It seems like all phones and all tablets do all things for all people these days. Every single smartphone and touch tablet has become just about everything anyone could ever want in a mobile device. They're computers, alarm clocks, music players, TV sets, libraries, game arcades, calendars, appointment books, cameras, Internet appliances, TV remotes and more.
With every mobile product able to do everything, how do new gadgets stand apart from the crowd?
This year, the answer is becoming clear: Display design and technology that will absolutely blow your mind.
The iPad HD
Rumors and circumstantial evidence suggest that the upcoming iPad, which Apple is expected to announce on Wednesday, will have twice the screen resolution as the current iPad.
Remember that twice the resolution means four times the pixels. The iPad 2 has a 1024-by-768-pixel screen resolution, which adds up to 132 pixels per inch (ppi). Although the screen is expected to be the same size, just one quarter of a double-resolution 2048x1536 screen (264 ppi) will contain the same number of pixels as the entire iPad 2 screen. The new iPad screen will probably look as good as a glossy print magazine.
This week, circumstantial evidence emerged that the name of this new tablet will be the "iPad HD," as in "high definition." The name showed up in a Griffin accessories catalog that refers to the upcoming sale of an "IntelliCase for iPad HD." It also shows up in an app that keeps track of makes and models of mobile devices.
Adding "HD" to the name makes perfect sense. It would line up with rumors about the addition of both a high-quality HD camera -- probably the same excellent camera as the one in the iPhone 4s -- and the high-resolution display.
It's also possible that the iPad HD will have a front-facing camera for HD FaceTime video chat.
It appears that Apple intends to focus attention on screen quality as the key feature that separates the iPad from the pack.
Samsung Galaxy B
Consumers want both the smallest phone possible, and also the largest screen possible. Obviously, these mutually exclusive qualities create a challenge for the industry.
With each new generation of phone, the bezel, or the nonscreen hardware that surrounds the screen, gets smaller as engineers and designers find new ways to get the screen as big as possible while keeping the phone as small as possible.
A new phone coming out of South Korea this year from Samsung called the Galaxy B may have finally reached the promised land: A phone with no bezel.
Reports say that the screen reaches all the way to the edge of the device on both sides and at the bottom. At the top of the device, there will be a dark strip between the screen and the edge; that space will hold a camera and a speaker for making calls.
When most smartphone users need a bigger screen than the tiny one on their phones, they turn to other devices like tablets and laptops. But that can be problematic for three reasons: First, the phone app they want to use may not exist on the larger device. Second, it's expensive to buy extra devices. And third, moving your data around can be tricky.
Later this year, Asus will introduce a product called the PadFone. The device will run the Ice Cream Sandwich version of Google's Android, and it will feature the kind of powerful processing, graphics and camera specs you'd expect on a high-end smart phone.
But it will also do a neat trick: It will be possible to insert the PadFone into an optional tablet-like accessory, thereby turning it into something about the size of an iPad. With that accessory, the phone transforms into a touch or pen tablet powered by the phone.
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The tablet dock itself brings some capabilities to the mix. For example, it has its own battery, which extends the life of the phone-tablet operation by a factor of nine, according to Asus.
The tablet can also attach to a full-size keyboard to operate as a kind of laptop. An additional pen can be used as a stylus on the screen, and it can even connect you to the phone when that phone is inside the tablet and out of reach.
NEC's Best Cloud Device
NEC has been showing off an early prototype of a phone currently called the Best Cloud Device. As far as anyone can tell, it's a two-screen "phablet" (midsize between a phone and a tablet) but probably a phone.
Unlike clamshell two-screen devices like the Sony Vaio P clamshell tablet, which has screens on the inside, the Best Cloud Device has screens on the outside.
This sounds strange until you realize that the Apple iPhone 4 and 4s have glass on both the front and back. The Best Cloud Device would, too, and it would work like a giant iPhone. But when you want to double the screen real estate, you just fold it open.
Microsoft's Behind the Screen Overlay technology
Microsoft is working on a combination of 3D, virtual reality and augmented reality technologies in a display system called Behind the Screen Overlay.
Instead of placing 3D glasses or virtual reality goggles on the user's face, Microsoft's technology has the user look through a transparent display.
Cameras on the front of the display monitor the exact position of the user's eyes. Cameras on the back keep track of the user's hands.
Normal desktop objects, like cascading windows, icons and files, would appear on screen, but with the illusion that they're hovering a few inches behind the screen. When the user touches, grabs or moves them, they react as if they were actual floating objects.
The research into what could be done with see-through displays and Kinect-like monitoring of user body parts mirrors Microsoft's vision of the future as simulated in a video called Productivity Future Vision. In that video, taxicab windows display user data and refrigerator doors are see-through displays that give details about what's inside.
Who knows if that idea will ever make it to a desktop near you. But it shows that innovation in screen technology is not only possible, but exciting and transformative.
The consumer electronics industry is focusing this year on innovation in screen design. They're betting that you like what you see. And I think you probably will.
Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. You can contact Mike and learn more about him at Elgan.com.