Monday, 9 September 2013

Have our smartphones reached their peak?

Unedited image: Howard Forums
Not too long ago, I asked you how far do you think the Android spec wars will go. At the time, it seemed like Android OEMs would just keep pushing the limit, and events at IFA show no signs that the war is coming to an end, with phones running on 3GB of RAM and housing cameras capable of 4K video recording, despite the fact that many people don't even have 4K screens to watch the video on. From an OEM perspective, it seems that the war will continue for quite some time yet. But what about from our perspective, the consumer? Do we want the war to continue? Do we need it to? My current phone is the HTC One X, HTC's flagship from 2012. Now for me, my upgrade path is clear; get a phone with a better screen (1080p), a better processor (Snapdragon 600 at least), more RAM (1GB just ain't enough anymore), and a larger battery (1800 mAh is freaking tiny!). Those are the most important for me, hardware wise. But what about people who already have an S4 or a HTC One? Or who are planning on getting a Note 3 or the Xperia Z1? Those phones are so powerful and amazing, they are pretty much future proof for the foreseeable future. What more could we want? A Quad-HD screen? A 41-megapixel camera? 384GB storage? Here's a look at some aspects of our smartphones which I feel consumers should not worry about anymore.

Display size
While we do see "smartphones" with increasingly ridiculous display sizes, I only just realised that when it comes to a company's flagship, they have been using displays with roughly the same size over the past couple of years - 5". Take a look.

HTC: One X - 4.7"; One - 4.7"; Butterfly - 5"; Butterfly S - 5"
Samsung: Galaxy SIII - 4.8"; Galaxy S4 - 5"
Sony: Xperia Z - 5"; Xperia Z1 - 5"
LG: Optimus G - 4.7"; G2 - 5.2"
Nexus: Galaxy Nexus - 4.65"; Nexus 4 - 4.7"; Nexus 5 - 5" (rumoured)

I think it's safe to assume that as far as a leading flagship goes, they won't get much bigger. With phablets lingering around the 5.5"- 6" range, a company's leading flagship smartphone will probably stay around 5" for a long time. 

Display resolution
The jump from 720p to 1080p was probably the last jump in resolution that makes a difference, even then just barely. A 720p display on a smartphone is brilliant, while a 1080p display is better but not that noticeable to many. Which is probably why Google/Motorola stuck with a 720p display on the Moto X. A higher resolution will only burn up more battery and demand more processing power, all for pixels that we will neither see nor need in a smartphone. Not to mention having more pixels will likely lead to lags and stutters in the UI, which will negatively impact user experience. Most consumers, even the tech savvy, should be content with a 720p or a 1080p display.
More pixels than the eye can see? Image: Engadget
Processors and RAM
Even though Samsung think an octa-core processor (or dual quad-core if you like) is the way forward, I think everyone else in the industry will be sticking to quad-core processors, which is good enough for consumers. RAM on the other hand is another matter. As we start performing more and more demanding tasks on our devices, multi-tasking and switching between them, having more RAM will be a good thing, with hardly any negative effects on performance (correct me if I'm wrong). The Note 3's 3GB of RAM may seem excessive to some, but seeing how that phone is a beast of a productivity and multi-tasking device, the 3GB of RAM is definitely necessary. I think most consumers can definitely benefit from multi-GB of RAM in their smartphones.

Camera
While Nokia and Sony both go to extremes with the megapixel count in their smartphone cameras, I think at the moment, 13-megapixels are enough for the average consumer, even 8-megapixels might be enough. I mean, what do we really do with the photos we take with our smartphones anyway? Most of them get uploaded to social media, or are just stored in the cloud for our own personal viewing pleasure. Photography enthusiasts will always prefer to use proper digital cameras or a DSLR. A smartphone camera is never meant to be a real camera, its a camera you use to capture on the go moments, moments that you would've missed because you didn't bring your digital camera to the grocery store. If you want to capture the beauty of nature, or if you're going to make photography a hobby or even a career, a proper camera will always be better. Having said that, if Sony can fit a 20.7-megapixel sensor in a slim body like the Z1, and everything else about the camera is up to par, I'll be recommending it to anyone who wants the best camera in an Android smartphone.

Storage and battery
The reason why I lumped these two together is because I feel the same way about both; I want more. I'm sure many other consumers will feel the same way. We want to enjoy our phones without worrying about charging them throughout the day. And we want to be able to load up our phones with apps and music and videos. But both battery capacity and storage space are restricted by physical limitations. We can have a larger battery, but we will need to compromise phone size (most of the time). We can have more storage via an SD card but Google are clearly pushing the market away from that, and for good reason I believe. Internal storage is on the rise. The Note 3 only launches in 32/64GB variants, so did the HTC One. 8GB options are all but extinct, and I feel that next year, we might see 16GB options go down the same road. With the 32GB option being the new standard, I feel most consumers will be able to survive just fine even without an SD card.
Bye-bye 8GB storage. Image: Android Police
Where to next?
So if most of our phone's specs are good enough for consumers, what kind of innovation should OEMs now focus on? Increasing the pixel density, megapixel count and clockspeed of the processor will only get you so far, so what should they do? I have some ideas.

Experiment with the back - You saw what LG did with the G2. Many might think it's awkward and ridiculous, but having buttons on the back instead of the sides is something new, something different. OPPO will be doing something similar with the N1, putting a touchpad on the back. What I like about this is that it opens the gate to even more possibilities with our phones, like LG's Knock On feature which they included just because the power button was on the back. If other OEMs experiment with the back of our phones, who knows what we might see.
Well played OPPO. Image: Google+

Improve components as a whole - Instead of just improving the display's resolution, improve viewing angles, power consumption, colour reproduction and all that other jizz-jazz related to displays. There's more than just ppi. The same can be said of a camera. Instead of just increasing the megapixel count, improve other stuff like the camera software, the sensor, the focus, the aperture, the lens, (I have no idea what I'm talking about), basically everything else other than the megapixel count. More megapixels don't always lead to a great camera.

Use a customised SoC - Motorola knocked it out of the park with the X8 Mobile Computing System. People bash Moto for only using a dual-core processor (from last year too!), but they fail to remember (or choose to ignore) that the Moto X also has two low-powered cores for specific tasks - always-on voice recognition and spatial awareness. These two cores are what make it possible to wake the phone with your voice, and for the phone to know when you are driving, when it's in your pocket and when you flip it over on the table. For all of Samsung's 8 cores, the S4 still can't do this as well as the Moto X can. That is true innovation right there. 


No LG. Image: Google+
Optimise the user experience - Lastly, something not really related to hardware and the spec wars, the user experience. When there's nothing left to innovate on the hardware front, you innovate on the software front. Motorola did a complete u-turn to the rest of the industry - while everyone else is cramming the best components in their device at the expense of a great user experience, Motorola crammed components that weren't necessarily the best, but were good enough into the Moto X, and gave users a great user experience instead. How many times have you seen people complain about TouchWiz being laggy? Or about the quirks of Sense 5? Or how LG's notification shade is just plain stupid. These are all issues that can be fixed without needing an octa-core processor or 3GB of RAM. You don't need buttons on the back or front-facing speakers to fix them. Google set the foundation for an elegant, beautiful experience with Android, all you (OEMs) need to do is enhance the experience, not chew it up and spit it out.

So those are my thoughts on where I think the smartphone industry should be heading. The spec wars are nearing its end, and if the OEMs don't see it, it's our job as consumers to show them. What do you think the industry needs to do? Keep on going with the war until we get 4K displays on our phones, or do as Motorola did and rebel?