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.
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.
Remember when Nokia designed a cameraphone and decided IT SHOULD LOOK LIKE THIS? The Nokia 7600, from 2003. pic.twitter.com/xrfVw6gIIc
— foone (@Foone) July 12, 2018
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.
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?