Innovation for innovation’s sake?
Nowadays, most flagships are fairly similar inside (with the exception of Apple, obviously).They all the same processor, roughly the same screen size and resolution, and the same features (4G, GPS, etc.). Which isn’t a bad thing, as the benchmark is set pretty high. However, this also does mean that OEMs are adding a lot of stuff to their products in an attempt to stand out from the crowd, and often these things aren’t great, or even particularly useful. They call these additions ‘innovations’. Let’s take a look at these ‘innovations’, and see if they’re worth adding.
Design is one big factor, and this, I think, is possibly the best addition that a manufacturer can make. Holding something like the HTC One (M8) or the iPhone 5s is a completely different experience to, say the S5. The same between a MacBook Air and gScreen (No matter where you stand in the Apple/everyone else debate, you have to admire Apple’s design ethos). Moreover, HTC has proved that you can make a beautiful but yet ergonomic device (take that, Sony and Apple!), so there’s close to no disadvantages.
Screen resolution is another, and this I think is more questionable. the LG G3 has a 2K screen, and it is truly tremendous. But I would argue that the standard ‘run-of-the-mill’ flagships with ‘only’ 1080p screens are almost, if not just as good. I still can’t tell pixels apart on a 1080p 5 inch screen, no matter how close my face is to it. Even with the larger 5.5inch screen on the G3, the PPI still amounts to a whopping 538PPI. To put that into context, expensive high-quality art books are printed at that resolution. Perhaps to art lovers who like to view pieces on their smartphone, or to those who type in mandarin or arabic, the difference is more pronounced, but even if it is, this is a very small minority. With computers it’s an even murkier debate, as many Windows 8 programs are simply not built to handle UHD resolutions, and as a result icons come out laughably tiny. The downsides of such screens? Plenty. CPUs are taxed, having to push around more pixels, battery life takes a hit for the same reasons, and the games and films are less smooth at native resolution.
Similarly for lossless audio playback, which the Samsung Ativ Book Plus offers.audio at a 28bit, 192kHz rate. As Naail points out in his review of audio quality, unless you’re a dedicated audiophile, you’ll most likely find the improvement negligible, and in any case, the audiophiles among you would probably have a superior sound system that has far greater volume.
Other features like fingerprint sensors and heart rate monitors are dependent on their actual usability – I haven’t met someone who likes the fingerprint scanner on the HTC One Max, but iPhone users seem to use theirs regularly, from my experience. However, again, these so called ‘features’ take up yet more space inside the device, that could otherwise be used to fit a larger battery, or a more powerful processor. BoomSound is similar, considering the LG G3 manages to fit a 5.5 inch screen into almost the same footprint as the M8, is it really worth the wasted screen space for some nice speakers?
Finally, OEM skins. This swings both ways in my opinion. I rather like some software skins, such as Xperia’s TImeScape UI, or even the latest TouchWiz UI, jammed full of features (believe me, it’s come a looong way since the s4). However, with every skin there’s a whole lot of useless stuff, otherwise known as bloatware. This slows down your device, wastes storage, and serves no useful purpose. Also, many skins are pretty ugly and/or cartoony (TouchWiz). While that might be nice for some, I personally like my £500 device to feel like…well, a £500 device, not a child’s toy.
In conclusion? Well, as you expected, some of these ‘features’ do serve a purpose, but many often seem to be just for the sake of differentation. But smartphones can’t get much better, I hear you cry. People thought that smartphones were plateauing in 2007 too. Who wants a big screen?’, people asked, ‘my phone can text, call and play snake. What more do I need?’ Then Apple launched its iPhone, the first touchscreen phone to become widespread and the rest, as they say, is history. What the world needs (well, wants) is something truly revolutionary, not another feature that you’ll try once then lock away in a junk folder.