Android wars

Phone makers hawk more innovations to generate excitement, stand out

NEW YORK — It’s getting rarer for phone launches to generate excitement these days — especially in the Android world, where all models use the same underlying Google software. Every year, phones get routine refreshes such as faster processors, better cameras and longer battery life.

FOR YOUR EYES ONLY. A Samsung executive shows the iris scanner feature of the Galaxy Note 7 in New York. Each year, phones get faster processors, better cameras and longer battery life. (AP PHOTO)
FOR YOUR EYES ONLY. A Samsung executive shows the iris scanner feature of the Galaxy Note 7 in New York. Each year, phones get faster processors, better cameras and longer battery life. (AP PHOTO)

But Android phone makers haven’t given up trying to stand out. Samsung, for instance, hopes to encourage upgrades by giving its new Galaxy Note 7 phone an eye scanner for identification and related security features.

Other manufacturers are looking beyond the phone entirely, pinning their hopes on innovative accessories. Motorola offers mix-and-match modules that let you upgrade your phone on the fly, while Alcatel is focused on adding virtual-reality features, including a headset.

Idol 4S. Alcatel’s Idol 4S phone is attached to a companion headset. Alcatel’s approach to innovation is not to sell you a phone at all, but rather a virtual-reality experience. Alcatel won’t sell the phone separately and requires that customers buy the entire VR package. (AP PHOTO)
Idol 4S. Alcatel’s Idol 4S phone is attached to a companion headset. Alcatel’s approach to innovation is not to sell you a phone at all, but rather a virtual-reality experience. Alcatel won’t sell the phone separately and requires that customers buy the entire VR package. (AP PHOTO)

Just look… for security

Fingerprint scanners are now standard in high-end phones, following their big debut in the 2013 iPhone 5S. In the Note 7, Samsung takes the notion of such “biometric” security a step further, adding an iris scanner that detects patterns in your eyes to confirm your identity.

The feature is easy to set up, and the iris detection works well — as long as you’re not in direct sunlight or wearing glasses (much less sunglasses). To unlock the phone, you need to turn on the screen and swipe; then you just stare at the screen. The fingerprint scanner works even with the screen off and glasses on, making it the far better choice unless your fingers are wet.

Many Android phones offer a face-detection feature for unlocking phones, but that’s all it does. With the Note 7, the iris or fingerprint can also unlock a secure folder where you can stash sensitive photos, documents and email accounts you might want to keep away from friends who borrow your phone to look at baby pictures.

The Note 7 has a more resilient screen, more storage and more ways to use the stylus — for instance, you can translate a phrase just by holding the pen over a word. Samsung also brings water resistance and its excellent Galaxy S7 camera to the jumbo Note 7, while offering easier access to camera settings using swipes.

Moto Z Droid. With a headphone adapter attached, Motorola’s Moto Z Droid phone ditches the headphone jack that has long been a part of cellphones, and the included adapter is required for headphones that aren’t wireless or that don’t plug directly into the phone’s USB-C port. (AP PHOTO)
Moto Z Droid. With a headphone adapter attached, Motorola’s Moto Z Droid phone ditches the headphone jack that has long been a part of cellphones, and the included adapter is required for headphones that aren’t wireless or that don’t plug directly into the phone’s USB-C port. (AP PHOTO)

Build your own phone

Motorola is the latest manufacturer to embrace a new concept called modular design . With it, customers can customize their phones on-the-fly by swapping out components to get, say, a bigger battery or more powerful speakers. Another replaceable module can turn the phone into a wall projector for presentations. This takes the idea of personalization way beyond choosing the phone’s color or storage.

LG introduced an earlier modular design with its G5 phone in April, although that phone forces you to shut it down every time you replace a module. Motorola lets you replace modules without missing a Snapchat.

JBL SoundBoost speakers. With a red fold-out stand, JBL SoundBoost speakers are attached to the back of a Moto Z Force Droid phone. Motorola is offering mix-and-match modules to make the phone more powerful. (AP PHOTO)
JBL SoundBoost speakers. With a red fold-out stand, JBL SoundBoost speakers are attached to the back of a Moto Z Force Droid phone. Motorola is offering mix-and-match modules to make the phone more powerful. (AP PHOTO)

Modules attach to the phone using powerful magnets, yet they snap on and off easily, like Lego blocks. For now, you can only use these modules with the Moto Z and Moto Z Force phones.

LG faces the same problem with its G5 modules. For now, it lets you swap batteries and attach a camera grip with physical buttons to take shots and control video recording.

Moto Z Force Droid. A projector module attached to the back of the Moto Z Force Droid phone. The optional module projects whatever’s on the phone screen onto the wall for presentations. (AP PHOTO)
Moto Z Force Droid. A projector module attached to the back of the Moto Z Force Droid phone. The optional module projects whatever’s on the phone screen onto the wall for presentations. (AP PHOTO)

Another world

Alcatel’s approach to innovation is to not sell you a phone at all. Instead, it wants to offer you a virtual-reality setup. You get a mid-range Android phone, the Idol 4S, along with a VR headset, JBL headphones and an Incipio protective case for the phone.

Alcatel’s headset lacks the head-tracking capabilities of Samsung’s Gear VR, which is getting a wider field of view and a black interior for more-immersive viewing.

The Idol 4S comes with several VR apps already installed, including Littlstar for watching VR videos and Fyuse for stitching together 360-degree photos, panorama-style.

Alcatel’s innovation might feel obsolete in just a few months, when Google releases its Daydream system for headsets and phones. Daydream is designed for higher-end phones than the Idol 4S, so Alcatel’s VR system won’t be compatible. (AP)

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