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Mobile World Congress rumor mill churns with reports of better screens, cameras

Mobile World Congress rumor mill churns with reports of better screens, cameras

New flagship smartphones are getting 1440x2560-pixel screens

For Android fans, the next couple of months will be exciting times thanks to the expected arrival of new flagship smartphones from HTC, LG Electronics, Samsung Electronics and Sony. While nothing revolutionary is expected, the steady pace of product evolution will nevertheless result in some great devices.

This year's first batch of high-end smartphones are expected to have faster processors, more memory, screens with higher resolution and better cameras -- and many will be launched at Mobile World Congress.

A lot is riding on these products; they have to prove they are worth the extra money compared to cheaper smartphones from Chinese vendors with similar specifications and increasingly competent mid-range models.

For now, HTC, Huawei, LG, Samsung and Sony are keeping their upcoming devices under wraps. But like they have in the past, the companies will rely on screen and camera improvements to get consumers to open their wallets. The Samsung Galaxy S6 and the Sony Xperia Z4 are expected to follow in the footsteps of last year's G3 from LG and Google's Nexus 6 and get 1440x2560-pixel screens, according to reports from SamMobile and AndroidOrigin.

HTC might go against the grain with the One M9, which is rumored to have a 5-inch, 1080x1920-pixel screen. But it might have an ace up its sleeve: a larger model with a 5.5-inch, 1440x2560-pixel screen, according to Upleaks.

While screen resolution is increasing, screen sizes are expected to stay roughly the same.

One thing the vendors seem to agree on is that a high-end smartphone in 2015 should have a 20-megapixel camera with optical imaging stabilization on the back and a 5-megapixel camera on the front. Here HTC is expected to go with the herd, and replace its UltraPixel technology with a more traditional main camera. Betting on a camera technology that has fewer but larger pixels for better low-light images was a gutsy move by HTC, but ultimately it hasn't helped the company much.

Under the hood, the 64-bit Snapdragon 810 is becoming the go-to processor, with four cores running at 1.5GHz and another four at 2GHz.

Samsung could be the exception, according to a Bloomberg report saying that the Galaxy S6 will exclusively use an in-house Exynos processor due to overheating issues with the Qualcomm processor.

Those issues have been denied by LG, which is planning to start shipping the Snapdragon 810-powered G Flex2 this month in Korea. The company adds that whether a phones experiences heating issues depends on the entire design, not just the CPU. Another report from Wall Street Journal states that Qualcomm will provide an upgraded version of the processor to Samsung in March that might show up on Samsung's new flagship.

Until now, Samsung has used a mix of its own and Qualcomm's processors on the company's high-end devices. Just using the company's own processor would be a feather in its cap. But without Qualcomm as a safety net, Samsung would be more vulnerable to production issues of its own.

One thing that's surprising about the rumored specifications of these upcoming products is the amount of memory they are expected to have.

Reports point to 3GB of RAM becoming the new standard. Anything less would be unacceptable, since existing products like the Nexus 6 and the Galaxy Note 4 already have that amount. While that's an improvement over high-end smartphones from the first half of last year, Xiaomi's Mi Note Pro has 4GB of memory, so there is room for an even bigger upgrade. The phone, which will also the Snapdragon 810, was announced this month, and will start shipping in March.

What makes the Mi Note Pro special isn't just the amount of RAM it has, but the type. The smartphone will use super fast LPDDR4 (low power, double data rate) mobile DRAM. In December, Samsung -- which makes memory modules -- said the combination of improved performance and size would result in a new era of mobile responsiveness.

The improvements aren't just about increasing speed: low operating voltages and faster processing will also result in power savings, according to the company. Since Samsung has its own memory chip unit, it should be able to secure enough 4GB components for use on its own smartphones.

All this adds up to smartphones that are becoming increasingly similar, which means marketing and design will become even more important than in the past. Last year saw Samsung stumble with the design of the Galaxy S5 and then bounce back with the improved looks of the Galaxy Note 4. The company needs to build on that and come up with something that looks even better for the Galaxy S6. Hopefully the company will also release an Edge version of the S6, which is expected to have screen that wraps around one of the sides of the device.

The next few months won't be just be about the companies mentioned above. For example, Huawei has its sights set on the high end, and has been improving the design and performance of its products in the last couple of years. On Tuesday, the company said it sold 75 million smartphones, representing a year-on-year increase of 45 percent.

One of the most highly anticipated products of the year is OnePlus' next flagship. In a recent interview, company co-founder Carl Pei said that it will start shipping in about six months -- an eon in today's fast-paced market.

The company helped redefine what a high-end smartphone should cost with the OnePlus One, so the pressure is on to once again deliver something special. Prospective buyers can expect a product that lasts longer between charges: "Battery life is going to get even more impressive this year with Qualcomm's new mobile processors (while of course adding significantly to performance)," OnePlus said in a blog post on CES trends earlier this month.

It will also be interesting to see whether Motorola Mobility can continue to put out impressive products as a part of Lenovo. A successor to the Moto X won't come anytime soon, since that phone went on sale less than six months ago. To remain competitive, a new Moto E and an LTE-version of the new Moto G need to go on sale before the end of May.

Mobile World Congress starts on March 2, with the first product launches happening the day before.

Send news tips and comments to mikael_ricknas@idg.com

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