The world's biggest smartphone show kicks off next week in Barcelona, Spain, on Feb. 26, and one thing is certain: Samsung's Galaxy S9 should dominate this year's Mobile World Congress (MWC).
Other phone makers will show off their devices at the week-long show, but Samsung will unveil a phone in Barcelona this month after focusing on tablets during last year's MWC.
Tom's Guide will be on the ground in Barcelona to see the S9 and scope out the mobile trends that will define 2018.
Here's everything we expect to see when Mobile World Congress kicks off.
Galaxy S9 Steals the Spotlight
The Galaxy S9 is expected to be the biggest announcement at MWC, even though most of the details about the device have already been leaked. Samsung will host a news event on Sunday (Feb. 25), with the invitation all but confirming the S9 is the guest of honor.
Samsung is teasing a "reimagined" camera in its newest flagship, which will look similar to last year's S8 but with more a more powerful processor, more capable Bixby assistant and — in the larger S9+ — a dual-lens shooter at long last.
"[Samsung has] been teasing this as a reveal about a better camera, which is a smart play on their part," said Avi Greengart, research director for consumer platforms and devices at Global Data. "The Galaxy S8 camera isn't bad, but Google has the lead for mobile imaging and Samsung's brand is tied tightly to innovation. They can't let Google or Apple or anyone else get too far ahead of them."
Based on reports, both the Galaxy S9 and S9+ will see upgraded primary lenses with adjustable apertures. Those aren't drastic improvements, but they are meaningful, and the alleged leaked photo samples look pretty impressive.
"I don't know if this camera will indeed be a leapfrog above everyone else," said Greengart, "but if they can improve the camera while keeping everything that's great and refined about the S8, that alone is a significant upgrade."
An overhauled camera could come at a premium. The S9 doesn't have an official price tag yet, but rumors suggest it will cost more than the $750 S8. The base-model S9 is expected to start at $850, the same price as the S8+, and the larger model could cost as a much as a Galaxy Note 8 at $950. Google's Pixel 2 XL starts at $850, while the iPhone X is $999.
The Galaxy S9 is expected to be the first phone to feature a new Snapdragon 845 processor, and based on our benchmarks of that mobile processing platform, we're expecting to see faster performance over last year's Galaxy models (though it looks like the iPhone will retain its title as the fastest smartphone available).
Other Handsets: Alcatel, Sony and Asus
Of course, MWC is a mobile show, which means Samsung won't be the only major player with a hot new phone.
The S9 is the most high-end device we expect to see in Barcelona, but companies such as Asus, BlackBerry, LG, HMD Global (which releases phones under the Nokia brand), Huawei, Sony and ZTE will all be in attendance, perhaps to show off a range of midtier and/or budget options.
- Alcatel teased its MWC announcements at CES in January, announcing that all the phones it releases in 2018 will have full-screen displays. Actual details, such as pricing and specs, will follow at MWC, though leaker Evan Blass got a jump on the news by tweeting out photos that allegedly show some of the new Alcatel models.
- Sony will hold a Feb. 26 news conference, at which we expect to see the company's new Android flagship, the Xperia XZ Pro. Earlier this week, Sony posted a teaser video on Twitter that's notable in that it doesn't show any product, just a hand curved to receive a device. The image is fueling speculation that Sony might move away from the boxy design associated with its Xperia phones; earlier this year, the electronics giant announced the Xperia XA2 and XA2 Ultra, which both have slight curves around their edges making them easier to grip. The latest leaks about the Xperia XZ Pro seem to confirm Sony's moving in that direction.
- Asus is gearing up to announce its next generation of Zenfones at its Feb. 27 MWC event, if the invitation is any indication. The tagline, "Back to 5," hints at the Zenfone 5 that Asus execs teased back in September. The lineup is rumored to include three devices: a Zonefone 5, a Zonefone Lite and a Zenfone 5 Max.
- Like other smartphone makers, HMD Global is planning a Feb. 25 event at MWC to unveil new phones. There hasn't been much information on what HMD Global is planning for its Nokia lineup, though Evan Blass again tweeted out images of a device that's rumored to be the Nokia 7 Plus, a midrange model with dual rear cameras.
And we'll see a slew of phones that may never make it to the U.S. Huawei's announcements could fall into that category, as the China-based phone maker hasn't found carrier support for its phones in the States. Greengart expects Huawei to add to its more fashion-forward P lineup with a new device at MWC. Leaked images of what's reportedly Huawei's P20 phone have surfaced in advance of MWC.
Then there's Vivo, the Chinese company that just released the X20 Plus UD, the first smartphone with a fingerprint sensor built into its display. The company reportedly has another phone on deck, the Xplay 7, which is rumored to come with its own in-display fingerprint sensor and a whopping 10GB of RAM. It’s unclear if that phone will make it to the American market, as Vivo tends to concentrate its efforts on Asia and Russia.
Here's when the big phone makers have scheduled their MWC events.
- Alcatel, Saturday, Feb. 24, 1 p.m. ET
- Huawei, Sunday, Feb. 25, 8 a.m. ET
- ZTE, Sunday, Feb. 25, 10 a.m. ET
- Nokia (HMD Global), Sunday, Feb. 25, 10 a.m. ET
- Samsung, Sunday, Feb. 25, Noon ET
- Sony, Monday, Feb. 26, 2:15 a.m. ET
- Asus, Tuesday, Feb. 27, 1:30 p.m. ET
No LG Flagship
LG has been a mainstay at Mobile World Congress, using recent shows to unveil new flagships like the G5 in 2016 and the G6 in 2017. LG may be back at MWC this year, but a new G7 is unlikely to appear with it.
"LG has been dropping hints that it's not going to be making any big announcements at MWC," Greengart said. "I think we’ll see some midtier phones from LG. LG has been hinting that the next G, probably the G7, is likely going to be introduced later this year."
One rumor, based on comments from an LG executive in South Africa, suggests the company will come out with a new variation on the LG V30 it introduced last fall. The V30+, as it's rumored to be named, will reportedly have more advanced AI features than the first-generation version. LG has already indicated that it's moving away from regularly scheduled smartphone launches, focusing instead on coming out with new models when there are features to add.
From a rumor that emerged last week, it sounds like that new phone will come out this June, when a new 6.1-inch phone, currently code-named Judy, is expected to deliver a brighter MLCD+ screen and a Snapdragon 845 processor. But again, that phone's unlikely to see the light of day at MWC.
The smart-speaker market is heating up, and even Apple has waded in with its own version, the HomePod. Gartner Research Director Roberta Cozza said she expects to see more integration of connected home devices and smart speakers with voice-activated assistants to give Amazon's Echo a run for its money.
Greengart said he expects European carriers to make their own announcements about artificial intelligence in the home "as a way of selling carrier services."
"Perhaps because Amazon isn't as well-established [in Europe] with the Echo, there's definitely a move by European operators to do AI on their own terms," Greengart said.
5G Is Coming
Since MWC is the biggest mobile-focused trade show of the year, expect plenty of talk around the coming of 5G.
"There are going to be a lot of infrastructure announcements, especially around 5G," Greengart said. Cozza said 5G will be "at the center" of MWC.
Carriers, chipmakers and smartphone manufacturers are gearing up for the final 5G specification to be agreed upon in June, so we expect to hear about real-world trials as the push to roll out 5G networks by the end of the year proceeds at full speed.
Companies such as Intel, Qualcomm and Ericsson will be at the show to talk about real-world applications of 5G. For example, Qualcomm — which last week announced that a slew of network operators and device makers would support its X50 5G modem —plans to highlight new experience that will be possible with a 5G modem during MWC. A separate 5G Summit will bring together mobile- industry executives working on the next generation of wireless connectivity.
Just don't expect to see any smartphones with 5G radios baked in just yet. Early 2019 is the soonest a device could launch.
No Android Wear, But Plenty of Wearables
Don’t expect to see the next version of Android Wear at MWC. Google usually saves its announcements for its own conference, the developer-centric Google I/O, which will run May 8-10 this year. But there will be plenty of wearables on display in Barcelona, particularly devices focused on health.
"This is an area where device vendors and software vendors and carriers and operators are all in alignment," Greengart said. "The technology has evolved to where you can do useful and exciting things. [But] there are some open regulatory issues."
Devices that claim to offer clinical insights into your health or to diagnose medical conditions require government clearance in many countries. Nokia recently eliminated a Pulse Wave Velocity feature in its high-end Body Cardio scale via an over-the-air software update after deciding it might require approval from regulators.
But some companies are pursuing that level of approval. Expect to see everything from wrist-worn blood-pressure trackers to AirPod-esque earbuds jam-packed with features, including heart-rate sensors and beamforming technology to change the volume levels of people around you.
Both Cozza and Greengart expect companies to highlight augmented-reality headsets and useful applications for them at MWC. Cozza said she also expects app developers to show off what they've achieved with Google's ARCore, the company's augmented-reality software development kit for Android phones.
Follow Us for All Your MWC Coverage
Mobile World Congress runs from Feb. 26 to March 1 in Barcelona. Expect news to start trickling out on the Sunday before the event kicks off, as phone and device makers look to get a jump on the headlines.
We'll be there live in Barcelona bringing you all the latest news. Just bookmark our MWC page to stay up to date on all the big announcements.