They say the year doesn’t truly begin until the first round of smartphones are released. (OK, nobody actually says that, but everyone’s thinking it.) While it may seem like the tech year begins with January’s Consumer Electronic Show (CES), things don’t really get rolling until Mobile World Congress, where the industry’s heaviest hitters not named Apple or Google showcase all of the latest tricks and innovations that can fit inside a five-and-a-half-inch rectangle.
And this year’s conference didn’t disappoint. Samsung, LG, Sony, Xiaomi, even Caterpillar took their best shot at creating the smartphone of the year, each trying to best the iPhone with the right combination of form, features, and function. But while many of the handsets released this week might look a heck of a lot like Apple’s iconic device, they’re far from straight-up copycats. The truth is, while its competitors may have given up on trying to out-innovate Apple when it comes to design, these phones still pack a few things that iPhone users would love to have.
Back in 2014, Samsung made a splash by adding water-resistance to the Galaxy S5, but inexplicably last year’s model—the Galaxy S6—did away with it. Samsung brought it back in a big way with the Galaxy S7, packing it with an IP68-rated resistance to dust and liquid (which means it can withstand immersion in about five feet of water for up to a half hour). iPhone users have long wished for Apple to waterproof its handsets, and it starting to look a little passé that they’re not. Besides, we’re getting a little tired of freaking out whenever someone knocks over a glass of water in the vicinity of our iPhones.
The biggest advantage Android phones have always had over the iPhone has been the ability to expand and customize. Galaxy fans were surely happy to learn that Samsung brought back its MicroSD card slot for extra storage, but LG took expansion to a whole new level with this year’s G5. Instead of a tiny tray, the entire bottom of the phone slides out and can be replaced with swappable add-on modules, including a bigger battery, professional camera controls, and high-fi audio controller, with more surely on the way.
Now, it’ll be a cold day in hell before Apple does anything quite so drastic with the iPhone, but Apple has shown some willingness to open the iPhone up to add-on features—the iPad Camera Connection Kit and Smart Battery Case come to mind—so on-device expansion might not be so far off.
Battery life has long been a thorn in the side of iOS and Android users alike, but Samsung has made some great strides in that department. It’s not just the massive 3,000mAh and 3,600mAh batteries inside the S7 and S7 Edge, respectively—both phones also include a few convenient features to maximize convenience and charging. The first is fast cable charging, which, as its name suggests, charges the battery as quickly as possible. And the S7 includes both standard and fast wireless charging as well, via an optional stand charger. Either or both of these features would be very welcome in the iPhone 7.
If 2015 was the year of the smartwatch, 2016 is the year of the virtual reality headset. Samsung and LG each showed off equipment designed to deliver thrilling and exotic experiences right from your couch, all powered by their latest smartphones. And if you think the LG 360 VR and Samsung Gear VR are cool, wait till you get a load of HTC’s Vive, a headset that’s so powerful it needs to be plugged into a computer to push nearly 100 HD images to your pupils every second.
During Apple’s last earnings conference call, Tim Cook said that virtual reality is “really cool and has some interesting applications,” but all signs say we’re a long way off from an iVR headset. Still though, even if virtual reality is just the flavor of the moment, we’d love a taste of what Apple’s got cooking. And in the meantime, we have Google Cardboard.
The iPhone has always had the best LCD screens in the industry, with unsurpassed brightness and color accuracy, but it’s hard not to look at the AMOLED screens on the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge and not be a little jealous. It’s not just the improved brightness, sharpness, and power efficiency—the S7’s display (along with the LG G5) has a nifty always-on option, letting you see the time, weather, and notifications without having to press the home button. Since the black pixels on AMOLED screens aren’t actually lit, there’s little-to-no battery drain, so aside from looking great, the phone is able to display bits of text without actually turning on the whole screen. Plus it looks great—all of which seems like a no-brainer for the iPhone 7.
The prevailing rumor about the iPhone 7 is that Apple is poised to dump the ubiquitous 3.5mm jack, paving the way for a likely shift to Bluetooth EarPods. But it’s not just about music: Sony raised some interesting possibilities for the ear canal at MWC with its Xperia Ear, a tiny earpiece that interacts with your phone to deliver intelligent bits of information as it arrives. Powered by both Sony’s AI assistant and Google Now, it also lets you query and control your phone without needing to pick it up (or yell at it). It’s kind of like an Apple Watch for your eardrum, and it’s something we’d love to see added to the next generation of EarPods or Powerbeats3 Wireless headphones.
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Michael Simon has been covering Apple since the iPod was the iWalk. His obsession with technology goes back to his first PC—the IBM Thinkpad with the lift-up keyboard for swapping out the drive. He's still waiting for that to come back in style tbh.