Sunday, July 21, 2024
Smartphone news

MWC 2023 was a preview of what future phones could (and should) look like

Trade shows like Mobile World Congress are filled with one of my favorite kinds of phones. They’re the ones that have a single amazing, standout feature to offer to the world, even if their overall package might not represent something you’d want to buy and use as your everyday smartphone.

They’re phones like the Vivo X20 Plus UD, which we tried out at CES 2018 and was the first phone to ship with an under-display fingerprint sensor. And although it wasn’t announced at a trade show, I’d put the OnePlus 7 Pro in the same category for being one of the first mainstream smartphones with a 90Hz display. Sometimes, it feels like all it takes is for one phone to show how beneficial a feature can be before the rest of the industry rapidly catches up. 

That’s what I want to focus on today, with a roundup of three phone features (and one trend) from MWC 2023 that I hope to see become far more common in the future. With any luck, in a few years’ time, at least some of these features will be considered standard essentials, and we’ll be looking back at this show as the moment they crested into the mainstream.

Nokia G22 and repairability

HMD made a big deal about how repairable its forthcoming Nokia G22 will be at MWC 2023. It’s partnered with iFixit to sell spare parts for the phone for five years after its release, and there’ll also be simple guides available online for common repairs like replacing a broken screen, dead battery, or dodgy charging port.

In and of itself, that’s (thankfully) not particularly unique in 2023. Samsung and Google have also recently announced partnerships with iFixit to sell spare parts for their phones, and even Apple has launched a self-service repair program of its own. But what’s more interesting is that HMD consulted with iFixit on the actual design of the Nokia G22 to make it more repairable in the first place.

iFixit consulted with HMD on the Nokia G22’s design

I should note that iFixit’s vice president of business development, Chris Bross, tells me this isn’t the first time the company has consulted with manufacturers on product designs. They’re just not normally as willing to announce iFixit’s involvement as HMD has been.

To put HMD’s repairability claims to the test, I had a go at replacing the Nokia G22’s battery on the show floor at MWC. Now, full disclosure, I didn’t go into the process completely blind. HMD’s head of product marketing, Adam Ferguson, gave me a thorough demonstration of the process beforehand, and there were iFixit employees in attendance at HMD’s booth who were ready and eager to offer advice.

Replacing the Nokia G22’s battery.
Photo by Owen Grove / The Verge

Thankfully, it never got to the point where the team needed to intervene, and, to HMD’s credit, I was able to swap out the battery in roughly seven minutes. 

That’s not to say it was as simple as replacing the kinds of removable batteries that used to be commonplace in our pre-smartphone era (or which Fairphone still uses in its phones). The process involved prying open the phone’s case with a guitar pick-sized piece of plastic (the phone has an IP rating of IP52, which offers some but not a lot of protection against dust and water ingress), unscrewing two screws, unclipping two (admittedly pretty delicate) ribbon cables, and unsticking the battery from the phone’s housing. And nor did my repair go off entirely without a hitch — I managed to tear one of the disposable tabs used to pull the battery out of the phone during the process.

But ultimately, the results spoke for themselves. The repair was successful, and the phone happily turned on after I’d been poking around in its innards.

Although it might seem like there are a lot of steps to the Nokia G22’s battery replacement process, it’s nothing compared to what’s required to conduct similar repairs on recent phones from other manufacturers. It takes 19 steps to replace the G22’s battery, but 27 steps for the Google Pixel 7 Pro and 60 steps for the Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra. And remember, both Google and Samsung are also selling spare parts through iFixit. Just opening the Pixel or Galaxy requires you to heat up the phone to melt adhesive — a time-consuming and fiddly task — and once you’re inside, you can be faced with half a dozen or more screws that need to be removed to reach their respective batteries. It’s a night and day difference compared to what’s shown in iFixit’s Pixel 7 Pro battery repair guide.

Opening the Nokia G22 with a single plastic pick…
Photo by Owen Grove / The Verge

…versus the handful you need for a similar Pixel repair.
Image: iFixit

But lest we forget, the point of making phones like the Nokia G22 more repairable is to ensure they’re usable for longer rather than forcing people to replace them and send them to landfill when they develop a minor fault. But hardware is only half the story when it comes to longevity, and HMD is arguably falling short on the other half: software. The Nokia G22 will get two years of major Android version updates and three years of security updates, which isn’t that impressive compared to the support periods offered by Google and Samsung on some of their (admittedly more expensive) devices. 

HMD’s Ferguson says this middling support period comes as a result of the G22’s relatively affordable £149.99 (€179 / around $180) price point. “Yes, it would absolutely be fantastic to be able to [offer a longer support period], but all of these things come with a cost,” he said in a briefing ahead of the phone’s announcement.

Suffice it to say it would be great to see HMD find a balance that allows both the phone’s hardware and software to remain spick and span for years to come. But as a first step, the Nokia G22 represents a really promising future for mainstream repairable devices. I hope other manufacturers are paying attention and that HMD brings a similarly repairable design to handsets destined for the US in the future. (The Nokia G22, meanwhile, is focused on Europe and other international markets). 

The Xiaomi 13 Pro and bigger camera sensors

Although Samsung’s Galaxy S23 Ultra made headlines for its 200-megapixel main camera, I think Xiaomi’s 13 Pro arguably has the more interesting camera hardware. The device was announced for the Chinese market last December but got its international launch at this year’s show. At first glance, its 50-megapixel main camera sensor might not sound too exciting, but what’s special about its Sony IMX989 hardware is its size. 

It’s a 1-inch-type sensor, which might not literally mean that it measures one inch corner to corner but nevertheless means that it’s a lot bigger than most other smartphone camera sensors. (If you’re interested, Marques Brownlee made a great video last year with a concise explanation of how 1-inch-type sensors got their name.) Bigger sensors generally mean bigger pixels, and all else being equal, that leaves you with a camera that’s better at gathering light. Bigger sensors can also lead to a shallower depth of field, so it’s slightly easier to get natural blurry backgrounds in your photographs. 

The Xiaomi 13 Pro’s camera bump.
Photo by Jon Porter / The Verge

I haven’t spent enough time taking photos on the Xiaomi 13 Pro to offer any conclusive thoughts about how good its camera is. But the photos I’ve taken so far with this phone, I’ve really liked. Daylight shots look crisp and clean, and night shots just look nice and natural. It almost looks like something you’d expect to have come out of a standalone camera. It’s especially impressive when you get up close, thanks to the combination of high detail on your subjects and natural depth of field in the background.

The Xiaomi 13 Pro is far from the first smartphone to have a 1-inch-type sensor. Panasonic made one years ago, Vivo’s recent X90 Pro came equipped with one, and even Xiaomi itself used Sony’s massive sensor in last year’s 12S Ultra. But the 13 Pro feels significant because it’s a regular-looking, mainstream phone from a brand that’s become pretty popular in a lot of countries outside of the US. And it’s not exclusive to the Chinese market like the 12S Ultra.

In recent years, the story of smartphone photography has been one of computational photography — about using more and more powerful smartphone processors to overcome the limitations of phones’ comparatively small camera sensors. But the Xiaomi 13 Pro has me excited for a future where smartphones can offer the combined benefits of both powerful camera software and hardware alike. 

The Realme GT3 and faster charging

While Apple has been content to stick to fast charging speeds of 20 to 30 watts for even its flagship iPhones, Android manufacturers have been pushing the bar higher and higher. The latest company to take a shot at the fast charging crown is Realme, which announced the international launch of the 240W fast charging-compatible Realme GT3 at MWC 2023. (Like the Xiaomi 13 Pro, this phone has already been released in China, albeit with a slightly different name: Realme GT Neo 5.) That wattage, Realme claims, is enough to charge the phone’s 4,600mAh battery to 100 percent in nine and a half minutes flat.

Whenever I write about fast charging speeds like these, I get two types of comments. The first raises legitimate questions about whether wattages this high can possibly be good for the longevity of a phone’s battery.

The Realme GT3 being fast-charged.
Photo by Owen Grove / The Verge

Realme claims that its handset and 240W SuperVOOC charging technology is equipped with enough safeguards to protect the health of its battery and that even after 1,600 charging cycles, the phone’s battery will still be able to maintain 80 percent of its charge. If you charge a phone roughly once a day, that works out to a relatively healthy four years-plus of lifespan, and for comparison, Apple’s own support site says its batteries are rated to hold 80 percent of their charge for just 500 charging cycles.

But these are lab results, and I understand if people are skeptical about durability in the real world. Ultimately, I think we’ll have to wait for these kinds of devices to be on the market for long enough to see how they hold up in practice.

The second type of comment asks why charging speeds this fast are even necessary in the first place. And I think I’ve got a much better answer here.

240W fast charging could be useful as a backup

I agree that 240W fast charging speeds aren’t particularly necessary for daily use. But neither is the iPhone’s Crash Detection or satellite connectivity. Or a feature like Samsung’s 100x “Space Zoom.” Or a smartwatch’s atrial fibrillation tracking. But, when you do need these features, you’re glad to have them in your toolkit. 

I suspect most people who buy a Realme GT3 will continue to charge it overnight, just like they’ve always done. They could even use the same basic charger that came with their last phone to do so. But when that once-a-year emergency crops up, when they have a flight but forgot to charge their phone overnight or don’t want to spend the rest of an important work call tethered to a charging cable after getting a “low battery” warning, I think 240W fast charging can serve an important purpose. 

The Realme GT3 from the front and back.
Photo by Owen Grove / The Verge

As a backup feature to use in emergencies, I’m really into the idea of more phones having these ridiculously quick fast charging options at their disposal. I’ll continue to slow charge my phone overnight, thanks very much, but I wouldn’t say no to having the option of an emergency 240W boost. Redmi’s 300W fast charging prototype, on the other hand? Okay, that one might actually be overkill.

The Honor Magic VS and foldable competition

This last point is less of a specific feature and more of an overarching trend, but I’ve been happy to see 2023 emerge as the year that international buyers finally start to see a little more foldable competition. Yes, Samsung has been releasing Z Fold and Z Flip devices for years, but outside of China (where manufacturers have been quicker to embrace foldables), it’s had relatively little competition, save for the occasional device from Motorola or Huawei.

Honor’s Magic VS, partially folded.
Photo by Jon Porter / The Verge

This year, it feels like there’s a shift happening. Just prior to MWC, Oppo had the international launch for the Find N2 Flip, and at the show, Honor announced pricing and an eventual international release for its Magic VS foldable. OnePlus even says it plans to release a foldable of its own in the second half of this year.

At the very least, more devices means more competition on price and functionality, whether by offering a bigger and more useful cover display than Samsung’s Z Flip 4 with the Find N2 Flip or a more durable hinge design with the Magic VS (which is rated for 400,000 folding cycles compared to 200,000 for Samsung’s Z Fold 4). With any luck, these devices will push Samsung to compete with advances of its own.

While two out of these three devices are unlikely to ever see a wide release in the US, I think their arrival suggests the foldable market is heating up.

Given few of the smartphones discussed above are ever likely to receive a wide release in the US, it can be tempting to write off a show like MWC Barcelona as being too niche or European-focused. But I think its smartphone launches offer an interesting look at where the market is heading next.

Repairable devices, super-fast charging, and bigger camera sensors might seem a little niche, but I think there’s a real chance for these features to become mainstream in the years ahead.


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