That Ross Chap
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That Ross Chap

Spec Sheets Are Ruining Our Phones

The iPhone SE is the best phone of 2020; and it’s neither good nor new. Reviewers and social media are to blame.

The new iPhone SE is one of 2018’s best-designed phones. And, somehow, also of 2020. Nothing Apple has released since its doppelganger, the iPhone 8, has looked better, and whilst it’s not a remarkable product, it prioritises what customers need and want, rather than poster porn. What the SE lacks, it makes up for in features its big brothers have lost. Its small IPS panel has large bezels but no notch or cut-out. Without a vast array of sensors, it doesn’t have FaceID but at the bottom of the screen is a home button with TouchID. Many miss this, including the President¹. And unlike face unlock, TouchID works at any angle.

The iPhone SE is accidentally revelatory, as it highlights the cracks at the heart of the modern smartphone industry. Flagships are sold on attention-grabbing features that scarcely outweigh the sacrifices they require and are prioritised over appearance and usability, which continually get worse. In turn, mid-range phones are neutered to make ‘premium’ prices look justifiable.

Almost regardless of the consumer sector, emphasis on design increases with size of the price tag. Cars, furniture, coffee machines, laptops, meals, pens, and designer clothing; you name it. Even kettles. But if good design is where functionality and aesthetics meet, the S20 Ultra (for instance) is a disaster. It has all the flair of a steel warehouse and its chief ‘features’, aren’t. Its 108MP photos look worse than at 12MP and the ‘100X SPACE ZOOM’ stamped into the rear glass only produces impressionist pastel smears. At 10x, the S20 Ultra does have the best zoom but that’s a smaller number and less exciting. It's sole truly high-end element is it's $1400 starting piece.

The distinctly ugly iPhone 11 Pro (left) and the blandly ugly S20 Ultra (right)

But it’s not alone. The iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max are — despite being status-symbol fashion accessories — also ugly, though jarringly, distinguishably so. And as mentioned, they’re stark on real features for the price. Slofies, anyone?

But most phones are either bland or ugly, and sometimes both. Shimmering gradient colours doesn’t change that and nor does a matte Subaru-blue finish, despite what OnePlus may hope. But look! The OnePlus 8 Pro has 30W wireless charging! IP68 water and dust resistance! A fantastically bright, 1440p, 120hz screen!

The OnePlus 8 Pro with its prestigious wireless charger

And yet, its $70 fan-filled propriety charger leaves the phone warm to touch, and it can only 5W trickle charge from an ordinary Qi charger (Note that both Huawei and Oppo sell phones with 40W wireless charging using that universally adopted standard). That much-praised screen has an extremely curved edge, which is flashy, futuristic, and considerably worse. And OnePlus substituted the exciting pop-up camera of its comparatively inexpensive predecessor for a boring hole-punch, allowing them to acquire the coveted IP68 certification. The OnePlus 7 Pro skipped this to reduce the price; it was similarly water and dust resistant. But IP68 looks good on a press sheet so once again, the customer loses.

Social media and YouTube reviewers have become the dominant tastemakers in the phone market, so manufactures work towards piquing their phone-selling attention. The easiest way to do this is through impressive specification sheets and faux innovation. Leaks about large megapixel counts spur more excitement than a thousand billboards, and the ridiculous Xiaomi Mi MAX Alpha provoked a waterfall of press. It’s why Sony pointlessly sells a phone with a 4K screen and the owner of a Pixel 4 can tickle a Pokémon without touching their phone.

More consumers are buying wireless headphones than ever before, which are constantly getting better, but a plurality still enjoy wired headphones. And anyone with an older car can testify to the benefit of having a 3.5mm jack. Haptic motors don’t sell phones but they vastly improve the typing experience on what is your primary computer. As does the sound-mode slider on OnePlus phones, the IR blaster I adjust my TV volume with, or swiping down the notification shade on a rear-mounted fingerprint scanner. Remember, capacitive finger sensors weren’t removed due to their inferiority but for faux progress. Their under-screen successors are less accurate, slower, and require brightening the screen. Unlike cosmic blur cameras, these are real features, but they don’t sell phones.

A sample of the sober offerings on YouTube

By playing to social media hype, headline counts, and reviewers, manufacturers also overinflate the importance of cameras. A wide-angle lens is lovely to have, as is a telephoto. But compared with browsing the web, using social media, watching video, or listening to music, the average consumer rarely uses their camera. When they do, it’s not to compete with DSLR photography but to take selfies, video call, and capture memories, none of which are usually in the bright outdoors. They’re typically in bedrooms, bars or living rooms, under dim ceiling lights and lamps where most cameras struggle. But phone manufacturers have done little to improve pictures and videos taken in this setting, favouring headline snatching but worthless elements like unusable 8K video and megapixels. With the iPhone SE, are you really missing 4K selfie video? You still have a main camera remarkably like its $1000+ stablemates and their incredible A13 chip. Plus wireless charging and IP certification. If you aren’t a professional ‘influencer’, do you really want to spend double the money for those extra lenses? That’s where most of your cash goes.

For consumer advice, reviewers compare products with their current competition, but by judging quality according to this metric, underwhelming products are elevated to the position of ‘average’. But most new phones aren’t good. The Royale Flexpai is a dream for reviewers as everything is fantastic by comparison and this hides the profound inadequacy of most of the market. But this can never be acknowledged because no audience craves perpetual disappointment. Knitting fans wouldn’t watch a crafting YouTuber who just talks about how dull and stagnant the patterns are; nor a automotive journalist who laments the inadequacy of most cars he drives. Consequently, reviews praise the undeserving, hype up the boring, and advertise them in ‘unboxing videos’, in which an overenergetic figure removes the packaging for a bland device and then fakes amazement whilst giving it the most cursory of overviews. It’s mindless and worthless, but also damaging, as this paired hype and ‘averaging’ incentivises mediocrity and stagnancy. The ‘new’ SE shouldn’t be a standout in the market, but it is just by fulfilling consumer needs and doing so with style. And that’s rare. We haven’t “reached peak smartphone”²; we’re in a trough.

The Essential Ph-1

Whilst Andy Rubin’s company may have failed, the creator of Android distilled exactly what most premium phones should be in the Essential PH-1. Ceramic back, titanium frame, no camera bump, brandless design, clicky buttons, thin bezels, and magnetic pins for modular attachments, including a HiFi DAC or 360 camera. It looked fantastic and was great to use, and whilst dead on arrival (and unfathomably without a headphone jack), it’s the way the market should turn. Thankfully some other companies are somewhat following its lead.

Internally, the Oppo Find X2 Pro is unremarkable amongst the bland glass slabs it competes with (save its 65W Super VOOC charging). But it’s textured black ceramic or a zesty orange vegan leather are characterful and distinct, and it has unique little details that make its $1000 price tag seem deserving, as it bought you something special. And when you open the camera, its megapixels and megazoom are overshadowed by how fantastic the colour calibration is; a feature that would be absurd to advertise. ‘We have a camera that accurately captures colour’ is a presumptive element, not a unique selling point, despite its importance and rarity. Try photographing a red flower indoors using a Huawei phone.

The Oppo Find X2 Pro (left) and LG V60 ThinQ (right)

Similarly, the LG V60 may look like an off-brand Galaxy S10 with elegant chamfered edges, but it has a quad DAC headphone jack, a capacitive fingerprint scanner, good dual speakers, and a 5000mah battery. These are genuine features, and with their upcoming Velvet, hopefully LG can pack them into a phone with some style too.

The rumoured rear display of the Huawei Mate 40 Pro

Along with charging speed and refresh rates, battery improvement is one area the market has been pursuing that both looks great on paper and noticeably improves the user experience. And perhaps the advent of graphene batteries can cause a noticeable leap forward. Ironically, the 1800mah cell of the SE is its weakest feature but battery improvements are what made the iPhone 11 Pro such a substantial improvement on its otherwise very similar predecessor. And if Apple’s next flagship phone continues along this path, all the better. Additionally, rumours suggest the iPhone 12 series will return to the slab-sided look of the 4 and 5 series, which were the best-designed smartphones ever.

Similarly, patents for the Huawei Mate 40 Pro hint at a small doughnut display on the phone’s rear³, allowing for volume control and notification display. That is a feature, and great design too.

I don’t care if my phone can capture a 100x zoom smudge. Nor do I that it can connect to currently useless 5G networks or record unusable 8K footage. I love technology and I’m happy to spend top dollar on it, but I want a device that makes me smile when I pick it up; that I can appreciate the details of and feel special to own. And I want it to have features that actually make my life better. That doesn’t seem unreasonable, does it?

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A pseudo-English chap, polemicist and film critic who wishes he lived in a P.G. Wodehouse novel.

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Ross Anderson

Ross Anderson

Liberal. Writes about politics and culture. 2020 Fellow at Tablet Magazine; words in Los Angeles Magazine, The American Conservative, among others.

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