Smartphone makers bait their hooks with luxe design and better cameras

But it is getting increasingly difficult for vendors to come up with meaningful improvements

The LG G3 has a 5.5-inch Quad HD display with 538 ppi.

The LG G3 has a 5.5-inch Quad HD display with 538 ppi.

As they battle for dominance in the cut-throat smartphone category, vendors are betting that luxury-evoking designs and features such as better front cameras will get consumers to open their wallets.

Here are three ways the makers of high-end smartphones are trying to stand out -- no small challenge in a market that's so mature, most improvements seem like minor design iterations:

Improved front cameras

Along with bigger screens and higher resolutions, better cameras have been a mainstay of new models for the last couple of generations. This year that trend has continued, but the focus has changed from the main camera on the back to the camera on the front.

To attract selfie addicts, the HTC One M8 and the One Mini 2 have a 5-megapixel front camera, while the Huawei Ascend P7 sports an 8-megapixel camera on the front. LG Electronics chose to increase the size of the pixels instead of upping the pixel count to improve the image quality on the G3's front camera.

More metal and glass

We're seeing more new high-end smartphones, like the One M8 and Ascend P7, encased in premium designs that use metal and glass to make them look like they're worth the extra investment.

Not everyone has gone down this route: the G3 and Samsung's Galaxy S5 still have plastic backs. LG made an effort to improve the looks of its new flagship phone with the development of a new material it calls "metallic skin" for the back cover, which looks good in the "Metallic Black" and "Shine Gold" colors. The company defended its decision to stick with plastic, saying it improves radio performance and keeps the device's weight down.

Officially Samsung hasn't said much that would point to a move away from plastic. But rumors persist that Samsung is working on a metal phone, with the latest reporting the imminent arrival of a premium version of the Galaxy S5. Recently the company appointed a new head of its design team, a change that hints the company has finally taken years of negative feedback to heart.

Keep it simple, stupid

Another change in direction we're seeing is how the vendors approach software additions to Android, which in the past they've used to try and help them differentiate their products. But in many cases these add-ons just made the smartphones more confusing and difficult to use, which the vendors now seem to have realized. When Samsung launched the Galaxy S5 it said it would focus more on hardware than software, while LG announced the G3 with the slogan "simple is the new smart." Both phones still have a number of features on top of Android, but this time Samsung and LG added far fewer than they have in the past.

With the high end of the smartphone market growing saturated, it's no surprise that vendors are spending more energy on developing good low-end products. Cheaper chipsets from the likes of Qualcomm and MediaTek have opened the door for low-cost LTE smartphones such as the Moto G LTE from Motorola (US$219), Microsoft's Lumia 635 ($189) and the Kestrel ($140), which was developed by Huawei for British operator EE. In all three cases those relatively low prices buy you a smartphone with a 4.5-inch screen, a 5-megapixel camera and powered by a quad-core Snapdragon 400 running at 1.2GHz.

You can expect to see even more quality features migrating downwards, which is going to require a tricky balance on the part of vendors. After all, if the low-end models get too good, consumers will likely pick the cheaper phones. Then high-end phones will have to offer even more flash for the status-conscious to part with a load of cash.

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Tags mobileMicrosoftsmartphonesAndroidhtcqualcommconsumer electronicsSamsung ElectronicsMobile OSesLG ElectronicsMediaTekHuawei TechnologiesWindows PhoneAndroid OS

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Mikael Ricknäs

IDG News Service
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