Smartphones are officially boring now
I just did something this week that’s very out of character for me: I switched back from the arguably technically most advanced Android smartphone in today’s market, the Google Pixel 2 XL, to a much cheaper (by $450) and less capable rival, the Essential PH-1. Why? Because the Essential feels better in my hand and fits better into my pockets. No, really.
Smartphone innovation has reached a point of diminishing returns where gains from new features are so minimal that frankly a phone’s materials, form factor and minor details in user experience make a bigger difference for everyday use than the latest and greatest new improvements. And it increasingly feels like the big phone manufacturers invest in the wrong things, optimizing details that don’t matter to most users.
For example, the Pixel 2 definitely has the most advanced camera in the market. It not only uses the latest sensor hardware, but also Google’s super duper advanced machine learning voodoo image processing. It’s incredible, and yet the difference between its pictures and those of a lesser phone are also mostly imperceptible to mere mortals, with the exception of very few edge cases such as very low light situations.
The Essential phone got scolded by reviewers for its awful camera. Here’s a picture I took today with it:
I know. Looks disgusting, nearly unusable. If only this phone had a decent camera!
Also, the Pixel 2 has a great fingerprint sensor. It unlocks the phone in about 0.2 seconds, while the Essential needs almost 0.3 seconds. Terrible. The Pixel 2 rocks the latest Android version (Oreo) while the Essential is still one version back. Google’s page that explains why Oreo is so much better more or less boils down to “There are 60 new emoji!”. Cool. Other than that, I can honestly not determine a difference in daily use.
What else? I can squeeze the Pixel 2’s frame to immediately call up the Google Assistant (which is a very capable voice assistant), while on the Essential I have to press a button, which takes almost 0.36 seconds longer. What an annoyance.
OK, the Pixel 2 has some unique things it can do, for instance work with Google’s Daydream virtual reality headset. I still use it for that — for about 10 minutes per week, because wearing today’s heavy VR headsets and using the clumsy VR apps that are currently available is not making much of a difference in my life. It’s all a nice experiment (that gives you a headache if you use it for more than 20 minutes), but not much more. I’m sure it will get there one day, but it’s going to take time.
It’s of course the same story in the iPhone universe: Wow, the iPhone X can recognize your face! So much better than a fingerprint reader! And there’s an animated poop emoji that can mimic your facial expressions! That’s exactly what we hoped for in the early days of the mobile Internet when we thought about how this technology would one day improve society. Also, this thing now has a glass back that easily shatters because glass was necessary to enable wireless charging. For, you know, people who can’t be bothered to bear the hard work of plugging a cable (ugh, a cable!) into their phone once a day. Makes total sense, this trade-off.
Did I mention that none of these phones has a headphone jack because we of course all prefer buying expensive, clumsy Bluetooth headphones with short battery lives over the terrible annoyance of carrying an ugly, dramatically bloated phone that is 0.8 millimeters thicker than it could be?
The bottom line is this: Smartphone innovation has topped out, it has clearly entered the flat part of the innovation S-curve where things start to get a bit silly. The top smartphones now cost north of $900 and in return for this hefty price provide gimmicky features that are at best of very marginal usefulness, and at worst detrimental to the user experience.
There are a few smaller vendors that try to take a different route, and Essential is one of them (others include OnePlus and Razor, for instance). I like the Essential phone because it uses great materials (a titanium frame and ceramic back), is perfectly balanced and is minimalist in all design aspects. It has a screen that is nearly as big as the Pixel 2 XL’s, but thanks to smaller bezels the phone itself is much smaller and easier to operate one-handed. While it might shock gadget reviewers: Yes, that’s actually something that matters in daily use, for, like, most people who aren’t gadget reviewers. Essential has some gimmicky features too, such as a semi-useful plug-on 360 degree camera, but that’s at least an option and not something that gets in the way every single day, like some of the less helpful things major manufacturers put into their products (Yes, looking at you, Samsung. Thanks for the asymmetrically placed fingerprint sensor, rarely working iris scanner and annoying notification badges that can’t be turned off).
Smartphones now are a bit like PCs (and Macs) about a decade ago: Innovation topped out, and a modern laptop is objectively really not much different from a 10 year old one, apart from some minor improvements in speed and weight maybe.
It will interesting to see what the next big category for the gadget industry is going to be. There are no obvious candidates yet in my opinion. But the great days of the smartphone are definitely over.