tiny. Even Windows Phone 8 has joined the party with the Nokia Lumia 920 reaching 4.5 inches, unashamed of its larger body and heavyweight status. In 2012, phones continued to get bigger, from an average of 4.3 inches to 4.7 or 5 inches and consumers responded by throwing down some cold, hard cash.

Computers become tablets and vice versa

Back when the Motorola Atrix was ‘da bomb, we all thought smartphones would be the new computers. It turns out we aren’t quite there yet. However, the tail end of 2012 has seen a whole herd of hybrids – previously teased at tech events earlier in the year — finally strut their stuff in the limelight. Tablets are either the new computers or computers are the new tablets … we don’t know yet. Microsoft has the Surface RT, a well-intentioned but ultimately flawed attempt at creating a tablet experience that is equal parts production and consumption. Lenovo brought us the Yoga 13, a reimagining of the laptop, bestowing upon it the ability to transform into a tablet using a nifty 360 degree hinge. Then we’ve seen devices like the Samsung Smart PC and HP Envy X2, 11-inch tablets that connect to matching keyboard docks when a laptop is needed. It will be interesting to see how this trend evolves (or flops) in the New Year. 

The 7-inch tablet army

This year we saw a flood of 7-inch tablets, from the Nexus 7 to the Kindle Fire HD, but the form factor was truly legitimized when Apple went back on its word and released the iPad Mini. It was more expensive than its Android competitors, though that didn’t stop it from becoming a hot ticket item in 2012. With the 7-inch tablets winning blend of portability and affordability, we can see this tablet size persevering alongside its 10-inch counterpart. Let’s just hope the market shies away from 6 and 9 inch tablets; two sizes is enough.

Tech giants, Google and Microsoft, join the competition

Until this year, Apple was the only company in control of an entire product line including smartphones, tablets, and personal computers. Google had the smartphone and tablet bases covered before but its own Nexus line only dealt with smartphones. In 2012, however, the Nexus line grew into the Nexus 7 and Nexus 10 – two tablets. Add those to the Chromebook laptop and Google can finally go toe-to-toe with Apple, competing on almost every level. Microsoft has a 10-inch tablet in the Surface line, as well as revamped Xbox software to compete with iTunes. Microsoft hasn’t started manufacturing its own smartphone yet, but the rumors are already circulating. All it needs now is a mini tablet to complete the trifecta. Regardless, compared to last year, Microsoft definitely takes home the award for “Most Improved.”

Rise of 1080p

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As these things tend to go, screen resolutions continued to climb this year. 720p is now the standard and high-def 1080p (1920 x 1080 pixel) screens are the newest trend. HTC has the Droid DNA, LG and Sharp has announced 1080p displays. It’s only a matter of time before the rest of the smartphone world joins in.

Clover Trail

Intel is almost completely shut out of the mobile processor market by its competitor, ARM, but it hopes the Clover Trail will change all that by combining long battery life with fast performance. Clover Trail hasn’t been around quite long enough to be sure it will live up to its promise, but that didn’t stop manufacturers like Samsung and HP from placing the technology in the latest Windows 8 hardware. This year, if the device focus was on superior mobility, then you could bet Clover Trail would be a part of the plan. Let’s hope 2013 brings good news as far as Clover Trail’s real-world performance. 

The iPhone is challenged

Love it or hate it, Samsung’s Galaxy S3 was the first phone to truly match the iPhone in terms of brand identity and consumer interest. 2012 was the first year I heard people seriously considering an Android phone over the latest iPhone. It wasn’t just Samsung either. HTC release the One line and tightened up its product offerings, making the One X a memorable and extremely attractive Android device. Then there is the HTC 8X and Lumia 920, both Windows Phone 8 devices that actually have people considering Microsoft. The iPhone 5 may arguably be the most beautiful handset available but the decision is no longer cut and dry, not with Android and Windows Phone 8 finally delivering the goods.

More exciting budget phones 

So-called budget phones like the Nokia Lumia 820 and HTC One S no longer seem like bargain bin knock-offs. Rather, lower cost alternatives to flagship devices only got sweeter this year. Using the Lumia 820 as an example, the decision between it and the 920 was almost a question of personal preference based on design, rather than a pure spec battle. Similarly, the budget HTC One S – a subset of the One X – was more than enough for most people and the One X seemed almost an unnecessary expense. Of course, we would like to see Apple join the party next year and offer an option for a more affordable iPhone.

Cameras matter more

The Nokia Lumia 920 basically rode the waves of its camera hype when Windows Phone 8 devices were announced, relying on its Pureview technology to stand out beside the HTC 8X and Samsung Ativ S. Ever since the iPhone 4S put a focus on camera technology, photo snappers have been growing in importance. The iPhone 5 included a sapphire lens, Windows Phone 8 introduced photo add-ons called Lenses, and Android beefed up the stock camera app. This was definitely the year to leave your point-and-shoot at home and start posting to Instagram.

E-readers light up

It may seem like a small step forward, but this year, e-readers finally began to do what watches have done for decades: light up. Beginning with the Nook Simple Touch with Glowlight and then moving on to nearly every other high-end dedicated e-book reader, front-lit screens have taken over, allowing book fans to finally read in the dark. Even Amazon has responded to the trend, releasing the Kindle Paperwhite in recent months.

NFC hit the mainstream (sort of)

We can’t really say with any confidence that NFC (near field communication) has taken the world by storm, but it certainly is making a mark on the mobile industry, appearing in smartphones, tablets, and laptops alike. The idea behind NFC is stellar, sharing information between devices without annoyances like login names and Bluetooth pairing. The trouble lies in a lack of consumer knowledge on the subject and major players like Apple skirting the technology. For those of us that have used NFC, its inclusion on any smartphone seems like a no-brainer. Good thing so many hardware manufacturers have taken that first step as it is high time NFC hit the big time.