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Tech Lab

Waiting for a smarter phone

Last year, some of you signed up for an annual phone upgrade plan. You just pay a monthly subscription price in exchange for the right to pick up a brand-new smartphone every year.

Now all you need is a new phone — but really, there aren’t any. The factories of China are as busy as ever, and new models emerge every month. I’ve got two of them — an improved version of HTC Corp.’s elegant One phone, and the inevitable Samsung Galaxy S5, the sequel to last year’s equally inevitable Galaxy S4.

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I like them both, and if I were entitled to an annual upgrade, I might order one of them.

Or not. My first-generation HTC One is still marvelous. And while the new HTC One M8 offers a sleeker body, a faster processor, and a bigger screen, that’s hardly reason enough to switch. The same goes for the Galaxy S5, which is a little better than last year’s S4, which was barely better than the S3. The 2013 edition included pointless gimmicks that rarely worked, such as controlling the phone with your eyes. This year’s S5 gives us waterproofing — a better idea, though I rarely make phone calls in the shower.

Both phones are only a little more super than the superphone you bought last year. And when Apple Inc. unveils the iPhone 6 later this year, it will probably just be an iPhone 5s with a bigger screen. Smartphone sales grew 40 percent last year, according to research firm IDC Corp., but are expected to increase just 19 percent this year. Now you know why.

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The question is, what can the phone makers do about this? What’s needed are enhancements that matter, upgrades that deliver real benefits to users.

Better batteries top my wish list. The S5, like other Galaxy phones, offers a removable battery, so you can carry spares. But that means a removable back, which accounts for the flimsy feel of Samsung’s phones. The HTC One, like Apple Inc.’s iPhone, uses a built-in battery, so you get a phone that’s solid as a bank vault, but useless when the battery dies. Besides, a full recharge takes a couple of hours.

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Thirty seconds would be much better, and it could happen. Scientists at Tel Aviv University demonstrated such a battery earlier this month, and say they hope to put it into commercial production by late 2016. If these fast-charging phones pop up at Best Buy, there will be a whole lot of upgrades going on.

We also need better phone cameras. The Galaxy S5 already boasts quite a good 16-megapixel camera that produces crisp shots with accurate color. The HTC One is sticking with last year’s 4-megapixel camera; in fact, it uses two of them to enable some slick special effects, like being able to refocus an image after you have shot it. Still, the photos from the One don’t match the Samsung’s in sharpness and color accuracy.

Yet no cellphone camera matches the quality of a dedicated digital point-and-shoot camera; only the Nokia 1020 Windows Phone even comes close. HTC says it will fix that in a couple of years, when it expects to offer a phone camera with a true optical zoom lens, instead of the blurry, grainy digital zoom of today’s phones. Combine it with more megapixels and a good-sized image sensor, and consumers will have a reason to buy.

One more thing: Shouldn’t our phones know what we want before we ask? Some Androids are catching on. Based on your past travels and Internet searches, the Google Now feature knows how long your morning commute will take, or reminds you the Red Sox play tonight. There’s also a free Android app called Agent that always remembers where you parked your car, and mutes your phone when you’re in a meeting.

But I want more. When I walk to the subway, my phone should tell me when the next train is due; when I walk into Stop & Shop, it should display a shopping list based on my previous purchases.

Apple and Samsung are trying to create such phones by plugging in faster processors, smarter software, and, yes, better batteries. A report last year from research group Gartner Inc. estimates these brilliant phones will arrive by 2017.

There’s plenty of smartphone innovation ahead, but it won’t arrive in tidy 12-month increments. So I’ll buy something new when there’s something new to buy. And that might take awhile.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.
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