Some would argue that it has been a bit of a slow start to the year for Android phones. New flagship handsets from HTC, Samsung, and Sony haven’t quite produced the big technological leaps that some were expecting, and overall these latest Android phones have received a bit of a mixed response from the community.
Fortunately, the world of Android is full of other companies all vying for our attention, with some truly exceptional smartphones on the horizon. So, what’s worth keeping an eye on? Let’s find out.
Let’s start with the handset that we probably know the most about, the OnePlus One. The former Oppo development team has been very open about their “never settle” approach to hardware, and the new OnePlus One should fit the bill for those of you who have been waiting for a no-frills powerhouse handset. Not only that, but this will be the first handset to come with its own official version of CyanogenMod as the default operating system.
For hardware, the OnePlus One will feature the current top of the line quad-core Snapdragon 801 clocked at 2.5GHz, with a sped up 578MHz Adreno 330 GPU, compared with the 450MHz clock speed found in the Snapdragon 800. This is the same SoC found in the Galaxy S5, and also includes the eMMC 5.0 standard for faster flash storage speeds.
The OnePlus One also has a 5.5 inch IPS display with 1080p resolution, 3GB RAM, a 13 megapixel rear camera, a 3100 mAh battery accompanied by some “mystery” battery tech, and will come in 16GB and 64GB storage options. We haven’t had a look at the handset’s design or build materials yet, but there’s certainly a lot of tech packed in for less than $400.
Moving on to software. Anyone who has taken the effort to flash CyanogenMod in the past will have a good idea about what the OnePlus One experience will probably be like. However, for the fast majority of consumers this is their first chance to try out the tweaked Android distribution, and it could raise a few interesting questions for Google’s Android platform.
CyanogenMod’s minimal and clean experience should provide a compelling quick experience, when combined with the handset’s top of the line specs, but the ROM also has plenty of its own useful features to help it compete with the other big players. CyanogenMod comes with full theme support, FLAC audio, USB tethering, and overclocking features out of the box, plus many more. It’s going to be interesting to watch how CyanogenMod challenges the more established Android ecosystem.
The handset will come with the Android 4.4 KitKat based CyanogenMod 11 and will finally be unveiled later this month on 23rd April.
I don’t think we could mention top of the line hardware without looking forward to the upcoming LG G3. Last year’s LG G2 offered up high-end hardware at a much lower price than other premium smartphones, demonstrating that the manufacturer can do much more than produce midrange smartphones.
Alongside Samsung, LG is the other big name in mobile display technologies, it was the first to bring a QHD display (that’s 2560×1440 pixels) to the market, which could be making its way to the G3. Not only does the 5.5 inch display have an impressive 538 ppi, but the display comes in at just 1.21mm thick with an equally thin bezel of 1.2mm. LG already offers handsets with the biggest body-to-screen ration, so if you care about bezels, LG is certainly the company to watch. Although the various QHD display rumours haven’t quite panned out so far, bar the Oppo Find 7, LG has the technology to be one of the first.
LG has also been pushing the envelope with other media centric technology, the LG G2 was the first handset to offer up 192kHz audio. Speaking of media, the LG G3 is expected to feature a 16 megapixel camera, so we’ll probably see 4K video recording come as standard this time.
Rumour has it that the LG G3 will show up around May or June, which matches up nicely with the expected arrival of the first Snapdragon 805 powered smartphones. The Snapdragon 805 features new Krait 450 CPU cores, clocked at 2.5GHz, a new Adreno 420 GPU and double the memory bandwidth of the Snapdragon 800. If this pans out, LG will have one of the fastest smartphones on the market, offering up a bigger generational performance leap than the Galaxy S5, One (M8), or Xperia Z2.
If LG comes up with another really top notch piece of tech with another very reasonable price tag, the company could really shake up the market. Especially given the mediocre and mixed receptions of the Samsung Galaxy S5 and HTC One (M8).
LG G2 Flex
Sticking with LG, the company is not only working on its QHD display technology, but it’s also one of the leading manufacturers of flexible displays too. Although the original LG G Flex may have had one or two minor flaws, it was a better proof of concept than the Samsung Galaxy Round. We were recently given some insight into LG’s plans for future flexible devices, which could make the G2 Flex a really compelling handset.
While Samsung is busying away with curved aesthetic designs, LG is planning to upgrade the performance of its own panels this time around, which means that we’re very likely to see a 1080p flexible device from LG at some point this year. This would address our only real complaint about the original G Flex, the 720p screen. Other than that, the G Flex was a powerhouse of a smartphone, and with even beefier processors and better camera components heading our way later this year, the G2 Flex should be the first bendable smartphone to rival the plethora of rigid premium handsets.
Samsung Galaxy Note 4
Although the yearly unveiling of Samsung’s new Galaxy S flagship receives the most fanfare, the Galaxy Note series is often where Samsung really gets to flex its engineering muscles. The Note 3 was Samsung’s first Snapdragon 800 device and also made wider use of Samsung’s big.LITTLE octa-core processor, not forgetting the 3GB worth of RAM, so we’re anticipating big things from this year’s Note 4.
While the traditional September release date will make the Note 4 a little early for the newly announced Snapdragon 808 and 810 SoCs, which are expected in early 2015, the release window falls right behind the arrival of the new Qualcomm Snapdragon 805 SoCs. There’s even a rumor going around that Samsung’s is preparing its own 64-bit Exynos chip for some time near the end of 2014. If Samsung is going to launch such a chip, you can bet that the Note 4 would be where it debuts.
Ultra-high resolution displays might not be so necessary on 5 inch or smaller smartphones, but they make a lot more sense as we start to approach the 6 inch mark, or higher. Maybe the Note 4 will give us our first glimpse at Samsung’s Super AMOLED QHD resolution display that we keep hearing whispers of.
The Galaxy Note 4 is Samsung’s next chance to show off its technological achievements and it will no doubt be an industry leading device when it arrives later this year. The Note 4 is definitely one to watch.
The Moto X is still a tough handset to beat in the mid-tier smartphone market, and for that reason alone it’s exciting to see what Motorola will offer with its next generation design. Part of what made the original Moto X so good was its excellent combination of hardware and software features, without the need to go overboard with the specifications or the price tag. However, that doesn’t mean that it can’t offer up some serious competition to the other big players.
Hardware wise, the Moto X+1 name suggests that we’re looking at an incremental upgrade rather than a complete overhaul, so no Snapdragon 805 processors here, but that’s part of what makes the handset so exciting. While high-end tech may not be moving as quickly as we’d like, a lot of last generation’s technology is beginning to trickle down into the mid-range, see the new HTC Desire range.
While we don’t have any specs at this time, there’s a good chance that we’ll be looking at a quad-core processor this time around, perhaps something like the new Snapdragon 610, a boost to the existing 10 megapixel camera, and we might even see a 1080p display in the new Moto X+1. Although the Moto X isn’t about specs, the constant downward pressure on component prices could see the mid-range make a big leap forward this year.
We haven’t even mentioned potential improvements to the Moto X’s unique features. We recently heard rumors of a leather rather than wood back for the new device, so customization still seems to be key with the Moto X+1. It will also be interesting to see what Motorola does with Voice Commands, Google Now, and its other software features, now that it’s no longer associated with Google. Will Lenovo keep things close to the stock Android experience?
It’s likely that Motorola will be releasing a refresh of the Moto X sometime soon, the company has hinted at a late summer release date in the past.
This leaves us with the biggest potential game changer of them all, Project Ara. Although the device is still in its infancy, Project Ara’s modular design could completely reshape the way we think about smartphone upgrades and components.
For now, it’s difficult to gauge how well picking and choosing components would go down with the average consumers, who typically prefer products that just work out of the box. However, for us smartphone enthusiasts, Project Ara should allow us to keep up with innovations in smartphone technology and build our ideal devices, without having to fork out for a new handset every year.
For a recap, Ara’s modular design means that there are a limit number of slots available to assign components too. Each component can be placed in any slot that will accommodate it, and, providing that you’ve included the basic CPU and battery, you’re free to build whatever type of smartphone you’d like. Project Ara will ship with three different sized skeletons, each offering a different number of modules and layouts.
This means that owners would be free to change out components for whatever suits their budgets or needs. Fancy a better camera, you can just change out the camera module, or if you want to try out a heart rate monitor to help track your fitness, you can just pick on up and slot it in, and cracked screens can be replaced far more easily. The most recent images have also shown that users can opt for different display sizes with each skeleton, and can even customize the type of keyboards and number pads used on the front of their device.
There are also plans for an online shop for picking your parts and Google Play integration to come, which opens up potential for a whole new market in third party modules. Project Ara may still be quite a long way away from a consumer release, early 2015 is the current estimate, but there’s bag of potential here which will hopefully open up smartphone technology to people of all budgets and needs.
Have any of these handsets made their way onto your watch list? Which devices are you most looking forward to over the coming year?