2013 was a year that threatened to become very predictable for Android phone specs, at least at the high end. It started with Sony announcing the Xperia Z with its 5" 1080p screen and 13 megapixel camera. From that moment on, it became clear that 2013 was going to be the year of the 1080p screen. Of course, we couldn't predict that flagship phones would have screen sizes as varied as the 4.7" of the HTC One and the 5.2" variant found on the LG G2.
The list of flagship phones (or very mild derivitives of a flagship) that had a 1080p screen in the previously mentioned size range includes the Sony Xperia Z and Z1, the HTC One and Butterfly S, the Samsung Galaxy S4 and S4 Active, the Asus PadFone Infinity, Google's Nexus 5, the LG G2 and probably a few more. Where 2012 had been all about the 4.7" 720p screen, no doubt, the world moved on.
In fact, flagship devices in 2013 were more diverse in their overall specifications than in 2012 where seemingly every flagship device had a 4.7" 720p screen with an 8 megapixel camera. Last year, HTC tried their luck with four ultrapixels and OIS in the One. Google opted for 8 megapixels in the Nexus 5 and Sony went for an amazing 20.7 megapixels in the Z1.
So what do we know of the potential 2014 line-ups that might give us a clue as to some of the defining trends for flagship phones this time round? Well, most of the information and speculation is centred around Sony, HTC and Samsung all of whom have tended to announce their flagship before the end of April, so lets start there. It goes without saying that this is all speculation at the time of writing, but lets go through some of the trends we see appearing.
Smaller body. Larger screen.
Is this the new Sony Xperia Z2?
Technically, we may not see smaller bodies, but certainly it appears from the latest leaks that Sony are slimming down the almost ludicrous bezels found on the Z1. They are unlikely to be able to cut down on the bezel above the screen as they have to fit their very megapixel rich camera in there somewhere, but getting a narrower device is still nice. It is always possible that the device could be approximately the same size as the Z1 but come with a slightly larger screen.
Samsung have been a leader in this trend of fitting large screens in small bodies and we can expect the Galaxy S5 to continue that. It seems reasonable that they would give as a 5.2" screened phone in a body perhaps only marginally larger than the S4. It seems unlikely they could fit a 5.2" screen in the Galaxy S4 shell, but who knows with Samsung, after all, the step forwards they took with the S4 in terms of its packaging was fantastic.
The HTC One+, or whatever it ends up being called, has been quite well rumoured now and will likely see the screen go up to 5" in size. Judging by the pictures we have seen, should they prove accurate, it seems HTC have taken a large chunk off the side bezels compared to 2013's One which is great news.
Whatever happens to screen sizes, we know how small it is possible to make a 5.2" screened phone. Just take one look at the LG G2 to be amazed by super narrow bezels and a relatively slim body.
We can probably all agree that slimming down bezels and making phones smaller and lighter is a good thing. But this trend seems less obviously positive. We are talking here about the move to what is being termed a 2K resolution, technically known as QHD. Now this is not the time to point out how stupid it is to have qHD and QHD resolutions in the world, but merely to inform that QHD means 2560x1440 pixels.
Could this be the HTC M8 aka HTC One+?
A QHD 5.2" screen would have a PPI (pixels per inch) measurement of around 564. This compares to 441 on a 5" 1080p screen and around 330 on an iPhone. Given that the human eye, at the typical distance we hold a phone from our faces cannot discern individual pixels from around 300-320 PPI upwards, it seems ludicrous to move to QHD.
When we went to 1080p it made sense as a 720p screen at 5" measures out to around 294 PPI, so we should be able to see an improvement at that screen size. QHD however, seems to make no sense. We simply will not be able to see an improvement in pixel density but we will need extra processing power and of course more battery power to manage all those extra pixels. It would make a lot more sense to spend the research money in making much better 1080p panels that produce more accurate colours with lower power usage than to put all those extra pixels on a screen which will have no benefit.
So far, Sony, LG and Samsung are all rumoured to be moving to a QHD resolution. HTC may well be sticking with a 1080p screen. Whilst on paper this may make the HTC look like it is behind the times, I hope that people will see past that and understand that bigger specifications do not always translate to an improved experience.
Snapdragon 800 or Snapdragon 805?
With Qualcomm announcing volume availability of the Snapdragon 805 for the second quarter of 2014, it seems highly unlikely that any devices announced in the first half of this year will arrive with this newest system on chip. However, it is more than likely that all the new flagship devices coming will be packing the latest variant of the Snapdragon 800 which includes support for faster DDR3 RAM and a higher clock speed on the GPU. The improvements will probably be minor but essential if QHD becomes the norm.
Of more interest around the system on chip is the probable move to 3Gb of RAM. Sony are rumoured to be fitting the Z1 replacement with 3Gb and Samsung have of course already made the jump in a few of their devices.
The fingerprint sensor on the HTC One Max
Our phones have contained a wide array of sensors for some years now, but ever since Apple unveiled the iPhone 5s with its fingerprint sensing TouchID technology, rumours have been rife about many manufacturers following suit. The only ones to blink thus far have been HTC with the One Max, but there is plenty of speculation around what might come.
Most of the rumours have centred around Samsung and whether they will bring some sort of optical sensor to allow you to unlock your phone using a scan of your eyeball. In reality, we at MoDaCo are generally of the opinion that fingerprint sensors will be all the rage this year and with the latest information suggesting that Samsung and LG are heading in that direction, we could well be proven right.
Whatever extra sensors the likes of Sony, HTC and Samsung bring, we can only hope they implement it as seamlessly as TouchID on the iPhone 5s.
It is now only just over a month until Mobile Web Congress in Barcelona and many phones are likely to be announced there. Typically flagship devices from the big manufacturers are made public at individual events rather than a big show but either way, it is all going to become clear in the next few months. And should there be a limelight stealing reveal at MWC, the MoDaCo team will be there to bring you all the news.