WHEN WAS THE last time you were truly excited about a smartphone? Yeah, me neither. It really feels like every manufacturer has been desperately grasping for innovation to justify spiralling prices while missing what regular humans actually care about in the process.
Good as 2018's phones have been, they've lost the wow factor.
Nothing really sums this up more than the arms race to throw more camera lenses at the back of phones. "People love cameras," you can imagine one ambitious young go-getter saying in a blue sky brainstorming session - the kind where the philosophy that there's no such thing as a bad idea is stress-tested to breaking point. "Well, they'll go nuts for TWO cameras. Think about it: two, always beats one - that's just maths." Another executive then takes that ball and runs with it: "Three is an even bigger number than two!"
The Huawei P20 Pro was the first phone to test this, and to be fair it did a very good job, offering not just a 40MP camera, but also a 3x optical zoom and a monochrome lens all combining for spectacular shots. Samsung did some quick R&D, and established that four is an even larger number than three and dropped a fourth camera on the Samsung Galaxy A9, lining up the lenses like lift buttons in a tiny tower block. You can probably see where this is going and Nokia is set to be the first company to hit five cameras on a yet unreleased handset.
I mean, really. Just look at this absolute twat of a handset:
When your camera array looks like a game of whack-a-mole, you officially need to call your designers back into the room for a heart-to-heart talk.
In fact, I'm pretty sure I've seen this guy before…
For all these eyes littering the back smartphones, manufacturers have been surprisingly dedicated to making the screen as clear as possible. Eliminating the bezel seems to be the order of the day, and the rush to do this saw the iPhone X's much-mocked notch appearing just about everywhere. It still looks ridiculous, but phone manufacturers (rightly, it turns out) figured that if Apple can get away with it, then everyone else can. Honestly, if Apple introduced a new form of charging where you had to sit on your phone for three hours a day, you know some geniuses would copy it wholesale without question.
Anyway, this dogged pursuit of an all-screen phone has led to two innovations: first is the in-screen fingerprint reader, successfully deployed in the OnePlus 6T and Huawei Mate 20 Pro. This is a nice party trick, but it's hardly what you'd call an essential upgrade, probably saving the average user about three minutes of phone-flipping time over the course of a year. Innovation!
Second, to get rid of the notch, Chinese manufacturer Oppo managed to put the front-facing selfie camera in a segment that pops out only when required.
Never before has so much thought gone into solving a problem that isn't really a problem at all. And if you think it is a problem then I'd suggest you're leading the kind of life where hardship is just something that happens to other people.
Otherwise, phones are all just the same, aren't they? Almost all the expensive ones use the Snapdragon 845 processor, which means they perform almost identically. The vast majority of them run Android, and they're almost uniformly black rectangles.
In fact, the closest I get to seeing genuinely useful innovation is Google Assistant taking over talking to scam callers on your behalf in the Pixel 3. There's a certain irony in the fact that the best phone feature I can point to in 2018 is something designed to make you use your phone less.
It's all a bit dull, isn't it? And yet the phone manufacturers bend over backwards to make it sound like they've unlocked the secret to eternal life in their press conferences. This little quote from the press release announcing the Samsung's Galaxy Note 9 has really stuck with me: "Note fans are Samsung's most loyal; we know they want it all, to get the most out of work and play, and Galaxy Note 9 is the only phone that can keep up with their busy lives."
But it's not, though, is it? There are dozens of phones - at least two of which are made by Samsung itself - that can "keep up with their busy lives." In fact, I'd wager pretty much any phone made in 2018 could, in a bind.
All of this would be fine if prices didn't keep edging ever upwards. Even the bargain handset of choice, the OnePlus 6T now costs £499. Remember that the OnePlus 3T launched at £309 just two years ago. Apple now has two phones that sell for a grand each.
So here's hoping 2019 offers a little more than ‘more speed, more screen, more £' - because if that formula continues for another 365 days, companies can't really be too surprised when sales drop off a cliff. µ
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