As we inch closer and closer to February 21st, the date where 2 high-profile flagships; the Samsung Galaxy S7 + S7 Edge and the LG G5, are unveiled, perhaps it’s a good time to look back and see what 2015 flagships didn’t do so hot in and how it can be improved this year. In this post, I’m going to showcase 5 things which I expect to see improved in this year’s flagships, starting from the order of least to most important.
5) Display quality
This is at the bottom of the list because the displays on modern smartphones are honestly very good and there’s little need to make them astronomically better. However, I would like manufacturers to please stop with the race to 4K resolution, since it makes pretty much zero sense on phone displays unless VR is taken into consideration. And even then, it is an unnecessary battery sucker. Instead, focus on improving saturation, contrast, maximum brightness along with energy efficiency and durability. There’s more to what makes a great screen than just resolution. Software that allows fine-tuning of color temperature and saturation would be grand as well.
Once again, this is close to the bottom of the list because I don’t see much need for Android phone manufacturers to improve on their software so much, since they’ve really come a long way. Take TouchWiz, for instance. Once considered the sick man of Android and being the master of bloatware, TouchWiz has gone on a diet and workout in 2015 on the Galaxy S6 and Note 5, evolving into a surprisingly usable skin. Add in the theme store and Android’s launcher support and it’s one of the most customizable skins out there. HTC Sense too has gone on a diet with the A9, which offers a stock-like experience with HTC’s designs and features. Though there are areas that still need improvement. LG UX needs a new coat of paint and a lower DPI stat, Samsung has to change the way TW handles RAM and every phone maker plus carrier needs to manage the way they handle updates, both OS updates and security patches. There are some phones that are still months behind on security patches, for crying out loud! Apple could also do with some new features for the iPad Pro, because despite the device’s extremely powerful hardware, it is still pretty limited in quite a number of ways for a device marketed as a laptop-replacement.
3) Differentiate yourselves in meaningful ways
This isn’t much of an issue for Apple, since their phones run iOS, and Apple’s the only one using said OS. This mainly concerns Android. As I said in my previous post, many Android OEMs have dialed back on their customizations on Android, making them closer to stock. However, this also puts them in danger of having their phones too similar to the closest competitor.
Back then, having a QHD 1440p display, or an excellent camera or stereo speakers on the front would make a phone special, but these days, every phone has those traits, bar the speakers, which still need some time to catch on. And frankly, OEMs have to make their phones different in a way that makes it unique but also not gimmicky. An example is the 4K display on the XPERIA Z5 Premium. While it does make it stand out, it ended up being too gimmicky as it’s pretty much useless because it only runs in the Gallery. Most the the time, it’s a 1080p display. The premium over the regular Z5 meant that it was hard for reviewers to recommend it over the regular version unless a bigger screen is the requirement. As such, manufacturers need to differentiate themselves in meaningful and significant but not gimmicky ways in 2016.
2) Please sort out those processors
In 2015, Qualcomm launched the Snapdragon 810 and 808 high-end processors, their first 64-bit processors. It was also an interesting one too since they all used off-the-shelf ARM Cortex chips rather than Qualcomm’s custom ARM design, as their custom 64-bit chip, Kryo, was still in development at the time. The 810 is an octa-core CPU, with 4 Cortex A53s for normal use and 4 Cortex A57s for heavy tasks while the 808 is large the same, but with 2 fewer Cortex A57s and a slightly weaker GPU. While the latter seemed fine, the former quickly gained an unfavorable reputation over its heat output after testing a few phones rocking the chip, notably the LG G Flex 2 and HTC One M9.
While many seem to focus in the rapid drop of scores in benchmarks due to heavy throttling in response to the heat, the user experience also somewhat suffered. While some phones like the One M9 didn’t suffer quite badly as the software was optimized for lower-end processors, others like the XPERIA Z3+ suffered quite badly as the chip heated the device too much to the point where the camera experience was impacted. It was only until the XPERIA Z5 and Nexus 6P came out that the heating issues weren’t as pronounced but the issue remains.
The heating issue was one reason why Samsung chose not to use the 810 in the Galaxy S6 and Note 5, meaning that Qualcomm lost one of their biggest customers in 2015. It was also why LG and Motorola plus some others chose to use the 808 instead of the 810 on their flagships, putting Qualcomm’s hero-chip of 2015 in a bad light and also gimping some handsets in the process. It was also known to be pretty inefficient, hence why the One M9 had worse battery life than the One M8. Samsung’s Exynos 7420 has a similar setup and fared well (although it was manufactured on a more-efficient 14nm FinFET process, compared to the 810’s 20nm process), so something was definitely amiss here.
2016 looks to restore Qualcomm’s reputation and also give phones more power without being a mini-furnace as the Snapdragon 820 chip, a quad-core SoC running on Qualcomm’s Kryo CPU, does not heat up as much as the 810 and consequently, doesn’t throttle as much. Samsung is rumored to be using the 820 in certain variants of the Galaxy S7 and is also manufacturing it. The 820 looks to be the improvement phones need in terms of power efficiency and heat output in 2016, though the rumors that MediaTek’s 10-core Helio X20 CPU overheats might mean that not everyone got the message.
1) Battery, battery, BATTERY!!!
Arguably the biggest weak point of many phones in 2015 is battery life. 2015 is the time where the race for the thinnest device began to take its toll and caused the user-experience to suffer. Samsung and HTC were the hardest hit, with the Galaxy S6 and One A9 having abysmal battery life in anything other than really light usage. The S6 packed a 2550mAh battery and the One A9 packed an even smaller 2150mAh battery. Both of which were very small for their size and hardware. Their thin nature meant that there wasn’t enough space for a bigger battery. However, the One A9 had a 2150mAh battery ina 7.3mm body, while the Galaxy A5 2016 is only a tiny bit bigger with the same thickness, and packed in a much larger 2900mAh battery, though to be frank, the A5 2016 is a newer device and Samsung also has more resources than HTC, so it is frankly possible for them to cram a large battery in a 7.3mm casing. The arrangement of the internals also plays a role here, and it looks like some smart arrangement of the device’s internals is key to better batteries in 2016. Furthermore, some chips like the Snapdragon 810 also proved to be inefficient, along with the 808, albeit in a less serious manner. The iPhone 6S also somewhat suffered as the battery shrunk to 1,750mAh from 1,810mAh, but the difference was negligible due to the efficiency of its chip and also some software optimizations.
2016 looks to reverse that trend. The Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge are rumored to be packing batteries that are much, MUCH bigger than the S6 and Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 820 looks to be much more efficient than its predecessor. So maybe, we’ll see battery life being a vast improvement in 2016.
As the Galaxy S7 and LG G5 get ready for the debut, I hope they address the big concerns we had back in 2015. Only time will tell, but based on the rumors, I’m pretty hopeful that 2016 will fix whatever’s wrong with 2015 phones.