Posted by Chris Martin 03 April 2014
Have smartphones hit a technology ceiling? Why you should sit out this generation of flagship
It's only the beginning of April and there have been a good number of flagship smartphone launches. Usually, that's cause for celebration (who doesn't love playing with a new gadget?) but so far in 2014, I've been slightly underwhelmed with it all.
The handsets haven't sported some of the expected features so what's going on? Have manufacturers hit a ceiling with mobile technology?
The HTC One (M8) was the most recent launch and thanks to some clever PR - putting the device on sale literally minutes after the press event - generated much media hype. By the time you read this, we'll have the Samsung Galaxy S5 and Sony Xperia Z2. What's interesting is that none of these devices are noticeably different from their predecessors. They all look alike and there are only a handful of (minor) new features.
The worst offender is the Xperia Z2 which has superseded the Z1 after just a few short months and is barely any different. It has a slightly bigger screen - arguably not an upgrade at all - a slightly better processor and the ability to record and output 4K video.
Moving onto the Galaxy S5, Samsung has matched Apple's iPhone 5S with a fingerprint scanner and one-upped it with a heart-rate sensor. That might sound revolutionary as it's a first for a smartphone but if truth be told it's a gimmick. Yes, the S5 is dust- and water-resistant but – sorry Samsung – I've seen it all before.
HTC has taken its popular 2013 flagship smartphone and adopted the fine-tuning approach with little improvements all round. Its USP is the Duo Camera which lets you change the focus point in photos after they've been taken. It's a decent innovation but unless you use it on the right photo, it's shown up for what it is: a poor imitation of a Lytro camera.
What's most disappointing is the lack of progress in displays. All these smartphones have the same Full HD resolution as last year's models: what happened to the promise of Quad HD or 4K? With the iPhone 5s packing a 64-bit chip, it's a shame to see these Android flagships sticking with 32-bit processors.
What gives? Is this it for smartphones in 2014? Reader, patience is a virtue.
The smartphone market moves so quickly that although it might appear nothing much is happening, there's more to come. Smartphones seem to be emulating Intel's 'tick-tock' cycle which sees its chips get a new microarchitecture and a die shrink in alternate releases. This is most evident in iPhones, with Apple launching a new design, and following it up the next year with an ‘S’ model.
And let's not get ahead of ourselves: it's still early in the year and there are a couple of handsets in the works which could buck the trend.
Chief among these is the LG G3 which follows the brilliant G2 which still tops our smartphones chart. This could well be the first handset with a 4K display and that's more than just a hunch. The firm’s display arm showed off a Quad HD screen for mobile devices last August, around the time the G2 was announced.
The LG G3 is rumoured to be launching in the coming months, which should be plenty of time to get that panel into a handset. Whether we need 4K on a smartphone is another matter but I'm eager to find out.
The other big launch, of course, is the iPhone 6 which is likely to be announced in September. I’m expecting great things from Apple here – rumours of a larger screen are surely the tip of the iceberg.
If you've got a 2013 flagship smartphone and are eager to upgrade, you might well do better to wait until 2015 - you're probably on a two-year contract anyway. Let's hope LG and/or Apple can bring us some real excitement this year.