One of the surprises, or disappointments, concerning the smart phones debuting at this year's Consumer Electronics Show was that they didn't come with any of the newer technologies we gizmophiles have been drooling over last six months, such as quad-core processors or Siri-caliber voice-activated assistants. What we got instead were pumped-up specs of the features with which we are already familiar: Screens were bigger, cameras had more megapixels, and batteries received longer lifespans. Here are some examples of these trends, as well as a recap of some of the things we wished we'd see.
What we saw:
Bigger displays. Android and Windows phone screen sizes continue to expand, approaching closer to, and in one case, exceeding 5 inches. Exhibit A is the Samsung Galaxy Note, whose display measures a whopping 5.3 inches. Some people would argue the Galaxy Note, which comes with a stylus for writing memos and editing pictures, is really a tablet computer. That may be, but other phones, such as the HTC Titan II, come ever-closer to the 5-inch mark, with a display that measures 4.7 inches. What remains to be seen is if consumers will feel comfortable having such big-screen whoppers peeking out of their pockets or purses.
Higher-resolution cameras. The cameras on this year's models received a major boost in resolution—16 megapixels of resolution on the HTC Titan II and 12 on Sony's Xperia Ion. Our lab tests have found that higher megapixels do not always translate into higher image quality. Phone camera still and video quality is still no match for decent cameras or camcorders, particularly when shooting under low-light conditions. And camera phones still lack optical zoom lenses. One thing is for sure, the larger size 16- and 12-megapixel photos are going to take longer to upload to social networks and use up more of your data allowance.
Longer battery lives, slimmer profiles. Today's larger displays and ultra-fast data networks put a strain on battery life. One would think that beefing up battery capacity would bring back the brick-like monstrosities of the last decade. But Motorola's new Droid RAZR Maxx proves quite the opposite. It has the biggest battery ever squeezed into a smart phone: a 3,300 mAh Li Ion one. We'll have to see if it lives up to Motorola's promised 21 hours of talk time, but we already know that it's only a tad thicker and only slightly heavier that its cousin, the Motorola RAZR—one of the thinnest smart phones on the market.
No quad-cores. The buzz for months was that this would be the show that introduced the phones with the first quad-core processors, already on tablet computers like the Asus Prime Transformer. Quad-core processors (and the 2 gigabytes of RAM to support them) on phones would mean being able to run up to a dozen apps at once, including games, without losing a second, while delivering more fluid, snappier videos and higher-quality graphics. The latest intel on such phones pegs their debut at the World Mobile Congress trade show in Barcelona on February 27.
No reply to Siri. Another disappointment was the lack of a credible response to Siri, the loquacious assistant on the iPhone 4S. Siri, by being able to understand and execute your commands, proved a very efficient tool for performing often-tedious chores such as entering calendar appointments, typing messages, and performing Web searches. The voice-activated interfaces for Android and Windows phones are quite good for dictation, but they're still no match for the iPhone's Siri.
Your phone as a credit card. A technology called Near Field Communication lets shoppers pay in stores by simply bumping their phones against the register, eliminating all the fumbling around with coupons and cards, which are easy to lose and forget. Consumers got a taste of NFC in late 2011 with Google Wallet. But only a few select retailers have the necessary terminals to accept Google Wallet payments, and the only cards you can link to Google Wallet are the Citi MasterCard and Google Prepaid Card. But judging from the lack of announcements at this year's show, it looks like little will change in 2012.
Consumer Reports smart phone coverage from CES:
CES 2012: Motorola Droid RAZR MAXX promises an edge in battery life
CES 2012: Motorola Droid 4 hands-on comparison
CES 2012: Sony Xperia smart phones pack 12MP cameras, LTE support, and more
CES 2012: AT&T to get HTC Titan II with 16-megapixel camera and 4.7-in. display
CES 2012: Verizon's Motorola Droid 4 is thin and powerful
CES 2012: LG Spectrum has a 4.5-inch HD display and a direct line to ESPN
CES 2012 Video: Samsung's Galaxy Note smart phone has giant 5.3-in. display
CES 2012: Budget-friendly Magellan eXplorist 110 handheld GPS for outdoor activities