Smartphone vendors will be vying for consumers' interest by adding better cameras, more features and a lot of style.
Now that (hopefully) the especially nasty winter of 2015 is starting to release its hold on the U.S., it's time to look for the signs of approaching spring: trees beginning to bud, plant shoots starting to push through the snow, and vendors announcing this year's new smartphones.
I had a chance to get brief hands-on experience with three of the upcoming new Android smartphones: Samsung's Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge, and HTC's One M9. These are all upgrades of existing -- and popular -- devices; all three were just announced at the Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona.
HTC One M9
HTC is actually pushing in a somewhat new direction; it's expanding its mobile division to encompass a number of devices outside of the smartphones that the company is known for. Its first, rather experimental try at this was its Re camera; the second, announced at MWC, is the HTC Grip, a smart fitness tracker aimed at serious athletes.
However, the company is also stressing that it is still serious about its flagship line of smartphones, the latest of which is the HTC One M9. HTC has been careful about tweaking the new phone; obviously, it doesn't want to mess with success.
The latest iteration offers a 5-in. 1080p full HD display made of Gorilla Glass 4 and powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 processor; as with its predecessor, the display is impressively bright, clean and sharp (although I wasn't able to test it outdoors).
The phone continues the HTC One M8's tradition of a nice sense of style with an atractive duotone sleek brushed metal look; it is is slightly smaller and slimmer than its predecessor and I found it quite comfortable to hold. The M9 will come with a 2,840mAh (non-removable) battery, 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage; an SD card slot allows for an additional 128GB.
As with the M8, there are two front-facing speakers, one at the top and one at the bottom, using HTC's BoomSound audio technology; I tried it briefly and it sounded really good. According to HTC, it includes Dolby audio and can provide virtual surround sound.
Cameras have become more and more important; the M9 boasts a 20-megapixel camera that includes an f/2.2 lens using Sapphire glass. HTC has gotten rid of the previous back-facing two-camera setup; the second camera was supposed to add depth information, but apparently either didn't do the job or wasn't worth the added expense. You can now also shook 4K video. The front-facing camera offer dynamic auto exposure and, according to the company, better low-light photos.
The M9, which will ship with Android 5.0 (Lollipop), has some interesting new interface tweaks. One consumer-friendly feature which I rather liked: HTC will allow users to change the general look of the interface (not only the background, but icons as well) using a variety of themes. Users will be able to download these themes from a website, or they can create their own by taking a photo; the M9 will pull elements of that photo to create a new theme. This isn't exactly a high-end functional addition, but a way of personalizing the interface that many users could take to. (I certainly did.)
Another interesting interface addition is a contextually-aware widget that will group and show icons depending on where you are -- for example, your Netflix icon may be front and center when you're at home and hidden when you're at work. Other software improvements include making HTC's BlinkFeed service more contextually aware, so users can get real-time recommendations for restaurants, etc., depending on their location and the time of day.
The HTC One M9 will be available from major phone vendors in early spring; pricing info and a specific ship date weren't available at the time of this writing.
Samsung Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge
Samsung's Galaxy smartphones have always created a stir when they were introduced -- partly because Samsung has an excellent publicity machine, and partly because its phones tend to be high-end, feature-filled and beautifully designed. It looks like the Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 Edge won't be much different. (The Galaxy S6 Edge is a slightly higher-end unit whose display bends over the side edges of the phone.)
In the preview I attended, there was a lot of emphasis on the look of the new phones -- and I have to admit that they are both very snazzy. The phones are built with Gorilla Glass over a metal shell; according to Samsung, the company added a reflective structure underneath the glass that captures the light movement. The phones come in four colors: white, black, gold or blue for the S6 and white, black, gold or green for the S6 Edge.
The phones are certainly comfortable in the hand, although the S6 was so thin that it almost felt sharp along its edges when I held it; I didn't have that problem with the more rounded S6 Edge. The 5.1-in. Quad HD Super AMOLED displays are impressive; as with the HTC, I couldn't test them outdoors, but indoors, the colors were bright, rich and vibrant.
The phones' speakers have been put on the bottom edge rather than the front or back, so that the sound won't be muffled if you put the phone face down (or face up) on a surface. The sound itself is quite good for a phone (not up to a decent speaker, but really not bad at all); turned up all the way, I was able to hear music quite well even in a noisy environment.
The Galaxy S6 Edge has undergone a major redesign. The original Edge had a display that curved over the right edge until it met the back, where you could run tickertape-like messages. This Edge is different: It curves partway over both the left and right edges; at least some of the reason for this, according to one Samsung rep, was that left-handed users found the previous design awkward.
One new feature that the Edge offers is the ability to see who is calling via a flash of color on the side of the phone. You can assign up to five different colors to different contacts -- so, for example, if you have your phone muted but see that the side is flashing blue, you'll know it's your mother calling.
Samsung said that it has streamlined the feature-set of its Android overlay, although there are still a considerable number of tweaks. One feature that worked nicely for me was the ability to multitask by creating two or more windows (assuming that the app supports it); this gives you the ability to, say, hold a Skype conversation with a friend and check your calendar at the same time. Samsung has expanded this function and made it easier to access.
Samsung has also upgraded its cameras. The rear-facing camera now has a 16-megapixel, F-stop 1.9 lens; as with the S5, it comes with High Dynamic Range (HDR) imaging, which adjust the image to allow for such problems as flare when there's a bright light in the photo. This feature was demonstrated to me by aiming the camera at an area of the room where there was a very bright light, and when HDR was invoked, the image changed from a bright blur into a lamp, which was duly impressive. HDR has now also been added to the 5-megapixel front-facing camera.
There is now also a quick-launch function for the cameras. Unlike the feature in Motorola's Moto X and second-generation Moto E, where you twist the phone to invoke the camera app, the S6 lets you access the camera if you hit the home button twice, an admittedly easier way to do it. There is also an auto-focus feature that will follow a moving subject until the picture is taken.
Other interesting features: The S6 and S6 Edge phones will support (although not quite yet) MST (magnetic secure transmission) using old-fashioned magnetic strips like those that are used with credit cards, the idea being that retailers won't have to install new technology to use them. They will come with embedded wireless charging supporting both the WPC and PMA standards. And for business users, they will offer an upgraded version of Samsung's KNOX secure mobile platform. (An additional note: The Galaxy S6, unlike its predecessors, will not have a removable battery.)
The Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge are expected to ship April 10th with options for 32GB, 64GB or 128GB storage; there was no information on vendors or pricing at the time of this writing.
Naturally, it is impossible to really judge these phone by their specs or by several minutes of handling them in controlled circumstances. We hope to have full reviews of them when they ship, but there's no doubt that the race is on to try to offer smartphone enthusiasts high-end devices that not only offer improved performance, photography, video and displays, but that look really good.
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