Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Did Xiaomi just preempt the iPhone 8?


Xiaomi, the former darling of the Chinese smartphone market, has hit a rocky patch as of late, though its rejuvenation efforts have today been stoked with the introduction of a spectacular new smartphone called the Mi Mix. This 6.4-inch mobile behemoth is notable for its practically bezel-free screen with curved display corners, which sits in front of an absolutely maxed-out spec sheet and a ceramic back that comes with optional 18-karat gold accents.

But as I look at what makes the Mix truly exceptional, the only differences from current devices are the engineering required to remove the top bezel’s sensors and earpiece — pretty much everything else is already available technology, albeit rarely combined into a single device. And that gets me wondering, are we seeing a rough preview of what Apple has brewing up for the iPhone 8?

It has been common knowledge for months now, ever since it became clear that the iPhone 7 would be only a gentle reworking of the iPhone 6S, that Apple was saving its next big redesign for the 10th anniversary iPhone. 2017 will mark a full decade of iPhone history, and Apple is evidently keen to mark the occasion with something suitably sensational. That all starts with the design, however there isn’t much room left for smartphone design to take massive leaps forward: they’re already all metal and glass, all touchscreens and high-definition cameras.

So what are Apple’s options? Making the iPhone any thinner isn’t going to cut it as a marquee change. Apple could curve the iPhone — as Samsung did with the Galaxy Round or LG did with the G Flex — but that approach has so far proven to be high engineering done for its own sake. And in any case, Apple’s way has usually been to tie alterations in form to functional advantages, at least in the way it markets them. The only things that can really be upgraded or optimized in the existing iPhone’s exterior design are the materials and the screen bezels.

Along with HTC and Nokia, Apple popularized and pioneered the use of aluminum as the main construction material for a smartphone’s enclosure. That’s served the Cupertino company well for many years, but there’s always room for improvement, and now that everyone else is also rocking aluminum unibodies, it might be time for Apple to change course again.

Ceramic is the most commonly used aluminum replacement by companies seeking to "premium up" their devices — as OnePlus did with its limited run of ceramic OnePlus X phones. Apple itself has just hitched a ride on the ceramic bandwagon with its new top-of-the-line Apple Watch encased in a crisp white ceramic shell. And I’m sure by now we’ve all read the well reasoned theory on Quora for why Apple might move to ceramics with its next iPhone. A neat bit of synergy for Apple: it can do a limited anniversary edition of its iPhone clad in ceramic, which would help it sidestep the massive challenge of mass-producing ceramic cases on a huge scale.

But is the advantage of ceramic over aluminum actually tangible? From my brief experience with the two variants of the OnePlus X, I’d say no. Then again, Apple’s jet black iPhone reminds me that the company likes glossy and shiny surfaces, and the actual advantages of ceramic, such as much greater scratch resistance, are not things you can feel by touch alone. One thing’s for sure: a ceramic iPhone would look like a work of gleaming art, much less utilitarian than simple old aluminum and better suited for the title of 10th anniversary iPhone.

Finally, let’s turn to the iPhone’s bezels, arguably the most outdated part of the company’s flagship smartphone. They’re enormous. Murdering them would be Apple’s biggest alteration to the front of the device since its inception, and it’s arguable the company took a step toward that by eliminating the mechanical home button on the iPhone 7. The technology now exists to integrate fingerprint identification into the display, and together with things like the ultrasound proximity sensor of the Mi Mix, it’s clear that Apple can go almost bezelless for its next smartphone.

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