Mobile World Congress, the biggest smartphone trade show of the year, is this week, and companies like Samsung and LG are there showing off the hot new handsets they want you to buy. All of this gives us a glimpse into how Android phones will evolve in 2016, and what you should look for before you go shopping for your next smartphone. Every year, major smartphone manufacturers like Samsung, LG and HTC release a new batch of phones that set the bar for the entire Android ecosystem. We looked at the top, most anticipated phones from each to see where the industry is going, and to help you pick your next device.
When Each Major Manufacturer Will Launch Their Next Big Phone
The major carriers have eliminated the subsidised contract model in favour of device financing (paying off your phone a little bit every month in exchange for sticking with your carrier) and direct purchases. This means that you have more freedom to buy a new phone. Depending on the company or flagship you're interested in, there are certain times of year you should look for a new phone:
- Samsung (March/October): Samsung's latest flagships, the S7 and S7 Edge, were just announced this week at Mobile World Congress. They will come out on March 11. If you're more interested in Samsung's Galaxy Note line, you'll have longer to wait for the newest version. The most recent version, the Note 5, was released in August of last year. Typically the Notes are updated between August and October. For now the Note 5 is new enough to be worth buying, but if you're looking to buy around winter, you may want to wait.
- LG (April): The new LG G5, which is absolutely insane, comes out in early April. According to our friends at Gizmodo, the phone is a stark deviation from its predecessors. It has an all-metal frame with a removable battery pack, something not even Samsung or Apple have managed to pull off. The G5 should go on sale around the beginning of April.
- HTC (April-May): This year, HTC elected to skip Mobile World Congress, so we haven't seen an official announcement of its next handset. However, HTC usually releases their phones in mid-autumn. Some leaked info has already shown what it will probably look like, but you can only rely on tech rumours so much. Look for the new version of HTC's flagship to launch sometime around April or May.
- Moto/Lenovo (Mid-Winter): Technically, Motorola doesn't exist as a manufacturer since it was purchased by Lenovo in 2014. Lenovo will continue to use the Moto brand for some of them, but the handsets they announced at Mobile World Congress are aimed at low end markets. The current Moto flagships are the Moto X Style and the Moto X Play, which were released in July and August of 2015 respectively. You can probably look for updates to these phones around that same time this year.
- Google Nexus (Early Spring): Google's current Nexus phones include the Nexus 6P and the Nexus 5X, which were released at the end of September and the end of October respectively. Typically, Google announces new Nexus phones somewhere around September, and they hit shelves about a month or two later. These are the youngest of last year's flagship handsets, so if you're going to buy something now, the Nexus phones are the newest. Plus, they're first in line to get Android updates, so they have got longevity to them.
These aren't the only phone manufacturers, but they make up the bulk of the Western market. The major flagships also tend to set the bar for the lower-end phones. If you want a cheaper phone, you can usually get last year's model around the same time the new one comes out, at a lower price.
If you don't have a particular phone in mind, then early autumn is as close to the best time to start looking that you can get. While it's possible that some new phone can come out in three months that you wish you'd have bought, the period between February and April sees the most announcements from the most manufacturers.
The Smartphone Trends That Will Matter to You This Year
Smartphones haven't exactly been revolutionary lately, which is a good thing. However, there are a few trends worth paying attention to.
Fingerprint Sensors Finally Hit the Mainstream
Last year, Google added fingerprint sensor support to Android Marshmallow. With a fingerprint sensor you can unlock your password manager, log in to bank apps, pay with your phone using Android Pay and even bypass your lockscreen with your fingerprint, instead of a password or PIN. Now, nearly every manufacturer is getting on board. The new LG G5 and Galaxy S7/S7 Edge will have fingerprint sensors (although the Galaxy S6 did as well, it used Samsung's own proprietary software, since Marshmallow wasn't released yet). The current batch of Nexus phones also include fingerprint sensors, so you have plenty to choose from if this feature is important to you.
You can also expect that phones coming later this year will also have fingerprint scanners. Rumours suggest HTC's upcoming M10 flagship will include a fingerprint sensor, and Lenovo's chairman of mobile products has gone on record stating that all Moto-branded handsets will have them this year.
Most Phones Can Show You Information Even While Locked
The Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge will feature an at-a-glance display that allows you to see the time, your calendar, and your notifications without having to unlock the phone or even pick it up. Since the AMOLED display only turns on the pixels it needs, this can save you battery over the long run.
Samsung's not the first to create a feature like this. Motorola introduced Active Display with the original Moto X, and still uses it on the Moto X Style and Play. HTC also has a feature called Dot View that shows the time and notifications even when your phone is inside a flip-cover case. This year, the LG G5 is joining the party with lock-screen notifications that will show up when the phone is locked. While the implementations may vary, expect some kind of at-a-glance display to be a competitive selling point for most handsets this year.
Removable Batteries and Expandable Storage Are Making a Comeback
In the early days of Android, everyone assumed a removable battery and expandable storage were standard options on every phone. Then Google started shipping Nexus phones without them. Several manufacturers followed suit, much to our dismay. Now, a few companies are getting the hint that people want these features.
The Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge are bringing back SD cards. Samsung put the SD card and the SIM in the same tray to conserve space, so you can finally have expandable storage again. Meanwhile, the LG G5 has a removable battery. How can that be when the phone is made entirely of metal? Because the G5 has a totally nuts removable bottom. Not only can you slide out the battery, but you can also use that slot for add-on accessories, like hardware camera controls. The G5 also has an SD card slot as well.
Of course, not every manufacturer is likely to bring back both of these features in all of their phones. The S7 still doesn't have a removable battery. The Nexus phones are unlikely to have either, since Google removed them as more of a philosophical choice, rather than a practical one. However, if you've been craving one or both of these frequently-requested features, 2016 is looking like your year.
You'll Finally Get to Play With Virtual Reality Toys This Year
As we saw at CES this year, VR is getting big in 2016. If you're excited to play with it, Samsung is probably going to hold your attention. They're giving away a free Gear VR headset to everyone who pre-orders the Galaxy S7 or S7 Edge (otherwise it will cost $159 after the phones are released). The Gear VR uses the Samsung phone as a display for virtual reality apps. While it's not as high-quality as the Oculus Rift, it's also one of the most accessible forms of VR around, and it's more comfortable than sticking your phone in a piece of cardboard.
Meanwhile, HTC has announced its own $US800 ($1110) VR headset, made in collaboration with Valve. In some ways, the Vive is even better than the Oculus Rift. It uses a positional tracking system that allows you to walk around in a 1.4 square metre area without breaking the illusion. It's equipped with cameras so apps and games can see the real world in addition to the virtual one. Plus, it comes with a couple of controllers. The Vive is a standalone unit, so it doesn't really have anything to do with phones, but it's likely that HTC will have some kind of exclusive features that only its phones can use with the Vive. So if you like VR and love HTC, that might be something to keep in mind.
The Current Flagship Smartphones (February 2016)
Most manufacturers only choose a few major Android phones to focus on each year. As of this writing, these are the biggest Android manufacturers flagship devices.
Samsung: Galaxy S7/S7 Edge/Note 5
- 5.1" (S7) and 5.5" (S7 Edge) 2560x1440 Super AMOLED display
- 4GB RAM
- Snapdragon 820 processor
- 32GB or 64GB internal storage (with expandable slot)
- 12MP rear-facing camera
- 5MP front-facing camera
- 3000 (S7) or 3600 (S7 Edge) mAh battery
The S7 and S7 Edge feature mostly the same guts and will go on sale in March. Their cameras use a new Dual Pixel tech that makes it easier to take pictures in low light and can help stabilise shaky pictures. It still uses the old micro-USB style charging port, which means you can keep all your old charging cables for another year. The phones are also water resistant, while most major phones still aren't.
The Galaxy Note 5 was released in August of 2015. It has a 5.7" QHD Super AMOLED display. It comes with 4GB of RAM and either 32GB or 64GB of storage. In many ways, its guts are very similar to the newer S7s. However, it uses Samsung's own Exynos 7420 octacore processor. It carries a 3000 mAh battery, which is a little lacklustre compared to its newer counterparts, given its size. If you like the stylus, stick with the Note, but as pure specs go, it's a bit outdated.
- 5.3" 2560x1440 display
- 4GB RAM
- Snapdragon 820 processor
- 32GB internal storage (with expandable slot)
- 16MP and 8MP rear-facing cameras
- 8MP front-facing camera
- 2800 mAh battery
The LG G5 has a brand new metal body that stands out from its predecessors. It has two rear cameras: one is a standard-lens 16MP and the other is a super wide-angle 8MP lens. LG says this should help with landscape photos, tall buildings, and other types of photographs that require very wide shots. As we mentioned before, the G5 has a removable battery slot that is also used for add-ons. It uses the new USB Type-C style connector, so you'll need new cables.
HTC: One (M9)
- 5" 1080p display
- 3GB RAM
- Snapdragon 810 processor
- 32GB storage (with expandable slot)
- 20MP rear camera
- 4 "Ultrapixel" front-facing camera
- 2840 mAh battery
HTC's most recent flagship is nearly a year old, so you're probably better off waiting for the One M10. While it's 20MP camera sounds like it's better than the phones we've already seen come out this year, more megapixels doesn't always mean better pictures. Our friends at Gizmodo found the camera was OK at its best. The M9 is a decent choice if you're looking for a cheap older phone, but if you want the most bang for your buck, wait it out.
Lenovo (formerly Motorola:) Moto X Style
- 5.7" 2560x1440 display
- 3GB RAM
- Snapdragon 808 processor
- 16GB, 32GB or 64GB of non-expandable storage
- 21MP rear camera
- 5MP front-facing camera
- 3000 mAh battery
2015's Moto X lineup represents the best Lenovo has to offer right now. However, the Moto phones are perhaps best understood as really high quality mid-range phones. You won't find the best specs here, but they're hundreds of dollars cheaper than Samsung or LG's flagships, with the Moto X Style starting at $3 per month on an $80 contract with Vodaphone. The Moto phones usually get Android updates quicker, since they only lightly customise Android. However, last year Motorola caught a lot of flak for abandoning several high-profile phones too early. It's unclear if this will affect future models going forward.
Google: Nexus 6P/5X
- 5.7" 2560x1440 (6P)/5.2" 1080p (5X) display
- 3GB (6P)/2GB (5X) RAM
- Snapdragon 810 (6P)/808 (5X) processor
- 32GB, 64GB, or 128GB (6P)/16GB or 32GB (5X) non-expandable storage
- 12.3MP rear-facing camera
- 8MP (6P)/5MP (5X) front-facing camera
- 3450 (6P)/2700 (5X) mAh battery
Google aims to set the bar with its Nexus phones while keeping the price relatively low. The most recent crop, released in late 2015, did this amazingly well. The Nexus 6P is about as high end as you can get at the $899 price point. It's not quite as cheap as the Moto brand, but it's lower than you'll pay for a brand new Samsung flagship.
It also has a little brother: the Nexus 5X. This phone begins at $US379 ($526) which puts it at a pretty huge price advantage to other smartphones that can be twice the price. You make a few sacrifices, but it's still a Nexus, which means relatively high quality for the price point, plus super fast updates.
Admittedly, specs can only tell you so much, but they can tell you where the bar is set. If you're looking for a powerhouse and willing to pay for it, Samsung and LG are probably your best bet. If you want to save some money but still get a really killer piece of hardware, Lenovo's Moto line and Google's Nexus phones are the one to beat. HTC...well, right now their most interesting gadget isn't a phone at all. It's a VR headset. But we'll see what happens in a few months.