Tech trends to look out for in 2018

Apple's CEO Tim Cook (right) and design chief Jony Ive with the iPhone X at a US media event in September.
Apple's CEO Tim Cook (right) and design chief Jony Ive with the iPhone X at a US media event in September.ST PHOTO: TREVOR TAN
Samsung showcasing its Gear Sport smartwatch at an August press conference in Berlin.
Samsung showcasing its Gear Sport smartwatch at an August press conference in Berlin. ST PHOTO: TREVOR TAN
Last year, the PC gaming and enthusiast segment exceeded $40 billion in value.
Last year, the PC gaming and enthusiast segment exceeded $40 billion in value.PHOTO: REUTERS
Loot boxes, more often found in "free-to-play" games, have crept into full-priced titles.
Loot boxes, more often found in "free-to-play" games, have crept into full-priced titles. PHOTO: YOUTUBE
Visitors trying products at the CP+ Camera and Imaging Show in Yokohama in February.
Visitors trying products at the CP+ Camera and Imaging Show in Yokohama in February. ST PHOTO: TREVOR TAN

The Straits Times looks back at 2017 in personal tech, and peeks into 2018

Smartphones: Wider, longer screens with bezel-less designs 

What went down in 2017:

This is the year smartphones took their biggest design step to date, with edge-to-edge, bezel-less designs that produce wider, longer screens.

Major manufacturers like Apple, Samsung, Huawei and LG have embraced such designs with their premium flagships, coming out with some of the best-looking phones in recent years.

Dual rear cameras also became the norm in smartphones this year, with the secondary camera featuring an optical zoom lens, a wide-angle lens or a monochrome sensor.

This year also saw new companies jumping into the smartphone market. Gaming accessory maker Razer released its first Razer Phone, dedicated to hardcore gaming performance, while the company formed by Android co-founder Andy Rubin released the Essential Phone.

Old favourites Nokia and BlackBerry made comebacks, with the nostalgic re-release of the Nokia 3310, a brand new Nokia 8 smartphone, and a fancy new BlackBerry KEYone.

This is also the year artificial intelligence (AI) started creeping into phones in a more obvious manner.

Both Google and Apple added new functions to their Assistant and Siri software respectively, while Huawei took it a step further and integrated AI into its new Kirin processor chip found in the Mate 10 line.

On the flip side, 2017 also saw phones getting more costly, with flagships breaking the $1,000 mark, even when bought under contract.

The year also saw the slow death of the veritable 3.5mm headphone jack, as manufacturers got a dose of Apple-inspired courage to ditch the ever-useful port in favour of fiddly dongles and wireless headphones.

What to look out for in 2018:

The bezel-less look is here to stay.

It should also trickle down to more mid-range smartphones, although their displays are likely to remain low resolution, in spite of the larger screen estate.

One innovation to expect is under-glass fingerprint sensor, which will let smartphone makers place such sensors on the front of the phone beneath the display, doing away with noticeable front bezel.


Wearables: Smartwatches with fitness features a hit

Samsung showcasing its Gear Sport smartwatch at an August press conference in Berlin.
Samsung showcasing its Gear Sport smartwatch at an August press conference in Berlin. ST PHOTO: TREVOR TAN

What went down in 2017:

This year, with the Android Wear 2.0 smartwatch operating system seemingly stalling, many gadget makers have decided against releasing a new smartwatch.

It was left to Apple to grab most of the pie with its third-generation Apple Watch Series 3 that was launched in September.

Apple's market share in the third quarter of this year grew by 52.4 per cent, compared with the same period last year, according to research firm IDC.

Traditionally, it is the so-called basic wearables like the fitness trackers by Fitbit and Xiaomi that have dominated the wearables market. However, more consumers are opting for multi-purpose wearables, like smartwatches from Apple and Samsung, over basic wearables, according to IDC.

The convergence of the smartwatch and fitness tracker has been happening for a while, as both Apple and Samsung repeatedly touted fitness features in their new smartwatches.

This year also saw luxury and fashion brands hopping onto the smartwatch bandwagon. Louis Vuitton launched its first smartwatch, the Tambour Horizon, while Montblanc released its Summit smartwatch.

What to look out for in 2018:

I think the smartwatch trends seen this year will continue next year. Expect to see more convergence between the smartwatch and fitness tracker.

With smartwatches getting better features like built-in GPS and swim tracking, it makes no sense for consumers to get a basic fitness tracker, especially when you can wear one device instead of two.

Hopefully, we will see more wow-worthy smartwatches next year, not only from the tech giants like Apple, Samsung and LG, but also from more fashion brands, as well as traditional watch brands such as Casio and Seiko.


Audio: Let's hear it for true wireless earphones

What went down in 2017:

This is the year true wireless earphones entered the mainstream market, with Apple's AirPods reaching most customers.

Not to be outdone, Google released its own take on wireless earphones, the Pixel Buds, last month. Over the course of the year, brands like Bragi, Sony and Jaybird refined their true wireless offerings and pushed out compact, wire-free earbuds with better battery life and even features like active noise cancellation.

Even audiophile brands - known to insist on wired products due to their better sound fidelity - have jumped on the wireless bandwagon. Venerable brands like Beyerdynamic and Focal released their first pairs of wireless, Bluetooth-connected headphones. This is in part due to new codec standards released this year like aptX HD, which allows high-resolution, 24-bit music to be transmitted wirelessly through Bluetooth.

This year also saw a shake-up in audio file formats with the mainstream adoption of the Master Quality Authenticated file type, with digital audio players such as the Onkyo DP-S1 and Sony NW-ZX300 starting to support the format.

On the home audio front, we gave up some of our privacy to more smart speakers with integrated personal assistants. Google updated its Google Home line of smart speakers with the Home Mini and Home Max, while Amazon released the second generation of its Echo device.

What to look out for in 2018:

Music lovers can look out for adaptive headphones that change how they sound by customising to the shape of the listener's ears. HTC has already started doing it with the USonic earphones bundled with its U11 smartphone, as has Beyerdynamic with its Aventho Wireless headphones.

And true wireless earphones are set to really soar, sparked in part by the concurrent trend of smartphones going wireless with the ditching of the 3.5mm audio jack, and by advances in technology giving them longer battery life and better sound quality.


PCs: Gaming segment shines amid gloom

Last year, the PC gaming and enthusiast segment exceeded $40 billion in value.
Last year, the PC gaming and enthusiast segment exceeded $40 billion in value. PHOTO: REUTERS

What went down in 2017:

The malaise afflicting the PC market remains unabated this year as a 12th consecutive quarter of decline (the third quarter this year) was reported by market research firm Gartner in October.

Amid the gloom, the bright spot was the PC gaming and enthusiast segment. It is poised to maintain the explosive growth that saw it exceed US$30 billion (S$40 billion) in value last year, two years ahead of forecast.

Market research firm GfK said in August that "gaming PCs have developed from a niche segment to a strong-selling mainstream product". The firm reported that revenue from gaming desktop PCs increased by 55 per cent in the first half of this year compared with the previous year, while gaming laptops recorded a revenue increase of 24 per cent.

The popularity of e-sports and growing adoption of virtual reality will generate more momentum for the PC gaming market, said GfK. The rise of gaming PCs also helped accessories like mice, keyboards, monitors and headsets achieve double-digit growth this year.

Gaming monitors with high or variable refresh rates, and curved screens, in particular, have done well. GfK says they are the fastest-growing accessory segment, which is unsurprising, with mainstream PC vendors like Dell and Lenovo joining the fray in recent years.

This year also saw the revival of chipmaker AMD in the high-end PC market. Its new Ryzen processor, available with up to 16 cores, prompted market leader Intel to release an 18-core chip. These high-end chips are for power users who could be gaming at 4K resolutions and streaming gameplay videos online simultaneously.

What to look out for in 2018:

PCs using the same Qualcomm ARM chip as smartphones (and promising up to 20 hours of battery life) are on the menu for next year. Asus and HP both showed off such upcoming PCs earlier this month.


Games: Backlash over loot boxes ignites debate

Loot boxes, more often found in "free-to-play" games, have crept into full-priced titles.
Loot boxes, more often found in "free-to-play" games, have crept into full-priced titles. PHOTO: YOUTUBE

What went down in 2017:

The hot-button issue among gamers this year was loot boxes, which are virtual goodie bags that cost real money in exchange for random, in-game rewards like a cool suit of armour or a digital pet.

Such micro-transactions have been around for years, though they are more often implemented in "free-to-play" games. But this mechanism is creeping into big-budget, full-priced titles.

Things came to a boil this year with Star Wars Battlefront II. Advancing in the game's online multiplayer mode was found to be heavily dependent on rewards from loot boxes. This is unlike games where loot boxes provide only items that are cosmetic in nature, not game-changing ones.

As the game itself costs over $60, it seems that the developers want to have their cake and eat it too. The resulting backlash forced the developers to temporarily disable all micro-transactions in the game, but the uproar brought the issue of loot boxes and whether the practice is considered gambling to the attention of government regulators.

While no regulator hasyet to rule definitively on the issue, this is just the beginning of the debate over micro-transactions in games. Should there be industry self-regulation or government intervention? It could go either way.

This year, gamers also went gaga over gaming console Nintendo Switch, which has sold over 10 million units in just under nine months after its launch - not including year-end holiday sales. In comparison, PlayStation 4 took 10 months to achieve this. Microsoft, meanwhile, launched Xbox One X, which lived up to its billing as the most powerful console ever.

What to look out for in 2018:

Red Dead Redemption 2, the sequel to one of the best games of all time, will be out in the second quarter.


Cameras: Mirrorless models reverse falling demand

Visitors trying products at the CP+ Camera and Imaging Show in Yokohama in February.
Visitors trying products at the CP+ Camera and Imaging Show in Yokohama in February. ST PHOTO: TREVOR TAN

What went down in 2017:

It has been a great year for mirrorless cameras, particularly with the launch of the superb Sony a9 and a7R III.The surge of mirrorless cameras has helped reverse the longstanding downward spiral of the camera industry this year, based on the latest figures from camera maker association CIPA.

In the first nine months of this year, global camera shipments grew by 13.6 per cent compared with the same period last year, according to CIPA. This is the first time since 2011 that a growth figure has been registered. Mirrorless cameras were the prime reason for the spike, growing by 46.9 per cent in the first three quarters of this year, compared with the same period last year.

Even the fixed-lens (or compact) camera category, which was hit the hardest by smartphone cameras, saw its shipments increase by 18.1 per cent.

What to look out for in 2018:

For next year, I predict that mirrorless cameras will continue to take centre stage. Already, we know that the Panasonic flagship G5 will be launched early next year. Other rumoured mirrorless camera releases include the Olympus E-PL9, Fuji X-H1 and Canon EOS M50.

Furthermore, Photokina, the world's biggest trade show for photographic and imaging equipment that is held biennially, will take place next year. Camera-makers usually reserve their best products for showcasing at Photokina.

But from next year onwards, Photokina will be held annually. In fact, it will no longer be about cameras or lenses, but will expand to include other imaging technologies like virtual reality, augmented reality and computer-generated imaging. It is about time the camera industry starts to make inroads into these technologies, to strike back at smartphones.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 27, 2017, with the headline 'Wider, longer screens with bezel-less designs '. Print Edition | Subscribe