Mar 212013
 
Modern high end smart phones are becoming more similar than different.

Modern high-end smart phones are becoming more similar than different.

Last week saw the announcement of market leader Samsung’s new high-end Galaxy S4 phone (analyzed here), due to go on sale at the end of April.  In the short while prior to that, both HTC and LG had announced new high-end phones too.  Rounding out the set of high-end phones, the current Apple iPhone 5 went on sale six months ago, and the Google Nexus 4 went on sale four months ago.

For those interested in arcane trivia, Blackberry finally announced two new phones, and there are probably some Nokia smartphones on the Windows Phone 8 OS that might have sentimental value to those who remember back to when Nokia was also a major market player.

There are also a few more phones due to be announced soon that might be worth waiting for before then making a fully informed buying decision.

The pace of technological development is definitely slowing down.  It seems a very foolhardy thing to say that phones are now as good as they’ll ever be, but we do feel that until the next breakthrough new technologies come along, the present and immediate future range of super-phones is almost as good as they can get, which does mean that any new phone you buy in the next few months is less likely to give your buyer remorse due to the release of a much better phone shortly after you signed a two-year contract for your present phone.

New Phones Still to be Announced

There will be one, or possibly two new Google Nexus phones announced in the near future (perhaps at their Developer conference, May 15-17).

The first of these will be a successor to the very successful Nexus 4 phone, and may be called the Nexus 5.  It will probably also be made by LG on behalf of Google, the same as the Nexus 4.  It will have a larger screen (probably 5″ with full HD resolution), better camera, and general enhancements in all respects.  We expect it will be at least as good as the new Samsung Galaxy S4.  This story with some feature predictions has now been modified to suggest the screen size will be 5″ not 5.2″ and the CPU’s memory will be 2GB rather than 3GB, but it otherwise gives some indications of what to expect.

The second of these phones is still a bit of a mystery.  Known as the Nexus X, it will be made by Motorola (a company now owned by Google).  We’re not sure if it will be announced at the May Developer conference too, or instead of the Nexus 5, or at some other time.

What will be the differentiation between the Nexus X and the Nexus 5?  Which will be the more advanced?  Which will be the more expensive?

Our guess is that the two phones may end up being remarkably similar in features and in price, because all phones are trending towards similar feature sets and similar pricing points, with perhaps the only major differences being cosmetic styling differences.  However, this story talks intriguingly about the Nexus X, but is light in details.

One can understand Google wanting to pull all the stops out and to make its own Motorola version phone as fully featured and futuristic as possible, but on the other hand, we’re sadly unsure if Motorola still has sufficient design and R&D resource remaining to allow it to create a truly state of the art phone any more.

The third possible contender is a new iPhone.  Little or nothing is known about a successor to the iPhone 5.  Some people think it might follow Apple’s recent trend and become an incrementally changed iPhone 5S – maybe the same screen size but a faster CPU and perhaps a slightly improved camera and maybe NFC.  Others hope it might be a more substantially changed/improved model and possibly called the iPhone 6, with an appreciably larger screen (which it surely needs in order to be competitive with the other major models out there).

Certainly, Apple has gone from (with the release of its ‘retinal screen’ on the iPhone 4 in June 2010) setting a new record for the best phone screen to now being sadly way behind the current state of the art and desperately needs to catch up in that respect.  The current iPhone 5 doesn’t have any stand-out features at all, and will selling well, isn’t selling as well as anyone hoped, and its lackluster ‘success’ is probably part of the reason for the major implosion in Apple’s stock price.  It is fair to say that the iPhone 5 is succeeding purely because of its Apple branding rather than due to any underlying superiority of features/capabilities.

No-one knows when a new iPhone might be released.  The iPhone 5 was announced on 12 September 2012, so we’d expect its replacement to be announced no later than the same time this year, and possibly a bit sooner.

Most intriguingly is the promise of another new Samsung phone, probably in August or September.  This new phone will be based on their own in-house operating system, Tizen, rather than using Android, but will probably have similar or identical features to the S4 in all other respects, maybe slightly tweaked to reflect another six months of development time.

Future Hardware Issues and Enhancements – and Software Too

Our feeling is that we are more or less plateaued in terms of hardware capabilities, features, and functions.

To back up this bold claim, we analyze the key hardware components in the following sections to explain how more/faster/bigger is becoming counter-productive rather than welcome.

The other side of this issue (hardware capabilities normalizing and standardizing between different makes and models of phones) is that software – particularly that associated with the phone/person interface and interaction – will become of greater importance.  This is already being hinted at; it has been increasingly common for both wireless companies and hardware manufacturers to layer their own software and interface design over the top of Android.

It now seems that Samsung may go a step further still and abandon Android in favor of its own unique proprietary operating system.  In doing so, Samsung would be bravely moving in the opposite direction to the trend, where other proprietary operating systems have been abandoned (most notably with Nokia) and in the case of Blackberry, where hanging on to its own OS is increasingly seeming like a liability rather than an asset.

But Samsung is probably very aware that its hardware lead is dwindling, and is worried about how it can continue to distinguish itself from other Android based phones.  The fact that Google now owns its own hardware manufacturer (Motorola) and is planning not only future joint developed phones (such as it even did with Samsung a couple of years ago) but also its own Motorola phone must also make Samsung (and other hardware manufacturers) feel nervous.

There’s another issue too.  Samsung has to pay Microsoft (yes, Microsoft, due to a convoluted patent restriction) a license fee on every copy of Android it installs on any of its devices.  This fee is thought to be in the order of $10 – $15 a copy.  Samsung has sold over 100 million Android devices, meaning it may have paid Microsoft as much as $1.5 billion in licensing fees.  If Samsung can develop its own OS and avoid that licensing fee, then clearly it standards to financially benefit from doing so.

For all reasons, we think the next few years will revolve more around software development than hardware development.  Hopefully, most of the new enhanced software capabilities will also be enabled on current latest generation hardware, too.

Screen Issues

The growth in screen sizes and resolutions, initially inhibited by the lack of high-end processors to drive them and the formerly high cost of larger higher resolution screens, has pretty much now maxed out around the 5″ diagonal, which is getting close to the physical size limit for a device that can be conveniently stuffed in a shirt pocket and held with one hand.

At the same time, screen resolution has reached the ‘magic’ 1920 x 1080 point which is the resolution supported by current HD video standards, and with a pixel density of about 440 pixels per inch for a 5″ diagonal screen with that resolution, there’s truly no visible benefit in adding any more pixels per inch.

When Apple first introduced its high density ‘retina’ display in 2010 (326 ppi, twice the former ‘normal’ density of about 150 – 175 ppi) this established a new level of pixel density which even then seemed slightly excessive.  The even denser 440 ppi screens no longer have any visible image improvement at all.  They are offered not so much on a claim of creating a better image per se but to enable HD video to be played back without the need for rescaling the image.

It is mainly marketing issues that have seen pixel densities increase from an already perhaps excessive 300+ ppi to now 440 ppi, and our guess would be that future, larger, screens would not have more pixels on them, but instead would have the same resolution and a lower pixel density.

Our point here – once you get a screen of at least 5″ in size and 1920×1080 pixels resolution, you’ve pretty much plateaued in terms of phone screen sizes and resolutions, and you have no need to upgrade further.  The next step beyond that is either to a 7″ or larger tablet, or to a crossover ‘phablet’ type device that is a combination of both phone and tablet.

Physical Size and Weight

In the more distant past, phones kept getting smaller and smaller – smaller was better, and the constraining factor was how small the electronics and battery could be made, with the ultimate limit being how small a keypad people would accept.  Back then, screens didn’t need to do anything more than show the phone number you were calling.

But that has all now totally changed and bigger is better.  The size of a phone has, for the last five years or more, been dependent not on the size required to fit the electronics and battery into the phone as much as a function of the screen’s size.  Whereas for the couple of decades prior to the mid 2000s, phone sizes were steadily decreasing, now that Smartphones have a valid need for larger screens, the sizes of phones have been increasing again.

However, as we say above, it looks like the steady increase in screen sizes will probably now stop.  So the length and breadth of phones are pretty much set at current sorts of sizes.  As for the phone thickness, they are currently so wafer thin – about one-third of an inch – that one has to believe this can’t get very much smaller, and – more to the point perhaps – doesn’t really need to get very much smaller.

Phone weights are also not an issue.  Reviewers love to crow about how the latest model phone is one tenth of an ounce lighter (and one twentieth of an inch slimmer) but these differences are totally trivial.

In other words, you’re not likely to feel the pressure to upgrade your phone because a new phone is unlikely to be remarkably smaller and lighter.

Processor Speeds

While it is true that one can never have a computing device that is ‘too fast’, much of the pressure on increasing processor speeds over the last few years has been to come up with the ability to ‘drive’ screens with more and more pixels on them, faster and faster, and to support faster and faster wireless data rates.

The first few iPhones (all the way through to the 3GS) had a screen with only 0.154 Mpixels on it.  The current iPhone 5 has almost five times as many (0.727 Mpixels) which requires pretty much five times as much processing power for every screen refresh or frame change, and the new HD screens on the latest Android phones have 2.07 Mpixels – nearly three times more than the iPhone 5 and 13.5 times as many as the first few iPhones.  In addition, screen refresh rates have tended to increase too, so there has been an enormous increase in process power needed to drive the bigger better screens.

The first iPhones could only support EDGE data (about 100 kb/sec), the latest iPhones and Android phones can support as much as 50 Mb/sec LTE, and their Wi-Fi speeds have also increased, although not as dramatically.  This has also added to pressure on processor power.

But with the probable end (or at least slowing down) of increasing screen pixel counts and data transfer speeds, the need for massively faster CPUs is also decreasing.

Our point here is that with any of the new super-phones, you’re probably seldom if ever aware of delays caused by the processor, and so have little need to upgrade a phone based on needing/wanting faster CPU power.

Data Connectivity

With new phones increasingly supporting the latest LTE type wireless data services, and the latest 802.11n Wi-Fi, there is little more that is ‘needed’ in terms of fast data connectivity.  That’s not to say that both Wi-Fi and wireless data services aren’t continuing to evolve, but now that we can get internet access as quickly on our phone as on our desktop computer, the drive to speed things up on the phone has now been satisfied.

Many times the delay in internet service is no longer due to the capabilities of the phone, but rather to network congestion either on the part of the wireless phone company or somewhere else in the internet as a whole.  Faster phones won’t work any faster in such cases.

There is one area that can still be improved.  There has been a terrible growth in the number of different frequency bands used in different parts of the world for data service.  Whereas in the ‘good old days’ there were a maximum of four frequency bands that would give you GSM voice and GPRS/EDGE data service everywhere in the world, now there are potentially as many as a dozen different 3G/4G/LTE bands, as well as a continuing need for the four GSM bands as well.  No phones yet have all the different bands enabled, but new Qualcomm chips are expected soon that may increase the number of bands a phone can support.

For the international traveler, the more supported bands, the more universally useful the phone can be, not just for voice and ‘slow’ data, but for fast data too.  But, on the other hand, until international data roaming rates drop down to more realistic and affordable levels, one has to be very careful at actually using data services in other countries (other than Wi-Fi).

Battery Life

Notwithstanding appearances to the contrary on Boeing 787 planes, Lithium-ion batteries are what is referred to as a ‘mature’ technology.  By this we mean that there is little expectation for further major advances in ‘energy density’ (ie the amount of charge that can be stored in a given size/weight of battery) in the batteries that are used in phones at present.

Currently it has been a race between the increased power requirements of larger screens and faster processors and the ability of the batteries to store enough power for a typical day’s usage, with some newer generations of phones showing less rather than more usable battery life than their predecessors, even though the batteries had a greater capacity.

We may continue to see slow improvements, perhaps in the order of 2% – 5% a year, but there’s little chance of seeing a substantial improvement using current technologies, and while there are other promising battery technologies under development, these are not expected to appear in the next couple of years.

If – as we expect – the ever increasing power needs of screens and processors are to slow down, then the worst case scenario is that battery life will stay about the same (manufacturers will use the slowly improving energy density to make smaller batteries allowing for smaller overall phones) and possibly improve slightly (if manufacturers leave the phone form factor and battery size the same).

A small incremental improvement in battery life is not likely to be a strong reason to junk any of the new super-phones in favor of a newer and more super phone.

Camera

Physical laws relating to optics are the biggest constraint on current cell-phone cameras.  While it is true that some new cell phones are boasting incredible camera resolutions (eg 13 Mpixel in the Galaxy S4), the quality and low light picture noise is at risk of increasing, because the individual pixel sensors on the camera’s chip are too small to receive sufficient light.

Furthermore, the quality of the optics (and the amount of light admitted) in such cameras is limited by the physical size of the lens.

We can’t think of any way that a ‘true’ camera experience can be duplicated in a slim small cell phone.  A real camera, with real lens focusing and real zoom capabilities requires a lens that sticks out ‘too far’ – or at least, what seems to be thought of as being ‘too far’ based on the current drive to make phones thinner and thinner.

On the other hand, more and more people are realizing that – just as we happily accepted 25+ years ago when zoom lenses were unusual, it isn’t essential to have a highest quality phone with wide zoom capabilities for every day photo taking, and are happy using their cell phone as their only camera.

We expect to see slow continued growth in camera capabilities, but the underlying necessity to compromise overall picture quality with a cell phone type camera will remain.  In other words, if you are even semi-serious at taking pictures, you’ll still continue to use some type of separate camera, and nothing foreseeable in cell phone camera quality will change that; whereas if you’re just a casual taker of casual snap shots, you’re happy with current cell phone picture quality and further improvements in the cell phone’s camera aren’t viewed as essential must-have features.

Note also that all high-end phones now have two cameras – a second lower quality camera is on the phone’s screen to allow for video conferencing type applications.

Storage Capacity

Phones generally have anywhere from 8GB to 64GB of built-in storage.  Some phones – no Apple phones but some Android ones – also have the ability to add/swap removable microSD cards, providing virtually unlimited additional storage.

You really only ‘need’ two or three GB to store all the programs you’re likely to want, and perhaps another couple of GB to hold pictures before offloading them to somewhere else.

Additional storage is useful if you take video with your phone’s camera, and also if you wish to save movies on your phone to watch, perhaps while on a long flight.

Beyond that, with ever faster data transfer rates, the trend has been for most data to be stored off the phone, and ‘in the cloud’ instead.

There’s not really much pressure on the manufacturers to release phones with more built-in storage capacity.

Other Features

There are some evolving new features that are becoming more common on phones, but it is important to distinguish between those features which are a result of new hardware and those features which are software based.  For example, NFC (Near Field Communications – the new politically correct way of saying RFID) requires special phone hardware, but facial recognition is a software feature.

All high-end phones have GPS, and increasingly they have capabilities for both the US GPS system and the Russian Glonass system.  Bluetooth has also become universally supported, and new ‘low power’ Bluetooth 4.0 is the version that all modern phones should have.

Wireless battery charging is a new feature that some phones have.  We’re not sure if this is an ‘invented’ feature designed by manufacturers primarily to sell more phones, a feature that people don’t really need or want (like 3D tv), or a genuinely useful new function, and the manufacturers seem a bit ambivalent about adding it to their phones.

Other features are non-essential, but still may be nice for advanced phone users.  These would be things like thermometers, barometers and IR transmitters.

Future Breakthroughs

What types of revolutionary new phone features might we see in the future?

There are several areas of potential development, most to do with the screen.  Foldable screens and flexible screens might allow for a ‘standard’ sized screen in a small form-factor, or unfolded, might open out to a screen two or more times larger.  This could be a real game-changer, enabling phone sizes to shrink again, but to still provide a larger screen when needed.

Connections to a Google Glasses type product would allow for ‘virtual’ screens of apparently massive size.  Built in LCD projectors – current low resolution and dim – may become another approach to creating larger virtual screens free of the limitations of the physical screen.

A matching problem is keyboards.  Maybe we’ll see the long promised ‘laser keyboard’ – a device which projects a virtual keyboard image onto a surface – any surface – and then senses which keys we type on, on that projected virtual keyboard.

Dockable phones are another concept that have yet to be fully explored.  You have a tiny base unit, which you can then slot into a larger unit to make it into a larger screened phone, or a bigger unit again to make it into a phablet or 7″ type tablet, or a larger unit again to make it into a 10″ type tablet, or possibly into a docking station and then connected to full size computer type screens, keyboards, and other peripherals and accessories.  This is all possible because the CPU inside a phone is increasingly becoming powerful enough to drive all the additional devices needed by larger computer products, and because many of these devices now run the same application software and operating system too.

Sooner or later we’ll get a power storage breakthrough too – one of the regularly promised new battery technologies will come to maturity and will start giving us phones with two or four or more times the energy density of present batteries.  This can simultaneously reduce phone size (in conjunction with new screen concepts), extend the phone’s useful life between charges, and also power new capabilities such as LCD and laser projectors (also mentioned above).

One more feature is one being deliberately delayed by the wireless companies – a move to have a phone with a ‘universal’ SIM in it, allowing it to work on any wireless company, anywhere in the world, without the need to swap over SIM cards.  This would of course make the wireless phone marketplace very much more competitive, and so while the technology is more or less developed, there is not yet any sign of wireless companies agreeing to support such an innovation.

All of these concepts are at some point along the development curve, and all of them could start a whole new ‘arms race’ among the manufacturers.  But until they make it to market, a state of the art super-phone today is likely to remain more than suitable for your foreseeable needs for a much longer time into the future than has been the case during the last five or so years of rapid hardware development.

Summary

The launch of the original iPhone in June 2007 (almost six years ago) was an initial success as much due to the revolutionary software the phone adopted as it was to any outstanding hardware features on the phone (there weren’t any).  But after only a year or two, the competing Android OS appeared and started to get acceptably similar in features to iOS, and so for the four or so years subsequently, much/most of the competitive battle has been based on hardware features; particularly to do with supporting ever faster wireless data protocols, and with supporting better cameras and bigger screens.

But now it seems that – while, for sure, there is still room for faster/better/whatever hardware, the need for additional hardware enhancements have already evaporated.  If you already have a high-powered car capable of doing 0 – 60 in 5 seconds and maxing out at 150 mph, do you really need an even faster car that will do 0 – 60 in 4 seconds and max at 200 mph?  We are at a similar point with phone hardware, and until some new game changing technology emerges (which could be at any time, of course), we feel you can buy from the current and soon to be released lineup of super phones with confidence, being reasonably assured of having a unit that won’t become technologically obsolete with the next model in less than a year.

Any modern phone with a 5″ screen, HD resolution, 8MP or equivalent camera, and LTE wireless connectivity plus all the other more or less universally offered features will be more than adequate for most non-specialized requirements.

  3 Responses to “The Future of High End Smartphones 2013 – 2014”

  1. Thank you: so informative and so helpful! Margaret Mackenzie-Hooson

  2. You failed to mention many newer phones have OLED screens, which significantly increase visibility in bright light,but even better, significantly reduce battery drain. Samsung and some Motorola phones use this material already ,and the new LG phones are expected to have this rather than LED. (See Universal Display Corp–PANL).

    • OLED, LCD. Whatever. They all suck when it comes to battery life.

      If its not the screen is the bloat of crap they install. If its not that it’s the apps. If its not the apps is the OS itself. If its not that it’s the crappy 3G or 4G reception.

      GS4. Super super AMOLED. Go to google and type “Galaxy S4 battery drain”.

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