What makes an intelligent smartphone?
If you've been following phones and technology as much as I have, you probably know that this year has been a frustrating year for most phone reviewers, including Marques Brownlee, CNET, Android Authority and TechnoBuffalo.
Smartphones are getting better and worse at the same time.
This year, we got phones with beautiful displays, wonderful cameras, fantastic designs, generous battery life, streamlined UIs and more. But none of the phones had all of these key features, and they all had (at least) one Achilles heel which made the phones seem like rough drafts rather than mature, refined phones.
For example, we have the LG G4, which has a great display, wonderful camera, removable battery and expandable storage, but is held down by a cheap feeling design (unless you opt for the leather back) and a bloated user interface. Or the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge+, which has a wonderful camera, good battery life and fantastic build quality, but is held down by its lack of expandable storage and restrictive price. For a device aimed primarily at creative or business professionals, this really is a let down.
And there really are two reasons these Achilles heels seem so much more apparent this year than any other year.
One is that most of the top phones this year aren't drastically different from each other, so it's psychologically natural to pick out small differences and make them seem bigger than they actually are. The second reason is that it seems that the actual smart phone, a smartphone that meets all of the consumers' basic needs and then adds something on top is finally in reach.
To help you think about your priorities when it comes to phones and to help you choose your next phone, let's look at what is being offered. Let's start off with the top six most crucial features, in order of importance, that a manufacturer should consider when making their next smartphone and the template for my "intelligent" Smartphone.
1. Generous battery life, support for fast-charging, and support for wireless charging
Whether you're a college student, a professional, a doctor, a teacher or anything else, chances are you're out and about. What you value most over everything else is battery life. Even the best phone becomes nothing more than an expensive paperweight without good battery life. Ideally, we'd be looking for upwards of two days of regular use, but at the very minimum of 15 hours with five to six hours screen-on time of moderate-heavy use. Other things they should focus on: wireless charging and turbo/fast-charging to mitigate the inconvenience of charging.
Shoutout to: Google Nexus 6
2. A great camera
We're not asking for DSLR quality, but something to replace our point and shoot camera. We want something we'd be proud of posting on Instagram and a selfie that doesn't ruin our Snapchat reputation. We want clear, reasonably sharp photos without over or underexposure. Optical Image Stabilization or a reasonable alternatives should also be standard, so that we don't have shaky camera footage when we try to take videos.
Shoutout to: Samsung Galaxy S6, Apple iPhone 6 Plus and 6S Plus, Sony Xperia Z5
3. Screen quality
Pixel density is important, but the naked eye really cannot discern the difference between different screens past 1080p. What makes the Samsung Galaxy S6 screen so wonderful isn't so much the pixel density and resolution, but more because it is bright and perfectly saturated. You really need to balance all of that to get a nice screen. Of course, super-saturated isn't necessarily the best for everyone, and that's why the LG G4 is pretty great for people who care more about color accuracy. OLED displays tend to be better for most consumers because you're usually able to get better battery life.
Shoutout to: Apple, HTC, LG, and Samsung
4. A lightweight UI, optimized software and regular OS updates
This is extremely important, and honestly, manufacturers of Android devices have no excuse to not getting this right. It's fine if you want to add some features to make life better for the user, but you don't have to customize each and every single part to make it yours. The hardware is yours. Focus on that and optimization to make the software and hardware work beautifully together. The software should be left to those that know it the best. For Android devices, the basic version is almost always the way to go. It mitigates slowdowns and bloat, and is lightweight and user-friendly. And please, push OS updates as soon as you can optimize it for the device.
Shoutout to: Motorola and OnePlus
5. Expandable storage and/or generous storage in the base model
Storage is important but a lot of phones do not indicate that.
By starting with a base 32gb model or just adding a simple microSD card slot, manufacturers can make the consumers lives a lot better. It really is a no-brainer to get a lot of love from the consumer.
Shoutout to: HTC One M9 and Moto X Pure
6. Near Field Contact
Yes, OnePlus, I know that not a lot of your consumer base was using NFC a year ago. That's because there weren't a lot of uses for it back then. But there definitely are right now. With Google, Apple and Samsung continuing to add a lot of support for their pay implementations, it doesn't seem like there's a lot of time before we start actually using our phones to pay for groceries and shopping, and that's where NFC is needed. It's growing in potential, and it's not difficult to implement in smartphones.
Shoutout to: Any device that has NFC.
But that's not all smartphones have to offer. There are still features that are essential, but secondary to the above:
1. Fingerprint sensor / Biometric security
This almost made the top 6 list, but then I thought of the OnePlus Two and how it prioritized the sensor over a lot of other more important features. It's a wonderful addition to have, and it makes the life of the consumer a lot easier if implemented correctly, but this is not the first thing that a manufacturer should be thinking about when making their next phone.
2. USB Type-C (With USB 3.x)
I do love the idea of the USB Type-C – it's reversible and with USB 3.x, it is versatile and powerful. I admire the idea of having one cable to "rule them all," but it's important that we get it right. If a phone implements USB type C, it has to be with USB 3.x, and work with your other devices, like monitors, TVs, and computers on a greater level. A phone with USB Type-C with USB 3.x compatibility is future proof; while a Type-C with USB 2.0 is a crutch, because it is simply another expensive and pointless wire that is hard to come by.
3. Thickness and build quality
A year or two before the first iPhone came out, super-thin or super-small phones were all the craze, and now we're starting to come back to that trend. But getting a smartphone to be extremely thin means that you have to sacrifice battery life or other features. We want a relatively light and thin phone, but if you can have a sizable battery and a camera module that sits flush with the back and have to add a couple millimeters, most consumers are okay with that. More power to you if you can do that and maintain the top six, but we’ve seen many phones, such as the OnePlus One and HTC One M9, that were able to have a premium feel and maintain things like expandable storage. The reason this isn't higher up on the list is because if you really hated the design of the phone you have, you could simply add a case or a skin to cover it up. In fact, even if you do like the build and design, you're still going to probably get a case to cover it up.
For those that take their smartphone to a new level, there are things you may consider important, but that manufacturers tend to overlook, like the latest processors and a lot of RAM.
The fact that my Nexus 5 is still buttery smooth with a Snapdragon 800 processor from 2 years ago should be a testament to the idea that having the latest and greatest processors really don't matter as much as they used to. What matters more is having that lightweight UI, optimization, and regular OS updates. The same thing goes with RAM - three GB is more than enough for everyone except the heaviest of phone users – no need for more.
And, of course, there are things that are starting to matter less and less to consumers, like the reputability of the manufacturer.
With the success of the OnePlus One, manufacturers and consumers alike noticed that you don't have to be one of the tech giants to be a successful phone manufacturer. We've got more startups coming into this industry than 5 years ago, and we've got consumers that are a lot more open. But this also means that manufacturers that have succeeded in the past don't necessarily get a pass with bad devices. The market has become easy to get into, but harder to stay in.
I didn't mention price, which is admittedly a major decision factor, especially for college students. I'm all for saving money, but should price really be the first thing to consider when discussing the intelligent smartphone?
The 2013 Nexus 5, last year's OnePlus One, and this year's Nexus 6P, Nexus 5X and Asus Zenfone 2 definitely seem like compelling arguments to show that we are getting closer to budget phones.
Just think about it – a world where we have a Samsung Galaxy phone that lasts for two days without breaking a sweat, an LG G phone that has stock Android, and an OnePlus phone that actually stays true to their "Never Settle" motto. That is the dream. That would be an Intelligent smartphone. And that's the one I'd happily carry with me through my four years of college.