2014 smartphones: Where is the innovation?

In case you missed out on the new smartphone announcements from big name phone makers last month, be rest assured that you're not missing out on anything big.

From Sony releasing the Xperia Z2 in just six short months after the Z1, to Samsung's lack of innovation with its fifth Galaxy S, to Nokia being late in the Android bandwagon, this year's Mobile World Congress 2014 (MWC 2014) in Barcelona was a letdown.

Sure, we get the usual incremental upgrades that would benefit users, but faster processors, bigger displays and better cameras aren't really anything to be too excited about. Especially since 2012, we have reached the point where smartphones are already good enough.

It seems these days all I'm hearing from new smartphone announcements are new processors that clock in at blazing speeds, bigger screens with higher resolution and camera improvements that take better image quality than preceding models.

But we've heard these countless times before in smartphone sales pitches and advertisements, and I assume that it's going to be repeated again in future updates.

How much more processing power do we need on our smartphone? Most iPhone 5s users do not actually take full advantage of the 64-bit architecture processor, especially when more time is spent chatting on Whatsapp groups and checking out Instagram feeds.

How much sharper should the texts, images and video displayed on our tiny screens need to be? A 720p smartphone display is more than enough to deliver the high definition (HD) experience on our mobile device, and you'd barely notice any significant gains beyond 1080p resolution.

And how badly do we want better quality images when our current phone cameras can already take decent shots? Check out your Instagram feeds and you'll notice how every photo you see are pretty decent shots, and they're all taken from your friends' phones.

Also, do we really need 4k video? Unless you've spent an arm and a leg on a 4K television this year, you won't have the means to enjoy watching your home videos in that resolution.

I'm not against these incremental upgrades; they're necessary to differentiate new smartphones from past models. But incremental upgrades alone just won't cut it.

It's time for something new. But let's put aside smartwatches and other kinds of wearable tech, because those are in a whole different category. There is still room for innovation in the smartphone.

One of the things I wanted to see coming out of MWC 2014 was flexible displays. We've only seen two devices from last year that utilised this technology: the Samsung Galaxy Round and the LG G Flex, although the execution for both left a lot to be desired.

Samsung teased us not so long ago with its flexible Super AMOLED (active-matrix organic light-emitting diode) display and demonstrated how the technology allows for new and intuitive ways of using our mobile devices.

One demonstration showed how the display could wrap around the smartphone so you can read texts and notifications on the edges when the device lays flat on the table, so you don't have to pick up your phone every time you get a notification.

There was also a cool demo video that showed how a smartphone could unfold into a tablet.

I was really hoping that Samsung would finally bring this technology to the Galaxy S5 this year, but to no avail. Perhaps we'll get to see it in the next Galaxy Note?

Another thing that I wanted to see this year was battery improvement. Bigger and increasingly HD displays will require more power to run them. 4G LTE networks also eat up battery life.

I don't want to see another power bank. Just give me a phone that can go beyond a day of use.

Some time ago, I wrote an interesting piece about the energy saving benefits of e-ink technology.

At the same time, I reviewed a particular smartphone that utilises this technology, a russian-made device called the Yota Phone. It has an LCD screen on the front and an e-ink display at the back.

The idea is to have the always-on e-ink display for you to work with without draining so much power from the LCD display.

A prototype of a second generation model was unveiled recently, sporting a much sleeker design and improved internal specs under the hood. But the Yota Phone is really about that second screen on its back.

Oftentimes, we can make do without colour when using our smartphones, such as while texting, reading, browsing, checking and replying email.

By giving the LCD screen a break while still able to perform some key tasks on our devices on its e-ink display, the Yota Phone should get you going for days without charging.

These are just some examples that I want to throw in just to give an idea of what smartphone makers could possibly come up with other than the usual incremental upgrades.

I really hope that smartphone makers get their act together and come up with something revolutionary rather than evolutionary that's falsely marketed as "innovative".

The views expressed by the author are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of The Brunei Times.

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