Smartphone vendors will rely on upgrades such as full-HD screens and more powerful yet more frugal processors to entice customers to buy new phones in 2013.
Those tactics may work: Processor designer ARM thinks sales will surpass 1 billion units for the first time. But competition will continue to be ruthless as vendors and platforms fight for dominance or just survival.
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Earlier this year it became clear that smartphones with 1920-by-1080-pixel resolution were on the way when Sharp and LG Display announced they were working on such screens.
The first phone to be equipped with the higher resolution is the HTC Droid DNA or Butterfly, but next year more high-end smartphones are expected to also get full-HD displays, including the Galaxy S IV from Samsung Electronics.
So far, reviewers have been impressed. "The display looks fantastic, with crisp, sharp details and brilliant colors that delight the eye," Computerworld wrote about the Droid DNA's screen.
The upgrade to full-HD also continues to fuel the trend of even larger smartphone displays; the Droid DNA has a 5-inch screen, compared to the Samsung Galaxy S III, which has one that measures 4.8 inches.
Overall, the Droid DNA has roughly the same width and thickness as the Galaxy S III, but is about 5 millimeters longer.
The one worry with a bigger screen and more pixels is shorter battery life, and the Droid DNA has been getting mixed reviews in that regard. Other smartphone vendors should learn from that and choose a bigger battery than the Droid DNA's 2020 mAh on their 1080p phones.
ARM's big.LITTLE arrives
The arrival of the first phones to use ARM's big.LITTLE processor architecture will be the most interesting hardware upgrade next year.
ARM's goal has been to build processors that allow mobile devices to do more, but at the same time become more efficient at doing small things. The first generation of big.LITTLE does this by combining the powerful Cortex-A15 and the frugal Cortex-A7 on one die.
The A15 is about 50 percent faster than processors powering current smartphones, while the A7 is the most energy-efficient processor ARM has ever developed, according to Laurence Bryant, director of mobile solutions at ARM.
Vendors can choose any configuration with up to four cores of each processor. But the first implementations of big.LITTLE are expected to have a symmetric number of cores, such as two small and two large ones, Bryant said.
Going forward there will be a larger variance. For example, two powerful and four frugal processors would be a good fit for the kinds of workloads smartphones have to handle, according to Bryant.
To save power each core can also be turned off when not in use.
The silicon is ready and ARM has tested chips running Android on multiple small and large cores, but it won't be more specific about when the first devices will arrive beyond saying next year.
The Cortex-A15 is already used on its own in products such as the Nexus 10 tablet.
Even though three years have passed since the first commercial LTE network was launched, there is still a lot of room for improvements in the 4G market.
For example, several chipset vendors are developing products that combine application processors and LTE modems on a single die, which will result in better power efficiency, according to market research company Gartner.
Also, more operators will launch Voice-over-LTE (VoLTE) services, including AT&T and possibly Verizon Wireless in the U.S.
"We see that interest is growing a lot, and during next year several operators want to roll out the technology," said Kati Ahman, marketing manager for VoLTE at Ericsson.
U.S. operator MetroPCS as well as SK Telecom and LG Uplus in South Korea were the first to announce VoLTE services, and next year most of the demand will still be in North America and Asia. But European operators are also starting to look at using LTE for voice, according to Ahman.
The move to an all-IP network will make it easier for operators to add more voice-related services that can compete with today's Web-based offerings like Skype, Facebook and WhatsApp.
Such services include video calls, chat, presence and other multimedia services, according to Ahman. Users will also be able to configure incoming calls to ring on multiple devices and will be able to easily move sessions between a tablet and smartphone, she said.
But first operators will concentrate on getting just the voice part right. Also, installing HD Voice will be the default in VoLTE networks.
"You don't have do it, but there is really no reason not to do it. All VoLTE smartphones will have HD Voice from day one," said Ahman.
HD Voice offers improved sound quality thanks to AMR-WB (Adaptive Multi-Rate - Wideband), a speech-compression algorithm that doubles the range of voice frequencies transmitted.
The number of commercial LTE networks will continue to grow next year, with 209 networks expected to be up and running by the end of next year compared to an estimated 166 in 2012, according to industry organization GSA (Global mobile Suppliers Association).
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