With 2016 nearly over, it's time to take a look back at the smartphones that changed the industry this year – alongside the ones that show us signs of what's to come...

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It’s November, which, in tech terms, means we’ve had all the major smartphones we’re likely to get this year. And that makes now the perfect time to take a step back, take stock, and see what the mobile landscape looks like – as well as what 2016’s big mobile news means for 2017’s future announcements.

To do that we’ve been talking to TechRadar’s Phones and Tablets Editor, Gareth Beavis, the man who’s written more words on mobile devices in his career than most people have written full stop. So what does he make of the state of smartphones?

Bringing new tech to the table

“One of the big problems that flagship smartphone makers have had this year is that the lower end of the market is so much better than ever before,” he says. “We’re seeing quad-core and octa-core smartphones at the lower end now, which are really pushing things in terms of value. That’s giving flagship phone producers a problems, because you can now get decent specs for a lot less money.”

But that doesn’t mean that the big names in mobile are standing still. In fact, Gareth’s seen a rise in new features and hooks to help the top dogs stay a cut above the rest:

“You see things like the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge, with its large, curved display, to combat that trend,” he explains. “It costs money to make those kind of features, and that’s how you differentiate and maintain a ‘premium’ position. Other manufacturers are turning to similar tactics; LG and Motorola, for instance, have both produced smartphones with modular elements to them.

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“The Moto Z is actually surprising,” adds Gareth. “We’ve got one in the office now, and the modular aspect of it is quite cool. It’s the kind of thing you could show someone down the pub who isn’t really into phones, and they’d still be impressed by it. The fact that we’ve got more water-resistance in more smartphones this year is also a great thing.”

But when we’re talking about cool and impressive new mobile tech, Gareth believes that modularity and water-resistance both take a backseat to 2016’s other big innovation: VR…

“We’re still at the early stages of this, but Google Daydream is a big step forward, because it will unify VR on Android.” For those unsure, Daydream is the virtual reality platform Google announced in early October, which promises to bring the same VR experience to Android phones across the board. “We’re yet to see it take off,” Gareth says, “but the key thing you need for something like this to work is a big user base, and if every Android phone going forwards is Daydream-compatible and has a decent spec, then that’s half the battle.

“Google’s got the might to attract the right names to the project, too – HBO and Netflix, alongside others, have already signed up to make Daydream VR apps. It’s going to be an interesting one because it’s cheap and it offers a whole new way of using your phone.”

So does all that mean that VR will grow to be much more than the ‘flash in the pan’ fad a lot of emerging tech ends up as?

“Gear VR from Samsung is growing well, Google Daydream is coming through, and it can’t be long before we see the same from Apple next year, so the future of VR is as bright as it can be,” Gareth insists. “The [PC-based] HTC Vive is winning awards left, right and centre even though it’s really expensive – the price isn’t stopping people from jumping on board – so the test, as it were, has been passed. It’s like with Tesla’s electric cars: they made a really expensive one first for the early adopters, then a slightly cheaper one, and now more reasonably priced one that’s aimed at the mass market.

“The same logic applies to VR – the really high-end stuff is amazing, but hopefully it’ll trickle down to the lower end in the not too distant future. There’s lots of ways we can get there, but right now everything seems to be lining up, and that’s got me quite excited about it.”

Gareth’s smartphone of the year
Which handset is the cream of 2016’s crop?
“For me, it’s the Galaxy S7 Edge. Samsung took what was great in the S6 Edge and made it more of its own device, so that getting the S7 Edge now is a completely different prospect to buying the S7. And its success, aside from the curved display, is down to two things. One is that Samsung has really sorted out battery life this year, and the other is that the camera is really out of this world.

“We’re at a point where great smartphone cameras are everywhere, but Samsung is really good at tuning the images its cameras take to look amazing on phone screens. If you want to sell a phone to somebody in 2016, you want to impress them with the camera; it’s as simple as that. Samsung has that nailed, helping to make the S7 Edge one of the greatest phones of all time.”

2017 and beyond

So with all that cool new technology already out there or announced at the tail end of 2016, what will 2017 look like in mobile? Where do we go from here?

“At the flagship end it sometimes seems like we don’t have a lot of room left to go,” Gareth says. “Maybe it’s modular tech, maybe it’s VR, and maybe a big thing will be improving efficiency. There’s also still a long way to go with cameras, which is great. Screen-to-body ratio is another area ripe for improvement – Chinese company Xiaomi recently announced the Xiaomi Mi Mix, for example, which has a visually incredible ‘bezelless’ design, to create a screen without any border. You may wonder how much that would really benefit your experience over pure aesthetics, but that bezelless design is what you see in every Sci-fi film, so maybe that really is the future of phone design.

“Another thing we might see next year is truly flexible displays,” he adds. “Samsung, for instance, may finally debut its Project ‘Youm’ technology in a flexible phone that folds out like a book. The first generation of this might not be truly foldable, but it’ll be flexible at least, and it’ll be really interesting to see what happens with that going forwards; when it does happen, it’ll be the talking point of the year.”

So, with all that being said, what does Gareth really want to see in 2017?

“I’m obviously a big believer in VR, but what’s holding that back currently are three things: chipsets, screens and battery life. So for one thing I’d like to see more 4K displays come through, because you need more pixels to make VR more immersive. More smartphones with 4K screens that are dedicated to VR, rather than just for the sake of it, would be a really cool thing to see.”

You can follow Gareth’s work – including his epic, in-depth phone reviews – over at TechRadar.com, or follow him online @Superbeav

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