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New Smartphones, Ideas at Mobile World Congress

March 2, 2015
Personal Finance
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If you want a sneak peek at the smartphones, smartwatches and other mobile gadgets we’ll be shopping for in the coming year, keep an eye on Barcelona this week.

Mobile World Congress, the world’s largest mobile-industry expo, kicks off Monday. About 1,900 exhibitors are expected to crowd into the Spanish city for a chance to shine on the international stage.

And the gadgets they show off there will most likely be among the hottest items to hit store shelves in the months that follow.

A handful of names will probably get most of the attention. And, no, Apple will not be one of them. We probably won’t see or hear much from it until March 9, when the company is expected to unveil the final version of its Apple Watch.

But Mobile World Congress could be a big opportunity for Apple’s chief rival.

“I think all eyes are on Samsung,” said Carolina Milanesi, a tech analyst and chief of research at Kantar Worldpanel ComTech.

The Samsung Galaxy S6, the latest in the South Korean company’s flagship smartphone line, is expected to be unveiled Sunday and get a four-day showcase at MWC.

Milanesi thinks the phone will need to be an impressive departure from its predecessors if it’s going to turn our heads away from Apple. The bigger iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus have cooled the momentum that Samsung had picked up in recent years, emerging as the only mobile manufacturer to outsell Apple.

“The Galaxy S5 did not do enough for Samsung in terms of sales and in terms of brand imagery,” she said. “The Galaxy S6 needs to show differentiation over the previous products both in design and features.”

Samsung has already shown it can change the market. The success it had with bigger touchscreens, both on the Galaxy S phones and its mammoth Galaxy Note line, is credited with nudging Apple to make larger phones after holding the line for several years.

So, what will it come up with this time?

Much of the talk has been about what’s expected to be the S6’s curved screen. T-Mobile CEO John Legere tweeted out an image of “the next big thing” from Samsung, which appears to show the phone’s touchscreen bending around the edge of the phone.

Samsung unveiled something similar last fall with the Galaxy Note Edge, on which the thin side panel acts as a separate screen with its own set of icons that perform different functions. It hasn’t made a huge splash in the market, though, and most analysts expect the curve on the S6 to behave differently.

In fact, the whole phone, from features to design, may be overhauled as Samsung looks to get its mojo back. Samsung engineers have reportedly been working under the umbrella of what’s being called “Project Zero” to radically rework all of the company’s major products.

“The curved glass alone will not do it for them,” Milanesi said. “I think a more drastic departure from previous models will be necessary in design to make the product really stand out.”

A handful of other companies also could be displaying new versions of their flagship phones. The HTC One M9, the LG G4 and the Sony Xperia Z4 Ultra are all expected to be showcased in Barcelona.

But if you’re looking for the possibility of a truly new consumer experience, Google might have the answer.

The tech giant is expected to showcase, for the first time, Project Ara. That’s a modular smartphone that would work almost like Legos — letting users mix and match the different pieces to customize a phone to their liking.

Details are scant so far. But the Ara could be available for sale as early as this year and, according to Google, would range from $50 to $500 depending on the parts chosen.

Otherwise, Milanesi said, don’t expect radical new offerings at this week’s show.

“I don’t have my hopes up to be honest,” she said. “I think technology will be incrementally better and that we will see a race to the bottom, with vendors regrouping around the mid-tier as the high-end gets more and more locked on Samsung and Apple.”

That goes doubly for smartwatches, she said.

HTC is rumored to be rolling out its first smartwatch at MWC, possibly in partnership with Under Armour. But other than that, mobile players seem content to see whether Apple can do what no one else has been able to for about two years now — make consumers care about smartwatches.

In a Kantar Worldpanel ComTech survey from November, 84% of respondents said they were not planning to buy a smartwatch and 35% of those who said they were didn’t plan to spend more than $150 on one.

“This is going to be a tough market to crack,” Milanesi said.

Doug Gross is a staff writer covering personal finance for NerdWallet. Follow him on Twitter @doug_gross and on Google+.

Image via iStock.