In 2013, a high-end smartphone should have a full-HD 5-inch screen and a 13-megapixel camera to remain competitive, if products launched at International CES in Las Vegas this week are an indication of the state of the art for mobile devices.
CES may not be a mecca for new smartphones, but this year's show offered interesting products from Sony, ZTE and Huawei, which underlined some of the hardware trends from the end of last year, including the move to full-HD 5-inch screens.
Even though the smartphones introduced at CES are similar in many respects, vendors are trying to find ways to differentiate their products. For example, Huawei's Ascend D2 has a 3000 mAh battery; Sony's Xperia Z uses HDR (High Dynamic Range) for video as well as photography and ZTE's Grand S is only 6.9mm thick.
Here are five of the main trends:
Full-HD 5-inch screens
Following the footsteps of the HTC Droid DNA, also know as Butterfly, Sony's Xperia Z, Huawei's Ascend D2 and ZTE's Grand S all have 5-inch screens with a 1920-by-1080-pixel resolution.
In addition, Alcatel One Touch and Vizio also presented full-HD 5-inch smartphones in Las Vegas.
Bigger screens and higher resolutions have been among the main features highlighted by vendors to convince consumers to buy a new device, and the success of the Samsung Electronics Galaxy Note family has shown that there is users interest. The original Galaxy Note has a 5.3-inch screen and its successor, the Note II, has a 5.5-inch screen.
At CES, Huawei also launched the Ascend Mate, which has a 6.1-inch display. But the screen's resolution is only 1280-by-720 pixels.
The one worry with a bigger screen and more pixels is shorter battery life, and the Droid DNA has been getting mixed reviews in that regard. The Xperia Z and the Ascend D2 both have bigger batteries than the HTC smartphone, at 2,330 mAh and 3,000 mAh compared to the Droid DNA's 2020 mAh.
Smartphone vendors appear to be going all-in with quad-core processors this year.
The Xperia Z and the Grand S are both powered by a Snapdragon S4 Pro processor from Qualcomm, while Huawei chose to rely on a quad-core processor developed in-house for the Ascend D2.
The processor makers were also busy at CES: Qualcomm, Nvidia and ST-Ericsson all launched quad-core processors.
Qualcomm's Snapdragon 800 processors will offer up to 75% better performance than the Snapdragon S4 Pro. The processors also have integrated support for LTE and 802.11ac, the company said. The first smartphones based on the processors will start shipping during the second half of the year.
Qualcomm's processor will compete with Nvidia's Tegra 4, which is the first quad-core processor to use ARM's Cortex-A15 design. The Cortex-A15 is already used in the Nexus 10 tablet, in a version with two cores.
The combination of a big high-resolution screen with a quad-core processor doesn't bode well for battery life. But, in addition to equipping their smartphones with larger batteries, Sony and Huawei have also implemented battery-saving features to extend it.
Sony's Battery Stamina mode improves standby time by automatically shutting down battery-draining apps whenever the screen is off and starting them up again when the screen is back on. The more applications a user has installed, the bigger the effect of the feature, according to Sony.
Huawei lowers battery consumption by automatically turning off the transmitter circuit when data transmission is not in use to keep the Ascend D2 going for longer, it said.
Protection against dust and water
Sony and Huawei are also hoping to convince users to pick their new models over competing products by offering protection against dust and water.
Provided that all ports and covers are firmly closed, the Xperia Z is protected against "low pressure jets of water from all practicable directions, and can be kept under one metre of freshwater for up to 30 minutes," the company said.
The Ascend D2 has a lower level of water protection, but it can still withstand water sprayed against the device.
Sony and Huawei aren't the first vendors to add protection against dust and water. For example, Panasonic launched the Eluga smartphone at Mobile World Congress last year, in a bid to break into European market that ultimately failed. Whether dust and water protection becomes a feature that will catch on among users remains to be seen.
The new phones from Sony, Huawei and ZTE also share the same camera resolution; all three have a rear-facing camera with a 13-megapixel resolution.
The Xperia Z and Grand S also have a two-megapixel camera on the front, which allows users to shoot video at 1080p.
As mentioned above, Sony has implemented HDR for both video and still images on its new flagship phone. With HDR, the camera captures the same image at different exposure levels and layers them to create one optimised end-result, according to Sony. The technology allows users to shoot video clips in front of a window or when the sun is directly behind the subject, the company said.
Users of the Sony smartphone can also take pictures while shooting a video, and there is a burst mode for taking 10 pictures per second at a nine-megapixel resolution, which can be continued until there is no more storage.
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