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Back to basics as Android camp seeks high-end success

With Samsung and Qualcomm at the front of the pack, the Android camp is looking to right some of last year’s wrongs and make their high-end smartphones must-buys.

There is no doubt that developments in the area largely stalled, but there is still room for incremental improvements in most areas. Some of the most hotly anticipated products of 2015 were Samsung's Galaxy S6 and the Edge version of the same. After the company had been lambasted for its plastic design the previous year, the company was dead set on improving the looks of its most expensive products.

But in the pursuit of a more luxurious and sleek design, Samsung went a bit overboard and areas such as battery life didn’t get the focus they deserved. The company also chose to skip a memory card slot, water protection and the ability to change the battery, all of which omissions drew the ire of fans.

So despite design improvements, along with great screens and cameras, the phones were no home-runs. However, it seems like Samsung has learned from its mistakes and will rectify some of them with the imminent launch of the Galaxy S7 family.  

“If the rumors around Samsung are correct, its story is going to be making a great thing better by bringing back some old favorites like expandable memory, waterproofing and giving you a better battery life,” said Ben Wood, director of research at CCS Insight.

The whole point of buying an expensive smartphone is a lack of any compromises, and that should start with the above-mentioned features as well as newer additions such as a fingerprint sensor and wireless charging.

Vendors like Samsung, Huawei, HTC, Lenovo and LG should all start there. After getting the basics right they can add features such as LG’s second screen and the company’s rumored “magic slot”. The slot will be used to add new functionality, including different kinds of cameras and a souped-up amplifier, according to a report on Venturebeat.

With that in mind it’s very surprising to see Sony remove the fingerprint sensor from new US versions of the Sony Z5 and Z5 Compact. It’s almost as if the company is trying to punk itself. Successfully putting a 2015 model on sale so close to the arrival of this year’s batch of high-end smartphones is already very difficult.

For Samsung, the recently launched Galaxy A7 hints at a change in priorities, at least when it comes to battery life. The smartphone’s battery has a 3300 mAh unit, which is about 27% larger than its predecessor. The disadvantage is that the weight also increased from 141 grams to 172 grams. But for a device with a 5.5-inch screen that’s still manageable.

Unfortunately, it’s not all good news. One thing the Galaxy A7 still lacks is a removable battery, and all models in the Galaxy S7 family are expected to follow in the same footsteps.

However, Android’s resurrection in the high-end is as much about Qualcomm’s ability to bounce back from last year’s struggles as anything the vendors can do.

The bad rap the Snapdragon 810 processor got last year didn’t do any favors for the reputation of products like the One M9 from HTC, LG’s G Flex 2, Sony’s Xperia Z3+ and the OnePlus 2. All four manufacturers had better things to do than defend their choice of processor. That Samsung chose to solely use its own processor for the Galaxy S6 family was very telling, as was LG deciding to go with the simpler Snapdragon 808 for its G4.

However, Qualcomm is this year getting a chance to redeem itself. The new Snapdragon 820 will likely power flagship smartphones from most of the companies mentioned above.

At the core of the Snapdragon 820 is the new Kryo CPU, which along with the Adreno 530 GPU promises to improve performance and efficiency. Part of the package is also a new ISP (image signal processor) called Spectra. It will improve most aspects of photography, including color reproduction, noise reduction and auto focus, according to Qualcomm.

Another interesting feature is Snapdragon Smart Secure, which is based on the new Zeroth machine learning technology. The aim with Smart Secure is to help detect help detect zero-day malware.

Smart Protect analyzes what’s going on in the smartphone and warns about potentially harmful behavior. At its most basic, that could be an application that takes a photo even though the display is off or an application sending an SMS without the user knowing about it.

There is little doubt that the Galaxy S7 smartphones will be the most important win for Qualcomm. Samsung is still the king of Android smartphones and last year’s loss stung for the chipmaker. The relationship between these two companies is one of the most interesting in the whole telecom industry, with a heady mixture of cooperation and competition as recent announcements have shown.

Samsung is both using and manufacturing the Snapdragon 820. The flip side of that is Qualcomm going to court to see what Samsung told the Korean Fair Trade Commission about their dealings.

Also, Chinese smartphone maker Letv was given a lot of free publicity when Qualcomm announced at CES that the company’s Max Pro was unveiled as the first smartphone to use Snapdragon 820. It is very much in Qualcomm’s interest to keep the Android camp as vibrant as possible, and if it can help build new vendors it will do so.

At the end of the day, a resurgence in the high-end won’t be easy for Samsung or any of the other manufacturers. Apple has a very strong position and an increasingly competent mid-range smartphone will make the decision to splurge on an expensive Android smartphone even less tempting.

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Mikael Ricknas

Mikael Ricknas has been writing about technology since joining Computer Sweden as a reporter in 1998. In 2008 he joined IDG News Service and moved to London in 2012. Today he works as a freelancer covering everything related to telecom and cloud services.

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