Thursday, 26 September 2013

Features and gimmicks - what's the difference?

Air View - a gimmick, or a
legitimate feature? Image: Dial A Phone
Over the last few product cycles, the word "innovation" has seen its significance dwindle quite a bit. Almost every "new" feature is said to be an innovation by OEMs trying to sell their product. But when it comes to journalists, reviewers and consumers like you and I, we tend to say that "features" nowadays are not innovations, but merely gimmicks. When is a feature a gimmick? Are all features gimmicks? What's the difference? If we were to look at textbook definitions, a feature is "a distinctive attribute or aspect of something", while a gimmick is "a trick or device intended to attract attention, publicity, or business". Now if you ask me, as far as smartphones go, these two definitions are practically synonymous. All distinctive attributes of a smartphone were put in there by the OEM with the sole purpose of attracting attention and business, right? So what's the difference? For the purpose of this discussion, lets make the definitions easier - features are useful, gimmicks are not. Plain and simple. I want to take a look at some of the most popular and most marketed "features" currently in the market, and share some quick thoughts on each of them. In the end, I will label each one as either a feature or a gimmick, according to my personal preference. I'm expecting there will be those who will disagree with my thoughts, so sound off in the comments at the end of this post.


Slide Aside
One of the software functions found in LG's skin on the G2 is called Slide Aside. Basically, it allows you to slide apps to the side - up to three in total - when you want to multi-task. You can then pull the apps back out from the side and switch apps from there. Needing to swipe with three fingers kills this method of task switching for me, making one-handed use impossible, and task switching cumbersome. It's much easier to tap the dedicated app switcher in stock Android, or even double tap home on the One or long-pressing home on the S4. 
Verdict: Gimmick

Smart Stay/Rotation/Pause/Scroll, Air View/Gestures
The reason why I lumped these together is because I feel the same way about all of them. They are cool tricks to show off to friends, and in certain cases they may actually be useful, but they are trying to solve a problem that doesn't exist. All the things these features do can just be done the traditional way, which really isn't that hard to begin with. Smart Stay? Just tap the screen when it dims. Rotation? Use the toggle. Pause? Press the pause button. Scroll? Swipe your finger. Air View? Just tap the item on the screen. Air Gestures? Again, just swipe your finger. The fact that these features don't always work makes them even more gimmick-y.
Verdict: Gimmicks

BoomSound
Front-facing stereo speakers. Really, why isn't this a standard on all phones? When we play games or watch video, we are looking at the screen. Why then should the speaker be a small cut-out on the back of the phone? Or even on the bottom? It's one of those things that is so obvious, it's amazing why nobody else is doing it.
Verdict: Feature
Why aren't more people doing this? Image: HTC Source
UltraPixel Camera
Basically, larger pixels on the camera sensor. From all the reviews I've read and the pictures I've seen, the camera performs well in low-light, but is easily beaten by other phones in normal lighting conditions. Having fewer pixels really does damage the One's camera capabilities. On its own, it's a good camera, but in comparison to other phones, not so much. The number of pixels may not be the ultimate determining factor when it comes to camera quality, but it is important.
Verdict: Gimmick

Rear-buttons/rear-touchpanel
One of the things almost every reviewer of the Moto X says is that they love the little dimple on the back of the phone. When they hold the phone, it's where their index finger automatically rests. So why not put something useful there? The G2's rear-mounted power and volume buttons does seem extremely weird, but reviews have been very positive about the placement. Assuming the rear touchpanel on th N1 responds well to input, I expect it to receive just as much praise from reviewers, if not more. The back of our phones is a huge waste of space. Putting buttons or a touchpanel there is a brilliant idea.
Verdict: Feature
Since your finger naturally rests there anyway, might as
well make use of that space. Image: Android Police

Water/dust-proofing
Water can be a huge problem for smartphones. You know, since water and electricity don't mix. But what about dust? I honestly have never heard of a smartphone having problems because of dust. Have any of you? A waterproof phone may be useful for people who use their phone around bodies of water regularly, but for me, in all my years of using a phone (even feature phones), I've never onced dropped my phone in water, or had it exposed to rain or anything like that.
Verdict: Gimmick

Touchless Control
Voice commands are the new in thing. Why bother opening the clock app, go to the alarm, and type in the time you want to wake-up, when you can just launch Google Now, and tell your phone what time you want to wake up? With your voice! I don't know about you, but I use voice commands a lot. Apart from setting my alarm, I also use it to call a contact, search for images and set reminders. Speaking to your phone is much easier than typing. And with Touchless Control on the Moto X, you can do quite a few things without ever needing to touch your phone (hence the name). Moto X, Google Glass, I hope Android gets some form of always-on voice commands. JellyBean introduced Google Now to the world, it's only fitting that the next "major" upgrade make Google Now even better, and being able to launch Google Now from standby without touching your device will be awesome.
Verdict: Feature

Multi-window/floating window
As our phones get larger and larger, it only makes sense that we should be able to do more things at once, right? I mean, sure it won't be fun watching a YouTube video in a window half the original size while typing out an e-mail and only being able to see one line at a time, but there are some really useful scenarios where having more than one app open at the same time can be really helpful. Like having the calculator float over a document with numbers that need, erm, calculating. This will obviously work better on tablets than phones, and in my mind it's something that will make tablet usage much more productive.
Verdict: Feature

Wireless charging
This is one feature that for some reason, nobody makes a big deal out of. I love wireless charging! Charging your device just by placing it on a charging pad (or orb) instead of needing to fiddle with a cable and poke a few times at the microUSB port to get it in to charge is a great feature to have! Come home, place the device on the charging pad, walk off. How easy is that? The Nexus 4 and new Nexus 7 both have wireless charging, so I'm hoping the new Nexus (Nexus 5?) will have wireless charging as well. I wouldn't mind paying a bit more for a wireless charger for the convenience of it.
Verdict: Feature
I would love having this on my bedside table, with
daydream set to display the clock. Image: Android Police
Knock On/Active Display
The reason why these two are put together is because they accomplish more or less the same thing - allowing you to quickly glance for information on your screen without having to press the power button. Admittedly, the Moto X does it better as the contextual computing processor can turn on the display when you take your phone out of your pocket or when you pick it up off the table, without you needing to touch the screen, but Knock On is a good alternative. Double tapping the screen is much easier than pressing the power button. I can't tell you how many times a day I wake my phone for just 2 seconds to check the time. Having something like Knock On or Active Display would just be awesome.
Verdict: Feature
Knock On. Image: Google+
Active Display. Image: Android Central
That's it from me. There are of course more features/gimmicks on other phones in the market, but I obviously can't write about all of them. If there are any others you want to share, please feel free to do so! Also, remember that the term "useful" means different things for different people. What I consider a feature would probably be a gimmick to someone else and vice versa. One man's trash is another man's treasure if you will. I always see people confidently proclaim that this feature on this phone is a gimmick, and anyone who says otherwise is wrong. Nothing is definitive, it's all relative to the user. We can all have our own opinions, so head to the comments if you agree of disagree with any of my verdicts!