December 21, 2016

2016 smartphone trends: What’s good for gift-giving this year?

By Team Ventev Topic:

It’s hard to remember what life was like before smartphones. It’s even hard to remember what life was like before really good smartphones—that’s how thoroughly high-quality products have taken over the industry. Phones got thinner, and then their screens got as big as we could possibly want. It isn’t hard to find a 3,000 mAh battery or a 4K display.

By 2016, it may seem like we’ve come to a stand-still in the world of mobile technology. Even the most tech-savvy members of your family may not have strong opinions on what new phone they want—or if they even want one—for the holidays this year. Battery life has only improved three to five percent the past few years. Processor speeds have only seen incremental gains, and manufacturers don’t seem to think the jump from 4K to 8K displays is worth it. While we may be reaching the peak of mobile phone technology, that doesn’t mean there’s been no innovation in 2016.

This year saw the introduction of the HTC 10, the LG G5, the Motorola Z, the Galaxy S7, the iPhone 7, and the Google Pixel, among others. All of them jumped ahead of their predecessors, even if it’s not in the higher speeds, larger batteries, and better screen quality we’re used to seeing. We still saw a number of trends that have led to the best smartphones of 2016—and worthy holiday gifts for some of the tech-lovers in your life.

Most unexpected

For anyone who likes to try their hand at something new and different, modular phones were the most notable innovation of the year. Both the LG G5 and the Moto Z were designed with pieces that can be attached and detached based on your needs. While this isn’t a new concept—Google actually began floating the idea around with its now-shelved Ara phone project back in 2013—but this year two companies showed us exactly what modular phones might look like.

The real standout in this area is the Moto Z, with a magnet-based modular design that includes attachable speakers, a projector, and a battery pack. The G5 also has some interesting attachable components, such as a few camera upgrades, better audio output, and a fully removable battery, but the switching of pieces is a clunkier process that requires you to shut down and manually remove the battery, rather than just snapping together some magnets.

Best upgrade for Insta-lovers

Another new feature introduced by some phones this year is the dual lens—perfect for the big picture-takers in your life. Both the G5 and the iPhone 7 Plus introduced this feature, allowing for a more powerful picture, wider angle, and better quality. These cameras add a lot of capabilities that a single-lens camera couldn’t do in the small space offered by a smartphone frame. For the first time, good quality pictures and a zoom feature will go hand in hand on an iPhone. Dual lenses increase lighting, detail, and color in a picture. They’re especially good in low light, where they significantly reduce noise, and have the ability to imitate depth of focus—when you blur out the background to focus on something in the foreground.

Google’s new Pixel was a pleasant surprise for photography fans as well. With stellar low-light performance and color correction, it’s able to take crisp, clean pictures with at least as much quality as your iPhone—and sometimes more. Fancy portrait mode aside, if you’re looking for a standard single-lens smartphone camera, the Pixel is an excellent new choice.

Most controversial

The removal of the 3.5 mm aux port is yet another trend that’s been gaining ground with the release of the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, which comes with no headphone jack, just the lightning port. The idea of Bluetooth headphones was floating around (they outsold wired headphones for the first time in June 2016), but for now, switching all outputs to one place helps streamline all cables into the same few categories, while allowing for a thinner phone with more internal space. Lightning audio output could actually produce better sound quality, as well.

Of course, not everyone is happy about this. Plenty of audio aficionados have invested in high-quality headphones over the years, and are essentially seeing their investment go to waste. Apple has been selling adapters or dongles (and including one with the purchase of the iPhone 7) as an attempt to appease everyone, but these are famously unpopular, and in some cases can dilute sound quality.

This isn’t the first time Apple has been ahead of the curve in removing a beloved output—it was among the first to remove the floppy disk drive back in 1998, and the new MacBook Pro has removed everything except USB-C ports and a headphone jack. People aren’t always happy at first, but we’ve survived. And Apple fans will continue to trust the brand no matter what adjustments it makes—or doesn’t make—to the iPhone.

Best in charging

While batteries didn’t make major strides this year, USB-C cables grew in popularity, with the G5, HTC 10, and Pixel all opting for this connector of the future, and continuing its launch to being one of the most common standards for electronic cables.

This year’s smartphones weren’t full of the flashy upgrades we’re used to getting, but they still make for a great, trendy, updated gift to replace last year’s model. We’re headed toward more versatility, rather than just bigger and more powerful, which means that you can put some thought into making a smartphone a personal gift, rather than just a generic upgrade. It’s been an interesting year in mobile tech, but the future continues to look bright.

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