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The art of smart

Published: 02/07/2013 - Filed under: Home » Archive » 2013 » July-August 2013 » LifeStyles » Home » Features »

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Consumer electronics is all about smartphones. Where other stalwarts have floundered – televisions and stereos are both expected to see sales decline this year – the smartphone continues its ascendancy. Last year, the market grew 38 percent and it is expected to rise another 22 percent this year.

But even amidst this boom, 2013 looks set to be a landmark year. Next-generation 4G technology allows download speeds up to ten times faster than 3G. This boost in network speed lets your phone to take full advantage of the insanely fast chips now powering them. Last year saw quad-core processors become the norm – in 2013, expect to see a doubling of that speed to the first octa-core chips, with Samsung one of the firms preparing to introduce them.

The holy grail of the pre-smartphone handset era was size, or more precisely, lack of it – squeezing as much hardware into as tiny a box as possible. But the advent of touchscreen phones has heralded the opposite trend – larger screens with higher resolution displays.

HTC’s Butterfly, released in Asia at the end of last year and marketed in the US as the Droid DNA, was the first to allow full 1080p HD video playback on its five-inch screen. Now we can expect to see this technology launched across the market, with devices including Sony’s Xperia Z, Huawei’s Ascend D2 and ZTE’s Grand S all shipping with five-inch, ultra-high resolution displays.

The demand for larger screens has been fueled, in part, by the popularity of tablets – although, somewhat counter-intuitively, their sizes have been heading in the opposite direction.

The two collide in the much-vaunted “phablet” segment – hybrid devices that fall between the largest phones (with six-inch displays) and smallest tablets (seven-inch screens). Apple resisted this gravitation towards the center, but the iPad Mini (7.9-inch display) cemented its place at the heart of the market, and analysts now expect the iPhone 6 to feature screen dimensions of at least 4.8 inches. The fight for the middle ground is very much on.

It isn’t only the size of phones that is shifting – it’s how we use them. According to Shawn DuBravac, chief economist and director of research for the Consumer Electronics Association, 65 percent of our smartphone use is now for “non-communication” purposes – gaming, planning, creating or consuming media. Countries including South Korea (a good barometer for mobile trends) are even offering data-only plans.

NFC – near field communication, which allows for, among other things, mobile payments at the touch of your handset – has been the “next big thing” in the smartphone world for years now. But, largely thanks to Apple’s dogged refusal to use it in its devices, it has never really taken off.

This could finally change this year with rumors that the next iPhone upgrade will jump on board – rumors which Tim Cook vehemently denies. Apple notwithstanding, other manufacturers are clearly on the bandwagon. A world in which you can pay for your coffee, new trainers and the subway journey home with your mobile phone is upon us and the shadow looms larger every day.

In the slightly longer term, scientists are developing flexible batteries that could eventually lead to phones you can fold up when you’re not using them (and that won’t smash if you drop them). Apple has patented a new type of “haptic feedback,” which will provide localized vibrations from different parts of the screen, making typing a more intuitive experience. Meanwhile, Nokia has spoken about a phone due for release this year with a battery life of a staggering 330 hours.

We’re at the start of a golden age of mobile technology – for now, though, here are some of the most advanced phones you will be able to get your hands on this year.

Blackberry Z10 

uk.blackberry.com

Screen size: 4.2 inches

The Z10 is the first Blackberry to run the Canadian firm’s new BB10 operating system. It takes its visual cues from the iPhone but dispenses with any physical buttons. It looks good, but the real surprise is how much fun it is to use. The new operating system has clearly benefited from its long gestation and offers innovative solutions to problems you didn’t know you had.

Its virtual keyboard is probably the best on the market, predicting the word you are most likely to type next, which saves a lot of time. The gesture-based controls, which allow you to “peek” at your social networks while using another app, soon become second nature. The eight-megapixel camera is backed up by some excellent software, even allowing you to edit an image by swapping a certain area, such as a face, using “time shift mode.” The Z10’s main drawback is its relatively weak app ecosystem.

Pros Great keyboard, excellent camera software

Cons Not enough apps to compete with Apple or Android

 

Sony Xperia Z

sonymobile.com

Screen size: 5 inches

The Xperia Z represents Sony’s most serious foray into the smartphone market since the early days, when it was easily outgunned by the likes of Apple and Samsung. It’s a force to be reckoned with – the light (146g), sleek handset has a gigantic five-inch screen that offers incredibly sharp resolution. Its 13-megapixel camera is up there with the best of them, featuring face-detection software, image stabilization and the ability to take some great macro shots. It also has a powerful battery, capable of 11 hours of talk-time, and runs the latest version of Google’s Android software, Jelly Bean. Even better, if you accidentally drop it down the toilet, you won’t have to fork out for a new one – it is completely waterproof. This is a Sony handset that deserves to be taken seriously.

Pros Waterproof, great screen

Cons Feels a little flimsy

 

Samsung Galaxy S4

samsung.com

Screen size: 5 inches

At first one might mistake Samsung’s newest high-end entry for its predecessors; the dimension of the S4 are nearly identical to the older S3. But the similarity ends when you power up. It’s not just that the display is two-tenths of an inch larger; it’s the stunning 1920 x 1080 resolution. Couple that with a lightning-fast 1.9 GHz quad-core Snapdragon 600 CPU and 2 GB of RAM, and you have the hardware platform to support a truly advanced smartphone. 

Built on the Google Android 4.2.2 OS, the Samsung TouchWiz packs so many features into the user interface that there’s actually an Easy Mode for the casual phone consumer. On the other hand, power users will appreciate the everything-including-the-kitchen-sink capabilities. Herewith just a few: Smart Stay keeps the display active while you look at it; Multiwindow lets you run two apps at once; and Air View and Air Gesture let you preview and navigate e-mail, calendar entries and more by just hovering your finger over the screen. The powerful 13-megapixel camera performs well, enhanced by a handful of nifty special modes.

Pros Brilliant display, and loaded with innovative software

Cons Maybe too much of a good thing?

 

LG Optimus G Pro

lg.com

Screen size: 4.7 inches

LG has always been the bridesmaid when it comes to mobile phones, never quite making it into the top echelons of best-selling devices. The Optimus G Pro hopes to change that. It is certainly quick, with a quad-core Snapdragon Pro processor, and a 13-megapixel camera allowing for some seriously good photography. It also has some interesting features, such as a “wise ringtone” that detects when you are in a noisy place and boosts the volume accordingly, and “quick memo,” which allows you to scribble a message on the screen with your finger. It is big – with a vibrant 4.7-inch display – light and slick, without challenging for any design awards. If you’re in the market for an oversized smartphone that isn’t in the pocket of every second person you meet, this could be for you.

Pros Very fast, good camera

Cons Not the most exciting phone on the market


Nokia Lumia 920

nokia.com

Screen size: 4.5 inches

Nokia’s flagship Lumia 920 handset was one of the biggest surprises of last year – not least because it is actually really, really good. It has been a long journey for the Finnish giant, which eventually opted to kill its in-house operating system, Symbian, in favor of Microsoft’s Windows Phone in 2011. The 4.7-inch Lumia 920 shows off just what a good decision that was. The big, vivid screen squeezes on lots of Microsoft’s “live tiles” – moving icons that display information from apps and contacts. As we have come to expect from Nokia, the Carl Zeiss lens is a big strength, allowing you to capture great stills and video. The 920 is fun, intuitive and fast, although, while the ambitious Windows Phone Store is growing, it still lags far behind popular Apple’s App Store and Google Play (the rebranded Android Market).

Pros Excellent operating system, market-leading camera

Cons Lack of apps

 

HTC One

htc.com

Screen size: 4.7 inches

After racing on to the smartphone scene towards the end of the last decade, HTC has had a relatively quiet couple of years. This could change with the new HTC One – an iPhone-inspired creation carved from a block of aluminum. It packs a 4.7-inch screen with a 1080p display the manufacturer claims is sharper than the iPhone 5’s. HTC has continued its relationship with Beats Audio, building two stereo speakers into the front of the unit, allowing for deep, rich audio playback. It packs a punch with a quad-core Snapdragon processor, and comes with the latest version of Android, so this should be an investment that lasts for some time. Its camera comes with all the bells and whistles you would expect of a high-end smartphone, but there are better ones out there.

Pros Great sound, excellent design

Cons There are better smartphone cameras on the market

 

ZTE Grand S

zte.com

Screen size: 5 inches

China’s ZTE is hoping to push beyond its national boundaries into the worldwide consumer sphere. Its Grand S phone is as solid as they come, crammed with hardware that makes most smartphones look clunky. It comes with a quad-core 1.7GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon Pro processor (which is very fast), has 2GB of RAM and a five-inch 1080p screen. It also packs a 13-megapixel camera with LED flash, putting it on par with other top-tier smartphones. However, early signs suggest battery life could be an issue and, while it looks solid enough, it isn’t going to be inspiring the product designers of tomorrow. This is a beast of a phone – far more powerful than most people need – and, in truth, probably one for real tech-heads who want to stand out from the crowd.

Pros Top-level hardware

Cons Questions over battery life

 

Huawei

ASCEND D2

huawei.com

Screen size: 5 inches

Possible US roll out in summer

Chinese giant Huawei has been threatening to make a push into the Western smartphone sphere for some time now, and the D2 looks set to be part of it. Unveiled in January, it follows the trend towards gigantic screens, with a five-inch super-retina display with bright colors and dark blacks. It squeezes in a 13-megapixel camera with what is described as the highest ISO sensitivity on the market, meaning you should be able to take lots of nice pictures even when it is pretty dark. It is water resistant and looks the part, too, with an aluminum body and metal outer frame, although the choice of colors (white or pale blue) are a bit disappointing. A Huawei deal with a major US carrier looks set to happen soon – if you’re an early adopter, keep your eye out for it. Huawei’s Ascend P2 was launched in February, and claims to be the fastest smartphone in the world. Progress is rapid.

Pros Solid build, superb screen

Cons Brand building awareness in US 


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