Peak hardware is upon us, and 5G foldables are our only hope

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
Peak hardware is upon us, and 5G foldables are our only hope
TL;DR
Five cameras are not 5x better than one camera. Moving to 4K displays won't sparkle the HD->FHD joy, while 5nm processors will only make phones 10% faster.

The good ol' cell phone industry has reached a tipping point. Handsets of yesteryear are almost unrecognizable next to a modern flagship, and not only because they should be called two-hand-sets now. We kid, but "all-screen" designs are nearing their screen-to-body ratio limits, just look at the Galaxy A80, for instance, while internal hardware is as good as it can get.

Buying a flagship phone now will keep you all set for a couple of years, and the prolonged stats for average ownership duration confirm it. We've gone from changing our phones every two years, to nearing the 3-year ownership mark now. Can you guess why? Well, a perfect storm of carrier subsidy removal and "all-screen" design plus multi-camera arms races that raised average phone prices top a record should do as an explanation. 

There is one more angle to explore, though, the law of diminishing returns. We won't win as much from moving to 4K phone displays than we won going from 720p to 1080p screens. We won't get as much performance boost going 7nm to 5nm chipsets, as we did 16nm to 10nm to 7nm. Five cameras are not five times better than one camera, especially if it's on a Pixel handset, and so on.


Peak display

Not 4K

Folks with an iPhone XR will tell you that display resolution is not everything and will be mocked out of Twitter existence, but the phone will still sell many times more than the Xperia 1. The reason we mention the Sony is that it carries a true 4K resolution display with 643ppi pixel density which can kill the 3330 mAh battery in no time, but we digress. While that would be a selling point on a TV or computer monitor, it's a bit overkill on a phone, and manufacturers are unlikely to go that route. Good guy Huawei even refuses to budge and go QHD with its flagship phone displays, let alone 4K, and we are all the more grateful for it, as Huawei's high-end phones flaunt record battery lives for the category because of the 1080p screens.

Apple iPhone XR

Apple iPhone XR

Dimensions

5.94 x 2.98 x 0.33 inches

150.9 x 75.7 x 8.3 mm

Weight

6.84 oz (194 g)

Huawei P30 Pro

Huawei P30 Pro

Dimensions

6.22 x 2.89 x 0.33 inches

158 x 73.4 x 8.41 mm

Weight

6.77 oz (192 g)

Samsung Galaxy S10 5G

Samsung Galaxy S10 5G

Dimensions

6.4 x 3.04 x 0.31 inches

162.6 x 77.1 x 7.94 mm

Weight

6.98 oz (198 g)

Sony Xperia 1

Sony Xperia 1

Dimensions

6.57 x 2.83 x 0.32 inches

167 x 72 x 8.2 mm

Weight

6.28 oz (178 g)

Apple iPhone XR

Apple iPhone XR

Dimensions

5.94 x 2.98 x 0.33 inches

150.9 x 75.7 x 8.3 mm

Weight

6.84 oz (194 g)

Huawei P30 Pro

Huawei P30 Pro

Dimensions

6.22 x 2.89 x 0.33 inches

158 x 73.4 x 8.41 mm

Weight

6.77 oz (192 g)

Samsung Galaxy S10 5G

Samsung Galaxy S10 5G

Dimensions

6.4 x 3.04 x 0.31 inches

162.6 x 77.1 x 7.94 mm

Weight

6.98 oz (198 g)

Sony Xperia 1

Sony Xperia 1

Dimensions

6.57 x 2.83 x 0.32 inches

167 x 72 x 8.2 mm

Weight

6.28 oz (178 g)

To see the phones in real size or compare them with other models, visit our Visual Phone Size Comparison page


Granted, resolution is not everything, but all the other bases are now covered, too. Samsung's AMOLED displays can hit 1000+ nits of peak brightness in isolated scenarios, and virtually all high-end phone screens can now show HDR10 or even Dolby Vision movies in their full glory, what else is there at the moment to achieve?

Why, microLED, of course. The next best hope for a display advancement does away with the backlight and instead relies on tiny LEDs, each of which consists of 3 sub-pixels that can emit its own light. This means that the tech is capable of delivering the same amazing aspect ratios and true blacks as OLED, but with a couple of added benefits. For one, microLED ditches the organic materials used in OLED in favor of an inorganic solution. This means that microLED displays aren’t as susceptible to aging as OLEDs, which deteriorate and decrease in luminance over time. 

The inorganic compound used in the production of microLED panels is called Gallium Nitride (GaN), and apart from an improved lifespan, it also offers as much as 30 times higher total brightness than what OLED can produce. The problem? It is very expensive to make, and years away from mass adoption, despite that Apple is pouring its considerable resources into it. For now, mobile screens are as good as they get.


Peak processor - 5nm vs 7nm vs 10nm vs 16nm vs whatevs

Puny node gains will be the norm

Don't get too excited that TSMC and Samsung recently announced they have started taping out their 5nm mobile chipset production methods. While the Extreme Ultra-Violet (EUV) lithography they will be made with is new and exciting, it mainly helps production costs rather than processor performance. Chipsets have been hitting the law of diminishing returns with every node down now. 


As you can see, we'll gain very little in terms of performance boost out of the move to 5nm that will happen in the second half of next year, likely in time for the 2020 iPhones. We get a bit lower power draw, but considering that the screen is the main consumer in a phone, the difference in battery life won't be significant. 

The only tangible benefit is the reduction in space needed for the chippery but, considering that we are already at a pinky nail footprint anyway, this is unlikely to benefit the internal space of a phone much anyway. In short, the move to 5nm or even 3nm won't bring the same drastic speed, power consumption and footprint advantages that we had with previous node moves of our mobile chipsets.

Peak camera

The number wars are over

The Galaxy S10 5G and Nokia 9 PureView both have six cameras in total. The P30 Pro has a 40MP main camera while the new Galaxy A80 has a 48 MP sensor that can be used for selfies as well. The S10 and P30 Pro have 120-degree wide-angle cameras, while the P30 Pro tacks on up to 10x lossless zoom with periscope lens. Let those numbers sink in. Where are we going from here? Octa-camera phones, even more zoom, 60MP sensors? 

Hardly, given that Nokia can't even iron out the kinks of its penta-camera software. The advancements in computational, machine-learning photography will be the driving force behind camera innovations from now on, given that Google's Pixel 3 does with a simple 12MP camera what others can't do with five. Apple will be entering the fray with a tri-camera set of its own, and we are unlikely to see it doing much else but perfecting the software and added features for at least the next two iPhone editions.


If you like your phone, you can keep your phone... for years

A good phone now will still be good in 2022

Now, we aren't advocating for a cease in smartphone "innovation" - this will never happen - but the record phone and repair price levels we've hit and the plateauing global phone sales indicate that peak hardware is upon us, and folks are keeping their handsets way longer than they used to.

Will you absolutely need a 4K phone screen, 20x periscope zoom or a 3nm processor in the next few years? Highly unlikely, so if manufacturers want to keep the same level of prices and profits, they will have to come up with a radically altered cell phone concept, either in terms of form factor, or connectivity. How about both?

The knight in bendy armor, or 5G foldables to the rescue

Brace yourselves for the upgrade tsunami

No phone maker will admit the peak hardware, least of all the peak prices and repairs phenomenon, and we'll be seeing plenty of marketing fluff with each new flagship release still, but they are already looking for ways out of the current plateau. 

The sheer fact that Samsung is willing to provide its flexible screen mojo to manufacturers like Oppo or Xiaomi in order to create and expand the foldable phone market as fast as possible, is an indication that it is perfectly aware we've hit the screen/processor/camera limit.

The foldable form factor will give an immense advantage to whoever masters it first, and the rollout of 5G networks will be the most compelling reason to upgrade from your current flagship phone in the foreseeable future. Thus, a 5G foldable can command whatever price the manufacturer sees fit now (and they do!), recouping the initial R&D investment in its creation, and creating a foothold in the future of mobile. 

Foldable phone form factors

Foldable phone form factors


A mad rush awaits us, and in the third decade of the 21st century, we are about to witness as drastic a change in our perception about what a phone means as we did in the second decade of the century. What do you think?

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19 Comments

1. geordie8t1

Posts: 275; Member since: Nov 16, 2015

you will never reach the peak, there will always be a new form of tech, foldable phones are the next big thing, processors are MEH to me, cameras will continue to evolve, penta camera tech is the new thing for nokia but it is so new that it is no surprise the tech is raw, one day we will see bigger sensors added, screens will only increase in visual prowess, we dont need 4k screen devices on day to day, but for VR gaming and all the next gen stuff, these displays will be great for them, and lets face it, 8k will arrive on a phone at some point in the not so far of future, 5g is new, but in 10 years we will all be talking 6G or whatever the new standard may be called, and it will no doubt offer 5 fold increase on 5g which supposedly already offers a supposed 20 times faster speed a peak rates, so no we havent peaked, some things will plataeu tho, design gets stale after a while until the industry shakes things up

5. sgodsell

Posts: 6835; Member since: Mar 16, 2013

foldable phones/tablets are the next in line. However voice assistants in combination with displays are the next major wave of computing. As a matter of fact, there was an article talking about smart speakers/displays are going to over take tablets and smart watches.

7. sgodsell

Posts: 6835; Member since: Mar 16, 2013

I should have stated that analysts have said that smart speakers/smart displays are going to over take the sales of tablets and smart watches combined by the end of 2020.

9. midan

Posts: 2574; Member since: Oct 09, 2017

It was 2021 and smart bands, not smart watches.

14. TBomb

Posts: 1177; Member since: Dec 28, 2012

I can see smart speakers/displays taking over but that's because you have more rooms in your house than people (on average). Each person gets a bedroom, then kitchen, living room, play room, basements, man cave, office/den, outside if you have a pool area, etc. Meanwhile, its 1 watch or tablet per person.

12. Leo_MC

Posts: 6615; Member since: Dec 02, 2011

I won't bet on foldables, I will bet on flexibles. I also don't bet on VR, but I have a lot of faith in AR.

2. Cheezwiz

Posts: 499; Member since: Dec 29, 2014

I'll take a phone with a 5000mAh battery, thanks.

3. Reviewerofstuff

Posts: 114; Member since: Jun 02, 2018

Why compare the battery life of the iphone xr to the sony xperia 1 a phone that is not even released yet so we don't know how well it will perform. It may very well outlast the xr because with sony phones it only sets the display to 4k when you viewing 4k content but when your gaming or doing normal ui tasks then it sets the display to 1080p. Also Sony is really good at battery optimization. Probably best in android and second maybe only to Apple.

4. CreeDiddy

Posts: 2125; Member since: Nov 04, 2011

Yes phones have peaked. Apps and streaming services will be the most important staple for long term growth. Apple is smarter than any smartphone company company to figure this out. There will be less upgrades year to year as phones are so good in terms of hardware and software. The next thing is to create carrier incentives to entice buyers. They key driver will be the eco system rather than selling features on phones.

6. sgodsell

Posts: 6835; Member since: Mar 16, 2013

Apple is far from being the smartest company, period. Especially since Apple is nowhere when it comes to foldable smartphones. That is because Apple has dug a hole for themselves when it comes to their apps. Apple has always encouraged its developers to make separate iPad apps and iPhone apps. Its why you won't see a foldable iPhone/iPad for quite some time. Plus Apples Siri and SiriKit is crap. Developers still can't make any apps for Apples one and only smart speaker, their HomePod (calling it smart is a stretch). Plus Apple is nowhere when it comes to smart displays. Oh, and btw they analysts recently said that smart speakers/smart displays are going to overtake the sale of smart watches and tablets by the end of 2020. Apple is far behind.

10. midan

Posts: 2574; Member since: Oct 09, 2017

”Oh, and btw they analysts recently said that smart speakers/smart displays are going to overtake the sale of smart watches and tablets by the end of 2020. Apple is far behind.” No he didn’t, check your ”facts”

11. midan

Posts: 2574; Member since: Oct 09, 2017

Apple been building strong loyal userbase since the first iPhone and now when phone sales peaking Apple have so many other money makers and of course their phones still making huge amount of money too.

8. Plutonium239

Posts: 1154; Member since: Mar 17, 2015

The only thing that can excite me now would be to have a full blown A.I. on our phones. Or at least on more powerful desktop hardware.

13. Leo_MC

Posts: 6615; Member since: Dec 02, 2011

Smartphones are still far away in the battery department; sure, we have Mate 20, XR, Note, and the exceptional Xiaomi devices, but it's been over 10 years, we kind of want at least 3-4 days of what is called today "normal" usage.

15. TBomb

Posts: 1177; Member since: Dec 28, 2012

Even a truly full day phone battery will be nice. Imagine being able to play games and movies for 24 hours straight >3 ( Regular heart shape truncates the rest of the message i guess?) imagine getting 24 hours of intense gpu SOT (this is a benchmark more than realistic wish becaus who wants to play games for 24 hours straight ¯\_(ツ)_/¯)

17. Leo_MC

Posts: 6615; Member since: Dec 02, 2011

Anything above 6-8h/day is more than decent for today's standards - how much do you use the smartphone, dude :)?! - but it would be nice to have 24h (which translates into 3-4 days); sure, I can make it 3 days with the XR, but not quite used as a smartphone (and not the way I usually use it).

16. TechDork

Posts: 400; Member since: May 10, 2010

I knew this was gonna happen eventually. I had this talk a few of my friends years ago in the aspect of phone hardware reaching a peak. Honestly, at this point, it won't surprise me if we don't start seeing history repeat itself--in that sense, I mean the return of physical qwerty keyboards, trackballs, etc., like we had with the Sidekicks, Samsung Blackjack, even the G1. Could you imagine what a Sidekick would be like nowadays? It was already ahead of its time and WIDELY popular and the Blackjack and Blackjack2 was one of the best Windows Mobile devices. In my opinion, I think it's time to start resurrecting past models and bringing them into a new life with todays technology.

18. Vogue1985

Posts: 383; Member since: Jan 24, 2017

lmfao. the world doesn't end just because you getting older. we are just at the beginning, there a long way to go,very long. seriously, and you call yourself a techie/tech guru,more like tiny imagination,with folks like you its no wonder many are so surprised the Huawei went from cheap to premium so easy. there so so soooooo much to be improved. battery life (tell me you charged your phone 3 days ago and have 50% left,its charges with body heat, application and AI snyc are still subpar, wearables, etc, cameras are barely okay (there not great or very good,sorry just being honest). who are the next oneplus,which os well be the next big thing IOS/Android is getting VERY boring ,how is blackberry coming back (there so much needed in terms of privacy and security for mobile phones etc),well Nokia/Motorola gain Royal status again, they have more experience than Apple/Sam/Huawei, there soo much. Phone can be thinner, the tech is there. 5g? what about 8 or 10 lol.

19. Vadermando

Posts: 21; Member since: Dec 19, 2011

This was a really good article...for a change

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