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AT&T Previews This Year’s Smartphone Specs at CES 2013

January 7, 2013

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LAS VEGAS—Wireless carriers have to plan in advance. Way in advance. Right now, AT&T is speccing out its first phones for 2014. So when AT&T starts describing the technologies we'll see in its 2013 cell phones, you should listen.

Here at CES, Ginger Chien, device architect for AT&T's subscriber product engineering group, offered up 2013's specs for developers looking to write apps that will work on AT&T's network. Phones are getting faster, but cameras have topped out in terms of megapixels, she said.

Qualcomm and Nvidia chips will "continue to dominate" AT&T's product line, Chien said. Quad-core processors will become "pretty common" and speed up to the 2GHz range, with dual-core dominating the middle tier of AT&T's smartphone line.

For operating systems, Android, iOS, BlackBerry, and Windows Phone will continue to lead, and Chien didn't seem to think any of them were dropping out this year. AT&T is also "keeping eyes" on Firefox OS, Ubuntu and Tizen. While the carrier isn't making a move to support any of those OSes yet, "if there is overall value in the ecosystem, that will enter into our decision making," she said.

Phones will appear with 2GB RAM and 32-64GB of on-board storage. Removable storage will be an option, but not mandatory. Remember, Chien decides what to put on AT&T's shelves, so if she says it's happening, it's happening.

AT&T will focus on four screen resolutions in 2013, Chien said. Higher end devices will have 1080p, 720p, and 960-by-540 screens. Lower-end phones will have 800-by-480 screens, she said. Notice that older display sizes, such as 480-by-320 and 320-by-240, are finally out.

"We're trying to rationalize our form factors for ease of development and predictability," she said.

Cameraphone pixel counts have topped out around 10 megapixels, so AT&T's suppliers are focusing on camera improvements beyond adding pixels, Chien said. One good example is the optical image stabilization in Nokia's Lumia 920; another would be the fast HDR available on Nvidia's Tegra 4 chipset.

AT&T wants to spread both NFC and wireless charging, too. "We're putting a lot of emphasis on NFC this year," Chien said, both in terms of ISIS mobile payments and tap-to-share. Wireless charging "appears to be very real this year," Chien said, but resonant wireless charging will very quickly take over from the current inductive charging products, letting people be more flexible about how they position their devices on a wireless charging pad.

How about networks? The big shift for 2013 will be the coming of 802.11ac, which will be so fast that it will outpace most Internet connections, Chien said. Developers should think of 802.11ac as a way to transfer large files or do high-definition streaming around a home, she said.

AT&T devices will also start to include software which will intelligently switch between 3G and Wi-Fi networks depending on which is better, with "the goal being to be able to give the devices broader, seamless coverage," Chien said. She didn't say anything about whether AT&T would support SMS or calling over Wi-Fi, or any other way to make Wi-Fi networks look to users more like AT&T's own system.

For location, AT&T will support SUPL 2.0, a technology which lets phones combine location data from GPS, Russian GLONASS satellites, European Galileo satellites and Wi-Fi location databases for much quicker, more accurate location fixes.

What Isn't Changing? 
Some technologies are stalled right now. Take batteries. Chien said AT&T doesn't see any advances in battery technology in 2013, except for larger cells on large-screen devices. That means developers have to pay close attention to power usage, she said.

"You're limited to modest battery improvements," she said.

While we're going to see some exotic screens here at CES this year, none of those bendable and foldable displays will make it into phones in 2013, Chien said; we're going to stick with LCDs and AMOLEDs.

Input devices will also stay pretty much the same as 2012. Chien spotlighted pen input, projected keyboards and voice input as three technologies to watch in 2013. While network-based speech APIs will improve speech input, for other innovative input methods, "miniaturization and usability difficulties will limit them to niche devices in our portfolio," she said.




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