Remember your first cell phone? If you were one of the Gordon Gecko types, then it likely came in a form factor that resembled a dumbbell and boasted about things like “30 minutes of call time” and “storage for 30 numbers” (no associated names though). For most of us, it was a small but not pocketable Nokia, Kyocera or Motorola that provided access to placing and receiving calls and maybe let us hop on the texting craze if we were careful not to run up the bill. Boy, have things changed. We’ve gone from coveting Canon’s 4MP flagship 1D ($5,500) in 2001 to envying our neighbor’s 41MP Nokia Lumia 1020 ($200). With this incredible evolution and others like it in mind, we’ve rounded up five of the most exciting technologies that manufacturers are rolling into their phones today. Read on — and ponder ten years in the future, when we’ll look back and think, “only 41 megapixels?”
Better Photography Through Improved Sensors
One obvious way phone manufacturers are pushing the envelope is through the cameras on the front and back of their phones — not to mention the software inside. The new Sony Z1 incorporates proper compact camera tech, like the company’s G Lens and large 1/2.3-inch 21MP sensor, to capture the best of what our world has to offer. LG’s powerhouse G2 may only boast 13MP, but it’s one of the fastest in the business; we’ve already mentioned the gun-to-a-knife-fight Nokia Lumia 1020, which packs a resolution to make medium format cameras blush. The only way to know whether you’ll prefer the precision rifle Sony or the Howitzer Nokia is to head to your local Best Buy and test them out. If these three phones offer just a hint of what’s to come in the camera-phone market, we couldn’t be more excited.
But what’s all that power without the software to back it up? One of our favorites these days is VSCO Cam (iOS, Android 4.0), which offers thoughtful filters (that can be turned down to taste), powerful editing features, and their own version of Instagram, the VSCO Grid.
Control Beyond the Touchscreen
How users interact with their phones is another area of rapid innovation, producing some of the most interesting advances in smartphone tech. It wasn’t long ago when physical buttons were de rigeur and touchscreens were a novel idea that didn’t work all that well. While the keyboard purists still have the very good Blackberry Q10 to tap on today, the rest of the smartphone landscape is looking touch happy with beautiful, high-resolution capacitive touchscreens.
But what’s next? From the newest crop of future-focused smartphones, it looks like we’re moving towards motion, voice and gesture control. Pick up the Motorola Moto X, and with a quick twist of your wrist you’ve brought up the camera; shout (or just say) various commands using the LG G2’s Voice Mate to accomplish common tasks without lifting a finger. If you actually like lifting fingers, the Samsung Galaxy S4’s Air Wave feature allows users to scroll and even answer calls by simply gesturing in the air above the device. So-called Smart Pause tracks your head and eye movement to automatically stop content or dim the screen when it knows your attention isn’t on the phone. The bottom line is that whatever device you choose, it looks like touchscreens will be a little less smudged in days to come.
There was a time when the only personality you could impart into your phone was through a polyphonic ringtone of the James Bond theme and a “Carbon fiber look” faceplate. Today things are a little bit different. Customization has been elevated to the next level by devices like the Motorola Moto X, which offers customized exteriors in materials like bamboo, wood and a ton of colored plastics. The exterior isn’t the only place where phones are getting more personal, though: the HTC One Max (among others) has a fingerprint sensor to identify a user solely by his or her touch; the aforementioned Moto X learns your voice; and LG’s G2 has an OS that can be customized in nearly every element. If you still think customization means a new background, you should head to Best Buy and get to know your new phone (and vice-versa).
Get Productive (or Not)
Phones now serve a purpose well beyond placing and receiving calls, and it’s high time you actually got things done instead of vanquishing virtual candies. Luckily there are a host of apps for all platforms devoted to productivity. Pocket helps you save interesting things you find on the web to read later; Todoist is an excellent app for keeping track of what needs to be done and syncs instantly between 11 different mobile and desktop platforms; Dropbox is a ubiquitous old standby that syncs files between nearly any device without worry. If and when you decide to stop being productive and start being entertained, apps for Netflix, HBO, Hulu, ESPN and a bunch more will let you watch nearly anything your heart desires, and 4G speeds on all of the latest phones ensure every show, movie or sporting event buffers speedily. The best part is that all of these apps just keep improving as developers harness the power that new smartphones are producing.
Since your phone knows you in a different way now, it needs a better way to alert you. Android phones use Google Now for updates based on your location to tell you what traffic might be like on your way home or interesting sights to see nearby. Apps like Foursquare recommend local restaurants and attractions when it sees you’re near them.
It’s amazing to think that just five years ago the “smartphone” itself was a newborn, because today it’s smarter than ever. The incredible roster of current phones offers a small taste of what’s to come in the smartphone segment — and what we’ve seen is both tantalizing and impressive. Lucky for you and your dated handset, upgrading phones to the latest and greatest is easy (not to mention about $5,000 cheaper than a cellphone in 1990), and the easiest way is to head to Best Buy, where you can try out all of the latest phones on all of the major carriers. As soon as you try out the new crop of super-smartphones, you’ll wonder what you’ve been doing for the last couple years.