/ Technology

How can a smartphone design really stand out?

It’s hard to tell the difference between smartphones these days – so some manufacturers are going to surprising lengths to make their phones stand out from the crowd…

I have a pile of phones sitting in my flat at the moment – it’s hardware launch season, and I have several review devices.

I’ve got both of Google’s new flagships, the Pixel 3 and the Pixel 3 XL; a Huawei Mate 20 Pro, a OnePlus 6, as well as my own Pixel 2 XL and my work iPhone 6, plus a pile of older devices ranging from the Nokia Lumia 1020 (which I still use as a camera sometimes) and a Samsung Galaxy S3 to a Palm Pixi running webOS.

I’ve even got a couple of ancient Sony Ericssons, including a K750 and the classic T68i (I had the snap-on camera module for that, but I seem to have lost it). I’ve also got a Nokia 7600, which was horrible to use with its bizarre teardrop shape.

What’s really striking about the new pile of devices is how homogeneous they all are now compared to some of the really striking, and strikingly weird, designs from back in the day.

The only reason I can tell the new batch of smartphones now sitting on my kitchen counter apart at a quick glance is because some of them are, fortunately, different colours.

Fondleslabs

In contrast, the only reason I can tell apart the smartphones sitting on my kitchen counter from each other is because some of them are – fortunately – different colours.

But otherwise, smartphones these days are simply black fondleslabs, are all much the same size – and they’re all pretty similar under the hood, too.

One thing that’s been very interesting, having watched the smartphone market from its earliest days, is seeing the steps phone-makers have taken to try and make their devices stand out from the crowd.

Market leaders

The crowd is much smaller these days. Until earlier this year, the two market leaders were Samsung and Apple, although in the second quarter of this year the Chinese smartphone maker Huawei shot past Apple into the second place behind Samsung.

It’s usually Samsung and Apple slugging it out for the top slot, with Apple generally nipping ahead in the final quarter of the year.

What this means is that there’s not much variety to choose from, and it’s a big struggle for mobile phone vendors to come up with ways to differentiate their devices from rivals’ fondleslabs.

Tricks and tweaks

And so you get tactics such as Nokia’s rather odd “bothie” feature, which takes photos and videos using both its front and rear cameras at the same time. Here’s an example:

(Photo credit: Rory Cellan-Jones)

That got a bit of attention when the feature first debuted a couple of years ago but was seen by many as a gimmick that, if anything, revealed how indifferent the cameras are on its otherwise unexceptional Android phones – the glory days of Nokia PureView cameras are probably gone (although maybe not).

Apple, of course, is above this fray, only putting iOS on its own devices, whereas you can find flavours of Android on myriad smartphones and tablets.

Some smartphone-makers are focusing on adding additional tweaks to Android (OnePlus’s spin on Android, OxygenOS, is widely liked for its pleasing design and genuinely useful additional features), while others make a big play about where they put their fingerprint sensor.

Stand out stand off

Others take different paths: Huawei has gone down the camera and AI route. Before I joined Which? I went with Huawei on a trip to Germany to see the Leica museum and factory where the lenses they put on their phones are made, and certainly its devices have increasingly become cameras with smartphones attached.

The intense nerdiness of these small details drives people like me and other tech journalists, but those of us who are still more or less connected to the real world are aware that this is both navel-gazing on our part – and also a sign of how difficult it is to make a smartphone, which offers broadly the same functions and specs as all its competitors, stand out.

What do you look for in a smartphone now? Do you care about things like the wraparound screen of the Samsung Galaxy range, or the Leica lenses of the Huawei devices or the extra customisation of the OnePlus version of Android? What would really make a smartphone stand out for you?

Comments
Member

A smartphone with a battery that would need charging once a week and supplied with a decent case to enable it to survive being dropped would appeal to me.

Member

Ah, battery tech is the next frontier – and we’re a way off cracking that yet, I fear. I’m not sure I want phone-makers sticking bigger batteries in devices, either: remember the nasty habit the Galaxy Note 7 had of bursting into flames?

Member
Drew says:
20 October 2018

Surely the single positive thing about the Note 7 debacle was the work Samsung did to pinpoint the cause? And some makers can do better even with existing battery chemistry: My personal phone is a grey import, a Xiaomi Redmi Note 4X, and that has a 4,100 mAh battery, and for me – as a very light user – that can see me through five days. But what I really want is a battery that would see a heavy user through a week, and me through a month….

Member

Samsung sold a phone with a design fault and replacements had the same problem, so the phone was withdrawn. Other companies have had problems with batteries overheating. Rather than rushing products on to the market they should be properly tested.

The alternative to batteries that last for a decent length of time is to make it easy to pop in a fresh one.

Member

It appears, from what I read, that the fault was in the design of the battery.

I see no compelling reason not to make battery replacement simple in phones and computers. I’ve a 12 year old phone that works fine, on its second battery. Sourced and replaced by myself – just slide the back off.

Member

Incidentally, the credit on the bothie in the copy should be Rory Cellan-Jones, not Celan-Jones: oops! That was taken at the Proms last year when Rory had one of the Nokias sporting the bothie camera to review.

Member

Does the average user need their smart phone to ‘stand out’? I only have one and it really doesn’t matter if it looks like anyone else’s.

The big problem nowadays is that clothes designers and tailors still do not know how to come up with the right size pocket [and supportive fabric] to tuck away the phone and keep it safe.

Member

I agree. My phone has a job to do and I’m happy if it does that satisfactorily. I don’t need more gimmicks, nor do I mind if it looks just like anyone else’s. Peer pressure was left behind a long time ago.

I keep it in a leather case and often stick it in one of the leg pockets in cargo/trecking trousers – very useful these days when jackets are worn less frequently.

Member

The OEMs need their devices to stand out so that you want to buy that phone rather than another phone. I guess how they look matter to some consumers, but obviously by no means all. My point was making them stand out in a crowded marketplace to potential buyers.

Member
DerekP says:
21 October 2018

Given recent design convergence, all smartphones are really either iphones or unbranded counterfeit iphones.

But functional characteristics may influence customer choices, e.g.

What is the quality of the photos and videos?

Can I plug in my favourite headphones?

Will it take a memory card?

Is the battery easy to replace?

If damaged, is the screen easy to replace?

As a surrogate PC, is it fast enough?

How much does it cost to hire or buy?

Member

I agree with Derek. Consumers have shown that looks are generally unimportant and the manufacturers should concentrate on functionality and value. The “crowded marketplace” is a problem of the manufacturers’ own devising, it’s not what consumers want or need. At the end of the day it’s just a phone with more or less standard features, not a hat for a royal wedding. Consumers should not be encouraged to gratify the brand-builders leading to built-in obsolescence; it’s where things have gone wrong for consumers in so many other product areas. Which? should take note!

Member

Some people, it seems to me, always want to be seen with the latest gadget. This feeds the phone industry. So I put the responsibility substantially on the customers; if they didn’t buy a new phone every time it came out, the market would not produce them.

I owned a Mini in the 1960s and was pleased to have it. It had a heater, but little else – no radio even. My car now has lots of extra features in addition to the basic necessities and I’m pleased to have them. But I still like driving my 24 year old Espace and would use it for long journeys still if I had to. Of course newer products have more features and offer more convenience; part of their evolution. Our expectations rise accordingly. But we’d survive quite well without them.

I think Which? can extol the more trivial virtues of new products too strongly rather than informing us properly on their basic attributes – repairability, durability, true value for money; for those with limited disposable income far more important, I’d suggest.

Member

Yes, when you look at the annual cost of consumer communication today, including line rental, broadband, mobile phone [rental or repayments] and tariffs it’s quite staggering. No wonder young people are struggling to put shoes on their feet and their feet on the first rung of the housing ladder. OK, there are savings on paper and postage, photographic film and processing, and possibly on alternative resources, but I think we ought to stand back from time to time and take stock; do we need all this, and could it be cheaper and longer-lasting? Lead us not into temptation; thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s smartphone.