BARCELONA — Your next Android phone could cost a lot less and yet come with the same “biometric” fingerprint-unlocking security as high-end hardware.
Or you could find yourself paying extra for screen resolution you can’t appreciate and an altered Android interface you don’t need.
Those were the ups and downs of smartphones at the Mobile World Congress show here, which has seen almost every company connected with the industry besides Apple show up to show off their next round of hardware, software and services.
How strong is that union? Well, it depends...
The most positive trend here is the addition of sensors to even low-end Android phones that unlock the device after detecting the user’s fingerprint. Why? Too many people don’t secure their phones well or at all. A study released January by the Pew Research Center found that 28% of Americans don’t use any screen lock.
Resting a fingertip on the phone is easier than tapping in a sequence of numbers or tracing a pattern across the screen. If this easy-but-secure access also gets more people to use a password-manager app like LastPass to remember their logins—something the Pew study found only 12% of Americans did—that’s even better.
The phones that get the most publicity at MWC may be high-end, high-priced models like LG’s G6, but it’s more interesting to see how capable cheap phones have become. For example, Motorola’s $229 Moto G5 Plus includes fingerprint unlocking and what the Lenovo subsidiary says is an “all-day” battery that can be recharged to six hours of runtime in 15 minutes.
(I’m going to guess “all day” doesn’t mean “all day at MWC.” This show is almost as bad as CES in terms of its toxic effects on phone battery life.) The U.S. version of the G5 Plus also lacks an NFC chip, so forget about using it in place of a credit card.
Value-priced phones like that should also boost the growing share of phones manufacturers sell directly to customers, unlocked to any carrier.
One thing that hasn’t changed since my 2013 introduction to MWC: Phone manufacturers still can’t resist tweaking Android’s interface. The LG G6, for example, rearranges the Settings screen and hides the “app drawer” listing all your programs. Huawei’s P10 replaces the usual back and recent-apps buttons at the bottom of the screen with a “navigation key” you’re supposed to swipe like a miniaturized laptop touchpad.
All these alterations make it harder to move from one company’s flavor of Android to another (not to mention complicating providing tech-support recipes in columns like this). Many of these manufacturers also struggle to stay current with Google’s own software updates. Most new phones here only run the initial revision of the Android 7.0 software Google shipped in August, and a Galaxy S3 on display at Samsung’s exhibit still ran the 2015-vintage 6.0 edition.
Apple’s 2010 introduction of the “Retina Display” in the iPhone 4 popularized the notion that a screen’s resolution should be so high that you can’t see its constituent pixels from any normal viewing distance. That’s a good idea, but some Android vendors have since engaged in a pointless round of specifications one-upmanship by devoting engineering resources to crafting displays beyond human vision.
The LG G6, for instance, fits 2,880 by 1,440 pixels into its 5.7 inches of extra-tall screen--resulting in 564 pixels per inch. That’s nearly double the 326 “PPI” of the iPhone 7, and yet nobody complains about the resolution of that display. Sony’s upcoming Xperia XZ Premium will go still further, packing Ultra High Definition 4K resolution into a 5.5-in. screen—more than 800 pixels an inch.
Maybe Sony can sell it with a photographer’s loupe?