Smartphones In 2014: What Should We Expect?

Sure, today's products are shiny, but as soon as you take them out of the box these days, they're out of date. So let's look into the crystal ball to see what we can look forward to in the next 12 months when it comes to sexy smartphone tech. UPDATED!

Main image: Shutterstock

The Usual Suspects

There are certain smartphone releases you can set your smartwatch by. These are the usual suspects, and what they'll likely be packing.

Samsung

Samsung has two phone models that get refreshed pretty much every year: the Galaxy Note line and the Galaxy S line.

2013 saw the release of the slimmer, sexier Galaxy S4, which actually took a few design cues from 2012's Galaxy Note II. It packed a slimmer bezel, more rounded home button and a patterned plastic back. That's an interesting trend to start, especially when you consider that this year's Galaxy Note 3 is the first to ditch the all-plastic design in favour of more premium leather material on the rear of the device, complete with beautiful matching stitching. If Samsung continues to field Note-design features on the Galaxy S series, then we're in for a treat in 2014.

Will we see the new models as early as March's Mobile World Congress event in Barcelona? Time will tell -- but some speculation has the S5 wielding a 2K screen, 2.5GHz Snapdragon 800 processor and Android 4.4 KitKat. A 'Galaxy F' variant could included an aluminum shell.

The South Korean manufacturer also has curved screens, with the Galaxy Round making its debut in Samsung's home market recently. It's likely that this device will feature elsewhere around the world in early- to mid-2014.

For 2015, Samsung also insists that the displays of its devices will be foldable. And we've seen the company experiment with three-sided wraparound phone display concepts. Here's how they would work.

Apple

In 2013 we saw the iPhone 5s, and the new unit in the fold: the iPhone 5c.

Apple’s release cycle for smartphones goes on a tick-tock basis. One year we have a tick, the next we get a tock. Watch: iPhone 3G (tick). iPhone 3GS (tock). iPhone 4 (tick). iPhone 4S (tock), iPhone 5 (tick). iPhone 5s and iPhone 5c (tock). Next year will probably be the same. And if you bought into tick, it probably doesn’t make sense to upgrade on tock.

2014 will likely be a tick-cycle, which in plain English means a likely design refresh over the 4-inch unibody aluminium device we've come to know. Rumours are currently swirling that the new model will be a 5-inch device, designed to keep up with the ongoing smartphone resolution race kicked off by phablets from Samsung and Sony.

Nokia

Supposedly, Nokia may still be working on an Android phone for next year, despite Microsoft’s purchase of Nokia’s phone business (which itself isn't expected to be finalised until early 2014). Incidentally, that only includes a 10-year license to use the Nokia brand in relation to phones. Nokia will continue to operate its other businesses, including mapping and network equipment.

Will we see a Surface phone at CES in January or Mobile World Congress in February? How would it compete with the suave Lumia 1520 phablet? In the meantime, expect iterative Lumia updates like the Lumia 525 and Lumia 929 with beefed up specs.

Meanwhile, Nokia definitely has great R&D (witness the camera on the Lumia 1020) -- and continues to explore extremes like self-driving cars and phones that charge using lightning.

BlackBerry

Beleagured handset maker BlackBerry might be down, but it's certainly not out. Not yet anyway. 2013 saw the company renew its commitment to a come-back with the BlackBerry Z30: the largest touchscreen phone in the history of the company.

BlackBerry has informed us that it's not about to go anywhere when it comes to innovation, building on its frankly excellent BlackBerry 10 platform to create phones for productivity and consumer needs, complete with big batteries and sexy screens.

The handset maker is currently facing a buyout, but that is unlikely to effect the ongoing development of smartphones into 2014.

Sony

The magic had been gone from Sony for so long, we were surprised when we saw the positively brilliant Sony Xperia Z and its 2013 follow-ups, the Z1, Z Ultra and 4.3-inch Xperia Z1F.

Sony in 2014 will be about borrowing engineers from its various business units -- sound, display, entertainment and imaging -- to make the best phones possible, leveraging on its expertise in multiple areas.

We saw that with the excellent Sony Xperia Z1, which had engineers from multiple Sony teams working on various components, including the amazing 20.3-megapixel camera module which takes better low-light photos than ever before.

Meanwhile the Japanese giant is rumoured to be working on the Xperia Z2 'Avatar' -- complete with 4K screen and 20.7MP Sony G lens camera. It's also reportedly looking at the latest Qi Standard to theoretically wirelessly charge devices in just an hour. Expect big things from Sony in 2014

LG

LG is a quiet achiever when it comes to smartphones, plugging away behind the scenes to make some truly excellent models. The LG Nexus 5 was just voted by Gizmodo Australia readers as the best smartphone of 2013.

You may also remember that LG recently launched the G Flex in Asia -- a banana-shaped phone that makes use of a curved OLED screen. While the curved display of the LG G Flex smartphone may be little more than a novelty, the smartphone’s true innovation looks as if it sits elsewhere within its frame — it’s “self-healing cover”.

It all bodes well for next year's sequel to the LG's G2.

HTC

HTC returned to fine form in 2013 with the unibody HTC One. We've also seen the larger HTC One Max since then. Next year? The HTC One 2 (aka HTC M8) will be the one to watch around February/March. Rumoured specs include a Snapdragon 800 processor, 4MP Ultrapixel camera and a 5-inch 1080p display.

Motorola / Google

You can bet there will be a Nexus 6 phone, though it may not ultimately be called that. We're creeping into confusion territory with Nexus 7 tablet and Blade Runner's Tyrell Corporation Nexus-6 replicants. Question is: will the sequel to the Nexus 5 be made by LG again?

Meanwhile, Google-owned Motorola may be exploring markets outside the US for the Moto X. Even more exciting: Motorola also wants to build an Android phone with modular hardware.

Screen Size

Size does matter, especially when it comes to smartphones and tablets. The term "phablet" has been shed, in favour of the new status quo of larger, more fully-featured devices and screens.

The iPhone 5s and iPhone 5c are now two of the smallest premium devices on the market at a mere 4-inches in size (measured diagonally). Compare that to some of the largest devices in the market, especially when it comes to Android smartphones, and it's left in the dust by the perhaps too-large Sony Xperia Z Ultra. That device measures a crazy 6.4-inches diagonally, packing a beautiful 1920x1080, or 1080p HD, display: the sort of panel that displays content beautifully.

The Galaxy Note is the original "phablet", and has slowly been increasing in size and resolution over the years. The latest device in the family -- the Galaxy Note 3 -- measures 5.7-inches diagonally. That's a .2 inch increase on last year's model, and the embodiment of a trend we can see continuing into 2014: screens will get bigger, even if the increase is ever so slight.

In the second half of 2013 alone we saw: The 6-inch Nokia Lumia 1520, 5.9-inch HTC One Max, 5.2-inch LG G2, 6.4-inch Sony Xperia Z Ultra, 5.7-inch Samsung Galaxy Note 3, 6.3-inch Samsung Galaxy Mega, 6.1-inch Huawei Mate, and the 6-inch Asus Fonepad Note FHD 6. The downside is, as you’d expect, phones get bulkier as screens get larger.

Screen Improvements

Of course, it's not just about the sheer size of a panel: it's how you use it.

With great screens comes great responsibility to increase not just the size of the panel, but also the resolution and the pixels per inch. Pixels per inch refers to just how many red, green and blue dots can be crammed into a square inch on a screen to make up your screen, while the resolution refers to just how many pixels are on the panel itself.

As screens get larger, screen tech continues to improve, with manufacturers packing more and more detail into each and every square inch. First there was Apple's Retina display, and moving forward we're likely to see more high-definition, 1080p panels than ever before. We're starting to see more of them on mid-range phones now, rather than just the high-end devices, plus the pixels per inch ratio continues to improve too.

We'll also see more premium panels in future, too. Rather than just big LCD screens, we're now seeing a trend towards AMOLED and even Super-AMOLED panels for better brightness, depth and colour. Expect more of those in future.

Of course, the best stuff in screen tech comes when manufacturers think outside the box. South Korean manufacturers LG and Samsung are both racing to get curved phones to market as their way of introducing the "next big things" in mobile technology. Samsung's Galaxy Round is the first curved device to be announced, with LG's still incoming.

If you can’t find a phone’s PPI readily available, you can find it by using this handy calculator -- just enter the phone’s screen size and its resolution, both of which you’ll find on any specs list.

Smartphone Processors

What is a phone without a brain? Well it's just a brick, isn't it? That's why the mobile thinking machine that is your smartphone's processor is only going to get better and better over the next 12 months. But will we have 16-cores?

Arm’s latest and greatest Cortex A53 and A57 chipset designs are coming in 2014. Designed for single core or multi-core configurations, the products made from these designs will be the first mobile chipsets to support 64-bit processing. This puts ARM in a prime strategic spot as tablet devices are popping up with the intention of replacing a laptop. Apple, Texas Instruments, NVIDIA, Samsung, and plenty of other companies use ARM's reference designs for their own CPUs.

Samsung is likely to debut 64-bit chips in its phones come-2014, after the debut of the 64-bit A7 chip from Apple landed inside the iPhone 5s this year. Soon after the Cupertino-launch, Samsung promised it was also working on 64-bit devices. Separately -- and only after some back and forth -- it's also likely Samsung will make Apple's A8 chips for 2014.

Samsung debuted the octa-core Exynos processor at the launch of the Galaxy S4. Engineers had to fragment the offering for the Galaxy line, however, with the Australian market getting the slower Snapdragon quad-core processor model in favour of 4G connectivity. It's a fair bet that the boffins will figure out a way to mount a 4G antenna onto the massive processor next year, too.

Intel continues to push into phones with its Silvermont architecture. By the time Mobile World Congress rolls around in 2014, 22nm 'Merrifield' chips, based on Silvermont, will further improve battery life and power and Intel's importance in mobile market. Meanwhile, Qualcomm is planning its move to 20nm manufacturing and developing mobile processors that learn like human brains, and that Nvidia work mentoned above will likely involve its ‘Project Logan’ next-gen Tegra 5 mobile graphics.

Further down the scale still, Intel has also unveiled its Quark processor family for applications like wearable computing. The Quark line of SoC, such such as the x1000 shown at IDF is reportedly a fifth the size of the current Intel Atom and consumes just 10 per cent of the power while boosting performance by over 30 per cent.

New Operating Systems

After arriving on the Nexus 5, Android 4.4 KitKat is the version of Google's mobile OS that Android owners have immediate hopes for. Beyond 4.X? Android 5 at Google I/O 2014 along with Glass? Who knows. Also tough: predicting if Windows Phone will actually leapfrog BlackBerry in marketshare next year. Especially if some tablets start using Windows Phone as an OS -- and if Microsoft’s Siri-like voice technology comes online sooner rather than later.

The other action to watch: The arrival of Firefox OS, Ubuntu Mobile and Amazon’s modified Android Fire OS should it release a smartphone. According to DigiTimes, Sony plans to launch its first Firefox-based smartphone in 2014, targeting the entry-level market. Huawei and LG are also on the record to deliver phones, with interest from Telstra and Optus so far.

However, Mozilla exec Mitchell Baker has more recently claimed the company is only focusing on developing nations. We'll soon see.

4G In Australia

When 4G was first offered in Australia, there was only one network worth considering: Telstra. Since then, other networks have picked up the 4G baton and run with it, leading to greater competition in the market between the nation’s three biggest telcos and a handful of mobile virtual network operators (MVNO).

Telstra’s committed to its 1800MHz 4G product right now and for the forseeable future. Between now and Christmas, Telstra has also pledged to roll-out 4G coverage to 85 per cent of the nation’s population. It’s also experimenting with a bunch of other technologies to make 4G faster, better and less congested. Telstra is set to add the 900MHz frequency band into its existing 4G network offerings to complement the 1800MHz spectrum it already has. That means less congestion and better coverage transition throughout the nation when it’s deployed.

The 900MHz part of the network will be used to improve coverage in rural areas, while improving what Telstra is calling “depth”. Presumably that means in-building signal penetration. Telstra plans to issue 4G device firmware updates where applicable to make hardware compatible with the new 900MHz network spectrum, while the telco works with Sierra Wireless as a hardware partner to issue a dedicated 900MHz device around the middle of the year. Devices like the Nokia Lumia 920 are already 900MHz-ready, while the BlackBerry Z10 and the Sony Xperia Z — coming soon — will be 900MHz ready out of the box, too.

Also on the 4G network, Telstra added that it would start trialling network technologies known as LTE-A (or LTE Advanced) and LTE-B (or LTE Broadcast). These are two technologies that Telstra is experimenting with for a future deployment, with the telco’s network execs saying that the company needed to understand these specifications for when they might be needed in future.

LTE-A is a system that lets the telco combine both 1800MHz and 900MHz spectrum to create one network stream. When someone moves deeper into a rural area, they shift from being on the larger spectrum over to the 900MHz spectrum to ensure consistent coverage. LTE-B, meanwhile, is designed for more effective video and media deployment around the network so that people watching or using media content doesn’t create a whole mess of congestion. Imagine for a moment 500 people all watching the same broadcast of a sports game over the 4G network on the same radio base station. With ordinary LTE, all of those users would be crushed under their own weight. On LTE-B, however, content is pushed to the tower to turn it into a broadcast-style system where the users would hook onto the one stream rather than consuming all of the tower’s network capacity. Telstra said this would have benefits for not just media broadcasts, but also machine-to-machine communications as well as files that need to be downloaded by a lot of folks at once.

Vodafone and Optus, however, are newer players in the market, and will spend their 2014 expanding their coverage footprints significantly to cover more users.

Optus is committed to rolling-out 4G coverage in other cities as soon as its 3G refarming operations are completed there first. Sydney, Newcastle, Gold Coast, Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide and Canberra all currently support Optus 4G, with the carrier gradually rolling-out the fast network to the rest of the nation later in the year.

Vodafone meanwhile is the latest player into the 4G arena, turning on its super-fast service in the last few months, almost two years behind other major players.

Vodafone’s killer feature is the amount of spectrum it has to play with in the market. The amount of contiguous spectrum you have available to customers equals the amount of head-room and therefore speed and capacity you’re able to offer on your network. Vodafone has double the contiguous spectrum when compared to other carriers, making its 4G faster in certain areas. Our tests of the 4G have found it can go up to 100Mbps in certain areas.

Telstra, Optus and TPG Internet have collectively parted with almost $2 billion to secure spectrum in the 700MHz and 2.5GHz bands. The digital spectrum auction, also known as the Digital Dividend by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) is the sell-off of spectrum once used for analogue TV services in Australia running in the 700MHz band, as well as the sell-off of spectrum in the 2.5GHz band. These services are to be used by telcos for 4G services going forward.

Having a bunch of contiguous spectrum is pretty advantageous for pushing out faster 4G services. Just ask Vodafone: its upcoming 4G network is running on 20MHz of contiguous spectrum and the results definitely speak for themselves. The Digital Dividend has been a secret, silent auction happening behind the scenes for the last few months, but finally the results have been announced. Telstra parted with a whopping $1.3 billion for spectrum, securing two 20 MHz spectrum blocks in the 700MHz band and two 40 MHz blocks in the 2.5GHz band. Optus was the second largest spender, parting with $649 million for two 10 MHz blocks in the 700MHz band and two 20MHZ spectrum blocks in the 2.5GHz band.

Check out our 4G Explained feature for more information.

Wearables

The must-have accessories for your phone in 2014 will be wearable. We're not talking Bluetooth headsets you strap to your head, but watches, glasses and other gadgets you can wear that will increase your immersion. Google Glass will become available as a companion for Android users in 2014, but based on existing prices of +$US1500, the gear won't be cheap.

What is cheaper is getting something similar, only for your wrist. Right now you can buy something like the Pebble Smart Watch, Galaxy Gear, or Sony SmartWatch 2 -- but in 2014, we may finally see that Apple iWatch finally come to fruition along with lots of competition.

We're likely to see a swathe of wearable gear next year at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, so stay tuned for new capabilities and new designs.

Emerging Tech

NFC: More phones will have NFC, but don’t expect digital wallets to become common place in Australia anytime soon. There remain too many hurdles. In 2014 at least, you’ll be more likely to use NFC to quickly tap-to-pair your phone with home entertainment devices or transfer files between phones.

Mobile Gaming: Better GPUs and CPUs coming? Check. Add in screen mirroring to TVs, built-in phone accelerometers for motion control and you’ve got a console in disguise in your pocket. Phone-based big screen TV gaming won’t replace your next-gen console, but we think it’ll probably also gain more popularity over time.

Dual Boot: Some reports suggest that Microsoft is courting Samsung, HTC and Huawei around dual-boot Android/Windows smartphones and tablets. Interesting.

Eye Tracking Gestures: We know this is a big push for laptops and tablets, but apparently Amazon is already investigating face and eye tracking for its rumoured upcoming smartphone.

Fingerprint Tech: Apple wasn’t the first to introduce biometric sensors on a phone. But now that it has, others will follow. The HTC One Max already has.

Wireless Charging: While certain phones (like key Nokia Lumia devices) support the Qi wireless charging standard, Samsung, Sony and Qualcomm have loaned their support to the competing Alliance for Wireless Power (AW4P) standard. There’s nothing like a standards war to slow things down in 2014.