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Android in 2013: What to expect

The Android ecosystem has become a dominant force in 2012. Here's how I see it growing in the coming year.

Scott Webster
Scott Webster has spent the better part of his adult life playing with cell phones and gadgets. When not looking for the latest Android news and rumors, he relaxes with his wife and son. Scott also is the senior editor for AndroidGuys. E-mail Scott.
Scott Webster
10 min read
Android evolution
Android is rapidly evolving. Where will it go next? Josh Long/CNET

Brace yourselves: 2013 is upon us, and that means a whole new generation of Android devices, rumors, and expectations.

Android will have a strong showing at CES, and the next few months will be littered with new smartphones and tablets. Let's take a look at some of the trends we can expect in the Android space over the coming year.

This article will touch on many trends in the Android ecosystem, including hardware advancements, vendor decisions, and key events of the year. Given the sheer number of players in the space, there will be much to look forward to in the ever-evolving Android landscape. Indeed, much could be said about any one of these aspects of Android, but I'll address them here in broader terms.

Screen size will sharpen and grow

Not long ago, most smartphone screens didn't exceed 4 inches. Up until the HTC Evo 4G, most Android phones were had 3.2-inch and 3.5-inch displays. Now, thanks to popular handsets such as the Galaxy S3 (4.8 inches) and Galaxy Note 2 (5.5 inches), consumers are becoming used to much larger screens.

Expect more 5-inch 1080p HD Android smartphones like the Droid DNA. CBS Interactive

Motorola, for its part, has been able to squeeze a 4.3-inch display into the body of a phone that is roughly same as a 3.5-inch phone -- the Droid Razr M. I suspect this will be something that Motorola and others look to replicate in the coming generation. Look for more press releases that tout features such as edge-to-edge screens or no bezel.

We'll continue to see all sorts of screen sizes in 2013, but the standard high-end experience will fall in the vicinity of 4.5 inches. Those of us who are moving into our second and third Android device will expect something at least as big as our current model.

Beyond size, resolution will sharpen. HTC had a leg up with the Droid DNA with a 1080p (versus 720p) resolution, but now nearly every handset maker you can think of is reportedly working on their own 5-inch 1080p HD display for their premium products. Whether you place a lot of importance on pixel density or not, expect screen resolution to be a big buzzword in 2013.

Quad-core will multiply

If you listen to companies such as Qualcomm and Nvidia, then you're well aware of the fact that quad-core is the new spec hotness, and Android is the vanguard of competition among handset makers all vying for your little green Android dollars.

Gone are the days of big dual-core announcements. If you don't come to the table with at least four cores of mobile prowess, then you're not really expecting to compete on the high-end. We should anticipate that the big devices of the coming year will have quad-core 1.5GHz processors or higher, with some even hitting 2.0GHz by the year's end.

Handsets like the Optimus G may look antiquated in one year's time. CBS Interactive

Of course, the fight for faster processors might only be relevant on paper; real world practicality is a different animal. It's one thing to tout the impressive clock speeds or point to a benchmark, but showing the benefits to end users is the most important win.

Play a lot of 3D games? You definitely care about who makes your phone's CPU. Just want to see what this whole Android thing is all about? Jump in wherever you want, you'll be just fine.

One area where we may see more improvements is in the phone's memory and storage. If the previous year saw 2GB RAM emerge for the top-of-the-line memory experience, next year may see us inching toward 3GB RAM.

Storage capacities for Android phones (and all phones) will creep up in 2013 as well, yielding 32GB as the standard for mid-range and 64GB becoming common among high-end devices. This will be especially true for those manufacturers opting for internal batteries and removal of external storage, and I expect to see the first handset with 128GB internal storage appear before 2013 is out.

Entry-level phones will benefit

You have to appreciate the trickle-down effect of technology as today's top devices quickly become tomorrow's mid-range experience. With that in mind, the $50-$100 Android smartphone of 2013 will be quite an impressive piece of hardware.

Dual-core processors should become the norm for your "basic" Android phone as single-core stuff gets pushed aside. The same may be said of the no-contract handsets, as we'll continually get more for our money.

As every carrier scrambles to build out its next-gen data network, 4G LTE will be commonplace in Android smartphones. Sure, we'll get the occasional 3G product every once in a while, but that will diminish with time. This is not to say that 2013 will be the end of 3G Android, but the days of touting 4G LTE as a special feature will pass.

Popularized technologies

There is always a chance that we'll see a 3D experience in an Android phone or two, but I have the feeling this is one technology that won't take off. I've yet to run into someone who wants or needs 3D graphics in their mobile device. Sure, it's a cool feature to show off once in a while, but we're just not ready to adopt this baby.

NFC will continue to gain a foothold in Android products, maybe to the point of standardization. More companies will push it out in the mobile payment space and general consumers will become aware of its capabilities.

I get the feeling that we'll see a new surge in NFC-enabled accessories and technologies in the coming wave of tech conferences. The idea of tap-to-play speakers or media players doesn't seem like much of a stretch for this year's biggest mobile conferences, CES in January and Mobile World Congress in late February.

Samsung's TecTiles are a great way to use NFC that does not revolve around mobile payment CBS Interactive

Perhaps the biggest issue facing smartphones with large displays and super-fast processors is battery life. Nobody wants to put their phone away to preserve juice; we bought that big screen for a reason.

Looking ahead to the new year, I expect to see more handsets come with internal and/or higher capacity batteries. The Droid Razr Maxx HD is still the benchmark for long-lasting batteries, but we should see the gap narrow. To that end, we may see less emphasis on "world's thinnest" or "lightest" claims.

As many readers know, Android has given way to a number of unique (read: goofy) form factors over time. One design that pops up every once in a while is the secondary screen. We may not be at the end of this occasional one-off, however we might see fewer announcements of far-out designs over time.

The main reason? Developers don't want to write their apps for yet another screen layout. It also doesn't help when you have two screens with bezels and a broken or split image. With that in mind, someone will find a way to make a compelling experience. Unfortunately, I do not see this happening in 2013.

One device around the world

I cannot tell you how pleased I was when I learned that Samsung was going to adopt one singular form factor for the Galaxy S3 and Galaxy Note 2 across countries and carriers. I'm sure that a number of accessory makers were quite happy with the decision as well. Samsung will employ the same strategy for the Galaxy S4 and will likely have records sales again in the new year.

As far as other companies going this route, HTC today seems to be the closest. I wouldn't be surprised if its next flagship model were to hit multiple carriers with a single design. As nice as it was to have fewer models to choose from in the One series, it was still confusing to keep up with the various suffixes -- One X, One X+, Evo 4G LTE. "Does my carrier offer that one? What's the difference between this and that?" Along those lines, LG also seems to be slowly headed in this direction with the Optimus line.

Android comes to new territories

The Samsung Galaxy Camera wasn't the first digital camera to utilize Android, but the first to tie into carriers.

Nikon, Polaroid, and other camera-makers will dabble a bit with Android backbones and we'll see more smarter shooters in 2013. Pricing will need to come down for mass adoption; however, we will see carriers selling connected cameras in retail stores and online.

We will also see more kid-centric tablets and devices with Android under the hood in the next year. We might as well get used to the fact that Toys R Us and Walmart are going to offer $99 Android tablets.

Once the price point of a generic, knock-off tablet, the $100-$200 price range now offers a decent experience for most. Come this time next year, it will not be strange to see a house with even more Android tablets for a range of age groups. Expect more products like the Nabi Jr (toddlers) and Nabi XD (tweens.)

Shortly after Android became a recognized term in the mobile space, we saw the platform arriving in various electronic devices including microwaves and washing machines.

I don't think we'll find too much of that in 2013, but it would not surprise me to see a refrigerator or appliance with a custom touch interface that runs Android. Not a full-blown experience, mind you, but something that gives hardware-makers more flexibility.

2013 should bring more kid-friendly Android devices, such as the Nabi 2 Fufu

Of all the places Android has been absent, I'm surprised we don't have a new generation of Chumby or Teddy Ruxpin toys. I might be reaching here, but I can imagine a scenario where your companion toy educates children or plays interactive games with them. A front-facing camera that recognizes the child, a belly with a touch screen, or a Pillow Pet with interactive stories seem more real than fantasy today.

There is a chance that we'll see more Android in the automobile in 2013, but it'll have competition from RIM's QNX OS. This won't be a replicated tablet-like experience with full-on Google Play support but something a little smarter than what we have today. It is easy to picture a 7-inch display that lets users hop from stereo to diagnostics to Google Maps.

Another area that would work well is embedding a tablet in the back of the driver and passenger seat. With more cars offering Wi-Fi connectivity over time, a connected device just makes sense. Don't be surprised if someone introduces a backseat experience that includes access to social networks as well as casual games such as checkers for road trips. For added fun, pair your Bluetooth game controller and dive into a 3D shooter.

The Nexus project will continue to evolve

The Nexus initiative will continue to change with the times and we'll see more hardware with Google's official stamp of approval. With three devices to choose from today (Nexus 4, Nexus 7, Nexus 10), it isn't much of a stretch to consider that Google will want to refresh the lineup at least once a year.

Google Nexus 4
LG's Google-branded Nexus 4 introduced Android 4.2 Jelly Bean. Josh Miller/CNET

Considering that there are three different companies supplying the hardware for the Nexus line today, I would look for more of the same down the road. Google will likely share the love with new and returning companies in 2013 and consumers will come to know what Nexus means.

The coming year may finally bring us a Google and Motorola Nexus product. As something that the industry has expected over the last year, Google has not ruled out such an animal. In fact, all the conversations I've read these past months seem to dance around the topic. With no outright denial of a Motorola Nexus device, I'm reminded of the old adage "where there's smoke there's fire." With that in mind, a smartphone seems more plausible than a tablet at this stage.

Whether we see one-off products like the Nexus Q in 2013 remains to be seen. I get the sense that Google like to test the waters and introduce real, working proof-of-concept devices just to gauge developer and consumer reactions. I won't rule out anything like this for next year however I might expect Google to downplay its significance or potential. Perhaps a "hey check this out, we think you'll like it" introduction is in order.

Google I/O and major releases

If the last few years are any indicator, there will be at least five key moments for Android in 2013, starting with trade shows: CES in early January, the international Mobile World Congress in late February, and CTIA in late May. Samsung is also expected to launch its Galaxy S4 flagship phone at a standalone press event, if we follow 2012's model.

Android Jelly Bean is just the beginning.

Yet we'll see the real ecosystem-changing stuff at Google's annual developer conference, Google I/O, in May.

So far, indicators point to an Android 5.0 Key Lime Pie. It's tough to forecast what will be in this coming release, but I definitely see more polish and attention to detail on the horizon, plus more camera and mapping tricks.

Android's background OS will continue to gain speed, and the company will introduce new features that again pull away from iOS to set the industry pace. We don't know much about Android 5.0 quite yet, but we'll assuredly discover bits and pieces of upcoming features in the months just before Google I/O -- especially if Google releases a new Nexus device or two to go along with the latest software build.

2013 will certainly be an exciting year for Android, with the mobile OS surely maintaining its mobile lead.