MWC: Screens grow, cameras improve and emerging markets come into focus

The LG GWC: Pro 2, Nokia X, Samsung Galaxy S5 and Sony Xperia Z2 among notable newcomers

Phone manufacturers are once again hoping improved cameras and bigger and better screens will be enough to get users to upgrade, while at the same time increasing efforts to get consumers in emerging countries to buy their first smartphone.

Here are three of the biggest smartphone trends from this year's Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

Better cameras

If there is one common denominator among especially the high-end phones announced at the show it is improved cameras.

Before the show even started, LG announced G Pro 2, which lets users shoot HD videos at 120 frames per second and 4K content, a feature that especially makes sense for a company like LG, which is also trying to get consumers to buy 4K TVs. A feature called "magic focus" lets the user select the preferred depth of focus before saving, LG said.

Those features again showed up when Sony and Samsung on Monday launched the Xperia Z2 and the Galaxy S5. The two phones can both shoot 4K video, and the Z2 can record 120 frames per second to create a slow-motion effect. They can also control the background focus; Samsung calls its feature "selective focus" and Sony's smartphone has a feature called "background defocus."

Samsung, which increased the resolution on the S5 to 16 megapixels, also highlighted a 0.3 second autofocus, and Sony bragged about an improved shutter speed. LG, on the other hand, plugged its combined hardware and software imaging stabilization. The Z2 and the S5 both lack optical image stabilization.

Screens grow, but resolution stays the same

The second most obvious trend is the continued growth of screen sizes. Among expensive smartphones, the increases are small: from 5 inches to 5.1 inches on the Galaxy S4 and from 5.1 inches 5.2 inches on the Xperia Z2. For people who want even larger screens, ZTE's Grand Memo II has a 6-inch versus a 5.7-inch screen on the company's first Grand Memo model.

Getting a bigger screen still comes at a cost. The Galaxy S5 is 15 grams heavier, and about 5 millimeters longer and 3 millimeters wider than the S4.

But it isn't just high-end smartphones that are getting big screens. Nokia's XL has a 5-inch screen and costs €109 (US$150) before taxes and subsidies. Of course, users of that phone won't get full HD resolution, instead they have to settle for 800 by 480 pixels, which doesn't look as bad as it sounds.

One thing that hasn't improved is the highest resolution, which still tops out at 1920 by 1080 pixels. Before the show, there was speculation that some flagship devices would make the leap to 2560 by 1440 pixels, but that didn't happen.

The low end becomes increasingly important

The growing importance of affordable smartphones is difficult to miss. Over the last two years, there has been a dramatic shift in sales, as more people are buying affordable smartphones that cost less than €100, according to Stephen Elop, executive vice president for devices and services at Nokia.

At the show, Nokia officially relented to Android's dominance in this segment and released the X family of smartphones, which cost from €89 before taxes and subsidies, for now. The phones are based on Android Open Source Project software, and have a user interface that uses tiles just like Windows Phone.

For consumers who can't afford that, Mozilla and China-based chip maker Spreadtrum Sunday unveiled a chipset designed for $25 smartphones running Firefox OS, which is solely aimed at more affordable devices. Those smartphones are scheduled to ship sometime this year.

Send news tips and comments to mikael_ricknas@idg.com

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