Market-research company IDC says it expects smartphone shipments to rise only slightly in 2016, but that doesn’t mean that consumers should expect the same old, same old. Smartphones that are packed with new features arrived in 2016 or are on the cusp of being introduced.
Smartphones that have two, or in one case, three, rear-facing cameras emerged, although how the lenses of those cameras are used varies by manufacturer. Manufacturers also are paying more attention to the quality of smartphones’ front-facing cameras (think:selfies). Furthermore, Google Android models are switching to new USB-C connectors that, like Apple’s Lightning connector, can be inserted without you having to worry about which side is up and produce quicker charging.
Iris scanning—once the realm of science fiction—arrived with Samsung’s Galaxy Note7 ($850), which arrived in August 2016. This enables you to unlock the smartphone simply by looking at the screen. We found that this feature works as advertised, but whether it will catch on is unclear; other manufacturers were mum about their plans. (Editor’s note: In October 2016, Samsung announced that it was ending production of the Galaxy Note7 because of a manufacturing flaw that caused the device to overheat, which could result in the device catching fire. The company asked consumers to replace the Galaxy Note7 with another Samsung smartphone or return it for a refund. According to analysts, this creates a major opening in the smartphone market for Google, which announced two Pixel smartphones in October 2016, to compete more directly against Apple.)
FUTURE IMAGE. Given the popularity of social media and image sharing, it’s no surprise that in the past year, dual lenses for the rear smartphone camera emerged. Four manufacturers unveiled models that have different approaches on how the dual lenses are used.
LG introduced in 2016 two lenses of different focal lengths and megapixels on its G5 ($650) and V20 (no price released as of press time). The secondary lens captures a superwide-angle image. In September 2016, Apple announced dual lenses for its iPhone 7 Plus ($769). The cameras that are in the iPhone 7 Plus and LG smartphones work similarly: You choose wide angle or fixed zoom on the phone. Anshel Sag of Moor Insights & Strategy, which specializes in technology analysis, says the result will be “a lot better outdoor photography and portraits.”
Others use the second lens to capture additional information to create a better image. For example, Huawei uses the secondary lens on two models that start at $400 to capture black-and-white information to supplement its standard lens. The examples that we saw were notable for their brightness and contrast compared with other smartphones’ images.
Lenovo’s Phab 2 Pro ($499) has three cameras on the back, two of which are of the nonconventional variety. A depth-sensing infrared camera and a motion-tracking camera enhance the image that’s captured by the primary camera’s standard lens. As of press time, Lenovo said that model would ship to stores in early November 2016. All three cameras work together by using Google’s new Tango AR technology, which gives the smartphone the capability to measure a space. Consequently, Lenovo says, you can, say, measure a room’s size or insert yourself into a gaming environment by viewing it through the smartphone’s camera. Lenovo and home-improvement retailer Lowe’s produced a mobile app that allows designers and contractors to, for example, measure a room or preview how new flooring or paint would appear in that room. Lenovo expects that 100 mobile apps will support Tango in the Google Play store by the end of 2016.
As of press time, no other manufacturer with which we spoke discussed plans for a smartphone that has more than two cameras. However, now that Apple and LG unveiled dual rear-facing-camera smartphones, we expect to see more models in the midrange and premium segments that have some variation of dual rear-facing cameras. “Dual cameras are going to be seen as a premium feature for the foreseeable future, especially as things like augmented reality and virtual reality become more real in the coming years,” Sag says.