It has been a couple of years now since Flurry pointed out that smartphones, specifically Android and iOS devices, are the fastest adopted consumer technology of all time. Ownership may be reaching saturation in some markets, but that growth is still on the rise worldwide. Around one billion smartphones shipped last year and the total is likely to be even higher this year.
Since the first Android device landed in October 2008, the improvements to mobile technology have come thick and fast. We tend to take smartphones for granted, but the innovation has been astounding. That pace can’t be maintained indefinitely, every technology reaches a point where advancement slows.
How do manufacturers convince us to upgrade when our existing smartphones are still really good? What’s missing from your current device? Does the next round of supposed must-have features really grab you? What do you really want in your new phone? Let’s take a look at some specific developments in more detail and explore the downsides.
We’ve taken an in-depth look at bezel-less smartphones before and there’s no denying that they look great, but how practical are they really? With a bezel-less design the likelihood of accidental touches when you’re handling the phone goes up. The chances of your screen being damaged if you drop it goes up and that’s potentially exacerbated by the fact that a case is going to cover the sides of the screen or make using the touch screen all the way to edge more difficult.
Curves and flexibility
The first round of curved phones with flexible displays has been gimmicky and disappointing. It’s going to be a while before we see something really awesome in this category. In the short term, flexible displays are about improving durability and enabling new form factors, but until the rest of the components are flexible too the possibilities are limited. A smartphone that can fold out to tablet size would be a huge hit, but who really wants a slightly curved display?
It’s not the first time we’ve asked do we need smartphones with 4K displays? The obvious answer is no, but the real question is do we want smartphones with 4K displays? We haven’t quite reached the limits of the human eyeball and many of us do occasionally hold our smartphone displays very close to our faces, so it’s conceivable that we’ll see an improvement in picture quality. Is that slight improvement in screen quality going to be worth the extra processing power and battery life required to run it?
Right now there doesn’t seem to be any pressing need to break past full HD 1080p resolution, but we’re already seeing 2K displays, so it feels inevitable. As more 4K content is produced and we get used to higher resolutions in our TVs and elsewhere, then perhaps it’s something you’ll want on your smartphone, but today it feels like overkill.
Do we really need biometric security on our smartphones? The Touch ID feature on the iPhone 5S inevitably ignited this topic, even although the Motorola Atrix featured a fingerprint scanner a couple of years before, and now Samsung has added it to the Galaxy S5. A PIN is actually pretty secure, but most people don’t use one because it’s an inconvenience. The fingerprint scanner is supposed to solve this and provide a quick and easy way in, which is fine when it works, but hugely frustrating when it doesn’t. That’s why both systems have a backup PIN entry option.
What do we really want?
When manufacturers push time, money, and effort into new headline grabbing features are they diverting resources from the things we really want? Technology doesn’t advance without R&D and we know early adopters often get burned, but today’s gimmick can develop into tomorrow’s must-have feature, so we have to accept a bit of this if we want advances.
There are a handful of things that we can probably agree we all want in a new phone and they really haven’t changed much over the last few years.
More battery life
It still tops the polls as the biggest issue most people have with their smartphone. Batteries have grown bigger and there have been significant improvements in software efficiency, but thanks to bigger screens, spec bumps, and more features it doesn’t feel as though battery life is any better. We don’t necessarily need bigger batteries and we certainly don’t want the bulk that would inevitably add, but there are other ways to tackle this issue.
Continued improvements to wireless charging and the addition of solar panels, maybe through solar cells in the screen, could provide a boost without the convenience hit. A method of fully charging a smartphone battery much more quickly would also have a major impact. What if you could charge your battery in less than a minute? There has been research in these areas, so it would be nice to see a big manufacturer pursuing them.
We’ve had a megapixel war and cameras have improved dramatically since the earliest examples on mobile phones, but there are two areas that could use more attention. We want smartphone cameras that can capture a decent shot instantaneously. No wasted seconds as you open up the camera app and wait for the focus, by which time you’ve missed it. We also want better low-light performance. Cameras are still a big differentiator for smartphones, which is great because it drives innovation, but there’s still room for improvement.
The disproportionate expense of extra onboard storage in smartphones is truly annoying. Why do manufacturers over charge us for built-in storage? Is it just because they can? The limitations and potential problems with microSD cards make them an imperfect solution. There is an argument that the platform providers are deliberately trying to push us into using cloud storage and this would suit the carriers too because you’re more likely to use your data allowance. Is there a good reason that we don’t have 64GB smartphones as standard? Looking at the most extreme example, the difference between a 16GB iPhone 5S and a 64GB model is $200.
What else do we want?
Everyone’s wish list is going to be slightly different. The move towards more rugged phones that can withstand dust and water is good. It would be nice if they could withstand drops without a case as well, but that clashes with making devices thinner and increasing the body to screen ratio.
As screens get larger, and we watch more video on them, better speakers would be welcome. The audio quality on most smartphones lags way behind the visual quality and we don’t want to have to wear headphones all the time.
Call quality, Wi-Fi speeds, the ability to maintain a signal, and improved GPS are all issues that crop up all too often on modern smartphones. They should handle the basics properly.
What do you think? Are you tempted by new developments on the horizon, or do they feel like gimmicks to you? If you could cut out a feature like biometric security and take a discount instead would you do it? Would you prefer incremental improvements to the main existing features over something entirely new? Post a comment and weigh in.