Smartphones this year are poised to become more interactive, more fun and maybe a little bit smarter than you’d like them to be.
On the high end, smartphones will get into virtual reality, PC docking and 4K home entertainment. Low-cost phones will offer more bang for the buck with higher-resolution screens, better graphics and faster wireless communications.
Virtual and augmented reality
Smartphones can already be used to roam virtual worlds, such as with the Google Cardboard holder that enables stereoscopic viewing, or connected to a VR headset like Samsung's Gear VR. But the experience will get better this year with Lenovo and Google's Project Tango handset, which will provide a wealth of data on a user's location and objects in view, with information overlaid on the screen.
Sensors will be able to measure distances and, like Microsoft's Kinect, track movement and gestures. By mapping surroundings, a smartphone will also be able to direct an employee to a specific meeting room. The companies see the Tango phone being used in engineering and medical applications. For fun, it will let you play augmented reality games with the physical world as the background. The Project Tango smartphone will ship by the middle of this year, and it'll be priced under $650. For developers, Intel will have a Tango-compatible smartphone with software development kits and a 3D camera for $399.
Faster wireless speeds
Maps and movies will load much faster as LTE and other wireless connections on smartphones reach higher speeds. Many top-line smartphones being announced at Mobile World Congress this month will be powered by Qualcomm's Snapdragon 820 chip, which as an LTE modem that can reach download speeds of 600Mbps (bits per second) and upload speeds of 150Mbps.
For the first time, smartphones will support LTE-U, in which faster data transfers can take place over both licensed and unlicensed spectrum. The Snapdragon 820 also has WiGig technology, which can connect handsets wirelessly to monitors, peripherals and docks. Qualcomm says WiGig is up to three times faster than 802.11ac Wi-Fi. Not all processors will have these wireless features, particularly WiGig, so be sure to check phone specifications.
Qualcomm also wants to put machine learning in smartphones, which could help in image recognition and location-based applications. Qualcomm claims smartphones with the Snapdragon 820 can be trained to understand use patterns by analyzing and classifying sound, location, image and other data. The cognitive computing capabilities come from algorithms and circuitry from the company's Zeroth neural chip.
Qualcomm showed IDG News Service a smartphone that immediately identified people and tagged their names after a picture was taken, much like tagging pictures in Facebook. In this case, the processing happened locally and didn't rely on remote deep-learning servers. Qualcomm claims it has about 30 applications in mind for this technology, though it might make some users nervous.
Smartphones are central to home entertainment, and strong graphics are coming to handsets for virtual reality and 4K entertainment. Low-end handsets will support full high-definition video, while high-end devices will be equipped with even faster GPUs from Qualcomm and ARM. Don't expect to see smartphones with chips from Nvidia, which makes the best mobile GPUs but has exited the smartphone market. Smartphones don't have 4K screens yet, so you'll need to hook them up to 4K TVs for streaming video or gaming.
Talking of displays, smartphone screens will be more vivid, with resolutions creeping above the 1440-by-2560 pixel displays in top-line handsets today. Analysts at Morgan Stanley also predict that foldable OLED screens will reach handsets in the next two years. At CES, LG showed a flexible OLED screen that could be rolled up.
USB Type-C and other hardware improvements
Both low-cost and high-end phones will migrate to versatile USB Type-C ports for charging. The new ports will also solve the problem of connecting smartphones to monitors and external storage devices. Samsung's pocket-sized SSD T3 drive, which can have as much as 2TB of storage, can be plugged directly into Android handsets.
As always, the new handsets will have faster and more energy-efficient chips. But a new twist in mobile processors is stacked transistors, which allow more features to be packed into smaller chips. This is a big chip-manufacturing advancement that will allow smartphones to do a lot more while preserving battery life. Some smartphones will also have low-power DDR4 memory, which boosts higher application performance through faster internal data transfers.