The feeling had been hanging around for some time: anything from “a couple of years” to “since the Nexus 5,” depending on who you asked. Whatever the timescales, many Android fans had noticed smartphones seemed to have lost their spark.
As I was looking over the recent Android smartphone releases last week, something occurred to me. Seems to me, we’re coming out the other side of this drought.
Smartphones are exciting again, man — I’ll explain why.
Midrange is basically premium now
Since the dawn of the camera phone, the best cameras have been held hostage by high price tags. As of 2019, the camera quality of even $300-$400 phones can compete with ones three times the price, and it’s exciting for all concerned.
The thing is, general users aren’t bothered about how fast a phone can open ten apps. They don’t care about the latest chipsets, or in-display fingerprint scanners, or bezel-less screens, or other premium characteristics. However, if they wanted a top-of-the-range camera experience, they previously had to pay for all of those other bells and whistles anyway.EDITOR’S PICK
Best Android smartphone cameras (February 2019)
With the Google Pixel 3a and 3a XL, this isn’t the case. These are no-frills, hassle-free phones that take incredible snaps — and probably the best example of this kind of device I’ve ever seen. Better still, they even come with a 3.5mm headphone jack, and are set for fast updates. What a package!
These are no-frills, hassle-free phones that also take incredible snaps — and probably the best example of this kind of device I’ve ever seen.
The Pixel 3a isn’t just a 2019 midrange one-off, either. Samsung rolled out a much-needed revamp of its mid-tier this year. Galaxy A phones always sold well, but largely off the back of the Samsung name, rather than their inherent quality — Android reviews readers have known for years there are better options.
However, the most recently Galaxy A phones have been some high-quality hardware. Just look at how cool the Galaxy A70 below is. It looks like a flagship in its own right.
The Samsung Galaxy A70 has an awesome design.
Heck, look at how cool the Galaxy A80 is:
Galaxy A phones don’t just have the premium look though, a few of them arrived with features even Samsung’s flagships didn’t yet have. The Galaxy A80 above had Samsung’s first sliding, flipping camera, and the Samsung Galaxy A9 2018 was the first quad-camera smartphone, well, ever.
Critically, these are not flagship phones with all the good bits stripped out to make them cheaper. Picking up a midrange phone doesn’t just have to be about saving money anymore, it can be about getting the features you want. The standard Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 3XL don’t have a headphone port, for example — an essential feature for some people they could get on the similar, less expensive Pixel 3a. The premium Galaxy S10 Plus is capped at three, static, rear cameras, unlike the Galaxy A80.
This trend of remarkable midrangers isn’t set to stop anytime soon. In the coming weeks w’ll have the Snapdragon 855-toting Redmi K20 Pro, a new line (the K series) from a fairly new sub-brand (Redmi) that looks set to challenge even the best of the flagship competition.
What a time to be an Android fan. There have always been low-cost smartphone options that offer high-end features, but I don’t think they’ve ever been as impressive as they are right now.
Second-tier OEM, first-rate flagship
Another sign of Android’s recent revitalization arrives via some of the less popular OEMs.
When a person thinks of phone brands, ZTE is unlikely to top their list. Yet the flagship it released last month, the Axon 10 Pro, is a standout phone.
Smartphones have always had their low-cost options that offer high-end features, but I don’t think they’ve ever been as impressive as they are right now.
The Axon 10 Pro is a particularly interesting device because, on the surface, it is just a premium phone. Its specs include a Snapdragon 855 chip, up to 12GB RAM, up to 256GB storage, triple rear cameras, a 4,000mAh battery, and a 92 percent screen-to-body ratio. It just happens to also start at a lower price than most premium Android phones — 599 euros (~$676). For comparison, the Galaxy S10 starts at 899 euros (~$1,015) and the Huawei P30 Pro starts at 999 euros (~$1,128).
The ZTE Axon 10 Pro
Then there’s the Asus Zenfone 6. It’s powerful, it has an awesome, cassette player-esque flip-up camera, and a bunch of premium specs. “If you want 90 percent of a flagship for 50 percent of the price, this is the phone to beat,” we said in our review. The Zenfone 6 also doesn’t look like any other smartphone, but in a purposeful way, rather than just for the sake of standing out.
The Asus Zenfone 6
The Realme X is probably the best Realme phone yet — it looks glorious and is going on sale in China for the equivalent of around $220 (we should have our full review of that ready in the next week or so).
Then you have a brand like OnePlus. It’s still not quite household name in the West, and far from the top of the Android platform in terms of sales, but nonetheless delivers absolute standout phones like the OnePlus 7 Pro, which just about hit all the lofty expectations of its enthusiast audience.
The OnePlus 7 Pro
These kinds of diverse flagships are contributing to an overall sense that Android is becoming lively again. In 2019, perhaps it wouldn’t have mattered if Samsung’s latest Galaxy S10 had been a letdown, or the Xiaomi Mi 9 was ridiculously underwhelming, because there are quality smartphones to be found everywhere.
Bad phones are back
One of the biggest giveaways the smartphone landscape is once again heating up, counter-intuitive as it may sound, is the return of bad phones.
For a while, the Android was a bit grey landscape: flagships were good and the mid-tier phones were good and all the budget phones, again, were pretty good, and they all did much the same thing. It’s only now that a few stinkers have cropped up we can appreciate how great the phones of the recent past have been.
The Nokia 9 PureView
It’s only now that a few stinkers have cropped up we can appreciate how great the phones of the recent past have been.
The Nokia 9 PureView arrived earlier this year with a unique look and five rear cameras. I believe it was a worthwhile pursuit for HMD, but as we noted in our review, the company’s best efforts fell “frustratingly short.” In the end, its unique penta-camera was its worst feature.
We’ve also seen the “extremely average” Alcatel 3, a phone you’d probably struggle to remember if you didn’t work for an Android phone reviews site (and even then). It was shiny. It was affordable. It was also a slow, plastic, Micro-USB-toting mess running Android Oreo in the Android Pie era.
The Alcatel 3
HTC, meanwhile, recently released the, erm, the, err, erm, err… never mind.
The Red Hydrogen One
Remember, this is good! There has been a shift away from handsets you’d struggle to tell apart to distinct new smartphone flavors. We’ve seen recent phones with pop-up selfie cameras, flip cameras, sliding phones, notches that look like shark fins, and the promise of folding phones (troubled as their introduction may have been). The variety of phone designs on this short list alone is something to shout about.
There has been a shift in recent months, away from handsets you’d struggle to tell apart to distinct new smartphone flavors.
2019 is far from over
Most of the great phones on this list released in 2019. There has been a noticeable increase in originality and flair in just a few months, and that’s without even looking at the biggest and best of Android, like the Galaxy S10 or the Huawei P30 Pro. Those are arguably the best smartphones the world has ever seen, and as far as I’m concerned, they’re minor talking points.
2019 has been kind to Android phones, and the good news is we’re only halfway through. There are big things still set for the remaining quarters (Pixel 4 or Galaxy Note 10, anyone?), and I’d suggest, if the latter half is as good as the first, 2019 will be the best year Android fans have ever had.
Apple’s iOS 13 is running on 50 percent of all iPhones after three weeks
Apple’s iOS 13 update may have been riddled with bugs over the course of its first few weeks post-release, but that hasn’t had a meaningful impact on user adoption. According to the company, more than 50 percent of all iPhones were running iOS 13 just 26 days after launch. That’s slower than iOS 12, which took just 23 days to hit 50 percent, but not by much. If you count only iPhones purchased in the last four years, the figure jumps up to 55 percent.
The numbers look even better — vis a vis Android — when you take into account that most other phones are running iOS 12. Of all iPhones currently accessing the App Store, which is how Apple checks these numbers, 41 percent are using iOS 12 and just 9 percent are using an earlier mobile OS. For devices four years old and younger, 38 percent are running iOS 12 and just 7 percent are running an older OS. For iPadOS, the numbers are slightly lower, with 33 percent of all iPads running the new OS and 41 percent of newer iPads running it.
While these adoption rates may have slowed from last year, Apple is still miles ahead of Google in this regard, thanks to its tight integration of hardware and software that Google has never been able to replicate with Android. In fact, Google seems to have stopped reporting adoption rates recently, so we don’t know how many devices have Android 10 installed.
Last time Google checked in on that front, in May of this year, we knew that Android 9 Pie was installed on just 10.4 percent of all Android devices worldwide. For other versions, the rate spans spans 15 percent to 30 percent for versions as far back as Android 5.0 Lollipop, which is still running on 14.5 percent of all Android phones. At the time, Android 8.0 Oreo held the crown at the time with 27 percent of all devices. But the wide variety of years-old versions each serving millions upon millions of phones remains a bad look for Android fragmentation, a problem Google has all but given up on solving.
So whatever trepidation Apple fans may have had about the bugs and overall inconsistency with iPhone software, it doesn’t seem to have translated into action. As The Verge’s Dieter Bohn points out in his piece about holding off on installing macOS Catalina, he makes the smart point that phone updates are low risk and high reward, whereas the same is not true of desktop and laptop OS updates, where you may inadvertently affect your ability to get real work done. Looks like most iPhone owners agree.
How 5G could improve augmented reality
We all know by now that 5G is going to be a big deal. The next generation mobile network will provide ubiquitous gigabit connection speeds, extremely low latency and unrestricted capacity.
In fact, it’s rather difficult to imagine a modern industry that won’t be positively affected by 5G’s arrival.
When it comes to augmented reality, however, 5G looks set to be more transformational than most. Indeed, 5G could prove instrumental to augmented reality finally hitting the mainstream.
Let’s first clarify what we mean when we talk about ‘augmented reality’. AR, as it’s commonly known as, is the art and science of overlaying virtual information onto a live view of the real world.
While virtual reality (VR) creates a completely enclosed, self-contained 3D virtual world that a person can fully immerse themselves in, AR seeks to enhance or indeed augment our perception of the physical environment around us.
Augmented reality is already firmly embedded in our culture, from the heads-up displays (HUDs) in a fighter pilot’s cockpit to the live selfie effects of Snapchat and Facebook. But 5G’s arrival heralds a whole new wave of deeply integrated, highly social AR experiences.
Statista estimates that the value of the AR market will rise from $5.91 billion in 2018 to $198.17 billion in 2025 – it’s no coincidence that this rise will coincide with the rollout of 5G networks.
As we’ve hinted at already, augmented reality isn’t a new or cutting edge technology. We already have the means to create convincing AR experiences, but it’s an extremely hardware-intensive process.
Embedding virtual components in a real world view requires powerful processors, sharp cameras, a range of advanced sensors, and some serious software smarts. In short, the best AR apps crunch a lot of numbers.
What’s more, that data needs to be rendered in real time in order to produce a convincingly smooth and responsive AR experience. Immersion is everything with AR, to the point where any performance shortfall can be ruinous to the experience.
The huge amount of data being processed in real time means that modern mobile AR applications are very localized, essentially ‘offline’ affairs. Not only does this necessitate powerful mobile devices, it limits the scope of the AR experiences too.
Our current 4G networks simply don’t have the capacity to bear the weight of more connected or shared AR experiences, nor do they have the required low latency – that is, the time between an input and data being sent in response – for real time responsiveness.
What 5G brings to the AR table
It’s here that 5G will be able to take AR to the next level. The next generation mobile network will massively increase capacity and lower latency. ABI Research predicts that 5G will provide a “10X increase in throughput, 10X decrease in latency, and 100X increase in traffic capacity” over 4G, which will mean that “5G will not only improve, but will also be a requirement for some of the most exciting AR and VR applications”.
In such an environment, existing AR applications would be able to offload much of the intensive processing to the cloud, opening AR applications out to new, smaller, more energy efficient and cheaper form factors.
While the Google Glass project appeared to be halted several years ago (it wasn’t, but we’ll come to that), the prospect of a truly wearable, permanently accessible AR device hasn’t gone away. It was just hibernating until the technology could be refined, part of which involves a sufficiently capable mobile network.
The nature of AR applications will also grow more sophisticated, with truly shared and social real time augmented reality experiences. The transmitting of AR-enhanced live events could be one example.
This synergy between AR and 5G will also expand the potential for remote control drone and robot operation through enhanced HUDs (Heads Up Displays) and improved haptic feedback. Indeed, this lofty concept of the so-called ‘Tactile Internet’ is expected to kickstart the fourth industrial revolution.
That might sound lofty, but cutting edge researchers such as South Korea’s Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute predict just such an eventuality. In January 2019, it was announced that ETRI had developed a 5G-based technology that would enable AR applications to send and receive packets of data at speeds that match human perception.
“We will see robots, cars and all other machines connected to the Internet all around us,” said ETRI team leader HwanSeok Chung. “[The] Tactile Internet will enable humans and machines to interact with each other even from far away.”
AR and you
Talk of the Tactile Internet is all well and good, but you might ask how 5G-enhanced augmented reality is set to benefit the average user over the coming years.
The first thing to note is that the framework is there for massive advances in everyday AR applications. Both Google and Apple, gatekeepers to the two biggest smartphone platforms in the world, are investing heavily in AR. Apple announced its ARKit framework in June 2017, while Google announced its own ARCore in August 2017.
AR computation has been a core component of two generations of iOS and Android devices now, and there are countless AR-enhanced applications on their respective platforms. But the two companies have huge plans beyond the current status quo.
It’s widely expected that Apple will have some big things to say about AR at its next WWDC event from June 3, including potential macOS and iOS support for AR headsets.
It’s long been rumored that Apple is working on its own set of AR glasses, which could prove a huge boost to AR’s mainstream acceptance. You only need to see the company’s dramatic effect on the adoption of smartphones, tablets, and smartwatches for evidence of that.
For its part, Google has been steadily ticking over in the background with its pioneering Google Glass project after an initial failed public run. The latest update comes in the form of the business-focused Glass Enterprise Edition 2, which now runs on Android and is powered by Qualcomm’s AR-focused XR1 chipset.
On the software front, the company announced at Google I/O that it was adding 3D augmented reality models to its search results later this year.
Separately to this, Facebook is known to be investing heavily in augmented reality. Having played a major part in the related resurgence of VR through its Oculus Rift platform, the company is known to be working on its own advanced AR glasses.
Facebook has also been steadily bringing AR features to its vast network of social platform ever since 2017, from Messenger to Instagram to Facebook ads. Through AR Studio, it’s also allowing third parties to get in on the act.
Microsoft has its own longstanding AR hardware project in the form of HoloLens, which has yielded some of the most impressive (though alas not commercially available) AR applications of the current era – including an augmented reality version of Minecraft.
Talking of Minecraft and AR, Microsoft recently announced the Minecraft Earth mobile game, which could well prove to be the true breakout moment for AR gaming.
Make no mistake, AR is set to enter a whole new phase of mainstream acceptance in industry, on our phones, and through a whole new class of personal devices – and 5G is going to be at the very heart of the revolution.
5G Uncovered, in association with Samsung, brings you everything you need to know about the next wave of connectivity – not just how fast it’s going to be, but in just how many ways it’s going to change your life. Our 5G Uncovered hub is carefully curated to show everything there is to know about the next generation of connection.
PlayStation 5 v Xbox Scarlett: the next console war begins in 2020
Sony’s PS5 will have haptic feedback, while Microsoft’s competing console will have four times the power of Xbox One. Here’s how the two high-end machines compare
The next console war has a start date – or at least a start period. Sony has announced that its next console, PlayStation 5 (PS5), will be launched next autumn/winter, putting it in direct competition with Microsoft’s forthcoming Xbox Scarlett, also due in time for the 2020 Christmas holiday period.
“With haptics, you truly feel a broader range of feedback,” Sony said. “Crashing into a wall in a race car feels much different than making a tackle on the football field. You can even get a sense for a variety of textures when running through fields of grass or plodding through mud.”
The console will also have “adaptive triggers” incorporated into the L2 and R2 trigger buttons. Developers will be able to program the resistance of the triggers so that players, “feel the tactile sensation of drawing a bow and arrow or accelerating an off-road vehicle through rocky terrain”. Microsoft is experimenting with a similar technology for its Scarlett controller.
This is not the only apparent similarity between the competing consoles. In April, Sony revealed that PS5 would feature an eight-core CPU based on the third generation of AMD’s Ryzen processors, as well as a custom graphics processor based on the AMD Navi family (a technology capable of real-time ray-tracing effects), and a solid state drive (SSD), which will mean the faster loading of games and in-game content, and may also allow more granular loading processes, so players can choose to install only a game’s multiplayer component, or its campaign. The machine will support 8K resolution displays and 120Hz screen refresh rates.
Meanwhile, Xbox Scarlett will also utilise the latest AMD Ryzen processor and Navi graphics chipset; it will support screen resolutions of up to 8K and 120Hz refresh rates, and it will use an SSD rather than a traditional hard-disc drive. In addition, Scarlett is set to offer backwards compatibility for all Xbox One games as well as the Xbox and Xbox 360 titles that are available via Xbox One’s backward compatibility feature.Advertisement
Little else is known about the machines. Sony has spoken about PS5’s 3D audio capabilities, using a custom AMD sound chip to create incredibly immersive effects. In an interview with Wired, system architect Mark Cerny claimed the PlayStation user interface is getting a complete overhaul, and will show games information such as multiplayer activities and forthcoming mission objectives while players browse the menu.
Virtual reality will also be supported on PS5, at first via the current PlayStation VR headset, but later through a new headset, which is rumoured to support eye-tracking technology and may be wireless. Microsoft has not announced VR or augmented reality tech for Scarlett, but in the summer, rumours surfaced that the machine might be compatible with the Oculus Rift S gaming headset, currently available for PC.
It is unclear how the machines’ online multiplayer services will evolve for the next generation. Sony is likely to overhaul its PlayStation Now streaming game service, while Microsoft has its Xbox Game Pass equivalent. Rumours of an Xbox console that uses Microsoft’s cloud-based gaming service have been denied by the company.
As for Nintendo, the Switch console is only two years into its lifecycle, so a successor is unlikely to be released next year. However, rumours persist that the company is planning to release an updated and more powerful version of the Switch – known as Switch 2 or Switch Pro on tech sites – featuring an updated processor.
In an entertainment market dominated by streaming platforms and services, where everyone is looking for the next equivalent to Netflix or Spotify, it will be interesting to see how two specialist high-end machines fare, especially with Google Stadia (out in November) and Apple Arcade (launched in September), looking to entice more casual players.
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