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Forward thinking: the phones of 2012

If the world doesn't end in 2012, then we're in for a treat with our smartphones. We take a peek into our crystal ball to see what new features are in the near future for phones.

If you follow the Mayan calendar, speculation about how cool next year's phones will be might seem kind of trivial. However, if the world doesn't end, then we're in for a treat next year, according to our various sources across the mobile industry.

(Credit: CBSi)

There have been enormous leaps forward in smartphones in the last two years, with advancements in screen technologies, processing power and photo image quality to name a few, and there is no indication that we'll see smartphone designers and manufacturers slowing down in 2012. In fact, we expect to see a few exciting new technologies becoming mainstream next year, inside bigger, brighter, badder phones and tablets.

Bigger screens, more pixels

At the end of 2009, the Desire HD wowed us with its WVGA (800x480 pixels) 4.3-inch display. In 2011, most of the high-end handsets featured screens with this spec, some with an even higher qHD (940x540 pixels) resolution displays. From all of the conversations that we've had with people inside the major phone makers and with people within the telcos, this trend towards larger screens will continue next year.

The Samsung/Google-made Galaxy Nexus is a clear indicator of what we can expect from screens in 2012 — it features a 4.65-inch 720p HD-resolution display. This is the benchmark that the major players will be aiming to topple, including Samsung, when it announces the Galaxy S3 at MWC. But will we see this pushed much further? Definitely; our money is on 5-inch-plus displays next year, as the line between the phone and the tablet blurs.

Megapixels "in the teens"

One interesting titbit that we picked up from one of our many sources was to expect phones with "megapixels in the teens". The major phone players held off from launching handsets with image sensors larger than 8 megapixels in 2011, but, apparently, this will change next year. Will we finally see HTC's 16-megapixel camera phone? Our fingers are crossed.

Don't forget that image quality isn't measured in megapixels, though. "Megapixels" refers, indirectly, to the size of the photos you take, and if you had the misfortune of eating a Hungry Jack's Quad Stack burger, then you'd know that bigger isn't always better. Luckily, some of the major phone makers spent this year getting image quality right, so a 16-megapixel camera from Samsung, HTC or Apple could actually translate into a photographic experience worth printing and sharing.

Quad-core processors

The Nvidia Tegra 3 chipset.(Credit: Nvidia)

For every dual-core smartphone or tablet we saw released this year (14 in Australia by our count), we expect to see quad-core counterparts in 2012. Rumours are already circling around HTC, suggesting that at least one quad-core phone and a tablet will be announced at Mobile World Congress in 2012. Computer makers Acer and Asus have already announced tablets with the new Nvidia Tegra 3 quad-core chipset, and we expect to hear from Samsung, LG and Motorola about similarly specced hardware very soon.

Like dual-core, though, don't expect every phone in a manufacturer's range to pack the most powerful processors. We expect all of the players listed above to announce one quad-core model at MWC 2012, and one quad-core tablet at the same time.

While it's exciting, the introduction of quad-core processing has us wondering how much is too much? How will the new Android OS handle quad-core processors? Will developers, presumably game developers, take advantage of this extra power? For as much as we've enjoyed using dual-core devices this year, you could argue that there were very few applications designed to take full advantage of the dual-core architecture.

4G data speeds

The HTC Holiday will be Telstra's first LTE handset.
(Credit: HTC)

With Telstra and Optus both formally announcing (and Telstra launching) LTE, or 4G, networks, LTE-capable devices are definitely on the way for next year. If you missed our 4G coverage from a couple of months ago, we're talking about data download speeds that are twice as fast as the current maximums in Australia, and downloads of up to three times faster, plus much lower latency than you can currently expect on the current 3G networks.

While faster web browsing is the obvious benefit of LTE networking in handsets, this new technology also opens the door for rich, new multimedia experiences. Remember those HD-resolution screens we mentioned earlier? Well, how about an HD streaming movie to view on them? Or an HD game, streamed over the web to your handset using a service like the OnLive streaming game service running in the US right now.

Cloud storage service and subscription music service are more viable alternatives to locally stored data once you have a connection to the internet to make the transfer of data feel as though it's stored on the phone's own memory, so look out for increased interest in services like Dropbox, once LTE handsets begin to hit store shelves.

More bang for your buck

We saw a few incredible smartphone bargains this year, but, with AU$99 smartphones in the market already, don't expect the price of phones to lower next year. Instead, you can expect better phones at each price point. We've only seen the tip of the iceberg from Chinese manufacturer Huawei, for example. So far, the telcos have only ranged a handful of Huawei cheapest models in Australia, but the company has a range of higher-spec models waiting in the wings, and when these hit stores they will be considerably cheaper than the competition from the more established brands.

What sort of handsets are we describing? Imagine an Android-powered smartphone with a 4.3-inch LCD touchscreen, and a 1.2GHz or 1.4GHz processor available for $0 on an AU$29 plan. Huawei is in a great position to release such a phone, and don't be surprised if Chinese rival ZTE makes something similar for Telstra.

NFC

Cashless payments via your mobile might be closer than you think.(Credit: Google)

We're beginning to see near-field communications (NFC) connectivity trickling into current smartphones, with the BlackBerry Bold, the Samsung Nexus S and the Nokia N9 examples of phones that you can buy today using NFC. We anticipate a flood of new handsets that will include an NFC chip next year, but the million-dollar question is whether we will see accessories and services to support these chips.

So, what is NFC good for? If you bought a Nokia N9 today, you would also have the option to buy Nokia 360 speakers, which use NFC to create a wireless connection with the phone. This is an excellent time saver, but NFC becomes much more exciting when you imagine your phone as your cashless wallet. Instead of carrying around credit cards, each with a different NFC chip, your phone, along with the right app, will be able to act in the place of all of these cards. Just take a purchase to the register, wave your phone over the scanner and walk out.

The Commonwealth Bank is first to market with this sort of technology for its customers, but expect other banks and major tech players, like Google, Apple, PayPal and others, to get involved in Australia in 2012.

Is there anything you think we've missed? If you have a prediction for next year, let us know in the comments below.