With many new smartphones already breaking the bank on super-fast processors and ultra crisp displays, manufacturers are racing to find new features that will sell you on buying your next smartphone from them. We have a no-nonsense guide to five new features that you may be seeing on your future gadgets, and why they could be game changers.
For manufacturers always looking to make their phones tougher and reduce breakage, the screen is one of the biggest concerns. The recent boom in Corning’s Gorilla Glass, two to three times more durable than regular hardened glass, has made large screen smartphones practical with a lot less breakage. And at three times harder than Gorilla Glass, sapphire glass is likely to start making an appearance soon. Unlike Gorilla Glass, the name sapphire glass isn’t a marketing term: it is, very literally, made out of synthetic sapphire. One of the hardest substances in existence, sapphire is nearly as hard as diamond, making it virtually impossible to scratch or break. It’s so tough, it’s used for bulletproof windows on military vehicles, and other niches where “transparent armor” is needed.
Sapphire glass is already being used on some smartphones: the iPhone 5 has a tiny panel of it protecting the camera lens. Apple and other manufacturers are reportedly considering a wholesale switch to sapphire–at least on high end phones. The great drawback of sapphire glass is, at least right now, its cost. At ten times the price of Gorilla Glass, a touchscreen made entirely of sapphire could singlehandedly add $30 to the cost of building a smartphone. But manufacturers may get around this by using a thin layer of sapphire glass over regular glass, and as demand for it increases prices are likely to drop. Motorola could be the first to the punch; their much-anticipated “X Phone” project is rumored to have a sapphire glass touchscreen.
Of course, sapphire glass isn’t the only new technology being brought to smartphone screens. When you initially hear about “flexible displays,” it’s easy to imagine a gadget out of a sci-fi movie, where you can roll up or fold a computer screen. And while that may be possible someday, new devices are implementing flexible display technology for a much different and more pragmatic reason. Traditional smartphone screens are mostly made of thin glass, making them susceptible to breaking through falls or sharp impacts, even if the thicker, tougher glass of the touchscreen isn’t hurt.
A flexible screen on the other hand, based on plastic or something similar, would be able to bend instead of break, making it–if not indestructible–at least much more durable than any non-flexible screen. Samsung and LG are both planning to release smartphones with flexible displays by the end of the year, with the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 possibly being the first smartphone to feature one.
Beyond strengthening the screen, smartphones are getting tougher in other ways. One of these is improving the strength of the phone’s “skin” through new materials. Motorola has already started adding kevlar fiber to their Droid RAZR line, and is supposedly taking the next step with the X Phone by offering a skin made of carbon fiber, a material long used in aircraft and high end cars for its combination of light weight and high strength, creating “plastic” parts that are much more durable than conventional ones. Some third-party smartphone cases have been made from carbon fiber, but manufacturers are only now starting to seriously look at it for the devices themselves.
But besides broken screens, one of the biggest enemies of a smartphone is water, whether that’s getting rained on or accidentally dropped in the sink…which is why the next generation of high end smartphones may well be waterproof. By sealing the device internally using rubber and other materials, manufacturers can guarantee their devices to be protected against submersion under up to 5 feet of water for 30 minutes. “Rugged” devices that have featured this in the past had less attractive specs than most smartphones, making them a niche thing for people like construction workers and surveyors who needed the extra protection, but that’s about to change. Samsung is already working on a rugged, and presumably waterproof, version of their Galaxy S4 flagship, and Sony is reportedly also hard at work on a waterproof Xperia ZR high end smartphone.
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