It's only January, but the year in smartphones is already starting to shape up. Now that we've entered the trough between the two big early trade shows, CES and MWC, we're getting a good idea of what major phones are coming out later this spring, and what might be waiting for.
There are some phones and ideas, as usual, that we haven't put on this list. You'll notice nothing from Apple. That's because current rumors say there won't be an iPhone SE update this spring, and this fall's iPhone 8 (7s?) is just too far away for anything to be reliable on it yet. I also don't feel the rumors about an upcoming Moto X are reliable, and there isn't enough on the next Moto Z, coming in June. Any speculation about a Microsoft Surface Phone is just wild at this point; Microsoft watcher Mary Jo Foley says it may have been kicked to 2018. And I'm not putting any Xiaomi or Nokia products on this list because both companies, right now, don't intend to release phones in the US.
So, those aside, here are some of the hottest devices we're keeping our eyes out for in the next few months.
The best high-end phone from CES is coming out in April. This will be the first phone with both Google's Tango AR and Daydream VR systems on board, so if you want to bury yourself in Google's virtual worlds, this is the phone to get. It's also just a handsome piece of kit, with a fast Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 processor, a great-looking 2K AMOLED screen, and a textured back. There are some interesting camera modes here, too, including a night mode that turns the megapixels down to turn the brightness up, and a crazy 96-megapixel photo-merging mode. If Asus can get good carrier distribution here in the US, the Zenfone AR could be a high-end contender, but given its poor relationship with carriers, it's likely to remain a connoisseur's niche gadget.
One of the hottest phones to watch out for at Mobile World Congress this year is the keyboarded, BlackBerry-branded Android phone that many people have been waiting for. BlackBerry previously had the Priv, but it was big, heavy, and lacked carrier support, so buyers stayed away. But now that BlackBerry hardware is controlled by TCL, makers of Alcatel phones, expect wider carrier support for this next phone. The "Mercury" is rumored to have a Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 processor with 3GB of RAM, a microSD card slot, a 4.5-inch, 1080p screen, and 13-megapixel and 8-megapixel cameras. But what you're really out there for is the BlackBerry Bold-style keyboard, which is capacitive and includes a fingerprint scanner in the space bar.
The most utterly out-of-left-field phone from CES has a Consumer Physics SCiO molecular sensor in it, so it can figure out the nutritional content of your food, or whether your medications are fake. This is such a tremendously new feature that I can't wait to see what people do with it when and if this phone arrives. Because, yes, there's an "if"—although Consumer Physics says the phone is destined for the US, Changhong has never released a device here and the American market can be absolutely brutal to new phone vendors.
Outside of the unusual molecular sensor, the H2 looks to be a pretty standard midrange phablet with a 6-inch screen, rather like a Samsung Galaxy Mega. It'll come to the US in the second half of this year, Consumer Physics pledges, and it costs $433 in China.
HTC U Ultra
Coming very soon indeed, with a reveal on January 12, the HTC U Ultra may be HTC's flagship phone for 2017. A leaked video from Evan Blass (shown above) about HTC's "CMF kitchen" suggests radical body materials including "super fibers" and gradiated colors. One of the phones from the leak is HTC Vive branded. Other leaks/rumors claim the phone will have a six-inch display, no headphone jack, and a UI that uses gestures to naviagte. I'm personally hoping for some of the innovations from the otherwise-unexciting HTC Bolt, including the best modem available for fast LTE speeds, personally adapted audio, and water resistance. We'll see soon.
Huawei's Mate 9 is already on presale, and it's been out in Europe for a few months now. But its flagship feature, built-in Alexa integration, isn't coming until February. According to promotional videos, Alexa will be always on and always listening, although you'll have to toggle between Amazon's voice assistant to operate cloud services, and "OK Google" for voice dialing. If you have a smart home hooked up to Alexa via various skills or IFTTT, the Mate 9 might be your ideal phablet.
The flagship phone at Mobile World Congress in February will likely be the LG G6, which will lose the G5's modular design in exchange for focusing on "usability." According to the Wall Street Journal, it'll cost $500-$600. Not much else is known for sure about the G6, and rumors so far have been heavy on speculation and contradiction. For instance: At CES, LG doubled down on removable batteries, but some rumors say the G6 will have a sealed-in battery for waterproofing. Some leaks propose dual cameras like on the LG V20, and possibly a very thin device with a glass back.
The biggest question is whether LG will manage to make this the first phone with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor. LG has gone cutting-edge with processors before, and the timing may be just right to make this work. That would put the company a month before Samsung with leading-edge performance, which could be a major advantage.
The latest rumors for the Galaxy S8 have it coming out on April 18, with a possible preview at Mobile World Congress if we're all very good.
The most recent set of Galaxy S8 rumors we've seen include a bezel-free display, a new personal voice assistant, and no headphone jack. Other rumors are a bit all over the map. The phone could come in a 6- or 6.2-inch size, and it could come only in a curved "Edge" version (or not). Expect a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor in the US model, and a new version of Samsung's Gear VR software to take advantage of the 835's enhanced VR capabilities.