SAN FRANCISCO — It’s hard to imagine how smartphones could get much better. Most are already zippy and equipped with jumbo screens, powerful cameras and face scanners.
So what else can we look forward to?
It turns out, plenty. For a peek at the future of the phone, look to Samsung, the world’s largest handset maker. On Wednesday, the South Korean company showed off a family of four new Galaxy phones that incorporate new technologies and features that may start spreading to other smartphones.
Of the four new devices, one will work on next-generation ultrafast 5G cellular networks, which means it can download a movie in seconds rather than minutes. Three of the models will have slightly larger screens and more complex camera systems than their predecessors.
And Samsung is also teasing a fifth device that can be folded and unfolded like a book to decrease or increase the phone’s screen size to suit its owner (though it’s unclear whether this gadget will go on sale this year).
There’s a lot to unpack here. Here’s what you need to know about what’s coming with screen sizes, cameras, 5G and the elusive foldable phone.
Phone screens keep getting bigger. Why would I want this, and won’t this add volume to my pocket?
Many phone makers, including Samsung, Apple and Google, have focused on making screens larger without adding bulk to their bodies. To do this, they stretched the screens from one edge to another while shrinking the bezels, or the borders surrounding the screen.
Samsung is continuing this trend. Its new Galaxy S10 and S10 Plus phones have 6.1-inch and 6.4-inch displays, up from the 5.8-inch and 6.2-inch screens on last year’s Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus. Even though the screens are bigger, Samsung said, the devices’ body sizes are more compact than their predecessors.
The company also unveiled the Galaxy S10 5G, its first phone to work with 5G networks, which will have a jumbo 6.7-inch screen. In addition, it showed the Galaxy S10E, a model with a 5.8-inch display in a body that is smaller than the S9’s, for people who prefer more compact devices.
Why would you want a bigger screen? When upgrading devices, people are increasingly gravitating toward phones with larger displays. Many feel that they are getting more bang for the buck with bigger screens, as studies have shown that people spend more time using apps, watching videos and browsing the web on big-screen phones.
Why would I want a foldable phone?
Samsung first showed a prototype of its foldable phone at a conference for software developers last year. When folded up, it looked like a phone with a small screen, and once unfolded, the screen doubled in size.
At a media event on Wednesday, Samsung shared some details about its foldable device, Galaxy Fold. It has two screens — a smaller one and a larger one — with a hinge in the middle containing multiple interlocking gears. When folded up, the viewable screen measures 4.6 inches. Unfolding the device reveals its 7.3-inch display, which is the size of a tablet screen.
Samsung said it was working with Google, YouTube and others to develop apps that seamlessly transition between a single screen when folded up and the double screens in unfolded mode.
You may want a foldable phone if you love tablet computers. Plenty of people enjoy using tablets like Apple’s iPad and Amazon’s Fire Tablet for their roomy screens that are upward of seven inches diagonally. That makes watching videos, reading books and playing games more enjoyable. The downside is that tablets are so large that they aren’t pocketable. A foldable phone, in theory, will let people have a tablet that can be folded up and carried in a pocket.
Other phone makers are expected to jump on this trend. Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant, posted an image on Twitter this month teasing a foldable phone that will be unveiled at Mobile World Congress, the tech trade show in Barcelona, next week.
Foldable phones raise plenty of questions. When folded, the device becomes thicker in the pocket, which might make it bulky and uncomfortable. And it’s unclear whether making the displays bendable also makes them more fragile when dropped.
Smartphones already have many cameras. Why would I need more?
Many newer smartphones include multiple camera lenses that let you produce different camera effects. For example, last year’s iPhone XS included a rear camera with dual lenses; the two lenses worked together to blur the background while sharpening a subject in the foreground, producing what’s known as the bokeh effect.
Samsung’s new Galaxy S10 and S10 Plus take this up another notch. Both include a triple camera system arranged horizontally on the back of the phone. The left lens is for zooming, the middle lens contains the main camera, and the right lens features a brand-new ultrawide angle lens for capturing broader shots, like landscapes or a big group gathering at Thanksgiving dinner.
What’s more, the Galaxy S10 5G will have a fourth camera for depth-sensing, which will enable richer augmented-reality applications that use data to digitally manipulate the physical world when people look through the smartphone lens.
Expect other companies to keep beefing up the number of cameras this year. Apple also plans to add another camera to some of its next iPhones, according to a person briefed on the company’s plans, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the details are confidential. Apple declined to comment.
What’s the big deal about 5G?
Samsung’s new Galaxy S10 5G will be one of the first phones to work with 5G wireless networks, which are a successor to current 4G networks. These new networks will introduce internet speeds so fast that devices will be able to download high-quality videos in a few seconds.
But contain your excitement for now. The carriers are still far from deploying a broad 5G network. AT&T said it should have 5G deployed in 21 cities in the first half of this year. Verizon Wireless just did its first 5G data test on a smartphone late last year. There isn’t expected to be much traction for the new cellular technology until 2020.
And even when 5G does reach your hometown, there may be confusion about it. In a controversial move, AT&T said that it planned to give different flavors of 5G different names: 5G+ will be the fastest speed taking advantage of brand-new infrastructure, and 5GE will essentially be a faster version of 4G using upgraded 4G equipment.
Gordon Mansfield, an AT&T executive, said the labels would be helpful indicators for people with 5G phones. The 5GE icon on a phone screen will inform them they have speeds that are faster than the current 4G networks, and the 5G+ indicator will mean they are getting the fastest speeds possible, he said.
Also unclear is how much it will cost for people to buy 5G access — and whether the tremendous speeds will encourage consumers to burn through their cellular data faster than they did with slower technologies. The carriers have yet to announce pricing for data plans using 5G.
[What is 5G? Here’s what you need to know about the new network.]
Phones have become costly, in some cases exceeding $1,000. Can we expect prices to continue climbing?
Yes, in the high-end phone market, where Samsung and Apple compete. The Galaxy Fold, which arrives in stores late April, will cost $1,980.
Samsung has not announced pricing of the Galaxy S10 5G, though the device is expected to top $1,000, in part because of its 5G compatibility and depth-sensing camera lens.
For Samsung’s phones with more incremental changes, prices are also up.
Prices start at $750 for the Galaxy S10E, $900 for the S10 and $1,000 for the S10 Plus. Compare that with the S9 and S9 Plus, which started at $720 and $840.
Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at Creative Strategies, said she was doubtful that prices could go up much more in the near-term. The $749 iPhone XR, which despite rave reviews has not sold as robustly as some had anticipated, demonstrated that consumers may have hit a threshold.
“We’re getting to a point where people will say, you know what, the technology is enough for me — I might want a different phone, but I don’t want more,” she said.