Smartphone manufacturers have turned it up to 11 this year.
For many, it’s do or die.
Take HTC for example. Its sales, revenues, market share, and mind share have all been consistently dwindling over the last several years. Even while the company has remained relevant and maintained its habit of creating spectacular, beautiful, competitive devices, its stance in the market, particularly in comparison to Samsung and Apple, is paltry.
And despite bringing home handfuls of awards with the One (M7), little has changed for the company.
Granted, HTC has the means of keeping its business afloat for some time. But it’s not healthy for any company to live in the red as long as HTC has.
As such, the Taiwan-based manufacturer knew it needed to pull all stops for 2014. And it did.
The One M8, we found, is a killer smartphone – possibly the best we’ve ever used. From the aesthetics of the phone, down to the most granular look at its day to day performance, the phone is as consistent and reliable as they come, and it looks damn good all the while. The gorgeous display, BoomSound speakers, and the buttery smooth experience are all second to none.
No, the camera isn’t the best, but I’ve found it to be passable (yet often disappointing). I’ve picked the M8 up as my personal daily driver, and I have no regrets. I get a certain satisfaction out of just picking it up and holding it, and the software situation is superb – something I never thought I’d say about a device running Sense UI. Simply put, HTC set the bar very high for 2014.
The One M8, however, is only one of many interesting, boundary-pushing smartphones we’ve seen in 2014 so far. Sony, Samsung, Oppo, and OnePlus all have intriguing smartphones – both official and rumored – which bend the rules and push the market forward in one way or another.
The OnePlus One promises to bring an utterly high-end smartphone, comparable with some of the best phones out there – at least on paper – for a fraction of the price. It’s almost like a homebrew Moto X or Nexus. Oppo has a smartphone with a 13-megapixel camera capable of shooting 50-megapixel images which we’re currently in the process of reviewing. As absurd as it sounds, it actually works quite well. ZTE’s Nubia 5S also looks and sounds quite interesting, the Xperia Z2 has potential, and even Samsung’s Galaxy S 5, as mediocre as the upgrade may have seemed, is a competitive smartphone with every imaginable feature under the sun.
Things are even incredibly interesting outside Androidland. The Lumia Icon (or Lumia 930 outside the U.S.) from Nokia is built spectacularly well and is fitted with specifications comparable to some of the best Android smartphones, and its camera capabilites are better than most. Pair that with the Windows Phone 8.1 update, and the Icon is undoubtedly worth a look.
Despite all this, it seems I can’t leave my apartment without getting asked the most over-asked question every year: What about the new iPhone, though?
Each and every day, I get asked some variation of that very question. When is the iPhone 6 coming out? What do you know about the iPhone 6? Is it true the iPhone 6 is supposed to be bigger? How big will the iPhone 6 be? I can’t wait for the iPhone 6, do you know anything about it?
Truth is – and most of you will know this, too – no one really knows anything about the upcoming iPhone. We don’t know specs, we don’t know what size it will be, we don’t know price, and we don’t even know for fact that Apple will stick to its rough fall release schedule. We can assume it will launch sometime in September, and we can also assume it will come in a different size – that there is likely some truth to the rumors. But frankly, there is no way of knowing how true any of the information is.
No less, the more I hear about the iPhone 6, the less intrigued I become.
For years now, I’ve wanted a larger iPhone. The 4-inch screen of the iPhone 5 is simply too small for my hands. The 4.7- to 5.7-inch range better accommodates my big thumbs. Finally, it seems Apple will oblige and up the size of its iPhone display.
Still, I can’t help but nod off every time I read or hear about it. And I let out a giant sigh every time someone asks me one of those dreaded questions.
It appears as if Tim Cook has yet to find his groove, or maybe – as many have speculated – he lacks the ingenuity and boldness of the late Steve Jobs.
The reasoning doesn’t matter; the end result is the same, regardless. The iPhone is boring. The iPhone 5, iPhone 5s, and especially the iPhone 5c were modest, boring updates to an already aged product line. Touch ID wasn’t nearly as groundbreaking as Apple had intended, and the fruits of the 64-bit A7 haven’t really had an impact … at all. And I’ve still yet to see a gold iPhone 5s anywhere in person.
Point being, the evolution of the iPhone has nearly slowed to a crawl. Nearly all of the changes in this most recent model were small future-proofing measures that don’t bring a great deal of functionality of value to end users. And none of the new features make the phone any more interesting. Meanwhile, competing OEMs are digging deep for serious differentiation, innovation, and compelling features which actually improve user experience and the physical hardware itself.
That being the case, and based on the last three generations of the iPhone, I can’t help but imagine the iPhone 6 will just be a scaled-up version of a previous model. A snooze-fest. A big ol’ heap of boring.
Last year, iOS 7 was a nice update. It brought a much-needed face-lift to an aging platform. And it added a fair amount of polish to the OS. Unfortunately, visuals were not the only problem with iOS. Apple is beginning to lag behind in both software and hardware offerings, and a newer, bigger iPhone is the perfect opportunity to capitalize on both aspects, to bring everything back up to speed at the very least.
How could Apple possibly do that?
Take a risk. A big one. For example, iOS 7 was, as far as reliability concerns go, the worst iOS update in history. The OS still needs a newer, more useful interface, better third-party sharing options, and even better multitasking. Siri needs some new tricks – and by tricks, I don’t mean snarky answers to useless questions, but contextual-awareness and something more along the lines of Google Now or Cortana.
And I would kill to see a new design.
Yes, the existing iPhone design is distinguished and easily recognizable. Everyone can recognize an iPhone from across the room. But the design is also dried out and stale. Despite what Apple says, we haven’t seen an entirely new iPhone design since 2010. That’s right. The current iPhone design is nearing four-years-old, and it’s time we see something new – something better.
Even the iPad design on a smartphone would be new enough to appease us for another year or two, no?
I think we’d all like to see Apple take a risk again, though. A real risk. Not a “me, too” measure, like blowing the iPhone up to be comparable in size to all its competitors, but an honest to goodness risk, like a camera to compete with the likes of the Lumia 1020, a battery that lasts days on a single charge, or even a battery that fully charges in a matter of seconds.
There is a ton of space left to improve smartphones as we know them. Yet it seems everyone is in a race to find that golden recipe while the two largest smartphone makers, Apple and Samsung, take a back seat, rake in all the profits, and duke it out in court over a “copied” phone everyone forgot about three years ago.
At the very least, I’d like Apple earn its spot near the top for the first time in years, instead of riding its wave of innovation from a over a half-decade ago.
This is Apple’s year to do just that. It’s the perfect opportunity. Now we just have to wait a few more months to see if it’s up for the challenge.
Holding your breath isn’t advisable.