Does anyone else feel like phone technology is slowing down?
Yes, they perform better than ever before and are capable of handling way more advanced tasks today. The cameras found on today’s devices also rival some quality DSLR cameras as well. However, the question remains, are we still gaining by upgrading? What I mean is, are the new model phones that are released each year really an improvement over last year’s model? There are some recent releases that have me questioning this.
The first bit of news that brought this to mind was the release of Samsung’s Galaxy S9. The phone is practically identical to last year’s S model except for a few additions. First, the phone now has a dual camera setup. This is practically mandatory today for any flagship device, and even many mid-level devices are adopting this setup. The second addition is a dual speaker setup. Samsung kept the bottom firing speaker found on the S8 and Note 8 models but added a front-facing speaker in the ear piece. This is the same design Apple implemented in previous models. Finally, there were two hardware upgrades in the form of the Snapdragon 845 processor and 6GB of RAM. This handset is the first to use Qualcomm’s new processor but the 6GB of RAM configuration can be found in the Note 8. Samsung also redesigned the camera/fingerprint sensor layout on the back in response to the complaints about the horizontal positioning on last year’s devices.
I haven’t had any extensive usage time with the S9 plus but based upon other comparisons and reviews it would appear that the difference in processors is negligible. Most of the useful comparisons I have seen are comparing the Note 8 and S9 Plus. This makes the most sense since the RAM configurations are the same. The reviews are quick to note that they experience the same speed and zero slowdown on both handsets. Perhaps this will matter more in the future, as more apps and OS features are updated. The new processor may future proof the phone further than last years models, but as for now there is not a noticeable difference in performance.
The camera situation here is interesting. I have seen several side by side clips of 4K footage coming from the Note 8 and S9 Plus. I have to say the Note 8 footage looks a bit washed compared to the punchy colors coming out of the S9. The two main differences are the new slo-mo mode and that the S9 can now shoot 4K video at 60FPS. However, Samsung has capped 4k video at a five-minute time limit. There is a lot of speculation as to why they decided to do this, most of what I hear is that it is to prevent overheating. Regardless of the reason, a five-minute cap on this mode turns it more into a gimmick or an advertising talking point rather than something that can be taken as a serious improvement.
I get how the comparison to the Note 8 is not exactly fair, since the S9 is replacing the S8. But I have seen very few reports of the S8 slowing down and it produces fantastic pictures.
My point here is, why did Samsung not implement these changes last year? A few months after the S8 came out, the Note 8 had almost all the same specs. There was little reason why in 2017, the S8 Plus did not have dual cameras, other than the fact that they were saving this for the Note 8. It has become the industry standard now. Since mid-2017, a flood of phones with the same specs minus the Snapdragon 845 processor flooded the market. The display, build quality, storage and other features stayed the same.
This brings me back to my first question, which is are the smartphone markets becoming stagnant? The question applies more so to Android today than Apple. Apple has been selling incremental changes for years. I believe that much of the drive behind new iPhone sales for the last several years lies in the uncovered, purposeful slow down of their hardware. But now the question exists for Android users as well. Why do we keep shelling out money for incremental changes in camera specs or even a bit more RAM? Is it worth replacing last year’s phone just to have a slightly better camera? Can the average consumer even tell the difference between a picture shot on the S8 or the S9? It would seem that each year we cheer for “advancements”, that clearly could have been present in last year’s model. The iPhone 7 plus had a dual camera setup. Other models from China had this feature. There are mid-tier phones in 2017 that nailed this. So why leave it out of the S8? Is this just to leave it as the main selling point of the S9?
Looking at advertising, we see the way the smartphone industry has implemented the camera as the driving point of the industry. With the exception of the Note 8’s S-Pen, when was the last time you seen an ad on TV for a phone that did not center on the camera? Yet, most YouTuber’s or amateur photographers don’t use their phone. They still opt for a DLSR or another dedicated camera. So why is the camera the selling point in the smartphone industry? Especially when we see such incremental changes. The majority of smartphones today take the 12MP sensor, stick two of them on the back and advertise the “bokeh effect” that Apple used as a selling point two years ago. Some differentiate themselves by using a monochrome sensor, a telephoto lens or a wide-angle camera, but we still end up with the same thing. Don’t get me wrong, the cameras are great, and they use this design for some great features, but I do not see this as a satisfactory main selling point for a smart device. Where are the innovations on functionality, features, build quality, storage, and speed?
The truth is, the current form factor and design have probably reached their peak.
In 2018, we are seeing a plethora of devices being produced with the bezel notch. The Essential phone and iPhone X both debuted this feature in 2017 and it is quickly becoming the industry standard for flagship devices. Having a bezel-less screen has become all the rage, yet technology is not at the point where we can successfully hide all the sensors that consumers now expect in a flagship. We are at the point now where there is not a cost friendly solution to innovate phone design. Until technology improves and becomes cheap enough, we will continue to see features like the camera become the talking point of new devices.