Look out for these new smartphone features in 2021

December 26, 2020, 1:00 PM UTC

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Despite the pandemic, phonemakers continued cranking out new models in 2020. The most popular new feature added this year was compatibility with superfast 5G networks. Some reviewers found the new iPhone 12 reaching download speeds of almost 3GB per second under the right conditions. So what’s in store for the best phones in 2021?

Folding phones evolve and get cheaper

In 2020, folding phones like the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold2 and Motorola’s revived Razr finally proved that manufacturers could make displays that folded without cracking or peeling after just a few months of use. But those phones also cost $1,500 to $2,000. TM Roh, head of Samsung’s mobile communications business, hinted at lower prices coming next year, writing in a recent blog post that its foldable lineup in 2021 will be “more accessible to everyone.” Some reviewers have said the Z Fold2 was the best phone of the year despite being too expensive for most people.

And while some consumers find the folding phones too thick, rumors suggest LG will unveil a phone with a thin scrolling screen in the first half of 2021. LG already has a TV with a rollable screen, Ben Wood, chief of research at CCS Insight, notes. He’s says he’s excited for phones “a bit like papyrus scrolls used millennia ago.”

Cameras zoom in

It’s hard to pack a high-powered zoom lens into a smartphone because increasing the magnification comes from increasing the physical distance separating elements of the lens. A few models over the past year, like Samsung’s Galaxy S20 Ultra, debuted a trick to fit a longer lens into a thinner phone by placing it sideways and using a mirror to capture the image, periscope style. Rumors out of Asia suggest Apple is looking at the periscope technology for future iPhones, possibly as soon as next year.

5G gets better

This year was supposed to be the year of 5G, but while phonemakers like Apple and Samsung did their part in developing compatible devices, the wireless carriers lagged behind. Phone-speed testing firms generally found the most widely available types of 5G weren’t much faster than 4G. That’s because the pandemic slowed some network improvements, and some carriers are still in need of additional airwave licenses to create enough capacity to offer faster 5G. Construction should pick up next year, and the Federal Communications Commission is currently auctioning off some additional airwaves perfect for 5G.

Ultimately, though not next year, 5G could reach ludicrous speeds of 10 gigabits per second, says Adam Koeppe, Verizon’s senior vice president for technology. That’s fast enough to download all 11 seasons of the Great British Baking Show from Netflix onto a phone in a few seconds. But that’s still a few years off, as phone designs, wireless modems, and network gear all need to improve. “Those three groups have to work hand in hand to evolve together,” he says.

Ultra-wideband opens more than just car doors

For the past two years, Apple has added an ultra-wideband chip to its phones as a way for iPhones to recognize each other more quickly for swapping files. The technology is so precise it can calculate locations with an accuracy of centimeters. BMW’s 2021 5 Series sedans are among the first cars to use ultra-wideband so owners can use their phones as a key.

But many more phones and devices will get ultra-wideband chips in 2021, says Counterpoint Research analyst Neil Shah, “to drive an ecosystem of interactions between different gadgets.” Expect automatic garage door openers, augmented reality games that work for multiple players at the same time, and tags on your wallet or keys, so they can never get lost between sofa cushions.

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