We've seen another announcement-packed Mobile World Congress event in Barcelona this week, with new phones launched by Samsung, Sony, LG, Nokia, Asus, and others. So what can this glut of new devices tell us about where smartphones are heading in 2018, and what we'll see for the rest of the year?
Despite all the phones unveiled in Spain, there are plenty more to come: We'll very likely see new flagships from Google, Apple, LG, OnePlus, Huawei, and HTC over the next 10 months, and Samsung will be back with a successor to the Galaxy Note 8. The year is just getting started.
AI is everywhere
It's no surprise that one of the biggest trends of 2017 rolls right into 2018 – phone makers now want to pack as much artificial intelligence into their handsets as possible, even if they have to stretch the definition of the term "AI" to do it.
The latest chips from Qualcomm, Samsung, and Huawei, among others, are built with AI computation in mind, specifically optimized to better handle the machine learning that powers a lot of the artificial intelligence processing required on modern devices.
AI can seem like quite an abstract concept, but the end result is phones that are better able to think for themselves and learn over time, without offloading the intense calculations that are required off to the cloud – being able to recognize what you're taking a photo of, and adjusting the camera settings accordingly, is a good example of an AI-enabled feature.
Digital assistants are another example, now better than ever at recognizing your voice and interpreting your commands without having to check back with base first. More of that computing can be done on-board the phones of 2018.
Bezels are going for good
Bezels are going, and they're not coming back. The Samsung Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus had even smaller bezels outside the front display than last year, Sony finally minimized the bezels on its flagship devices, and even the mid-range and budget models on show at MWC followed the same design strategy.
In other words, after the minimal bezel look first became practical in 2017, it's now become cost-effective enough to create that everyone is getting involved. Sorry if you enjoyed those thick slabs at the top and bottom of your phone, because they're being consigned to smartphone history.
This might be most telling when it comes to Apple's follow-up to the iPhones of 2017 – it's highly probably that all of the iPhones Apple launches this year will adopt the iPhone X look, in a variety of sizes and at a variety of price points (using LCD screens for some models and OLED screens for others could be one differentiator).
Google is also likely to ditch the bezels on the Google Pixel 3, whatever other improvements it brings with it. There was still a chunky frame around the screen on the Google Pixel 2, but with another 12 months of work, the full-screen look should be coming to both sizes of the Pixel phone this year.
Google is still trying to fix Android fragmentation
Nokia unveiled no less than five new phones at MWC this year, but besides all the new features and upgraded specs, it was notable that three of them joined the Android One program – that's Google's latest attempt to fight fragmentation on its platform.
For a phone to get the Android One label, it has to run a version of Android that's more or less the stock version straight from Google (so none of the skinning that the likes of Samsung and Sony do). The manufacturer also has to abide by certain security restrictions and offer regular, speedy software updates.
And Google seems to have found a willing partner with the rebooted Nokia brand, now being run by Finnish company HMD Global. The new Nokia phones look distinctly Nokia, but the software on board is pure Google – no bloatware apps, and updates almost as soon as they're pushed out by Google.
Fragmentation remains a problem on Android, with just 1.1 percent of devices running the latest Android 8.x Oreo software at the time of writing. It's one of the key areas where Android still lags behind iOS, and if Google can find a few more willing participants for the program, it could go some way to fixing the issue in 2018.
And there's more...
We've also seen some impressive augmented reality demos at MWC – another 2017 trend spilling over into 2018 – and you can expect AR to be key in the new handsets we're going to be seeing from Google and Apple later in the year. Animated, life-like emojis seem to be the order of the day, but AR has plenty of potential beyond cartoon characters.
Meanwhile, older technologies refuse to die off, despite Apple's best efforts. Samsung's new flagship phones include both fingerprint sensors and 3.5-mm headphone jacks, so we won't all be switching to face unlock just yet – the first handset with a fingerprint sensor under its display has already appeared, and if the tech becomes more widely adopted, it could once again become the default way of getting into your phone.
The camera capabilities on board our smartphones continue to improve, with more lenses, wider apertures, and better processing software rolling out across most models. Of course it's a key component of any phone, so users will always lap up these upgrades – expect the flagships of 2018 to make another jump forward in the quality of the pictures they can capture in any kind of light.
Mobile World Congress always sets down a marker for what we can expect from the phones of the rest of the year, and 2018 has been no different – we're looking forward to what appears next.
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