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2015 is almost up, here are the most prominent smartphone trends of the year!

2015 is almost up, here are the most prominent smartphone trends of the year!

Every year brings a change to the smartphone market, and 2015 is no exception. Throughout those 12 months of technological passion and warfare, we witnessed plenty of design, hardware, and user experience trends emerge from smartphone makers' competitive minds and component suppliers' secret labs. It's just the way it should be, folks!

And just like that, some of these trends are very much gimmicks, others have “nice!” written all over them, and some actually contribute meaningful improvements to the already joyful past-time of owning a smartphone! We can actually see quite a few of the trends we're about to go through stick around for a number of years to come.

Read up on this trendy article of ours, for if you are still thinking that smartphone innovation has reached a plateau, you have another thing coming!

Design


Throughout 2015, metal and glass have remained the build materials of choice for the majority of high-end smartphones and tablets. But that's not to say we haven't witnessed some changes to the winning formula! Notably, it's slim screen bezels, tastefully curved glass, flat camera lens, and extra toughness that emerged as smartphone design trends.

War against the bezel


The Sharp Aquos Crystal personally declared the screen bezel extinct.
One trend that boldly emerged this year is the slimming down of screen bezels. Be it shaving a few millimeters off the frame, or playing out elaborate optical tricks and engineering mojo (touch-sensitive bezels like on the ZTE Nubia Z9), smartphone makers are waging war on the bezel. Why so? Well, it gives them a shot at improving aesthetics and serves as proving ground for their design and engineering prowess! It can also make big screen phones a tad more compact, but that's about as far as meaningful ergonomics improvement goes.

Check out some notable examples of this trend in action!


Glass with rounded edges for flowing elegance


Another popular addition to industrial design are the curved edge glass panels used on design-conscious smartphones today. Also known as "2.5D" glass, these panels feature a slight curvature at their contoured edges, giving them just that little bit of “extra dimension”. This isn't a curved display, mind you, but merely shaped glass, although the intriguing visual effect it accomplishes definitely counts. It contributes to a more seamless appearance, with the glass sitting atop the smartphone and covering its front panel all the way to the edges. We can see this trend hanging on for a while, as it does contribute a pleasant, flowing aesthetic.

This is how you know your smartphone's glass has arrived from the 2.5-th dimension.

Strive towards leveling camera humps


Camera "humps" sticking out of smartphone backs have been around for a long time, but somehow, it was the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus to really get people worked up over this small, yet notable design detail. Met with such a negative response, the iPhone camera hump sent a clear message - this stuff needs to go! Apple, in all its smartphone design authority, seems to have zero problems with the iPhone's camera hump for the time being, but the critics of the industry clearly want them to go. This is a legitimate possibility now, thanks to advancements in the development of back-illuminated optical image sensors. The chips are getting progressively slimmer each year and allow for thinner smartphones that have their camera lens level with the phone's body.

There was a song about humps once, and it was awful...

Thus, we have a good reason to believe that Apple and other smartphone makers will do their best to eliminate camera humps in the near future, although we're pretty sure that smartphones with cameras that stick a little bit out will be commonplace well into the future. Then again, if designers took the time and effort to make those camera humps look presentable, we'll never be ones to angrily point our fingers at them!

Ruggedness evolved


LG V10 - toughing it up!
Rugged smartphones aren't anything new, but this year saw some interesting breakthroughs that have the potential of turning into trends. First up, LG keeps experimenting with self-healing coatings, using its G Flex line as a testbed and wowing people with backs that recover from scratches like in the Terminator movies! LG's life-proof chemicals and materials began to trickle down to other devices, such as the V10 "superphone", which entered the mainstream sporting a toughened stainless steel frame.

In this line of thought, we ought to give the new Motorola DROID Turbo 2 and its five-layer "ShatterShield" display a shout-out! Going all in on the idea of making the one indestructible display to rule them all, Moto built an assembly that moves sequentially between an aluminum chassis for structural integrity, an AMOLED display panel, two touchscreen layers (one's for backup), and two protective lens. As flexible Plastic-OLED display panels start arriving on more high-end phones and wearables, we can imagine more manufacturers will implement such safety technologies, even if they won't go to such extremes.

Obviously, smartphone ruggedness isn't lacking innovation, but extra-rugged phones like the LG V10 and the DROID Turbo 2 still have that bulky, life-proof look to them, which won't appeal to the masses looking for svelte, charming metal-and-glass handsets. Indeed, for the foreseeable future, we reckon waterproofing, Gorilla Glass, and a bit of sapphire is all those snazzy flagship smartphones will have in store for us.

Moto DROID Turbo 2 - a display indestructible.

Hardware


One could argue that smartphone hardware innovation has peaked and we're on a steady path towards diminishing returns from each new generation. Yet, component makers are confidently moving forward with their products, contributing to faster performance and meaningful user experience improvements. Notable trends this year include the wide adoption of fingerprint-based security, increased attention to mobile photography, a complete switch to 64-bit processors with ample amounts of RAM, along with ventures into 4K screen resolution.

Fingerprint identification and iris scanning security


Brought to the masses by Apple with the iPhone 5s in 2013, fingerprint security took its sweet time, but eventually became commonplace in high-end smartphones from the second half of 2015. The convenient fingerprint identification can be used for quickly and safely unlocking the devices, authorizing logins, making mobile payments, and whatever else fingerprint security enabled apps allow for. With native finger scanning support built into Android, this form of biometrics security is poised to gain widespread adoption, possibly among mid and low-tier devices as well!

Piece by piece, TouchID started it all...

...then Microsoft jumped in to bring iris scanners to the mainstream.
Another intriguing layer of biometrics security has been brought forth by none other than Microsoft. Iris recognition isn't new to Android smartphones, for forward thinking Chinese and Japanese manufacturers have already implemented the technology in a number of devices, such as the Fujitsu NX F-04G, Vivo X5Pro, and ZTE Grand S3. However, the Lumia 950 & 950 XL will be the first devices to bring mainstream attention to this form of biometrics security. Utilizing IR sensors embedded in their front cameras, the smartphones light up the iris patterns in your eyes and an infra-red camera photographs them. This process happens very quickly, usually in the span of 1-2 seconds.


Moreover, iris patterns don't change themselves after one turns 2 years of age, and are unique to every individual, making them a practical choice for security. Properly implemented, iris recognition sounds like a winner, and we won't be surprised to see it brought to high-end Android smartphones next year.

High-end mobile photography


Dual lens cameras! Color spectrum sensors! Laser autofocus! Manual controls, huge megapixel counts, and three-LED flash arrays! This is the stuff that's been making headlines and review highlights where smartphone photography is mentioned. But the biggest question is something else entirely - did this tech cavalcade contribute to better photos taken by our trusty smartphones? Far and away, the answer's yes, although not every camera trend is equal. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, thus even the highest grade components are hardly worth anything if there are no awesome camera algorithms in place to make the most out of them.

Either way, we really like how these trends influenced smartphone photography throughout 2015. The laser autofocus system has proven quite practical for focusing quickly and reliably in all sorts of challenging conditions. Dual cameras are still a bit of a gimmick, though the peculiar solution presented by the LG V10 (one camera used for near-field, single-person selfies, and another with a wider lens for taking group selfies) is genuinely useful for making the most of front cam shooting.

More means more for LG and its smartphone cameras.

Similar to the laser autofocus module, LG's color spectrum sensor is something we could see in more phones by brands other than LG next year, provided manufacturers are keen on integrating the component with their camera assemblies and apps. In the LG G4 and LG V10, Mr. CSS does contribute to a more natural color reproduction across a variety of scenarios, although its performance isn't always consistent. Mostly, though, we're keen on the idea of 'Manual controls' becoming commonplace among smartphone cameras. Handling adjustments really lets users make the most out of those big camera sensors and elaborate lens assemblies!

Speaking of big camera sensors, we are seeing more smartphones show up with megapixel counts as big as 21MP, riding on the back of Sony's promising IMX 230 sensor. Motorola and Sony's latest handsets sport these at the back, while a smartphone by Chinese brand Meitu comes with one on the front — because who doesn't enjoy 21MP selfies? We expect orders for Sony's image sensor to pick up in 2016. Where hi-end smartphones are concerned, it's either that, or sensors custom-built to order.

Is three times the charm, Microsoft?
Oh, and while we're talking cameras, we can't run past that mighty three LED assembly Microsoft brought to the table in its new Lumia handsets. Dual LED flashes have been popular this year, which means manufacturers are visibly concerned about the proper illumination of your low-light shots. Are they so into the issue that they would up the amount of LEDs to three, though? How many LEDs is overkill? This remains to be established. By the way, Lenovo actually had a saying in this right in the beginning of the year, outing the Vibe Shot — basically a camera posing as a full metal smartphone. Not many people seem to remember that one, though.

64-bit chips and up to 4GB of RAM


After Apple threw the 64-bit processing gauntlet first, chipmakers muscled up and worked double shifts to ease Android and Windows devices into a smooth 64-bit processing transition in 2015. And behold, from high-end devices down to even the puniest of smartwatches and entry-level smartphones are up and running with 64-bit chips by MediaTek and Qualcomm. Even Samsung and Huawei took part in the game, unveiling multi-core Exynos and Kirin-branded 64-bit chipsets that comfortably compete with the best market leaders had to offer. While octa-core was the de-facto standard for mid and high-tier processors in Android smartphones, we're already seeing silicon slinger supreme Qualcomm return to the quad-core format for its flagship Snapdragon 820 processor.

Still, both Apple and Google have made good use of the switch to 64-bit, taking advantage of the ARMv8 instruction set to implement strong encryption protocols inside their operating systems. Moreover, CPUs have become faster, as the number of registers inside them has doubled and the processor will spend less time pulling data from memory, rather than from its own temporary storage.

Qualcomm brought 64-bit processors to mobile devices of all sizes and prices.

Moreover, makers of hot-shot devices meant for heavy multitasking or hardware might showcases, ended up outfitting their products with as much RAM as an entry-level laptop has nowadays! The Samsung Galaxy Note5 and the Apple iPad Pro immediately come to mind, both filling up those 4GB of precious volatile memory with the challenges of your daily work assignments. For non-specialized "workhorse" devices, though, 2 and 3GB of RAM are still perfectly adequate, and this shall remain so for the next few years. Not that enterprising manufacturers won't try putting 6 or 8GB of the stuff in there for the sake of bragging...

4K resolution and you


The Sony Xperia Z5 Premium is 4K, for real!
It was in the cards! As early as 2014, we've been hearing that display panel makers such as Samsung and Sharp have 4K resolution panels in the works for a 2016 onslaught of exceedingly pixel-dense displays. So Sharp's announcement from the first half of 2015 that it has a 5.5-inch IGZO panel with Ultra HD resolution ready for production was not at all that surprising. However, most smartphone makers were content with 1440 x 2560 resolution screens throughout the year, and so are users. To be honest, we still get by perfectly fine with 1080p screens, or even less (in the case of the 4.7-inch iPhone 6s).

Anyway, for better or worse, the cat is already out of the bag. The Xperia Z5 Premium shipped with a display capable of reproducing 4K content pixel by pixel, operating in 1080p mode for when 4K muscles need not be exercised. We imagine other smartphone makers will follow suit in much the same way, as it makes a whole lot of sense. You don't want to hit the battery and CPU too hard with extra processing unless it's really beneficial, right? For what it's worth, 4K resolution screens will allow for immersive VR experiences and proper 4K entertainment consumption. Arguably, these are pretty nice things to have!

Interface


Pressure-sensitive screens for enhanced control


Once Apple introduced Force Touch on its wearable-in-chief (the Apple Watch), Android manufacturers felt compelled to follow suit. Huawei brought pressure sensitive display controls to some variants of its Mate S large screen smartphone before Apple officially revealed the rumored 3D Touch as a killer feature of the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus. By embedding a pressure-sensitive layer in the display, the technology allows for sensing multiple levels of pressure applied on the screen, executing different functions associated with them. According to Apple's own 3D Touch component supplier, it will take up to three years before pressure sensitive controls become popular across all device tiers. While the technology is available, it's up to app developers to make the most of it with clever ideas for contextual controls.

The iPhone 6s really likes to be touched!

Contextually aware and proactive voice assistants


You may remember that Google announced Now On Tap at I/O 2015. Google demonstrated how having the music player rocking a Skrillex tune makes Google Now relate the question "what's his real name" to the artist and intelligently display the relevant information. In a text conversation, the algorithm also recognized the opportunity to automatically add a reminder for the user to carry out a particular task - get the dry cleaning. It also went on to show the coordinates and set up an event for a dinner at a restaurant in Palo Alto.

The iOS Proactive Assistant automatically loads when you’re doing certain activities or arrive at certain locations, bringing context-aware functionality. It's things like automatically loading your workout music playlist when it knows you are at the gym. Improvements in natural language processing let you ask Siri to show you photos from a particular time and occasion, and the assistant will automatically take you there. And just like Google’s Now on Tap, iOS knows what you’re looking at, and it's able to use that information for search results by Siri-invoked actions, such as setting up a reminder.

The brains behind the circles are growing bigger...

Cortana, Microsoft's Windows assistant, has gotten the contextual smarts too. The app will enlighten you about trending news based on your location. In other words, if you live in Sleepy Town, Wyoming you might not be interested in the results from Australian Rules Football contests. But the voice activated personal assistant will show you hot news from the region and country that you live in, all without having to select topics that you want to read about.

As mobile processors and dedicated contextual recognition processors continue to improve, so shall voice assistants' capabilities. Be it Google and Apple's own creations, or third-party assistants rolled by smartphone makers, the trend of our handsets behaving increasingly intelligently will continue from 2015 into the years to come.

Wrap-up


2015 really brought the best and worst out of smartphone manufacturers. The worst part we'd rather not mention, but the best part is as great as it possibly could be – phone makers are doubling up on design efforts, hardware differentiation, and user experience improvements like they never have before. The difficulty level of the present smartphone market is borderline Nightmare Mode, so hard, honest work like that is exactly what it takes to survive in the business, especially if one's marketing budget doesn't run as deep as Samsung's and Apple's. With all that's told, let's hope 2016 will bring another round of fine innovations like the ones we just had a look at!

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