There's some speculation that smartphone features have peaked, leaving the industry with little room for meaningful innovation beyond improved battery life and better cameras. To some extent, that's true. Over the past few years, smartphones manufacturers have taken a more iterative approach toward design, adding minor features and capabilities with each refresh.
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Nevertheless, as you'll see, plenty of advances in features and innovation lie ahead for the devices we carry around at all times. Here are some interesting trends to look for in 2016 smartphones.
Smartphone cameras are set to change direction in 2016. In Samsung's Galaxy S7 lineup (including the Galaxy S7 Edge above), the company has dropped the megapixel count (from 16 to 12) for improved low-light performance. Reviews aren't in yet, but sample photos suggest that the tradeoff makes sense.
LG opted for a dual-lens camera on the back of its G5. One lens acts the way you'd expect it to, snapping regular photos. The second lens, however, offers a wide-angle view. As a result, users can zoom out, so they no longer have to take a few steps back to include everyone in a photo.
Apple is rumored to be working on a dual-lens system for its as-yet-unannounced iPhone 7. 9to5Mac suggests that the extra lens will be limited to the larger 5.5-inch iPhone, and will greatly improve the overall image quality and clarity of the photos it takes.
Battery life is always a topic of concern when it comes to a smartphone. Some phones offer bigger batteries with the promise of lasting several days, while others offer quick charging capabilities that let you top off a battery in minutes.
Samsung has increased the overall size of the batteries in its S7 lineup, rectifying the disappointing away-from-the-charger life of last year's S6 models. In addition, the S7 offers quick charging through wired and wireless adapters.
Meanwhile, LG has created a modular system (shown above), including a removable battery, for its G5 phone. Users can buy extra batteries and within a few seconds replace a drained battery with a fully charged pack. The G5 comes equipped with the latest version of Quick Charge (3.0), which requires as little as 30 minutes to charge a battery to 50% of capacity.
Qualcomm's Snapdragon 820 processor has a few new tricks up its sleeve this year, and Android smartphone manufacturers are already taking advantage of them. One enhancement is a low-power mode that supports always-on displays. Samsung's S7 line and LG's G5 offer this feature, which ensures that you no longer have to touch your phone's screen in order to view the current time or any waiting-message indicators. The screen stays on (and visible) nonstop, without dramatically lowering overall battery life.
Historically, most flagship Android devices have adopted Qualcomm's latest Snapdragon processor, so you can expect to see more high-end smartphones with always-on displays as the likes of Motorola and HTC announce new devices later this year.
Samsung isn't new to the VR scene: Its outstanding Gear VR headset (shown above with an S6 smartphone attached) debuted last year. For 2016, however, the company is enlisting its S7 lineup to advance its VR ambitions. Buyers who preorder Samsung's latest wares before March 18 will receive a free Gear VR headset and $50 worth of games to sweeten the deal.
As for LG, the company has announced its LG 360 VR headset, which the company says is the lightest headset available on the market.
Both approaches rely on a smartphone to power the VR experience. Samsung's method involves placing a compatible smartphone at the front of the headset, where it provides the processing power and the display for the experience. LG's device is equipped with two screens, and connects to the G5 smartphone using a USB Type-C cable for processing power.
Apple is rumored to be working on some type of VR, but details are thin. We might see a VR feature released alongside the iPhone 7 later this year—or we might not see anything at all.
One More iPhone 7 Rumor
Apple often makes headlines when it changes product features that were previously considered untouchable. Take the switch from the 30-pin adapter (a staple of all iOS devices of a certain age) to the smaller, easier-to-use Lightning adapter: People were upset with Apple for forcing the change at a time when users had handfuls of the older connectors around the house. A few years removed from that decision, however, the switch to the Lightning connector makes sense.
Now, as the iPhone 6S (shown above) settles into its status as last year's model, Apple is gearing up to make another potentially controversial change: 9to5Mac reports that Apple plans to remove the 3.5mm headphone jack from the upcoming iPhone 7. Yes, that means any headphones you have now will become obsolete. Apple will encourage headphone manufacturers to use its Lightning technology or Bluetooth connectivity in future products, in place of the retired 35mm jack.
Already this year, some impressive new devices are available—and we're not through the first quarter of 2016 yet. HTC has already teased the One M10 on Twitter, and OnePlus has stated that the OnePlus 3 will launch in the second quarter. Apple is widely expected to release an updated 4-inch iPhone later this month, and Motorola usually launches a slew of new devices in the latter part of the summer. You can expect to see some, if not all, of the key features mentioned above implemented throughout the rest of this year. And who knows—maybe a smartphone maker will surprise us and add something we haven't already seen. Here's hoping!
Images courtesy of Jason Cipriani, Apple, LG, and Samsung.