Hulk-strong screens, IR blasters, NFC-everything: Your future phone (Smartphones Unlocked)

New hardware advancements, build materials, and connected devices are taking smartphones in exciting directions. Here's what's happening now.

HTC One
When it comes to large, clear screens, HTC's One helps lead the charge. Sarah Tew/CNET

Here's the smartphone of your short-term future: it has a 5-inch, 1080p HD screen, an 8-core application processor, and a 13-megapixel camera that does crazy things like simultaneously record through both front and rear lenses. You can use it to change your TV channel, tap it to play songs on your car, and control it without ever touching the screen.

The smartphone of your near future takes your pulse, synchronizes to your scale, and tumbles from your hands without a scratch. Oh yeah, and did I mention that it'll last two days on a single charge?

New production materials, leap-frogging processor advancements, and promising battery research are kicking smartphone development forward. Couple that with a surge of smart devices that transmit information to your phone screen, and you have one very exciting, nearly-attainable smartphone future.

Bumped-up hardware specs

Good luck trying to find a quantity of terrific smartphones with medium-size screens. The latest batch of superphones -- including the Samsung Galaxy S4 , HTC One , and LG Optimus G Pro -- is helping push the new norm to 5 inches (or larger) of high-definition 1080p goodness.

The processor side is also on fire. We've just begun to see quad-core chipsets and are already on our way to eight processing cores that promise tremendous speed and graphical rendering prowess. Samsung's Galaxy S4 is the first announced phone to feature an octa-core chipset (Samsung's Exynos 5 Octa .)

Nvidia is also racing out the starting gate, having just announced the two new upcoming generations of its chipset for mobile devices, which the company promises will increase performance 100 times over its first Tegra chip, within the next five years.

In the meantime, we'll start seeing phones with Qualcomm's Snapdragon 600 chips, processors that are expected to complete tasks 75 percent faster .

Extra goodies

We've been mooning over phones with integrated IR blasters for some time, but with the HTC One and now the Samsung Galaxy S4, the TV controller-in-the-phone is myth no more. It's only a matter of time before we start seeing this infrared tool crop up in even more high-end devices, tablets included.

Samsung Galaxy S4
The Samsung Galaxy S4's IR blaster makes it possible to control your TV with this app. Sarah Tew/CNET

Nokia has already cracked the code on including screen material sensitive enough for gloved hands to operate -- that showed up first in the Nokia Lumia 920 , and marched onto the Lumias 820 , 810 , and 822 as well. The Lumia 720 will get it, too, as will Samsung's Galaxy S4.

I watched my colleague Roger Cheng's fingers slowly stiffen and redden in 30-degree weather while he composed an article on his mobile phone in New York outside Samsung's launch event. Trust me, there's no reason this shouldn't finally catch on.

Keep an eye out for in-car voice assistance to really take off in the coming year or two. Apple and car manufacturers like Honda have been hard at work prepping voice assistant Siri for the car .

Using a gloved hand on the Nokia Lumia 920
The Nokia Lumia 920 introduced a screen sensitive enough to use with gloved fingers. Josh Miller/CNET

Samsung's stab is a new standalone version of S Voice, dubbed S Voice Drive . I got a chance to look at it right after the launch event, and despite past S Voice performance disasters, this version for the car might not completely suck .

Crazy camera software

Camera hardware will continue to improve, but, as if on cue, the manufacturers are also fighting the battle of supremacy with increasingly specialized (read: gimmicky) camera apps.

Among them, the HTC One, LG Optimus G Pro, and Samsung Galaxy S4 include features that pair audio recording with still images, photo and video that includes input from both cameras, bite-size video clips, and action shots that includes separate shots of movement in the same frame.

LG Optimus G Pro screenshot
Using dual-recording mode on phones like the LG Optimus G Pro, you can record both the gloomy day in Barcelona, and your disdain for the rain. Lynn La/CNET

Sweet, sweet motion

Touch-free navigational gestures have been around for some time -- my favorite is flipping over a phone to silence it -- and both LG and Samsung have been on the forefront of creating new ways to interact without tapping the screen.

Waving your hand in front of the device to advance photos, and pause or play music is one newish gesture, as is hovering a finger over a thumbnail of something to preview what it is.

Both LG's Optimus G Pro and Samsung's Galaxy S4 highlight gestures, especially interactions that register where your eyes are and aren't looking -- so much so that the two rivals could go at it in court over using your gaze to pause and play video.

Samsung Galaxy S4
On Samsung's Galaxy S4 and others, a wave of your hand can advance your photo album, and then some. Sarah Tew/CNET

While I could personally take or leave most gestures, I think exploring more touch-free interactions like this is where we're headed, and the phone-makers might eventually hit on a combination that's innovative, yes, but also useful.

NFC and connected devices

The future feature trend I'm probably most excited about is the interplay among smart devices, like connected watches, cars, cameras, laptops, washing machines, thermostats, and of course, your smartphone.

NFC, or near-field communication, is a short-range wireless pairing protocol that's helping drive all sorts of close-range data-sharing, including mobile payments and wireless charging. But the real possibilities are just now unfolding.

Imagine using NFC to sync data with a tap from your smartphone to, well, just about anything. Samsung wants to use NFC to exchange info on your weight and vitals from the Galaxy S4's S Health app to a variety of accessories, including a scale .

I also envision using it to directly transfer media to any other NFC device in a jiffy, push out map coordinates to your car's in-dash navigation system, and check you into appointments, among other items on my NFC wish list .

Keep an eye on this feature, because NFC is picking up steam. Fast.

Promising new materials

A phone screen made of sapphire...say what? At Mobile World Congress this year, I scratched and pounded away at a sapphire screen with a chunk of concrete , leaving only powdery concrete residue behind.

Play

The sapphire screen I saw was perfectly translucent, responsive, and amazingly tough.

In the same vein, Nokia has begun working with graphene , a material known for its incredible strength, lightness, and slimness. Imagine a Lumia smartphone made of the stuff, which is 300 times stronger than steel.

While phone cases protect devices from the worst wear and tear, creating beautiful phones out of incredibly durable materials will also help get you avoid bad scrapes.

On the other end of the spectrum is Corning Willow Glass , a sheet of ultrathin, ultra-bendable glass that could maybe, maybe one day be used within a flexible smartphone .

New build materials are extremely important areas of research, but battery tech is more crucial still. Some novel ways to conceptualize basic battery chemistry hint at much longer-lived tickers than ever before achieved on a smartphone.

Although we're still a good way off from handsets that last longer than a day on a single charge, small improvements are ongoing.

Play

Bringing it all together

When you add up all the trends and longer-term advances, the smartphone of the near future is a remarkable device that's destined to become even more personal, cherished, and indispensable than handsets are today.

It's also true that I'm describing the tip-top of the high end, and that features will likely come in combination. While I hope they'll all have NFC, sensitive screens, and IR blasters (even you, iPhone 5S,) not all will have the wacky camera extras or extremely-hard bodies and screens.

Regardless, I can't wait for this next future to arrive.

Smartphones Unlocked promo image
CNET





Smartphones Unlocked is a monthly column that dives deep into the inner workings of your trusty smartphone.

 

Join the discussion

Conversation powered by Livefyre

Show Comments Hide Comments
Latest Galleries from CNET
Best mobile games of 2014
Nissan gives new Murano bold style (pictures)
Top great space moments in 2014 (pictures)
This is it: The Audiophiliac's top in-ear headphones of 2014 (pictures)
ZTE's wallet-friendly Grand X (pictures)
Lenovo reprises clever design for the Yoga Tablet 2 (Pictures)