Update May 7: Battery and Charging added
I suppose my previous post about smartphone X-excitement was a bit disillusioned in its tone – I must have grown tired from seeing to many spec sheets and comparison tables. At least I also mentioned how this is an opportunity to discuss other qualities of phone – some that aren’t measurable in Hz or ppi and where more is better, but also some that are a matter of personal preference and qualities that are mutually exclusive.
The Kano model
A framework to understand this is the Kano model, which describes how the desirability of a product depends on its features. Features are divided into
- basic, must-have qualities
- performance attributes (more is better)
- attractive features that, while not being must-haves, makes the product more attractive (“delighters”)
A key point to this is that over time what starts out as a delighter, becomes a performance attribute and eventually a basic attribute.
For example, there was a time when just having a display was a great delighter, whereas it is now a basic feature, with the resolution being a performance attribute and screen size being a strange delighter, with small, medium and large size being important to different people. Last week I read a review where the reviewer wondered how it was possible to put anything but an AMOLED display on a flagship phone in 2016, thus moving the screen technology from being a delighter to a basic feature. I am not sure I agree, but time marches on.
My spec-tiredness probably comes down to the fact that most of the attributes that can be listed in a spec sheet are now basic or performance features.
More interesting are the delighters. Not only because this is where innovation takes place and the source of feeling good about the devices comes from, but also because this is where choices must be made, compromises are needed and where great engineering moves the bar for what can be achieved within tight constraints.
For example, the larger the screen, the more stuff can be crammed into the device, but that also means that it is heavier and while a bigger battery is available, the load will be bigger and life shorter.
Or consider the material of the casing: Plastic, glass, metal are all options. Plastic is lighter, robust and allows wireless charging; but may be considered cheap-feeling, whereas metal is heavier, feels great but doesn’t work with wireless chargers (yet – maybe clever engineering will one day cheat Faraday’s law)
Below is what came out of my delighter-brainstorm.
- Battery: How long the phone will run on full charge depends on how it is used, what apps are running, what network is available and many other things. But all things being equal, the battery capacity matters: More is more, more is bigger, more is heavier. It also matters how energy-efficient the rest of the hardware is – some models can run long on a smaller charge.
- Charging: Phones are usually charged through a cable, but wireless charging is an option too. Quick charging may be an option, and USB C is introduced a third option.
- Camera: “The best camera is the one you carry” , so if you care about the pictures you take, then the phone’s camera matters, with several delighter features. RAW output? 4K video? image stabilization? Noise and low-light performance? That is just some of the things to look for in a camera.
- Dual SIM: Useful if you commute between countries, handle work and private matters on the same phone, if different carriers covers the areas in which you roam of if separate phone/data carriers.
- Ergonomics: How well can you hold the device? Should it be possible to operate with one hand. For example, if you often use the phone while standing in a train (I do), then having a good grip is a must.
- IR blaster: Makes the phone act as a an extra remote control. So, if all you need to do is turn off the TV, you just reach for you phone instead of having to search through sofas etc.
- Loud speakers: Some phones have great speakers allowing you to listen to music or play games without heard phones. Such a phone can also act as an ad hoc conference phone, which can quite useful.
- Materials (Metal/Glass/Plastic body): As said above: All are options. Plastic is lighter, robust and allows wireless charging; but may be considered cheap-feeling, whereas metal is heavier, feels great but doesn’t work with wireless chargers.
- Music: Listening to music on a phone means using either a 3.5 mm headphone jack connection or something wireless. When you use the 3.5 mm connection you rely on the DAC in the phone to convert the digital signal from your music source to the analog waveform coming out of the headphone. The DAC may or may not be good, so it is worth looking for if you use the phone for music.
- Network support: Different carriers in different countries use different frequency bands for phone communication. A phone doesn’t necessarily get full support.
- One-handed operation: Must it be possible to operate the device one handedly, for example while standing up in a bus?
- Screen quality: Apart from the resolution, things to consider is brightness and readability in sunlight (including how fast the display adapts to changes in light) and viewing angles. I recently bought a tablet with a 10.1″ 1280×800 display and was surprised to find the display to be markedly worse than a similar resolution display on a 4 year old tablet, so it is worth seeing the device live before buying.
- SD-card (removable storage), if supported it gives extra space for pictures and video
- Size: With a big screen he phone can act as a e-book reader (Amazon’s kindle has a 6 inch screen with 300 ppi; large smart phones seem to top out at 5.5 inch, with 550 ppi), enable basic word processing and be more useful for webbrowsing,; with a smaller screen the device is easier to use one-handed, fit in a pocket. The list of pros and cons for bigger vs. smaller screen is long and what is optimal size is a matter of personal needs.
- Storage: Many models come in with different options for internal storage (RAM). Sometimes 64 GB or more, sometimes 16 GB or less. Apps and games can eat this space up fast, as can shooting pictures and especially video if it is stored internally.
- Water/Dust tight: Newer devices are certified to endure some degree of dust and moisture, ranging from sweaty palms to being submerged for up to 30 minutes
Software and App Selection
The hardware makes the device a phone, the software makes it smart. Again it is not just a matter of the more the better, rather there are pros and cons to different features.
- App selection: Some phone brands have lots of high-quality apps and games available, while others may not even have basic apps available. As we become and more reliant on smartphones, e.g., for paying in stores or holding tickets and boarding cars payment, some niche apps may be must haves and effectively disqualify a device in an entire market. For example, in Denmark MobilePay has become extremely popular when transferring money between people, replacing means disappointed customers buying from your competitor next time.Flexibility/complexity: A device can nice and simple to set up if you agree with the designer’s choices. Otherwise, the more configuration options you get, the more complex the device becomes and the greater the risk of something going wrong in a way you don’t know how to revert (however, it follows from Murphy’s Law that if you can break something, then somebody else probably did so already or will soon do so, and the solution is only a Google search away).
- The operating system on an Android phone can be customized greatly by the manufacturer, sometimes for branding purposes, sometimes very likely imitating another brand on purpose. Aesthetics aside, this is a cause of the fragmentation of Android, which to some a big problem, to other the very thing making the brand attractive because it enables choice. A definite drawback, though, is that maintenance if different varieties generally is bad, with devices not receiving regular security updates and not even the big version updates. Few devices are supported after two years.
- Unlocked vs. carrier branded, most careers will sell you the phone at a lower price, subsidizing through the plan. They may also add extra software – maybe to differentiate themselves and to offer better experience than other carriers, probably always to open new ways to make you better customer by buying more services or becoming deeper entrenched in their ecosystem. Alternatively one may buy a phone at full price, have a cheaper plan and less carrier bloatware.
- Updates and Security: How often a device receives updates depends on the manufacturer. Some will send out monthly updates, others never do it.
- Branding may be the thing that matters to some, always buying devices from XYZ because they are from XYZ.
- Cost: It doesn’t matter how great hardware and software is if you can’t afford the thing.
Looking at the lists above, there is plenty of options for diversification and one can be delighted regardless of preference. It is not as if it is possible to create the perfect product, because some features are mutually exclusive and constraints are imposed by cost, size, battery etc. It is a great time to be consumer since there are plenty of options if one takes the time to look past simple spec listings.