Shopping for a new smartphone has gotten less fun in the past few years. Comparing carriers and shopping for a new plan has never been that exciting (at least if you’re a normal person and not a tech blogger). And comparing plans gets more confusing and more tedious as the options multiply. Reading about new smartphones, checking out the first reviews of new models, and getting your hands on them at your local electronics store used to be a fun part of the process. But more and more, figuring out which phone you’re going to buy is now less exciting than it was in years past. What gives?
The big problem with recent smartphones is that, despite their impressive specs and features, they’ve gotten boring. Sure, they’re extremely powerful. They’re fast. They have high-performing cameras. And phones with the industry’s best components and features are continually becoming more affordable and accessible. But smartphone specs sheets have become very, very predictable. And so have their designs — to the extent that many high-end phones really look a lot alike. Just have a look at these six phones that look like iPhones.
Objectively speaking, this isn’t the worst problem for the smartphone world to have. (After all, what we’re complaining about is the fact that most flagship phones are so good — or so adequate, as it probably feels when you hear about launch after launch featuring less-than-exciting devices — that it’s hard to tell one from the next.) But smartphones used to be a whole lot more fun. And we can’t be the only ones who wish that some of that fun could return. We all know what’s happened to smartphones: they’ve gotten so consistently good that they’re predictable and boring. But read on to find out what’s likely to happen with them in the near future.
What can make smartphones exciting again?
As Joanna Stern reports for the Wall Street Journal, software is expected to remain at the center of smartphone innovation, but there are some hardware features that “will push phones forward.” Stern points to modular design — like that of the LG G5 or Google’s now-suspended Project Ara devices — as a feature that currently feels like a gimmick but could change the way we build and buy smartphones.
Another promising feature is the multi-camera system, which is beginning to appear on the market with dual-lens phones and offer benefits like increased optical range, better low-light performance, and even 3D photography abilities. Phones that integrate even more cameras — six to eight cameras, for instance — could take photos that mimic those captured by a DSLR. Such systems would capture more light, and give you more control over factors like depth of field.
You’ll be able to view 3D and 360-degree images on phones that are compatible with virtual reality headsets, or on phones equipped with displays that can project 3D holograms. You’ll be able to see images as if they’re floating right in front of your phone. And you’ll be able to interact with them by moving your fingers in the air above your phone. Wireless charging — not via inductive charging pads, but enabled by wireless power transmitters and receivers embedded into phones — is another promising feature.
These features may save future phones from being boring. But, as with many of the other features we expect on future smartphones — like flexible displays, augmented reality apps, better artificial intelligence, and integrated projectors — they’re far enough out that we likely have many more predictable flagship launches to endure.
Are boring smartphones a bad thing?
We all miss being excited and awestruck by flagship phone launches, or by the opportunity to try out a new device at Best Buy or at your carrier store. But not everyone thinks that smartphones that can be described as “boring” are a bad thing. For instance, Owen Williams reports for The Next Web that he thinks it’s “great” that “all phones look more or less the same and offer similar hardware features.”
His logic? The same thing happened in the PC market over the last decade. “As phone makers like Samsung and Xiaomi have competed with Apple by producing similar-but-slightly-different devices every year, we’ve reached a point where all those crazy choices and designs converged into one design, produced by many.”
Flagship phones from most manufacturers offer the same level of performance (which is hardly surprising, considering that many use the same components and run largely the same software). Even camera quality, which is sometimes used to determine which devices are good phones, “is getting so close to identical across manufacturers that it’s becoming difficult to tell which is better.”
In Williams’ assessment, the way forward for smartphones lies in the software ecosystem and in “small innovations” like Apple’s 3D Touch. If phones continue to converge, and manufacturers continue to find it difficult to differentiate their devices from other makers’ flagships, it’ll be harder to distinguish one year’s devices from the next year’s. At that point, we won’t need to replace our phones as frequently. Williams posits, “One to two year replacement cycles will stretch to three years and beyond, just like computers.”
In a world where all smartphones are virtually the same, it’s no surprise that we’re beginning to feel that smartphones are getting boring, despite the potential additions and innovations on the horizon. Even the main features of phones that should be innovative — like the LG G5 we recently reviewed — aren’t really that exciting when you get your hands on the phones. Experimentation is important, and by most accounts is what moves the tech world forward. But many manufacturers are being criticized not for introducing nothing new, but for introducing new features that don’t live up to the hype and aren’t enough to make flagship phones exciting again.
So where can you look if you want smartphones to be exciting again? For the most part, you’ll need to stop relying on major manufacturers like Apple or Samsung or HTC and pay attention to the parts of the market where creativity is a driving force. Phones from smaller manufacturers with very focused visions of what a smartphone should be are still creating exciting devices. Device makers who cater to niche markets are creating things that are new and interesting. And manufacturers who are focused on creating affordable devices are doing impressive work on making high-end specs available at mid-range (or lower) prices.