What is your next phone going to look like? At the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, this week manufacturers are giving an idea.
Bigger, brighter, faster, more powerful. They'll do more but will be easier to use. If it's not an Apple, it's likely an Android, and all the smartphone makers are struggling to make their devices stand out among the hundreds of glass-plated rectangles out there.
So, for instance, Nokia introduced a phone with a 41-megapixel camera. That's not a typo. Forty-one megapixels. Samsung introduced a projector phone that lets you show a movie, play a game or give a business presentation in a 50-inch space on any white wall.
Fujitsu showed off phones that can be dropped in a bathtub or other porcelain fixture filled with water and come out just fine, thank you. And a Chinese company few Americans have heard of, Huawei, introduced the “world's fastest smartphone.”
With more than 1,400 exhibitors and 60,000 attendees, the Mobile World Congress has become one of the most important annual tech trade shows in the world, reflecting the rise of mobile computing. Top executives from Google, Microsoft, Cisco, Ford and Facebook were scheduled to speak.
Apple stayed home, because it can. The smartphone and the tablet, the now and future of mobile, were created with the iPhone and iPad. Why associate with all that Android riffraff?
And so, even though Microsoft was scheduled to debut a test version of Windows 8, devices powered by Google's Android operating system dominated—so much so, that Google developed an (Android) app to help attendees collect all 86 of the various Android-figure pins available at exhibitor booths.
Some trends are emerging in the best phones: Fast, quad-core processors; huge, brilliant screens of 4.5 to 4.7 inches and with greater resolution than the iPhone's vaunted Retina Display; 4G LTE high-speed data network capability; near-field communication, or NFC, which will enable a rollout of digital wallet technology later this year; and running the much-improved version 4.0 of Google's Android, also known as Ice Cream Sandwich.
A good example of this is HTC's One X smartphone, with a 1.5-GHz Nvidia Tegra 3 quad-core processor, a 4.7-inch, 1280x720-pixel touchscreen, 32 gigabytes of built-in storage, 1 GB of RAM, 4G LTE, NFC, an 8-megapixel camera capable of shooting 1080p high-definition video, and will run Android 4.0. The camera can be ready to take a photo in 0.7 seconds, and it's capable of continuous burst shooting with a 0.2-second autofocus. Oh, and it runs Dr. Dre Beats audio for great sound.
Clearly, at least from a hardware specifications standpoint, this and phones like it will be superior to the iPhone 4S. Apple will have some upgrading to do on the hardware side when it launches the iPhone 5.
There's also a separate trend of low-end smartphones, particularly the Windows phones, as Microsoft and Nokia team up to try to get a foothold in a market dominated by Apple and Android phones. There should be at least a few up-to-date, full-featured smartphones offered by wireless carriers for free by next fall with the standard two-year contract.
Now on to the unusual. Top of the list would have to be Nokia's 808 PureView smartphone with its 41-megapixel camera using Carl Zeiss optics. The PureView isn't much of a smartphone, running on the antiquated Symbian operating system, but it likely rivals a lot of digital cameras and happens to be a phone, too. While megapixels aren't everything to picture quality, sample photos have been stunning. Nokia promises a Windows Phone version of the device is coming.
Samsung's Galaxy Beam brings projection to the masses. It's even OK as an Android smartphone, and is only about a half-inch thick in spite of housing a bulb big enough to project anything from its 800x480-pixel screen for up to three hours. Need to entertain a bunch of kids with SpongeBob? Find a wall.
Fujitsu's phones have a waterproof seal on the battery case and are leakage protected to about a 5-foot depth, which should be good enough to protect against bathroom accidents. The phones will be offered late this year in Europe, but the company is still looking for a U.S. carrier.
China's Huawei is no stranger to mobile devices, but the brand is unknown in the U.S. The company has made some low-end “white-label” phones sold by carriers here, but now it wants a bigger piece of the market, and the credit.
The company showed a series of Android phones, including the Ascend Quad D, which uses the company's own quad-core chip that it claims runs faster than Nvidia's Tegra 3, making the phone the “fastest smartphone in the world.” Other specs are in the same class as the HTC One X, and hands-on reviewers have been impressed by their performance. If they're successful in finding a carrier, look for them in the U.S. later this year.