Competition in the smartphone sector will remain cutthroat in 2012, as vendors will improve performance using LTE, high-resolution screens and quad-core processors and GPUs.
Put together, vendors will be able to build smartphones that will outshine current offerings. The big challenge for them will be to implement the hardware improvements in a way that won't leave consumers even more disappointed with battery life than they are today.
Vendors are also paying a lot of attention to cheaper smartphones. So, for consumers who can't afford extensive contracts and high-end devices, there will still be many products to choose from.
While this year brought the arrival of the first smartphone equipped with LTE (Long Term Evolution), 2012 will see products with improved battery performance thanks to more energy-efficient chipsets and the arrival of the first VoLTE (Voice over LTE) implementations.
Today, all smartphones with LTE are based on Google's Android. But that will change in the next 12 months, driven by U.S. operators Verizon Wireless and AT&T. It seems like a foregone conclusion that the next iPhone will have LTE, and be joined by phones based on Windows Phone and the BlackBerry OS.
So far, smartphones with LTE have very much been a U.S. phenomenon, but in 2012 they will appear in Europe, Asia and Australia.
But users shouldn't expect to be able to use their phones when traveling abroad. First of all, carriers have to sign roaming agreements and price services fairly. Roaming is further complicated by the multitude of spectrum bands used across the world.
Worldwide, about 150 million people currently have access to LTE networks, according to Ericsson. But that figure will increase next year as the commercial networks are expected to grow from at least 40 to more than 100, according to industry organization GSA (Global mobile Suppliers Association).
Larger screen sizes were one of the big smartphone hardware trends in 2011, including Samsung's Galaxy Note with its 5.3-inch screen, and a whole host of products whose screens measure between 4.5 and 4.7 inches.
It can be argued that screen and the overall size of smartphones have reached a practical maximum, which means vendors have to find another performance metric to entice users to pick up a new phone.
Higher resolution is a likely candidate. Recent arrivals like the LG Nitro HD and the Galaxy Nexus have already made the jump to a screen resolution at 1280-by-720 pixels, and more models are reportedly on the way.
Apple's iPhone already has lots of pixels, but the screen size has remained at 3.5 inches. However, along with LTE, the next iPhone is also expected to have a bigger screen.
Big screens have the unfortunate side effect of using lots of power, but announcements made next year will focus around advancements in making displays more energy efficient, as well, according to Geoff Blaber, an analyst at CCS Insight.
Along with larger displays, dual-core processors were a big hardware trend in 2011. But, again, vendors need to convince consumers that it makes sense to buy a new phone, and products with quad-core processors will be on the menu in 2012.
Upgrading from two to four cores will improve the overall experience when using a phone, as well as improve video performance and help phones keep up with faster 4G networks, according to ARM spokesman Andy Phillips. The company's Cortex-A9 will power many such phones.
Clock speeds will also increase next year.
But improved smartphone performance won't come from just faster main processors. The GPU (graphics processing unit) will also play a more important role in upcoming products, according to Blaber.
ARMs Mali-T604 is one of the GPUs that will be used in high-end smartphones next year. It can also use four cores and offers five times the performance of previous Mali graphics processors, according to ARM.
Smartphone trends for 2012 will be a highlight of the Consumers Electronics Show, which starts on Jan. 10 in Las Vegas, and the Mobile World Congress, which takes place at the end of February in Barcelona.
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