Big screens, out-of-date Android mark MWC's marquee smartphones

BARCELONA—If I’ve learned anything from Mobile World Congress—aside from the fact that most tech journalists can’t speak Spanish very well—it’s that the next year for phones is going to be an exciting one. Phone makers have really stepped up their game, creating devices that make currently available handsets look like antiques by comparison.

Phones like the HTC One, Asus Padfone Infinity, and LG Optimus Pro give us a glimpse into the future and have features that will be standard in all phones for the next several months.

LG Optimus Pro
Like many phones on display at MWC, LG’s Optimus Pro boasts a big screen and a high pixel density—400 pixels per inch, in fact.

But what trends are helping shape that future? After spending some time with as many new smartphones as I could this past week in Barcelona, a couple of developments stood out.

Big, sharp displays and quad-core

A 5-inch, 1080p smartphone display might sound like overkill to some. But that extra screen real-estate comes in handy while browsing the Web, and the high resolution means you can better enjoy your photos, videos, and games while on the go. It’s no wonder that so many phones on the trade show floor featured gargantuan screens with pixel densities that put even Apple’s much lauded Retina display to shame.

LG’s Optimus Pro has a 5.5-inch display with a pixel density of 400 pixels per inch, while the more modestly sized HTC One packs an astounding 468 pixels per inch into its 4.7-inch display. Compare that to the iPhone 5’s pixel density of 326 pixels per inch, and you have some of the best looking screens on the planet.

No, that’s not a tablet—it’s Asus’s super-sized Fonepad.

Powering all those impressive displays are equally impressive processors: All the phones at Mobile World Congress came packing quad-core processors and a bucketful of RAM. We saw our fair share of quad-core phones at CES, but seeing more of them here at MWC confirms our pre-show prediction that quad-core chips are going to quickly become standard in smartphones.

Screens aren’t only getting sharper, but larger as well. The international version of Samsung’s Galaxy Note 8.0 is an 8-inch tablet that can double as a phone, while Asus’ Fonepad is essentially a Nexus 7 than can make voice calls. The Huawei Ascend Mate, a phone first announced at this year’s CES, was a little less excessive with its 6.1-inch screen but you still needed two hands (or freakishly long thumbs) in order to operate it. What once was a race for the smallest cell phone has now become a competition in who can make the largest device possible while still calling it a smartphone.

Huawei’s Ascend Mate made its debut at CES, but like the other phones here at MWC, its large screen is the smartphone’s most noticeable feature.

Android 4.2 is a no show

In contrast to hardware, where phone makers seem to be adding as many innovations as possible, software doesn’t appear to keeping up. Every single Android phone shown at Mobile World Congress—save for the YotaPhone—ships with Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, the operating system Google released more than eight months ago at the 2012 Google I/O. Google has since launched an updated version of Android Jelly Bean and is expected to announce a new version of Android at I/O in May.

Many of the handsets being touted here at MWC won’t be out for a few more months. When they do arrive, would-be buyers run the risk of taking on a new phone—and its accompanying service contract—with an OS that’s two versions behind the latest build. That leaves them vulnerable to any security exploits that may have been patched in the most up-to-date version of the OS.

The phone makers I talked to all said they had plans to update their devices to the new version of Android Jelly Bean in the near future, so we can only cross our fingers and hope that “the near future” doesn’t mean several months from now.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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