Many believe Apple will finally use its recently licensed patents for liquid metal in its sixth-generation iPhone, presumably called the iPhone 5. According to Korea-based ETNews, Apple will use a liquid metal alloy of zirconium, titanium, nickel and copper to create a substantially thinner and lighter iPhone, with an outer surface smooth like liquid. (Apple bought the licensing rights to various patented amorphous metal alloys from Delaware-based Liquidmetal Technologies in 2010.)
In response to these rumors, French designer Antoine Brieux conjured up several artist renderings of what the liquid metal iPhone could look like. Check out the photos of Brieux's iPhone 5 liquid metal LM concept design in the gallery above.
Interpreting the iPhone 5's rumored specs, Brieux endowed his iPhone 5 concept with a 4.5-inch screen and a frame that measured 116.2 mm long, 59.4 mm wide and 7.9 mm deep. Comparatively, the iPhone 4S only has a 3.5-inch screen that measure 115.2 mm long, 58.6 mm wide and 9.3 mm deep.
If you look at those specs, you'll realize that the concept iPhone's screen is considerably bigger than its true predecessors, even though the frame is not much taller. That's Brieux dumped the home button in favor of a virtual home button that appears once the phone turns on. The virtual home button makes room for an edge-to-edge screen on a slightly longer and wider iPhone, which is almost 30 percent thinner thanks to the light alloy build.
Brieux's iPhone 5 LM also featured a quad-core A6 chip -- an upgrade from the dual-core A5 chip in the iPhone 4S -- as well as a 10-megapixel camera, which would be a marginal improvement over the 8-megapixel camera in the iPhone 4S.
Why Brieux's iPhone 5 Concept Makes Sense
Every major report released about the iPhone 5 up to this point has said it would be significantly thinner and lighter than its older models. While a liquid metal build would help Apple in that department, it's also believed the iPhone 5 will adopt in-cell touch panels manufactured by Sharp and Toshiba Mobile Display, according to sources from within Apple's foreign supply chains.
An improvement in yield rates of the in-cell touch panels at Sharp and TMD has persuaded Apple to choose to cooperate with Japan-based panel makers, the sources said.
In-cell technologies effectively remove a physical layer betwen the multi-touch screen and the LCD Display, boosting the screen's performance and general efficiency beyond current on-cell touch screens. Taiwan-based AUO Optronics explains the difference:
Compared to In-Cell technology, the conventional technologies have an additional sensing glass, which not only increases the overall thickness of the LCD, but also adds an extra lamination process step, translating to increased cost and relatively lower yield and reduced transmittance, the company said. Compared to the traditional resistive touch control, in-cell voltage sensing not only has the above advantages, but also is superior in that its sensitivity less subjective to environment changes, no calibration mechanism required, and capability of supporting multiple-point touch control.
AUO Optronics adds that the touch sensors are vastly improved in in-cell technologies, but they're still powerful enough to resist scratches, resulting in a longer product lifetime.
In contrast to the traditional resistive and digitizer touch controls, since a mere light touch can be picked up, the operation interface of In-cell charging sensing is more humanized, AUO said. In addition, charging sensing not only can support multiple point touch control, but further support pen writing at present to meet different requirements by the clients.
Reed Sanders from Technorati points out another powerful benefit of this thinner, more precise glass:
The current displays in the iPhone 4 and 4S involves a layer of sensing glass on the outside of an inner LCD screen. This capacitive touchscreen makes it thicker as it has two layers and an extra step in the assembly line. Moving to the single layer in-cell touch panel would remove a step in production as well, speeding up the manufacturing process. When you manufacture 30 million iPhone devices, saving two seconds becomes a large amount.
Apple currently relies on TPK Holdings and Wintek to build its glass-on-glass touchscreen panels for its current iPhone models, but the move toward Sharp and Toshiba Mobile Display has resulted in TPK Holdings saying it is working on touch on lens solutions that similarly use a single piece of glass. TPK alleges that its TOL technology is more suitable for high-end customized devices, and that the market is big enough for more than one kind of technology that makes thinner displays.
If Apple can build the iPhone 5 with a liquid metal build and in-cell touch display, the phone would create plenty of space for new features, such as...
A bigger screen. On March 21, Apple reportedly ordered 4.6-inch screens, to be featured in the company's next iPhone. The report came from a South Korean publication, the Maeli Business Newspaper, which quoted an unnamed industry source, according to Reuters. But just two days later, iMore's Ritchie said the iPhone 5 would keep the same 3.5-inch screen -- the same size as all previous generation iPhones -- but said it could get a little bigger than its predecessors, although not nearly as big as the 4.5-inch-plus Android smartphones..
So whom to believe, the Maeli Business Newspaper, or our old pal Ritchie? The truth seems to lie somewhere in the middle. In early January, as Apple was reportedly gearing up to begin production on the iPhone 5. A source from within China's Foxconn manufacturing plant told 9 to 5 Mac that various sample iPhone 5 prototypes were floating around the factory floor, but there were a number of common features among the phones, including a display that measured at least 4 inches, and a longer and wider form factor that did not match that of the iPhone 4 or 4S. The Foxconn sources believed the iPhone 5 would retain the rectangular shape of its predecessors, which, if true, would put to bed any rumors of a slimmer teardrop design.
OLED Display. Apple has reportedly been testing iPhone 5 prototypes with an A5X chip, which is the same quad-core graphics processor that powers the Retina Display in the new iPad. But why would Apple want such a powerful chip for an iPhone? Given that the A5X chip is a graphics powerhouse, if Apple doesn't drastically change the physical size of the screen to 4.6 inches, it could change the display's overall quality.
On April 4, the Korea Times reported that Apple was interested in switching from LCD to OLED displays for its next round of iPhones and iPads. The reason behind the potential move would be Samsung, which recently launched its spinoff company called Samsung Display that aims to pivot away from LCD to focus more on OLED technology. Apple is by far Samsung's biggest customer: The Cupertino, Calif.-based company bought $7.8 billion worth of components from Samsung in 2011, ranging from memory chips to LCD panels, but the company will reportedly buy $11 billion worth of parts this year, which could mean Apple is buying more expensive display material.
Apple has plenty of money to afford OLED screens in an iPhone-sized display, and it would make sense for Apple to ask Samsung to help build its iPhone 5 displays. Samsung knows how to build big, beautiful screens for any size device: Just imagine what Samsung could do with Apple's Retina technology implemented into an OLED. Apple would effectively put distance between the iPhone and all other smartphone competitors for another five years, at the very least.
LTE Connectivity. It's already a foregone conclusion that Apple will implement radio bands for 4G LTE in the iPhone 5, given that Apple introduced the high-speed network on its new iPad, released on March 16, which was likely done as a practice run.
LTE features significantly higher download and upload speeds compared to 3G technologies, but previous implementations of LTE in smartphones tended to ravage battery life, which was a major complaint from users. If Apple wanted LTE in the iPhone 4S at the time, it would have been forced to increase the phone's thickness to accommodate a larger circuit board and a bigger battery. Apple CEO Tim Cook, in a company earnings conference call in April 2011, said first-generation LTE chipsets force a lot of design compromises.
The iPhone 4 PCB [printed circuit board] is already incredibly small, not leaving any room for an extra chip to enable LTE without shrinking the size of the battery, said Anand Shimpi, a chip expert and CEO of Anandtech.
Fortunately, Qualcomm recently unveiled the fifth iteration of its new chip, which supports TD-SCDMA, TD-LTE, HSPA+, EV-DO, embedded GPS, and LTE on TDD and FDD networks worldwide. The chip works with Android and Windows 8 devices, but there's a great chance this will be the chip inside the iPhone 5.
NFC. Near-Field Communication is nothing new: in fact, many current smartphones have the chip built-in so owners can use mobile payments solutions like Google Pay. Apple has held off on implementing NFC technology into its iPhone, but a slew of recently-granted patents seem to suggest that will change with the sixth-generation iPhone. Two of the major features said to use NFC rather heavily are the iWallet, and iTunes Gifting.
The iWallet. Apple won a major patent on March 6 for a piece of technology called the iWallet, which is a digital system that gives users complete control over their subsidiary financial accounts on their iPhones, and also leverages Near-Field Communication technology to complete credit card transactions directly on the phone as well. The iWallet has many different features, including giving users the ability to see their entire credit card profiles, view statements and messages from their banks, and even set parental controls for their children, should they also want to use their iPhones as digital wallets. Outside of the iPhone, users can keep track of their payments and statements within the iTunes billing system, which keeps credit card information and records safe and secure. There's a possibility that iWallet could also work with other Apple utilities, which could allow users to buy things like movie tickets directly within the apps, but only time will tell with that one.
iTunes Gifting. While downloading and storing digital media with online service providers has become commonplace -- more so than purchasing DVDs and CDs at physical retail stores -- it's not very easy to transfer digital files from one individual to another, usually because of copyright laws. Apple believes it has a solution to this issue: A gift-giving platform where users have a standardized way for buying, sending and receiving media files from a media provider (iTunes) between multiple electronic devices (iPhones, iPads and iPod Touch devices). The process is simply called, Gifting.
One method for gifting requires the sender to authorize a gift charge to their iTunes account, which is then transmitted from the sender's device to the receiver's device -- via tapping, or as long as they're nearby -- thanks to the NFC chip. If the recipient of the gift isn't nearby -- or you want it to be a surprise -- the gift-giver may submit an official request with iTunes, which then processes the request and charges the initiator's account for the given file. The patent also allows for multiple gifts to be sent in a single transaction, as well as certain customization options for the gifts -- including voice greetings and custom gift images, likely to conceal the gift's identity before the receipient opens it.
3D Photography. Some may say 3D technology is nothing new, or possibly even overdone; Apple would argue that's because nobody has done it right. Yet.
Apple says that while existing 3D cameras and video records can get three-dimensional information from objects, they're generally incapable of getting detailed enough information in relation to the shapes, surfaces and depth of the objects. Apple's solution involves a series of systems, tools and methods to capture a 3D image by using multiple sensors and cameras. One sensor would capture a polarizing image, while two other sensors would capture two different non-polarizing images, and Apple's system would combine the images into a composite.
Apple has another solution involving different specialized sensors for capturing the image's surface information, color imaging and luminance, and combining the data into another composite that has information about the depth and plurality of surfaces. Together, these systems and methods of capturing light and image information would create an incredible 3D image that can be seen without glasses.
Advanced Haptics. In the days before Apple unveiled its new iPad in March, a rumor from left field said Apple would implement an advanced haptics system into the iPad, which would give users the sensation of texture when they touched an object on the screen. Android devices currently have a type of feedback when you press a button on a smartphone, so it's possible Apple will one-up its most fierce rival with unrivaled touch technology.
A touchscreen that created the sensation of textures would be an incredible piece of technology, but we're hoping Apple completes the puzzle with one important piece of technology from Microsoft. In mid-March, Microsoft engineers unveiled a lag-free touch screen that responds to your finger's touch in less than one millisecond. Current Apple devices only have a minor lag with their touchscreens, but this minor adjustment would make users feel like they're really touching their work, drawing a picture, or handwriting a note. Apple has proven to us time and again that simplity is the key to an enjoyable experience, but speeding up the touchscreen would make the already-popular iPhone into the best touchscreen experience ever.
Crack-proof glass. Apple's patent for crack-resistant glass, granted on Nov. 15, uses the same alumino silicate glass solution used in the iPhone 4 and 4S, but chemically treats it with potassium and sodium ions to achieve greater compression thresholds on the surface and edges of the glass, making it less susceptible to cracks.
Apple also included a handy feature that will appeal to everyone who's ever dropped their iPhone: The patent calls for a shock mount to be placed between the glass and the body of the device, which will instantly inflate if the device senses it's falling. If the iPhone's internal accelerometer senses it's falling, an actuator within the device sucks in the cover glass as it accelerates to the ground, protecting it from damage.
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We'll know more in the coming months if Brieux's concept is close to what Apple has in mind for its next-gen iPhone, but don't expect to hear the official word on the phone until October 2012.
What do you think of Brieux's iPhone 5 LM design? Let us know your impressions in our comments section below.