Big HD screens, quad-core smartphones reign at CES 2013

What will you see in phones this year? Quad-core, HD galore, and multiplied megapixels define the new high-end.

LAS VEGAS--As far as mobile conferences go, this was a quieter CES -- there were few marquee smartphones and only one real device that pushed the smartphone form factor forward (but what an interesting specimen). Regardless, phone makers launched 21 new handsets in conjunction with the show.

Despite the lack of dazzle, CES 2013 nevertheless gave us an important preview of things to come, and the direction smartphone development will take in the coming year.

Spotlight on the second tier
Big names like Samsung, HTC, Motorola, and Nokia were all but absent, maybe dribbling out a phone ( Samsung Ativ Odyssey , HTC One SV ) and taking meetings in quiet conference rooms and parking lot trailers, but avoiding the large-scale presence and full-tilt announcements we've come to expect from the major consumer electronics confabs.

That left the spotlight for lesser-known brands that are usually overlooked and overshadowed by flashier competitors.

Huawei came out on top with two sorely needed high-end Android devices, the Huawei Ascend Mate and Huawei Ascend D2 . It also unveiled its first Windows 8 phone, the Ascend W1 , which, with its bright colors and squared-off corners, closely resembles the Nokia Lumia 900.

Sony, maintaining its usual CES presence, trotted out the very lovely Sony Xpera Z and ZL , two high-end Android smartphones, two devices that could get Sony back in the mainstream after last year's promising start melted into disappointing releases.

ZTE Grand S
ZTE's Grand S aims high with premium features. Lynn La/CNET

ZTE took the opportunity to prove its worth for the U.S. market by showcasing a single premium device, the Grand S. As with Huawei, ZTE's handsets typically land in the middle and lower end and on prepaid carriers. Smartphones with more expensive components and loftier specs may price them out of the budget range, but will improve their reputation and brand recognition in these parts.

A complete unknown brought in the most compelling smartphone of all, at least from a design perspective. Announced first in December but publicly shown in the U.S. at CES, the YotaPhone pushes the boundary by including an e-ink display on the back on an otherwise premium Android phone. Other smaller innovations make the upstart intriguing, though the phone is only in its first prototype, with plenty of kinks to work out between now and the official launch this year.

CES also saw Pantech announce the Discover , which promises to be a high-value budget phone for traditional carrier partner AT&T. Alcatel announced eight smartphones, most in a series, with only a few bound for the U.S. The One Touch Idol Ultra and One Touch Scribe HD are the most compelling, but the One Touch M'Pop is another expected U.S. import.

Finally, the previously announced LG Optimus Vu II and new Lenovo K900 rounded out the new crop.

1080p HD screens loom large
The days when a 4.5-inch screen was considered gargantuan are long gone. Many of the premium phones we saw measured 4.7 or 5 inches, with Huawei's 6.1-inch Ascend Mate winning the medal for most mammoth phone of all time.

With the large screen comes high resolution, with 1080p HD confirmed as the zenith for high-end handsets.

Powering it up with quad-core processors
Just like we predicted , CES was filled with handsets equipped with quad-core CPUs.These included the Sony Xperia Z (and its smaller counterpart, the ZL ), the Ascend Mate, the Grand S, and the One Touch Scribe X .

In addition, processor companies themselves made their own headlines. At its press conference, Nvidia announced its next generation quad-core chipset, Tegra 4 .

With claims that it'll be much faster than its current Tegra 3 processor (due to Nvidia using the ARM Cortex A-15 architecture instead of A-9), Tegra 4 will bump up camera speeds.

Tegra 4
Nvidia launches the Tegra 4 processor, based on ARM Cortex A-15, at CES 2013. James Martin/CNET

Meanwhile, at Qualcomm's fairly bizarre, cameo-filled keynote, the company unveiled its two new Snapdragon quad-core processors, the 800 and 600 series. The former is said to be 75 percent faster than Qualcomm's current lineup, and the latter will deliver a better performance experience.

High megapixel counts get mega popular
As we mention time and time again , just because your smartphone camera has a high megapixel count, doesn't necessarily mean it'll take fantastic shots.

But that doesn't stop phone companies from releasing handsets that sport cameras with megapixels that go way above the standard 8-count.

At CES, we saw the ZTE Grand S and the Ascend Mate's 13-megapixel cameras. As flagship devices, however, that didn't really surprise us. In fact, it was the 12.6-megapixel spec from Pantech's $50 Discover that caught us off guard. Better technology might mean that high-resolution cameras won't be reserved for just top-tier handsets anymore.

After all, as more people are using smartphones as their main camera, then immediately sharing shots on social networks, the demand for better images grows.

Bright, peppy colors
Though black, gray, and now white are smartphone color mainstays, this year we saw a variety of eye-popping shades. Perhaps due to the success of the Nokia's Lumia line, high-end handsets are coming in every hue from blood red to minty blue.

Case in point: the Huawei Ascend W1 . We already mentioned that it looked strikingly similar to the Lumia, and that also includes the four color options Huawei sprang for: cyan blue, bright red, white, and black.

Huawei Ascend W1
Huawei's Ascend W1 takes colors from Nokia's Pantone playbook. Sarah Tew/CNET

Furthermore, the Alcatel One Touch Idol comes in red and black too, but added a vivid yellow to its palette as well.

Lastly, Grand S not only comes in a variety of colors, but it also features two different finishes (matte and glossy). Though the matte coating comes only in black and white, you can get the glossy finish in black, white, red, slate gray, minty blue, pink, and yellow.

Why the sudden foray into technicolor post-Lumia? Colors are clearly tracking well as a way to stand out from the crowd, and to grab customer attention. As more young people buy phones, colors add personality.

Flexi-screens, the new hotness
Samsung, Nokia, and even Apple have been patenting and demoing flexible LCD and AMOLED display technology for years, but it wasn't until CES 2013 that the emerging tech is growing legs.

Samsung dazzled with Youm, a flexible AMOLED display technology that's now developed enough to demo on the larger keynote stage.

Meanwhile, Gorilla Glass maker Corning gave CNET an exclusive look at Willow Glass , a glass formula so pliable it bends.

A promising mobile future
While we were a slightly disappointed that the smartphone bigwigs didn't make a huge splash at CES, 2013 still looks bright for mobile devices, regardless. And with Mobile World Congress approaching in February, we'll undoubtedly see more exciting handsets from plenty of manufacturers, including the top dogs.

Moreover, CES showed us that sharper and bigger screens, faster processors, and more powerful cameras, won't just be for the impossibly expensive flagships anymore. In fact, there's a good indication that these features will make their way onto handsets that will be available in a wide range of affordable prices, making them more accessible to everyday consumers.

And not only is the industry improving the specs that are readily available to us, it's also still progressing: From two-sided handsets to flexible glass, this past week proved to us that mobile technology is still innovating, using concepts we have yet to fully apply to their highest potential.

CNET's CES 2013 coverage.
 

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