The Features We Left Behind

Charting the rise and fall of smartphone functionality

After researching what phone to buy next, I wanted to graph some of my data. Here’s the graphs.

There’s a lot of features out there that android phone manufacturers have tried out over the years. I liked HTC’s builtin kickstands, and the e-ink second display on a yotaphone has always sounded cool. Other features like the 3D screen on the HTC EVO 3D end up next to useless. Companies are still trying to invent new functionality — rumors point to the 2017 Google Pixels to being squeezeable, perhaps to trigger Google Assistant.

At the same time, some things we could take for granted have been slowly disappearing.

Note that I’m basing my stats on “all phones” on what GSMArena.com has in it’s database. When I’m talking about high end, I’m talking about one phone (typically the flagship phone) from each of the following manufacturers unless otherwise noted. I chose these as as representative sample of high end phones that have been available and popular within the US:

  • Apple iPhone series, Apple iPhone Plus series, Apple iPhone X
  • Samsung Galaxy series, Samsung Galaxy Note series
  • Google smaller (Nexus 4, 5X, Pixel) series, Google larger (Nexus 6, 6P, Pixel XL) series
  • HTC, LG, Motorola, Sony

Removable Batteries

Percentage of high end phones with removable batteries.

I’ve personally bought and replaced the batteries in two of my phones. It’s a piece of the phone I know will wear down faster than most of the rest of the device. It’s also worth pointing out that my concern really solely about replacing a dying battery, not swapping in spare batteries while traveling or such (mobile battery packs serve that purpose easily.)

High end phones circa 2009 all had removable batteries (aside from Apple of course), but over the past eight years, we’ve slowed dropped until none of them offer removable batteries. Comparing to the larger pool of phones released by year:

  • ~59% of phones released in 2014 have removable batteries.
  • ~45% in 2015.
  • ~30% in 2016.
  • ~10% in 2017.

Samsung stopped with the S6. Google with the Nexus 4. HTC with the One X. LG with the G6. Knowing that this helps with weight and waterproofing is some consolation, but it’s annoying to know that phones will almost certainly need to be repaired or replaced to be running at 100% within 2–3 years.

Infrared

Percentage of high end phones with infrared.

Infrared have been built into various phones since at least Palm Treos (circa 2002.) I use infrared in my phone nearly every day at home to control a TV with a roku that doesn’t even have another remote. 2013–2014, it half the high end phones offered infrared. In 2017, none of them do. Looking at the percentages from all phones, you can see that this was much more a high end feature than a standard one:

  • 2014: 6.6%
  • 2015: 5.3%
  • 2016: 9.5%
  • 2017: 8.3%

The 3.5mm Audio Jack

Percentage of high end phones with 3.5mm audio jacks.

Honestly, the data point for 2008 is an artifact; we’ve been able to rely on 3.5mm audio jacks in smartphones for a long time. Note that while half the high end phones on 2017 don’t have 3.5mm ports, nearly every other phone released this year kept the port:

  • 2015: 99.9% of phones have an audio jack, maybe more.
  • 2016: 98%.
  • 2017: 96%.

That said, It was dropped by Apple, Xiaomi, HTC, Moto, Essential, and (rumored) Google. There’s also plenty of companies whose flagship still have 3.5mm ports (Samsung, Sony, Huawei, OnePlus.) As adapters become more common, especially if we see splitters capable of charging while using audio, I expect we’ll see the 3.5mm jack start to disappear faster.

The micro SD slot

Percentage of high end phones with micro SD card slots.

Every android phone I’ve owned to date has had a micro SD card slot. Every one of those phones I put a micro SD card in and used the micro SD card for storing media. Both Apple and Google charge $100 to go from 32 GB to 128 GB. I expect neither company offers a 64 GB tier to push more 128 GB sales. Looking at current micro SD prices and how quickly those prices drop, it’s hard to justify the increase in cost. Plus, I take some solace that if I completely destroyed the phone, the micro SD card would still likely be recoverable.

Roughly ~93% of the phones released in the back through 2015 still have micro SD slots. That said, here’s a sampling from that 7%:

  • iPhones
  • Google’s Nexuses and Pixels
  • The OnePlus Phones
  • Many Xiaomi, including Mi Mix and Mi Mix 2
  • Essential PH-1

There’s a lot of overlap here with the companies removing the 3.5mm jack. It seems strange that android companies like Google and OnePlus are opposed to micro SD slots in their devices, which seem to target enthusiasts and power users; the kinds of users I’d expect look for micro SD slots.

Screen Ratios

Number of high end phones at roughly at each screen ratio.

While not a specific feature, its fun to see how the 3:2 ratio had vanished by 2012, 15:9 by 2013, and how quickly 18:9 (let’s be honest and call it 2:1) is being adopted. Feels like 16:9 may be a thing of the past by 2019.

Camera Features

Percentage of high end phones with each camera feature.

Near as I can tell, HDR as a camera feature was introduced with the iPhone 4 and is here to stay now. I think the HTC One was the first flagship to introduce OIS, and the HTC One M8 (the following year) dropped OIS but introduced dual cameras.

I also combined EIS (electronic image stabilization) with OIS (optical image stabilization) above. Perhaps down the road I should split them out, but for now it seems to be the same feature implemented in different ways (each with their own advantages and disadvantages.)

Screen-to-Body Ratio

Screen-to-body ratio of high end phones.

Lastly, we can see the trend lead by the original Galaxy Note (and later the Note 2) of increasing the screen-to-body ratio. It’s hard to nail down, but it might be the 2013 LG G2 that really started the the trend towards thinning down the bezels as much as possible, which is now a dominating flagship trend; even Apple has picked it up.