5 Features That Will Reshape Phones
by Ryan Whitwam
It’s been ten years since smartphones were re-imagined by Apple as a mainstream device, and now everyone has them. It’s about time for some big changes, though. The first round of 2017 flagship phone releases is behind us, and we’re starting to see some interesting trends. The shape of phone screens is changing, charging is getting better, and the way you listen to music could soon be different, like it or not.
New Screen Ratios
Almost every smartphone in the last decade has used a 16:9 screen ratio, but it’s about time for that to change. A taller screen ratio can more effectively use the surface area and make a phone more comfortable to hold. We’ve already seen two examples of this, and there will be a lot more in the coming year.
You need only look at the LG G6 and Galaxy S8 to see a glimpse of the future. Year after year, we’ve seen that people gravitate toward phones with larger screens. However, there’s an upper limit how big a phone can be when it’s 16:9. Past six or so inches, they just become very difficult to hold in one hand. A taller screen like the G6’s 18:9 panel is comparatively narrow, while still having a large diagonal measurement. A taller screen also makes sense when viewing vertically scrollable content like web pages.
Most apps on Android will tolerate the change just fine. Currently, some apps render a little oddly, but that will go away as taller ratios become the norm. As more OEMs ape Samsung, you will see phones shift to these taller screens that use more of the available surface area. Bigger screens, smaller phones. Hard to argue with that.
In-Display Fingerprint Sensors
Along with the trend toward taller screens, OEMs are going to scramble to perfect in-display fingerprint sensors. When you take up the entire front of a phone with the display, that limits where you can put the fingerprint sensor. You’re looking at either the back or inside the display. That’s really been the dream for a long time, and it may be a reality sooner than you think.
Samsung has been rumored to be working on in-display fingerprint sensors for years — almost as long as an iris scanner, which finally debuted last year. This feature would let you unlock the screen by pressing the display in a certain location. Samsung is already halfway there with the pressure-sensitive region on the GS8’s display.
Samsung might not be the first to market, though. Apple is also reportedly investigating fingerprint sensors inside displays. Some other company could also unveil the necessary technology, for instance Qualcomm or Intel.
Faster Fast Charging
Advances in battery technology have been slow to arrive — most flagship phones top out around 3,000–3,500mAh. However, one thing that has been improving every year is how fast we can recharge those batteries. Qualcomm started certifying devices for Quick Charge back in 2013, and now we’re on the verge of Quick Charge 4.0, which will be 2.5 times faster than the original version.
Perhaps the biggest impact on how we charge our phones in the next year with be thanks to the USB power delivery spec (USB-PD). Google started using the USB-PD spec to fast charge Nexus and Pixel phones because it’s fully compliant with the USB Type-C spec at 5V/3A. Quick Charge, on the other hand, was not.
After Google told device makers to avoid Quick Charge for future devices, Qualcomm updated its plans for QC 4.0 to make it compatible with USB-PD. That means QC 4.0 won’t mess with the Vbus voltage to increase charging rates. Instead, it boosts the current to increase charge speeds. That should mean more consistent, faster charging across devices as QC 4.0 and USB-PD continue rolling out.
While the value of virtual reality in smartphones is still dubious, it’s a feature everyone seems interested in implementing. Samsung has Gear VR, while other Android OEMs can use Google’s Daydream platform. Whatever the platform, all VR-capable devices need a high-resolution AMOLED display.
Only OLED technology is fast enough to offer lag-free virtual reality. A 1440p screen might look fine in daily use, but you can see those pixels in VR. That’s why OEMs are still trying to push display resolution beyond the point it’ll make a difference to the naked eye. A 4K phone screen might not look better than a 1440p one, unless you strap it to your face.
The increased demand for AMOLED panels is probably going to drive a shortage, especially considering Apple’s rumored use of an AMOLED in the upcoming iPhone refresh. You can expect some mid-range phones that might otherwise have moved to AMOLED to stick with LCD. High-end phones might start shipping with 4K AMOLEDs in the coming years, but I would not be surprised if the standard phone UI was still rendered at 1440p or 1080p to save power.
No Headphone Jacks (Sorry)
I think 2017 is the beginning of the end for the headphone jack. A few phones came out in 2016 with no 3.5mm jacks, but the trend is continuing this year. We’re going to reach a critical mass soon enough, and you’ll no longer be able to assume your next phone will have a plug for your headphones.
Instead of the headphone jack, we’ll have to make do with USB Type-C ports on Android phones. Apple has already made the move to Lightning only, of course. Type-C is a versatile port that can operate in an accessory mode with a 3.5mm adapter. Still, that’s another cable to carry around and lose. You could also conceivably have a splitter that lets you charge and listen to audio at the same time. Again, that’s another thing to lose.
The next iteration of Bluetooth includes some cool user-facing features that might help dull the pain of losing your headphone jack. It supports multiple audio devices, has longer range, and includes more robust data transmission.
So, hold on. The next couple of years could be a bumpy ride.
Originally published at www.extremetech.com on June 19, 2017.