Top 10 smartphone features that could be about to change

Posted Mar 6, 2016 by James Walker
Smartphones are one of the most quickly evolving areas of technology. With launches every year that make existing flagships obsolete overnight, it can be hard to keep track of the industry. Here's a list of the top 10 ways that smartphones are changing.
A selection of smartphones
A selection of smartphones
Philippe Huguen, AFP/File
10) Design
Smartphone design has changed dramatically over the past few years. Display sizes have shifted upwards as the popularity of "phablets" has increased and chassis styles slimmed down. This lets manufacturers put a larger display on a phone without dramatically increasing the overall size of the handset in the hand.
Flip phones, sliders and QWERTY keyboards have all been virtually eradicated in the course of the past decade. It may be hard to imagine a smartphone that deviates from the touchscreen-dominated approach of today but some popular elements of classic phone design could still return in the future.
A leaked render of the BlackBerry Venice Android phone via @evleaks. [Since officially launched as  ...
A leaked render of the BlackBerry Venice Android phone via @evleaks. [Since officially launched as "BlackBerry Priv"]
BlackBerry's Android flagship phone includes a sliding QWERTY keyboard, appealing to professionals and people who type for prolonged periods on their phone. Samsung quietly sells a range of Android-powered flip phones in its native Korea, indicating there is a demand for old-style handsets with modern features and operating systems.
Touchscreens have a fundamental flaw in that using the display obscures the content on it, potentially destroying a user experience concept. In the future, smartphones could move away from touchscreens entirely, embracing newer input systems like voice control and gestures.
The Samsung SM-W2016 Android flip phone in leaked images
The Samsung SM-W2016 Android flip phone in leaked images
However distant it sounds today, nobody expected the world would turn away from alphanumeric keypads as abruptly as it did when Apple unveiled the original iPhone. The technology industry changes at a much faster pace than others and what is cutting-edge one year can be outdated the next.
9) Displays
A smartphone's display is its most immediately obvious piece of hardware, dominating the front of the handset and representing the primary input and output device for interaction with apps and services.
Since the first smartphones of 2007 and 2008, screen sizes have steadily increased. General consumers have come to accept "phablets", once the reserve of mobile power users. Even former small-screen advocate Apple has accepted the shift in fashion, experiencing record sales as a consequence of making the iPhone 4.7-inches and launching a 5.5-inch "Plus" alternative.
The shift in size has also necessitated a rise in resolution. From 480p, the smartphone market has experienced a steady transition upwards through 720p, 1080p Full HD and 1440p 2K. Now, 4K screens are just beginning to appear, led by Sony's Z5 Premium late last year.
The Sony Xperia Z5  Z5 Compact and Z5 Premium
The Sony Xperia Z5, Z5 Compact and Z5 Premium
It's not all about resolution and physical dimensions though. With more pixels comes higher quality and better content scaling but these two specifications do not inherently mean a phone has a "good" display.
Panel types have progressed significantly as companies have sought to build screens that pop with vibrant colour and disappear into invisible blacks. High-end phones are moving towards OLED and AMOLED displays, creating sharper, more vivid pictures and using less power in the process.
We're in a touchscreen-dominated era of phone design so having an impressive display is one of the most important features a handset can possess. Otherwise, people are likely to dismiss it immediately as washed out colours and grainy greys can ruin movies, games and the overall appearance of the entire phone.
8) Cameras
Similarly to the display, a smartphone's camera is its most important component to many consumers. Mobile photography has driven a unprecedented increase in the number of photos taken each day, giving everyone a capable camera in their pocket.
Modern smartphones are capable of producing photos of comparable quality to DSLRs. In some cases, they can exceed the performance of dedicated cameras. For many consumers, their only camera is the one on the back of their smartphone.
Microsoft Lumia 950 XL press image
Microsoft Lumia 950 XL press image
A good camera is now an essential piece of a handset if it is to be successful in the market. Manufacturers are using several different approaches to set their optics apart from the crowd, ranging from optical zooms, image stabilization and wider lenses to unique software features, image processing algorithms and editing suites.
The megapixel race is now over and most companies are instead focusing on improving pure image quality. This year, Samsung made the unusual move of reducing the megapixel count of its flagship smartphone, replacing the Galaxy S6's 16-megapixel sensor with a 12-megapixel one in the S7. What users lose in resolution they gain in overall quality: less pixels means more light to each one and a brighter, clearer picture.
In the future, more manufacturers are likely to adopt this approach, refining the lens system to get more light onto the sensor rather than going all-out to put a large megapixel number on the spec sheet.
This also saves storage space, giving companies another reason to declare a truce in the megapixel war. There are few negative consequences for the user as most consumers will never see their 16-megapixel photo at its full resolution anyway, instead viewing it at a resolution close to 2-megapixels on their phone's display.
7) Battery
More powerful processors, larger displays and new customisation options all lead to increases in battery consumption. In recent years, battery technology has struggled to keep up with these developments in performance though. Manufacturers have placed an emphasis on stylish designs that sacrifice a big battery for a thin chassis, creating phones that can only just survive a day's usage.
Batteries are beginning to catch up though, helped by larger capacities and new fast charging options. Last year, Chinese brand Oukitel unveiled a smartphone with a 10,000mAh battery, enough for a typical user to complete an entire five-day working week on a single charge.
The Oukitel K10000
The Oukitel K10000
Oukitel via GearBest
Charging technology is also seeing improvements. Qualcomm's Quick Charge 3.0 technology, available in many of this year's high-end devices, can provide 80 percent charge in around half an hour. At Mobile World Congress this year, Chinese brand Oppo demonstrated an even faster system, fully charging a 2,500mAh battery in just 15 minutes.
The way in which we charge devices is changing too. Wireless charging is now available in many mid-range phones, opening it up to a much wider group of consumers. Charging pads are becoming more efficient and wirelessly charging a phone shouldn't take much longer than using a cable within the next few years.
The Nokia DT-903 wireless charger
The Nokia DT-903 wireless charger
Combined, these improvements in battery tech will make smartphones more mobile, letting you go for longer without a charge and spend less time waiting for battery icons to reach 100 percent in the morning.
6) Connectivity
With 4G and the current incarnation of Wi-Fi now several years into their life, next-generation alternatives are already under development for integration into smartphones over the next few years.
The advent of 5G, set to launch commercially in cities worldwide within the next four years, will dramatically boost the theoretical transfer speed of mobile data. 5G will make 1Gbps a reality and early tests of the technology have resulted in as much as 800Gbps in laboratory conditions. In comparison, existing 4G LTE peaks at 100Mbps.
People using smartphones.
People using smartphones.
David van der Mar
5G also has much greater bandwidth than current 4G networks, letting providers service more devices at one time without users noticing a slowdown due to overloading. This ensures that the millions of Internet of Things devices expected to be connected in the next decade won't negatively impact the performance of mobile data on smartphones and tablets.
When 5G networks launch, you'll be able to do even more on the go without waiting for downloads to complete. Downloading Full HD movies will take less than a minute and your smartphone's Internet connection will probably be faster than your broadband at home. Your smartphone will become a more capable tool than ever, letting you access the wealth of multimedia on the Internet within seconds of launching a browser.
5) Security
Passwords and PIN codes are beginning to lose their position as the authentication method of choice on modern smartphones. New innovations based around biometric technologies make it quicker and simpler to unlock phones while including more security than typing a long string of characters can provide.
Touch ID on the iPhone 5S
Touch ID on the iPhone 5S
Kārlis Dambrāns
Fingerprint sensors are now common on high-end phones and have started to trickle down to the mid-range. The technology has improved significantly over the past few years, leading to more accurate sensors that only require a quick tap to recognise and authenticate a user.
Apple's latest version of Touch ID, included with the iPhone 6S, was even criticized by some reviewers for being too fast. The sensor is so accurate that it can skip the lock-screen entirely, preventing users from checking their notifications while unlocking their phone.
Windows Hello on Windows 10 will log users in instantly with biometric authentication of their finge...
Windows Hello on Windows 10 will log users in instantly with biometric authentication of their fingerprint, iris or face
© Microsoft Windows
Fingerprint recognition isn't the only biometric authentication technique in use today. Facial systems, such as iris scanning and characteristic detection, are also becoming more widespread, giving consumers a choice of fast and convenient protection methods with more security than a PIN or password.
4) Apps
Apps have revolutionised the way in which people work, play and communicate. Although the concept of an "app" is nothing new, the idea of an app store became popular with the launch of Apple's App Store and Google's Android Market, now Google Play.
Before smartphones, a mobile phone largely did what it said on the box. The only "apps" were Java applets that could be downloaded from the first online stores. Sites like GetJar may be forgotten now but they played an important role in helping people realise that a phone's software can be extended to include extra functionality.
There are millions of smartphone apps available today. They make each person's phone unique, letting users keep in touch with friends, stay up to date with the news, stream films and music and customise their phone's software.
It's possible that apps may become less important in future devices though. Despite being useful today, the app model can be quite restrictively limiting to developers and users. Some mobile operating systems are already de-emphasizing the role of apps, integrating third-party services into the phone's core instead.
Ubuntu Phone favours its own "Scopes" over apps. Unlike apps, Scopes integrate themselves into Ubuntu's interface, letting users swipe between panes from the home-screen to see related data from all their installed services on one screen. Unlike traditional apps, scopes are able to communicate with each other and the OS, providing a more seamless experience for the user.
In the case of the popular Music scope, you can access content from all your music apps with just a swipe from the homescreen. You'll see Spotify, Soundcloud and system audio controls in one place, giving you complete access to your music collection. The Social scope integrates Facebook, Twitter and any other related installed services into a single pane, letting you manage all your connections with friends from one place.
The approach is very different to that of the compartmentalized apps of iOS and Android. Instead of living in a static drawer, kept hidden in a grid until you open them, the "apps" of Ubuntu Phone surround you all the time and embed themselves into the phone's interface. The result is deeper integration and more similarities to desktop multitasking than mobile apps.
Ubuntu Phone may have a tiny share of the market but its vision of mobile software could become more prominent in the future. As consumers become disillusioned by waves of new apps to keep in their ever-growing app drawer, alternative solutions may become more popular as phones refocus on their operating system again.
3) Virtual reality
Virtual reality headsets have been around for a few years now but are only just becoming available for public sale. So far, these devices have largely fallen into one of two different camps: a gaming peripheral or smartphone accessory.
It is perhaps the latter of these two usages that is the most interesting, due to the wider audience involved. Headsets such as the Samsung Gear VR and Google Cardboard are comparatively affordable and can transform an ordinary smartphone into a portal to another world.
The headset and Samsung phone used for the Samsung Gear VR
The headset and Samsung phone used for the Samsung Gear VR
The number of virtual reality apps available for Android is growing, ranging from immersive games and 360-degree videos to educational content and tours of cities from around the world. By slotting your phone into a headset, you can experience new places from the comfort of your own home, a new form of digital media that content creators are still exploring and evaluating.
In this scenario, a smartphone is evolving into a gateway, the only prerequisite for flying through space or navigating the waters of a coral reef. For the manufacturers, virtual reality is a new standout feature and one that many are keen to capitalise on. Google is thought to be expanding support for VR in this year's Android N release, opening the door to even more opportunities powered by the smartphone you already own.
2) PC in your pocket
A smartphone is now more than a simple communication tool. It acts as a central hub for your digital life, the gatekeeper to your online accounts with two-factor authentication, the storage location for your photos, conversations and memories and the centre of your weekend entertainment with music, movies and games.
Manufacturers are working to let a smartphone do even more though. Innovations like Microsoft's Continuum on Windows 10 Mobile and Canonical's Convergence between Ubuntu and Ubuntu Phone demonstrate that the smartphone can be much more than a 5-inch slab of metal and glass.
Continuum on Windows 10 Mobile - when connected to a display  the phone powers a Windows 10 desktop ...
Continuum on Windows 10 Mobile - when connected to a display, the phone powers a Windows 10 desktop experience via a dock
Microsoft October 2015 Live Event
Continuum is perhaps the most striking demonstration of this so far. Using a phone's single USB Type-C port, a monitor, keyboard and mouse can be connected. The Windows interface transforms to resemble full Windows 10 on the second screen, letting the user work with Universal apps like Office in their desktop views.
Canonical is building a similar thing with Convergence, letting owners of Ubuntu phones access full PC features on the go including desktop apps and rich multitasking and file management. The two giants of the smartphone world, Apple and Google, are also working on bringing PC features to phones. Android is slowly gaining support for native split-screen apps while the Handoff feature in iOS and Mac OS X lets Apple customers pick up on their phone exactly where they left on their PC.
The Meizu PRO 5 Ubuntu Edition
The Meizu PRO 5 Ubuntu Edition
Canonical / Meizu
All of these implementations of the "PC in your pocket" idea are currently limited at best but the concept is now more fully fledged than it has ever been. A smartphone may soon be the only device a consumer needs, adapting to whichever display and input device it is connected to and resizing content appropriately.
1) Experiences
All of the developments explored so far add up to provide one thing: a rich user experience built around content and communication. More than ever, smartphones are designed to make their user happy, productive and more mobile, letting them access new experiences in ways never seen before.
Samsung Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 edge announced 21/02/2016
Samsung Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 edge announced 21/02/2016
Apps have opened the door to a revolution in mobile working, making businesses more productive on the go and individuals less likely to require multiple devices in their life. Within the next few years, the increasing availability of virtual reality headsets will deliver a whole new world of experiences to smartphone users, letting people visit places across the world and feel immersed in the foreign atmosphere.
For many, there's more to a phone today than its metal, glass and plastic. It’s a tool that has entered every area of life, helping with learning, entertainment, research, media, work, news and photography. In the future, a 5-inch handset will be able to do even more, even if it won't necessarily look or feel like the devices of today. Your phone will provide you with even more opportunities while still fitting in your pocket and sticking to its original purpose: letting you talk while on the go.
The future of smartphones
This list is just a small selection of the new features, developments and technologies that are beginning to become available in mainstream smartphones. At the current rate of change, they may all be considered out-of-date or a passing fad in just a few years' time, such is the nature of this fast-paced area of consumer technology.
Disagree with our ordering, or have something to add? Voice your opinion in the comments section below!