Smartphone forecast: Reflective, with a chance of water damage


— 9:27 AM on February 22, 2013

Smartphones are true marvels of modern technology. Although inherently limited by their pocketable bodies, these portables have evolved far beyond the realm of cellular-equipped PDAs to become truly indispensable computing devices. They've got communications and navigation pretty much down pat. HD media consumption avenues abound, and the web has become increasingly friendly to smaller screens. A huge and indie-rich mobile gaming ecosystem has also popped up to serve what have become pretty decent gaming platforms.

Then there the apps. Oh the apps. The sheer number is unimportant, because most of them are crap. It's the fact that everyone I know seems to have found at least a few really good applications—or programs, or software, or however you'd like to refer to code executing on the device—that improve their day-to-day lives in meaningful ways. And let them waste more time on social media. Some folks even manage to produce bursts of real productivity thanks to improving cross-platform compatibility and cloud support. Meanwhile, smartphones have become most peoples' go-to camera, not only for stills, but also for video.

You don't have to be a nerd to appreciate this new breed of mobile computers. The fact that there's so much interest from people in the so-called mainstream is what makes the revolution such a meaningful one. Yet I still can't shake the notion that smartphones feel a little like that nerdy kid from high school.

You know the one I'm talking about, with the translucent skin and coke-bottle glasses. He's much older now, and his body has outgrown its pudgy, awkward youth. He's developed maturity, style, and even some sex appeal, the latter without the aid of Bar Refaeli. But he's still wilts under the blazing fireball in the sky. His deathly fear of water remains, too.

Sunlight sensitivity is perhaps the most depressing detriment to further smartphone evolution. Despite boasting amazing sharpness and rich colors indoors and under dark skies, modern screens look horribly pale and washed out in direct sunlight. They're still usable, of course, but there's no getting around the fact that backlit, reflective displays have issues with really bright environments.

The worst thing about this particular flaw is that there doesn't seem to be a technical silver bullet just yet. While the Kindle's paper-like display laughs at the sun, I don't think we want to go back to the monochrome color palette of late-90s Palm Pilots. Mirasol promised to combine e-ink readability with full color, and a limited run of at least one device actually came out based on the tech. However, Qualcomm has bailed on putting Mirasol into mass production and is looking for licensees. Someone else will have to figure out how to reduce the cost of commercialization, I guess.

Depressingly, there really isn't anything else waiting in the wings. Pixel Qi has some interesting technology, but it has for a while without any mass-market impact. Besides, the smallest screens the company makes still stretch seven inches across, too big for even one of those funky phablets.

Reflective LCDs (not to be confused with LCDs sitting under glossy, reflective outer layers) may be our greatest hope. Unfortunately, current prototypes are a long way from smartphone-ready. Not to be a Debbie Downer, but the outlook is pretty bleak.

Perhaps the best solution in the interim is the sort of thing Jeremy Clarkson might suggest. Moar power. Not to the rear wheels, mind you, but to the display's backlight. Fight fire with fire, or in this case, the immense power of the sun with an array of tiny LEDs. I don't like that match-up. However, I will admit that the Super IPS+ mode on some Asus tablets, which uses a backlight pumped up with more steroids than Mark McGwire in his prime, does improve outdoor readability. To a degree. Incremental improvements may be the best we can hope for in the near future.

Fortunately, we may to be better equipped to help smartphones with their reluctance to get wet. Living in the Pacific Northwest, where the sky is ripped open and rain pours through a gaping wound (thanks, Bono) for half the year, I'm far too often faced with the prospect of pulling out my precious portable computer in more than a gentle drizzle.

The seemingly innocuous water droplet is the Kryptonite of electronics devices of all shapes and sizes. Worse, smartphone makers have become incredibly adept at detecting when their products have been exposed to excessive moisture. The only thing worse than having a little red dot void your warranty is not having an expired contract to subsidize the cost of an ultimately pricey replacement.

Ruggedized smartphones that can be fully immersed in water do exist, but they're few and far between and often well behind the technology curve. Worse, they typically employ bulky shock-proof cases that look decidedly chunky next to the slim physiques of more fragile designs.

The full water-proofing of ruggedized handsets is probably overkill, anyway. Who needs to take his smartphone swimming? I'd settle for weather-proof rather than water-proof—surviving a few minutes in a heavy downpour would suffice. There's already a standardized IP Code of liquid protection ratings that spans eight degrees between dripping water and continuous immersion. A nice threshold would be level five, which demands that devices withstand being soaked by a targeted water jet that pumps out about 37 liters over a three-minute span. Heck, I'd settle for level four, which splashes 50 liters of water in five minutes.

Sufficiently water-resistant smartphones appear to be within our grasp. A company called Liquipel has already developed a process that applies a thin hydrophobic coating to existing smartphones. It costs only 60 bucks and is purportedly good enough to protect devices from "short-term submersion." HzO, another firm, has purportedly come up with a treatment that's applied during the manufacturing process and offers level-seven water protection, allowing for dives to a depth of one meter for half an hour.

The technology exists to allow the next generation of smartphones to outgrow their fear of downpours, seemingly without substantial sacrifice. That sort of weather-proofing might not be cheap, but neither is pursing arbitrarily thinner profiles and ever-faster performance, both of which have diminishing returns at this point.

Smartphones have become so compelling because they allow folks to bring competent computing devices with them. To really offer a good experience anywhere and anytime, though, handsets need to do a better job of dealing with the weather. It certainly looks feasible that the next generation may not need to be shielded from the rain. Too bad we'll likely have to keep shading the screens from the sun.

   
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