Smartwatches, software, and Android L may have been grabbing all the headlines recently, but smartphone hardware is also poised for its own shakeup in the not-too-distant future.
Handset manufacturers have been attempting to keep stagnation at bay with water resistance devices, new build materials, and various gimmicks this generation, but late-2014 and 2015 flagships could take us back to a more traditional hardware arms race.
Snapdragon 808 and 810 – ARMv8, 4K video, and faster data
We’ll start with something quite close on the calendar, the next generation of mobile processors.
One complaint that can be leveled at the current generation of flagship devices is that they haven’t given us any major boosts in processing performance. In terms of CPU processing power, nothing changed from the Snapdragon 800 to 801, and even the Snapdragon 805, which is starting to appear in a small number of high-end smartphones, only offers up a slight boost in graphics performance.
One complaint that can be levelled at the current generation of flagship devices is that they haven’t given us any major boosts in processing performance
Fortunately, the drought in Android CPU advancements is coming to an end, as the new Cortex-A50 range and ARMv8 architecture is almost upon us. Some of the first fully integrated SoCs to utilize this new CPU core technology will be the Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 and 810 SoCs, which will arrive towards the end of the year. As with this generation, we can expect a large number of next-gen flagship phones to make exclusive use of Qualcomm’s processors.
The new Snapdragon processors will be dropping Qualcomm’s modified Krait architecture to make way for ARM’s big.LITTLE technology and ARMv8 architecture, which is likely destined to arrive on tablets first. If you want to learn about what to expect from ARM’s new processor designs, we’ll have a more indepth look soon. The Snapdragon 808 will be a six core beast, with dual-core Cortex A57’s for high end performance and four lower power Cortex A53 cores for improved energy efficiency. The chip will also come with an Adreno 418 GPU, which falls just behind the Adreno 420 graphics chip found in the Snapdragon 805.
The Snapdragon 810 is an even more powerful piece of kit, with four Cortex-A57 cores and four Cortex-A53 cores running in a big.LITTLE configuration. The 810 will also feature a beefed up GPU, the Adreno 430. Performance and energy efficiency will also receive another boost as Qualcomm moves production over to the smaller 20nm manufacturing process. This is notable considering Qualcomm’s Snapdragon processors have been stuck on 28nm for a number of years.
Qualcomm is not just known for providing high performance processors, the company sees such wide adoption of its SoCs because it provides integrated solutions for modems and digital signal processing, which is useful for image and video processing. With the Snapdragon 808 and 810, Qualcomm will be bringing over its new CAT 6 LTE-A compatible modem to the new chip designs, which will allow for theoretical peak data speeds of 300 Mbps, through 3x20MHz carrier aggregation. This technology has already found its way into the Snapdragon 805-powered Samsung Galaxy S5 LTE-A, and should be heading to the next generation of flagship smartphones too.
Speaking of data speeds, Qualcomm is also planning to offer high speeds gigabit wireless speeds over short distances in the Snapdragon 810, which will be powered by WiGig 60GHz wireless technology.
Compared with the current generations Snapdragon 801 processors, the 808 and 810 provide a noticeable step forward in many different ways
Compared with the current generations Snapdragon 801 processors, the 808 and 810 also bring new support for higher resolution content. Ultra high resolution video content will continue to be supported with the H.264 (AVC) and H.265 (HEVC) formats, and 4K capture has been added with the H.264 format. These SoCs can also output content to 4K displays too, so you can play back your UHD content easily, if you have a compatible TV.
Camera support also increases up to 55 megapixels, thanks to the first 14-bit camera dual image signal processors (ISP) for smartphones. This is a big improvement compared with the 21 megapixel limit found on the Snapdragon 801, which Sony has been pushing up against for a while.
Not only will the new Snapdragon 808 and 810 bring another hop forward in terms of performance, but these chips will open the door for manufacturers to provide supped up data speeds, higher resolution image sensors, and will allow them to push the boundaries of high resolution content. There’s plenty to look forward to here.
Better Battery life at last?
Swanky new processors are all well and good, but battery life is probably the biggest complaint to be had with modern smartphones, as you are lucky to get more than a days’ worth of use out of a flagship on a single charge. Capacity is the real crux of the issue, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to squeeze more capacity out of the same materials, in the limited amount of space that there is to spare in a smartphone.
Research is being conducted into new materials, but it’s a slow and steady process. One of the most promising pieces of research has been conducted at Northwestern University. Researchers have developed a lithium-ion electrode that will apparently allow conventional Li-ion batteries to hold a charge 10 times greater than current batteries. The design uses a compressed silicon and graphene sandwich layer to avoid contractions and expansions during charging, which result in battery fragmentation and reduce the charge held.
the groundwork is being laid for a future where battery life is much better, though this revolution could still be many years away
Highly conductive materials, like graphene, are also being used to try and improve the charging speed of our devices, via the user of supercapacitors. Supercapacitor technology has some potential, but so far they have only ever found use in heavy electrical applications. The upsides of supercapacitors include faster recharge times, improved temperature performance, long life times, and the potential for 2-4 times the energy density of the best Li-ion batteries current available.
The typical cycle life of Li-ion battery is somewhere between 400-1200 load cycles, while supercapacitor can reach 500,000 load cycles. This means supercapacitor batteries could last a lot longer before charging starts to degrade.
The problem is that, at the moment, the technology sits somewhere between traditional capacitors and batteries, offering up discharge times that are too quick for most consumer grade electronics, and a capacity that is not up to scratch with modern Li-ion batteries. Unfortunately, supercapacitor sales are only expected to reach 10% of Li-ion sales in the next ten years, and the technology is still a long way from reaching the required energy density to act as a viable alternative for smartphones.
Te good news is that efforts are being made to combine the best of both worlds, allowing for super-fast charging times and acceptable battery life. Eesha Khare, a Harvard student, has already demonstrated a working supercapacitor battery built from carbon fibre and metal oxides, which retrains the capacitors’ quick charging attributes, while managing to maintain its charge. But again, we are in for a bit of a wait before such a technology would make it to the smartphone market.
Other weird and wonderful explorations into improving mobile battery life include sand (or silicon) replacements for graphite anodes in Li-on batteries, which could extend battery life by up to three days. Microsoft also recently talked about its plans for multi-sized batteries to look after more and less performing tasks, which can improve battery life up to 50 percent in its prototype. Perhaps the most sci-fi sounding idea yet is the prospect of solar charging displays, but sadly this technology, if it ever comes to market, only looks to be able to extend battery life by 20 percent, providing that you’re somewhere that the sun is shining.
Sadly, battery capacity doesn’t look like it will be taking any major steps forward over the next year. On the bright side, the groundwork is being laid for a future where battery life is much better, though this revolution could still be many years away.
More efficient components
It doesn’t look like we’ll have a reprieve from being shackled to the wall charger anytime soon, but hardware developers are attempting to find ways around the issue. If batteries are struggling to pack in more juice, then other hardware developers are going to have to find ways to make their technologies more efficient.
Mobile displays are the most power consuming components in modern smartphones, especially as flagship devices start making the move towards 2K display resolutions and 600 plus PPI. More pixels require more power, but a lot of effort is also being spent to try and offset this power drain.
Developments in both LCD and OLED technologies look to be leading towards more power efficient displays, with some technologies claiming up to 50 percent energy savings over existing displays, thanks to a new film layer for LCD displays.
For OLED panels, currently only about a quarter of the energy supplied to the LED is converted into light. However, research conducted at the University of Bonn has found that replacing the expensive platinum OLED layers with a new organic layer will reduce the amount of energy wasted as heat, generating more light and improving efficiency.
Research into entirely new display technologies is also being conducted, which will both compete with and work alongside existing LCD and AMOLED displays. IGZO, and other up-and-coming, backplane technologies are aiming to offer the necessary brightness, and therefore power consumption, of mobile displays, while allowing OEMS to continue to push the pixel count higher.
Qualcomm’s and Sharp’s investments into MEMS display technology are looking to become more commonplace in the mobile market towards the end of 2014 and into 2015. Sharp has already shown off the technology working in a 7 inch tablet. MEMS’ benefits include lower power consumption, due to fewer backlight components and more light reaches the surface of the display, compared with LCD, as there are no filter layers in the way. Instead, MEMS uses tiny mechanical switches to filter different coloured light.
Research into entirely new display technologies is also being conducted, which will both compete with and work alongside existing LCD and AMOLED displays
Displays aren’t the only big power drainers though, and we have already mentioned Qualcomm’s new processors. However, one feature, which some other manufacturers are already using, is the more energy efficient big.LITTLE processor layout, which combined with ARM’s new energy efficient Cortex-A53 processor, could offer up more efficient SoC packages than this generation.
As a solution for high performance CPU power consumption, fully heterogeneous big.LITTLE designs, combined with new energy efficiency CPU cores, should help to reduce power consumption for basic tasks, only drawing the maximum power when you really need it.
Advancements in GPU compute, which will also be making its way to devices in the next year, should help to further optimise processors for the most suitable tasks, further improving processing efficiency.
Maximize your memory
With the 64-bit Android L set to arrive later in the year, we can’t ignore one of the other hardware benefits that a 64-bit address brings, and that’s larger maximum memory capacity. More than a year ago, SK Hynix announced its work on 8Gb (1GB) LPDDR3 memory modules, and Samsung has since announced its own 8Gb module based on faster LPDDR4. LPDDR4 also promises a 50 percent performance boost in a package that is 40 percent more energy efficient. By combining four of these modules, smartphones will be able to reach the 4GB mark.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 3 already has 3GB of memory, and it’s not much of a stretch, or expense, to add another GB or more when the time comes. ARM itself has acknowledged that we’re approaching the time of 4GB memory smartphones and tablets.
Storage space also looks set to continually creep up over the coming years. Although Google doesn’t seem to be a fan of the SD card, some OEMs continue to include expandable storage with their handsets and tablets, and MicroSD card capacity has recently reached the 128GB mark. Processors which now support eMMC 5.0 will also help to speed up memory interface speeds, reaching peaks of 400MB/s compared with eMMC 4.5’s speeds of 200MB/s.
The next year of smartphone technology has a lot to offer us, although mostly we can expect continued, subtle improvements to hardware rather than off-the-wall innovations that will shake up the market. That being said, 2014/2015 flagships could offer up more of a generational leap than the 2013/2014 batch, with better graphics power, higher resolution displays and more efficient technologies bringing improvements across the board.
There are plenty of other technologies being worked on as well, although the time these technologies might take to make it to market is a little out of the scope of this article. For a glimpse at what smartphones could look like in two or three years’ time, we could also see optical zoom smartphones become the norm, flexible display technology continues to move forward, and we might eventually all be using our smartphones as 3D scanners too.
What technologies are you most looking forward to over the next 12 months, and will any of them be influencing your future purchases?