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Focus on smartphone, tablet screen sizes at show

Smartphone vendors are trying to find out what screen sizes consumers prefer, an analyst says

At next week's Internationale Funkaustellung (IFA) in Berlin, smartphone makers are expected to push the boundaries of the device's screen sizes, while also launching tablets and trying to accelerate the momentum for 3D-capable products.

The show officially opens Friday, preceded by two days of press conferences where companies including Dell, Acer, Panasonic, Sony, Samsung, HTC, Lenovo and Toshiba are expected to launch products.

Samsung's press conference, scheduled for Thursday, is one of the most anticipated, and not just because of its legal fight with Apple, for which one front is in Germany.

At last year's IFA, Samsung premiered its Galaxy Tab family and this year, the company has promised in teaser ads that, "something big is coming" -- something that looks like a small tablet or a big smartphone, or one of each. The actual products are hidden by a shining light.

But website This is My Next reports that the products will be called Galaxy Tab 7.7, Wave 3 and Galaxy Note. The product names were uncovered in the APK, which is the file format Android applications are packaged in for Samsung's Unpacked app.

Wave is Samsung's name for products based on Bada, its smartphone OS, and looking at Samsung's past naming nomenclature for tablets, the Galaxy Tab 7.7 will be an upgraded version of its first 7-inch tablet. The Korean company will not be the only one showing new tablets at IFA. Sony is expected to show two upcoming Android-based tablets, so far known by the code names S1 and S2. ViewSonic jumped the gun on the show and launched the Android-based ViewPad 7x, which also has a 7-inch screen.

The odd duck in the list of expected Samsung products is Galaxy Note, which could be a rumored smartphone with a 4.7-inch display that would go well with the "something big is coming" tagline. Also, Sony Ericsson's first dual-core smartphone is rumored to have a 4.5-inch display.

Experimenting with screen sizes doesn't come without risks, as previously shown by the failure of Dell's 5-inch Streak.

"The market is finding its feet, it is working out what the consumer appetite is when it comes to screen sizes," said Geoff Blaber, analyst at CCS Insight.

Still, most tablet sales are expected to involve 9-inch or larger screen sizes, according to Blaber. On the smartphone side, vendors are helped by hardware developments that make it possible to manufacture devices where the screen comes right to the edge of the device. So a smartphone with a 4.5-inch screen can now be physically smaller than was possible 12 to 18 months ago, he said.

"If we look out 12 months further forward ... I have every expectation that we will see a far larger range of 4-inch plus devices, and I am sure a proportion of those will have 4.8-inch or even 5-inch displays. But we begin to feel that 4.5-inch, I think, for the majority of handsets is probably the ceiling," said Blaber.

The timing of IFA is also close to the expected launches of Android Ice Cream Sandwich and Windows Phone 7.5, also known as Mango. HTC is organizing events in a number of European cities, including Berlin, on Thursday, where the company looks set to launch its first smartphone based on Microsoft's struggling smartphone OS. If visitors are lucky they should also be able to catch a glimpse of Android Ice Cream Sandwich.

This year has also seen a handful of vendors launch smartphones with 3D screens. Whether that trend will continue at IFA remains to be seen. But, in general, 3D looks set to continue to make waves. The technology has already made its way to laptops, game consoles and TVs, so now it will be more about making products better and cheaper.

Following in the footsteps of Sony, Philips will launch a 3D-capable TV, the 46PFL9706K, which allows two users to view different screens while playing a game. It will also offer better contrast, according to Philips.

Besides consumer electronics makers, operators like Vodafone and Deutsche Telekom will also make their way to Berlin. Deutsche Telekom will show new smartphones and tablets, which will also be offered outside Germany, a spokeswoman said via e-mail.

Germany is a leader in Europe when it comes to rolling out LTE (Long Term Evolution), so hopefully the operators will launch tablets and smartphones for European spectrum bands. So far, European users have had to settle with modems when accessing LTE networks.

From at least one aspect, this year's IFA will be the biggest so far. The total exhibition space has grown to 140,200 square meters, which is a record, beating last year's 134,000 square meters, according to a show spokeswoman. Exhibitor and visitor numbers are expected be in line with last year's tallies; 1,423 and 235,000, respectively, or maybe even a little higher, she said.

Send news tips and comments to mikael_ricknas@idg.com


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