2016 mobile devices expectations

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

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Not really much to improve on in this regard, honestly.

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.

 

4) Software

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Android skins have come a long way, where they now enhance the user-experience without detracting from the Android experience. And due to the way Android works, one can easily swap out their desired launcher for extra customizability.

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

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There’s not one Android device that’s exactly the same

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.

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It wasn’t too long ago that having a kickass camera would make a phone special

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

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The Snapdragon 810 garnered an unfavorable reputation over its heating woes.

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.

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The Snapdragon 810’s heating issues plagued quite a number of phones, including the XPERIA Z3+, which suffered quite badly to the camera experience due to the heat.

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.

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LG went with the 810’s little brother, the 808, on the G4 due to concerns with the 810’s heat output

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!!!

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Battery life became a major weak point in many 2015 phones

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.

Conclusion

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.

 

2016 mobile devices expectations

The Android update situation – Why don’t all phones get a new version of Android at the same time or at all

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Android runs on many different devices with varying hardware and price groups, though not all run the same version of Android.

Android as a whole is a wonderful thing. An open-source UNIX-like operating system that offers near-endless amounts of customizability and allows manufacturers like Samsung, LG and HTC to build on top of it to make a unique experience (mixed results back then but have greatly improved since 2014) and running on different spectrums of mobile hardware, from the cheapest and smallest smartphone to the most expensive and sophisticated handsets packing in large 1440p displays. In short, Android is open and running on lots of devices with different experiences, but there’s a big pain point in all this “openness”; updates.

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Android versions are not distributed equally

One main pain point of Android is that not every Android device gets the latest Android system update at the same time, or sometimes, not at all. Currently, the latest version of Android, Marshmallow, is on 1.2% of all Android devices. Lollipop is next with 5.1 taking 17.1% and 5.0 taking 17.0% and KitKat as a whole has 35.5%. That is not really an even number, made worse by the time taken for different handsets to receive each update. To break it down, let’s compare it with the 2nd most popular mobile OS (and also the one most frequently compared with) – iOS.

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The experience across Apple’s iOS devices are the same, for better or worse, regardless of screen size and hardware.

iOS is Apple’s own mobile operating system for use on the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. It is also based on UNIX but the overall UX is different from that of Android. Unlike Android, where each and every device does not necessarily run the same taste of Android, like one phone running stock Android and the other running on a skin, iOS more-or-less offers the same experience on every device, no matter how old or how big/small each device is. While this may seem bland and offers limited amounts of customization, the benefits are that since there is no overlay, there is no extra time needed to optimize the overlaid skin for the OS.

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Apple’s limited range of devices and locked-down nature allows a phone as old as the iPhone 4S, released in 2011, to run a version of the software that current-gen devices like the iPad Pro were designed for.

 

Another important factor is that iOS is a locked-down OS, that only runs on Apple devices. There are a total of 29 iOS devices that Apple has made since 2007, of which 20 are supported by the latest version of iOS, 9.2.1. While that looks like a high number, compare that to the number of Android devices out there, where there are over a hundred just in the current flagship class alone. Simply put, because Android is an open-source operating system, it is hard for Google to optimize the base OS for the near-endless hardware combinations out there plus skins. It is up to the OEMs to optimize their skin and hardware for the OS. Unfortunately, some don’t seem to be willing to do so, with Motorola’s decision to not update the Moto E 2015 plus carrier-versions of the 2014 Moto X to Marshmallow being one of the more recent examples (which they since backtracked in the case of the Moto E, albeit only in selected regions)

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From left to right: Stock Android, TouchWiz, HTC Sense, LG UX, MIUI

Which brings us to the topic of Android skins. No two flavors of Android are alike. In fact, due to Android’s open-nature, manufacturers have applied their own overlay on top of Android which gives it a different look and feel while also adding new features. Samsung’s TouchWiz is one of the first to come to mind, as does HTC’s Sense UI, along with others like LG’s G UX, Huawei’s EMotionUI, Xiaomi MIUI, Motoblur (that has since been defunct) and some others. Now, while skins can make updates slower, these days, they’re not as bad as they used to be. Previously, skins were so heavy, they made devices slower and also gave them a significant time penalty for updates. Now, however, there’s a recent trend of scaling back the skin to offer an experience more akin to stock Android while also retaining some design elements and features of the overlay. The most recent version of TouchWiz, HTC Sense and LG UX reflect that ethos. So while skins are responsible somewhat for long update wait times, there’s a bigger effect to that.

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It is not uncommon for carriers like Verizon to sell carrier-branded versions to a device, often with their own software tweaks; typically bloat.

In the United States at least, it is not uncommon for cellular carriers to sell carrier-branded versions of an Android device. In fact, HTC, Samsung, LG and others provide carrier models for a particular carrier, like a variant for AT&T and another for T-Mobile. While this might seem like a little tramp-stamp, carriers are actually a significant impact to update wait times. And that’s because carriers actually modify the software on the device. Most of which add unremovable bloat to a phone, like WildTangent Games + AT&T Navigator in the case of the recent Samsung devices. A more drastic case is the Verizon LG G4, where some features like multi user-accounts, a custom lock-screen and other features are removed. Simply put, because of these changes, extra time is needed for these carriers to make all the necessary changes, which adds on top of the time needed for the OEM to optimize their skin. In simple terms, if you buy an unlocked unit, your updates come straight from the manufacturer. If you buy a carrier-branded unit, your carrier provides the update. Apple refuses to allow carriers to make any modification to iOS due to this very reason.

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The GT-i9300 variant of the S3 never officially got any update above Android 4.3, citing “hardware limitations” as the reason. Despite that, custom ROM developers have given it Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow.

However, sometimes, it’s just due to laziness that devices don’t get updates. Motorola’s recent update fiasco over the 2015 Moto E and carrier versions of the 2014 Moto X are examples. They never really explicitly cite any valid reason for the omission of Marshmallow for the 2 devices, though in the case of the Moto E, they finally backtracked on that and updated it to Marshmallow, albeit in select regions. Many of Xiaomi’s devices are also on KitKat for some unexplained reason. Some chipset makers are also somewhat to blame, as some are pretty hesitant to provide the source code for the processor unless a deal is made, an example being some phones running on certain chips by MediaTek.

 

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Monthly security patches has since become a way for Google to control security flaws on different Android devices, regardless of version

Now, this isn’t some pro-Apple propaganda thing. Being an open-source OS by nature, it is not surprising to see Android having longer update times due to the different experience between devices. In a whole, however, many current skins are actually pretty good, to the point where having the latest version of Android isn’t as important as it used to be, reinforced by Google’s monthly security patches, which went up after the StageFright security flaw went up. In a word, Google’s “Be together, not the same” brings with it plenty of advantages along with its own disadvantages. The same applies to iOS and every OS out there. The choice factor is one of the many beauties of Android and that’s why, despite iOS’ better, faster and more consistent update timelines, Android is still my preferred choice for a phone OS.

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Be together. Not the same.
The Android update situation – Why don’t all phones get a new version of Android at the same time or at all

iOS 9 Error 53 controversy – Thoughts and personal opinion

 

The Error 53 controversy relates to the validation of the TouchID sensor
 
You may have heard that Apple has got into some hot water recently over a software update that has reportedly bricked a number of iPhone 6 (and possible 6S) units with an Error 53 message, rendering the device totally unusable for anything other than a sleek paperweight made out of metal and glass. Lots of affected customers are infuriated with this move, but let’s dive into what the issue is.

First, let us know what Error 53 is. Error 53 is a major error that can render a device unusable. Before this came up, it was suspected that the error was linked to general hardware failure. However, with this controversy, Error 53 is, according to Apple, linked with the TouchID sensor, or rather, the failure for the sensor to pass a validation check.

Let’s clear that up. TouchID links with the Secure Enclave in the Apple A7/A8/A8X/A9/A9X processors on any iPhone that is a 5S or newer and an iPad Air 2/Mini 3 or newer, and that also includes the iPad Pro (pictured above). Each TouchID sensor is specially made for a specific device, meaning that you can’t just simply swap the sensor with another device. You either have to keep the original sensor, or reprogram the new sensor to work with the device it is in (something only Apple reps know how to do as far as I know).

The problem is that many of the affected iPhones are fixed in unauthorized third-party service centers. I am in no way accusing them since they do give a solid alternative to Apple service centers in some circumstances, but from what I have heard, when replacing the display, they usually replace both the display and the home button/TouchID assembly, instead of replacing only the display while keeping the TouchID sensor untouched as recommended by Apple. As a result, these sensors do not pass the security check when the device is booting and in the case of the recent update, causes the device to brick into an Error 53, due to that.

After knowing this, it seems reasonable for Apple to do that for security measures, as fake TouchID sensors could compromise the security of the device and may be able to access the Secure Enclave, where extremely sensitive data such as credit card info for Apple Pay and the biometric data for TouchID live. It is certainly refreshing to see a company take the privacy of its customers very seriously, but they also have caused quite an uproar.

Many affected customers are understandably angry about this, as their device, which worked perfectly fine before, is now rendered completely useless without warning. The sudden nature of this incident isn’t very reassuring and while Apple has made statements to news outlets, they isn’t one yet on their official website. Certainly, Apple could have handled this better. Warnings before updating would be very ideal and perhaps disabling TouchID and Apple Pay plus removing all data from the Secure Enclave when an unauthorized sensor is detected could have been more practical.

  
As for my opinion on this, I think it is perfectly reasonable for Apple to be concerned about the privacy of their customers and to help prevent another security breach, like that iCloud hack that caused nude photos to be leaked, though I think the way they are doing it seems a bit harsh and perhaps it could have been done in a more practical manner. I have no issues with the screen and sensor on my iPad Pro, but if any of those fail, I’ll be taking it to the Genius Bar. Which also brings up another point. Please take your device to an Apple Store if you can. If you can’t, make sure that the repair store you’re going to follows Apple’s standard repair method for repairing devices.

iOS 9 Error 53 controversy – Thoughts and personal opinion

LG G4 bootloop issue – My thoughts

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The LG G4 has been hit with a pretty serious hardware failure affecting several batches

Some of you may recall that LG G4 review I posted earlier, where I recommended the G4 due to its camera, overall performance and flexibility. Well, shortly after the review was published, that particular unit featured in the review fell victim to the now-pretty-significant bootloop issue that has been affecting many G4 units, predominantly those manufactured before September or October. While hardware issues with some batches of devices aren’t uncommon (Samsung had an issue with the eMMC chip on some Galaxy S3 batches, for example and Apple had some cloudy cameras on some iPhone 6 Plus units), LG’s issue is far more serious and complex because it affects multiple batches and can fail at any time without any prior warning in most cases.

It isn’t at all surprising that LG has been lax on communication for some time. Clearly, they are trying to identify the issue and thinking of what is the best thing to say to customers. My thoughts on this, however, is that perhaps LG should come out with a preliminary statement, like “We are aware of a serious malfunction involving the LG G4 smartphone that may cause the phone to be completely inoperable. We are attempting to diagnose the issue and will update if any are available. In the meantime, do backup your data and contact LG Support if you have any questions“.

Some G4 owners have started a petition that went past the 1000 signatures mark after a short period of time. Due to the petition (or media pressure, or maybe both), LG has admitted that the G4’s sudden failure was due to a hardware fault and customers who have an affected unit will have it repaired under warranty without hesitation. The statement says;

“LG Electronics has been made aware of a booting issue with the LG G4 smartphone that has now been identified as resulting from a loose contact between components. Customers who are experiencing booting issues with their LG G4s should contact their local carrier from where the G4 was purchased or a nearby LG Service Center (http://www.lg.com/common) for repair under full warranty.

Customers who purchased their G4 devices from non-carrier retailers should contact an LG Service Center with the understanding that warranty conditions will differ. LG Electronics is committed to providing the highest standards of product quality and customer service and apologizes for the inconvenience caused to some of our customers who initially received incorrect diagnoses.”

Given that LG has now come forth with the issue and has identified the culprit, repairs should be final and the problem should be solved once and for all. But some feel that LG hasn’t done enough.

Given how there’s a fairly significant number of G4s failing out there, it would perhaps make sense for LG to launch some sort of “replacement program” where customers who have suspect devices can go to an authorized service center or retail store to have their potentially defective device replaced with a newer, non-defective one under warranty. Sure, it might put a dent in LG’s reputation, but some feel that allowing customers to replace their unit with ample time to spare before it occurs will leave a better impression of the company than if it fails before a replacement can be acquired.

As for me, my G4 failed shortly after the review. Thankfully, as some friends have notified me of the potential issue when it wasn’t so serious, I have made not one but two full system backups onto my SD card just in case the worst should occur, although at the time, I thought it was an isolated issue. Got it to the store where I purchased it from and they would repair it under warranty. 1.5-weeks later without an ETA and I went back to the same store asking if I could replace it with a brand-new phone. I could (as long as it’s the same model as the phone I’m replacing it with). So I currently have a new LG G4, manufactured much later in December, runs Android Marshmallow out-of-the-box, and after a restore using LG Backup, is back at where my old G4 was before it died a death it did not deserve.

For closing thoughts, the LG G4’s bootloop issue shows that while LG seems to have taken care of the issue at first glance, some of us felt that the issue could have been better managed. And this issue would have undoubtedly dealt a blow to LG’s image and reputation in terms of quality control, as some buyers and customers are now weary of future products and whether a similar issue would occur in the new future (hence, why I thought of acquiring an XPERIA Z5 as I was afraid that the replacement G4 would fail in the future). With the launch of the LG G5 on February 21st incoming, let’s hope LG has learnt their lesson with the G4’s issues and ensured that the G5 doesn’t suffer from (as many) issues as the G4 (and whatever issues it might have, let’s just hope they’re minor nitpicks).

LG G4 bootloop issue – My thoughts